A train brushed by at high speed, momentarily drowning out the angry ramblings of the obese man.

The reprieve was not long enough for Harry Potter, though. A second later, his uncle's vituperous words reached his ears again.

"—And don't you go thinking that this is permanent. It's only by your aunt's good will that I'm even letting you go to this school of nonsense. You'll be doing enough chores to make up for it when you get home this summer."

Harry mumbled an acknowledgment under his breath.

Vernon yanked him hard enough to cause Harry to gasp—he still had the boy's arm grasped in his chubby paws. "What's that, boy? I've told you before not to talk back to me. Have something to say, do you?"

"No," said Harry, though there were a few things that he would have liked to say. He simply didn't dare.

This seemed to anger Vernon even more. "Don't get smart with me. I know you're rotten to the core. Just enjoy your freakishness while you can; you'll be doing the landscaping in the front yard to repay us for driving you here. Now, where's your ticket say to go?"

"Platform Nine and Three Quarters," said Harry, his stomach sinking as he said it.

Vernon's other hand grabbed him firmly by the scruff of his neck. "I've told you to stop this nonsense—"

"It's not nonsense. It's what the ticket says."

Vernon's hand cuffed him across the back of the head. As he reeled from the blow, he could feel his body change uncontrollably. The long locks trailing past his eyes suddenly shifted green, and then pink, and then orange, and brown—not stopping longer than a half of a second at a time.

Vernon's mouth was suddenly right by his ear. "Stop it! Stop it right now, or I'll take you back home and you can spend the year in your closet—"

Harry wrenched his arm from Vernon and spun away. "That's fine," he said, nearly spitting in anger. "You can go now. You've done your proper duty. Leave me here."

Vernon laughed. "I will. Enjoy finding your fantasy friends, boy." He, unlike Harry, really did spit on the ground; he also turned and promptly left Harry standing there by himself.

Once he was sure that there was no chance that Vernon was coming back, Harry let out a deep sigh and looked around the rail station. King's Cross was admittedly huge, but it was relatively quiet. What little capital he had possessed back on Privet Drive was burned in dragging Vernon out the door hours earlier than necessary. That was why Vernon was so particularly angry at Harry (more so than usual, at least): he had no desire to leave his newspaper and cup of coffee to drive his nephew to the station. Harry's display of freakishness hadn't helped either. The result, though, was a quiet station, and that was worth it to Harry. It gave him the chance to insinuate his way in, rather than run into a brick wall of culture.

It was looking less likely by the minute, though, that he would even find the culture at all. Platform Nine and Three Quarters was nowhere to be found. There were eight pillars between Platforms Nine and Ten. Logically, it fell that the proper platform was near the sixth, but it was a solid brick wall when he touched it, and there was no indication of anywhere else that he was supposed to go. Nothing to do but wait, then—wait and watch.

Before he sat down, he stopped for a second beside a rubbish bin, long enough to toss the empty owl cage into it. He had no need for it, since he no longer had an owl. Dudley had taken care of that the minute Harry had left the owl alone for a minute. It was disgusting to think that his very own cousin could be so heartless as to kill a caged animal. For him, it was the breaking point. He would never go back. They were not his family.

He paused for a moment longer. He undid the latch on his trunk and tossed the shredded robe that had met the same end as his first pet; in went the too-large trainers, the grayed shirt for Stonewall High, and his Aunt Petunia's wedding ring, a gaudy three carat piece-of-work.

There was such thing as payback, after all.

With his trunk once again latched, he pulled it over to the wall, sat down on top of it, and watched. The empty station was still empty, but a peculiar-looking old man hobbled slowly down the platform, clad only in a faded purple coat. His entire face quivered uncontrollably as he walked toward Harry, and he had the hand that was not on his cane inside his jacket pocket the entire time. He kept walking right past Harry, though, and stopped at the sixth pillar. He stood there for a minute, checked a long, gold pocket watch, and then put it away again. He removed the hand from his jacket; in it was a long stick—the same thing Harry had in his own inner pocket. He tapped the wall once, and it rippled, as if it were a bowl of water standing vertically.

This accomplished, he disappeared into the wall.

Harry grinned, and once he was sure that he wasn't seeing things, he stood and drove his trolley to the pillar. He pulled his own wand out, and went to tap the wall—only for his entire hand to pass straight through. His grin widened, and he pushed himself all the way through.

There before him sat the reddest train he could have imagined. It reminded him of a train set Dudley had once received for Christmas, a great big steam engine attached to a line of overly ornate passenger carriages. Harry marveled at the thoughts running through his head. That they could hide an entire train...! He could hide forever in the magical world, and Vernon would never find him. He paused for a second, taken aback by his own conclusion—it was more likely that the Dursleys wouldn't even bother to look for him.

After scrutinizing the train for what he felt was an appropriate amount of time, Harry took his eyes off of it and looked over the rest of the station. He had never been to a train station before, but he could tell that there was a real difference between the non-magical side and this side. The elderly man in the purple coat was walking past a long line of enormous fire grates, waving his wand over each and moving on as great green flames appeared with a soft whoosh. Curious, Harry moved forward, unsure exactly of what they were.

"Stay back, lad!" came the graveled voice of the caretaker, calling to Harry over his shoulder. "They'll be coming through any minute now—baggage as well. They won't think to stop for a little'un like you. Get behind the line."

Immediately, Harry took a step back. "Who will be—?" he asked the caretaker, but he was interrupted when a loud thump! came from two fires to the left, followed by a jumble of voices and a muttered curse as something obviously heavy crashed down.

"I did tell you, dearest, to featherweight your trunk before we left, didn't I?" came an irritated female voice from the grate.

"Yes, mum," came a much more sullen response, as a woman and two children stepped out the fire. They were so intent on their own discussion—the mother didn't appear to breathe as she gave them both a thorough tongue-lashing—that they ignored Harry completely, missing his gob-smacked expression.

And so it went; over the span of the next half-hour, more and more people arrived—some by the magic fires, some by the invisible door in the pillar, and some just appeared out of nowhere, blinking into existence with luggage in their hands and children gripping their forearms. Everyone, it seemed, was far too busy saying farewell to family, panicking over last minute details, and greeting old friends to pay any attention to the scrawny kid behind horn-rimmed glasses. It had the desired effect, though: Harry felt a lot more comfortable amongst the witches and wizards.

Shrugging indifferently, Harry headed over to the train, where a few students had began to board. With a grunt, he began pulling his own trunk up the steps. Huffing at the exertion, Harry scowled, taking cold comfort in the fact that his trunk was at least a touch lighter than it had been before, and that he wasn't burdened with an owl cage as well.

"Allow me," came a pompous voice from below. Raising his head, Harry saw an older boy with red hair, wand brandished. "Normally, one could cast a Featherweight Charm on the trunk—not oneself, of course, as you're underage—but more typically would have an adult at home or a prefect at the station do it for you." The boy frowned. "Did you not see the signs? Bartlett was responsible for putting them up, you know; he certainly should have been more diligent."

"Oh, no, it's fine," Harry blurted, eager to get away from the boy. He felt trapped by the chatty boy, who was clearly not picking up on his dislike of idle conversation. "I got here very early, and was too far-gone looking at the train and the station to notice any signs."

"Ah, a Muggle-born." The older boy's face shifted, as if he was preparing to give a great speech. "On behalf of Magical Britain, I, Percy Weasley, welcome you. As a prefect at Hogwarts, know that if you have any questions about this exciting new world you are entering, please don't hesitate to ask. My colleagues and I are at your disposal, as is our privilege." With a flick of the wand in Percy's hand, Harry's arms shot up, the trunk suddenly much lighter.

"Er, thank you, Percy," Harry mumbled. The older boy nodded without truly looking at him. "If you'll excuse me..."

As the older boy turned away, Harry picked up the trunk and began moving through the train. As he moved toward the back of the train, he passed a few compartments that were slowly filling up. Finally, he found an empty compartment well away from the growing crowd and ducked inside. Grateful for the silence and his own space, he placed his trunk underneath the seat—it was still not light for his small frame—but paused to remove a book for the journey. His eyes flickered across the titles of his school textbooks. They all looked so interesting, though... He shrugged, closed his eyes, and let his hand drift over the books randomly. A second later, his hand stopped, and he seized the book under it. It wasn't his first choice, perhaps, but it would do. He set Magical Drafts and Potions on the seat, snapped his trunk closed, and settled in for the journey with the book.

The budding potions student should not expect to simply find out a cauldron and begin mixing ingredients with hopes of any degree of success. Indeed, the foundations of potions, and to an even degree Alchemy, are much more theoretical than practical. The most obvious example is Von Der Gardd's Theory of Magical Correlation. Exclusive study of his thesis would take several years at the least, and while this is beyond the s scope of this text and the needs of the reader, a thorough understanding of its main ideas will yield a much greater understanding of the science far beyond the same amount of time experimenting over the open flame, so-to-speak. In this text, we shall only concern ourselves with a cursory look at his three main principles, as well as a study of the most common stock ingredients, and their characteristics...

Turning the page, Harry read on, unaware that the door to his compartment had opened—that was, until he heard a forced cough coming from the opening.

"Can I help you?" Harry asked, his eyes narrowing at the boy standing there.

"Err.. mind if I sit down? It's already filled up everywhere else." This one, like Percy, had very bright red hair.

Harry forced a smile. "Be my guest."

The other boy nodded gratefully, and tucked away his trunk before sitting down across from Harry. His eyes flickered uneasily from Harry to his book, as he seemed to hesitate between taking something out his own trunk and attempting conversation.

"Ron—Ron Weasley... I'm Ron," The boy blurted. Harry paused, looking up. It couldn't hurt to make some friends in this new place, and that last name was familiar.

"I think I met your brother, or perhaps your cousin? Percy."

Ron didn't seem to know how to respond to that. "Yeah, my brother. Don't worry about him—he's a bit of a prat when it comes to rules. Sorry if he bollocked at you or anything."

Harry shrugged. "Seemed alright to me. Helped me with my trunk, is all." Ron nodded, visibly relaxing. "Anyway, I'm Harry Potter. Pleasure to meet you."

"Merlin's pants! You're Harry Potter?" Ron blurted out, slightly breathless. Suddenly, he frowned. "Didn't realize you had green hair, though—you'd think someone would have mentioned it..."

Immediately, Harry's hand shot up and grasped one of the locks on his forehead. He had completely forgotten; perhaps that was why so many people had given him dirty looks on the platform. Sure enough, the whole of it was a vibrant lime green. "Happened this morning. I didn't realize it was still like that—" Harry paused, unsure what more to say.

"Oh, just accidental magic then. That explains that then. So, do you have the scar?"

"Yes, accidental magic!" Harry replied, accepting the explanation with open arms. "And—um—yes, I do." He pulled up the fringe of his hair and displayed the scar proudly to Ron. He didn't like showing off, normally—attention had never won him anything before—but he was perhaps overly proud of his scar. It made him different from the Dursleys. It was something that was his, something that couldn't be taken away—a reminder of his parents, too. When he'd heard from Hagrid how he'd received it in the first place, he swelled with joy at the same time that he'd bristled with anger. Attempted murder, yes, but a magical scar! That was something that he would treasure forever.

Ron was gaping at it for an abnormally long time, though. He began to feel somewhat uncomfortable at the unblinking stare. "So..." he trailed off, as he tried to find another topic for conversation. "Looking forward to term?"

Ron's eyes flickered to the book in Harry's hand, before they looked back up. "Yeah, you bet. It's my first year too, obviously, but I've got five brothers who have been before me—I've wanted to go for ages. It'll be really cool, playing all sorts of pranks and eating all you want." He paused for a second with his mouth open, as though he were trying to force words out. "I like learning too..." This with much less vigor.

"That's nice," Harry replied. Talking to the boy was a decidedly odd experience, and not altogether pleasant. It was, in reflection, about the longest Harry had ever held a civil conversation with someone his own age. "Well—um—" He scratched the side of his head. "—If you don't mind, I'd like to keep reading. I don't know any magic, and I don't want to make a bad impression early on."

Ron nodded. "Yeah, me neither. We're not allowed to do magic at home–underage restrictions and all."

"Wait—you're not allowed to do magic at home?"

"Of course not," said Ron. "No one's allowed to do magic at home until they're of age—seventeen," he clarified, noticing Harry's blank look. "The Ministry tracks all magical activity so they can make sure that you're not hurting yourself or doing something bad!"

Harry's jaw was still somewhere near his feet. Would that mean that he would be forced to go home to the Dursleys? He couldn't defend himself, this time, without magic, and he would be beat within an inch of his life, he was sure. He could take the physical beating—hell, his body already had suffered worse and bounced back just fine the next day—but for the fact that he had promised himself that he was not going to take it any more. He couldn't take the mental beating, the knowledge that he always seemed to possess, that his uncle would come down the stairs at nine o'clock on the nose and thrash him, and that he, Harry, would be locked in a cupboard, awaiting the same fate the next day.

"Are you okay, mate?" asked Ron.

"Fine," barked Harry. He was not, but he would be damned if he was going to tell the boy in front of him about how ashamed he was to be beaten. "Just going to read my book."

Ron grumbled. "I suppose it'll be good to get ahead of the game. I'll—um—get one of my books out, too." Harry couldn't help but smirk as he watched Ron's eyes hover much longer over a miniature chess set, a small box of chocolate, and a book titled Quidditch Through the Ages, before he unceremoniously picked up a tattered copy of 1000 Magical Herbs and Fungi. He fidgeted in his seat as he started to read the book; his eyes began to glaze over immediately.

After he forced himself to calm down (he would figure out a solution once he was at school, and had the full resources of the professors there), Harry continued reading. The first law, known as The Law of Common Source, states that...

Several hours later, Harry put down his potions text, and stood to leave the compartment.

"Where are you going?" asked Ron, head tilted querulously to the side.

"Stretching my legs, first," he said. "Then to the loo."

"'Kay," said Ron, who promptly returned to his reading. The glazed-eye-look had given way to genuine interest, it seemed. Harry could see the reflection of the book in the window; Ron was reading about something called Venomous Tentacula Seed.

If Harry had to guess, he would say that this was the first time any such expression of scholarly interest was made by the boy, and that pleased him doubly so to note it. Perhaps Ron was not so terrible after all... With a smirk, Harry slid open the glass doors and stepped into the empty hallway, looking around for a lavatory. Seeing no clear choice, Harry shrugged, then turned to his left. There had to be one around somewhere. He was only worried that he'd have to squint sideways at the wall and turn in a full circle before the door would appear.

If that was the cost of living in the magical world, Harry supposed he could get used to it.

He'd come to the end of the car without finding the loo, and was about to open the door to the next car when it burst open. He jumped back a half-step, and only just avoided it grazing his nose. "Watch it!" he said, hotly. "You almost took my face off."

When he finished checking to see if the tip of his nose was bruised, he found himself face-to-face with a girl. She looked to be his own age; she had shoulder-length bushy brown hair and pretty brown eyes, but her most prominent—and most unfortunate—features were the two buck front teeth. The girl was bound and destined for the nickname 'Beaver'. He felt sorry for her already.

"Oh, I'm sorry about that! They really should put windows on these doors; I'd be surprised if no one's ever been hit in the face before."

Harry was pleasantly surprised. Paratactic sentences... She was obviously more of an erudite than Ron; perhaps he wasn't doomed to discussions of the latest football match, or to surveys of the largest breasts amongst the Hogwarts population.

"Don't worry about it—" He smiled, and meant it genuinely. "—no harm done."

She extended her hand, and at the same time, she shifted her weight so it looked like she was leaning back to get a better look at him. It was a very polished gesture, and it made her seem more serious, more in control. "I'm Hermione Granger," she said. "Who are you?"

"He's the boy who's blocking the passageway," said another redhead, as he squeezed past Harry.

"And you're the girl who's blocking it with him," said the first's identical twin, as he, too, pushed past. "Move, would you? Someone's stole Lee Jordan's tarantula—"

"Wasn't us—" said one, over his shoulder, with a grin that didn't seem quite authentic.

"—But we don't want to be caught near the scene when Lee wakes up."

"Sorry," said Hermione, and she pulled Harry through the link between the two carts and into a nearby compartment. There was a portly little boy sitting there, looking forlorn, and a girl had a look on her face that told him that she was less-than-pleased to be in there with them.

"Anyway," said Hermione, and she turned to Harry and made exactly the same movement as before when she held her hand out to him, "I'm Hermione Granger. Who might you be?"

"Harry Potter," said Harry. "And, yes, my hair's green. Accidental magic."

Hermione opened her mouth to speak, but she was cut off by the haughty-looking blonde. "Are you really? I had heard that you were to be in my year, but I was disinclined to believe it."

"As far as I know, I'm the real Harry Potter," said Harry, and he turned back to Hermione. "Anyway, a real pleasure. I'm afraid I can't stay to chat, though. Have to find the loo—"

"You can find it in a minute," said the blonde, once more interrupting Hermione, who looked quite taken aback. "My name is Daphne Greengrass. You should come with me; I know where you can find people who are genuinely interested in you, and who have connections."

"Thanks," said Harry, and he took her offered hand and helped her rise. "Please lead the way."

She opened the door and walked out, gesturing Harry to follow. He closed the door behind her and latched it.

"Sorry about her," he said to Hermione. "Anyway, you were saying that your name is Hermione Granger. I was saying that I had to find the loo, but while she's out there glaring at me—" He gestured to Daphne, who seemed to saying something quite nasty about him, if he could read her lips properly. "—I'd much rather stay in here, if that's all right."

The portly boy was smiling a shy little smile. Harry turned to him. "I haven't met you before, have I?" he asked, and gave a pointed look at Hermione.

She started slightly. "Oh! Harry Potter, this is Neville Longbottom. We were just going to go looking for his toad—"

"I've lost Trevor already," said the boy morosely. "I don't know how I'm going to remember any spells at Hogwarts—"

"—Well, that's no way to go about it," snapped Harry. "You sound like the most miserable person I've ever met; you're even worse than my babysitter, Mrs. Figg."

"Arabella Figg?" asked Neville. "She's my great aunt."

"Seriously?" said Harry, taken aback. "Wow. Small world. No wonder you're miserable, if you're related to her—"

"You'd be miserable, too, if you were a Squib—"

"S'that?" asked Harry, as he plunked himself down next to Hermione.

"Someone who's born to a magical family but can't use magic," answered Hermione.

"So she knew about me all along and didn't tell me. Wonderful. Anyway, you're only as happy as you want to be. You've got magic, you're obviously well-dressed—"

Neville flushed.

"—and you've got a pretty, intelligent friend sitting here—"

Hermione flushed.

"—so what're you whinging about?"

Neville opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out. He sat their for nearly twenty seconds, alternating opening and closing his mouth, but still nothing came out. Finally, he shook his head. "I'm just really bad at magic, that's all—"

"And, clearly, you're way behind everyone else, who, like you, has never done a spell in their lives?"

"Not that," said Neville. "My accidental magic just came really late. They thought I was a Squib until just recently."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Whoopee. Let me tell you a secret: it's not that great. All I can do with accidental magic is make my hair grow out or turn color." He demonstrated, causing his hair to grow down to his shoulders and turn from green back to its usual black. "Big fucking—oh, grow up, Hermione; you're eleven, for crying aloud—whoop. I can grow my hair. Big fucking whoop."

Neville seemed a little bit warmed at the thought that he was not any worse off than Harry. A smile once again flitted over his face. "Yeah," he said, at last. "Things are pretty good. I'm going to be a good wizard—"

"If you work hard, you'll be a great wizard. Don't let anyone tell you differently. Also, quit being a pansy. It's really annoying."

Despite Harry's words, Neville smiled; Hermione smiled; Harry smirked. The smirk gave way to a look of concern, though, when his stomach gave a great gurgle. "I really have to find the loo..." he said. Daphne was long gone, so he stood up and unlatched the door. "Where are they?"

"Here," said Neville. "I'll show you; they're kind of hidden."

Harry smiled back at Hermione. "I should go back to my own compartment afterward. There's a boy in there, and I'm not sure how he remembers to breathe when I'm not present. I'll see you up at the school?"

"Sure," she said, as she flicked an errant strand of hair back over her shoulder. "It was good to meet you, Harry."

"Likewise, Hermione," he said, as he and Neville stepped out into the corridor. "Now, where's the WC?" he asked Neville.

"Down this way," said Neville, and he led Harry further down the train.

The WC happened to be halfway down their car; the door to it was nestled in between two compartments, but wasn't marked as such. Harry had already passed two of them on his way up the train—he just hadn't recognized them as such.

"Listen, mate," he said to Neville, who had just bid him good-bye with a handshake and a promise to see him up at the school, "you'll do fine. Just be confident. Most of the people in our year that I've met so far are so dense that they don't know which way's up. None of 'em have ever cast a spell before. Just be confident and work hard, eh?"

"Thanks," said Neville, who shook Harry's hand again. "I'll try."

"And Neville? Go ask a prefect to help you find your toad. They'll probably know some way of tracking it easily with magic."

"Good idea," said the boy, whose eyes lit up at the thought. "I wonder if I can get them to teach it to me..."

"Worth a shot. See you later."

"Later, Harry!"

Harry stepped in and closed the door.

After he had made use of the facilities, he opened the door and stepped out. Immediately, though, he bumped into something that seemed to be blocking the doorway; it knocked his glasses momentarily askew. 'It' turned out to be a 'he'. Judging by the size, Harry thought he was probably a second or third year. The boy had limp almond-brown hair, a pudgy face, and the stupidest-looking expression that Harry had ever seen (and he was familiar with Dudley's mug).

While Harry fixed his glasses, the larger boy moved out of his way to reveal a much smaller boy, though he still stood a few inches taller than Harry. He was pale, very pale, and Harry immediately recognized him as the boy from Madame Malkin's. His eyes narrowed, as he remembered the blond's disdain for Hagrid.

His thin lips were slanted in a sneer of contempt, and when they opened, they emitted a whiny voice that reminded Harry of Dudley at his most spoiled. "Crabbe, you oaf! You were leaning on the door all this time! Move out of the way, you dolt!"

Once Crabbe had moved, the boy pushed past Harry with barely a look. He shut the door in Harry's face.

He was left standing in the hallway with the larger boy, and another of almost the same build, but with black hair. This one seemed to understand what was going on—or, at least, he didn't look brain-dead. He gave a contemptuous snort as Harry glanced him over.

If there was one thing Harry couldn't stand, it was dismissal. He rolled his eyes, and looked up into goon number two's eyes. "Do you have a handkerchief? I only ask you because your boss looked like he was going to need your help to wipe his arse—or is that goon number one's job?"

The sneer of contempt was quickly replaced with a glare of rage, and he made a grab for Harry. He wasn't quick enough, though, since Harry had already darted away down the corridor and was halfway toward the next car. A second too late, he realized that he'd escaped the wrong direction from his own compartment. Not willing to pass the blond-headed snot-rag, Tweedle-dum, and Tweedle-dee again, Harry decided to continue down the train.

A few cars down, Harry chanced upon a trolley pushed by a dumpy older woman, who fit into her frilly pink dress like an over-sized loaf of bread wanting to burst from its packaging. She reminded Harry slightly of Uncle Vernon, except that her lips were twisted into a polite, cheery smile instead of a rictus of hate. "Why, hello there! Must be a firs' year, I bet. Wou' you like a Pumpkin Pasty, or some Bertie Botts'?"

"Uh..." Harry replied, and the woman smiled, revealing gaps in yellowing teeth. She pointed to a number of what were presumably bags of treats, arranged in neat rows. A few were shaped like pumpkins—what Harry assumed were Pumpkin Pasties—and there was a bag which was emblazoned with 'Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans', which seemed fairly unappealing, as well as some frogs wrapped in tinfoil.

"The Choc'lit Frogs're 4 knuts apiece, a sickle for a bag of th' Beans, th' Pumkins're 11 knuts..." Harry grabbed a few Chocolate Frogs and dug into his pockets for some change, bringing up a silver sickle. Was it 27 knuts to a sickle, or 29? How ridiculous. He handed the lady the sickle, and she handed him back 15 bronze knuts—27, then. He gave her a thin smile and she thankfully returned it with her mouth closed, and began to push the squeaking trolley past him into the next car.

His first attempt at eating one of the Chocolate Frogs nearly ended in disaster. When he opened it, it leaped away from him. Only his quick reflexes (honed from many dinners where he would have to be quick and deft-fingered to snatch any food from the dinner table before his uncle or cousin ate it) allowed him to grab the little frog before it could hop away from him. Harry wasn't sure how he felt when he bit the little bugger's head off; after all, it just seemed to want freedom. Was that so bad? But the warmth from the chocolate quieted his concerns, and he munched on his purchases while he wandered down the oddly calm corridor from car to car. The cards that came with the purchase weren't that special, beyond the fact that they moved. All three—Albus Dumbledore, a man named 'Nicholas Flamel', and Agrippa—were stuffed unceremoniously into his pocket.

There was nothing worth seeing up the train. He had reached the front end of it, and all that remained before him was a locked door to the engine hauling the train. Sighing at the waste of time, he turned around and began to make his way back to Ron.

Unfortunately, two cars down, the corridor was blocked by the two massive boys and the white-haired ponce. They had caught sight of him before he had caught sight of them, and were now advancing on him, looking particularly murderous—goon number one even cracked his knuckles menacingly.

Left with no other option, Harry turned to his right, slid open the door to the compartment, and stepped in.

Inside, four older-looking boys sat laughing and joking around a deck of cards, some of which were smoldering. They didn't even bother to look at who had entered for a minute. "Oi, Stebbins!" said one of them, a brown-haired lad wearing a yellow-and-black tie over his white shirt. "Took you long enough in the loo—what were you doing in there, shagging Melinda Turpin?"

"Not quite," said Harry, and all four of the boys spun to look at him.

"You're not Ben," said the one who had salt-and-pepper hair.

"Well spotted," said Harry. "I'm sorry for barging in, but there's someone—"

The door opened behind Harry, and he quickly stepped into the compartment and away from the door. There stood The Ponce, reinforced by Crabbe and Ugly.

"So you thought you could run, eh, Potter?" he said. "Nice try. Come on out and put your wand where your wit is."

Two of the boys down exchanged looks, and one stood. He straightened his robes, and casually removed his wand from his pocket. "What do you want, Malfoy?"

Malfoy kept his angry glare on Harry, but Harry caught him sneak a peek up at the older boy. "None of your business, Diggory. Just hand Potter over to me, and we'll leave you alone."

Diggory looked down at Harry, who was returning Malfoy's glare with equal enmity. He looked back at Malfoy. "I don't think so," said Diggory. "See, Potter's our friend, too—we happen to owe him a debt of gratitude. We also happen to know how your type works. Get lost."

Malfoy turned his gaze up to Diggory. "You're making a mistake. When my father—"

Diggory rolled his eyes. "When your dad finds out, he's going to say something to the Minister and get my dad fired. Yeah, yeah. Heard it all before, Malfoy. Let me tell you something—my dad's got political protection. He can't be fired without just cause, or Fudge won't survive the next election. Blather on all you want, but just get out of here before I curse you."

"You've not heard the end of this."

"Oh, go bugger one of your peacocks, Malfoy. Just leave us alone."

Malfoy turned to leave, but not before glaring at Harry again, and not without Crabbe cracking the knuckles on his other fist. "You'll get what's coming to you, Potter!"

Once they left, Diggory turned to look at Harry. "So you're Harry Potter, hmm?"

"Yes sir," replied Harry. "And thanks for that. That arse bumped into me going into the loo, and now he can't seem to leave me alone."

"Strange," said Diggory. "You'd think someone would have told me that your hair was so long."

Harry rolled his eyes.

"And then—and then Professor Caldwell jumps up. His beard is still on fire. He's got his legs locked together by the jinx. What does he do? He turns to Dumbledore, right there, in front of the entire Great Hall, and says, 'Dumbledore! I quit!' And then he goes hopping out—his beard is /still/ on fire-and the hall's absolutely dead silent, but for Fred and George Weasley, who burst out laughing!" finished Diggory—Cedric, as he had introduced himself.

"Oh, God," said Owen Norice (the brown-haired one), as he wiped a tear from his eye. "That story is funnier every time I hear it."

Harry tried to stop from smiling so hard. The muscles in his cheeks hurt from the previous half-hour of jokes and funny stories that the four Hufflepuff boys had told.

"I wonder who our new Defense Professor is, then?" asked Odysseus Wagner.

"No idea, Odie. I haven't heard anything," said Cedric.

"Professor Quirrell," said Harry. "I met him in Diagon Alley."

"Quirrell?" asked Odie. "Are you sure, Harry? He used to be the Muggle Studies professor..."

"Positive," said Harry. "Hagrid introduced me. He's got this wicked stutter—"

"That doesn't sound like Quirrell," said Cedric, who rubbed his chin. "Eh, I trust you, Harry. Just sounds strange to me."

Harry leaned back and looked outside the window as the train chugged through the country. It was getting darker, now, and Cedric had told him that they were an hour out of Hogwarts about fifteen minutes ago.

"So, Harry," asked Cedric, and he leaned forward conspiratorially, "which house are you going to be in?"

Harry blinked. "I didn't think you could know before it happened."

"You can't," said Odie.

"But most people have a good idea," added Cedric quickly. "Where do you think you'll wind up? Gryffindor? Slytherin? Ravenclaw? Hufflepuff?"

Harry opened his mouth and then closed it. "I get it," he said, after a minute. "You really think I'd say anything but Hufflepuff amongst you four?"

They grinned.

Harry stretched his arms and yawned. "Fine: if you guys are what Hufflepuff's like, count me in."

They all gave a cheer. Harry stood up. "That said, I'd best get going back to my compartment. Thanks for the company, lads," he said, "and thanks for the tip about Snape, Cedric."

"No problem." Cedric waved lazily at him. "If Malfoy and his two pals give you trouble, use that Furnunculus Jinx we showed you, or come find one of us. We'll give him a right boot in the bum for you."

Harry nodded and pushed his way out of the compartment, just as a pink-cheeked boy came in. The last thing Harry heard from the compartment was the boy letting out a deep sigh—"Boys," he said, "I know it's cliché, but that Melinda Turpin has really filled out in all the right places, if you know what I mean."

There came another cheer from the compartment, but Harry had closed the door and was moving down the hallway.

When he returned to his own cabin, Ron was still alone in it, and he was still reading his book. He looked up at Harry when the latter came into the room. "S'not bad," he replied, "I thought it was going to be boring, but some of these things are really cool. There's this one plant, it can rip your face off!"

"I'm glad you're enjoying it," said Harry, honestly. "You should try the Magical Creatures text—I had a glance at it, and it's really captivating."

"I might," said Ron, with actual enthusiasm.

The rest of the ride was quiet, and spent amongst words.



"Line up! Single file—smartly now," came the curt order from the dour-faced woman. Harry side-stepped to the left, elbowing his way between a tiny, mousy-haired boy and a rather large girl whose face was rather unpleasant.

As soon as the woman—witch—turned away, the line erupted in hushed whispers and hisses, equal parts excited and anxious.

"What do you think we're going to have to do?"

"My dad told me we have to pass some sort of test. I read the entire transfiguration text before I came—"

"Don't be ridiculous; they're going to make us cast a spell to prove we're magic."

"Hear that, Longbottom?" came the familiar droll of Harry's favorite person. "Doesn't look like you'll be sorted at all—"

"Stuff it, Malfoy," said Harry. "The only way you'd get in would be if it was a spell to do your hair."

"I heard we have to fight a troll," said Ron Weasley. Harry winced at the comment. First Malfoy, and then Ron... This was a school, after all, not a Colosseum.

A black-haired girl behind them was less diplomatic, and she snickered loudly at the comment. "Honestly, Weasley, even though your family can't be bothered to give you prior warning, there's no need to spout drivel."

Harry thought she had the right of it, mostly; he could believe that they might ask a question to see how they reasoned it out, but even then that didn't seem right to him. He had first-hand exposure to Hufflepuffs, and the way that Malfoy had made them out, he would have predicted they were as dumb as Dudley. It seemed unlikely, then—and ultimately unfair, he admitted—that they would be sorted according to intelligence or skill. That left character, which he could believe, but he didn't understand how they would find out about that in such little time. He was rather averse to being sorted on a moment's judgment—he could recall many moments in his life where he would not have been judged fairly or accurately.

He was forced to smirk, though: Weasley blushed a bright pink at the girl's taunt. Hopefully the boy would take the chastisement to heart and actually think before he opened his mouth. He could think of somebody else who dearly needed the same lesson: Malfoy looked like he was ready to start spewing forth again, but he was silenced by the arrival of Professor McGonagall, who had returned to shoo them forward into the castle proper.

They entered the Great Hall, and all the universe unfolded above them. The ceiling... Harry could hardly say enough about it. It was fantastic; there was no ambient light, so he could see a million stars, more than he'd ever seen in his whole life, along with whole swatches of color in the sky—blues, greens, pinks!—that he'd never imagined possible. It made him feel very small just for a second. Still, he could not help but be enthralled and bedazzled. It was one hell of a way to come into Hogwarts.

The room itself was massive; it was easily large enough to fit three of Number Four inside of it and still have room to spare. The rest of the students sat along long tables. Most were looking at the line of first years in anticipation; Harry was sure to keep his head up and make eye contact with those staring at him. They were older, but he was not about to let himself be bossed around by any second year with delusions of grandeur. For that matter, he was not about to let himself be bossed around by any seventh year, delusions or not.

Once the stares stopped, he looked around the hall. Above each table hung banners in four colors—crests of the Hogwarts houses, he supposed. He spotted Cedric at the table flying the yellow-black badger banner; that was Hufflepuff, obviously. The rest were easy—Slytherin was the green-and-silver snake; Gryffindor, the burgandy-and-gold gryffin; Ravenclaw, the blue-bronze Raven. A fifth table ran perpendicular to the others, and was obviously reserved for the professors, many of whom were sitting there.

"It's enchanted to look like the outside sky. It was the last major addition to the Hogwarts castle itself—not including the grounds—added in 1873..." came a breathless female voice. Granger again, by the sound of it, mistaking his wandering gaze for fascination with the ceiling. Despite this, Harry nodded approvingly—she, if nobody else, had done their research properly. This time, no student snarked back.

Speaking of which... "So, how do we get sorted?" Harry asked the girl that had been mocking Weasley earlier. "I assume you know," he added.

The girl gave a gasp of incredulity. She fixed him with a baleful look. "Of course I know!"

This statement drew the ears and eyes of quite a few students. They all seemed curious to know. "Of course," said Harry, who had a good sense of what was coming. "What is it, then?"

The girl suddenly looked anxious, aware of the sudden thrust of the spotlight. Her fists clenched. "It's a secret," she ground out.

"Right," said Harry. "Bullshit aside, somebody actually know?" Most of the students responded with shrugs or blank looks. "Right then," he muttered under his breath. "Let's get this over with, thanks..."

As if summoned, Professor McGonagall appeared before them on the dais at the front of the hall, just to the side of the professors' table. Beside her sat a wooden stool, upon which a patched, fraying hat sat.

And then the hat sang.

"Bloody hell," Harry whispered. Nobody seemed inclined to disagree.

He didn't pay much attention to the words. It mostly described the houses and the history of the school, and Harry was too busy absorbing and trying to understand that magic was suddenly a reality in his life. Despite his limited focus, he still understood by the time the hat sang its last note: put the hat on; listen to it; go to your new house. Simple enough, though he was still displeased about being randomly tossed into some house based on what a singing hat thought.

"A bloody hat! I'm going to kill Fred and George," Weasley said,, earning him a nervious 'Hush!' from the nervous-looking girl next to him. Ron ignored her. "Oi! Bulstrode!" The girl behind Harry turned around. She looked like she wanted to pummel Ron. "That's your secret?" he asked. "A singing hat?"

Harry looked back over his shoulder. "Quiet!" he snapped. "Professor McGonagall's talking—"

"When I call your name," interrupted Professor McGonagall, as she shot Ron and Harry a warning look, "please walk to the front and place the hat on your head. Abbot, Hannah!"

The entire line fell deathly silent. The sorting had begun.


Harry watched the sorting proceed, and he began to feel a little heavy in the stomach. He didn't know why he was growing nervous, but he was beginning to dread his turn, and they were only on the 'B's...

"SLYTHERIN!" yelled the hat to general applause, and Millicent "Bullshit" Bulstrode waddled off to join the rightmost table.

And so it went. The first real interesting moment came when Granger was called up. Based on the song, Harry figured she was a lock for Ravenclaw—


—which was exactly the reason why he thought being sorted by a magical hat was inappropriate and perhaps a bit disrespectful of the gravity of the situation.

He lost a bit of time thinking about that, too, until Neville Longbottom became a Gryffindor—he looked like he was going to walk off with the hat, but paused and placed it back on the stool at the last second. A few nervous titters came from the remaining first years.

Malfoy—whose first name was Draco, apparently—was sent packing straight away into Slytherin. He seemed pleased to be there.

After him, the names ran quickly and with a minimum of spectacle. Twin girls were split up—Patil, Padma became a Gryffindor, while Patil, Parvati became a Slytherin.

Weasley gave a little chortle. "No rivalry in that house, I'd bet..."

"Be quiet for once, Weasley," mumbled Harry. "I'm up next—"

"Potter, Harry!"

"Did she say Potter—?"

"The Harry Potter?"

"Strange; you'd think someone would have told me his hair was that long..."

He took a deep breath and started forward. "Please, please," he prayed under his breath, "don't let my hair turn pink right about now." Hands trembling ever so slightly, and legs feeling wobbly like jelly, Harry fell gratefull onto the seat and let out a pent-up breath.

The hat covered his entire head. He could neither see nor hear nothing, until—

*Ah, Harry Potter. I was wondering when I would see you—"

"Well, they've been going alphabetically, so it shouldn't really have come as a surprise."

"Wit!" said the hat. "There's a Ravenclaw in you, boy. It's a pity you'd do terrible there—terrible, terrible. No, no, no, no. Ravenclaw won't do. Well, this is a pleasant occasion, at any rate. I don't often have this much difficulty, you see. You'd fit fairly well anywhere—except Ravenclaw, of course; you'd be bored in a minute—so what to do with you? What to do...? So many ways for you to go...

"I'm not much like the rest of the students," said Harry. "I've noticed this, so far."

"Ah," said the hat, "yes, I can believe that. Curious how our experiences—good and bad—can make us into the people we are. Why, if you'd entered the hall on a different foot, perhaps I'd have put you into Hufflepuff—"

"You can put me there," said Harry, quite happily. "Nice chaps in that house."

"You—wait, you want to go into Hufflepuff?" asked the Hat. "Why, that's preposterious! That just goes to show that it's entirely the wrong house for you! Wrong, wrong, wrong! No, no Hufflepuff for you."

"Don't I get a say in the matter?"

"Don't you get a say in—oh hoh! You are a priceless one. No, you don't get to choose. I might listen to your suggestion, but when it comes down to it, I choose."

"Well, then, I suggest Hufflepuff."

"That's a terrible suggestion. Suggest something different."


"Are you trying to be obtuse?" asked the hat. "I told you to suggest something, not spew drivel from your mouth. Now, what'll it be?"

"I don't much care," said Harry. "If you're not going to listen to me, anyway—"

"Oh, I listen," said the hat. "I just—"

"Yes, thanks; we've been through this already. Just make your choice."

"Don't hurry me."

"Don't take so long, then. I bet people are staring."

"They can stare more, if you'd like. I can yell out some nasty swear words, too—"

"Fine. Take your time. I'll just sit here quietly."

"You don't care what I think of you?"

Harry shrugged. "You're a hat," he said. "Think what you want to think; put me where you want to put me; I'm not bothered."

"You're not worried about the people in Slytherin? Deep hatred for you seems to fester there..."

"As far as I'm concerned, they can—"

"You're not appropriate for them, anyway," said the hat. "You'd fit there, I suppose, and you'd probably do well—in fact, you might do better there than in Gryffindor. Still, I can't help but think it's for the best of all if you're left unimpeded and unopposed. Your morals seem to be a bit... wishy-washy, if you'll excuse the expression. Not very solid, at any rate."

"I think I'm offended," said Harry. "I do too have morals—"

"I didn't say you didn't," said the hat. "Just that you're quite willing to see 'right' and 'wrong' as whatever's convenient. My mind's made up, though; good luck, Mr. Potter. Try not to kill anyone. GRYFFINDOR!"

Pandemonium reigned supreme. Harry staggered up, and walked toward the gold and burgandy banner that marked his new house. His eyes darted around, taking in the reactions, though he could barely think, the noise was so deafening. Professor McGonagall was restraining a smile, and doing a bad job of it. The two Weasley twins—Fred and... Joe, had Ron said?—were standing on the benches, loudly yelling "We got Potter! We got Potter!" Others along the Gryffindor bench were cheering loudly.

The rest of the school even seemed to be fairly happy at the outcome, bar the Slytherins. They all looked uniformly sour, except for Malfoy, who was smirking at Harry. Harry returned it; he was equally glad not to have to live next to the Poncy Prince. As he approached the leftmost table, he caught the eye of the headmaster (for he recognized Dumbledore from the Chocolate Frog card in his pocket), and he was positive that the man with the massive silver beard approved. The rest of the staff were applauding politely, too; in fact, they all seemed pleased, with the notable exception of a hook-nosed man at the far end of the table.

He sat down at the table after two girls moved to make room for him. Immediately, a voice spoke out from behind him. "Congratulations, Harry!" Cedric had jumped across the aisle to the Ravenclaw table, and was flashing him a thumbs-up. Bashfully, Harry looked back down—it was confusing, even disconcerting, how much positive attention he was getting.

"Welcome Mr. Potter. It's a pleasure to have you with us."

Harry smiled uneasily, looking up at the prefect that he had met on the train. "Thanks, Percy."

"Ahem!" called Professor McGonagall from the dais. "As excited as we may be, there are still students left to sort..."

The hall quieted again. "Very well, then," she said. "Turpin, Lisa!"

A short, freckled girl ambled up to the hat, and then ambled away to the Ravenclaw table. Next, Professor McGonagall called out Weasley's name. The boy looked like he was about to puke. Still, he made his way up to the hat, and sat under the brim.

There was some mumbling after the hat hadn't made its decision in half a minute. There was quite a bit of mumbling after two. Finally, though, the hat opened its mouth and shouted, "GRYFFINDOR!" and there was a great deal of stamping and whistling from Harry's table. Harry, for his part, clapped politely.

Weasley plunked himself down across from table, right beside Percy. "Welcome, Ron," said Percy. "It's a pleasure to have you with us."

"The hat wanted to put me in Ravenclaw," said Ron, whose face was still quite pale. "That was too close."

"Yes, well," said Percy, who seemed slightly taken aback, "Ravenclaw's an excellent house, but I'm sure Mother and Father will be pleased that you've fallen under my watchful eye."

"Yeah," said Ron, who was ignoring Percy to watch the last sortee. A white-haired girl—Blaise Zabini, apparently—sat underneath the hat.


The girl smiled faintly and wandered over to the table next to the Gryffindor table, and sat down behind Harry.

"Not a bad showing this year," said the dark-skinned girl with tightly braided hair sitting beside him. She offered him a hand. "Angelina Johnson. I'm a third year."


"Yeah, I know," she said, with a laugh. "I don't think there's anybody who doesn't know. Hold on a sec," she said. "Looks like Dumbledore's going to say something."

And indeed, the venerable headmaster had risen. "My dear students and colleagues," he said, spreading his hands wide, "welcome back to Hogwarts for another year of education, mischief, and excellent company. I had planned to say a few short words and let you get on with the feast—" A groan arose from the students. Harry himself felt his stomach aching for food—he'd only had three Chocolate Frogs since six that morning. "—but I shall have to depart this hall a few minutes early, and so we shall begin with some housekeeping."

"First," he said, "a most fond welcome to our new students. I hope you enjoy your time here and find your classes very well. Second, there have been a few rule changes since last year. As a reminder, no magic is allowed in the hallways between classes, and Mr. Filch has asked me to inform you that he will be very strict in enforcing this.

"I might remind you all that there are to be no trips into the Forbidden Forest without a Professor's accompaniment. That goes for you and your twin, as well, Mr. Weasley.

"Instead of hosting Quidditch try-outs on the second week, this year, I have left it at the discretion of the Quidditch captains as to when they will run their try-outs. Please check in with them if you would like to try out.

"Since Professor Caldwell was burning so badly to leave the school, we once again have a new professor for Defence against the Dark Arts. Many of you have met him before, but please give a warm hand to Professor Quirinius Quirrell."

There was a smattering of applause, and a man with a royal purple turban waved from the staff table.

"One final warning: do not attempt to enter the third floor corridor. I highly doubt any of you will be able to enter in the first place, but do not take this as a challenge. A certain and most painful death awaits any foolhardy enough to take it upon his- or herself.

"That said, dig in!"

He clapped his hands, then, quite literally, piles and piles upon piles of food appeared.

"Amazing! I read about it, but it's one of those things you have to see to believe, wouldn't you say?" Hermione said from across the table.

He barely heard her. Awestruck, he stared greedily at the feast that had suddenly appeared in front of him. It was more than he had ever seen in his life, and every single bite looked delicious. Moving quickly, he speared a piece of beef, hardly resting it on his plate before he bit a chunk out of the meat. He stopped abruptly, though. He knew better manners than to take a bite out of uncut meat, and to stuff food in his face... He took the meat down and cut it up. It was just as good, and he set in ravenously, but he was careful to eat carefully. He had a first impression to make.

That said, there was nothing wrong with eating a lot. He scooped a small mountain of mashed potatoes onto his plate, speared some more of the absolutely succulent roast, and took a small bowl's worth of salad. It was all so delicious; he was sure he would put on a hundred pounds eating at Hogwarts. He'd never starved at the Dursleys', but he'd hardly been allowed to eat what he liked and how much he wanted. Yet another reason that the castle was home...

It was a good thing that he'd slowed down. Percy put his fork with a look of disgust plastered on his face. "Ronald, it's a dinner table, not a feeding trough. You too, Finnegan."

Seamus Finnegan, a sandy-haired boy, at least had the sense to look ashamed. Ron just lifted his head from the black pudding he was eating and looked around confusedly. "Honestly," said Percy, "I know you're both firsties, but do the rest of us a favor and at least act like you weren't spawned the day before yesterday. Ronald, I expected better of you."

The rest of the dinner was fairly quiet, beyond some story-telling by the Finnegan boy and by a darker-skinned boy named Dean Thomas. For his part, Harry kept quite silent, though he was engaged in conversation several times by Angelina, who seemed to enjoy talking to him. He didn't dislike her, but he didn't feel any particular bond of friendship between them. She was smart, but she talked irrepressibly of Quidditch, and the more Harry found himself changing the topic, the less he enjoyed talking to her.

Finally, the dinners disappeared, and the students began to leave. Harry stood and stretch his legs, but was unsure of where to go. Fortunately, Percy looked right at him and gave him a small nod, before the older boy stood, as well. "Right then, first years—here we go. Follow me!" he commanded.

They hadn't got far, though. Standing at the doors leading out of the hall was the hook-nosed man. His hair was slicked down and back, and his black eyes stared beadily out at each student as they passed, as if searching them for some hidden secret that their eyes alone would reveal. When Harry made to pass through the door behind Percy, the man grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him off to the side.

"Can I help you, Professor Snape?" asked Percy.

"This miscreant is to be taken to the headmaster's office," said Snape, in a slow, crisp voice. "You may proceed with your charges, Weasley. I will ensure that he will find his way back to Gryffindor tower—if, that is, he is to return at all."

"Very well," said Percy, who raised an eyebrow at the Professor. "Onward, then."

The train of first years walked off with Percy. Neville and Hermione each gave him a questioning glance as they walked by, but all Harry could do was shrug. He had no idea what he had done, either.

When everyone had left, the professor turned and marched off toward a huge room that had staircases climbing to an incredible height. Not only that, but the stairs were moving—in fact, some weren't even anchored to the floors. He could see a set that was floating between the third and fifth every half-minute or so; another set reversed itself, going from upward to downward.

That was not the most fascinating thing, though. The portraits hanging on the walls moved, like the cards, but the cards had not talked. The first portrait that he saw merely smiled at him, but the second—a picture of an Irish man smoking a pipe—merely took his pipe out of his mouth and told Harry to mind his own business.

So Harry did, despite his temptation to breathe in the magic around him. "Sir," he said to Professor Snape, who hadn't looked back at him at all, "Can you tell me why the headmaster needs to see me?"

Professor Snape did not make any indication that he'd heard the boy at all.

"Sir?" he asked, just to make sure the man had heard him.

"Undoubtedly, Potter, because you have already embarked upon a campaign of mischief and rudeness," snapped the man, as he kept climbing the stairs. Up and up they went—it looked like they were headed for the top.

Harry was no slouch fit-wise, after years of consistently outrunning his cousin before, during, and after school (which, admittedly, had gotten easier as Dudley got fatter), but the endless stairs seemed to be getting the better of him. He was having a hard time catching his breath in the slight pause as they transversed the landings between the staircases. Professor Snape, for his part, seemed to be having no trouble, despite his general appearance of ill-health, and had silenced any objections Harry may have had at the grueling pace he set with a well-crafted sneer.

"Don't be expecting to get any special treatment from me, Mr. Potter," he snapped from the top of the last staircase, as he tapped his foot impatiently. "Everybody else may be impressed with you before you've even learned to hold your wand correctly, but I see through the veneer."

Harry's eyes narrowed but he held his tongue. Professor Snape turned his back, clearly expecting Harry to follow. He fell into step, still panting slightly, as they turned a corner and stopped before a statue—no, a rather ugly, grotesque gargoyle, Harry corrected himself.

"Fizzing Whizbees," whispered Snape with utmost vehemence; he had a look plastered on his face that could curdle milk. The gargoyle lept aside. Harry couldn't help but stumble back a half-step, which Snape, to his chagrin, didn't fail to notice.

They entered the small chamber and found a spiral staircase. Harry held back a groan and bemoaned his fate to nobody in particular, until he saw Professor Snape take a step and the stairs promptly took him up like an escalator. "I really should stop being so surprised, I suppose," he said to himself, and joined the Professor on the staircase.

He found himself in a small anteroom with a few wooden chairs and a bowl of candy. Professor Snape had approached the tall oak door with the lion's-head knocker on it and gave three sharp knocks.

"Yes, Professor Snape, do come in!" came a voice from the other side of the door. Professor Dumbledore's voice.

Snape opened the door and stalked through, and Harry followed into what had to be the most magical room he had seen yet. The walls were covered from the floor up with bookshelves, leaving just enough room for portraits to be placed between the topmost shelves and the ceiling. They were all alive, and all peering down intently at Harry. He felt an itch between his shoulder blades and knew that the portraits surrounded the office. How could someone work here with so many people staring at him?

In the center was a desk, upon which were placed a number of devices whose purpose Harry couldn't even guess at. The were made of silver and gold, platinum, copper, and stone. Some twirled and pinged, some glittered, and one obnoxious one even belched smoke that turned into various shapes in a pattern Harry couldn't discern. One seemed to cast a silver sheen over its close neighbors, but Harry had barely glanced at it before his attention was drawn away to the man sitting behind the desk.

Even sitting as he was, his eyes radiated a sort of benevolent charm, yet there was an unspoken, unseen thread of power coursing through the room. If Harry hadn't known the man was Albus Dumbledore, the most powerful wizard in Britain, he would have been scared out of his wits. Professor Dumbledore didn't scare him, or, even for that matter, intimidate him (which, truth be told, surprised Harry); instead, the unmistakable presence of the man's magic was nothing short of humbling.

Professor Snape—whom Harry had forgotten all about—cleared his throat, and Professor Dumbledore's eyes turned upward from Harry to the cheerless man. Snape who rolled his eyes at the friendly look upon the Headmaster's face.

"Ah, Severus. Here early, are we? And I see you've brought young Harry Potter with you—how marvelous." He shot an kindly-yet-amused look at Harry before returning his gaze to Professor Snape, who was openly scowling. "What can I do for you? Would either of you care for a Lemon Drop?" A wrinkled yet strong hand grasped a box at his side and opened it, displaying small yellow candies. Harry took one appreciatively and thanked the headmaster, though his attention was focused on the headmaster's hand, which shook slightly while he held the box out to Professor Snape.

Professor Snape ignored the offered candy and cut right to the point. "Headmaster, I regret to inform you that young Mr. Potter—" Harry scowled at the way the man spat his name with thinly-disguised contempt, "—was seen bullying other students on the train. I have heard accounts from no fewer than three students, who claimed to be victims of Mr. Potter's ill-manner." He matched glares with Harry, who suddenly wanted something very bad to happen to the pale, greasy-haired man.

Professor Dumbledore didn't bat an eye, but very solemnly nodded. "That sounds serious, Severus. We can't have bullies in Hogwarts."

Professor Snape nodded. "If it were up to me, Headmaster, I'd just have him expelled now, to save us the trouble of inevitably having to do it later."

Harry's face was burning in rage and embarrassment. Surely they wouldn't expel him over Malfoy? He was about to open his mouth in his defense when the Headmaster beat him to it.

"Now, Severus, my dear friend... I hardly think it would be appropriate to simply give up on such a promising student. You know how I feel about that, don't you?" Harry wasn't sure, but there seemed to be an undertone to his voice, and Professor Snape seemed to grow slightly paler, if that was possible. His lips were thin as he gave a sharp nod. "Good. I will, of course, have a few words with Harry. I doubt he meant any harm, Severus, but thank you for bringing this promptly to my attention."

It was clearly a dismissal, and Snape's eyes smoldered as he turned to leave. The door shut behind the dour man, and it was clearly only the mark of respect that prevented the departing Professor from loudly closing it.

Harry was left standing before the Headmaster's desk. "Now, Mr. Potter, whatever shall we do with you?"

"Only that which befits my actions, sir."

"Ah," said Professor Dumbledore, who shook with repressed mirth. "I think it is a wonder, Mr. Potter—Harry, if I might—that the Sorting Hat did not place you in Ravenclaw. I am to assume, then, that you believe Professor Snape's accusations are baseless?"

"Yes, sir." The Headmaster's eyes were staring into his own, and he suddenly felt quite compelled to clarify. "Well, that is to say, Draco Malfoy bowled me over and I might have responded a bit rudely. But he was the one who tried to beat me up—"

"And this is how you became friends with Mister Diggory, I assume?"

Harry goggled at the Headmaster. "How did you know—sir?"

Professor Dumbledore chuckled again. "These old eyes don't miss a trick, Harry. Please, go on."

"Yeah, well, as you said, Cedric and his friends took me in and told Malfoy to leave. He tried to threaten them, but they didn't respond."

Dumbledore sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "It pleases me to be reminded that people in this school will extend hands to those who need it." He gave another one of those benevolent smiles, but his eyes were far away. "Perhaps Mister Diggory would be a close one to watch," he said, mostly to himself, but turned down to look at Harry. "Would you say he was friendly and a good leader?" he asked Harry, who was taken aback by the sudden question.

"Er—yeah, I guess... sir," replied Harry.

"I am pleased to hear it," said Dumbledore. "This may have solved a problem of mine. Tell me, Harry: what have you learned?"

"Not to make Professor Snape angry?"

"A wise lesson, yes, but more about getting along—"

"—With all due respect, sir, I don't think there's going to be any getting along with Malfoy. He was downright disrespectful to Muggle-borns when I first met him, and I don't much like him."

"I can believe that, Harry. However, what do you know of Mr. Malfoy's upbringing?"

"Er... nothing, sir? Just that his father is close to some Minister."

"The Minister for Magic, Harry, and yes—you are correct. However, I think you can discern more than that."

"He's well-off," said Harry, who wasn't sure what Dumbledore was looking for. "Used to getting his way."

"Right," said Dumbledore. "Do you think it would be wise to get in conflict with him again, Harry?"

"Well, no," said Harry. "I mean, I don't ever try to get in fights, sir, it's just that he was so rude—"

"Well, we must make some allowances for how Mr. Malfoy was brought up," said Professor Dumbledore. "Perhaps being around his peers more will shape him into someone slightly more agreeable."

"Pardon me, sir," said Harry, "but are you suggesting that Malfoy can get away with being a jerk because he was brought up poorly? Because—"

Dumbledore raised an eyebrow.

"—because that's preposterous, sir. I was brought up by some of the worst people on the planet, and even I know that you don't just ignore a kid who's doing bad things—you have to tell him to stop, and punish him if he doesn't!"

"Ah," said Dumbledore. "I see what argument you are making, Harry. However, it is not my role to interfere in the development of such children. They must make their own choices, Harry, not have me make the choices for them."

Harry was not rude enough to retort, though he had to bite his tongue to stop himself. He attempted to cover it up by asking, "Sir, do you mind if I ask a question?"

Dumbledore's eyes twinkled madly as he answered, "You already have, Harry. However, far be it from me to attempt to limit your inquisitiveness! What sort of place of learning would I be running here if I didn't allow you to ask questions?"

Harry scowled at the memory of what had happened on the train, and how Professor Snape had tried to pin it on him. "Professor Snape, sir, he seems to..." Harry searched for a way to say it. "—dislike me, sir."

The Headmaster's gaze never wavered from Harry's eyes, even as his eyes seemed to dull ever so slightly. "Professor Snape's life has not been easy, Harry. I've tried time and again to improve his outlook on life, but he has yet to ever accept a lemon drop! Quite sad, indeed, I find them to be just the most delicious candy. Would you care for one?"

"You already offered me one, sir."

"Ah. Sometimes I forget things—that happens, you know, when you get to be my age. Still, have another one."

Harry took another one.

The wizened old man continued. "Despite his somewhat sour attitude—" He winked at Harry. "—Professor Snape is one of the best potions masters in Great Britain. I tell you, the man is a living repository of all sorts of knowledge pertaining to the delicate art of potions brewing—and I should know! I'm no slouch myself, but Professor Snape has me beat by far!"

"That doesn't really answer my question, sir—"

"There's no getting anything past you, Harry, I see. Professor Snape, I think, sometimes resents the role which he has been forced into. It causes him, I believe, to take a more bitter view of human nature. I'm sure it's not personal." He paused for a second, and then cocked his head. "Now, Harry—if I may ask you a question? How are you finding Hogwarts thus far?"

Harry blinked at the swift change of topic. "Er—yes, it's very nice, sir. I particularly enjoyed the sorting. It seemed odd that the Sorting Hat could tell right away with some students where they belonged, and for some others, it took ages."

Dumbledore stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Yes, I've often wondered at its ability, even after all these years, to simply know these things. Why, I myself took not three seconds on that very stool before it decided! My brother, on the other hand, was waiting for over twenty minutes. Your friend, Ronald Weasley—"

Harry frowned at that. Ronald Weasley was not his friend. Acquaintance, maybe.

"—seemed to take far longer than any of his brothers before him. You might think that suggests that he may not strictly adhere to Godric's preferences as the rest, but I have every confidence that the Hat put him right where he belongs. I can only think of three students the hat has ever mis-sorted, but those students were extraordinary—simply extraordinary.

"Anyway, I should like to think that Ronald is precisely where he should be. Don't you agree, Harry?" His eyes twinkled—a phenomenon which Harry was mystefied to explain.

"Another question, sir," said Harry. He considered his carefully. "I really do love what I've seen of magic. I was wondering, though. Do you think there's somewhere I could stay...over the summer? I don't want to leave all this—" Harry waved at the artifacts and gadgets, one of which began whistling at a very high pitch, until Dumbledore silenced it with a wave of his wand. "—and I really don't want to have to go back to Number Four—away from all this magic, I mean," he hastily added.

"Now, Harry..." The Headmaster's gaze seemed both understanding and stern at the same time. "I know that your introduction to the magical world has been, well, rapid, but I'm certain that, come the end of the year, you'll be happily awaiting seeing your family again." He missed Harry's poorly hidden scowl. "Your family, Harry, may seem to be somewhat trying at times, but I hope that you'll never forget that they are your family. Your blood, and that of your mother's, resides within your aunt's own veins, and even though they may have had their disagreements at times, I know that your aunt regrets wholeheartedly leaving things unfinished between the two of them. For your mother's sake, Harry, please don't turn away from them."

"I don't get along with them very well," said Harry, "and moreover, they don't like me. I—" Harry struggled to actually mean the words he said. "—don't want to be a hardship on them."

"I'm sure they're more than willing to look after their kin, Harry. It's important, too—while you are there, you are protected by blood-based enchantments that I placed when you were delivered there as a young child. There you are safe from any harm brought by the man who gave you this scar, or, indeed, any of his followers."

Now that was a thread that needed to be followed up on. "Professor, why did You-Know-Who—"

"Voldemort, Harry. Call him Voldemort. I always say, fear of the name increases fear of the thing itself." His eyes were twinkling again. "As for the reason he came after you, Harry, I fear that that is a story for another day. Come now."

He stood up from his desk, and motioned for Harry to follow him to the door. "I have no doubt that you're exhausted, both from the ride, and from the delectable feast we enjoyed tonight," he said. "Classes begin early tomorrow, my dear boy, and it wouldn't do to have you oversleeping on the first day, would it?"

"No, sir. It was good to meet you, sir, and finally understand the man behind the name."

"And you, Harry, though I daresay I was surprised by how long your hair was. You would think that Hagrid would have mentioned it to me... Good evening, at any rate, and sleep well."

He allowed the man to push him gently through the ornate door to the magical escalator, and before he knew it, the gargoyle was leaping back into its place. Only once Harry had begun descending the first set of stairs did he let his scowl out. For such a long conversation, there were so few real answers. Not only that, but he had no idea where Gryffindor house was.

After the third set of staircases, Harry found himself on a landing with no stairs leading to it. "Well, obviously, it's just doing that to inconvenience me," he joked, then frowned. "Actually, that seems entirely possible. Damn ornery castle," he cursed.

After waiting a few minutes and getting nothing, Harry decided to find another way. He went through the door to the fourth floor corridor, turning left, then right, before realizing that he had no idea where he was. "Great," he groaned. He turned again, and came face to face with a pair of double doors, one of which was ajar by a few inches. He pulled on it, and the door opened with a loud creak. Harry walked through to find one of the greatest sights he had ever seen. He closed the door behind him, trying to make as little noise as possible.

Just in time apparently, for he heard a voice coming from outside the doors. "Come, Mrs. Norris! I know I heard something! I'll be damned if Peeves is going to cover a classroom in chewing gum like he did last year!"

Inside, Harry stared at aisles filled from floor to ceiling with more books than he ever knew existed. "This must be the library," he muttered reverently. So much magic! If he didn't know any better, Harry would have sworn that every spell ever cast, every brew ever made, every charm and creature ever to grace the Earth could be found within the seemingly endless stacks. He nearly drooled in anticipation—if he couldn't live with magic year-round, he'd cram in as much of it as he could while he was at Hogwarts. And maybe, just maybe, he'd figure out how to lift that damn tracer, and then his relatives had better watch out—blood or no blood, he wouldn't be putting up with their crap anymore, not if he could help it.

He grabbed two books off the shelf, checked to see that there was nobody coming, and found his way back to the staircase. Gryffindor house couldn't be that hard to find...



The Gryffindor and Slytherin first years quickly lined up in front of the door to the Potions classroom. Nobody dared make a sound or move a muscle; nobody wanted the baleful gaze of Professor Snape to fall upon him- or herself. It was legend in Hogwarts that the man's glower once caused a young boy to soil himself, that his sneer could set fire to things spelled inflammable, and that his greasy hair could reflect the sun with such intensity that it could blind at 50 paces.

The latter was something Harry himself had come up with. Of course, Harry thought, Professor Snape was a terrible person, who could scare little kids, and, in fact, seemed to entertain himself chiefly by doing so. The man's power of intimidation was mostly laughable, though. It revolved around evil looks, harsh words, and threats of expulsion. Harry had already been exposed to all three before the class, and so he knew that the man's bark disguised the fact that he had no teeth. Dumbledore held the man on a leash, and despite his role as Slytherin Head, Snape had no actual power as a teacher. He might draw his wand at Harry, or run him through with a potions knife, but that was not an authority he held as a teacher—just as a human being, and Harry could fight back against humans.

Once he had pondered it out, he realized the man was nothing short of laughable.

Still, as the Slytherin Head of House stalked his way past the students—sparing nods of approval to his Slytherins in between cold glares to the Gryffindors—Harry noticed a number of his fellow students cowering under his gaze. Neville Longbottom—whose self-esteem problems Harry knew well—appeared on the verge of losing his breakfast.

When his inscrutable gaze fell over Harry, he made sure to match stares with the man. Something dark passed over the man's eyes and his sneer deepened to a scowl, which promised unpleasant things to come.

With a nearly unseen gesture of Professor Snape's wand, the door to the Potions classroom creaked open. "Well, don't just stand there!" he shouted. "Get inside!"

The students filed inside for their first Potions lesson. Lined up precisely, two across and six deep, were sturdy work-benches with several stools placed behind each. Many were stained with the remnants of spilled Potion, and several looked like they'd been lit on fire and let burn. Harry followed his classmates as they filed in silently. For the most part, the Slytherins paired up and took the left side of the room, and the Gryffindors did the same on the right. Harry himself took a seat at the fourth bench on the right, as far back from Professor Snape as he felt he could without it seeming intentional.

Granger and Longbottom took seats immediately in front of him, with two of his roommates—Seamus Finnegan and a black boy named Dean Thomas—taking the table before them. That left him alone. Harry almost groaned when he saw Ron Weasley walking towards the vacant seat next to him, but did sigh in relief when it was grabbed by an Indian girl wearing the green tie of Slytherin. She was Padma's sister... He thought hard for her name, but came up with nothing. Something Patil. Started with a 'P'.

Harry politely nodded his head to her, which she returned with a smile tinged with what Harry guessed was nerves. She was unlikely to be nervous about Snape—after all, he was their head of house, and from what Diggory had said, showed blatant favoritism to them—so it was more likely that she was nervous about sitting beside him. Fan-fucking-tastic. That was exactly what he needed: someone who thought he was a messiah. Perhaps he was better off with Weasley, and he turned to see where the boy had gone—

—only to find Professor Snape forcing Weasley and Malfoy, of all people, to sit together. Harry almost found it in his heart to pity the boy.

Regardless, he was stuck with the girl. It was time to make nice, then. He stuck his hand out and said, "Hi, I'm Harry. You are...?"

"Parvati," the girl answered. "Parvati Patil. Slytherin," she added, almost as an afterthought, with a quick glance up front to where Professor Snape was arranging his notes in preparation for class. Harry nodded politely, and she placed her hand in his and shook. He smiled. She blushed crimson. She was definitely a fan, though a far-better mannered one than Weasley.

A slam of a book on a desk made the entire class jump. "I will have quiet at the start of class for roll call." His voice was quiet and deep, and yet his drawl was heard by each student as though the professor were standing right next to them. Many seemed afraid to even breath too loudly, and Harry was annoyed to find he was among them. He didn't respect the man's authority, but that didn't mean he wanted to call down the man's wrath upon himself.

As Professor Snape progressed through the attendance sheet, he favored his Slytherins with a stoic nod and the Gryffindors with glares and the occasional sneer.

When he came to Harry's name, he smirked. "Ah, yes—Harry Potter, our new celebrity." Contempt was evident in every syllable. "Causing trouble before he even steps from the train at Hogsmeade, tut, tut."

Harry glared heatedly at Snape amidst snickers from most of the Slytherins. Professor Dumbledore had said that he was resentful of the "position he had been forced into," whatever that meant. Clearly, Cedric was the one telling the truth; Professor Snape enjoyed taking it out on his students—those outside of his house, of course.

He moved on, ignoring the occasional snicker coming from Draco Malfoy—further evidence of favoritism, given that Snape was berating Neville Longbottom for 'breathing too loudly'. Harry's eyes narrowed; wasn't the Slytherin house regarded for its cunning? Malfoy was nothing more than a spoiled brat. He wasn't cunning; he wasn't ambitious. He had a well-connected father, and was content to be the miserable excuse for a child that he was. Forget what Dumbledore said—Malfoy needed to be disciplined, and if he himself had to do it, it would get done.

Professor Snape finished taking roll, and his eyes rose from the paper to scan each student for any hint that they were paying him less than their full attention. After a moment, he spoke.

"You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion brewing." He spoke in barely above a whisper, but they caught every word—anyone stupid enough to talk while Snape was speaking took his life in his own hands. "As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe Potions worth the effort. I don't expect you will ever understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that crawl through human veins, ensnaring the mind, bewitching the senses. I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death—that is, if you aren't as big a bunch of oafs and morons as I usually have to teach."

Harry rolled his eyes; it was clearly a speech often practiced.

Several students had become so focused on his speech that they nearly fell off their stools when the professor barked, "Potter! What are the differences between Monkshood and Wolfsbane?"

Harry smirked. This was right out of the introduction to Magical Drafts and Potions. "They're the same plant, sir," he said. Professor Snape's eyes narrowed.

"And where do you suppose I should look for a bezoar, Mr. Potter?" His voice became even quieter.

"In the stomach of a goat, sir." —with a hint of a sneer of his own.

Professor Snape's jaw tightened in barely suppressed rage. "What results when you, Mr. Potter, add powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?"

Harry was smirking openly now. Snape had chosen three things from the first ten pages of the book. "The Draught of Living Dea—"

"Wrong!" Snape barked, and this time, every student in the class jumped, even Draco Malfoy. "You, Mr. Potter, will get an unrecognizable concoction that undoubtedly will blow up in your face the second the root touches the infusion! And can anyone tell me why Mr. Potter will inevitably fail in such a spectacular manner?"

Not a single student moved even an inch. He sneered directly at Harry and said, "Mr. Potter is yet to even touch a single stirring rod, does not know the difference between a brass and pewter cauldron, and cannot even fathom the difference between stirring clockwise or counterclockwise—or do you, Mr. Potter? I wonder how you would fare if I made you brew the Draught."

Harry smoldered in rage, but through some miracle, managed to keep his face the familiar blank slate he had acquired under the tender mercies of his relatives. Seeing he wasn't going to answer, Professor Snape snorted gently and turned back to his desk. He grabbed his wand and pointed it at the board, where a set of notes suddenly appeared.

"As Potter has so aptly demonstrated, arrogance and false confidence by themselves are as much dangers as ignorance and incompetence are. Today, you will learn the first of many of these distinctions and will hopefully come to understand the true depth of complexity involved in potions brewing. Any fool can memorize answers in a book—" He threw a not-so-subtle glare towards Harry, which Harry was sure everyone in the class had noticed. "—but few can back up their talk with actual skill."

What followed thereafter was a tediously irritating double block of lecture, interspersed with scathing comments directed entirely towards the Gryffindor students—Harry in particular. As it was, by the end of the hour, Harry was filled with fury to the point he couldn't believe his magic hadn't lashed out wildly. He had lost over twenty points to Gryffindor by himself, and it was a round fifty when he counted the loss of points to the rest of his house. The moment they were dismissed, he threw his things in his bag, nodded at Parvati, and practically dove out of the classroom without a glance back.

Thankfully, the rest of his classes were far less trying. Potions wasn't the only double block the Gryffindors shared with the Slytherins, although in Defense Against the Dark Arts, anything the Slytherins did to irritate could be answered back in kind without Professor Snape's too-sharp eye. By the time the Gryffindors and Slytherins matched up for flying lessons, Madam Hooch, the flying instructor, seemed well-versed with regard to the friction between the two houses, and watched with her hawk-like gaze to make sure hardly a word was exchanged between the rival houses. Despite a tense moment between Neville Longbottom and Draco Malfoy, the flying lesson went off without a hitch.

Charms with the Ravenclaws and Herbology with the Hufflepuffs were noticeably less stressful and contentious, although the tiny Professor Flitwick squeaked and fell off his chair when he read Harry's name. That caused Harry no small amount of irritation; he had to know that Harry would be there, so why was he so surprised?

Transfiguration with Professor McGonagall proved to be one of the few without any friction between rival houses, although it might have helped that Gryffindor had the class alone. She proved to be as strict as Harry had expected her to be, although unlike Professor Snape, she strove to maintain a fair and balanced work environment. By the end of the first class, he had not only transfigured his matchstick into a needle, but Professor McGonagall let him work ahead, and he had transfigured a beetle not only into a button, but into a needle, as well. For the latter, he was awarded twenty points and was excused from homework that day.

The first week of classes practically flew by, regardless of the troubles Harry continued to have with the Potions professor. By Friday at lunch, Harry had checked out, even before the inevitably dull History of Magic lesson. His mind was not on the coming nap-time, but split between the weekend to come, the ketchup-covered meat loaf on his plate, and the last few pages of the book before him (Beginner Spell Identification by T. Whassit).

"Harry," said Hermione, as she sat down across from him at the table.

"Yeah?" he asked, not bothering to look up.

"What are you reading?"

He flashed her the cover and then went back to reading.

"How come?" she asked, as she pulled food onto her own plate.

"It's important to know," said Harry, who was starting to feel distinctly irritated.

"And that's a library book. How come I never see you there? You're always reading—"

He sighed and closed the book. He couldn't concentrate with her questions, and the book was wrapping up with some fairly complicated stuff. "Because," he said, trying not to be short with the girl who had been nothing but friendly to him, "I can't eat in the library, and I can't always be there. Ergo, I check the books out and keep them with me, so at times like these I can keep reading."

"I don't mean it like that," she said, hastily backtracking in between sips of soup. "What I mean is—why don't you ever come and study in there after classes are over? There are a lot of studious people around there. They're great resources, especially if you like to read. This one boy, Quinn Dillard—he's a sixth-year Ravenclaw—recommended me some fantastic books that are really well-written."

She seemed determined to frustrate him. "I don't read for enjoyment," said Harry. "I don't even enjoy reading much. I only read because this—" He shook the book in his hand for emphasis. "—contains what I need to know."

Hermione opened her mouth and then shut it. She opened it again and shut it once more.

"Are you astounded at the fact that I don't enjoy reading? Am I understanding you correctly?"

She nodded her head, and to her credit, she reddened a bit.

"Don't be so surprised," said Harry. "Not everyone enjoys reading like you. There are even smart people who don't enjoy it—hell, I'm case in point. I have a problem I have to solve, that's all."

"What *do* you enjoy, then?" she asked, once she'd gotten her embarrassment under control.

Harry smirked. "Solving problems."

"That's not a very..."

"Not a fun hobby? Or not a common one?" asked Harry. "What else would you propose?"

"I don't know—Gobstones? That Queer-ditch game that Ronald's always going on about?"

Harry couldn't help it—he laughed. "Quidditch, Hermione. Even I know that, and I happen to find organized sport the most boring thing on the face of the planet."

She leaned forward. "Why's that, then?"

Harry gave her a look of incredulity. "Come on," he said. "You can't tell me that running around mindlessly for an hour or two is particularly fun. Weasley's always going on about 'the glory', but I can think of better things I'd want to be known for—"

A loud commotion seemed to be going on on either side of him, but he did his best to ignore it. However, when a bread roll zoomed into his field of vision, Harry reached out and grabbed it reflexively. He blinked as the commotion stopped, and looked around to see several older students staring at him with their eyebrows raised, including the infamous Weasley twins.

"Blimey! Did you see that?" asked one of the Weasley twins.

"Yes, brother mine. The kid's got some nice reflexes for an ickle Firstie."

"It's talent, for sure," said the first. "I bet he could make Seeker, with those reactions, or at very least a healthy reserve like Katie."

"I wouldn't bet against you. Too bad he's just a Firstie, though."

"Too true. Still, we ought to tell Wood to keep an eye on him, oughtn't we?"

"I do believe you're right!" And with that, the two disappeared down the table.

Harry blinked several times. "What just happened?" he asked Hermione.

"With those two, it's hard to know," she replied. "If I had to guess, though, I'd say—"

"Harry!" said one of the twins, who had returned and was standing behind him. Harry jumped.

"Dear chum of ours—" said the other.

"—bosom buddy—"

"—honored compatriot and future teammate—"

"—might we present to you one of the most smashing gents in Gryffindor—"

"—one Mr. Oliver Wood?"

Harry turned around. There, looking rather unpleasant at having been dragged away from dinner, was an burly, older boy—maybe fifteen or sixteen. He was staring incredulously at one of the Weasley twins. "What on earth is your problem?" he asked.

"Oh, it's no problem at all," said the one he wasn't looking at, with a large grin plastered on his face. "Always a pleasure to be of service to Mr. Potter and Gryffindor, aren't we, Fred?"

"Of course we are. Fred, I say, do you not remember being an ickle Firstie, young and innocent, new to this wonderful school? It is our privilege—nay, duty!—to assist those who still tread with tiny feet along this well-worn path."

George nodded solemnly. "Ollie, Potter here wants to try out this weekend."

Harry looked down, flushing with embarrassment and anger. It wasn't just his own part of the table that had hushed, but the entire table. For that matter, most of the hall seemed to be looking at Harry.

"If Potter wants to, he's more than welcome." The older boy turned to look directly at Harry, giving him a short nod. "Don't feel pressured if these two are having you on, but if you've got any semblance of talent, come out to the pitch at nine, tomorrow morning. Talk to Madam Hooch about getting a school broom. Don't be late." Wood pulled away from the twins and walked back to his lunch.

Harry was livid.

"No need to thank us, ickle Harrikins," said Fred, ignoring Harry's glare, as the twins settled back in at the table themselves. "And nice catch on that bun, by the way. I was trying to hit Ron. Tell him he's got a glob of chocolate pudding on his collar, would you?"

Ron was watching, obviously. He licked the pudding off, and flashed a thumbs-up at the twins.

Harry sat there in silence with his head in his hands. After a moment, he looked up at Hermione, who looked concerned. "If you were me, what would you do?"

"Besides trying to drown myself in the lake? I'd probably try to forget that the whole school's going to turn up to watch my try-out."

Harry nodded. "I think that's what I'll do, then." He shoved his fork forcefully into his mashed potatoes. "If you'll excuse me, I'll be talking to Madame Hooch. If I'm not in History of Magic, it's because I've taken a swim." He stood up, tucked his book in his bag, and left the table.

"Harry—" came Hermione's voice from behind him.

"I'm just joking, Hermione," said Harry.

"Join me in the library after the try-out?"

"—I probably wouldn't drown myself. I'll throw myself off the astronomy tower, instead."

He stalked out of the Great Hall, wondering which of the twins actually was Fred, and which was George.

It was still dark when Harry awoke, and a light drizzle was spattering against the windows. Scowling, he dressed quickly, though he was unsure what exactly one wore to play Quidditch. His knowledge of the game was based exclusively on what he had heard students discussing over the dinner table, augmented with a scan of Ron's book on the sport that the boy had been only too pleased to provide. "Right then," he grumbled. "let's get this over with."

After a quick breakfast, Harry made his way out to the Quidditch pitch, and arrived a few minutes before nine. Despite the fact that he was early, Hermione's estimate of 'the whole school' looked to be a bit off: there were a score of students standing around, mostly in small groups, trying to keep warm and dry in the miserable weather, but they all held brooms. One after another, the team itself arrived, and clustered together in their own small group. Around the captain stood the two Weasley twins, as well as two girls—Angelina, he recognized; the other he was pretty sure was Somebody Spinner (though he was admittedly bad at names).

Fighting back a slight shiver, Harry trudged forward. Try as he did, he couldn't remove the scowl from his own face—a combination of the weather, his unsettled stomach, and his forced appearance.

"Someone's in a good mood this morning," came a voice from behind. Spinning quickly, he came face to face with a girl whose blond hair stuck limply to her face in the rain.

"Bell, isn't it?"

She nodded. "Katie."

"Mmm," Harry responded, turning away and looking back towards the pitch. "I've seen you in the common room."

Out the corner of his eye, he saw her frown.

"Don't rush to introduce yourself," she said snarkily, and turned around. "You sure are titchy in the morning."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Like you don't know who I am. And anyway, you'd be in a pissy mood too if you'd only been on a broom once in your life, and you'd suddenly been dragged out in the rain to make an idiot of yourself in front of everyone."

"Right, I know nothing of it," she replied. "How would you feel if you had not only flown on a broom, proven yourself—ended up playing in two of the three games last year, for that matter—and then were the only person forced to try-out again, because you were technically a reserve player—" She paused. "—and had to do it in the rain."

"Well, life's just terrible for you, isn't it?"

"Ain't yours awful?"

"I'm so sorry for you, princess."

"I think I'd hex myself if I were you."

For a moment, neither spoke. Then Harry turned around. "Hi. I'm Harry Potter. Pleased to meet you."

Katie's look of defiance disappeared, first into confusion, then dissolved in a smirk. "Katie Bell, and likewise delighted."

It wasn't until he heard Oliver Wood shouting his name that he turned back around, torn from his conversation with the delightfully misanthropic Katie Bell. He grinned at the look of annoyance on Wood's face. "Off we go then," he whispered to Katie. "Wouldn't want to upset our dear captain, would we?"

"Absolutely not."

Oliver Wood just kept scowling.

The try-outs were a bore. With only two open positions, the first hour was spent watching all the newcomers flying on brooms, followed by specific tryouts for the final Chaser position. It was clear to Harry, at the very least, that Katie was by far the best choice: she was the fastest, even though she was not riding the newest broom; she had remarkable positional awareness; and most of all, she both knew the other two girls and had trained in such miserable conditions before. If she didn't make the team, it was to the shame of Oliver Wood alone.

Shivering, Harry let out a harsh breath of relief when Oliver Wood announced that all Seeker candidates were come forward.

"Right then," said the burly boy. "Here's how we're going to do this—oh, for the love of Merlin... Potter, you're shivering."

"Really?" said Harry, through his chattering teeth. "I hadn't n-noticed."

"Why aren't you wearing Heating and Water-Repelling Charms?"

"Do they teach those in the first week? I might have missed it—"

"Don't be a smartass, Potter. Hold still." Wood turned to Angelina. "Fer fuck's sake, Angie. I thought you were handling this shit. If McGonagall finds out we had a Firstie out here like this, we'll have detention for a month. Get him covered."

Immediately, Angelina came forward and gave him an awkward apology, before pulling out her wand and tapping his robes. In a trice, Harry felt much better—his clothes were dry and warm, and already he could see beads of water running down the cloak, as opposed to soaking through it.

"Thanks," he mumbled. Angelina just gave him an apologetic smile.

Still scowling, Oliver continued. "Right, so there's seven of you. Fred released two Golden Snitches a few minutes ago. The two who catch them go on to a final sudden-death. Whoever wins that is our new Seeker. Those two—" he jerked his head towards the twins, "—will be up there with the training Bludgers, while me and the girls will be watching how you do. Any questions?"

Nobody had any.

"Righto. Ten seconds." Quickly, the assembled group assembled their brooms. "On my mark. Get set... Go!"

It was three hours later that a soaking-wet Harry entered the Library. Angelina's repelling charm had only done so much good, and Dean Fucking Thomas had left the dorm windows open when he got up that the morning, and it had rained all over Harry's trunk. That left exactly zero pairs of dry clothing for Harry, and though he could have sought out an older student to do the same thing that Angelina had done that morning, he was inclined to punch any on sight, considering Wood had kept them in the rain for a first practice.

"Harry?" asked Hermione from behind him.

It was only because he was so tired that he didn't jump ten feet. "'lo, Hermione," he replied sleepily, as he began to wander through the stacks for the book he was looking for.

She said nothing for a while, letting him wander. "Why did you do it?" she asked at last, hesitantly.

"Sorry? Do what, exactly?" Harry asked, at a loss. "I was just looking for the incantation for a drying spell."

"Not that. The Quidditch. You were furious when those two prats pushed you into it, it was clear on your face. Why did you do it? Why didn't you say no?"

Harry stared at her for a second. "Because..." he responded slowly, searching for a reason. "Because saying 'no' would have been a very dumb thing to do, clearly."

"What do you mean, a dumb thing?" she whispered, looking nervously in the direction of Madam Pince's desk. "You know what I think is dumb? Going out in the freezing cold and making a fool of yourself, when you clearly didn't have to."

"Well, thanks for the vote of confidence. With friends like you..."

He sighed and leaned gently up against one of the stacks. "Jokes aside, we are both first years. I don't know who's got clout in this place, but I don't want to do anything other than suggested until I know. Not playing Quidditch? You hear them at meals—they can't stop talking about the bloody game. Good way to get myself on the wrong team.

"Also, there's only so much you can learn from books, Granger. Nothing quite like throwing yourself into the culture to get a taste for it."

"Is that what school is about for you, then? Politics? Learning who you have to suck up to?"

"No," said Harry, as he bit back a sharp retort. "School is just a nice little vacation before the assassination attempts start."

Hermione's jaw dropped. "You can't be serious."

"You think I'm joking? At least when I was at the Dursleys—my relatives," he explained, having spotted her raised eyebrow, "—I knew who was trying to kill me, and they didn't hide for me. Not that I don't thank God—or Merlin, or Dumbledore, or whoever it is that people around here thank—that I'm never going back there, but at least I had predictability there. Here, my name is the rallying cry of a whole world. You can't tell me that someone, somewhere, is not going to try and off me. I'm too high-visibility to pass up."

"That's terrible!" she said.

"But not wrong," snapped Harry. "I intend to be able to protect myself."

"And how do you intend to do that?" she asked, with a severe look on her face. "You can't do magic outside of school until you're seventeen; everyone knows that."

Harry grinned at her. "I told you I liked solving problems."

That shut her up for a few minutes.

By the time she next spoke, Harry had found the book he was searching for, scanned through it, had dried himself off, and had found the second book he was looking for. Surprisingly, her face had twisted from consternation halfway to curiosity. "So you're really going to try and break the Ministry's tracking spell on your wand, then?"

"Nope," said Harry. She frowned. "I am going to break it. You interested in helping? I need a partner."

"Why?" she asked.

"Well, if it's on my wand, like I guess, I can hardly cast spells on it, can I?"

"So you want me to help you break the law?"

"Nope," he said, as he led her out of the stacks, off to a more deserted corner of the library.

"Is this another one of those vague 'I'm-saying-no-but-meaning-yes' answers?"

"No," said Harry, and he turned around from the book to look at her. "You don't have to help if you don't want. I can ask... well, I don't know who I can ask. Katie, maybe. But that's beside the point. What we're doing isn't going to land us in jail."

She crossed her arms. "Forgive me if I'm a little slow to believe you..."

"It's not," said Harry, and he held up a hand to show his honesty. "Third book I read was Recent Developments in Underage Magic Law—I can even show you where it is if you'd like. It had a summary of all the legislation. It's illegal to cast magic during the summer unless it's in self-defense or unless you're home-schooled. Also, it's illegal to remove the Trace from one's wand."

"What I'm hearing is that you're asking me to break the law."

"Nope. I'm not asking you to cast at all during the summer."

"Well, surely you're breaking the law, then. What do you plan to do if you remove the trace?"

"Nothing but defend myself," said Harry evasively.

"Okay, fine," said Hermione impatiently. "I'll believe that for now. How do you plan to get around the law against removing the Trace from your wand."

Harry's grin grew threefold. "I didn't say I was going to remove the Trace from my wand."

"What?" said Hermione, confusedly. "That's what we've been talking about the whole time—!"

"Nope," said Harry, still grinning. "All I said was that I needed a partner."

She opened her mouth to say something, and then closed it. Finally, she shook her head. "No," she said. "I still don't get the catch. Sorry."

"It's illegal to remove the Trace off of one's own wand. It's not illegal for me to remove the trace off of your wand—"

"That's going against the spirit of the law, and you know it," grumbled Hermione.

"I'd argue that if the majority of the population it affects doesn't like the law in the first place, it's a stupid law anyway. Anyway, they should have written it clearer."

Hermione flopped down in a chair. "I think you need to go to McGonagall about this. Even Dumbledore."

"No!" Harry said vehemently. "McGonagall, no. Dumbledore—especially not. You don't get it, Hermione," he said. He looked around to see if there was anyone else listening in. "I'm trusting you a lot here, so you have to promise to keep all of this a secret. I need this because my relatives—"

Her head perked up. "Yeah?"

Harry was biting his lip. "My relatives beat me, all right? Even an hour before I got on the train, my uncle was clouting across the head. My cousin's favorite game is 'Harry Hunting'. My aunt once hit me with a hot frying pan when I burnt the bacon for breakfast." He paused for a second, and then suddenly blurted, "But you have to promise to keep this all a secret! I can't have people knowing what they do to me—!"

Hermione's mouth was wide open. "They don't! Harry, you have to tell Dumbledore about this! They can't get away with that—it's child abuse!"

Harry smirked bitterly. "Oh, I told Dumbledore," he said. "First day that I arrived? Remember when Professor Snape grabbed me? He took me to the Headmaster's office. I asked him if I had to go back there. I asked him if I could go someone's house or stay at Hogwarts over the summer. Hell, I would have offered to go to an orphanage if it meant I was away from them."

"And he said that you could, right?"

"You're so naive, Hermione," said Harry. "Of course not. He told me I was protected from Voldemort there, so I had to go back."

"Well, that's important, too—"

"Yeah, but who cares about Voldemort attacking from the outside when I could just as easily get killed inside?"

Hermione didn't say anything for a minute. She ran a hand over her face and squeezed the bridge of her nose. She let out a big sigh. She looked up at Harry. "This is against my better judgment, but if you promise to me you're only going to use your magic for self-defense, I'm in."

"You have my word that when we succeed in removing the Trace, I will only use my wand in self-defense," said Harry.

"This is going to be difficult, you realize," she said.

"Extremely. I hope you like reading books and solving problems."

Suddenly, Hermione seemed a bit more optimistic about the project. "There's just one thing, Harry. I have a little demand of my own to make—"

Harry was suddenly on his guard. "What's that?"

"You have to join the Charms club with me."

Harry let out a deep sigh. "Sounds fine to me," he said. "Lonely there?"

She nodded. "It's all fourth years and above, and they're doing really fantastic Charms work, but it's all a bit beyond me, I'm afraid. Maybe if you come—"

"Maybe they'll start doing some easier charms. Sure. Sounds good to me."

She smiled, but it suddenly faded into anger. "I can't believe that Professor Dumbledore would make you go back there—"

Harry snorted. "It was worse than that. He didn't even believe me."

Hermione gasped. "He didn't?!"

"Nope. Shows how much you can trust authority in this place, doesn't it? Between him and Professor Snape—"

Hermione looked a little dazed. "I don't even know what to believe any more," she said. "If it weren't for Professor McGonagall, I don't know who I'd trust."

Harry smiled at her. "Hey—what am I? Eye of Newt, or something?"

She smiled at him. "Well, yeah. I can trust you, I guess. I just—I can't—the adults f—" She trailed off incoherently. Harry let her babble. Better that she got it out of her system. He had another part to get ready.

After he was sure that he had the incantation down perfectly, he turned to her. "Do you want to do the first part today, or do you want to save it for later?"

She hopped up, eagerness written all over her face. "What do we do?"

"I did a bit of reading about the Trace," said Harry, and he held up the book beside him. "It's a proprietary spell. We can't know what makes it tick without reverse-engineering it. Unfortunately, it's also got a Tamper-Proof Charm on it that sets off an alert in the Ministry of Magic if someone trips it."

"So how do you intend to get around it?" asked Hermione.

"That should be fairly easy in method and quite difficult in execution," said Harry. "All we have to do is see how the spell looks, figure out which part of the Trace the Tamper-Proof Charm is tied to, and figure out how to remove it. After that, it should be smooth-sailing."

"I get the feeling that there are some things you're not telling me," said Hermione.

"I'm... skipping over some of the lengthier bits in the interest of time," said Harry. "I've been reading on it since the first day here. I know quite a bit about it already."

"So what is it that you're not telling me?"

"We can't actually cast magic on it without setting off the Tamper-Proof alarm."

"That makes things a bit more difficult."

"Not really," said Harry. A hint of a smile was playing on his face. "We can't cast Diagnostics or Revealers on the wand to view the spell. However," he said, and he smiled genuinely at the thought, "we can cast spells on our eyes."

Hermione lit up. "Brilliant," she said, "and so simple! I wish I'd thought of it first. I know exactly where to find that sort of book, too—"

"Hermione," interrupted Harry. "I have the book. I know the incantation."

She looked fit to burst. "Do you think you can do it?" she asked.

"Already have twice," said Harry. "It's really easy. Only catch is that you have to keep your eyes really tightly closed when you first do it, because it shows all the magic as light, and it nearly blinded me when I tried it at first."

"Okay," she said. "How do I cast it?"

"The incantation is Venefilux Ostende," said Harry, "and the wand motion is a sharp jabbing toward the eye you want to cast it on."

She did it for both eyes, and opened them again. "Ahh!" she shouted, and fell backward into her chair. "You weren't kidding!" she said.

"Nope," said Harry, who felt slightly better now that he wasn't the only one who'd nearly burned his eyes the first time. "I did warn you. This place lights up with that spell."

Slowly, after a few minutes, she was able to get her eyes open. "It's like standing outside on a snowy day," she explained. "I feel like the sun's bouncing off the snow and stabbing my eyes."

"Apt," said Harry. "I've had one on the left lens of my glasses since Friday. Not as hard to get used to when you're seeing it all the time, but it does tend to disorient you at first."

"Wait," she said. "If you could cast it already, why didn't you go ahead...?"

"Couldn't," said Harry. "I need you to keep up, since we'll be doing this together. Also, I really need someone else to make sure I'm seeing things right."

"Okay," she said. "What are we supposed to be looking at?"

"Either of our wands," said Harry. He put his on the small table between them. Like the room around them, the wand was glowing, but the wand's glow was not a pulsing white but a mix of pastel tones—the wand itself glowed red, but there were was a pulsating blue beam wrapping around the cross-section, under and over which a bundle of small green threads ran, interconnected to strange darker-green sigils.

"Fascinating," said Hermione, and she leaned in closer to look at it.

"Now, the red glow, as far as I can figure it out, is the natural magic of the wand. That's normal; we don't have to worry about it. The little green writing? Those are Runes. The book on detection said that those appear in every spell. They're connected by Strokes, which do different things depending on how they're drawn and which Runes they connect. Understanding how they all work and interrelate is the majority of the work we're going to have to do, once we figure out how to get the blue band off—"

"—which is the Tamper-Proof Charm. It's wrapped up in the Strokes. That's going to make it harder, isn't it?"

"Yes," said Harry. "Truth be told, I have no idea how we're going to do it. This thing is a real piece of beauty. I looked at some other things—the plates in the Great Hall, for one—and they're not nearly as complex as this."

"I wonder how they get it off when you turn seventeen, then?'

"I don't imagine they have much compunction about setting off the alarms when they're removing it."

"So that's it, then? Figure out how to get the blue band off?"

"Initially, yes. If you're going to start reading, take this—" He handed over Beginner Spell Identification to her. "—and then we'll progress to reading about spell creation. That's where we'll find our answer, I think," he said.

"Harry, surely you don't think that a Ministry-authorized charm can be disabled with a book for... well, beginners, do you?"

"Well, no—not entirely," he said with a grin, "but it's a start—a good start. And we have all year. As long as we stay on track, we can do this. We have to."

Hermione nodded, staring into space for a second. There were a few moments of companionable silence between them. Harry was pleased with their progress; all it had taken was a judicious selection of facts, and he had the first two steps of his goal accomplished. He knew that he wasn't giving Hermione a bum deal, either: her wand, too, would have the Trace removed from it, and she would undoubtedly enjoy the process as much as he did.

"I didn't ask," she said, after a bit. "How did the try-outs go?"

He smirked. "I made the team. It wasn't intention," he said, and laughed at the memory, "but the competition was such a bunch of prats that I couldn't stand to wait around. Wood released two Snitches, right?—that's a little golden ball that flies away from the players—and we were supposed to catch one. After twenty minutes, I stopped letting them chase the second one. Had it within two minutes."

She laughed. "Must have upset a few people there."

He grinned. "Well, they'll forgive me when I'm winning the House Cup for them, even if it means I have to show up to bloody practices and games."

"Well, I'm happy for you, Harry, if this is what you want. So... how do you feel about Charms? I've already read up on next week's assignment, and it's most fascinating..."

The next week passed by in a flurry of reading and magic. The following Monday however, he was interrupted at breakfast by a rather amused Katie, who shoved herself between Ron and Harry, and smacked down a newspaper on the table. She gave Harry a look that was a rather interesting mixture of amusement and pity.

"I'd stay away from Wood today," she said, without preamble. "He can't seem to make up his mind whether to come over here and kiss you, or throw you off the team." Ignoring Harry's look, she continued. "Oh, he'll be fine by this evening for practice, but you'd do well to avoid him for the time being." Ron pouted as Katie knocked her elbow into him again, firmly sitting herself next to Harry. "Go on, then, read it."

Harry turned his eyes towards the newspaper, The Daily Prophet. It was his first glimpse at a wizarding paper, and was by all means rather unexceptional—that was, if one ignored the moving picture on the front cover. Of himself.

"Oh, bloody hell." he whispered.

Harry Potter — Wartime Hero or Quidditch Star?Skeeter: Boy-Who-Lived a Boy of Many Talents — Page 4

Sources confirmed over the weekend that Harry Potter, known throughout the world as the savior of wizarding Britain, has made his house (Gryffindor — for list of other notable Gryffindor alumni, see page four) team this week, becoming the youngest player in Hogwarts league in thirty years, and the youngest Seeker in over a century.

"Surely, surely, they have more important things to talk about," Harry said, with a sort of horrified awe.

"Read on," Katie said with a smirk. "It gets better."

Of course, this in itself is hardly newsworthy. James Potter was in his own day a Chaser for the Gryffindor team, and Celeste Towning, James Potter's maternal grandmother, was the first female Keeper for Hufflepuff. Cecil Humphrey-McMillian, James Potter's uncle, played professionally for twelve years, making the English squad for three consecutive years.

However, this reporter discovered on Sunday morning, that Pegasus Brooms, a branch of Hermes International, has agreed to supply Hogwarts with no less than two dozen and four state-of-the-art brooms. As a public release by the company states: 'We are committed to excellence in flying, and only by guaranteeing that the children of Britain fly the most up-to-date brooms can we continue to excel at such a historic part of our culture. Claims that we originally intended to provide only [Gryffindor House] with these brooms are utterly baseless, and will not stand up to true investigative reporting.'

Whether through good will, or, as this writer suspects, the direct intervention of Harry Potter against such selfish favoritism, all students at Hogwarts can look forward to a year of high flying.

"Harry, that's incredible," came Ron's voice across Harry's shoulder. "Way to go, mate, getting us these brooms. A real chap you are."

"Don't be daft," Harry said, angrily. "I didn't even know about this until she told me about it." At Ron's crestfallen expression, Harry backtracked. "But, of course, had I known, I would have made sure everyone got brooms, not just me." That seemed to perk Ron up, who nodded, and stared angrily at Katie for a few moments before going back to his new position to finish his breakfast.

As the day progressed, Harry realized that Ron was not such a fool after all. Student after student, including a large number of upper years, and even a respectable amount of Slytherins, stopped him in the halls to thank him for his efforts. By the end of the hour, Harry felt no compulsion to correct their interpretation, and by the end of the day, he was more than willing to take credit for himself. Who was he to refuse it if they wanted to convey their gratitude to him?



Days turned into weeks, and soon, a month had passed. Classes were more and more frequently interspersed with Quidditch practices, until it reached a boiling point and they were practicing nearly every day—whenever Wood could schedule the Quidditch pitch, in fact. When he couldn't, he'd gather the team up in the Gryffindor common room and go over plays again and again until Harry was practically dropping off to sleep. That stopped as soon as Katie, unsurprisingly, yelled at Wood for keeping them all up so late, but especially for keeping Harry, a first year, up past ten o'clock.

Harry and Hermione had kept working in the library, and had made some progress, though a great deal was eluding them. They understood the basics of how the Strokes and the Runes interacted (even if they didn't understand the Runes), and they certainly understood a lot better what the challenge before them was. The fact that the Tamper-Proof Charm was wrapped around the Strokes meant that they would have to reroute some of the Strokes to be able to disable it. The problem with that was that any attempt to reroute a Stroke would set it off. It was a conundrum that they couldn't find away around—that was, until Hermione suggested finding a way to disrupt the charm's ability to report to the Ministry. They had a rough idea how to do that—a containment ward—thanks to a book on curse-breaking, but they could not find how to cast the ward. All the books in the library that described it didn't go into enough detail.

Their plans were set back somewhat, though, by the approaching Quidditch match. Harry was looking forward to it, mostly because it spelled an end to Quidditch until after the Christmas break, and because that meant no more practices in sub-zero weather.

After the last practice before the match, Wood took Harry aside. "Harry, I'm not going to lie to you," he said. "You're the youngest Quidditch player in decades, here at Hogwarts, and what's more, you're the Seeker, the most targeted position—"

"I know—"

"—Those Chasers they have aren't anywhere near a match for our girls, so they know that the only chance they have to win is to knock you out of the sky. Fred and George are good, but they're still young, and Yaxley and Durnought are seventh years with twice as much experience. They'll be aiming to take your head off from the first whistle—"

"I know—"

"—Your best bet will be catching that snitch as soon as possible—"


"—In fact, the longer you take, the greater the chance they'll have to knock you off your broom, Harry. You're small, I'll grant you, so you've got an advantage, but I don't want to give them the chance. So you catch that snitch as soon as you see it, do you understand?" Harry nodded and Wood let him go.

Harry scowled as the older boy walked into the locker room. "Just great. Well done, Harry, you've just volunteered to be the biggest target for overly competitive, moronic muscleheads. Hell, it should be just like primary school! You loved that, didn't you?"

Finally, after all the grueling training led by Oliver the Tyrant, after days and days of repetitive practices and reviewing countless plays (virtually none of which Harry had anything to do with, since the only thing he was supposed to do was catch the bloody snitch), the Quidditch season kicked off with the traditional Gryffindor-Slytherin match.

It was a nice day for a match, admittedly: there was none of the rain that they'd been practicing in, and the sun was clouded over. The entire school must have been out watching the match; Harry could even make out Headmaster Dumbledore sitting in between Professors McGonagall and Snape—probably to stop them from fighting or making wagers, he guessed. The game hadn't started, and already the crowd was quite warmed up and making a good deal of noise.

Meanwhile, on the pitch, Wood and Marcus Flint (the Slytherin captain) had shook hands, and Madame Hooch was getting ready to start the game. "I want a good, clean match, now," she said. Flint, the Slytherin captain, snarled at Wood, who glared back.

Hooch kicked open the trunk, and the two Bludgers and the tiny Snitch went belting away. With a great grunt, she hurled the Quaffle straight up, and the game was on. Flint beat out Angelina for the Quaffle, initially, and he elbowed her in the side for good measure. Dodging a Bludger sent his way by Fred, he tossed the ball to Montague, who—

The whistle blew. Montague came to a screeching halt. "For what?" he yelled at Hooch, who hadn't even mounted her broom, and was walking over to the empty case. "Game's over," she said simply.

"What?!" hollered everyone.

She gestured to Harry, who was standing near the center of the pitch. "He got the Snitch."

Harry held up his arm. Clutched between his fingers was a shiny ball with fluttering, golden wings, trying desperately to escape his grasp.


"And it appears there's been a stoppage in play," said Lee Jordan, the third-year commentator, over the magical PA system. "What's going on down there? Can't see too well—Madame Hooch's back is to us—"

Wood stared dumbstruck at the Golden Snitch. Flint was the first to recover.

"He must have cheated! He must have had a Snitch hidden in his pocket—"

"Potter, give me the Snitch," said Hooch. Harry handed it over to her. "No, Flint. The control number on this one is 'A453'—exactly the same as the one I put in the box this morning. Gryffindor wins, 150 to nil."

It took several minutes before Lee Jordan figured out what had happened. "Lads and lasses, if I'm hearing this right—and I truly hope I am!—Harry Potter has caught the Snitch in less than ten seconds of game play! That makes this the shortest game in Hogwarts history!"

Katie dismounted beside Harry. "Didn't even see you catch it," she said to Harry, yelling to make herself heard above the noise of the crowd.

"I don't think anyone did," he shouted. "I mean, she let it out, and it hovered right under my nose for a full five seconds. The second she tossed the Quaffle, I just plucked it right out of the air."

"You could have let us have fun, too, you know," she said. "Some of us actually like the sport."

"Yeah, but none of you are as important as I am."

Upon his return to the common room, he had found that Fred and George had managed to smuggle a keg of Butterbeer into Gryffindor Tower. It was a warm, bubbly sort of drink that tickled the nostrils, and Harry quite enjoyed the taste of it, but as the celebration became more and more raucous, Harry found himself enjoying it less and less. His enjoyment of it dipped each time a pseudo-inebriated girl came up to hug him or give him a kiss on the cheek. After the eighth or ninth occurrence, he looked down at the Butterbeer in disgust. The stuff had virtually no kick to it, but it was certainly a convenient excuse to act poorly.

He put his Butterbeer down on one of the tables and moved off to the side of the room. "Hey," he said to Katie, who was standing there, watching the antics with a raised eyebrow. "You look like you're having fun."

"Absolutely," she said. "Did you enjoy having Patricia Stimpson grope you? She looked like she'd take you to bed with her."

"You'd better believe I did," he said. "After all, I'm eleven years old. Time's a-wasting; gotta start racking up notches on my bedpost."

That made her giggle. "Where on earth did you learn to talk like that? I mean, I've got older sisters—"

"What? You think I didn't know how this all worked?"

"No," said Katie. "I didn't think you knew."

"I went to a Muggle state-run primary, remember? Also, I did watch TV from time to time. I'm not dumb, at any rate."

Katie gave a small grunt. "Forgive me, O wise one."

"You're forgiven. Besides, you haven't been all over me, and that counts for a lot. Stimpson nearly threw up in my ear."

"Seriously?" she said, looking down at the Butterbeer in her hands. "This stuff has—"

"—nothing in it at all, I know. It's disgusting."

"Don't look now," said Katie, "but she's all over Wood, too."

"One more reason why I need a shower. Who knows where those hands have been—"

Katie snorted. "You want to get out of here?"

"Yeah," said Harry, and he grabbed her hand and dragged her toward the exit. "Hermione's in her dorm for the night, otherwise I'd be in the library right now."

Katie stopped. "You're always there. Doesn't reading ever get boring to you?"

"Never," lied Harry, who was intent to keep his real purpose in visiting the library a secret.

"To each their own, I suppose," she said, as they both stepped out past the Fat Lady. "Where do you want to go?"

"We could go visit Hagrid—"

"Do you really want to be around more people?" she asked. "That's the last thing—"

"—Yeah," said Harry, at the same time. "He sent me a note today. Said he wouldn't mind a chat about the game, or whatnot... Mentioned again that he knew my parents." At Katie's raised eyebrow, Harry shrugged. "What can I say? I'm a many-layered individual. When I'm not saving the world and setting sports records, I'm a lonely little boy yearning for the company of those who tell me I have my mum's eyes."

"You, Harry," Katie scoffed, "are many layers of utter shite. Let's just piss off for a while; Hagrid can mollycoddle you tomorrow on your own time. 'Sides, we've only got an hour until curfew. Let's just go find somewhere quiet."

"Whisking me away, are you? And here I thought you weren't quite the tart that Stimpson is—"

"Toss off, Potter."

"—Well, you have the mouth for it—"

Forty minutes later, the scowling pair re-entered the still rowdy common room. "Two detentions for 'being a nuisance' my arse. What's the All-House Commons for if it isn't for just lolling about?" Katie said with a growl.

"Bloody hell, woman. I'm not saying you're wrong—just that it was your bright idea to go there. You've been here a year; you'd think you'd know your way around by—"

"Ah, Bell! Harry! Smashing to see you both!" George Weasley exclaimed, which turned a few heads and started more than a few whispers at the sight of the two together.

"Brilliant." Harry sighed. Pasting on a smile reminiscent of those Vernon used to give the occasional visitor to Number Four, Harry turned back to George.

"Ah, my favorite Beater. I'm afraid all that Butterbeer has gone straight to my head, so I'm heading up to bed. Bell here, though—" Harry paused, jerking his head towards the girl in question. "—was just telling me how much she wanted to get back to the party."

Harry gave a big, fake yawn, and quickly climbed the stairs to his dorm room. He could feel Katie's furious stare boring into his back.

The next day, after the final class for the Gryffindor first years finished, Harry headed down the grounds to the stone hut where Hagrid lived. He begged off another session with Hermione, using the meeting between him and Hagrid as an excuse. In truth, Hermione was becoming overbearing. He hoped that a day away from the very serious student would restore some of his fraying nerves.

It was a clear day. A cool crisp wind was blowing across the lake; quite a few students were taking advantage of the afternoon light before winter struck. Harry made his way down to the hut, and knocked on the solid wood door three times. He was just about considering tapping on one of the windows when the door opened. He was blasted by a jet of hot air that escaped from the hut; it fogged his glasses. When they warmed enough and the fog faded, the familiar visage of a smiling Hagrid came into view.

"Good to see yeh, Harry. C'mon in, an' make yerself at home. Thought yeh'd be down here sooner, truth to tell, but I suppose yeh've been busy, eh?" The giant man moved away to fiddle with a roughly-wrought over-sized tea set. "Sugar? Milk?"

"Err—no sugar, a good splash of milk, please. I'm sorry about not coming earlier, sir. Don't think I'm ungrateful, but this whole world is so strange, and I feel like I've not even had a chance to sit down. I really do appreciate your invitation."

Hagrid turned back towards Harry. "No harm's done, is it, Harry? S'pose it must be a bit much to get used to it at first. Hard fer me to remember that yer like a Muggle-born when it boils down to it." Hagrid grumbled, and Harry thought he heard the man mutter something about the Dursleys. "Anyway, right shame it is, Harry, yeh being out of the loop this long. Still," he said, gesturing to one of two over-stuffed chairs, "you have a sit and tell me all about yer schoolin' so far. Saw your Quidditch match—right brilliant, tha'." Hagrid let out a great chuckle. "Shoulda seen the looks in the crowd. They went mad when they found out you'd ended the game before half the ruddy players were up proper. Just like yer dad, yeh were, there."

"My dad was a Chaser, though, wasn't he?" asked Harry, as he accepted the tea from Hagrid. "At least, that's what I've heard—"

"Yeah," said Hagrid, "tha's what he's known for, I'll give yeh. I also rem'ber him playin' Seeker one year, though. Gryffindor won the cup that year—fact, they won it all the years yer dad was on the team, if I'm not makin' it up. Him and tha' Sirius Black—now there was a fine Beater if ever there were one. Never would have though' he'd've gone so bad."

The name meant nothing to Harry, and he ignored it, instead letting his eyes wander around the hut, most of which revolved around a large stone chimney. A large fire was crackling away in it; above the fire, three great cast-iron cauldrons hung, from whence the smell of slightly overcooked meat came. A giant picture of a dragon flying sat over the mantle, while the rest of the walls were covered with oak shelves that held all sort of things that Harry could not even begin to identify. Sleeping on a worn rug was an enormous black dog; little flecks of spittle flew from its mouth every time it exhaled.

Following Harry's eyes, Hagrid spoke. "Ah, tha's Fang; don't mind him. A right ol' mutt he is. Wouldn't harm a fly, Fang wouldn't. Bloody useless for doin' anythin'," said Hagrid, "but he's a good friend. Makes yeh real happy when yeh're feelin' a bit down on yerself.'

Fang sleepily lifted his head and looked at Hagrid. "Here yeh go, you miserable thing," said Hagrid, and he tossed the dog a treat from one of his pockets. Fang dragged himself over to it, sniffed it once or twice, gobbled it down, and then fell asleep again on the floor.

"So how's school goin' fer yeh?" asked Hagrid. "Pretty good, by the sound of 'er. Perfessor McGonagall's always talkin' about how good yeh are at Transfiguratin'."

"She is, is she? Well, not much else to say, really. I'm enjoying all my classes, I guess, but most of them are really boring and slow-moving."

"Tha's 'cause yeh have brains in yer head, Harry. Yeh're a lot smarter than some, meself included. S'not a bad thing, mind."

"Anyway, Hermione—she's a girl in my year, Gryffindor as well—got me to join the Charms Club," said Harry. "I'm going to my first meeting in a couple of days, so I hope that will be little more... exciting, I guess. The rest's all brilliant, though. I love Hogwarts, and I love magic. What else?" Harry paused. The conversation—being forced to talk about himself, moreover—was quickly becoming uncomfortable. "Um... Quidditch is nice. I liked winning."

"Well, 'course it is, and 'course you did! Fun game, Quidditch. Never could play meself, though—never did fit on a broom. Your dad played, like I told yeh, though yer mum always held it against him." Hagrid let our a laugh. "I rem'ber plenty of days yer dad would be walkin' around the grounds with a Snitch, and Lily'd be shoutin' her head off at him for his 'damn silly tricks', and yer dad'd pretend to not notice." Hagrid smiled happily at his own memory. "Like two peas in a pod, I tell yeh, Harry, by the end of their time here. They were Head Boy and Girl here."

"Really?" asked Harry. "My dad doesn't really seem like the type, from what little I've heard..."

"Eh," said Hagrid, waving him off. "He was a li'l bit of a bully when he was younger, but once yer mum started payin' attention to him, he smartened up real quick. Heh. S'funny you mention that, Harry—I remember that yer dad used ter bully Perfessor Snape around a bit—"

"My dad knew Professor Snape?"

"Yeah, they were in the same year, I think. Anyway, they never got on too well, yeh know? Too much bad blood between them, or summat. But yer mum—she and the Perfessor used ter be real chummy. And when yer dad and yer mum hooked up, righ', yer dad started bein' real nice to Snape." Hagrid chuckled. "There was one week where the whole school was waitin' for it. Yer dad was a big trickster, eh, and Perfessor Snape was always his favorite target, righ'? An' it was April Fool's Day, righ', so the whole school was practically expectin' Snape—that's Perfessor Snape to yeh, by the way—to get it with both barrels, if'n yeh catch my meanin'."

"What happened?" asked Harry, as he leaned forward with interest.

"Hah! Well, they got it. Yer dad and his chums had set up some magic so that everyone who walked into the Great Hall had their face turn white and grow fangs, righ'. Everyone but Snape. He was t'only one untouched. Made him even madder than he normally was at yer dad."

"Huh," said Harry, who sat back. "Isn't that interesting."

"They never did get along, though. Didn't run in the same circles. Even back then, Gryffindor and Slytherin were as different as Kneazles and Krups. Hasn't he been tellin' you any stories?"

Harry scoffed. "Not likely. Doesn't do more than sneer and make snide comments my way. It's not like I've done anything to deserve it, either..." Harry looked down, eyes averted.

"Ah, don't yeh worry about it, Harry. He's probably just annoyed that Gryffindor's getting all the attention 'cause of yer sorting, and then what with the Quidditch game. An' yeh can be sure of one thing: Albus Dumbledore hired him, so he's got to be a good person. Just give him a chance."

"Sure," said Harry dismissively. The man had already wasted his chance, and second chances were too valuable to just hand out to every person who had a bad day. His eyes wandered the hut, in search of something to talk about, and just as soon as they started wandering, they found something. "Sir—"

"It's just Hagrid, Harry. Never did get that sir business."

"—Right then, Hagrid: that umbrella of yours—how does it work?"

Hagrid suddenly looked uncomfortable, and Harry rushed to continue, lest the giant clam up entirely. "Well, it's just that I remember you told me not to tell anyone—and I haven't and wont—but in History of Magic, we learned that the Ministry tracks all magic. I was just curious," Harry said, taking care to keep a straight face.

Hagrid regarded him warily. "Now, Harry, don't yeh be getting any ideas about doing magic outside of school. They make t'law fer a reason, yeh know." Hagrid stiffly poured himself himself another cup. "Don't yeh be worrying about such things."

A look of alarm flitted across Harry's face. It was replaced immediately by the calm, collected look that Harry had patented, but Harry counted himself lucky that Hagrid had missed it. What coincidence that Hagrid had happened across his plan... Clearly, his subtlety needed work. "No, I wouldn't... It's just..." He put on his best dejected expression, slumping his shoulders and keeping his eyes to the ground. "I just don't want to go back to the Muggles, and I really don't want to stop doing magic. I know we can't use our wands over the summer, but I thought, maybe if I can get a magic umbrella like Hagrid, I wouldn't fall behind over the summer. All the Slytherins are so far ahead already—Draco Malfoy always brags about how his father lets him use magic over break." This time, Harry didn't even have to lie—the ponce really didn't shut up about it.

Harry controlled his glee as Hagrid's expression changed from concerned to pitying. "Now, don't yeh worry about that either, Harry. Yeh're not gonna fall behind 'cause yeh're not making apples dance, or turning pins into quills for a few weeks—and the way I hear it, yeh're way ahead in lots of subjects. As for the Slytherins—well, don't mind them neither, rotten bunch that they are."

"Yes, Hagrid," said Harry dejectedly.

Hagrid hummed to himself for a few seconds, and then leaned forward. "Look, I'll only tell yeh 'cause I know yeh're a good kid, and even, only cause yeh are who yeh are, and the day Harry Potter goes dark, we migh' as well call it a day anyhow. Dumbledore did me a favor a few years back. Took the Trace clear off the bits of me wand. Friend of his put it together into the umbrella—beastly thing that it is. Not as good or precise as a real wand, mind, not by a long shot. But good enough, and better than I coulda hoped for. S'what I mean when I call Dumbledore a great man, Harry. He's always thinkin' o' other people. Don't you go getting yer wand snapped, though. S'not worth it."

"I won't," said Harry. "I promise. I... just love magic, that's all. It just makes me feel so good."

There was a long pause in which the both of them just sipped at their teas. The silence was companionable, but the conversation never really recovered. The sun was beginning to set when Harry made his excuses to leave.

"Right yeh are," said Hagrid, at Harry's observation that it was getting late. "Wouldn't want yeh getting in trouble fer being out past your bed time, especially not now. Ministry's in enough of a tizz over the robbery at Gringotts, that I dunno what they'd do if they heard Harry Potter was near the Forbidden Forest at night with a guy like me—likely have a heart attack from the Minister down," said Hagrid, chuckling.

"I hadn't heard of that," said Harry, as he pulled his robe on over his sweat-soaked shirt (the cabin was still sweltering, and Hagrid had kept the fire high). A robbery at Gringotts?" he asked, as he opened the door.

"Cor," said Hagrid, whose eyes widened as large as saucers. "Shouldn't've said that, I reckon." Frantically, he pulled Harry back into the hut, eyes flicking madly back and forth as if he expected the Ministry to show up any second. "Now, listen here, Harry. I wasn't supposed to tell you that. Only found out the secret from Dumbledore meself a few days back. Ministry doesn't want the story going public, so don't let on you know anything, not even to your mates. Please." Hagrid's tone was urgent, his eyes pleading.

"Of course, Hagrid," said Harry, with a shy smile. "We're friends right? Friends always help each other, and I wouldn't tell anyone a secret I was given to keep."

"Aye, Harry, we are. And friends keep secrets, they do." He gave Harry a smile so full of gratitude that even the ossified recesses of Harry's heart warmed slightly. "Yeh best be running along, now. And remember, you never heard what I never told yeh—that's best kept between Albus Dumbledore and Nicholas Flamel."

"Of course," said Harry. "See you soon, Hagrid?"

"'Course," said Hagrid. "Come down some time next week for tea again," he said, and closed the door with a little wave.

Harry's face broke out into a mad grin. That was a date he'd make any time if it turned out to be just as profitable information-wise.

He was so distracted by his own good fortune (and perhaps his own cleverness, just a bit) as he approached the school that he didn't notice the older girl running straight at him until it was too late. By then, his arms and limbs were tangled up with her, and he was falling and she was falling on top of him and OOF! the ground was hard.

"Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck!" she said, as she looked up toward the greenhouse. "I am so dead—Sprout's going to kill me if I'm late..."

"Ow," said Harry, from beneath her. From what he could see, she had brown hair and blue eyes; her nose was a bit too small for the rest of her, but her teeth were magnificently white—almost too perfectly so. The worst part of her by far, though... He was very careful not to move; the girl was well-endowed, and his nose was in danger of—

"Oh!" she said. "Oh! I didn't see you down there! I'm sorry! Fuck, I'm sorry!" she said, and she jumped off him and offered him a hand up.

He took it. "It's okay," he said. "Just mind where you're going next time."

"I'm sorry," she said again, as she smoothed her hair down and tucked it behind her shoulder. "I'm just so damned clumsy. I trip over my own feet on the best of days—hey, your hair is red."

"It is?" interjected Harry.

"I didn't do it!" said the girl. "I'm sorry—I'll fix it for you. Just hold on—" She reached inside her bag for her wand, but Harry cut her off.

"No!" he said. "No, I mean, it's no issue. I can fix it myself." He scrunched up his nose, and the locks in front of his eyes suddenly turned jet black again.

The girl's eyes opened as wide as saucers. "Do that again!" she commanded.

"Pardon me?"

"I said do it again!" said the girl. "Are you really—?"

"I don't do tricks," said Harry, somewhat

She hit his shoulder, giving him a little spin about. When he steadied himself, she had her wand pointed at him. "Do it again, I said. Turn it red."

"Okay," said Harry. "Sheesh." With another grunt, the locks were back to red.

"You're not doing it with your wand?"

"Do I look old enough to know how to change the color of things?"

She squinted at him. "No, I don't think so. Can you change it green?"

"Yeah," he said, and his hair turned green.

"No way!" she said, her eyes wide. "Unreal!"

"Aren't you late—?"

"This is way more important!" she said, throwing her arms up into the air. "You're the first I've met—"

"First what?" asked Harry, who was starting to feel annoyed at the perky girl. "And what's your name? You haven't told me yet."

"You mean you don't know?!" She gave him a shove backward. He fell onto the ground again, onto his arse.

"Know what?!" he asked incredulously. "All I know is that you've now knocked me on the ground twice, and you're raving on and on like a lunatic—"

The ground wasn't so bad, perhaps. He certainly prefered it to being jumped on, which is what the girl did. She didn't strangle him as he expected, though; instead, she pulled him into a tight hug.

"A Metamorph, silly," she said, beaming from cheek-to-cheek. "Like I said, I've never met another one—"

"I beg your pardon," said Harry, with an eyebrow raised, "but a what?"

"A Metamorph," she said patiently, though she didn't stop hugging him. "Someone who can change his or her body at will. It's something you're born with—an amazingly rare talent. I thought I was the only one who had it..."

Harry finally understood. "Wait, no," he said. "That's just my accidental magic—"

"Nah," she said. "It's not. I can tell by the way you scrunch up your nose—it's the same thing I do. Watch," she said, and she screwed up her nose. Her own hair changed from a brown to an iridescent pink. "I prefer it that way," she said, by way of an explanation.

"So?" asked Harry. "We can change our hair. That's not a big deal—"

"You can change more than that," said the girl. "Cor, you think these are natural?" she said, looking down at her own chest in horror. "I only did it because Ben Stebbins looked interested..."

Her breasts shrank rapidly, until they were a far more manageable size.

"Hmm," said Harry. "Breasts and hair. Well, I suppose—"

"Prat," she said, and she flicked his arm. "You can do more than that. Haven't you ever tried?"

"No," said Harry honestly. "Hell, I thought my hair did this only when my uncle hit me—"

"Haven't you ever made it grow out, or something?"

"Well, yeah," said Harry, who felt dumb all of a sudden. "Once, when my aunt hacked it all off..."

"Yeah, that'll do it," said the girl. "Try something. Try to make your nose long."

Harry screwed up his face. The girl laughed. "You look just like Snape..."

"It worked, then?" Harry poked at his nose, which now had a very familiar hook-shape.

"Of course it did!"

"So I can change anything on my body?"

"Yeah," she said. All of a sudden, she looked a little queasy. "Well, um—I read this book, and in it, this guy... well, he turned himself into a woman, and went and—augh. No, I can't tell this story. It's too embarrassing. He wound up in the hospital at any rate. What I'm saying is 'don't play around too much'. It's one thing to change your features; it's another thing to try and rearrange your internal organs."

Harry nodded. "I have no desire to do that. At any rate, this needs to stay secret between us, okay?"

"Why?" she asked, obviously taken aback. "There's so much potential for fun when you're a metamorph—"

"Well, when you're me, something like that might save your life."

"Save your—bloody hell," she said, and stared at his forehead. "I hadn't noticed it, but you're Harry Potter, aren't you?"

"'In the flesh' means so little now, but yes," he said. "And I hope you understand if I ask you to swear that you'll never tell another soul."

"Yeah, I swear it," said the girl, who still was looking at his scar. "I hardly believe it, though. Harry Potter—a metamorph! Oh, we're going to have so much fun...! It's kind of strange, though; you'd think someone would have told me that you're so tiny..."

Harry rolled his eyes. "We should meet sometime and you can explain more to me later."

"Why, what's the matter about right now?"

"Well, you're late for some class, and I'm out past curfew."

"Oh, right. I'd better go."

"What's your name, by the way?"


"Just 'Tonks'?'"

"If you want to live," she said, as she stood up, and helped him up. "Okay—I've really got to run. See you later, Harry!"

"Bye," he said, as he watched her sprint off toward the greenhouses. "What a bizarre girl," he added, once she was out of earshot.

As she ran, she was shouting 'Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck—'.

"This place? Seriously?" asked Harry incredulously, when Hermione stopped outside.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"The last time I was here, I got detention," said Harry, grumbling to himself about how unfair that wound up being. "Why they call it the All-House Commons and then expect you to make yourself scarce, I don't know."

"It's meant for clubs, not for individual students. Who gave you the detention, though?"

"Filch," said Harry bitterly. "Anyway, let's go in. I don't fancy another one if he catches me around this place..."

Hermione opened the door. "What'd you have to do?"

"You don't even want to know—"

"C'mon, tell me!" she said, giving him her look. Presumably it was meant to look adorable and entreating, but on her, it looked more like she was bloated.

Harry scratched his nose. "I had to scrub the chamber pots in the Hospital Wing—"

"—but that's disgusting!"

"I told you that you were better off not knowing. Anyway, hi, you lot. I'm Harry Potter," he said, to the twelve other people gathered in the room.

"Hi, Harry!" giggled Patricia Stimpson. Harry scowled — She wasn't that bad-looking, but Harry knew she was quite nebulous, and that, combined with his previous experience of her conduct, left him irritated with her presence.

"Hi, Patricia!" said Harry back, with mock cheerfulness. "Feeling a bit better now? You had the hiccups the last time I saw you."

She gave him a smile and turned back to her friends to keep conversing.

Hermione hit him on the shoulder.

"Ow!" she said. "What's that for? And why are girls always hitting me?" He rubbed his shoulder—it was the same one that the elusive Tonks had punched two days earlier.

"Because I can't believe you said that!"


"You're not exactly subtle, you know that? Now everyone in here knows she was drunk, and given how Stephanie Mortimer talks, the whole school will know by tomorrow morning."

"She wasn't drunk, she was just acting stupid," whispered Harry angrily. "And don't hit me. Next time I'll hit back."

"You wouldn't."

"Try me. I'm not a target!"

"Sorry," said Hermione, who shook her head in annoyance. "I won't hit you any more, but you need to learn some manners and tact!"

Harry just sighed.

"Okay!" said a sixth-year Ravenclaw boy with shortly-cropped blond hair, who stood up and clapped his hands together. "Welcome, everybody, to our second meeting. I'd like to welcome Harry Potter, who's joining us for the first time tonight—"

There was some light applause from the gathered members.

"—and I'd like to remind you that Professor Flitwick counts this club for extra credit, but you have to tell him that you're a member. Since Harry's new, let's go around and make our introductions before we get on with the meeting. Why don't you start us, Nick? Give us your... name, your year, house, and how about something about yourself?"

"Uhh... My name's Nick," said a gray-eyed boy with a little tuft of hair growing under his bottom lip. "I'm a seventh-year Hufflepuff, and... I like Charms, I guess."

The rest were equally informative.

"Okay," said Doug—that was the sixth-year's name—who slid off the desk and wandered over to close the door. "Let's break into groups, and we'll review last month's charms before we introduce the new ones."

They all started to move; Harry set his eyes on a random person and followed them into a group.

"Potter, what are you doing?" asked the girl he was following. "We're fifth years. You should go with the first and second years. They're doing charms more appropriate to your level."

"Oh," said Harry. The Charm the two boys in her group were practicing didn't seem very hard...

He wandered over to the first and second years. Doug was standing with them. "Right on, Harry man," he said. "Alright. Let's see you give it a try, Lisa. Remember, Geminio! Don't forget to flick your wand from the original to where you want the copy to appear, or else it won't work!"

Lisa Turpin, a short brunette wearing a Ravenclaw tie, had in her hand a spare piece of parchment. "Geminio!" she shouted, and flicked her wand. Nothing happened.

"Good try," said Doug, encouragingly. "You almost had it—I could see! You've got the pronunciation and the movement right—you're just not listening to your magic."

Harry rolled his eyes. Doug noticed. "Okay, Harry man," he said, a bit more harshly than he had to Lisa. "Let's see you give it a go."

"All right," said Harry. "Lisa, can I borrow your parchment, please?"

She handed over the piece of paper to him. "Geminio!" he called, and flicked his wand over to his other hand. A second piece of parchment appeared, exactly identical to the one in his other hand.

The other first years applauded, Hermione included. "Well done," said Doug, begrudgingly. "Have you cast this Charm before?"

"Never heard of it before today," admitted Harry. "It's just a Duplicating Charm, then?"

Doug nodded his head. "Any advice to give to Lisa, then?" he asked. His eyebrow was slowly creeping higher toward his hair line.

Harry shrugged. "'Listen' to your magic, Lisa. It's all about 'listening' to your magic."

"Let me try again," said Lisa, and she took the parchment from Harry. "Geminio!" Still nothing. "Geminio!" Nothing. "Geminio!"


Harry sighed, bored already. "Look, Lisa. It's not about feel. It's about being confident, and knowing that your magic is going to respond when you ask it to." Doug shot Harry a surprised look. "Do it again. This time, instead of trying to 'listen' for your magic, command it. It's yours. Why should you let it dictate what to do?"


This time, there was a second piece of parchment. It faded after a moment, but the spell had worked.

"Well, I see that Harry's got it under control," said Doug, who seemed to be making a monumental effort to keep smiling. "Practice amongst yourselves until you've all got it. We'll move on shortly. I've got to go check on the other groups."

He walked away, and Harry let out a sigh of relief. "What a dou—"

"Do you always have to do that?" interrupted Hermione. "You know, showing everybody up in the school is not a very solid way to make friends.

"Well, he was giving bad instructions," said Harry. "I mean, come on. 'Listen' to your magic? That's a load of crock if ever I heard it."

"It worked just fine for me," said Hermione, with a huff. "And, please, just behave yourself. You promised me you'd do this with me..."

"Fine," said Harry. "Sorry. Anyway, does this move a bit faster? Are the charms going to start getting a bit more... I dunno, challenging?"

"The Duplication Charm is not an easy spell!" said Hermione, her voice very nearly bordering shrill. "Just because you—"

"—and you," interrupted Harry. "And Lisa here, too. And—you got it, too, Kellerman? Good job."

"—well, that's completely beside my point—"

"Just relax, Hermione," said Harry. "I'll tone it down. I'm just bored, is all."

"Thank you," she said with a sigh, and sank down into one of the chairs.

"Everyone ready to learn this week's new charms?" asked Doug from on top of one of the desks. "Can we move on?"

There was a chorus of yeses. Doug approached the first and second years again, and handed each of them a piece of parchment, on which the details of a spell was written. "Engorging Charm this month, guys. Potter, if you get it right away, you can go work with the third, fourth, and fifth years, okay? Their stuff is a bit harder."

"Thanks," said Harry, and he genuinely meant it. The spell on the piece of parchment seemed ridiculously easy—there wasn't even a wand movement for it.

"Just get it over with, Harry," said Lisa, as she laid a hand on his forearm.

He smiled at her. She really wasn't that bad of a girl—certainly a lot more pleasant than many of the other ones around Hogwarts...

"Engorgio!" he said, and the desk on which he cast began to grow larger and larger. Finally, when it was twice the size, he pulled his wand from it, and stood back to admire his handy-work.

"Nicely done," said Hermione, who seemed to have forgotten her anger to look with appreciation at Harry's swollen desk. "First try, too."

"It's easy," said Harry, who felt quite satisfied that he'd learned two new spells very easily. "You'll all get it right away. Doug's right, though: there's a kind of way that you feel all these Charms working in your body, not like Transfiguration at all. I don't think you need to feel it to cast well, but it's a pleasant kind of feeling."

With that, he left the first and second years to go join the next group.

Having gone to his first Charms Club meeting, Harry could safely say three things:

First, he knew roughly eleven new charms. The fifth years had given him a hard time; to their chagrin, though, he had managed to perform after a few tries everything that they threw at him, and managed to beat most of them to learn the new one. He now had a Revealing Spell—Scarpin's Revelaspell, to be perfectly accurate—under his belt; as well, they had taught him the Summoning Charm and the Banishing Charm. He enjoyed those the best out of any charm he had learned that night, and he spent the next day duplicating wads of paper and banishing them across the Common Room at Ron when the boy wasn't looking.

Secondly, he knew that he was not yet capable of casting Charms silently. When the fifth years had had enough of him, he was sent off to the seventh years, who told him exactly how it worked, and then laughed at him when he was unable to perform the charms silently. Regardless, he knew that it existed, and he intended to put the time into mastering it as quickly as he could, for it seemed to him to be a useful skill to disguise his intent. He didn't let the seventh year students have the last laugh, though; he charmed their shoelaces together when they were having a go at them. All thre of them of them—Doug, Stimpson, and Bugatti—fell flat on their faces when they next tried to move.

Finally, he knew that he wasn't coming back.

Hermione was the one who suggested it in the first place; she had been too embarrassed by his behavior, and that had affected her performance significantly. By the end of the meeting, most of the students there had an appreciation for Harry, if they didn't like him; nevertheless, he didn't intend to return. It was frankly too slow-moving for him. He had a hard time justifying spending two hours inside a room with twelve people when he could have learned the same in thirty minutes out of three books. He still intended to learn charms—in fact, he had bet Hermione that for every Charms Club meeting she attended, that he would learn two more harder charms than she did—but he could do it away from the disruptive environment that the people in the Charms Club created. Magic he loved; people, not so much.

Still, it was a triumph, by all accounts, which was why he was feeling particularly happy on the day that he bumped into Draco Malfoy—by all accounts, a less-than-happy occurrence, regardless of timing. His good mood quickly disappeared.

He bumped into the boy as he came around the corner. Despite the fact that Harry was quite a bit smaller than Malfoy, he knocked the boy backward into Crabbe's arms.

Malfoy pushed himself away from the lug, and stepped up right into Harry's face. "Watch it, Potter," he said with a sneer. "I don't need your filth soiling my robe; it's newly pressed."

Harry's blood was boiling before he could help himself. Malfoy's insults were always childish, but for the life of him, Harry couldn't understand why they bothered him so much—perhaps because they came from Malfoy, and the boy was everything that Harry despised.

Crabbe and Goyle both cracked their knuckles—a pathetic attempt at intimidation. Harry laughed. "Put down those fists, idiots. You punch me and you'll be out of this school faster than you can eat a pound of food."

He turned to Malfoy. "I think you owe me an apology."

"You?" said Malfoy, with barely restrained fury. Harry could see the boy's fists clenching and unclenching. "You're the one who's got it coming to him, Potter. First on the train and now this? You're so dead. When Professor Snape—"

"Going to go running back to the teacher again, you ponce? That worked out so well last time—"

"You better apologize, Potter, or else I'll make you—"

"I'm so afraid, Malfoy. I'm practically quaking in my boots."

Crabbe and Goyle moved forward with hatred gleaming in their eyes, but stopped when Malfoy put his arms out against their chests. It was just as well; Harry's wand was in his hand so fast it was unreal, and he was considering how much magic to put in a Banisher to take either one of them out. He decided on Crabbe first; Goyle seemed smart enough to take a moment to reconsider, once his accomplice suddenly went flying down the hallway.

Malfoy's icy glare reflected a level of calm Harry didn't know the boy possessed. From his prior experiences with Malfoy, he half-expected the blond-haired buffoon to blow a lid if anyone so much as looked at him wrong, let alone returned verbal fire to one of his taunts. "You seem awful sure of yourself with that wand, Potter," he spat out. "You're mad if you think you can take all of us at once."

"I'm just better than the three of you, Malfoy. If you think a little hired muscle is enough to intimidate me, you've got another thing coming." An oddly colored spell, namely.

Malfoy's face twisted into a cocky smirk. "If you're that good, Potter, then you won't mind a little exhibition, would you?"

"Out with it, Malfoy."

"A duel, Potter. Tonight. In the trophy room at midnight."

Say what he disliked about Malfoy, the ponce was certainly easily readable (it was a pity that Malfoy probably had no idea what Muggle poker was, or Harry would be a lot richer). A Cheshire grin told Harry that Malfoy had something planned. Harry smirked right back at the boy. "No, I don't think so."

"Chicken, Potter?"

Harry shook his head. "You wish. No, if you want a duel, it won't be somewhere out of bounds where you can try and get me caught past curfew." A twitch in the Ponce's jaw belied his anger at being revealed. Harry continued. "If we're going to do this, then it's going to be before curfew, and in a public place—no tricks. Either you're in or you're out." Harry stuck his hand out for a handshake.

Malfoy scowled at the proffered hand, then grasped it and gave a quick shake. "Fine, Potter. We'll settle this like wizards—"

His voice squeaked comically at the end, and his face rapidly paled. Harry spun around quickly, his wand at the ready. He barely concealed his own surprise when his eyes met with the twinkling gaze of the Headmaster, standing not three feet in front of him.

"A splendid idea, boys!" All four of them flinched at his stern voice, despite the hint of amusement evident. "A dueling exhibition seems to be just what we need to spruce up this year's Halloween feast! A show of talent from the students of Hogwarts!" He smiled down at them, as they stared back silently. Harry was irritated to find that his mouth was hanging open in surprise, and he closed it immediately. "I'll bring this up with the Heads of House at our next faculty meeting. I'm sure they will know which students from each year will be most capable for our exhibition!" Harry found himself nodding compulsively along with Malfoy and his goons.

Dumbledore grinned, his eyes twinkling even brighter now. "Absolutely splendid! And of course, I will see to it that no one gets hurt and has to miss the feast! This will be, after all, only an exhibition. I'm certain that you boys won't be using any spells that could cause someone to end up in the hospital wing and miss the delicious feast. As well, I am certain that none of you will be... tempted, if I may say so, to get some early practice in amongst yourselves, will you? I assure you, I would be most displeased were that to happen." A subtle incline and sudden dulling of the twinkle in his eyes immediately had the boys mumbling affirmatives in acceptance to his politely worded decree.

"Marvelous! I will most certainly be looking forward to your match, Mr. Potter, Mr. Malfoy. You will, of course, be representing the first year students, as this was your idea. Now, you are all excused, though—" Dumbledore paused. "—if I may have a word with you in private, Mr. Potter?" His eyes were twinkling again, and Harry had to bite back a scowl. He secretly hoped that, one day, he would be able to command such obedience from people by a mere inclination of the head, like Albus Dumbledore.

There was one more thing to add to his list of 'Things I Know', though: Malfoy was going to get his arse handed to him.



"Harry, there you are! I've been looking everywhere for you—oh, hi, Neville. Harry, may I have a word?"

"Go for it."

"In private."

"Oh. That sort of word."

Harry squashed a look of annoyance, and shrugged at Neville, before indicating with a muddy hand for Hermione to step over to the side. She did, though she also grabbed his arm and half-pulled, half—dragged him with her.

She looked to see if Neville was watching; he was staring blankly into space as he walked up toward the castle. Even so, she spoke sotto voce. "You've been avoiding me." Her voice trembled.

"Neville, you go on ahead," called Harry to the boy. "You can tell me about the Vindigo later—I'll make some time, and we can even go see it."

Neville nodded, and continued meandering up toward the castle.

"What are you doing?" Hermione asked, as she fell in step with him.

"Well, based on the fact that I was with one-trick-Longbottom, and my hands are covered in dirt and god-knows-what, it'd be a good guess that I just came from the greenhouses and am on my way to dinner. Nice to see you too, by the way."

Hermione glared at him. "That's not what I meant, and you know it. You haven't been in the library all week, and every time I try and talk to you about—" She did a quick look-about to see if anyone was close. "—you-know-what, you always tell me that you're busy. Why?" She looked to be on the verge of tears.

Harry sighed. "It's not you," he replied. "—Though your stealth could use some improvement."

"You have a funny way of showing it, then, Potter."

She had gone to his last name. Not good. "Really," he said. "Not you. And for what it's worth, I'm sorry I've been so short with you these past few weeks. I've just... I've had a lot on my mind, I guess."

"If it's not me, then what is it?"

"I'm not sure I can tell you," he said. Suddenly, an idea leaped into his mind. "You're my friend, and all, but I can't expect you to hold all my secrets. You're already holding a really big one."

Hook—line—sinker. "I don't mind holding your secrets," she said. "And I'm not that bad at it, despite what you say."

"Hermione, you couldn't lie to anyone if you tried."

"I'll get better at it, then. C'mon—I'm your friend. If you can't trust me with your secrets, then who can you trust?"

"Well, I suppose so," said Harry, who hid his smile. It wasn't even that big of a secret, but in confiding it to her, he could codify her role in his future schemes. She was valuable, too; there was no question about that. He had a good mind, but he hardly had encyclopedic knowledge. Hermione had that sort of mind, and that—along with her loyalty to 'friends'—made her worth the time and effort.

Not to mention that her loyalty made her very easy to exploit. "I can trust you, Hermione—I know I can. You're one of my best friends."

She glowed.

"—It's just that I'm not sure I want to impose upon you to do so. The secret you're holding is pretty heavy. We could get in serious trouble if anyone found out about what we're doing. I just don't want to make the load unbearable."

She looked around again to see if anyone was watching. When she saw that nobody was around, she sidled up closer to Harry. "Tell me," she whispered into his ear. "You're my best friend. I wouldn't dare tell anyone."

"I believe you," said Harry, and he did, because he had built their friendship to work that way. "Are you sure, though—?"

"Yes. What's been going on?"

"Okay," he said, with a sigh. "Remember how I was telling you that you need to be more stealthy? Well, so do I." He continued, despite her confused look. "Dumbledore pulled me into his office a few weeks back—right after Malfoy tried to trick me into a secret duel. Anyway, he seemed... on to us, for lack of a better way to say it. He didn't come right out and say I was doing something I shouldn't be, but he said I was working too hard—that I should relax and get to know my classmates and enjoy myself."

Harry's hand gripped tightly around his wand. Even now, quite a few weeks later, the experience still upset him. "So," he said, continuing, "I'm not avoiding you, so much as I'm avoiding doing anything suspicious inside the castle. I'm trying to figure out how Dumbledore's been watching, but until I know how he's doing it, the best way to avoid getting caught is to not do anything worth catching.

"We weren't really making much progress, anyway. I borrowed the twins' copy of The Runes of Ancient Civilizations—the prats told me to keep it; say they never bother with it, anyway—and while it won't do anything for us about our current obstacle," he said, cryptically, "it's clear that anything we need to crack that part of the puzzle won't be in the main section of the library, so I figured I'd work on some of the other parts."

"Oh," Hermione said, seemingly taken aback. "Well... You're forgiven, at any rate. That's the secret, though? We are going to continue trying to solve the puzzle, right?"

"Of course we are," responded Harry, though he deliberately ignored the first question. "I've got a few ideas about where we could go from here—none that you'll like, I don't think—but I need some time to think about it. The key thing, though, is avoiding getting caught, and until I have definite knowledge as to how Dumbledore keeps track of everything, I don't know what to do."

Hermione looked up, studying him carefully. "You don't like Professor Dumbledore, do you?" She paused for a second. "Oh, my goodness—that's the secret, isn't it? You hate Professor Dumbledore."

"Don't be ridiculous," said Harry. "Of course I don't hate him. I don't even know him," Harry added. "He's just too... good. I've been alone with him twice now. Each time, I asked him a load of questions; each time, he answered all of them; each time, I came away not knowing a bloody thing!" Harry exclaimed in frustration.

"Harry!" Hermione shushed him. "Calm down."

There was a moment of silence between them before Hermione spoke. "I don't like this, Harry. I'm your friend, and I'll keep your secrets and keep our discussions private, but I want it on the record that Professor Dumbledore is still the best and most honored wizard of our time, even if you don't like him. I don't like this."

"But," she added in a rush, seeing Harry on the verge of snapping at her, "I'm standing beside you. And I will. I promise." She blushed a little, and looked down, embarrassed. "You're really the only one who talks to me, besides. I don't want that to end, and this last week..."

Harry seized the chance. "I wouldn't stop talking to you, Hermione, if there wasn't a very good reason. But Hermione—" He looked the girl in the eye. "—friends have to trust each other, and I need you with me." Briefly, he felt a twinge of guilt. He did like the girl, after all, even if he was playing on her insecurities.

"I'm with you," she said, firmly. "Even if it means that we have to circumvent Professor Dumbledore's wishes."

"It won't be one time, either," said Harry, cautioning the girl. "He's got his own plans for how he wants me to grow up—dumb and blissful—but I'm not willing to go there. I like learning too much to want to be a Ronald Weasley, and you like me because of that, right?"

She nodded with a small bit of blush. "I can't let Dumbledore take that away from me," he continued. "Learning and solving puzzles are as much a part of me as anything else. He doesn't seem to want those to be, and he's going to try and change me. You know that, right?"

She nodded again.

"And you know that he'll go to you to get me to do that, right? That he'll use you if he thinks it will make a difference?"

"You think he will?"

"You said it yourself—he's the most admired and respected wizard alive today. He gets what he wants, even if that's against my own happiness. Look at it already—he's put me with the Dursleys; he's tried to get me to stop reading too much—-who knows what he's going to do next? If he can get what he wants through you, do you think he'll blink an eye at doing so?"

"Probably not—"

"I can't stomach him doing that, Hermione. I may have to stand up against him, if nobody else does. Are you with me?"


"That's the secret, Hermione. I see now that I may have to oppose Dumbledore from time to time because he's so interested in me, and nobody should have the right to manipulate me like he does."

"Well, that's a bit extreme, don't—"

"So I have to make sure that I'm ready and have the knowledge and skills to challenge him if he makes an error."

"But Harry," she said, finally managing to get a word in, "he's Professor Dumbledore. He doesn't make mistakes."

Harry smiled wanly at Hermione. "He left me with the Dursleys, didn't he?"

The silence was profound.

"I'm not asking you to oppose him all the time, Hermione. I'm not even asking you to be courageous enough to call him out when he's making a mistake. All I'm asking you is to trust me to do the right thing. Trust me enough not to run to Dumbledore the second something goes arse-over-tits. You don't have to always agree with me, but trust me enough to keep my secrets like I'll keep yours."

Hermione opened her mouth, but no sound came out of it.

"Will you trust me, Hermione?"

"I will," she said, after some time. "But you listen to me, Harry Potter—don't you go breaking the law will-he, nill-he, or I will go to Professor Dumbledore."

"That's fine," said Harry, though he wasn't entirely pleased with the result. "At least respect me enough to talk to me before you do though, please?"

"Of course I will," said Hermione, who looked offended. "Harry, you're my friend. I trust you more than—than some old man," she whispered. "And I trust that you'll always do what's right, but I just worry about you. Sometimes, you're so secretive and brooding that I can't help but wonder what you're thinking and whether you're telling the truth—"


"No! Don't stop me. I trust you, Harry, I do—I just need reassurance sometimes, that's all. Confide in me. Don't leave me out of the loop, and I won't get concerned. And even if I disagree with you, I promise I won't stop you if you've got a good reason to do it."

The girl had one hell of a nerve to tell him what to do. Still, it was admirable, and something that could be used. He had figured Hermione to be more sycophantic than argumentative, but he was not dumb; he would take dissenting opinions if it made him smarter and stronger.

"Well then, friend of mine, let's go see what's for dinner."

She let out a shaky laugh, but followed him into the school.

"So, why were you with Neville?" Hermione asked, as they turned into the Great Hall.

Harry shrugged. "A Longbottom's a Longbottom, even if that's about all."

It was a testament to how far Hermione had come that she only responded with a nod, even if a look of distaste fluttered momentarily across her face.

Classes were progressing. As October drew to a close, for the first time since arriving at Hogwarts, Harry was having to make an effort to maintain his position as top student—a fact which made his extracurricular activities even more difficult to pursue.

Defense had finally moved past a history of dark wizards and into basic spells. Quirrell, showing a previously undisplayed sense of authority, had seized upon the upcoming duels to teach hexes and jinxes usually not covered until second year, much to the excitement of the class.

Likewise, the other classes began to pick up in intensity, and of course, Potions had gone from simply unenjoyable to barely tolerable, as theory gave way to basic brewing. With that came an almost infinite number of opportunities for explosions and sabotage; picking up quickly on his own vulnerability as a target, he paired himself off with Parvati every class. It was an arrangement she seemed more than happy with, even if she did grace him with the obligatory sneers when her peers were watching. However, the Slytherins, it seemed, were unwilling to hurt one of their own, even if it meant leaving Harry alone.

On the Friday night—a day before his duel with Malfoy—Harry returned to Gryffindor tower, exhausted by another Quidditch practice. Wood had become furious in his training regimen, pointing to the upcoming match between Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff that would make field time scarce for the next few weeks. Wearily, Harry trudged up the stairs, looking forward to nothing more than his bed.

Opening the door, his eyes widened in shock. Ron, Seamus, Dean—even Neville—were covered from head to toe in purple... stuff.

"What on Earth?" Harry stopped dead in his tracks, unable to continue. His eyes scanned the room, and his entire body tightened as he took in his suddenly-purple trunk and bed.

"It's alright, Harry," Ron cried out, eager to keep Harry from boiling over. "They're just Wizpoppers. The twins got hold of some, and gave me a bag if I promised to share them with my roommates." Harry nodded, though his expression remained sour.

"And what, exactly, are Wizpoppers?" he asked, slowly. "Because they look to me like a great mess—a mess that's currently all over the bed I want to sleep in."

"Jeez, Harry, always the wand-in-the-mud, aren't you." Seamus jeered, earning a snicker from Dean. "Wizpoppers—s'just a fun little gag from Zonko's. You do know what Zonko's is, don'cha?"

Harry didn't, but he had no intention of letting it on. Instead, he moved his gaze to Neville.

"It's ok, Harry. I wouldn't mess up your stuff, I promise," Neville blurted out immediately, though he did not meet Harry's eyes. "Just a bit of fun is all. You throw a popper, right, and it explodes and turns whatever it hits whatever color the bag is. Thirty minutes later and it all disappears. We'll stop though," he said, growing more and more red as Harry's eyes fixed on him, "y-you know, if you want to go to sleep, or what."

"No, we bloody well won't!" Seamus yelled. "I ain't stopping for him just cause he's in a mood. If he wasn't just swotting with Granger in the library all the time, maybe he'd know what it means to have fun, 'stead of going around with a mean face all the time."

Ron was turning pale, though made no move to intercede. Harry turned to Seamus, snarling. "You leave Hermione out of this. I'll go where I damn well please and do what I damn well want to do. And for your information, I do know how to have fun—I just don't happen to think that hanging out—" He paused. That was a route that he really didn't want to go down. He had six more years to go with these roommates, morons or not. "—I just know how to prioritize. After all," he said with a sneer, "I play Quidditch, don't I? Team hero and all—that's real fun." He turned away from Seamus, and moved towards his bed. Would a simple 'Finite' deal with the mess?

Seamus moved. In a second, he hurled the Wizpopper in his hand directly at Harry, who turned back around at the movement. A moment later, a harsh slap hit Harry's cheek, and suddenly his glasses were dripping a purple liquid.

Furious, Harry's arm dived into his robe to grab his wand, but it was knocked out of his hand by Ron, who was diving out of the way. Having nothing else within reach to inflict harm with, Harry reached into the box on Ron's bed, pulled out one of the lemon-shaped sacks, and hurled it at Seamus. There was a satisfying splat as it hit Seamus in between the eyes.

From there, it degenerated into a full blown war once more. Though he would have denied it if asked, by the end of the night, Harry was enjoying himself. The slight forgotten, the very messy and very happy group of boys finally fell asleep.

The next day, Harry woke up at six in the morning, pleased to find all evidence of the prior night's escapades thankfully absent from his clothes and bed. Neville had said that it would disappear in half an hour, but it was impossible to guess with Fred and George Weasley—he was just as likely to wake up stuck to the bed and painted many colors. The two loved photos of their mischief—most likely for blackmail.

After a quick shower, Harry returned to his dormitory to find his roommates slowly waking up, save for Ron, whose snores shook the walls around them. "Someone remember to wake Ron up, or he'll miss breakfast," Harry said to nobody in particular.

He made his way down the spiral staircase to the common room. The early morning light was just peeking through the southeast windows, casting soft golden beams across the carpets and furniture of the empty common room. He didn't stay, though; instead, he ducked out of the room at a brisk walk.

Harry made his way down the deserted, spidering corridors of Hogwarts. His mind was on his duel that evening. Harry knew he was smart, and—any false modesty aside—probably the most capable first year in the school. However, he had absolutely no dueling experience, and Harry'd be damned if he would let himself face Malfoy with a wand in his hand and not have a clue what would happen. No doubt there were some archaic rules in place about how one should carry hisself before, during, and after a duel, and Harry intended the only humiliation to be Malfoy's.

It was on this thought that he entered the Great Hall, finding it sparsely populated. The Gryffindor table was entirely empty, and there were a number of early-rising Slytherins and Ravenclaws, but the Hufflepuff table always had a fair number of students, even if it was half-six—the earliest time they were allowed to leave their common-rooms. Not only that, but the Hufflepuffs seemed energetic—nay, even happy to be awake, if their general rambunctiousness was any indication.

"I might be a morning person, but I'll be damned if they don't overdo it," Harry grumbled halfheartedly.

He found himself a seat on the end of the Gryffindor table, and began piling eggs on his plate when a familiar voice called to him, "Oi, Harry! Come join us over here!"

Harry looked up to find Cedric waving him over. Harry blinked, then picked up his plate of eggs and wordlessly brought them over to the vacant seat next to the third-year. Harry sat down and nodded greetings to the three boys sitting with Cedric: Owen, Obie, and the third boy whose name Harry couldn't quite remember (had he been taught it in the first place?). "Morning, Cedric. What are you lot so cheerful about?"

Cedric grinned. "You're looking at one of the students who'll be showing off his mad skills this evening. Sprout caught me when I was coming down for breakfast this morning. It'll be me and that lout from the Quidditch team, Bole—you know, the Chaser?"

Harry nodded his head. "Apparently," continued Cedric, "he's good with a wand, or else they wouldn't have picked him."

Harry took a forkful of eggs and swallowed them. "Between you and me, Cedric, I think Snape's going to have a bad go at this exhibition."

Cedric's eyebrows, and the eyebrows of the boys around them for that matter, rose in surprise at this proclamation.

"Cor, are you dueling, Potter?" Owen said from across the table, his mouth agape. "I know you've given everyone a run for their money, but I didn't think they were going to be letting Firsties throw spells around this early. Didn't think any of you could, for that matter." That got a chuckle out of the unnamed boy to his right.

Harry smirked. "You might be surprised. If what I've seen in Charms Club is any indication, the standards for the upper years here are ridiculously low—explains why you're still here, actually!"

The other boys all laughed, even Owen, who couldn't hold the glare he was giving Harry. Harry continued. "Anyway, for Cedric's impending victory, he has me to thank for that." Harry forced an exceedingly arrogant look on his face—that was, until his next forkful of eggs spilled onto his robes, completely ruining the effect.

After the third years looked quizzically at each other, one of them asked, "What're you on about, Harry?"

Harry wiped the eggs from his front. "Didn't I tell you guys? No? Well, last week, I was on my way from Charms Club, heading back to my dorm, when I ran into Malfoy and his oafs-in-waiting. He postured and preened like a peacock—you know how it is—" Harry stuck his chest out and put on his most arrogant sneer; the older boys snickered at the impression.

"Well, there we are. Malfoy's throwing insults like a small child, when he challenges me to a duel. Honestly, a duel? How turn-of-the-century of him. Well, not only that, but he wants to duel me at midnight."

"Good move avoiding that one, Potter," said Obie, sagely.

"I thought so. I'm hardly four years old—like I wouldn't see through a trick like that! So, I told him, if he wants to duel like men, he'd do it during the day—even during the Halloween feast. Just when he agrees to it, too, who shows up behind me but Professor Dumbledore himself."

Cedric and his friends were laughing uproarously at this point at Harry's luck, and Harry waited for a moment, taking care of his eggs and picking up a few pieces of toast while they regained their composure. "So, anyway," he continued, as they settled back down, "there we are, utterly gobsmacked at being caught by the Headmaster. What does he do? He just smiles and goes, 'Splendid! What a marvelous idea! This will be a great way to spruce up the whole feast!' And, of course, Dumbledore said that he'd be very displeased with any of us if we were to be found 'practicing on each other' before the exhibition. Put us in our place," Harry said, shaking his head.

The older boys were still chuckling. "You're so lucky, Potter, that it was Dumbledore, and not McGonagall. She'd just have put you all in detention right up 'til the feast!"

Harry smirked. "Oh, definitely. Imagine if it was Snape? How long do you think it would be until someone saw me outside of detentions in the dungeons?"

Odie guffawed. "If we ever saw you again, that is."

When their laughter finally died down, Cedric said, "You know, Harry, I bet that I could teach you a thing or two for the dueling stage. I know a few tricks they don't teach you in a dueling book."

Harry's eyes brightened. "You think? I've been wondering about that. If I could sit in on a few of your practices—"

"Sit in, nothing! I'll show you myself how to duel—in fact, let's do it right after breakfast. Anything to see that yellow-bellied ponce put in his place." Harry couldn't help but grin at the older Hufflepuff, and feel regret that he hadn't been placed in the house—he had no doubt he would have loved it there.

His happy thoughts were interrupted by a loud thump coming next to him. Harry turned to find himself eye-to-eye with vivid pink irises, framed by long locks of silvery-bronze. "Wotcher, Harry! What're you doing at the cool table today?" Tonks grinned, tussling his hair playfully.

Harry shot an annoyed look at the Metamorph. "Oh, you know, the usual—eating, talking, not getting tripped over by clumsy seventh-year girls. What about you?"

Cedric and his friends snickered at Tonks' defensive expression. "Hey, now, I apologized for that! And for the record, I didn't hear any complaints when I was on top of you."

Harry scowled at the laughter of the other boys, his face a bright red. He looked down at his plate, suddenly focused on the last sliver of toast on his plate. "Yeah, well—what can I say? What do you want?"

"Oh, well—remember how you asked me if I'd give you some help with that charm—Scarpin's Revelaspell? Well, I'm free after breakfast for a few hours, if you can make it. 'Course, you might do better with Evanesco." With a flick in Harry's direction, the stain left by the eggs faded from existence. Harry barely noticed; the wheels in his head were turning too quickly.

"Oh. Oh!" Harry's eyes widened a bit. He had almost forgotten the whole Metamorph business—no small feat, considering how ridiculous Tonks looked. "Sure, after breakfast. Uh—Cedric's going to teach me how to duel then. Can we do it shortly after?"

"Yeah," she said. "No problem. Maria Stimpson—that's the sixth-year Ravenclaw over there—just asked me to go over some NEWT Defense with her at ten. Think we can get it done before then?—and stop blushing, Nickie. You look ridiculous. She's cute, but she's not that cute. 'Sides, she'd eat you in her sleep."

"I'm not blushing," said the third boy, who previously had no name. He was blushing profusely.

"Anyway, Tonks, that's fine," said Harry quickly. "Thanks for helping me again. Does nine sound okay? Is that enough time? Um... where should I meet you?"

She grinned, excitement in her eyes. "How about outside the Charms room on the second floor? Professor Flitwick wouldn't mind, especially if it's for Charms practice."

Harry nodded. "Right, then. See you there."

Tonks grinned, and, reaching over to grab the piece of toast off Harry's plate, jumped out of her seat and practically sprinted out of the Great Hall, almost knocking over a pair of entering fifth-year Ravenclaws.

Harry turned back to his now empty plate, only to see several looks of confusion on the faces of the Hufflepuff thirdf-years. "What're you doing with a seventh-year, Harry?" Cedric wondered aloud, eyebrows raised.

Harry looked back the way Tonks had gone; he hadn't considered how people would react to seeing a seventh-year offering to help a first-year around. " know," he offered. "What can I say? It pays to be Harry Potter."

It had the desired effect of turning the looks of confusion into smirks, and Harry breathed an inner sigh of relief.

Cedric, as it turned out, did know quite a few things about dueling. That was to put it mildly, though: the boy pranced around their makeshift dueling strip, peppering Harry with minor hexes and jinxes. Harry, who had only learned the Shielding Charm a short while back, was unable to block many of the strikes, though he suspected it was mostly due to Cedric's talent than to his own weakness.

The boy was certainly complimentary, though; time after time, he expressed his admiration at Harry's own skill. For his own part, Harry kept up with Cedric, hitting the third-year with spells only a quarter as often as Cedric hit him. He wasn't nearly as fast or as nimble, but his repertoire was more diverse than Cedric clearly expected, and more often than not, he was able to catch Cedric by surprise when he did hit the boy

"You'll be fine," said Cedric, as he wiped the sweat from his brow. "That Inversion Hex is deadly."

"Quite," said Harry, who relaxed slightly and patted his own forehead with the fringe of his robe. "It's even better when you drop the guy on his head. I can't wait to use it on Malfoy."

"Better start with it, then," said Cedric, as he plunked himself down on the ground. "He won't last thirty seconds against you, Harry. For a Firstie, you're pretty damn good. Hell, I don't think many of the third-years could match you. Work on your speed and your dodging and you'll be laughing."

"Any other advice?" asked Harry. "Is there something I need to do at the start of the duel—?"

"It depends on who's running it. If it's Dumbledore, he'll expect you to bow, but don't bow low unless you want to get knocked onto your arse. Cheat just a little—anticipate the countdown, and have the spell coming off your wand on 'three'. Other than that, not much. Duels usually last until first blood, but I imagine it'll go to the point of permanent disarm. That means you have to make sure that he can't get his wand back if you knock it out of his hand. You can either grab his wand or just petrify him."

"And after I beat him?"

"Well, standard procedure is to just hand him back his wand after, especially if it's a friendly duel. What you want to do, though, is throw it to his feet. That's like giving him the finger, essentially—you only do that to someone you have the utmost contempt for—"

"—At his feet it is, then," said Harry, with a grin.

Cedric grinned right back.

"Hey," said Harry, seeing an opportunity. "What do you know about silent casting—?"

Cedric's grin faded, and he snorted. "Seriously? I know that I don't have to care about it for another three years, and for good reason—it's damn hard." At Harry's disappointed look, he continued. "It's a good skill to learn, but I highly doubt you'll be able to do it—"

"—I can't," said Harry. "I tried for a couple weeks, and I couldn't even make my wand light up. I'd given it up for a bad job, but I was wondering if you knew how."

"Well, I'm not surprised that you can't," said Cedric, and he crossed his arms. "I've never known anyone who really and truly got it before the end of their sixth year. Just forget about it, Harry. It's overkill at this point."

"Right," said Harry. "It's not a big deal. I have more important things to do, anyway—"

Cedric raised an eyebrow. "Well, Quidditch for one," said Harry quickly. "I just wanted to try and destroy Malfoy as thoroughly as possible. I don't want him bothering me again."

"Well, if you're just aiming for the effect, then whisper, or speak quietly."

"Does that work?" asked Harry, surprised he hadn't thought of it himself.

"Sure," said Cedric, and he gestured at Harry to give it a try.

"Lumos," whispered Harry, and his wand lit, though not as brightly as normal. "Not bad," he said. "Not quite as good as saying it or yelling it—"

"—That'll happen for a while. Just keep practicing." Cedric stood up. "Anyway, it's been swell, Harry, but I've got to run. It's a Hogsmeade weekend, after all, and I hear that Melinda Turpin will kiss any boy who brings her a pound of Honeyduke's Finest Chocolate." He paused for a second. "Not that I'm really interested in Melinda Turpin, anyway, but sometimes it's the experience that counts. Good luck tonight, Harry. Kick the slimeball's arse."

He walked out the door.

Five minutes later, Harry's hair was green, and touching the floor.

"Well, that's a decent start," said Tonks, who was loudly chewing a piece of bubblegum. "Hair's usually the easiest thing, though. Now, I know you can do your nose, but let's see if you can control it a bit better." Her own face scrunched up, and the small button nose on her face was replaced with the massive, reddened schnoz of a compulsive drinker. "See if you can match that."

Harry closed his eyes and scrunched up his face. He could feel his nose changing, elongating, fattening... With a little grunt, he tried to add a tinge of colour to it. "How's that?" he asked, afraid to open his eyes.

"Not bad," said Tonks. "C'mon. Open them. Here, I'll even get you a mirror."

Harry opened his eyes a crack. She was holding a mirror up to his face. The nose was pretty close to the one on her face; it was the right color and the right shape, but for the fact that it was crooked by fifteen or twenty degrees.

"Try using the mirror while you do it, this time," she said. "That's how I learned at first—just learning what changed what."

He took the mirror to her. He had to squint his eyes to make the changes, but he could see them happening as he made them. In short order, he had an exact duplicate of Tonks' nose.

"That's better. How about a pig's snout?" she asked, and twisted her own face to demonstrate.

With the mirror, the change took even less time to complete, and Harry was quite sure that he had the process for changing his nose down pat. "Better?" he asked, as he handed her the mirror. "I think I've got it. Give me a challenge."

"Okay," said Tonks, whose tongue poked out the side of her mouth as she thought. "Let's see you do that giant—Hagrid—his nose... and his beard."

Harry grinned. "You're on."

Thirty seconds later, he was running his hands through a thick, black-bristled beard, and Tonks was howling with laughter.

"You—you look fantastic," she said. "I've got to try that one some time."

Harry smiled confidently. "I've got this down," he said. "Doing my face is no problem."

"Oh? Let's see you move your scar, then."

Harry paused for a second. Would it move? It was a magical scar, after all... Ultimately, though, his fears were unfounded, and the lightning bolt scar slid easily down his face, his neck, across his shoulder, and came to rest on his bicep. He found that he couldn't get rid of it, exactly—it wouldn't lighten at all, or darken—but he could shrink it or enlarge it as he wanted to, to the point that it was either invisible, or all-consuming. Once he was sure he could move it, though, it returned to his forehead in its familiar shape—he was too proud of it to want it gone or moved; it was a crucial part of his identity.

"Okay," he said to Tonks, after a bit more practice. "Take off the kid gloves, Tonks. Let's do something hard. How about growing a few feet? Can I do that?"

She tucked her silver tresses behind her ear. "That's... a bit more complicated," she said, slowly. "And to be honest, it's really dangerous. I can teach you, but you have to promise me not to practice without me here, okay? I've studied Human Transfiguration, so if you have problems I can set you right."

"That sounds fine to me," said Harry, who would keep the agreement as long as it was convenient. There were just too many possibilities that opened themselves up if he could change his size.

"I mean it, kid," said Tonks, whose joking look was entirely gone. "I'll loan you the book I've got on Metamorphs, but there've been more accidents than I'm comfortable with. Stupid things, too. About a century back, a guy forgot to increase the number of arteries when he enlarged his legs. He lost circulation, and they had to cut them off with a hacksaw—no anesthetic, too." She looked rather queasy at the thought. "He could grow them back once the dead ones were off, of course, but can you imagine? It's serious business, really. I don't do it much myself—I don't trust myself to remember everything."

"I understand," said Harry. "I've got to learn sometime or another, though. Might as well be now."

She showed Harry, and he practiced in front of her, but the lesson was no longer jovial, and they went their separate ways an hour later.

When Harry entered the Great Hall for the Dueling Exhibition on the afternoon before the Halloween Feast, he was surprised to see all five tables up against the walls. The raised dais that the teachers ate on was bare, and in the center of the Hall. Dozens of students were already milling around the stage.

"Move it, Firstie." A voice grunted, and Harry was pushed forward—not maliciously, but the older Ravenclaw moved swiftly over Harry's immediate left, where a group of older students were clustered around Fred and George Weasley. The two seemed to be taking bets on the festivities. Harry was tempted to see what they were putting him as, but on second thought, figured he was better off not knowing. If the odds were on him, as he expected they were, he'd be too tempted to throw the fight and make a serious profit.

Harry spotted Cedric standing with Angelina. She was talking and making a motion with her wand, and Cedric was listening attentively. Harry stepped up to join them, and Cedric gave him a quick nod and a wink.

"—and then you sort of punch your arm forward, just a sharp jab, and say the '-IL-icus,' with the punch coming with the 'il'," said Angelina.

"Right," said Cedric, as he nodded along. "Thanks, Angie."

"Don't mention it, cutie—speaking of which, hello there, pumpkin!" she said, as she noticed Harry. She reached over and grabbed him around the shoulders, pulling him to her side. She smirked at Cedric, and said, "Isn't he just the cutest little button?"

Cedric snickered and tussled Harry's hair. "The poor kid's going to destroy his competition. All he's got to do is smile at them, and any girl in any year would do anything for him."

"It's true," said Angelina.

Harry slipped Angelina's arm off his shoulders. "Stop that! Where the hell did you get 'pumpkin' from?"

"Fred and George didn't pull that prank on you?"

"No," said Harry. "What on earth are you talking about?"

"Oh," said Angelina, with a look of severe disappointment. "Well, if they turn your head into a pumpkin, let me know so I can take pictures. The nickname suits you, though."

Harry scowled. "Well, you tell them that if they pull the prank, I'll use a Joint-Inversion Hex on their knees."

"I'm not sure that'll stop them," she said, with a toothy grin. "Speaking of which, I was just telling Ced about this wicked spell my dad taught me. Thought Bole could use a bit of a surprise after last year!"

"Last year?" Harry asked.

Angelina's easy smile melted into a cold mask so quickly Harry hardly noticed the change. "At last year's Gryffindor-Slytherin opener, Bole barreled into Stedman, our other chaser," she said. "Knocked him clear off his broom. If it wasn't for Dumbledore, he'd've been a smear on the ground. He pretty nearly was, anyway." The muscles in her jaw tensed as she relived the memory.

Cedric nodded solemnly. "Madam Hooch didn't even see it—she was watching Pucey with the Quaffle on the other side of the field. Even with Dumbledore slowing his fall, Stedman hit the ground pretty hard. Broke a bunch of bones, had a lot of internal injuries, and was almost paralyzed. It's one of the worst Quidditch injuries there ever was at Hogwarts. He actually had to stay in St. Mungo's for three weeks."

"Ruined his career, too!" said Angelina unhappily. "He was all ready to sign with Tutshill, and then he heard he couldn't ever play again 'cause he never did regain full motion in his right arm. Tried to off himself the year afterward, I heard."

By that point, several people around them had noticed the tension emanating from their little group, so Harry changed the subject. "So, uh... Who's dueling first? Are they organizing this by year, or is it random?"

They all seemed to appreciate the subject change, and as they began talking about who was said to be dueling whom, the population of Hogwarts finished streaming through the doors to the Great Hall. As the last stragglers joined them, the doors slammed shut, and a great explosion of noise and a great billowing cloud of grey smoke came from center stage. There were gasps and shrieks of surprise, but Harry just stared. The smoke cleared to reveal a smiling Albus Dumbledore, decked out in bright blue robes with shooting stars across his chest.

"Say what you will about Dumbledore, but the man knows how to make an entrance," Cedric said.

"Yeah," said Harry, under his breath. "S'pose he's got to make up for his taste in clothing somehow."

Dumbledore's arrival had also heralded other changes in the Great Hall: where the floor around the stage had previously been flat and unoccupied, there stood a number of leveled boxes, similar to the ones surrounding the Quidditch Pitch. There were four, set back from the dais by twenty or thirty feet or so, all draped with bunting in different colors according to house—red and gold for Gryffindor, black and yellow for Hufflepuff, blue and bronze for Ravenclaw, and silver and green for Slytherin. It was a tight squeeze in the Great Hall, but he also recognized that the room was slightly larger than normal—magic at its finest.

"Come on, Harry," said Cedric, beckoning him to follow. "These seats are for all the dueling students, I bet." Cedric pointed to a row of fourteen seats, towards which a number of students were moving. There was a near-even mix of students from all four houses. Harry sat near the middle, between Cedric on his left and a Gryffindor seventh-year on his right, who gave him a terse nod and placed his head into his hands.

Once everyone was seated, Dumbledore began. "Welcome, everyone, to the Hogwarts Dueling Exhibition!" He spoke in his regular tone, but it carried easily throughout the Great Hall. "I hope you are all as excited as I am for this night!"

He paused for a rousing round of applause and cheers from the gathered students. "This is a rather unprecedented event, but thanks to the initiative of Misters Potter and Malfoy, I am now pleased to welcome you all to what I hope will be the first of many such annual exhibitions. As you all know, dueling is a fine art to learn, and a critical part of many of our heritages. It is my hope that you will all learn something from this, and come to appreciate how our ancestors settled disputes.

"Now, as excited as you all are, I must first deliver a number of warnings. First, for the safety of the spectators, Professor McGonagall and Professor Flitwick are maintaining a shield around the stage to protect from wayward spells." Dumbledore gave them both a brief smile and eye-twinkle before continuing. "Now, I have no doubt that these shields will be more than enough to prevent any unfortunate injuries from occurring, but do not think that that I will allow the duelers to use just any old spells they want. No—" His eyes dimmed and his face took on a sterner cast. "—I do not think we shall see any spells that would cause any harm that our beloved nurse, Madam Pomfrey, cannot heal in time for tonight's feast." The nurse stood in her nursing robes towards the main doors, an equally stern look on her face.

"Just in case, I will be judging the competitions myself. Now—!" Dumbledore turned and beamed at the students selected to duel. "You have all been chosen by your professors to represent your houses! I know that, come what may here, every one of you will undoubtedly perform with bravery, cunning, intelligence, hard work, and will represent well! I wish you all the best luck, and once we have concluded, we shall dine in all of your honor!"

Applause broke out at this, with hooting and stomping coming from several rows of Gryffindor boys. Professor McGonagall speared them with a stern look, but Harry thought he could detect a hint of a smile.

With a flourish, Dumbledore removed his hat with his left hand and tossed it into the air. It spun around before stopping with a flourish in front of Professor Vector, a youngish woman with a long braid that ran down her back, who looked at the Headmaster with raised eyebrow. "Professor Vector has kindly volunteered to choose which year of competitors shall duel first."

Professor Vector smiled graciously, and stuck her hand into Dumbledore's hat. She quickly pulled out a small scrap of paper, and held it up to the Headmaster, who plucked it jovially from her grasp. "Thank you, Septima," he said. The kindly-faced professor gave a short nod of the head to him, before departing the dais for the Slytherin observation box. Dumbledore's hat jumped up with a flick of his wand, and landed once more on his head.

Professor Dumbledore unfurled the paper. "Ah," he said, as a smile slowly unfurled across his face. "We shall start with some real entertainment. Might I call to the stage the third years, please! Mister Cedric Diggory and Mister Derrick Bole! Arise, if you would!"

Cedric stood up, and so did his Slytherin counterpart. When Cedric waved, there was loud applause. When Bole waved, there was stony silence, but for polite applause from the Slytherin box. They made their ways to opposite sides of the stage. Cedric was grinning and waving as he passed the Hufflepuff box; Bole was stoic as a statue, and just as stone-faced. They each came to a stop several steps onto the stage, a good fifteen paces apart. It was quite a wide stage, allowing for a good amount of moving about during the duels, Harry noticed. He knew that the nimble Cedric had noticed too.

Dumbledore nodded to each of the boys, and said, "Before we begin, bow to your opponent, please." Cedric and Bole lowered their heads to each other, though Bole's shot back up rather quickly. "Now, I will count to three, and on three, the duel will begin. Ready..."

"One..." Cedric's grip tightened on his wand; his knuckles turned white in anticipation.

"Two..." An excited grin split the Hufflepuff's face as his eyes locked with his Slytherin opponent.

"Three!" Spells exploded outwards from both boys.



Neither spell hit. The flashes of light shoting past each competitor and splashed against shields. More spells followed in rapid progression. Harry couldn't make out half of the spells they were casting, but every so often he identified some by the incantations, or the distinct hues—a light blue Leg-Locker Jinx; a golden-brown Tripping Jinx; several times the bright red Stunner.

The fight continued for several minutes without major advancements. Few of the spells hit. The nimbler Cedric danced around his opponent's spells, and the slower Bode deflected them all. For the longest time, no major spell hit either, until Harry saw Cedric make a jabbing motion, yell, "Persimilicus!" and, with a sharp jab, send a wicked-fast white bolt at the Slytherin. Bole was not able to shield in time; he was hit, and staggered from the noise of two hands clapping hard against his head. He was only stunned momentarily, but it was enough for Cedric to get off an accurate "Petrificus Totalus!" which hit Bole on his right thigh, causing his arms and legs to lock together until he was straight as a stick. Unfortunately for Bole, gravity was also working against him, and he fell flat on his face. A muffled groan was the only sound anyone heard.

"Winner: Cedric Diggory!" said Dumbledore, over the cheering crowd—the whole school, except for the Slytherins, who were booing as loud as they could.

Cedric bowed to Professor Dumbledore, who nodded, and, with a flick of the wrist, canceled the body bind on Bole. Bole got up and gingerly stepped off the stage toward Madam Pomfrey, wincing slightly as he felt his broken nose.

"Very good," said Professor Dumbledore. "Another hand to both performers. Yes, yes, quite good." Off came his hat again, and this time, he prevailed on Professor Merrythought to pull a slip out of his hat.

Meanwhile, Cedric plunked himself down beside Harry again. "Right on, mate," said Harry, who clapped the older Hufflepuff on the back. "Showed him right."

"Thanks," said Cedric, who was slightly out of breath. "I wanted to get him pretty good, but he was blocking pretty well."

"Any advice?"

"Yeah," said Cedric. "Don't be a moron like me. Remember that you can target the dueling surface, too. You know any Ice Charms?"

"No," said Harry.

"Well, how about the water spell, 'Aguamenti'?"

"Yeah, I know that one. Charms Club."

"First years, please! Mister Malfoy! Mister Potter!" called Dumbledore, and Harry made to stand up.

"Well, just use that and the Freezing Charm. Surely they taught you that—"

"Yeah," said Harry, as he started walking to the stage. "Second charm in class..."

"Good luck!" shouted Cedric over the roar of the crowd—and they were roaring. Harry turned and waved to them, and the roar grew louder. Malfoy did the same, and the noise grew just as loud. Apparently, both were well-liked.

Harry took his place on the dais. Dumbledore caught his eye, and gave him a small smile under his beard. Harry just nodded back. He didn't need the headmaster's encouragement; he had his strategy worked out. It all depended now on Malfoy's skill. He was expecting the boy to be surprisingly good, but he knew that his skill was superior.

"Bow to your opponent," instructed Dumbledore. Malfoy gave Harry a sissy little nod of the head. Harry, for his own part, bowed deeply. It showed more respect than Malfoy deserved, but that respect made Malfoy look bad by contrast (and would make him look even worse when Harry trounced him).

"On your marks," said Dumbledore.

"One." Harry's heart was beating loud enough to hear.

"Two." His right hand tightened against his wand.


"Densaugeo!" yelled Malfoy. A yellow beam sped across the distance. Harry stepped around it. "Rictusempra!" Another beam, and another dodge.

"Fire back, Harry!" yelled a voice from the crowd. Hermione. "You have to fire back!"

The girl could be positively dense. He knew what to do.

"Come on, Potter!" shouted Malfoy, as he cast another yellow Hex. "Did you forget how to use magic? Are you going to flunk out like Longbottom?"

Harry ducked under the oncoming beam. He was a bit disappointed, even. He'd figured that Malfoy would at least throw out a few difficult spells.

"Ready, then?" he called.

"What are you waiting for, scarhead? Just go down already!"

An Expelliarmus came pretty close to him, but Harry's Shield Charm snapped into place to deflect it up and away. There was a gasp from the audience—the Shield Charm was easy magic, but not taught until fifth year, usually. Harry snapped off a burst of spellfire—amongst them a quick Stinging Hex—at Malfoy, but only as distraction, while he readied his wand for the more complex spell to come later.

Apparently the Stinging Hex was even too much. It hit Malfoy in the shoulder, and he let out a yelp of pain. Harry smirked, but didn't let up. "Aguamenti! he incanted, and whirled his wand in a circle, sending forth a fat jet of water that soaked the stage and Malfoy in one.

He touched his wand to the water-soaked ground. "Gelaris!" he whispered. Slowly, visible ice crystals began to form, as the water froze. It wasn't a skating rink by any means, but the tapestry looked to be a bit slicker. "Give up?" he shouted down to Malfoy.

Malfoy snorted. "You wish! Miseriusume!"

The dark blue spell flew past Harry and just missed his shoulder. He could feel a wave of coldness pass by him. That couldn't have been a regulation spell... He had a bad feeling about it. If Malfoy was resorting to the darker curses, it was better to put the duel away quickly. Forget freezing the ground solid.

Malfoy grinned. Harry's wand was still to the ground; it was an open shot. He raised his wand, and opened his mouth—only for no sound came out. Harry's wand had flicked up in a second and cast a Silencer on him. He was essentially muted.

"Levicorpus!" Harry spoke, and flicked his wand at the Ponce. The first try missed, but the second one ripped his ankles out from underneath him, and hauled him upside down. The silky black robes that Malfoy was wearing—the ponce eschewed the thicker school robes for ones that showed off his luxurious lifestyle—fell over his head, exposing expensive Italian shoes, and leaving his trousers riding up.

"Expelliarmus," said Harry. With a pop, Malfoy's wand skittered out of his hanging hand and down the dais to stop at Harry's feet. When Harry picked up the wand, a whistle shrieked, and the barriers surrounding them fell.

"The winner is Mister Potter!" said Professor Flitwick excitedly. That was odd—Dumbledore had been refereeing, but now he was nowhere in sight.

Harry was distracted looking for Dumbledore, and so he almost missed Flitwick's instructions. "Please put Mister Malfoy down now, Mister Potter, and return his wand to him."

Harry turned to look at the professor. "Oh. Sure," he said, and then gently lowered Malfoy to the ground. He could have dropped the ponce, but Flitwick was watching, and Harry had no intention of getting himself detention. Disrespecting Malfoy, though—sure.

Malfoy straightened himself out. "My wand, Potter," he said, eyes narrowed.

Harry tossed it down the platform. It skittered to a halt at Malfoy's feet; a gasp arose from about half of the audience—those who understood that it was a slight.

He turned and walked off the stage, but there was another gasp from the crowd, and he whirled around, only to catch Malfoy's spell right in the chest. It sent him flying backward, and as he finally caught his footing, he also caught the nasty smirk on Malfoy's face.

"Depulso!" he whispered, and the beam of orange light slammed Malfoy backwards, nearly twenty feet off the stage.

"Enough!" yelled Professor Flitwick. "Mister Potter, go rejoin the other duelers! Mister Malfoy, a week's detention for such an unprovoked attack—in fact, make it two for the Misery Hex you cast! You will return to your dorm immediately!"

Harry was not stupid enough to turn his back to Malfoy again, though he did walk back to the duelers' chairs, where Cedric was waiting to give him a high five.

"Nicely done," he said to Harry, after Malfoy had departed and the next duel had begun. "You did it exactly right; now the entire school knows you disrespect him. Given how you dueled—better showing than I made, that's for sure—that'll be a black mark against him for a long time."

"Thanks," he said. "I was concerned about that Misery Hex, though—I'd never seen it before. I thought Dumbledore was blocking those sorts of things?"

"Well," said Cedric, who frowned, "I don't quite know where he went. You had started dueling, and all of a sudden, he just claps a hand to his ear, and goes sprinting out of the room. Kind of odd, but your duel was really heating up, so it slipped my mind."

"Hmm," said Harry.

That was a question that needed to be answered: where had Dumbledore gone?

"What's the matter, Potter? Not like it that much?"

Harry looked down at the two feet of snow he was standing in, snow that had not existed one evening in mid-December, but had arrived uninvited by the next morning. "Not overly fond of it, Weasley," he said—not to Weasley Junior, but one of the twins, who had joined him and Hermione as they made their way to the carriages waiting to take the students to Hogsmeade station.

"Fun for snowball fights, though," said the twin. "Surely you like those?"

"Not particularly," said Harry.

The twin's eyes jerked open, and his head spun behind him. He made a slashing motion across his throat repeatedly. Harry pretended not to notice.

The other twin came bounding up behind them. His mitts were covered in the powdery snow. Harry pretended not to notice that, either. "Howdy, Potter; Miss Granger," he added respectfully. "Thought you were staying up at the school," he said, back at Harry.

"I am," said Harry. "Well, at least for the holidays. I'm just walking down with Hermione."

"Young love," said the other twin. "Well, far be it for us to disturb it. Come on, Fred; there are other people to pester with snowballs."

"Like our younger brother, George?"


The two bounded off into the snow.

Hermione let out a giggle most uncharacteristic of herself. "You can't deny, Harry, that those two are amusing."

"Bunch of clowns, yeah."

She smiled at him. "Oh, come on. Lighten up a bit—it's almost Christmas." All of a sudden, she scowled. "And if you say 'Bah humbug', I'm going to dump snow down your robes myself."

Harry let out a snort. "What's left to say, then?"

She stopped as they finally made their way onto the cement platform from whence the carriages were departing. "How about, 'Have a great Christmas, Hermione? Enjoy your time with your parents.'"

"Have a great Christmas, Hermione. Enjoy your time with your parents." He paused for a moment. "Really, I mean that. Do have a good Christmas. It'll be quiet here without you."

"Well, don't spend all of your time studying, okay?" she said. "I can barely keep up as it is. If you must do something, invest your time in—"

"You know what I'm going to invest the time in," said Harry. "I'm going to go have a talk with Hagrid right after this to see if he'll let me get the book out of the restricted section."

"Okay, but be nice to him, Harry. He really does like you."

"Yeah, yeah," said Harry, though he smiled. "Fine. When you come back, I expect we'll have a bit of work to do."

"Right, then," she said. For a second she stood there, seemingly unsure, and then she leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek. "Happy Christmas, Harry. I'll see you when you get back," she blurted, as she stepped into a carriage.

"Hermione!" said Harry, shocked. "We're only eleven, for godsake—"

"I'm twelve, and don't you tell me that's too young!" she said, as she grasped the handle to the door. "And I mean it—no studying too hard. Try to relax. You need a bit more fun in your life."

She closed the door, and the covered carriage set off at a brisk pace down to the station.

Harry touched a hand to his cheek.



The remainder of that day Harry spent alone, enjoying the return to comfortable silence. It had not been this quiet since school had started, and he found his consideration of it to be decidedly odd, considering how it was all he'd known before school. It was even odder, he thought, having an enthusiastic—if small—cadre of friends. Speaking of things foreign...

As he climbed the stairs to the Gryffindor dormitories, he couldn't help but think of Christmas, and when he thought of Christmas, it was hard not to let his thoughts drift darker and darker. It was, by and far, his least favorite time of year. It was hard not to think of the Dursleys, try though he might. As it was, he had thought of them far too much, even though it was only to use them as an excuse or as justification to push himself harder to crack the Trace. When he was doing either of those, he could exaggerate them, and make them sound much worse than they actually were (to hear Hermione tell it, they'd beaten him hourly with a mace, and sprinkled his wounds with salt). He was fine using their name as an excuse or to draw pity to him where it was needed. Christmastime, though, brought back the true memories.

He kept going up the stairs, past his own dormitory. What he needed lied at the top.

Even before his accident, Christmases were unpleasant. He had never received a present, though he had been 'allowed' to watch Dudley open the plethora of gifts under their tree for him. They'd told him that if he'd been a better child, they might have bought him one. In truth, he didn't mind. He always gotten to sneak an extra rasher or two of bacon, and maybe even some leftover ham if they forgot to lock his cupboard at night, as they often had.

After the accident, though, it had been far worse. He wasn't even allowed to leave his cupboard on Christmas Day, and the smell of Christmas breakfast, and of Christmas dinner, were enough to drive him mad, and to make his mind come up with all sorts of ideas about apologizing to the Dursleys, of making it up to them—if only he could have some of that ham! The only comfort on Christmas day he'd ever had was a small radio of Dudley's he'd sneaked into his cupboard, and it had been more of a parent to him than either Uncle Vernon or Aunt Petunia. He could keep it on so low that the Dursleys wouldn't hear it if they were standing right on top of him, and it alone made Christmas Days pass.

As he opened the door to the seventh-year dormitory, he reflected upon the fact that the Dursleys would pass Christmas without him—the very first time, cupboarded or not; even Vernon had apparently felt that he couldn't simply turf Harry onto Mrs. Figg on Christmas Day itself. Harry hoped it was a particularly bad Christmas for them; perhaps the can of cranberries would have an unnoticed puncture and they would die of some terrible disease. That would certainly take care of the Trace problem (he'd hardly need to protect himself from them if they were dead), and it would certainly serve them right for how they treated him. It wasn't the occasional smack that got to him—the truth of the matter was that he really wasn't physically abused, at least not in the volume he'd suggested to Hermione. Uncle Vernon had hit him a sum total of three times, and all three times were clouts across the back of the head. No, it wasn't the beatings, but the neglect and the vitriol got him. That, and the mental stuff—the ham and the smell of bacon, for instance.

That was why he hated Christmas—not for the fact that he'd spent it in a cupboard for the past four years, but for the fact that it always brought feelings of insufficiency back that clouded his mind, no matter how hard he tried to ignore them or tell himself that he was not a stupid little boy. For those thoughts, he would make the Dursleys pay some day.

He took the picture off of one of the boy's nightstand. A smiling, happy family waved up at him. He sneered at them, tucked the frame into his backpack, and took off out of the common room, down to the Great Hall for breakfast.

Fortunately, most of his thoughts about the Dursleys were pushed aside, given the overwhelming possibilities an all-but-abandoned school held. After an unusual breakfast gathering (with only a small number of students and a skeleton staff of teachers, the long tables had been replaced with a circular table that sat all thirteen of them comfortably), Harry headed out to the grounds—more for appearances than fresh air—before turning back a half-hour later and heading to the library.

Taking the battered copy of Impractical Magic for Impractical People from its familiar location, Harry made his way to the corner of the library he most preferred for reading. He'd skimmed through the book before, hoping to find anything of use for his pet project, but he hadn't found anything. That was not to say it was useless; it had one of the best-written accounts of runes and runic magic that he could find, and he had hopes that improving his own understanding would prove beneficial, since he knew that wards drew heavily from them.

An irritated-sounding voice interrupted his musings. "-ry's full of utter shite. You too, if you believe a thing he says." Two students clad in Ravenclaw blue sat at a table hiding amongst the stacks. They were playing cards.

"I'm just telling you what he told me," said the boy on the left—Kevin Entwhistle, Harry remembered from study sessions with some of the Ravenclaw boys. "Terry's dad is taking him Trolling in Austria. He promised to bring me back a tusk."

"Right, of course he did. He's a troll himself, the ber—oh, Potter. Hello."

Harry nodded at the white-haired girl in the other seat. "Zabini," he said, and received a nod from her in return. He turned to Kevin and gave the boy a genuine—if very slight—smile. "Kevin, I didn't know you were staying. How did exams go?"

Kevin shrugged. "Well, I suppose. Those sessions were worth it, and Terry was right–you're bloody brilliant at Charms."

Ignoring Zabini's snicker, Harry shrugged. "Hermione dragged me to one of the Charms Club meetings, and I just developed a talent for it. You were dead useful yourself; you and Boot got me through History, no question." It was a lie, of course–one simply did not ace the examination without merit of one's own—but the boy's look of gratitude proved it to be a compliment well placed.

"Anyway," Harry began again, "I see you're both busy. I'll see you around."

He had only gone two steps when Kevin spoke. "Nah, mate. Stay. I've already lost half my Christmas chocolate to Blaise, and I haven't even opened it yet. With three of us, we can play something else, or, at least, you can lose some candy, too." He grinned.

Torn, Harry turned back around. Leaving now would be needlessly rude. And... what was it that Dumbledore had wanted—? Oh, yes. Have fun. He shrugged, and fell into one of the comfortable chairs at the table with a soft whump.

"Right then. Duel?" Kevin asked. Blaise nodded enthusiastically; Harry gave an apathetic shrug.

Kevin shuffled the cards, ignoring the squawks of indignation that came from the pack. He quickly dealt them into three stacks, one of which he handed one to Harry. Harry was about to ask the rules, when Blaise and Kevin both flipped over their top cards. "When in Rome..." muttered Harry, and followed suit.

They were unlike any cards Harry had ever seen before. They had no numbers or even any sort of markings, but for simple pictures drawn on them. Harry's card was a big gorilla-like creature, except for its bright green skin. Blaise's card featured a witch bent over a cauldron, and Kevin's sported a hideous-looking Pixie.

"One! Two! Three! Duel!" the two Ravenclaws shouted.

Harry's eyes widened—moments like these reminded him of just how fantastic the magical world was. Each figure in the card disappeared, only to reappear a moment later in a large, formerly blank card that Kevin had placed in the middle of the table. Then the cards brawled.

Half a minute later, Zabini's witch had finally defeated Harry's gorilla... thing, and all three cards flew of their own volition to a neat little pile beside Zabini's deck.

Harry blinked. "Well, not much of a game, but bloody entertaining."

"Mmm," Kevin mumbled. "One! Two! Three! Duel!"

Zabini's pile was getting dangerously high, twenty minutes later, when Madam Pince swooped in on them. "Noise! Are those—cards? Cards in my library? Have you no respect?! Out, out, all of you—shoo! And count yourselves lucky I don't ban you from here for the entire holiday!"

Chastised, the trio slunk out, and had a grumble about the librarian, while they made their way to the All-House Commons.

"It's ridiculous." Zabini sneered in the rough direction of the library, as she plunked herself into the far less comfortable chair. "Nobody else was even in the library. What's she worried about?"

"Oh, who cares?" said Kevin dismissively, his good nature utterly unchanged. He snickered, even. "You're just angry you got in trouble. Oh Terry, Oh Mandy! You need to behave yourselves!" Zabini's scowl only grew more ferocious. "I bet they'll love to hear about this!"

"Sod off," she jeered, as she reached into her bag. "You two do whatever. I'm reading now."

"About what?" Harry asked, half curious, half in the mood for conversation.

"Just a book–it's about a dangerous Werewolf community."

Harry nodded. "Oh," he said in disappointment, after he caught sight of the title. "Wandering with Werewolves, eh? You know that's written by Lockhart, right?"

"Yeah," said Zabini, slowly, as she lowered the book from her face to reveal an inscrutable expression. "What of it?"

"Nothing," said Harry quickly. "Just—er...—just make sure you check other sources, too. I know Lockhart says in the first couple of chapters that he used a Homunculus Charm on a Werewolf—"

"What's the matter with that?"

"Well," said Harry, "It's not very effective, is it?"

"Out with it, Potter, if you're going to say it."

Harry blushed. "The Homunculus Charm is a cure for impotence. Did you ever look at the Latin? Little man? Come on—"

If Harry's blush was impressive, Zabini's was doubly so. "And just how, Potter, do you know that? Something you aren't telling us?"

"Why don't you find out, Zabini? What do you say—you and me?"

"From the sound of it, Potter, nothing would happen."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, Zabini. Even in the first semester, I've run across two detailed refutations of Lockhart. He's the laughing stock of the academic circle—"

"And you just memorized the refutation?"

"Yeah," said Harry. "Someone's got to make sure that all the innocent minds around here aren't fed nonsense. Honestly, though, Zabini—a Lockhart book? That's not so much a textbook as it is barely disguised smut."

She put the book down hastily. "Fine, then. When I go back to the library, I'll switch it out. There's lots of books on the subject."

"She just got it 'cause she's sweet on Lockhart. Thinks he's a real looker."

"Thank you for your contribution, Kevin," said Zabini. "We all know who you fancy—"

"We do?" asked Harry.

"Of course we do, Potter. Everyone knows that Kev here has got a sweet spot for Granger."

"I do not!" replied Kevin hotly, though his deep blush said differently.

"Anyway—" said Harry, who was uncomfortable with the personal tone the conversation was taking.

Kevin interrupted, obviously eager for the distraction. "Anyway, you can get a new book tonight, Blaise. In fact, we can join my brother—he stayed to use the library."

"Pfft. That's a waste of a holiday, if ever I heard one. Why doesn't he just go home and use your library?"

"Breadth of material. Dad's got a lot of books, yeah, but Chaz says there's no better library in Britain than Hogwarts."

Harry's ears perked up. Steeling himself to keep his voice cool, he responded, "I don't see what's so special about it. There doesn't seem to be anything fantastic about it."

Kevin shrugged. "Yeah, I suppose not."

Harry suppressed a growl of frustration. Sometimes, he just wanted to kill his classmates; they just couldn't take a hint, whether it was to shut up or to speak up. Still, maybe the conversation was salvageable... "Of course, we aren't allowed in the restricted section. Maybe he can use that?"

"Mmm, yeah," Kevin replied. He smirked, as he remembered something. "Actually, it was all he wrote home about last year—how in seventh year, he'd come of age and could go in and out without a permission slip. I tell you, when I was sorted into Ravenclaw, I nearly cried." Kevin shuddered. "I don't want to end up like that, nose in a book all the time."

"You of all people could use it," muttered Blaise.

"What'd you say?"

Harry ignored her. "That's cool. I bet he hooks you up with all sorts of restricted books."

Kevin snorted. "Yeah, right. They don't let him take stuff out, and Mum told me not to pester him about it. Anyway, I guess the books in there have privacy spells cast on them that won't let you take it outside the section itself." Kevin frowned. "Anyway, toss the restricted section and toss my brother–another game of Duel?"

"Yeah, sure," said Harry, though he let his concentration drift to more important matters. That threw a slight kink in his plans...

For days, Harry put off the idea he had concocted, thanks to Kevin's revelation. Finally, late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve day, he acted. He knew he wouldn't get a better chance; every seventh year that had stayed behind was taking the night off, and Harry had seen a bottle of Firewhiskey trade hands several times in the All-House Commons.

That was why he was in the boys' bathroom on the third floor. His hands trembled as he took out the Metamorphing checklist he had made with Tonks. Watching carefully in the mirror—he would be in deep shit if he wasn't exactly accurate—he scrunched his face up and tried his honest best to match the seventh-year Gryffindor, Roderick Fitzgerald. A few moments later, his straight black hair was slightly shorter, curly, and a light blond color—an exact match to the photo of Fitzgerald and his family, which Harry had liberated from the boy's nightstand.

He let go a deep breath. "Not bad," he said, and followed up with a few small tweaks—a mole halfway down the cheek, a couple freckles around the eyes... It wasn't perfect, he was sure, but it ought to fool even Fitzgerald's mother. Nothing could go wrong, assuming Fitzgerald didn't drink himself into a coma within twenty minutes.

Now came the hard part, though. Looking over the checklist once more, he began to grow himself taller. He was unwilling to risk transforming his upper body–too many complications, Tonks had said—so instead, he was relying on padding in his robes to appear bigger. Still, he had to lengthen his legs. Fitzgerald wasn't tall, but he was a foot and a bit taller than Harry.

A minute later, he froze, and held perfectly still. This was the first time he had done the lengthening by himself (he hadn't intended to break his word to Tonks with no good reason, after all—her brain was too valuable to risk alienating her), and his legs were shakier than he'd expected. After another minute, though, and some small, discreet changes, his legs had settled, and he gave his new reflection a grin, shoved the list into his pocket, and, after checking the hall, walked briskly to the library.

It had worked. Madam Pince hadn't even batted an eye when he approached her to enter the restricted section. He wasted no time in setting to work, skimming the shelves, looking for anything on Wards or Government Traces or any of the other million possible tangents that had thus far eluded his grasp.

At last, he found three books that he thought might refer directly to what he was looking for. He pulled up seat to a small table snuggled between two shelves, and opened the first book with slight trepidation—Ministerial Law of Modern England.

The book was nearly eight hundred pages long, and the index itself was almost fifty. There had to be an easier way to find what he was looking for. The spell to search books was on the tip of the tongue... Ah! What was it?—yes! He drew his wand. "Remquaero!" A two-second gap between casting and seeking was ideal, according to Cedric, so he counted to two, and tapped the book. "The trace. Underage wizards."

A number of pages turned pale blue, and glowed visibly, even while the book was still closed. A second later, it flew open of its own volition, as if pushed by a great wind. The flipping pages stopped abruptly right on page two-hundred.

"The first national law restricting the use of magic came into being shortly after the Statute of Secrecy Act of 1692. High controversial, it stipulated that underage wizards..."

He tapped the book again, and it flew through pages once more.

"The first use of a Ministry-administered trace to all wands sold was contested in a number of cases before becoming law, the most noteworthy in terms of future precedent being *R. v. Troubleworth 1701..."*

And so it continued, both dry and useless.

Harry scratched his leg, which seemed to be falling asleep, and turned to the next book, A Treatise on Magical Theory and its Applications in Modern Ward Structures. Taking a breath of anticipation, he performed the Searching Charm once more. "Removing the trace."

The book did nothing.

Frowning, Harry considered his words more carefully. "Wands."

As expected, an absurd amount of blue light radiated from the book, and it opened itself to the first page.

Scratching his leg again, he thought deeply. "Spells administered to wands."

That turned out to be the most satisfactory search yet. A large, yet definite section at the back of the book lit up, and opened to the first marked page.

Harry skimmed through it for half an hour, and his face brightened by the moment. Although he understood only one word in ten of what the book actually talked about, it was obvious that this was the key he needed. Or rather, it might not open the door itself, but it would certainly open all the ones leading to it...

Suddenly, a wave of dizziness overtook him, and Harry stood up slowly for fear of toppling over. The sun was setting, and there was a Christmas tea before dinner, which he had ought to attend... He rubbed his eyes. The whole set of events was giving him the beginning of what was sure to be a terrible headache.

The headache was uncharacteristically strong, though. He cursed silently as he set the books back in the stacks, and closed his eyes tightly as another spasm of pain ran through him. He clapped a hand to his scar and turned around, eager to leave the library before it got any worse. Thankfully, Madam Pince was not at the front desk to ask any questions.

The growing feeling of illness caused him to step in double-time toward the third floor. The second he arrived in the bathroom, he grabbed a sink to keep himself upright, and scrunched his face. Relief flooded through him once his normal face came back into view. In short order, the rest of him was righted; he was oddly thankful to be more than a full foot shorter than he had been before.

Smiling shakily, he took one step towards the exit.

As he transferred the weight from his rear leg to his front leg, his legs collapsed beneath him with a sickening crunch. He wasn't able to prevent himself from screaming.

"I know that you're conscious, Mr. Potter. I've been monitoring you for the last half-hour—I'm not going to be fooled because you are keeping your eyes closed."

Harry opened his eyes slowly. The pain he'd experienced before passing out was going to be nothing compared to the pain he was likely to face from Madam Pomfrey. It was best to get it over with as soon as possible.

"What happened?" he asked, trying for all his worth to be the very image of innocence.

Madam Pomfrey's—and as he had just noticed, Professor McGonagall's—identical scowls told him just how well he succeeded.

"I think you know very well what happened, Mr. Potter. Magic is forbidden in the hallways, so you sneaked into the bathroom. Don't think I haven't had students try that before." McGonagall paused, her lips drawn tightly in a line of disapproval. "What were you up to?"

Harry's mind raced as he tried to remember what Tonks had told him about 'normal' human transfiguration and possible errors. "Engorging Charm on my legs, Professor," he said, eyes cast on the white blanket covering him. "Only thought to add a few inches."

McGonagall's scowl deepened. "There are reasons, Mr. Potter, that the spell used to increase the size of a cushion are not those we place on our own bodies. There is also a reason we do not practice magic by ourselves in washrooms, and reasons why we do not attempt heavily-monitored fifth year spells in our first term. Am we clear?"

"Yes, Professor," Harry mumbled. His voice rang with true embarrassment.

Apparently satisfied that he had listened–for now, at any rate–she softened ever-so-slightly. "You've missed Christmas tea," she said, "but dinner will be another hour, and as Madam Pomfrey did not have to remove the broken bones themselves, you should be fine. You will attend—I suppose I'll have to keep an eye on you, from now on—and not be off doing who-knows-what. In future, if you must experiment with spells far beyond your capability, see me first, and I can avert any future displays of folly."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Well, then, Mr. Potter. Since you've been doing so well in my class, and in other classes, as I hear, I see no need to further punish you for a moment of indiscretion. Enjoy Christmas, and I shall see you at dinner in an hour."

As McGonagall left, Madam Pomfrey turned on him once more. She was scowling. "You're a lucky boy, you know that? Had we found you any later, you'd've had to regrow both your legs. As it was, blood replenishing potions and some minor spellwork on your bones seem to have put you right. You'll take nutrition supplements for the bones for a fortnight, though. Thank your guardian angel, though, that you weren't more seriously hurt. You could have ruptured any number of arteries."

"I'm sorry, for what it's worth."

Madam Pomfrey just tsked. "Honestly, you children. If I ever made a spell to cure a lack of common sense, I could retire. Now, give yourself ten minutes to rest up, and then be off with yourself. Healers have Christmas, too, you know," she said, and left him lying there alone.

As Harry's mind cleared, he fought to keep a grin off his face (Madam Pomfrey would kill him for wearing it, he was half certain). Despite the fact that his legs prickled painfully, albeit not as excruciatingly as before, and despite the fact that he was not nearly as adept at his Metamorph talents as he thought he was, for the first time in months, he had made progress on the frustrating puzzle—a lot of progress.

He reached into his robes to ensure that the checklist was still in there. While he did need to review it, clearly, it also held the name of the book he had been reading, and two more that, even in his brief read, had been referenced several times.

Now, he just needed a way to get them...

Harry awoke Christmas morning feeling quite happy, which he owed largely to the fact that he didn't have to see the Dursleys (or rather, see the inside of his cupboard). He spent a bit of time lounging alone in his bed, reliving the festivities that had started with a fantastic dinner the night before. Professor McGonagall had stayed true to her word, and hadn't mentioned his escapade at all, though she did give him a knowing smile. The entire evening had been enjoyable.

As he got out of bed, he had to stop abruptly. To his shock, there was a massive pile of gifts at the foot of his bed (massive... well, not nearly what Dudley would be getting, no doubt, but certainly more than he had ever had before, and more than he had dared to hope).

As he went through them, he noted that a large proportion were chocolates and sweets, generally from acquaintances or admirers. Quite a few congratulated him on his win over Malfoy a month ago. Most were from people clearly wanting to befriend Harry Potter. The Weasley twins had sent him a box of his own Wizpoppers, though in an assortment of colors, unlike the solid set they had given to Ron previously. Ron himself had given him chocolates, and it appeared that the Weasley matriarch had even sent something, a hand-knit sweater with a very garish golden 'H' on the front. Thankfully, none of the Weasleys were in the castle to make sure he wore it.

More importantly, Hermione had given him a rather posh Muggle pen set, and he was very suddenly grateful he had taken the time to send an anthology of what Cedric had assured were classical wizarding poems. Katie had left him a pair of well-made Seeker gloves, which made his gift of a similar set—but for Chasers—rather appropriate.

The gifts rounded out with a few cards and a book about beginner's dueling from Cedric. The very last, and tucked flat underneath all the rest, was a soft package bearing no name, though there was a card attached to it with the following words penned in black ink:

*Your father left this in my possession when he died. It is time it was returned to you. Use it well.

A Very Merry Christmas to you*

Harry frowned and opened the package. Inside was a silky, soft material, which he removed from the package to examine. It was sheer, and he could see right through the fabric—that was, until he wrapped it around his arm, and he couldn't see the fabric at all. Nor, for that matter, could he see his arm. It had vanished, and with a jolt, he pulled the cloak off of his arm quickly, only to find his arm there, unharmed.

Slowly, he put his arm under it again, and watched both it and the fabric disappear. He could feel the fabric, and he could still his fingers... Warily, he put it over his entire body, and looked for his reflection in Dean's mirror. It was not there; he was not there.

He took the cloak off and folded it neatly before placing it on his bed. He picked up the letter once more.

Use it well.

Harry turned back, scowling at the cloak. It was awfully convenient, all things considered. Its invisibility would undoubtedly be useful to him, but the cynic in him dwelt on the fact that someone wanted him to have the ability to disappear, and that it was a liability in the first place that someone knew he had the capability. Perhaps it was better to be visible and naturally cautious than invisible and overconfident; after all, it had to be a professor who sent it to him, after all, since the package was too big for an owl to hold, and he could not imagine that any student was old enough to have known his father in any great capacity. It was precisely the sort of scheme he might expect from Snape—encourage Harry to break curfew, and then catch him and have him expelled. If it truly was his father's, then he'd hold on to it, but he would be damned if he would use it unless it was necessary.

Christmas spirit tempered by feelings of uneasiness for the moment, he packed up his presents, placed the silvery cloak at the very bottom of his trunk, and locked it up tight. A walk by the lake would clear his head, and keep his mind from the new mystery and on the Trace—exactly where it needed to be.

Later that afternoon, he found himself in the library again. Being a seventh year obviously had its advantages, since he hadn't gotten the Madam Pince glare as Fitzgerald, but it had been back in full force when he entered with his own face. Once he had settled into a corner with a few good books, she let him be, though (well, for the most part; she had restocked books a few shelves over for a bit, humming angrily as she did, but he had not seen nor heard her for the past few hours).

He understood the basics of the problem he was researching: the Strokes of the Trace wrapped around the Anti-Tampering Charm on his wand; tampering with either the Strokes or the Anti-Tampering Charm would set off an alarm at the Ministry. The alert could be forestalled with the use of a Containment Ward, and once contained, fully stopped by means of a simple Finite Incantatem. Once that was done, it was fairly simple to break the complex charm—they mostly had to make sure that they didn't destabilize it and damage the wand, or cause it to blow up in their face.

In other words, they were close—they understood how to read the Strokes; they understood the essentials of drawing the Ward. What they didn't understand was exactly how to draw the Ward—though Harry's previous sojourn confirmed for him that he could learn through one of the books in the restricted section—and they didn't know how the Anti-Tampering Charm reacted exactly to the Containment Ward. That, too, could be learned from the books in the restricted section. What Harry needed was a way to get the books, and to be able to read them on his own time. His Metamorph skills were insufficient, and the Invisibility Cloak he had just received was an equally terrible option, since he knew that many of the books in the library were, in fact, charmed to wail if they were removed after hours. He could break the charm, he supposed, but to do that he would have to know the Containment Ward...

Life was just an arse, sometimes.

It didn't hurt to try, though. With a quick, discreet jab of his wand and a few whispered words, the left lens on his glasses showed him the otherworldly threads of magic. Blinking once or twice to adjust himself to the brightness, he glanced down at the book in front of him. Studying spell identification for a few months hardly made him an expert, but he could pick apart quite a few bits of the multi-part charm on the books. It was not as complex as the Trace, but there were more actual parts to it than the former. Harry could make out a Caterwauling Charm that would go off in quite a few conditions. He wasn't talented enough to immediately understand how the Conditional Trigger spells worked, but there were quite a few, and it would take more time to crack the enchantment on the books than it would to find another way to get his hands on them. Perhaps he could utilize the Duplication Charm he learned while in Charms Club?

It was worth a shot. He pulled out a piece of parchment from his backpack and wrote on it. "Geminio!"

The parchment made an exact copy, quill marks and all.

He bit his lip. The charm could last for quite a few hours, so it was certainly a viable solution. However, he had his suspicions...

"Geminio!" he said again, casting on the book in his hand.

It let out a terrible wail, and continued to do so until he snapped it shut.

He swore under his breath. He should have known that it wouldn't have been that easy. Madam Pince came tearing around the corner. Her cheeks were splotchy red from running. "And just what do you think you're doing?" she half-asked, half-yelled at him.

"Just trying to copy a page," said Harry. "Sorry—I didn't know it wasn't allowed..."

"Well, it's not!" she snapped at him. "We can't have people just copying books will-he-nil-he, or else there'd be books lying around everywhere. It'd be chaos, I tell you! If you need to know the information, you'll need to write it down yourself."

"Okay," said Harry. "I'm sorry."

"What were you copying, anyway? Trying to get away with some mischief? Attempting to steal valuable information?"

"Just a page out of Impractical Magic for Impractical People, honestly," he said.

"Humph. I've got my eyes on you," she said. "Whoever heard of a first year studying Runes? You must be up to something."

She stalked away, and Harry watched her incredulously as she left. "Seriously?" he asked to nobody in particular. "Why does everyone seem to begrudge me my reading? And—" He paused for a moment to scratch his head. "—doesn't she ever take a vacation?"

Even after ten minutes had passed, he was unable to settle down into reading again. There was something unnerving him. Perhaps it was just Pince, who had been hawkish even for her normally hawkish self, but at any rate, he had read the same sentence over at least twelve times, and had gotten no further. He finally put it down and stood up. A walk would do him good, and would freshen his mind on how to get a hold on those books. Tonks was too law-abiding to help him; his Metamorph skills didn't seem to last long enough to let him do any serious perusal, and while he could use his cloak in the day, mysteriously-turning pages seem amiss, even in the magical halls of Hogwarts. That left him with no options, unless he could get a teacher to allow him to withdraw it. Fat chance of that happening, too.

As he walked through the stacks, he pondered. Breaking the charm on the books was an option, though one that would unnecessarily delay him. It might even challenge him to the point that he couldn't finish the Trace. Yet—what alternative was there?

He stopped in his tracks outside a door that he hadn't noticed he had been walking toward. How very strange—he had intended to go find himself a glass of water. For the life of him, he couldn't remember what had dissuaded him.

He opened the door and peeked inside. It was obviously an abandoned classroom; there were desks pushed to the side, and now, in the middle of the room, sat a large, ornate mirror.

"Huh," said Harry to himself. He felt like going in—but no, he had things to do, and it wasn't proper just to go snooping in any old room. He shut the door, turned around, and made his way to the front, where the House Elves kept a pitcher of water for the library goers.

He drank deeply from the glass, but nearly spewed out what he had in his mouth when someone put a hand on his shoulder.

"Who—?" he began to ask, but by the time he had spun around, he knew. "Oh, sorry, Professor. You caught me off guard."

Professor Dumbledore smiled down at Harry. "I daresay that I've done that to students once or twice before. Hello, Harry. You're having a Merry Christmas, I hope?"

"Yes, sir. Very merry so far."

"Come now, Harry. You can be honest with me. Are you not very much a Christmas person?"

"No," he replied, "I'm not, sir. Why do you ask?"

"I believe, beyond Madam Pince, that you're the only person to enter the library today."

Harry shook his head. "Patently untrue, sir, seeing as you're here, as well."

Dumbledore looked at Harry starkly for a moment. After a moment's contemplation, he shook his head, a wry smile on his face. "Yes, indeed, but I'm here only to retrieve you. Are you not coming for the dinner?"

"I wasn't aware it was that close to dinner, Headmaster," said Harry. As he said it, he noticed that the candles were lit in the library.

"It's half six," replied Dumbledore. "The hour for dinner quickly approaches. Will you come with me down to the Great Hall, or are you going to remain here?"

The look Dumbledore was giving him was clear. "I'll come, sir. Just let me go retrieve my bag—"

"No need," said Dumbledore. "Was it just your bag?"

"Er—yes," said Harry. "I suppose I could just summon it, couldn't I?"

Dumbledore only raised an eyebrow.

"Accio bookbag!" whispered Harry, his wand extended. In less than five seconds, he had his bag slung across his shoulder. "Ready, Headmaster."

Dumbledore turned on the spot, and set a leisurely pace out of the library. "I admit a bit of shock, Harry, that you are capable of such magic at your age."

"We learned it in Charms Club, sir."

Dumbledore raised his eyebrow again at Harry, as they rounded the grand staircase.

"Er—that is to say, I learned it in Charms Club, sir. I don't know what the big deal is. It's not particularly hard magic when you put your mind to it."

Dumbledore kept silent for a few moments. "I would assume that is the reason, Harry. You seem to be a person of remarkable mental composition, especially for your age. The connection between magic and intelligence has rarely been explored, but in my experience, the two are connected." They stepped onto the ground floor. "While I agree that the magic for the Summoning Charm isn't terribly difficult, it is on the fourth-year curriculum for a reason. Many of our students cannot handle it before them. Some even fail to grasp it thereafter. You ought to be careful when casting such advanced magic."

"I honestly don't see why, sir," said Harry. "It's not advanced to me."

"I'll explain it to you in a few moments, Harry," said Dumbledore. "I will have to say something at dinner, but please—sit with me, and we shall speak."

The Great Hall was decked out in Christmas finery. The massive pines that Hagrid had been bringing into the hall the past week were covered in tinsel and had thousands of tiny candles floating in them. The entire hall smelled of turkey and ham; the aroma itself was almost palpably delicious, even if there was no actual food on the tables. The other eleven left in the school (but for Harry and Dumbledore themselves) were sitting, waiting patiently.

Harry made to sit down a few places from Dumbledore, but he clapped a hand on Harry's back. "On my right, if you would, Harry."

"Yes, sir."

Harry did as he was told, and sat to the right of the tall-backed chair of the headmaster, next to Professor McGonagall, and on the other side to Professor Snape, who leaned past the standing headmaster and glared at Harry.

Dumbledore cleared his throat. "Well, now that we are all united—"

Harry could tell Snape's eyes were burning into the side of his skill.

"—A very happy Christmas to you all. It is not often that we might all sit together so intimately and keep company, and have the opportunity to speak with no bigger concerns awaiting us, but I believe those moments are the most important in the year. If we are to grow, we must always remember to regard our friends and colleagues. Neglect of friends is a sin that I myself am somewhat guilty of—I apologize to those of you who needed me and found me too busy—but I hold it to myself and to each of you now that if we are to make this world a better one, we must hold these bonds. For this reason, I invite you to eat with me, to drink with me, and to be merry with me."

Dumbledore raised his wand, and with a flick, glasses of wine appeared in front of each of them. The man took his own glass and hoisted it. "To my dear friends and colleagues; to the health, the prosperity, and the love of all of us; and to He, who has seen it in His wisdom to gather us all here today."

All the professors raised their glasses and drank; Harry and the other few students followed suit shortly thereafter.

The food appeared, and it looked twice as good as it smelled. At Dumbledore's urging, Harry took liberally, and started in on the mashed potatoes.

There was a whisper of magic, a few months later, and Harry thought he saw Dumbledore tuck his wand discreetly into his sleeve. Dumbledore turned to him a few seconds later. "Where were we, Harry? I've forgotten our conversation."

"We were speaking, sir," said Harry, amidst a mouthful, "about why Hogwarts' curriculum is so easy."

Dumbledore chuckled. "I don't quite recall phrasing it that way. What I was saying—and thank you for reminding me—is that you should consider yourself the exception rather than the rule, Harry. The majority of your classmates cannot perform such magic. To say that Hogwarts' curriculum is easy is just not true, though. Consider how many of your classmates struggle even with the first spell you learned."

"So am I just more powerful? Smarter? What, then? What lets me do it where they fail?"

"I would be very careful suggesting that, Harry. The concept of 'power' is a misleading one; it is only a function of practice and fitness. Some of us start out more fit, more aware of our own skill, and correspondingly do better. Others—like Squibs, for example—might have the very same capability as we do, but for some reason, lack the natural instincts toward magic that we wizards have. To use an analogy, it is very hard to teach a deaf person to speak when they've been deaf since birth. It can be done, but we lack the resources, and, honestly, the patience to see it happen but in rare cases."

"I... I don't see, sir."

"It's simply to say that you're no more 'powerful' than Ms. Granger or Mr. Weasley. You might understand your connection to your magic better, but magic is magic. None of us own it."

"Now I see," said Harry. "So I'm still an oddity, though."

"Hardly," replied Dumbledore, and he clapped a hand on Harry's shoulder. "Your father was rather a capable wizard, and so was your mother. It's no surprise that you're capable, but it remains to be seen whether or not you're a prodigy. Gifted, intellectually, I would gather from our conversations, but being magically gifted is extremely rare. Why, the last person who I saw that was magically—"

Dumbledore paused for a second, and looked at Harry. "—The man to my left, Harry. Unusually prodigious with a wand. You would hardly believe that Potions are not his area of expertise."

"Him, sir?!" Harry leaned in close to Dumbledore. "But he's—" He stopped himself, and mentally berated himself for even thinking of being disrespectful. "Excuse me, sir, and forget I even began that sentence."

"Go ahead, Harry. I've cast a Notice-Me-Not Charm on us both. Nobody will pay us any attention unless we draw attention to ourselves. You may speak freely."

Harry nodded in appreciation. "He's a—I mean, he's just—"

"Unpleasant?" At Harry's nod, Dumbledore grinned. "Well, yes, at times, I suppose, but that's somewhat natural amongst the most intelligent people in a community. How many of your own classmates, Harry, would call you 'unpleasant', I wonder?"

Harry sat back in his chair and couldn't find the words to continue.

Dumbledore wore that pleased expression for much of the dinner, and—ensnared as he was by Professor Sprout, who wanted to talk about her Bluebell Tunicates—did not talk to Harry much before the end. Harry, for his own part, pondered. The group seemed to get rowdier and rowdier by the minute (Harry noticed the bottles of wine going down quite a bit), and before the end of the dinner, Hagrid had kissed Professor McGonagall on the cheek, and she had not only blushed, but giggled.

How he longed for the silence of the library.

It was not to be so, though. After a pithy comment to her, Zabini engaged him in conversation a few minutes later; she had apparently picked up a different book on Werewolves, and had found the same refutation of Lockhart that Harry had read.

"I can't believe he gets away with printing such blatant horse manure," she said, as she ran a hand through her white hair. "I don't know why nobody has publicly denounced him yet."

Harry frowned. "I'd imagine they have," he said. "It's not like his facts are hard to—why are you doing that?"

"Why am I doing what?" she asked.

"You keep running your hand through your hair all weird and blinking at me."

"I am?"

"Yes, you are, Zabini. Stop it."

"Call me Blaise, Harry."

Harry made a look of real confusion. "Zabini, just what do you think you're doing?"

"I'm not doing anything, Harry."

"Ugh." He turned his head down to his mashed potatoes, but looked up when Hagrid let out a great big guffaw.

"And that, my dear friend Rubeus, is why we make Centaurs back against the wall when they are drinking with us," finished Dumbledore, with a mirthful smile. He turned to Harry. "Common sense, don't you think?"

"I'm sorry," said Harry. "I didn't hear the joke."

"No matter," said Dumbledore, dismissing the issue with a flick of his hand. "There is an old proverb, Harry: 'Do not look a gift horse in the mouth'. The joke suggests that one should not look a drunk Centaur in the rear, or, for that matter, stand behind one."

"Common sense enough, I suppose, sir," said Harry, as he wiped his mouth, put his napkin down, and pushed his seat out.

"Are you leaving already, Harry?" asked Dumbledore, sadness playing about his face.

"I think so, sir," said Harry. "I want to get back to the library before it closes."

"I am to take it, then, that you didn't heed my request to relax, and to spend as much time being a child as you could?"

"Is that what you were after when you asked me not to read books, sir?"

"Not to read books? You misinterpreted me, Harry. I encourage you to read as much as you like. I've just observed that you often eschew the company of your peers for the company of books. While books may teach us a lot, they don't teach us how to live, or how to have fun—and they're rather poor company on Christmas Day, I might say." Dumbledore's face reflected his compassion and concern.

"So you want me to read, but also to have fun?"


"Sir," said Harry, slowly. "Books are how I have fun right now. There's so much to learn here—I can't imagine not wanting to try and swallow up as much knowledge as possible."

Dumbledore appeared to mull that over for a few moments. "Very well, Harry. I suppose it's not really this old man's place to interfere in the social lives of his students. I am only concerned for you, that is all."

"I appreciate your concern, sir, but I enjoy reading, and I enjoy learning. You don't have to watch me like a hawk—I'm just reading."

Dumbledore nodded. "Fair enough." Slowly, a grin spread over his face. "I'm sure you're the only first year ever to figure out how I watch my students interact with each other. Your father, trouble-maker that he was, would have been proud."

"But, sir," said Harry, with a heavy heart at the mention of his father, "I haven't figured it out, yet."

Dumbledore opened his mouth to speak. It took him a moment. "Did you not just say that you knew I had been watching you?"

"No," said Harry. "In fact, I said nothing of the sort, sir. I only knew you had been paying attention because you cornered me on my reading in the first place."

"Oh," said Dumbledore, who blinked. "Well, in truth, Harry, I watch all of my first year students, and I have, ever since I was appointed Headmaster."

Harry mentally vacillated between merely acknowledging the man, and pointing out how gross a breach of privacy that was. Dumbledore took the choice out of his hands. "Only when they are in public, of course," said Dumbledore. "The private lives of my students are not really my concern—in fact, I can remember several times in the past years that I chose deliberately to ignore the comings and goings of the Head Boy and Girl, precisely because I was positive that I would have to put an end to happy rendezvouses—but I like to observe when my students are in public, because it lets me adapt our teaching and our discipline on a case-to-case basis."

"I think it might be going a bit too far, sir," said Harry, who knew that he wasn't going to score points for the response, but was disturbed enough to say it.

"Perhaps," said Dumbledore. "I do not feel so, though, and nor do my senior staff. It is minimally invasive, and definitely allows us to provide better service to our pupils."

"A gain at the cost of personal liberty is no gain at all, sir," said Harry.

Dumbledore looked at Harry incredulously, before bursting out laughing.


"Forgive me," said Dumbledore, as he wiped a tear from his eye. "You just continually surprise me, Harry. I would not expect many eleven-year-olds to remember such a quote, let alone understand it enough to paraphrase it. Where ever did you learn it?"

"I did listen to the radio, sir, a lot when I was with my relatives."

"No doubt you were a fan of editorial."

"Yes, sir. I've always enjoyed politics, sir, ever since I started listening. It's just a giant puzzle for the mind: once you know how someone is going to act, you can see what's going to come next."

Dumbledore shook his head. "Sometimes, Harry, I cannot believe you are a real person. You certainly are wise beyond your years."

"Thank you, sir," said Harry. "Let me ask you a question, though: do you offer your students the opportunity to know when they're being monitored?"

"No," said Dumbledore. "That would defeat the purpose. I do not feel I overstep my boundaries, Harry—I might remind you, I am headmaster here, and it is certainly within my rights, and, I would argue, my obligations as a guardian of the pupils here to ensure that they are not encountering any bullying or whatnot."

"But admittedly you don't put a stop to it if you see it—"

"That's not—"

"—You told me as much about Malfoy. You said 'we have to give him the opportunity to make his own errors'. So what good is spying if you don't act on it?"

"There is more to building good character than simply correcting someone, Harry. I would not punish someone for something I oversaw, unless it was very serious. I can, however, direct softer punishment or correction that is often times more effective than a slap on the wrist."

"I feel like we're talking in circles here, sir. I'd like to know when you are watching."

"I cannot directly relinquish that information, Harry. If I did, I would lose one of my most effective methods of monitoring and educating."

"Does the Board of Directors know that you do this?"

"Yes, they are aware," said Dumbledore. "In fact, the procedure was first recommended unanimously by the board after the resignation of my precursor, Headmaster Dippet. It was felt that he had been remiss in observing his students after a number of younger students entered into the service of Herr Grindelwald. Moreover, during a review of the practice ten years later, it was felt that Dippet's failure to observe his students was responsible indirectly for the rise to power of one Tom Riddle, whom you know as Lord Voldemort."

"Oh," said Harry.

Dumbledore put down his fork. "I'll make you a bargain, Harry. I'm sure you can see the benefit of such monitoring, but unless I am mistaken, your main objection is that you, yourself, are being monitored, no?"

Harry nodded.

"Then I will give you this. Leave me my method, legitimate as it is, though suspect though you may find it to be, and I'll tell you how to counteract it, though I cannot stop watching you, nor any other student; in this matter, the Board of Governors and I are in agreement. Do we have a deal?"

Harry paused for a few moments. There had to be a catch here—Dumbledore would not give up such information so freely... Yet he could see no such catch. "It's a deal," he said, and shook the offered hand. "Now, what do I need to do—?"

"You'll find enough information to figure out the answer in the library," said Dumbledore, with a hint of a smile. "Miranda Goshawk's books—"

"—The Standard Books—?"

"—Yes, those, and especially the seventh-year text. You ought to be able to piece it together." His smile became a positively feral grin.

"Will I even be able to perform the spells in that book?"

"That," said Dumbledore, "remains to be seen."

Harry eyed the headmaster warily. "Our relationship, sir, is confusing. I can't tell if you're secretly encouraging me or actively hoping for my failure."

Dumbledore shook his head. "I hope all of my pupils succeed, Harry. You are no exception. I might not spoon-feed you the things you need to know, but I do believe I provide means to it all."

"Yet you spy on me and tell me you don't want me to read books—"

"We've covered both issues already, my boy, and you are drastically oversimplifying both of them."

"Fine," snapped Harry, "but do you understand why I'm not sure you and I are on the same team?"

"Has it gone so far," asked Dumbledore, "that we must consider 'team'? I must admit that I am surprised you have motive enough to consider us being opposed."

"I'm not considering us opposed, Headmaster. I'm merely wondering why you're making it so hard—"

"—And I wonder what purpose you might have that you consider me in your way. I cannot just tell you everything you wish to know. You would hardly learn that way."

"Then tell me where I need to look to find out why you abandoned my duel with Malfoy and let him cast a dark curse at me."

"An act for which he was punished, Harry," said Dumbledore, who sighed deeply.

"Sir," said Harry, "I feel like you're trying to dodge the question."

Dumbledore stiffened. "Have you explored the third floor corridor?"

"No," said Harry, and he rolled his eyes. "Funny enough, when you said 'imminent death' at the opening feast, I assumed you meant 'imminent death'."

Dumbledore dismissed Harry's comment with a swift flick of his hand. "An exaggeration. A student could be seriously injured, Harry, but one as resourceful as you ought to be fine."

"So you left to go visit this third floor corridor?" asked Harry.

"Yes," said Dumbledore.

"And what on earth was so pressing that you had to leave?"

Dumbledore smiled. "Ah. That's for you to figure out."

"The stone, I'd bet."

Dumbledore's smile dissolved into a look of shock. "And you know of this how?"

"I'm resourceful."

"A statement more apt by the minute, Harry. At any rate, keep that to yourself, please. I was called away to deal with the stone, yes."

"Someone was obviously after it," said Harry. "But who?"

Dumbledore didn't say anything.

Harry took a bite of his own cold ham, and sat back and chewed for a few moments. "You're awfully quiet, sir. Who was after it?"

"Who do you think stands to gain the most from stealing it, Harry?"

"Anyone, sir. Immortality is an awfully profitable gain."

"Yes, but one of the lesser-known features of the Elixir of Life is that it restores the enfeebled back to strength."

"The picture I saw of Nicholas Flamel showed him to be quite young, yes."

"Oh, you did do your homework thoroughly, didn't you?"

"I try not to make a habit of being under-informed, sir."

"Anyway, is there someone who you can think of who would benefit especially from both?"

Harry pondered. "No, sir. Well, not unless you mean—"

"I think you may know better than you think, Harry."

"I wasn't aware he was still alive. Is he capable enough to make a grab for it?"

Dumbledore nodded. His lips were set in a tight line. "I believe so."

Harry put down his fork and rocked back. "I don't know what to even say."

"It is... not easy to consider," admitted Dumbledore. "I have yet to figure out how he did it, or to prove how he is working to get the stone."

"Why don't you just keep it on you at all times?" demanded Harry.

Dumbledore chuckled, which was an odd sound, given how serious the conversation was. "I don't think you appreciate how much an old man must sleep, Harry. It is better guarded as it is."

"You believe you have sufficient defenses in place?" he asked.

"Yes," answered the headmaster. "Yes, and I am constantly improving them."

"Good," said Harry, and he sat back once more. "Are—are you sure he's back, sir?"

Dumbledore nodded slowly, morosely. "I am afraid that I know for fact, Harry, that he is back, in one form or another."

"And what are you doing about it, sir?"

"What am I doing about it? I thought it was clear I was defending the stone—"

"No, that's not what I mean," said Harry. "I mean, to eradicate him for good. Defending is only defending. How are you attacking?"

"I admit I am not, Harry."

"You can't catch a Snitch with just a Keeper, Headmaster."

"You cannot play a game when the opponent refuses to show up, Harry, and disappears entirely off the radar. I assure you I am tracking him to the best of my ability. Trust in me. I am an old hand at this."

Harry nodded. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean to imply that you were not committed—"

"That is fine, Harry. What you say holds weight, but I happen to be far better informed than you are."

"Is there anything that I can do, sir?"

Dumbledore folded his napkin and set it down beside his plate. He ran his fingers through his beard before he answered. "At this time, no. However, do be on guard, if you would. If you see anything suspicious, let Professor McGonagall know—I trust her completely."

Dumbledore was silent for a few moments more. "But do trust me, Harry," said Dumbledore. "I will perhaps recall some of the old guard, just as a precaution..."

"I'll trust you, sir," said Harry. He grinned. "Just be sure that you're spying on the right people."



The remainder of Harry's winter break was uneventful, and the return of his classmates chased the last vestiges of quiet from every crevice of the castle. Neville, Katie, and Ron all sought him out to ask after his holiday, though Hermione avoided looking him in the eye for several days. That suited Harry just fine, since he could barely hold back a blush in her presence.

Most of the post-holiday conversations were delayed by classes resuming. The workload was a lot heavier than before the break; the professors were obviously trying to make up for lost time. The first week back, McGonagall assigned them a two-foot essay on inter-species transfiguration, tiny Professor Flitwick gave anyone who didn't master the Lightweight Charm extra homework, and Professor Snape gave a pop quiz that half the class failed—which, incidentally, he used as an excuse to berate Neville Longbottom for twenty minutes at the beginning of the next class. It didn't help that a flu outbreak sidelined nearly a fifth of the students, so many that Professor Dumbledore had to expand the infirmary to bed them all. The illness sidetracked study groups, threw clubs into disarray, and soured the mood in the school. Some of the older, more paranoid students actually took to walking down hallways with the Bubblehead Charm to keep from catching anything.

One of the few happy groups was the Gryffindor Quidditch team, since Oliver Wood had caught the bug and had been out of commission for nearly a week. None of them (bar Wood, when he was conscious and cogent) had any desire to practice in the bracing Scottish winter. Still, Wood had insisted that they practice, even if he was not there to supervise, and Angelina and Alicia wholeheartedly promised to do so. The practices took place in front of the common room fire, and the drills, on the whole, involved hot cocoa.

"Honestly, he should be more worried about the classes he's missing. His OWLs are coming up in a few months, and he's not the best student in the first place," said Angelina, after a tedious team meeting with the irritable captain in the Hospital Wing. Harry was not enjoying having his busy schedule interrupted by what amounted to Wood whining about being stuck in the hospital bed and not being able to direct practices. This particular meeting had taken them almost to curfew, like most of the others, and the rest of the Gryffindor Quidditch team was hurrying houseward to avoid detention—well, Harry amended, he and the three chasers were; the Weasley twins were pretty much doing what they always did, but, thankfully, they hadn't stuck around. Harry didn't really feel like serving detention as an unwilling accomplice.

He nudged Katie, who was walking beside him. "What are OWLs?" he whispered, curious to know.

"Ordinary Wizarding Levels. We take them in fifth year. Mostly, they tell you what classes you can take for your NEWTs in seventh year," she whispered back.

Harry nodded, although he didn't know what NEWTs were either. He presumed they were some sort of standardized test like the OWLs, and that was good enough for him.

"Are they hard?" he asked Angelina.

"Hmm? The OWLs? I wouldn't know—I don't take them until next year. Judging by what I've heard, though, they're difficult. I s'pose they're as hard as you let them be." She glanced back behind them. "Percy Weasley has been going on about them since the first day of last year, but I don't think anyone else takes them quite as seriously. They do limit your career choices, though, if you mess them up too bad."

"Ah," said Harry.

Alicia looked over at him. "My older brother took his a couple of years ago, Pumpkin—"

"—Ugh. Alicia, I thought I told you not to call me that?"

She stuck her tongue out at Harry. "Anyway, he took his OWLS, and said that he over-studied somethin' fierce, but he scored straight 'E's across the board—"


"—'Exceeds Expectations'. It goes 'O'—that's for 'Outstanding'; then 'E'; 'A' for 'Acceptable', 'P' for 'Poor', and 'D' stands for 'Dreadful'."

"'E' is a pretty decent grade," said Angelina, as she peeked around the corner to the corridor leading up to the Fat Lady. "No job really asks for anything more than an E on your OWLs or in your NEWTs. 'O' is pretty rare and difficult to get—in fact, only the top two or three students in the year might get one—"

"—and we're not all Percy Bloody Weasley," said Alicia, who turned the corner at Angelina's all-clear thumbs-up.

"Yeah, well," said Angelina, "A couple of profs won't let you go farther on in their subject if you don't score well on the OWL for their subject. McGonagall and Flitwick both want 'E's, and Snape, the stingy bastard—" She looked around nervously, obviously double-checking that the severe man was not there. "—won't let you into NEWT Potions unless you have an O."

"So he's got a small class, I'd bet," said Harry. "I wouldn't want to be in that. Can you imagine how often he'd be breathing down your neck?"

"Yeah," said Katie, who seemed distracted. "Listen—do you mind not mentioning him? Some of us can't afford to spend detention with Snape."

"We're almost home-free," replied Angelina. "Talking about him quietly isn't going to hurt anyone—"

"Yeah, right," said Katie, with a snort. "Ten-to-one that he's got a Taboo on his name, and swoops down like a bat..."

"That's so illegal!" said Alicia. "There's no way Dumbledore—"

"—You can't tell me that Snape's not the sort to do exactly that?"

"What's the Taboo?" asked Harry, who felt a bit lost in the rapid conversation.

Alicia threw a dark look at Katie. "Well, yeah, but that's some serious magic. I'm sure the Ministry monitors—"

"Rex Britanniarum!" said Angelina to the Fat Lady, who swung open to reveal the entrance to the Common Room. "Good. We're here; get inside, and quit bickering."

Neither Katie nor Alicia gave any indication that they had heard her. "You're telling me that you think he wouldn't do it? He's a bitter old creep—"

"Yeah, he's a creep," said Alicia, "and I'm not arguing against that. I just think that with Dumbledore around, he'd—"

"What is the Taboo?" asked Harry for the second time. He was beginning to grow annoyed.

Angelina took pity on him. "It's really complex magic," she said. "Essentially, you set a Taboo on a word or phrase, and when someone says it, you can find out. Minor Taboos just tell parents when kids swear, or whatnot. The really major Taboos that Katie's talking about are cast over a whole city, and can give away your location and who you are. You-Know-Who used one—"


She flinched.

"—Yeah, him. Anyway, I think that Alicia's probably got the right—oh, you two! If you don't stop bickering, I'm going to call a Quidditch practice, and we're actually going to practice!"

That shut the two of them up.

Ultimately, Angelina's threat was hollow, and they continued the blissful stretch of relaxation for the next week. With Wood restricted to the hospital, and the engines of his regime in full-stop, Harry was left to his own devices much of the time. Unfortunately for his research into removing the Trace, schoolwork seemed to consume his every waking moment. Before he knew it, the bitter cold and near-constant blizzards of late January and February passed into the sleet and slush of March. The second Wood was released from the Hospital Wing, too, the rest of his non-existent free time had to be allocated to Quidditch and away from his own projects.

Harry took his frustration out in the second game of the year. It was against Ravenclaw, and the game was played in swirling wind and freezing rain; the weather was unpleasant enough when he was stationary, but downright torturous when he was flying directly into it. It obscured his hunt for the Snitch so badly that Harry had given it up for a bad job and had gone to run interference for the Chasers. Ultimately, that strategy paid off; Cho Chang, the second-year Ravenclaw Seeker, was unable to match the advantage that Harry provided Gryffindor, and they had racked up an impressive score even before Harry finally nabbed the Snitch near his own goals. He didn't even care to find out the score, just to get out of his sodden cloak and back in front of a warm fire. Wood told him later that they'd won by seven hundred points, and had likely clinched the Quidditch Cup even before the final flurry of matches.

And so it wasn't until the second week of March when Harry had enough free time to spend on something other than Quidditch or schoolwork. Just as he was hoping to get some time alone to work on the Trace, he bumped into Katie. She was leaving for the library, and before he could think up a polite way to shrug her off, she declared that they should go together. "After all," she said with a grin, "if I need any help, I can just ask you, can't I, brainiac?"

Unable to think up anything to deter her from joining him, he grimaced and nodded. They walked down several staircases—one of which seemed to take great pleasure in trapping them on an alcove without a way off for several minutes—until they finally reached the hallway leading to the library. Harry hadn't said much; he was content to let Katie fill the air with whatever mindless gossip she usually spouted, and to add only the occasional "Uh-huh," and "Oh, you don't say."

Katie didn't notice that he was zoning out, and she seemed quite preoccupied speaking to herself, so they were both surprised when they turned a corner and collided with a furry mass filling most of the corridor. Harry fell on his backside, and Katie emitted a girlish shriek and fell on top of him. Her elbow landed in his stomach, forcing the air to whoosh from his lungs and leaving him gasping for breath.

"Oh! Sorry 'bout tha', Harry. Didn't see yeh there!" boomed Hagrid, as only Hagrid could. Something squirmed in Hagrid's overcoat pocket. and from the ground, Harry could see that Hagrid was carrying several in his huge hands. That wasn't so odd, since Harry knew from first-hand experience that Hagrid was quite good at reading and writing; nor was it so odd that Hagrid was looking at books about Dragons, since Harry also knew he was very interested in Magical Creatures.

Hagrid placed them on the floor near the wall and grabbed the two Gryffindors by their collars, and, with ease characteristic of his massive strength, pulled them to their feet. Harry was still gasping a bit, but he was still able to make out the titles of several of the books—So You've Got a Newborn Dragon? and Fireproofing, Fang-dulling, and Other Useful Charms for Caring for Magical Creatures.

Hagrid noticed Harry looking and snatched the books back, looking flustered. "Well, er—love ta' stay and chit-chat, Harry, but, ah—I hafta get meself back home. Fang—Fang's been really restless," he said, and before Harry could open his mouth, the giant of a man was past him and down the corridor.

Harry blinked, trying to get his mind to focus. It was not extraordinary that Hagrid had such books, but it was extraordinary that he was so nervous and abrupt. The pieces of the puzzle fit together quite simply, but Harry was disinclined to believe that Hagrid was so foolish as to actually raise a dragon near Hogwarts.

"Ouch, that hurt! Harry, you ought to watch where you're going!" Katie interrupted his reverie with a nudge in his sore stomach.

"Ow! Hey, don't blame me. You turned that corner first! And then you fell on me! You're almost as clumsy as Tonks, you know?"

Katie winced a little, before turning to glare at Harry. "Well, come on, then; let's get going. I have to finish that essay before bed tonight."

Harry followed the second-year into the library, past rows and rows of tomes on this and that subject, past the always-suspicious Madam Pince, and to a table sitting at a window that overlooked the school grounds. As they set up for the afternoon's work, Harry's mind drifted back to what Hagrid must have been doing with those books. How would Hagrid have gotten hold of a dragon? As he glanced out the window at Hagrid's hut, he wondered: was Hagrid stupid enough to hide it in a flammable forest—or worse, his wooden hut?

Finally, how could he take advantage of the situation?

"So we're going to the Groundskeeper's hut for tea?" Neville asked.

"Yeah. I've got a standing invitation. There's something I want to ask him about, and between McGonagall's and Snape's essays, I've had to put a visit off for half a month."

"And why am I coming?"

Harry sighed. "We've covered this, Nev. You're trustworthy and smart—exactly the sort of person I want for a friend."

"No," said Neville, as he shook his head, "that's not what I mean. I mean—why isn't Hermione coming with you instead?"

Harry glanced across the Common Room to look at Hermione. She was engrossed in some textbook or another, but she looked up a second later and gave him a big friendly smile. "She's busy right now," he said, "and between you and me, Hermione can be a bit... excitable, at times. I don't need—I'm not in the mood for that right now. She can't go, anyway, but she recommended you."

That made Neville smile, and he nodded agreeably to Harry.

They quickly made their way down and out of the castle. The snow was finally melting; Hogwarts had been blessed with its first run of sunshine since the previous October. The stroll down to the hut was uneventful, but pleasant after so many months of clouds. Harry was surprised to realize that this was the first time he was outside by his own choice in ages—if it wasn't to the greenhouses for Herbology, then it was to the Quidditch Pitch for practice. It was kind of nice; he was genuinely glad to be out, despite his ulterior motives.

"Harry! What're yeh doing down 'ere on a Saturday?" Hagrid seemed genuinely surprised to see them. The sun was out, but the ground was soggy with the melting snow, and most of the trails to and from anywhere of significance were less trails and more ankle-deep mud. Harry didn't begrudge Hagrid's surprise; the awful state of the grounds was keeping nearly everyone inside, since Filch had been prowling about the entrance with a look of grim determination for a week.

Harry glanced quickly at Neville, who seemed quite intimidated by the large man. "Er—well, we've been so busy lately, we just wanted to get out of the castle, you know? And I remembered that you brew a great Camellia tea."

Hagrid looked nervously between the two boys and his hut. "N-now, I dunno if this is the best time, Harry. I have just the most playful Occamies in there, but they can get carried away—"

"Oh? Cedric told me that they studied those last semester. Why are they still here?" Harry asked innocently. Neville looked nervous and a little confused, but fortunately kept quiet. That was another reason Harry liked him—Neville was smart enough not to call attention to obvious half-truths.

"Er—well, ah, no, I guess not. I mean, they were, but—" Hagrid was trying desperately to think of something to keep them from his hut. Harry knew he was too polite to just tell them to leave, and he had all the confirmation he needed in Hagrid's lie.

"Hagrid—" Harry lowered his voice, and Hagrid, who stopped mumbling excuses, looked nervously at him. "—I know what you're doing."

"Yeh—yeh do?" asked Hagrid? "I mean—I don't know what you're talkin' 'bout, Harry—"

"Ah, come on, Hagrid," said Harry, with a roll of his eyes. He lowered his voice even further. "Little guy? Couple of feet long? Thick, leathery wings? Breathes fire and eats meat? Sound familiar?"

Neville's jaw dropped, and Hagrid's eyes bulged in surprise. He was at a loss of words for a moment, before he seemed to give up. "Yeh—yeh promise not to tell, righ'? It's jus'—I always wanted a dragon, and this gent, he happened to have one..."

Harry was trying his best not to smirk. "Of course I—we—won't tell anyone. Now, can we see it?"

Neville looked like he'd like nothing better than to not see it, but he kept quiet again and followed Harry into the hut after Hagrid.

In truth, Harry was a little disappointed to find that the dragon in question was only two feet long, and that it could barely flex its wings. It cried out in a whiny shriek every few minutes. When it did, a few belches of flame would accompany the cry. On a few occasions, it got close enough to the furniture and the walls that Harry had to bite his tongue to prevent himself from panicking; however, the one time the belch-fire got close enough to the wall to do damage, the flames simply rolled off of the furniture—proof that Hagrid was good enough with his broken wand to cast a basic Fire-Proofing Charm.

The dragon's claws clinked sharply against the hardwood floors; already, the claws looked deadly. Harry had no desire to agitate it. That was more difficult than it looked, though, since the dragon had learned to beg for food by gently butting its head against Hagrid's legs, and once or twice against Harry's or Neville's. When it did, Hagrid was quick to feed it a few chunks of meat, and it would give a satisfied belch of fire before retreating to lie before the fire for a few more minutes.

"How did you get a dragon, Mr.—er... Hagrid? Aren't they illegal to trade in Great Britain?" Neville asked, as he sat with his feet curled up beside himself (if Harry hadn't taken well to the dragon, Neville took to it like oil to water). A large cup of tea sat in front of him. He hadn't taken a sip of it, for which Harry was glad; with Neville's hands shaking as they were, the notoriously fumble-handed boy was in no shape to be handling any sort of china.

Hagrid surveyed them nervously. "Now, you promise to keep this secret, righ'?" At both boys' nods, he continued. "I was down at the Hog's Head, down in Hogsmeade—yeh'll be seeing plenty o' tha' in yer third year, though yeh ought stay away from there, really—lots o' shady characters and whatnot.

"Anyway, there was this one feller at the bar, and we got to talkin'. Turns out, he was a trader—get plenty o' those at the Hog's Head—and he was layin' low, what with the Aurors wanting to speak wit' him about smugglin' sumthin'. Now tha'—tha' don't happen too often—but he was kind enough to buy me a couple, and we got to talkin'.

"Well—" Hagrid paused to take a gulp of tea, as did Harry; Neville was still keeping his hands by his sides. "—one thing led to another, and we got to playin' some card game—I can't hardly remember what. He wasn't much good, I remember, and eventually all he had left were his Knuts and the sack he carried them in. Well, he offered to play me one more hand, and if I won, he'd give me a real dragon's egg. Was almost too good to be true!"

"Yeah, that's some coincidence, Hagrid." That story was far too coincidental. How fortunate that a complete stranger would have absolutely the one thing Hagrid would most want in the world. Something didn't add up. "You said that he was trying to lay low, with a dragon's egg? Why did he tell you that, if he was on the run?"

Hagrid shrugged his mammoth shoulders. "Dunno. He seemed like a good enough bloke to me. He asked about what I did, after I won. Said he had to make sure I could handle a dragon. So I told him about bein' the Keeper of Grounds here at Hogwarts, and my duties in the Forbidden Forest, and he was impressed."

"Yeah?" asked Harry. He was still suspicious, but he couldn't imagine what the trader would have wanted from Hagrid...

"Yep. We talked for another couple o' drinks—he told me he'd been handling rare beasts, and wanted to know if I'd ever dealt with 'em before, so I told him about Fluffy. He was real curious about 'im." Hagrid paused again to take another sip of his tea.

"Fluffy? What's Fluffy?" Neville asked, his curiosity getting the better of his nerves.

Hagrid chuckled to himself. "Oh, tha's just me Cerberus! Playful creature, though he kin get as wild as anythin'.

"W-Where do you keep a C-C-Cerberus?" Neville stuttered, in a passable imitation of Professor Quirrell—the sad thing was that Harry knew it wasn't really an imitation. Neville's face was pale.

"Oh, he's not around. Lent 'im to Dumbledore to—" Hagrid paused, and blinked. "Dunno why I'm telling yeh that. S'none of yer business, really."

If Harry's mind had been whispering discontentedly before, it was screaming in warning at that very moment. "Wait a minute. You put a—a Cerberus?—in a school filled with children?" Suddenly, Harry couldn't help but take Dumbledore's warning about the third floor corridor much more seriously.

"Now, hold on a mo'," said Hagrid, who quickly backtracked to try to defend himself. "He ain't that bad, really. All yeh have to do is play some music for the pup, and it puts 'im to sleep right away!"

Harry only just restrained himself from slapping his hand against his forehead. "And did you tell the chappie about that?"

"Well, yeah," said Hagrid, once more at ease. "I mean, blimey, Harry, he was a trader of some rare creatures. Yeh don't think he wouldn't know that already?"

Harry was not to be distracted, though. The idiocy of all of it had given him a vicious headache. He rubbed his forehead, and said, "So, let me get this straight. You lent a monstrous three-headed guard dog to Dumbledore to protect something important?"

"Wait there, Harry. I wouldn't call 'im monstrous—"

"And then you went and told a complete stranger about it?"

"Well, now, he didn't seem like that bad a feller—"

"And after you told him about this fierce guard dog of yours, you went and told him—a complete stranger—how to get past it?"

"Now hold on a tic, Harry—"

"So, for the past few months, there's been a complete stranger running around who knows how to get past this ferocious beast without a scratch, and no one knew? And you didn't tell anyone?"

"Er—well, no. I didn't really reckon it to be that important! Anyway, Fluffy ain't the worst of the protections around the stone. Dumbledore promised Nicholas Flamel that the whole staff would help." Hagrid was obviously flustered.

Harry stared at the giant man. It took his mind a moment to put together what he'd just heard. A stone of some kind, likely owned by Nicholas Flamel—the only Flamel of any real consequence—the value of which was obviously astronomical, since Dumbledore had been tasked to protect it... Suddenly, it clicked in Harry's mind, and he was reminded of his conversation with Dumbledore over Christmas. "You're joking, right? Please tell me this is a joke. Please tell me you didn't give away the secret to accessing the Philosopher's Stone."

Neville sprayed tea over the giant tabletop and Hagrid's jaw dropped. He was at a loss for several moments before he gathered himself. "N-Now, Harry, don't go spreading that 'round the school, yeh hear? Ain't none o' your mates who need to know what's bein' kept here."

Harry rolled his eyes at the irony. He didn't think his 'mates' were the problem, here. He stood. "We'll be back, Hagrid. I hope you appreciate the magnitude of the situation right now."

Hagrid nodded, eyes still wide.

Harry hesitated for a moment. "And, Hagrid, as much as I know it will hurt to do so, you need to give that dragon up."

"No!" said Hagrid. "No, I can't abandon little Norbert—he knows his mummy, bless him! He'll miss me!"

"Hagrid," said Harry with far more calm in his voice than he actually felt, "Norbert isn't going to be little much longer."

Harry and Neville strolled back up to the castle—well, Harry strolled, while Neville seemed determined to march off all the stress accrued at Hagrid's. Harry could tell he was agitated, and he felt the need to calm him down. "Hold up, Neville. Take a deep breath. You look a little faint."

Neville stopped at the steps up to the castle and did as Harry said. After a few moments, he looked a little better. "Harry, what'll we do? Hagrid's got a... a—"

"Yeah, I know, Nev." Harry stuck his hands in the pockets of his robe, while he thought for a few minutes. Nothing brilliant came. "I don't know," he admitted after a bit. "I don't have anything brilliant. We may have to talk to Dumbledore—"

"Let's do that!" said Neville. "That's a great idea—then he can deal with it, and we—"

Harry shook his head, interrupting Neville. "No," he said. "I don't want to do it until we absolutely have to. I don't want Hagrid sent away, and if this gets to Dumbledore, then he'll have to kick Hagrid off the grounds. There's too much political pressure on Dumbledore to do anything but. He's my last option."

Neville glanced at Harry, unsettled. "We can't just do nothing."

Harry grinned. "No," he said, "you're right, in part. We need to talk to Hermione."

"And what if she can't think of anything?"

"Then we let sleeping dragons lie. Let's hope it doesn't come to that, though."

They found Hermione coming out of the common room; a minute later, and they had whisked her away up the stairs to the boys' dormitory, where they could speak in relative silence and privacy.

Hermione let out an explosive breath as Harry finished telling her. "Honestly? A dragon? Hagrid is off his rocker."

"I know!" agreed Neville. "That's so dangerous! I mean, a dragon on Hogwarts' grounds? What if—?"

As Neville continued on, muttering his discontent and disbelief, Harry exchanged a significant look with her. She knew the meaning of such a look of Harry's; it meant he had something to share with her privately, and so she nodded in acknowledgment.

After Neville had finally trailed off, she spoke up. "Well, there are a few options. The first, of course, and the sanest option—" She looked at Harry pointedly. "—would be going to Dumbledore."

"Out of the question," interrupted Harry. "I've considered if for a while now, and it'd be too damaging to both Hagrid and Dumbledore. Like I told Nev, Hagrid's likely to be sent away if Dumbledore finds out, but I was thinking—if it's found out that Dumbledore didn't even know that his gamekeeper had smuggled a dragon onto the campus—"

"—It'd be grounds for dismissal," said Hermione, as she caught on quickly. "Even if he could beat the accusations, it'd taint his record."

Harry nodded. "I think we need to handle this ourselves."

Hermione smiled.

"Why are you smiling?" asked Neville, incredulously. "Can I remind you both that we are both first years, and are no match for a fire-breathing dragon?!"

"It's not so bad," said Hermione reassuringly, and she patted Neville's hand. "Like I said, we have a couple of options. The first one is to talk to Dumbledore, yes, but the second option is to talk to a Weasley."

Both Harry and Neville fixed Hermione with looks of intense skepticism. "Don't bother to explain, Hermione," said Harry, half sarcastic and half entreating.

"Don't you ever hear Ronald talking about his older brother, the Dragonkeeper?"

Harry shook his head. "I try not to hear—nor for that matter, see, nor smell—Ron Weasley."

"Well, then, talk to Percy Weasley," she said, slightly irritated at Harry's blunt refusal of that solution."

"No good," Harry said at once. "Percy—while he's a half-decent guy—is too smart. If we asked for his brother's address, he'd guess what was going on, and he would go directly to Dumbledore with his suspicious. He's too much the straight-and-narrow sort."

"Well, then, talk to the twins."

"Even worse," said Harry. "They'd demand to know why we needed to contact him, and then they'd demand a favor in return." He shuddered. "No, I refuse to be twinfodder."

"I guess you have a whole lot of choice, then," snapped Hermione. "So sorry that you'll have to talk to Ronald."

"So'm I," said Harry. "But I have to, I guess I will. Actually—" He paused for a second, considering the idea. "Actually, that's quite a good idea. Ron would roll over and play dead for me if I asked."

"Yeah, but he'd never be able to keep it a secret that you had paid attention to him."

"I think that's a risk I'll have to take," said Harry.

Neville spoke up, and both Hermione and Harry jumped—they had forgot he was even standing there. "Ron's not really that bad. He and I play Exploding Snap sometimes—"

He trailed off at the twin grins that Harry and Hermione wore.

"Neville, buddy—" said Harry, as he led Neville out of the dorm room with a hand on the boy's shoulder. "—How'd you like to do me a favor?

"I dunno, Nev."

Ron Weasley, cornered down in the common room, was eying Neville with suspicion.

"Come on, Ron," said Neville. "I've just got a question about dragons—that's all. Can't you just give me his address?"

"I just don't get why you can't look it up in the library—"

Neville sighed. From across the room, Harry noted that the boy was quite a good actor when pushed. His confrontation with Ron appeared quite genuine, and if Harry hadn't known better, he wouldn't have guessed that it had been scripted. "For the millionth time, it's a really specific question about Hebridean Blacks, and if I could find a book in the library that answered the question, I would be reading it, rather than trying to drag the answer out of you."

There was a long pause, in which Ron looked at Neville blankly. "What do you even need it for, anyway?" he asked. "We're not doing anything on dragons in class..."

"It's for a potion I'm researching—"

Ron Weasley was stupid, but he wasn't that stupid. Harry could see the gears turning in the boy's head, and he rose from his chair to head him off and to rescue Neville.

"But you're balls at Potions—"

"Well said, Weasley," said Harry, as he clapped a hand to Neville's shoulder. "Look, Ron, I'll be straight with you: Nev's doing me a favor here. I really need your brother's mailing address. Do you think you could hook me up with it?" he asked, as he waved Neville away.

"Er—" said Ron, whose face had once again gone blank. "Hey, Harry."

"Hi, Ron," said Harry, and he rolled his eyes. "Your brother's address?"

"Er—" said Ron again. "What do you need it for?"

"It's a secret?"

"You can tell me."

"If I told you, Weasley, it wouldn't be much of a secret, would it?"

"Aww, come on," whined Ron. He looked like a dog whose master had just denied it a bone. "You can tell me, really. And besides, if you tell Charlie—"

"—Ah, so that's his name..."

"—If you tell Charlie, he'll tell me."

Harry stared at Ron for a long moment. Ron had said that very confidently, but Harry felt a niggling at the back of his mind that Ron was lying. Given that none of Ron's brothers (at least the ones that Harry knew) were willing to give Ron the time of the day, he was reluctant to believe that Charlie, presumably Ron's oldest brother, would even remember who the boy was. The real question on the table was whether he should call Ron's bluff. On one hand, calling the bluff would certainly be rewarding, but on the other, it could also prompt further noncompliance from Ron. By accepting the potential bluff, he would be forced to tell Ron what was going on to progress. That was not so much an issue, but the urgency of the situation would dictate that he owed Ron a future favor, and Ron would be able to say that he was Harry's confidante.

His hands were, in essence, tied, since he needed to help Hagrid with the dragon. That was critical, since it gave him a one-up on Hagrid which he desperately needed to crack the Trace.

Harry sighed, as if to intimate to Ron that he was tired of the situation. "Listen, Ron," said Harry, under his breath. Ron drew closer. "It's kind of a delicate situation—"

And then a thought struck him. It was exactly the sort of thing that Ron would respond to. He grabbed Ron by the arm and pulled him even closer. "What do you know of Ministry Edict B-553?" he asked the boy in a hushed whisper. "Anything?"

"N—Nothing," said Ron, who seemed taken aback.

"I'm glad, since it's a top-secret decree," said Harry. "It was signed in secret by the Minister a year or two back. It essentially says that I'm a deep-cover agent of the Ministry, and that my job is to detect and stop evil at any cost."

Ron didn't say anything.

"Now, I assume you know what I mean when I say evil," said Harry. "An evil so great that it would destroy our world. You know the evil, Ron. You probably lost family to it—"

"Uncle Gideon and Uncle Fabian—" said Ron absently, his eyes focused somewhere off in the distance.

"Yes," hissed Harry. "You know exactly what I'm talking about, Ron. An evil so great that we dare not speak his name, even after all this time."

Ron was once again silent.

"He is not gone, Ron; just hiding. Hiding, and biding his time to become stronger, and biding his time until he can strike like a scorpion, and with deadly precision take out all his enemies at once. He's doing it right now, Ron," Harry lied. The words came uncomfortably easy. "He's smuggled in a dragon to Hogwarts. Once it's fully grown, his agent here will enchant the dragon and use it to attack the school."

He had Ron completely. "You need Charlie to tell you how to slay the dragon?"

"No," said Harry gently. "The dragon's done nothing wrong. It's a good dragon; it just needs a home away from evil ministrations. Your brother works on a dragon reserve, doesn't he?"

"Yeah, in Romania."

"I need you to write to him, Ron. You can't tell him this, but you can tell him that Hagrid's got a dragon and that we need his help getting it out."

"I'll do it," Ron said immediately. "Can I do anything else to help?" he asked, not even bothering to conceal his enthusiasm.

Harry shook his head. "Remember, Ron, I'm deep-cover. I can't do too much or I'll blow my cover, but this is really important—a dragon could really be dangerous to the students."

At Ron's disappointment, Harry continued. "If you do see something suspicious, the best thing is to tell a professor about it, or me, if you can't find one of them. Actually," he said, "now that I think about it, I really need a oath of secrecy out of you. I know you'd never tell—"

"Never!" agreed Ron, as he nodded his head vigorously in assent.

"—but this is sensitive information, you know?"

Ron held out his hand, and Harry grasped it. "I've never done an oath before, though," said Harry. "I don't suppose you know how to do one, do you?"

"Yeah," said Ron. "Here, you just grasp my hand like this...—erm, Hermione, can we get a hand? Harry, you trust her, right?"

At Harry's agreement, Hermione looked up from the paper she was writing and sighed. She put her quill back in the inkwell, and wandered over to them slowly. "What do you want, Weasley?" she asked, guardedly.

"We need a Bonder."

"And what exactly do I have to do to be a Bonder?" she asked.

"Just... put your wand on top of our hands. Harry's asking me to swear an oath," he said to her proudly.

"He is, is he?" she asked, and though Ron thought the question was directed to him, Harry knew it was meant for him by her raised eyebrow.

"He is," Harry replied. "Why do we need a Bonder, Ron?"

Ron rolled his eyes. "To make it a magically binding oath," he replied, as if it was the most obvious thing on the planet. "Okay, Harry," he said, once Hermione settled her wand on their conjoined hands. "Go ahead and ask me for it."

Harry looked nervously up at Hermione, and then looked back at Ron. The boy was so eager... "Do you, Ronald Weasley, swear to keep the details of Ministry Edict B-553 absolutely secret, sharing them with nobody but for those that Harry Potter authorizes you to share with?"

"I do," said Ron, and a thick jet of flame shot out of Hermione's wand, encircling their two hands. Hermione jerked back in surprise, but the flame flowing from her wand held steady.

"And do you, Ronald Weasley, swear to aid Harry Potter if he so asks until such time as he releases you, or until such time as Ministry Edict B-553 is repealed?"

"I do." A second jet of flame joined the first. Tongues of flame from the first fought with the second, hissing and crackling as they connected. "One more," said Ron. "It has to be three—"

Harry nodded. "And do you, Ronald Weasley, swear these things, knowing that violation of this oath will cause you to lose your memory of any conversation with Harry Potter you have ever heard?"

"I do."

A third and final jet of flame, spitting like a snake, and bigger than the previous two, launched itself from Hermione's wand and circled their hands, binding them tightly. After a moment, the flames disappeared, and Hermione took her wand away.

"That was smart," said Ron, and he looked at Harry appreciatively. "I wouldn't have thought about modifying the penalty like that."

"There's a penalty?" asked Harry. "Wait, you mean that because it's magically binding, you'll actually lose your memory if you break it? What's the penalty normally?"

"Death," said Ron, with complete non-chalance. "Anyway, I can talk around her, right?" he asked, and he jerked his head to the side to indicate Hermione.

"Uh—yeah, of course," said Harry, who was too taken aback to even process what Ron had asked.

"Anyway, Harry, I'm going to go write that letter to Charlie, okay? I'll be back in a bit, and we can discuss what we're going to do to stop—" He looked at Hermione, as if assessing whether or not she was really trustworthy. "—You-Know-Who."

With that, Ron wandered off.

Harry watched his retreating form. When Ron was finally out of sight, he turned to Hermione. Her face showed a mash of emotions—pretty much exactly what he was feeling himself internally. When she spoke at last, though, he realized that he had misread her. "I'm worried that you're getting in above your head."

He nodded, though he didn't respond to her worry. Instead, he looked back to where Ron had retreated. "Say what you want about that boy—inauthentic or sophomoric—but he is certainly eager to please."

A week later, Ron, Harry, Neville, and Dean stood outside of Hagrid's hut, all wearing their darkest black cloaks. It was very dark outside, though it was still a few minutes before curfew; nevertheless, the mood amongst the four standing there was very tense. Breaking curfew was the least of their worries.

"—and Charlie said when, exactly?" Harry asked Ron for what was at least the tenth time.

Fortunately, Ron never seemed quick to annoy. "Ten o'clock on the nose at the Astronomy Tower. And remember, if we're not there by 10:15, he's leaving. Said he didn't want to be caught trespassing on school grounds."

"I don't blame him," muttered Harry. He turned around to Dean. "No answer yet?"

"I'll knock again," said the quiet boy, and he did. "I thought you said Hagrid was expecting us—"

"He is. I can hear his damn dragon—where is Hagrid?"

They waited another minute before the massive oak door cracked open. "Who—who is it?" called Hagrid. He sounded like he'd been crying; when he pushed the door open further, and Harry could see the giant man's face, he knew that Hagrid had been crying.

"It is I, Harry," he said quickly, before pushing himself into Hagrid's hut. The other three boys followed Harry in rather hastily; none had any desire to be spotted so far from Gryffindor so close to their curfew.

The inside of the hut was pure tumult and chaos. Norbert, who had grown nearly two feet in the span of the week, was obviously agitated, since he was busy scratching up furniture, knocking over urns, and generally making a mess. It looked like Hagrid hadn't cleaned since Harry had last been there; in fact, it looked like Hagrid's meager Fire-Proofing Charm was not holding up well, since there was one fewer chair than there had been before, and Harry thought that he could see a few spots on the walls behind the rearranged furniture that looked distinctly scorched.

"So—so yeh're gonna give Norbert to Charlie Weasley, righ'?" asked Hagrid nervously. "And he's gonna take him to a reserve and look after him good?"

"Yeah," said Ron. "Charlie will look after him great. He's really good at what he does, and Norbert will have some company there, at least."

"And a space to stretch his wings," added Neville. "He looks a little anxious being confined in here—"

Hagrid did not seem to be any happier at the thought. "Jus'—jus' lemme give him a big hug," he said, and he leaned down to wrap the excited Norwegian Ridgeback in a bear hug around the neck. Norbert snapped his toothless jaws at Hagrid's hair.

Hagrid straightened up and smoothed out his jacket. "So—err, how're yeh gonna get him outta here?" he asked Harry, after he had brushed tears out of the pockets of his eyes.

Harry removed a vial from his pocket and held it up to show Hagrid. "Dreamless sleep," he said. "Brewed it myself last night, and at a stronger concentration, too, so it should work well on Norbert." He paused for a second. "Or at least it should. I'm pretty decent at brewing, but I couldn't exactly test it, or I wouldn't be here. Anyway, do you have some meat for Norbert?"

Hagrid nodded, and went off to the other side of the hut for a minute. When he returned, he had a bowl of scraps. Harry uncorked the draft and poured it all over the meat, and then used a quick Agitation Charm to mix it in.

Norbert, as expected, gobbled up the meat the second it was presented to him. The potion took effect quickly: a few moments later, his agitation had leveled off; a few more, and he had fallen into a torpor.

"Well, that about does it," said Ron, amused.

"Not quite," said Dean. "We've still got to get him all the way up to the Astronomy Tower..."

Meanwhile, Harry had cosied up beside Hagrid. He had to reach up as far as he could to give the man a gentle pat on the back, but it seemed to move Hagrid a bit, and he looked down at Harry and smiled.

"I really appreciate yer help, Harry, what with getting Norbert to a good home," he said, in between sniffles.

"It's no problem, Hagrid. I need to ask a favor in return, though, one friend to another."

"Sure, 'Harry, what can I do fer yeh?"

"Well—" He had to be careful. If he said anything that Hagrid could find out as untrue, then he could be in trouble. "There's this book I in the library, Advanced Warding for the Paranoid and Insecure, and I want to take out, only it's in the Restricted Section. Could you—?"

Hagrid's brow furrowed in suspicion. "Now, Harry, why would yeh need that fer?"

Harry leaned a little closer to Hagrid, and broke out the best worried face he could manage. "I've gotten some letters from—well, fans, I suppose. And they're—um, some of them are a bit..." He made a gesture with his hands that he hoped seemed understandable to Hagrid. For all his knowledge, he really had little experience with matters physical. "Anyway, I asked some of the older years about it, and one of them told me about a ward you can attach to yourself, to make yourself invisible to owls and scrying and things like that—unless you key an owl or a person in, that is. I didn't want to go to anyone else about this, Hagrid, but I trust you." Harry very carefully tilted his head down and look up at Hagrid with big, soulful eyes, and he knew he had him.

"Oh! Harry, why didn't yeh say so? Well—" Hagrid paused, and glanced over at the snoozing Norbert. "Gimme a sec, Harry—let me find a quill—"

Harry pulled one out of his robes, along with a piece of parchment and an inkwell. "Here you are, Hagrid."

Hagrid laughed. "Always prepared, aren't yeh, Harry?"

Harry smirked, and Hagrid laughed harder, all traces of worry about Norbert gone. "Here," the man said, handing over the parchment after a minute of furious scribbling. "That should let yeh borrow it for as long as yeh need. I made a note there that yeh're readin' it to help me out, but if that old biddy Pince don't let yeh take the book out, you come find me and I'll go get it fer yeh."

"Thanks," said Harry, and he accepted the note and his quill and ink back. "I mean it, Hagrid. This means a lot to me."

"That's what friends're for, Harry," Hagrid said. He winked, and Harry gave a genuine smile. Hagrid might not have had any chance at winning awards for his brilliance, but his loyalty—that was something Harry valued.

"Okay," said Harry to Neville. "Are we ready?"

"Yeah," said Neville, as he turned to Harry. "How're we going to get him up there?"

"Locomotion Charm," replied Harry. "You all are decent at that, right?" he asked.

At their three nods, Harry grinned. From inside his pocket, he placed a small wooden crate; it was no bigger than his hand. He placed it on the floor and looked over at Hagrid. "Hagrid, can you do an Engorgement charm on this crate for us?"

"Huh—er, sure, Harry," said Hagrid, who was caught off guard. "Erm—well, you lads have to keep it a secret that I kin do magic, okay? They'd lock me up if they knew..."

They all nodded, but Harry smiled. "Hagrid, they haven't told anyone about a bloody dragon, so I think you're fine."

"—Right," said Hagrid lamely. With a tap of the umbrella hanging on Hagrid's door, the crate was big enough to fit Norbert in.

"Wingardium Leviosa!" whispered Harry, and the massive dragon floated a few feet off the ground. Harry directed it into the crate.

Dean was looking at him oddly. "Why did we need four of us if one of us could levitate him?"

"Three as lookouts and one as levitator," said Harry. "Locomotor Crate!"

They waved Hagrid goodbye and set off toward the castle.

A few feet shy of the front doors, Harry stopped and canceled the levitation charm. "Guys," he said, slowly, turning to look at them. "I'm really sorry to do this to you, but I just remembered I have to get a book from the library before it closes."

"You're ditching us," said Dean, with no emotion in his voice. "Nicely done, Potter. Well, go Huck Finn someone else. I'm not being your patsy—"

Harry frowned. "Hold on. I've got something here that should make up for it. I was saving it for the crate in case one of our lookouts got caught." Underneath his robe, wrapped around his waist, was his invisibility cloak. He removed it, and handed it to Dean, whose anger suddenly turned to awe when he realized what it was

"Blimey," said Ron, when he caught sight of it. "I've heard about those. That's an—"

"Yeah, I know," said Harry quickly. "Take good care of it. And guys? For what it's worth, I'm really sorry, and I really appreciate it. It's just I've got to get this book—" He made eye contact with Ron, and hoped he would get the message.

Evidently, the boy did. Ron's eyes widened when he realized what Harry was probably going to go do. "Oh! No worries, Harry," said Ron. "Hagrid's my friend, too. We can manage. See you in the common room later?"

"Yeah," said Harry, and he gave a thankful nod to Ron. "Good luck, guys. I'll try and catch up with you if I can get out of there quick—"

"Go fast," said Neville, who was the only one of them who wore a watch. "You have only six minutes."

Harry turned, and left them there with his friend's dragon.

Madam Pince was just stepping up to lock the doors on the library when Harry arrived. He pushed his way in past her. "I'm sorry—" he gasped out, trying to head off her annoyed look. "Don't mean to keep you up, Madam, but I—forgot I needed to get a book for Hagrid."

He handed her the slip, and her look changed from annoyance to appraisal. "You're helping Hagrid out with his roosters?" she asked. "Fox keeps getting them, is that what this says?"

"Yes'm," he said, as he tried to straighten up.

"Hmmph," she replied, and returned to her normal frowning look. "Very well. I shall retrieve the book for you. Stay here."

She was gone only a minute, and then he had the precious book in his hands and he was being pushed out of the library.

Quickly—quicker than he'd ran in a long time—he made it back to the Gryffindor Common Room, the book clutched to his chest lovingly. At long last he would be able to break the Trace on his wand, and it wasn't a minute too soon, since there were only a few weeks of class remaining.

He plunked down on the Chesterfield and began to read it through. It was quite a fascinating book, even apart from the Containment Ward he had longed to know about for so long. It was so fascinating, perhaps, that he didn't notice that an hour had passed before the portrait to the Common Room swung open to reveal an exhausted trio of Gryffindors.

Dean swooped right past him and up the stairs. Neville only gave him a cursory nod before heading upward, too, but Ron stopped to chat with Harry.

"Well?" asked Harry expectantly.

"We got it off with Charlie just fine," explained Ron. "No problems, really, other than a stubbed toe on a staircase. It was on the way back—well, McGonagall and Malfoy showed up. She'd given him detention, obviously, but he knew we were going to be out at night, one way or another."

"So what happened?"

"She was furious," said Ron, and he blushed red. "She didn't even bother to drag Malfoy off to bed—just told him to return to his dorm. Anyway, she lead us all by the ear and reamed us out for fifteen minutes. Fifty points from each of us, and a detention with Filch in a week."

"Ouch," said Harry, and he meant it. "That's awful."

"That's not the worst of it," said Ron. "Dean dropped the cloak when she caught us—and Harry, I'm so sorry, but I think Malfoy's got it."



In the days following the incident with the Dragon, the tension in the Gryffindor first year boys' dormitory only got worse. It was almost unbearable, and it didn't get any better when Ron's shaky performance in Transfiguration earned the boy a rebuke about how he should be 'more like Mr. Potter'. That Dean and Harry were not speaking with each other, coupled with Neville's natural timidity and Seamus' standard animosity, was enough to make the room more of a prison than a retreat. The three boys, already alienated from the rest of the house, seemed closer to cracking each time Harry saw them. He was not about to let them, since he would likely be implicated, and he had important things that would be disrupted.

Fortunately, he had the time and method to go about repairing the situation so that it did not collapse about his ears entirely. Ameliorating himself with Ron wasn't difficult or time-consuming in the slightest, since Ron already believed that Harry had gone off to complete another part of his 'mission'. He'd shared a bowl of Chocolate Frogs with the boy in the Common Room—making an effort to be seen spending time with him—and he'd played on Ron's obvious ambition: "Fifty points and the scorn of the ignorant—that's a small price to pay, mate. You'll be recognized sooner or later, and when you're recognized, they'll say that you're the Gryffindor even Godric himself would aspire to be like."

Ron's eyes had lit with the prospect of stardom. "Never doubted you for a minute, mate," he had responded cheerily, before his eyes hardened. "And of course, the twins will beg for forgiveness, turning my hair that horrid shade of blue. They've lost way more than fifty points this year, even if it wasn't all in one go..."

Harry nodded, certain the twins would never, ever apologize to Ron, even if he won a bloody Order of Merlin.

Neville wasn't particularly popular enough to burn bridges with Harry, who, despite his reputation as a curmudgeon, was very well-regarded throughout the entire school, bar Slytherin. For his part, too, Neville hadn't been angry at Harry for ditching; if he had been, he had held it from Harry quite well, and Harry was sure that he had smothered any ill will after he took the time to confront him personally and make amends. Harry had even gone so far as to deliberately (and violently) sabotage his own potion on a day Snape was being particularly vicious, so as to deflect for Neville.

Dean had proved to be the hardest, as he'd been least friendly with Harry out of the three, and was rather close with Seamus. In the end, Harry had resorted to the most basic of measures to keep Dean from squealing to McGonagall about the dragon, and about Harry's involvement—guilt. Harry had made it abundantly clear that he wouldn't hesitate to tell all of Gryffindor that Dean had lost his father's Invisibility Cloak. Such things were rare enough that Dean's reputation would take an insufferable blow. The balance between Harry and Dean was precarious, though, and Harry continued to think of other possibilities to keep Dean quiet for good. For the time being, there simply wasn't the time.

As exams approached, the stress began to pile up on Harry, too. He had scored on top of his class the entire year, and he was determined to do so for his exams, too. As Hermione's grades were nipping at the heels of his own, he had to put in a significant amount of time, and that effort began to show in his constant exhaustion. Then there were his lingering (though diminishing) troubles with the Trace. He had to study and practice casting a Containment Ward, which was no small feat of magic for the first year, considerable though his talents might have been. It took him nearly two weeks of practicing for hours at nights to even make a showing of it. Even that attempt had been weak, but after a full month, he considered himself capable, if not an expert at it. Still, it took time, and it was time he didn't have—hence the stress.

He'd been taking a calming potion for almost a week when things came to a head in the wee hours of a Sunday morning (or was it the late hours of a Saturday? The Potions essay he had finished a few minutes prior had stolen a great deal of his sanity).

A trembling Neville came through the portrait hole.

"Harry, is that you?" the boy managed to squeak out.

Harry's head jerked up, and he slammed closed Advanced Warding for the Paranoid and Insecure. "Huh?" he said, before he turned to look at Neville.

Neville was visibly distraught. His eyes were wide and wild, and he was shaking. Harry rose and strode briskly to the boy.

"I wanted to make sure you three got back all right. Merlin, you look terrible! What did they have you doing?" Harry cringed—the balance between him and Dean would be even more precarious...

"Forbidden Forest. We split up, and Hagrid left me with Malfoy."

"Ugh," said Harry, as he pulled Neville over to one of the chairs. "No wonder—"

"No," interrupted Neville. "No, Malfoy was bad but this was worse. We were looking for a—for a dying unicorn," said Neville.

Harry blinked. "That seems like awfully dangerous work for first years—"

"We found it."

"What?" asked Harry. "Seriously? You found the unicorn—?"

"We found the thing that was killing and eating the Unicorn." It seemed impossible, but Neville turned even paler, and looked ready to throw up.

"Easy, Nev. Have a seat." He drew his wand, summoned two empty glasses sitting around, and Scourgified them. With a sharp bang, hot cocoa began to pour out of his wand into the cup. With his back turned to Neville, he removed one of the little stoppered bottles of the Draft of Peace from inside his robe, popped the cap, and emptied it into the cup.

Neville sat down in a chair, but he did not look any more relaxed. "Here," said Harry, as he handed the glass to Neville. "Drink some of that. I guess chocolate is supposed to make you relax. Take a few minutes, and then tell me what happened."

Neville nodded gratefully. He managed to lift the heavy mug to his lips without spilling, and he drank the hot liquid quickly.

Harry allowed the boy a few minutes silence. Neville's jitters seemed to disappear, and then his breathing relaxed to be significantly smoother. "Much better," said Neville, after he'd finished his drink. "Where'd you get the Draft of Peace?"

"Brewed it myself," said Harry, who was quite surprised that Neville knew his little trick.

It must have been a mark of the efficacy of the potion that Neville barely raised an eyebrow. "That's supposed to be really difficult to brew."

Harry shook his head negatively. "Not harder than any other potion. As long as you follow the directions perfectly, you get a perfect batch."

"How come you do so badly in Potions, then?" asked Neville. "Didn't you just blow up a cauldron the other day—?"

"Unlucky," said Harry quickly. "Just made a simple mistake. How'd you know I slipped you a potion?"

Neville hoisted the mug and showed Harry the bottom of the cup, where little crystals were encrusted. "Look. Powdered Hellebore becomes granular in water, and it tastes bitter. It's only used in a couple potions, too, since residual buildup can cause heart attacks."

"Ah," said Harry, sagaciously. "I learn something new each day. Anyway, what's the deal? What happened in the forest?" He suddenly realized that the other two boys were missing, and so he amended his questions. "Why don't you start with where Dean and Ron are?"

Neville nodded again. "They're probably still with Hagrid. Dumbledore took me from the Centaur and told me that detention was over—he said I should get some rest and that I could come speak to him or another teacher whenever I liked. I might go see Sprout in the morning," he added, and seemed to consider the thought.

Harry nodded, trying to coax more out of Neville. "What's this about a Centaur?"

"He saved me in the Forest. Hagrid paired me with Malfoy, the git."

Harry wasn't sure to whom Neville was referring—Malfoy was a git, but he would call Hagrid the same thing if ever the huge man paired him with the Poncy Prince.

"Anyway, Malfoy kept picking at me, saying I wasn't totally useless if I kept leaving things for him to find." Neville scowled. "I'm really, really sorry about that, by the way."

"Don't worry about it," Harry cut in. It wasn't Neville's fault, he knew, but the entire damned cloak wasn't just a muck-up, but a catastrophe. While he'd been uneasy to use it himself, handing it over to Malfoy (of all people!) just because of his eagerness to get a book was a big mistake. Of course, the plan had been perfect in his mind. The fact that he owned and was willing to loan out an Invisibility Cloak should have curried him a lot of favor. Instead, his Hogwartsian nemesis had it, and Harry was still at a loss as to how to get it back. He pursed his lips before he spoke again. "We'll get the bastard back for that, and we'll get the cloak back too, I promise you. That was my fault, though, not anyone else's. Now, after Malfoy proved just what a prat he is, what happened?"

"Happened real fast," Neville continued. "We were looking for a unicorn that Hagrid had been tracking because it was wounded, and Malfoy and I—oh, and Fang—"

Harry gestured for Neville to continue.

"—And we found it, and something was eating it." Neville said the last bit as a horrified whisper. "That's cursed, that is. Every wizard knows that Unicorn's blood grants a cursed immortality. Who would do that?"

Harry had an idea, but Neville beat him to the punch. "And then this big black thing comes swooping toward me, and I trip on this root, but Fur—Firenze, I think he said his name was—comes galloping up to me and kicks this thing right in the chest, and it just takes off. At first I thought it was a Lethifold, but Firenze was hinting that it was You-Know-Who—"

"Ah," said Harry, who understood the entire world just a little bit better. "So he really isn't dead, then."

"You knew?" asked Neville incredulously.

"Both Hagrid and Dumbledore have hinted at it," replied Harry. His mind was very busy all of a sudden; he could suddenly understand why the Philosopher's Stone was at Hogwarts, with Dumbledore.

Harry listened to the rest of Neville's story. The boy seemed eager to move on, and Harry couldn't blame him. After Neville finished, Harry cleaned the glasses, and followed Neville up to the dorm room, where he left two more steaming hot cocoas on Ron's and Dean's night stands.

The next day, for the first time since entering the wizarding world, Harry Potter sought out Albus Dumbledore, and not the other way around.

"Ah, Mr. Potter. A pleasure to see you as always." They stood outside of Dumbledore's office, in front of the hideous gargoyle that guarded the staircase upward. The Headmaster was dressed in vibrant purple robes that trailed a few inches on the ground, and in his right hand was a rickety old broom. He surveyed Harry over his half-moon spectacles with a hint of a smile. "Not ensconced in the library, today?"

"Hello, Professor," he replied, completely ignoring the passing remark about his swotting. He gestured to the broom. "Going for a fly?"

Dumbledore nodded. "Just a short one, admittedly. Where I am going has no access by Floo—"

"Sorry? By flu?"

"Floo, Harry. It is a magical way of traveling by chimney, and one of the more popular methods of Wizarding travel. You of course know of Apparition—"

"—I beg your pardon, sir," said Harry. His cheeks were beginning to flush in embarrassment. "You have me at a disadvantage."

The Headmaster waved his hand dismissively, but his eyes betrayed his surprise. "No matter. To put it succinctly, Apparition is teleportation, and it is a skill that most wizards and witches learn when they come of age."

Harry nodded. He would put it on his list to find out about both.

Dumbledore shifted his weight from one foot to another. "I am traveling to a dear friend's estate. As he is... rather in high demand, you might say... he has neither a Floo connection nor a way to directly Apparate to him. As a result, I must take my broom with me, fly out of Hogwarts, Apparate at a suitable distance to his estate, and then fly in the rest of the way."

"Complicated," said Harry. "Would you like me to see you out?"

"If you'd like," replied Dumbledore. "I admit I have less time than I would like, so we will have to move with some speed. Ah, but you know the Summoning Charm—I forgot. When we reach the grounds, you may summon your broom and accompany me to the gates."

Harry nodded again. "Professor—"

"—But I'm sure you did not just seek me out to keep an old man company, Harry. Let us walk and talk. What is on your mind?"

Harry kept his mouth closed for a moment, after deciding to collect himself before speaking. "Sir, I've some concerns about the Stone," he said, "and I think, given that you're leaving the school, that my concerns are even more valid."

Dumbledore turned his head to look at Harry, but he didn't make a noise or betray any sort of emotion.

Harry winced inwardly as he realized that he was intended to continue. He took a breath. "Neville Longbottom told me about last night. I have reason to believe that You-Know-Who—"

"—Call him Voldemort, Harry. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself."

"—Voldemort, then, intends to attack the Stone."

Dumbledore nodded, his face calm. "I cannot honestly say that I'm surprised that you've put this all together, Harry. However—" He smiled. "—I'm afraid that you underestimate me." He gestured for Harry to lead the way down the central staircase, and followed after the boy.

"Voldemort is indeed back—or, rather, I suppose, was never gone in the first place. What Mr. Longbottom and Mr. Malfoy unfortunately witnessed was but a phantom of the man he once was. I have long suspected his return, but it seems that your presence at the school was sufficient motivation to brush the dust off his cloak. I suspect—of course, I could be wrong, though I rarely am—that it is his hope that he will be able to secure the Stone and a body of his own, and then kill you in one fell swoop."

"That's comforting," said Harry.

There was a subtle brush of magic in the air, and if he tried not to listen to the conversation, Harry could hear a faint buzzing noise in the background. "As we discussed some months ago, Harry, I have made my own plans to ensure that his plan fails. He will not succeed in resurrecting himself, because he will not be able to retrieve the Stone."

"When we discussed your similar concerns at Christmas time, you pressured me to upgrade the stone's defenses. I have done so, but perhaps not quite as you would like. In short, if you believe Voldemort is making an attempt on the Stone, you would do best to leave well alone. I have taken every reasonable step I can to ensure that he will fail to escape."

"It—it's not that I don't trust you, sir, but—"

"—But Voldemort is a prodigious wizard, do you mean to say, Harry?" At Harry's nod, Dumbledore continued. "Undeniably true, yes, but even in top form, he was unable to best me."

"But sir," said Harry, insistently, "are you not leaving the castle right now? Do you think hiding the stone in the school is even wise in the first place? It puts us all in danger! For all we know, he could come kill me first, and then go after the stone!" Too quickly, Harry found himself once more at odds with the headmaster.

Dumbledore glanced sharply at Harry, just as they passed the landing to the third floor. "You do not know Voldemort like I do, Harry. He will attack no student unless he is spotted, and he will spot no student since he will make an effort not to be seen," he said. "Voldemort will only move to kill you once he has regained his body, because your murder would be the most terrifying and demoralizing demonstration of his rejuvenation. He is prone to celebration and grand gestures, Harry, and that is why I have utmost confidence that you and your peers will be fine."

"And the stone, too?" asked Harry. "Will that be safe, sir? I cannot imagine that he would be easier to defeat if he succeeded."

"Ah," said Dumbledore. "It is the safety of my charges that concerns me the most, Harry, not the safety of the Stone. For, you see—" Dumbledore made a show of patting down his robes. "—it's not so much that Hogwarts keeps the Stone safe, but rather that Hogwarts has kept me safe."

Dumbledore's expression saddened unexpectedly. "Unfortunately, recent events have shown that this world is too dangerous, too greedy, too selfish by half to allow such a potent and valuable item its continued existence. You see, Harry, I am on my way to the estate of Nicholas Flamel, who, you might know, is—"

"—the inventor of the Stone, sir, yes."

Dumbledore beamed. "—You did do your homework properly, then, didn't you? You are correct: I am returning the stone to the estate of my dear friend Nicholas. The stone shall be destroyed tonight."

"I'm sorry, sir... They'll die, won't they, without the elixir?" Harry asked. For the first time, he saw Dumbledore as a man with friends, people he cared about... people who would die because of decisions he was forced to make. It was unnerving.

"Indeed, but before Nicholas undoes his greatest work, he and his wife Perenelle shall imbibe the elixir one last time. They shall have enough to straighten out their affairs—a good ten or twenty years, likely—before they move on to the next great adventure." His sad smile lingered. "I confess: in my own advanced age, it is not death itself that upsets me, but that because of greed and selfishness, we are forced to sacrifice one of the greatest relics of magic. It seems even immortality itself has a finite lifetime," he finished with a soft chuckle.

Uneasily, Harry nodded. He was unsure how to respond. "Well, sir... I shouldn't bother you any longer. I just wanted to let you know what I knew. I'll—I'll go, now. I'd bet you'd like to be alone with your thoughts—"

"Nonsense," said Dumbledore, as they stepped out of the castle and into the bright, warming light of midday. "I have no particular desire to spend any more time reflecting on mortality, Harry, since I suspect I shall be doing enough of it later to quite satisfy me. You may accompany me to the gates. There is nothing that makes me feel older than passing time alone. I could use your company; like laughter, youth is contagious. Now summon your broom, would you?"

Harry grinned.

A minute later, they were both in flight. Dumbledore looked to be a competent flier—his posture was not stiff, for one, and he was adroitly handling the broomstick with one hand while the other trailed down his side—but it was admittedly difficult to be on par with Harry, who was lazily performing barrel rolls with just his knees.

"I love flying," muttered Harry to himself. There was something so utterly relaxing about the wind fluttering through his hair—

"I had gathered as much," replied Dumbledore. Harry looked over in surprise. "Old, yes," said Dumbledore, with a small smile, "but not deaf. I admit to watching you keenly during Gryffindor games, Harry. You remind me much of your father, but I don't believe he was ever quite as skilled as you are."

Harry's curiosity was piqued. "What was my father like?"

Dumbledore seemed to consider for a few moments. "He was very similar to you, Harry, though without a care in the world. He was intelligent, brave... noble, even, and extremely well-liked by most, if not all. He was very fond of Quidditch; early in his time at Hogwarts, he stole a snitch, and whenever one of the professors' backs was turned, he would let it out of his pocket, let it have a short taste of freedom, and then he would reach out and snatch it out of the air. Had he been caught, he might have faced serious consequences, but—and perhaps this is the measure of your father that you should take most to heart—the professors seemed very shortsighted around him, even suspiciously so.

"He was, I believe, for most of his years, top of his class, just like you are, and in exactly the same subjects: Transfiguration; Defense; Astronomy... He was quite strong in Charms, too, I believe, but there were few that could top your mother's proficiency in the subject. He would have been a shoe-in for Prefect but for his inestimable talent for mischief. Between him and his three friends... Ah, Harry. You have not known such ingenious chaos. Misters Weasley and Weasley are undoubtedly talented, Harry, but they would be humbled by some of the feats of magic and trickery that your father and his friends accomplished."

As the front gates to the school came into view, Dumbledore began to descend to the ground, which was only a few dozen feet below them. Harry joined him, and they walked the last minute before he put his hand on the grill of the exit. The gate swung open, but Dumbledore stopped. "I knew your father best when he was older, Harry, though even at that time he was barely more than a boy himself. He had more heart and more courage than anyone I have ever known, save maybe your mother."

Dumbledore stepped out, and smiled at Harry. "He—they—would be incredibly proud of you, Harry. Never forget that."

The gate swung shut, and locked itself. With only a slight popping noise to ever suggest he had been there, Dumbledore was gone.

The second he was satisfied that Dumbledore was actually gone, and not just invisible, or returning immediately, Harry turned back to the castle, threw his leg over his broom, and flew back post-haste. He could not help but grin stupidly to himself.

In all the times that he had spoken to Dumbledore, the man had never been so straightforward. Even though the Headmaster seemed to be significantly more arrogant and self-aggrandizing when he was being honest with Harry—earned though it might be—Harry could say he far preferred it that way. The Headmaster's whimsical manner made him unpredictable. In the span of twenty minutes, he had revealed more than he had in six months to Harry, and he had also confirmed his absence for the evening. That meant that Harry was free from the Headmaster's overzealous scrutiny of his every move.

Ultimately, he was most glad for that, since he did not plan to take more than one half-hour to break the trace. There were still a few kinks to work out, but they were minor.

He did not consider dismounting until he was right in front of the doors to the castle. Even then, he stopped himself, and on a whim, flew upward to the Astronomy Tower, since it was significantly closer to Gryffindor Tower than the Great Hall. The corridors were mostly empty as he trotted at a brisk pace back to the Common Room; it seemed like most of the students were deep in revision for the exams that commenced the next day. He, under other circumstances, would have liked to have been studying, too, but he understood his own priorities, and first on his list was to enable himself to perform magic outside of school. Failing an exam (not that he would, even if he hadn't been revising for a few weeks) was not catastrophic, since his grades were high enough that he could skip all his exams and still come close to passing.


Katie Bell was in front of the Fat Lady.

"Hullo, Katie," he greeted her.

She gave him a toothy smile, but behind it was a look of slight worry. "Say, you haven't seen Fred and George lately, have you—?"

"No," he said.

"Shit," she replied. "They kept trying to get me to play Strip Exploding Snap with them while I was revising for Herbology. I finally got mad enough that I gave their man bits a bit of a hexing." Katie blushed beet red. "Just a Stinging Hex, that's all, but they were bothering me so bad, and they had to go to the Hospital Wing..."


"—So I'm a little worried about retribution, as you might expect. If I know they're going to do something, I'll go to McGonagall, I will, but the longer I go without seeing them, the more I worry—"

"Listen," he said. "That's nice and all—real chuffed for you and whatnot; I hope it works out for the best—but have you seen Hermione?"

He ignored the brief look of hurt on Katie's face. He did not have time to deal with emotional girls at the moment. He could perform damage control later.

"I think she's in the Common Room," said Katie, and she turned and walked off without another word.

Harry rolled his eyes and stepped up to the Fat Lady. "Lascivia Ancillae!"

The portrait swung open, and Harry stepped inside the dark, stony corridor. He did not go far, though, since he heard familiar voices, and they sounded like they were arguing.

"—think we should go get Harry," came Ron Weasley's voice from further down the corridor.

Harry perked up, curious as to why Weasley, of all people, was recommending him.

"Screw him." Dean's voice cut through. He was audibly furious, and while Weasley's attempt at staying quiet had been patently pathetic, Thomas was clearly not bothering to make an effort. "He'll just wander off if things get rough. Anyway, everyone here already loves Harry. Think of what they'll think of us when we do this. We'll be heroes! Forget fifty points. Dumbledore will have to give us five hundred!"

"Maybe we should wait. Dumbledore will be back soon, and Professor McGonagall–"

Neville. The surprise that Neville of all people was conspiring with Ron and Dean on his own free will was shocking, so much so that he missed the first part of Dean's interruption.

"If you're that much of a nancy, then you can crawl back into the Common Room. 'Course, when we're the heroes of the school, everyone will still hate you."

Harry didn't need to see Neville's reaction to know the boy would go along with it. He'd used Neville's desperate craving of attention for himself–he knew how effective it was. Dean might have gone about it with all the subtlety of a Hippogriff in a shopping center, but Neville was hardly a tough nut to crack.

"Weasley, you coming, then?" Dean's voice again.

"Yeah... yeah. Harry'll see for sure than I can be trusted. I won't be mucking things up this time round."

"Right, well, you can kiss Potter's arse some more when we get back. Be nice to have that cloak of his right now..." The voices trailed off as the three started to move down the corridor.

Eager to avoid them, Harry jumped off down a side corridor—one that led to toilets on the ground floor—and stood there for a long minute, not sure what to think or to do. He had a fairly good sense that he knew what the three were up to, and, in some long-buried part of him, he could feel a twinge to go pull their arses out of the fire. It was quite well buried, though, and in another second, he knew exactly what he intended to do, and how he intended to use the distraction afforded to him by the possible sacrifice of Dean Thomas. Even at the potential cost of Neville, who he could easily see as a true confidante once the boy acquired some sort of self-esteem, he would make good use of the window he had.

He found Hermione sitting at one of the furthermost tables.

"What are you so cheery about?" she snapped. Her hair was wilder than he had seen it before, and her eyes looked to be slightly red from lack of sleep. She was half-invisible behind a stack of books and loose parchment. "Professor Snape hasn't given us any idea which potion we'll need to brew, so we need to know them all. And I haven't seen you studying at all today—" Hermione, clearly, had no intention to stop grumbling.

"Come with me," Harry interrupted, no longer able to control a mad grin. "Leave it all here; we're finished. It's time."

"Finished?" Her face scrunched in confusion, before she jerked up, eyes open. "Now?"

Harry nodded. "Let's go. The Charms classroom is empty right now, and I've had permission from Flitwick to use it while revising. We're doing this now."

"That's Professor Flitwick for you," she said scornfully, though her heart was clearly not in the admonishment. "Let me just put everything in the corner at least."

He rolled his eyes, but nonetheless gave her a few minutes to tidy up. She did so with uncharacteristic speed, and Harry barely kept his jaw from dropping when she literally tossed a book on top of a pile. It took him about thirty seconds longer before he realized that he knew the banishing charm, and could send all of Hermione's books and papers upstairs to her bedroom.

"Hermione, just a sec," he said, interrupting her frantic scrub of her work area. "I can banish your stuff up to your dorm—"

"Oh, Harry, would you? That'd save so much time—"

With a flick of his wand and a quick word, the entire stack lifted itself up and flew up the staircase to the girls' dorms.

Hermione blushed and straightened out her robe. "Okay," she said, "I'm ready. Lead the way."

Harry did, but not before casting a simple Notice-Me-Not Charm on both of them; both he and Hermione wore stupid grins, grins that were at very least attention-drawing and at worst an outright admission of culpability. The truth was that he and Hermione were ecstatic for different reasons. For Hermione, this was the culmination of self-application to an academic pursuit—a test of her own skill and intellect—as well as an opportunity to solidify her first friendship at Hogwarts.

For Harry, it was freedom, pure and simple. It was cutting the chains of his previous life.

In short order—Harry didn't even remember much of the journey, so internally focused was he—they found themselves on the third floor, standing outside the Charms classroom.

"Hold on just a second," he said, as Hermione reached out to open the door. He let his wand slide down his forearm and into his hand. "I want to cast a few things—just to make sure we're not disturbed, you know?"

That was not quite the truth. In fact, there were quite a number of spells that he wanted to cast. More Notice-Me-Nots, a Perimeter Charm with a Caterwauling Hex... A delayed Shock Jinx on the door handle, an Imperturbable Charm on the door on itself, a Stealth Sensoring Spell, and the first part of a Cone of Silence...

Hermione was looking at him strangely. Her cheeks were flushed again. "What?" he asked, as he opened the door and stepped inside the Charms classroom.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Nothing, really. That's just some really advanced magic—"

"I've been researching them all year, ever since I knew that I was going to do this. It doesn't make much sense to do it—Silencio Secundus!—and then get caught doing it." He turned to look at her. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

"I'm excited," she said, though he had the sense that it was not entirely the truth—or, perhaps, not the entire truth. She followed him over to one of the workstation tables and sat down. "So, what's first?"

"Well, let's run through this first, shall we?" he said. With two jabs of his wand, he cast the spell that would let him see the individual Runes and Strokes of magic. He could feel his own heart beating. This was it–he was really going to do this. At Hermione's nod, he continued.

"So, as you know, the Trace is in two parts. The first and foremost part of the spell is the part that transmits wand usage data to the Ministry." He put his wand down on the desk and drew her attention to a few of the Runes which wrapped through the big blue band. "It's a tricky enchantment, because it has a number of little traps. This node, in particular, keeps a list of spells used in the recent past. It has capacity for about twenty or twenty-five spells, depending on how complex they are. What it's designed to do, though, is to store that list in case the rest of the Trace is unable to transmit data. Then, when the connection between the wand and the Ministry opens, it sends all the spells in a burst."

"Clever," said Hermione. "It's a wonder they don't catch the Purebloods more often—"

"Well," said Harry, who wasn't sure that he wanted to get into the topic, but did so anyway. "That's for a number of reasons. The one that's going to hack you off the most—"

"—It won't bother me too badly," she said. "I know that they get special treatment—"

"—Is that the Ministry doesn't monitor Purebloods'—or, for that matter, Half-bloods'—houses."

"But that's outrageous! The whole Statue of Secrecy is all a plot to keep down the 'undesirables'! Surely Dumbledore—"

"Hermione! Calm down. Yeah, I bet Dumbledore knows. But he knows how things work–he's not going to needlessly pick a fight with the oldest families in Britain. He serves as Headmaster by grace of the Governors, and there's powerful interests represented on that board. You can bet that if he tries to overturn or change the enforcement of that law that there'd be a real serious look at his leadership, and if we lost Dumbledore, it's conceivable that Hogwarts might not even accept Muggle-borns.

"Anyway, we're about to join them, aren't we? At least as far as our wands go. And I thought you said you weren't going to get hacked off—?"

Hermione nodded, though she was a bright crimson—whether in embarrassment or in anger, Harry didn't know. "Right, then. Go on, please."

"The other part of those Runes, as you might expect, transmit the data to a specific location at the Ministry. I had a look at them the other day, and I noticed that they weren't active. I don't think the Ministry monitors us while we're in Hogwarts, which to some extent makes sense, but is actually quite fortunate, since we would have to find an un-Traced wand if they were. The trick here is plausible deniability, and if they have us on record as casting a Containment Ward, that would become a lot more difficult."

"So they deactivate the Trace on the wands instead of just ignoring the records? We are lucky," she said with a whistle. "That could've put an end to everything right there."

"No," said Harry. "It would have made it difficult, yes, but I've had plans in place since last week to temporarily relieve Hagrid of his wand-brella if that part of the Trace suddenly went active again. I've checked it every day."

She ran a hand through her hair—or tried to, anyway; it got stuck halfway down, and she pulled it out with a wince. "So," she said, and trailed off to let Harry continue.

"So, the only other thing you need to know about that part of the Trace is that it's weak. We can probably remove it all in one glob without any worry. The only strong security feature is the Tamper-Proof Charm, and we'll get to that in a minute. For now, what you need to know is that a simple 'Finite' will probably work. If not, then I'll show you how to disassemble each of the Strokes myself. It's not particularly difficult, just a bit time-consuming, and you have to be steady-handed, normally. On the upside, we'll be behind a Containment Ward, so you could practically use a steak knife to sever them, and damn the consequences."

She leaned in closer to him. "Tell me about the Tamper-Proof Charm now," she commanded.

"The Tamper-Proof Charm is the second aspect of the Trace, and it's by far the more challenging to dispel. Fortunately, we're not going to dispel it. It's designed to collapse when triggered, and that collapse causes the rest of the trace to send a high-priority signal to the Ministry." He looked at her almost sadly. "I'd hoped, in the early going of my research, that since the rest of the Trace is not active, it wouldn't send if we did it at school, but when I did more research, I found my hopes to be quite premature. The Tamper-Proof Charm will both activate the rest of the Trace, and it's got enough internal power to make it out of Hogwarts."

"But the Containment Ward will prevent that?"

"Yeah," he said, "but we're really lucky. I was reading some of the back issues of Recent Developments of Magic, and there was a really robust debate about whether the Trace should have more power—the Ward-breaker, they were calling it. Ultimately, though," he said, and he flashed a grin at her to remind her that such developments were to her advantage, "the Pureblood faction lobbied against it, since it could interfere with the suite of enchantments upon their homes."

She nodded.

"So all we need to do," he said, summing up, "is to cast the Containment Ward, and then cast 'Finite' on the whole Trace. That will collapse the Tamper-Proof Charm. The Containment Ward will do its job, and while we're waiting for the signal to weaken, we'll cast 'Finite' on the rest of the Trace. Then it's just a waiting game."

"That... sounds ridiculously easy for such a complex piece of magic," replied Hermione. "Are there going to be any snags that we haven't anticipated?"

"If I haven't anticipated them, I wouldn't know, would I?" said Harry, with a hint of impatience. "But no, I don't believe there will be." He pointed to his glasses. "The enchantment on these doesn't lie. It's not possible to hide something from Venefilux Ostende, since the hiding would show up as its own magic. It is easy, though, but then, the Ministry has to be able to remove it when you turn seventeen, anyway, and they're not notoriously competent, are they? I suppose, too, that if you have the know-how to remove the Trace, you have the skill enough to break it regardless of how tough it is. The Containment Ward is not easy magic. It's a wonder I can do it at all."

Hermione was distracted. "I wonder if they ever do spot checks?" she asked.

"God, let's hope not," said Harry, whose eyes pressed tightly closed at the thought. "If they do, just tell them that you swear you didn't remove it and that your wand must be defective. If it happens, and they put the Trace back on, we can always take it off again. I think we're fine, though. I've checked, and while the Weasleys have the Trace still on their wand, neither Nev nor Malfoy have it active on their wands."

There was a long moment of silence. Hermione broke it first. "Remember that you promised only to use your wand over the summer for self-defense, right?"

"Yeah," said Harry, though he had no intention of limiting himself to that. It was too good an opportunity to pass up, practicing magic over the summer. "I'll probably use it for lesser things, too, like lifting heavy stuff and doing the dishes, too—just little things that will make my life easier, if that's okay—?"

"Yeah," she said eagerly. "Of course those things are fine. Just—promise me you won't Hex your relatives?"

"Unless it's in self-defense," replied Harry, and he held up a hand as if to make a vow. He was telling the truth, too; he planned to Confund the Dursleys until they couldn't see straight, but that was a Charm, not a Hex.

"Well," said Hermione, and she rubbed her hands together. "I suppose we'd best get started?"

"No time like the present," agreed Harry, and he picked up his wand. "I'm going to cast the Containment Ward first," he said. "I'll need complete quiet for the next few minutes, and we'll have a window of about twenty minutes to do both wands, since that's about as long as I've been able to manage lately."

"Are you going to go first?" she asked. "I mean, I don't have a problem going first, but I think I'd be a lot more comfortable seeing you do it—"

"Say no more," said Harry. "Er—wink, wink, nudge, nudge, and all that. Put your wand on the table, would you, and then keep quiet."

Hermione did as she was told, and Harry picked up his own wand. From his breast pocket he removed his shrunken copy of Advanced Warding for the Paranoid and Insecure, enlarged it, and flipped it to page two-hundred seven. The Ward was quite complicated to cast, but it also required a tremendous amount of power, and Harry wanted to be absolutely sure that it would work before he put in the requisite power.

With his wand held loosely in his right hand, he drew sharp, cutting lines in the air. The writing—blood red, and glowing faintly—floated in the air. Gar... Raido... Thurisaz... Another few flicks of his wand had Strokes properly connecting the Runes, but he did not slow down, since there was more to do—there were layers upon layers of Runes to be cast for such a complex enchantment. As a complex Ward, there was no simplified method of casting the spell, like there was for Wingardium Leviosa or similar. All of it had to be constructed painstakingly, piece by piece, Rune by Rune, and Stroke by Stroke.

A few minutes later, he checked the book again, and looked up to admire his handiwork. It was not a particularly big containment ward—maybe ten feet in diameter—but it would do, and any larger would require an external power source that he would have to create. As it was—

"Okay, Hermione," said Harry. "I'm going to enable the ward. If I start to glow or anything—"

"Stop you?"

"Don't touch me. It means I'm doing it properly."

He closed his eyes, felt out the line to Cweorth, and pushed pure, unadulterated magic down it. He could feel the strain on his body: at first, his shoulders tensed without thought, but then he felt his abs clenching and his teeth grinding against each other. With a great push and a grunt, he felt the Ward draw enough strength to start, and he kept the raw magic flowing long enough to draw a Stroke between the Rune and his body. That would keep it going for as long as possible, until he exhausted himself magically.

"Okay," he said, and he opened his eyes. There was a light gray dome surrounding them; it was barely visible to the eye, but for the slight shimmer that it made in the breeze that was emanating from the connection. "Okay, we're good to go."

She handed him her wand, and he set it right back down on the table. His own wand twitched in his hand, a revelation of just how eager he was.

He took a deep breath, placed his wand against Hermione's, and began. "Finite!"

There was an audible snap, and at the same time, a ghostly wind shot from the wand. With his charmed glasses, he could see it bounce off the Containment Ward, which, mercifully, was doing its job. "It has about a minute's worth of power," he explained, partly because he knew Hermione was interested, and partly because forcing himself to talk calmed him. He placed his wand back against her wand. "Finite!" he said again, and he watched as the Strokes on the Trace all dissolved with little resistance. A third "Finite!" and the Runes disappeared, too.

He put his wand down on the desk, and watched the signal continue to carom off the walls of the ward. In another thirty seconds, it faded, and Harry let out a breath that he didn't know he was holding.

She hugged him. "Brilliant, Harry!"

He accepted the hug, though it did little to quell his shaking. "I think—I think you'd best do mine, now," he said. "I don't know how long I'll be able to hold the Ward."

"Okay," she said, and she picked up her wand.

"Test it first," he said. "Just—just to make sure it works. Do you know a Cheering Charm?"

"That's fourth-year material!" she exclaimed. "I might know most of the second-year stuff, but certainly—"

"—Then hand me your wand," said Harry impatiently. "I seriously need one."

She did as she was told, and in a trice, Harry felt five times better. He handed it back to her. "Okay," he said. "Go for it. I didn't see any magical activity occurring on your wand other than the spell itself, so it looks like it's worked."

Hermione placed her wand to his, and repeated the process. "Finite! Finite! Finite!" A minute later and it was done.

Harry picked up his wand. There were no traces of magic on it.

He smiled.

They were just leaving the Charms corridor when they bumped into Snape.

"Potter!" he snarled as he turned around the corner into sight.

"Professor," replied Harry. "Something wrong, Professor?"

Harry knew that there was, in fact, something wrong with Snape. The man's normally severe expression was even more sharply defined, his eyes wilder, his body language stiffer.

"Have either of you seen Professor Quirrell?" he demanded.

Harry exchanged a look with Hermione. "No, sir," he said, as he turned back to Snape. "Not for a few days now—not since the end of classes."

Harry could not help but notice Snape's anxious glances down the corridor. He knew that the Professor's eyes were fixed on the unassuming oak door at the end. He wondered if the Professor knew that there was a massive three-headed dog behind the door.

"Very well," said Snape, who looked like he was grinding the words out from between his teeth. He brushed past them toward the door, but spoke over his shoulder as he walked. "I suggest, Granger, Potter, that you return to your Common Room immediately if you know what is best for you. I suppose I shall have to notify the Headmaster—"

"You won't find him here, sir," said Harry, who hadn't moved a step, despite Hermione's urging hand on his arm

Snape stopped in his tracks and turned around slowly. "Tell me what you know, Potter," he said, "unless you wish to see yourself in detention for the rest of your miserable life."

"Well," said Harry, who didn't even flinch at Snape's threat, "surely you know as well as I do that the Headmaster is at the Flamels' this evening—or doesn't he confide in you like me?"

Snape sneered, but Harry could see the wheels turning in the man's head. "Did—did the Headmaster mention what he was to be doing there?"

"Of course," said Harry, as if holding the Headmaster's confidence was the easiest thing in the world. "He and Mr. Flamel are destroying an invaluable magical object. You may know about it—"

"—Of course I know about it, you foolish boy. Are you positive that this is the case?"

"Absolutely. What was it Professor Dumbledore said? Ah: 'It seems even immortality itself has a finite lifetime.'" He paused for a second. "He would think it foolish, sir, for you to go down after the Stone. After all, he has set a terrible trap for Voldemort—"

Snape actually spat on the floor. "Do not speak his name! You have no idea what sort of power—"

Harry's response came to him immediately. He pushed out with his magic, just like he had done to power the Ward, until he was emitting a faint blue shine. "Don't I, Severus?" he asked, using the name that was whispered to be the Potions Master's.

He held Snape's glare for a long minute, during which time, memories of his own performance—of nights swotting in the library, of surpassing the fifth years in Charms club, of dueling Cedric to a near standstill—sprang unbidden to his mind. It was only when he remembered Hermione kissing him on the cheek at Christmas that he clamped down on the memories so hard that he was left feeling cold and empty.

Snape only raised an eyebrow, yet he didn't speak. He stood there, staring at Harry for what seemed like a very long time, before he opened his mouth. "Next year, Potter—" he said, slowly, silkily, in the manner that only Snape could speak. "—Next year, within the first week, you will come find me. Your brewing skills are deficient. I shall be giving you remedial Potions lessons—"

Harry didn't need the little voice in his head to tell him that Snape wasn't telling the truth.

"I understand, sir," he said.

"Despite your mark in my class this year, it is obvious that you have some natural talent. It would be... a shame," said Snape, his eyes whirling quickly, "to see that talent go to waste. If you are as prodigious as the Headmaster seems to think you are, then you should have no difficulty elevating your mark into passing range."

Snape made to exit the Charms corridor—opposite the direction he had been originally heading, Harry noted—but stopped short, and looked over his shoulder once more. "You would do better in Potions," he said, with heavy inflecting on the word, "if you learned to clear your mind from any distractions, and to compartmentalize your thoughts so that you are utterly focused at the task at hand."

"Yes, sir."

Snape's eyes looked into Harry's once more, but no memories suddenly jumped to the forefront. After a second, Snape tore his eyes away. "I must go contact the Headmaster."

In a flutter of dark cloak, he was gone.

Harry turned around. Hermione was looking at him with a decidedly unpleasant look.

"I think you'd best explain—"

"I think I'd best explain—"

"—So Dumbledore's gone to go destroy it," he finished, as they stepped in past the Fat Lady. "I wasn't sure how, but I knew that Voldemort was managing to get near to the school—after all, he's the one who's been killing the Unicorns—"

"—since drinking Unicorn blood will give you strength, but at the cost of a cursed life..." said Hermione, with a look of horrible understanding on her face. "And you think—"

"I know now," said Harry. "I admit I had half-suspected Snape, simply because he's greasy and awful, but when Snape mentioned Quirrell, I remembered the night of the duels—"

"—Where Quirrell never showed up, and Dumbledore vanished," Hermione finished for him. "So it's Quirrell, then."

"Makes sense, doesn't it?" he asked rhetorically. "I mean, the whole turban thing, the whole stutter... Who would ever suspect Professor Quirrell?"

She nodded. "So—what are you going to do about it?"

He turned to her with a start. "Weren't you listening to me? Dumbledore's got the Stone. It's suicide to go after Voldemort."

She turned her head away from him. "I just thought—"

"—That I would want revenge on the... thing that killed my parents? I'm not stupid, Hermione. You can be brave without being stupid. I'm not about to end up like Nev and Weasley and Thomas, probably lying dead in some chamber, all for some damn notoriety and house points."

"They—you..." She sputtered for a few seconds. "You just let them go to their deaths?"

He sighed. "I don't think they'll die," he lied. "It was either stop them or break the Trace. I trust in Dumbledore enough to prevent them from getting hurt. Hell, he could have just drawn a simple Age Line to prevent them from even getting close enough to open the door, for all I know."

"And you're just going to leave them there?"

"Don't seem so shocked. I have no desire to commit suicide. Dumbledore will be back soon, and he'll fix things."

She plunked herself down on a chair. "I—I don't know what I think," she said. "I think studying will take my mind off of things. I think I need to study."

He smiled at her. "Great. I'll join you in just a minute—I need to go run and grab my notes..."

He ran up to his dorm quickly, opened his trunk, and pulled out the bound sheaf of parchment. With a flick of his wand—his newly liberated wand, he reminded himself with a smile—he closed his trunk, and made his way down the stairs.

Hermione was gone.

He wandered over to the staircase leading to the girls' dorms. Angelina Johnson was coming down the stairs, and she waved to him as she caught sight of him.

"Did you see Hermione on your way down?" he asked, once she approached close enough.

She thought for a second. "No," she said, "and I've been on the stairs for a bit, talking to Leanne."

Harry felt his stomach lurch out beneath him. "Thanks, Angie," he said, and stood aside so she could go past him.

He closed his eyes tightly. He knew where Hermione had gone. He had no desire to go himself, but he knew that she, unlike Neville, was not a loss he could stomach. Whether it was because of her constant companionship, or the kindness and affection that meant a lot more to him than he had ever thought it would, Hermione's safety was paramount.

He only wished he didn't have to do something so profoundly stupid to protect her. "Dammit, Hermione," he whispered, but he knew that he didn't really begrudge her.

Harry ran down the halls, cursing his luck. Snape's sudden interest in his studies; Katie's look of hurt when he'd blown her off; Dumbledore's poor timing, running off to do what he'd had all year to accomplish; four of his classmates happily walking to their deaths... Hermione–fury and gut-wrenching anguish battled for dominance. He wasn't sure what he would do when—if—he found her. The fact that she was so close to him, that she meant so much to him, disturbed him. He could not consider just telling her that they were no longer friends. He knew that she'd written her parents about him, and he didn't know how to Memory Charm people yet...

A part of him was shocked to admit that he had no desire to lose her as a friend, either. He was clever enough for the both of them, but Hermione was a genius, really. He knew a lot about the trace, and read widely, but Hermione, with very little effort, genuinely understood.

At long last, he reached the end of the third floor corridor. He stopped at the far door and took off his rucksack. Inside was a battered wireless that he'd liberated from Finnegan's trunk. He removed it from the sack, and fiddled with a few of the nobs until a warbly soprano sounded. He turned up the volume until it was loud enough to be heard clearly; wireless and wand in hand and ready to use, he opened the door—

—Only to find the enormous Cerberus asleep. In the corner, an enchanted harp played.

"Thank god for that," he said, and abandoned the wireless on the floor. Fluffy's sleep was quiet and obviously deep; it was drooling, and the drool was running down its muzzle into a large puddle on the floor. The trap door was open and unobstructed, though where it lead to, Harry could only guess; it was blacker than night down the hole, and even a whispered 'Lumos!' did nothing to illuminate it.

He did the most illogical thing that he could think of (short of slapping Fluffy on the hind), sure that it was exactly what he was expected to do: he lowered himself into the trap and let go.

It was a long fall. He felt like he was falling forever, and just as he figured that he had to have fallen down all three flights of stairs and was now underground, he landed surprisingly softly with an 'Oomph!' on top of a pile of what looked to be thickly coiled ropes. The stench was terrible and very nearly overpowering–like overcooked cabbage and rotting meat. It took him a second, but once he plugged his nose and looked around, Harry understood why he was so easily bypassing the second 'protection': he was on top of a Devil's Snare—or rather, it was more accurate to say he was on top what used to be a Devil's Snare; all that remained was the scorched limbs of the giant carnivorous plant. Getting down had been easy. He had no idea how he was supposed to get back. Perhaps that was what Dumbledore had meant when he said that return would be nearly impossible...

Even in the near-pitch dark, he could make out a small bit of light from down a long corridor leading onward. He stood, brushed himself off, and started walking briskly down it. About halfway down it, he could hear slight sussurations... Whispers, maybe, though he couldn't imagine from what. After another few seconds of listening, he could hear mixed in, though faint, a girl's sobs.

There was only one girl that it could be. He doubled his pace.

Suddenly the corridor spilled into a tall, two-pillared room that looked like it was cut from stone. It was a testament to the spectacle that Harry barely noticed the room, though; instead, his eyes focused on the tens of thousands of luminescent birds that were swooping down, attacking a quivering pile of robes.

As he crossed the room, his eyes were called to the birds. There were scores of them, all shapes and colors and sizes. Their glow filled the cavern with a ghostly light. When he focused closely, though, he realized that they were not birds, in fact, but keys.

Harry had never known keys to fly, nor to angrily swoop down like bees, either, for that matter.

"Hermione!" Harry cried out, as he moved for the pile. A head peeked out, bushy-haired and looking frightened to death, before it gave a loud shriek and retreated back into the jumble of robes.

As he approached, a number of the keys began to dive-bomb him. The teeth on the keys were sharp, and in several places ripped his robe, and cut roughly into his forearm. Furiously, he slashed his wand forward, trying to knock them out of the air, though there were too many and they were too quick to be caught. Moving closer to the screaming girl only led to more and more keys toward them both.

"Harry, you have to open the door!" A small, feminine hand burst out of the shimmering pile, and thrust toward him. Before he could reach it, though, hundreds of keys swooped down on it, scratching the pale skin viciously. With another scream, her hand flew open, and a silver key leaped from it.

Harry jumped for it, purely by reflex. Thankfully, the key only could flutter feebly, since both of its wings were crushed. He raised his arm over his head as he tried to push toward the door across the room. The closer he got, the more fierce and daring the keys became, and was after he was repulsed for the third time that he began to get angry.

His wand fell into his hand comfortably, and he raised it. "Immobulus!"

A blue shockwave knocked the keys back, leaving them floating slowly, unable to swoop. Harry stepped forward and jammed the key into the door.

He let out a deep breath and released the Immobilization Jinx. The room filled with the soft tinkle of metal hitting stone. Hermione had been correct; by placing the key in the door, the life in each of the attacking keys had been snuffed out, and they all suddenly fell, unhindered by Harry's own magic.

He crossed the room in what seemed like a second. "Hermione, are you all right?" He looked down at the pile of robes with concern, his ire–for the moment–forgotten.

Slowly, the tight bundle relaxed, and became a girl, albeit a girl who was bleeding badly through her robes. There were rough scratches on legs, and the arms of her robes were all but shredded up to her shoulder. There was a large cut on her face, too, starting near the bridge of her nose, running under her eye, and across her cheek. She nodded shakily.

"Come on," said Harry, and he hooked his arms under hers and lifted her up. "Let's get you out of here. I don't know that the keys won't come back to life, but I'm pretty sure that nothing is going to wake up that Devil's Snare."

Her legs were shaking, and so he half-carried, half-dragged her out of the key room and down the corridor back to the Devil's Snare. Halfway along, Hermione's legs gave way, and they crashed to the ground. Neither made a move to get up.

"The keyhole was silver," Hermione blurted, "and then I saw it, flying just at knee-level with a broken wing. I didn't know they would attack when I grabbed it." Then she sniffled. "Oh, this was such a mistake. I'm so sorry, Harry."

"Hermione," he said, slowly. "You're babbling. It's okay. Just—just relax."

Hermione nodded, for which Harry was grateful. He supposed that given the circumstance, she thought her best bet at keeping their friendship intact was simply to be contrite. He wasn't inclined to disagree.

At last, he pulled himself to his feet. "Right. You haven't seen the others, yet, have you?" he asked. "Wait; don't answer that. Of course you haven't. Stay here, okay? Dumbledore is coming soon–he'll get you back. When he does, tell him who came down here, but nothing else, all right? I'll talk to him when I see him. You have your wand?"

Hermione nodded, and Harry gave her a tight smile, before starting to move away.

Hermione made to get to her feet, but he turned around and shook his head negatively. "Stay seated. You're not in any shape... Just take care of yourself, okay? I'd stay and use my robe to bandage you up, but my robes aren't in much better shape than yours, and if the cleverest witch in our year is in this state, I can't imagine that the three stooges are doing much better."

"I'll be okay," she said, though he could hear her pain in her voice.

"Just stay here, and I'll be back with the idiots in a moment."

Hermione winced slightly, but returned Harry a smile through tears. "I'm sorry, Harry."

"Don't worry about it. After all, I never miss a chance to show everyone what a big hero I am. I probably would have done this anyway."

She giggled slightly, and Harry moved on, his expression decidedly grimmer as he looked away. He would be having words with Hermione, once this was sorted out.

He moved through the key room and down the next corridor. It was interesting that the protections weren't all back-to-back; he thought it a rather poor reflection on Dumbledore, since he didn't think that he would have been able to survive keys and the Devil's Snare at once.

The second he reached the next room—and really, all he saw of the room was that it was a crimson red, and dimly lit by wall sconces—his stomach lurched. Lying on the ground at a very awkward angle was Ron Weasley, his limbs contorted oddly and his face pale beneath his vibrant red hair.

He clamped down quickly on the fury inside of him and moved to the boy. He was relieved at once to see that Ron was still breathing; he didn't particularly like the boy, but there was a difference between disliking him and wishing death on him... Since he lacked any true medical magic skills—a deficiency he vowed to correct—he satisfied himself with a few numbing charms and with resting Ron's head on his own tattered cloak. Ron's left arm and right leg were clearly broken (probably in a few spots, guessing by the angles), but the boy seemed well otherwise, apart from being unconscious. There were no signs of the other boys. How had they gone on, if Ron was in this state?

"I'm going to strangle the pair of them," he said to himself. "I don't care what their reasons are."

He left Ron for the time being. When he finally turned his attention back to his surroundings, Harry noticed that the 'room' was in fact a giant chess board; the door leading onward was on the other side of the room, guarded by sixteen fierce-looking white pieces.

Harry stepped forward onto the board, wand walked straight toward the offending pieces. As he approached, the men-at-arms crossed their pikes, creating a barrier that Harry could not cross.

"I imagine," said Harry to the White King, "that I must play my way across the board?" The expressionless stone face nodded back.

Harry returned the nod and stepped back. He made his way across the board, but stopped to survey the pieces he was to command. He had played chess a few times against his peers at Hogwarts, and while he was not inept, he was hardly an active or an expert player. He knew very well that he was unlikely to best whomever–McGonagall, he guessed–had designed this challenge. But then...

"I'll take King's Rook," he said, and he took the spot that the giant stone chariot vacated.

White's King's Pawn slid forward two squares.

Harry took a deep breath. "Okay! You—King's Pawn! Forward two squares!"

The match quickly became, Harry decided, one of the worst games of chess he'd played in his life, let alone in the past few months. There was no denying the skill of the white pieces; they were ruthless, and took every opening he gave to attack viciously. By the same token, there was no denying the absence of his own skill. Ron, were he conscious to see it, would have gone ballistic. Of course, Ron was unconscious, presumably because of the same lack of skill, so Harry did not feel entirely deficient. Still, there was no possible way he could win the game, given his losses.

"All right, Queen: take the Bishop–the white-square one." Dutifully, the piece moved, and Harry clenched his fists. This was his last chance...

Two seconds later, a loud cheer broke out amongst the white pieces, as a pawn moved forward and slashed his pike with such speed that the black queen broke into two. The heavy stone fragments cleared themselves off the board, into the growing pile of debris, most of which was cluttered on the King's side.

Harry wasn't sure whether to grin or not. "Here we go," he whispered to himself, before he stepped forward. He moved quickly, straight up the seventh file, and never stopped. He swept past the graveyard: past beheaded pawns, past the slain knights, past all four bishops... past his own dead queen. Everything had been sacrificed to create this single, narrow channel.

Harry stopped on the first rank. He turned to the White King. "Check."

The King moved forward one space, and Harry stepped off the board and continued on his way, unhindered by the pieces. He had heard correctly, after all: he'd only had to play his way across the board, not win the game. It was a critical difference, and one hell of a gambit, but it had paid off.

Behind him, the pieces continued the game, obviously unable to stop once they had begun. Decimated and deprived of his last major piece, the Black King abdicated two moves later. Harry continued onward.

As he entered yet another room, Harry was surprised to see no obvious obstacle—no scorched plant, no psychopathic inanimate objects. Harry gripped his wand tighter. He could almost feel his hand twitch in anticipation.

As he reached the middle of the room, a roar erupted from the corner behind him. He spun on his heel, only to catch a visibly wounded Mountain Troll stagger forward, blood dripping from its mouth. In its hand was a club the size of Harry.

At last, Harry grinned. Ever since Hermione's disappearing act, he had grown tenser and tenser...

"Depulso!" Harry roared, and whirled his wand in a tight, level corkscrew–a textbook Banishing Charm. The Troll's face was a picture of confusion as its charge was stopped abruptly. With increasing force it was thrown backwards, and it slammed hard into the stone wall with a loud 'crack!'.

The Troll lumbered stupidly to its feet again. Harry's grin grew.

He ducked under the first swing, and with a sharp jab of his wand, the Troll lost its footing and fell to the floor. As it tried to get up again, he cast another Banisher, sending it sprawling on all fours again.

A small voice in his head told him to quit playing with it, to finish it and be done. He knew it spoke the truth. He also knew that he had to make sure that the Troll would not recover; it would not do to be ambushed when he was carrying Neville out of the gauntlet.

As the Troll lumbered to its feet again, he began spinning his wand in a slow circle, as he prepared to cast the most deadly curse he knew. It stepped groggily toward him, its club raised high, and he let it get as close to him as he could, so that his curse would have even more power...

"Ardetur Epoxiae!"

Blue jets of flames shot from Harry's wand. These were not the tiny Bluebell Flames that Hermione seemed to favor. These gouts of flame were deadly and adhered to whatever they touched. They would burn until doused with water, which was exactly what he wanted. The Troll caught the burst of flames in the upper torso, and it took it exactly one second before it noticed that it was on fire.

Harry had never heard a Troll scream before, and had no desire to hear it scream again. He took shelter in the doorway, and turned his head as best as he could. To say that the Troll was in great agony was to understate things, and he felt, both at the same time, a great pang of sympathy for the stupid beast, and a great rush of empowerment. It was enough to make him sick.

At long last, the troll collapsed to the floor and stopped moving. He doused the flames, and looked at the destruction he had wrought. "Christ," he whispered, disgusted. He could look no longer; he shook himself, and moved forward again, very eager to put the charred remains of the Troll behind him.

As quickly as he had released it on the Troll, the frustration returned in the next room. As he stepped into the room, great flames shot up, barring his advancement and his retreat. Inside the room, seven bottles—or what he presumed had been bottles—sat on a shelf. All were shattered into fragments and were leaking various colored fluids. A book sat on a short table, presumably to tell the Stone-seeker what the bottles were for. Whatever had been printed on the book was lost to the ages, though, since the book, and the table it stood on, were charred beyond recognition. Why Dean and Neville felt the need...

Even if he could have read the book, the bottles were empty. He presumed that they had contained potions; clearly, they were the key to the flames. Since they were emptied, he was stymied and trapped.

He sank down to the floor. He could think of no way to clear the way. Even though he was skilled enough with a Repairing Charm to fix the bottles and perhaps even restore the book, he knew no charm that would refill the bottles with what they had once held.

He pondered the room itself. He didn't know how to cast the Blasting Charm, so blowing up the wall to the side of the flames was not an option. He could repair the table and use it to bridge the flames, but he had a sneaking suspicion that such a method would fail outright. With a quick flick of his wand to confirm his theory, he found that the fire was not doused by conjured water, either.

"Well, shit," he said, at long last. He was at an impasse. There was just no way to solve the bloody puzzle—

—except for refusing to play the puzzle. He knew how wizards worked; hell, he knew how people worked: if there was a game in front of them, they would constrain themselves to play by the rules. So few understood that fighting smart and dirty were the same thing, and if there was one man he expected to recognize that fact, it was Professor Snape, who he was positive had prepared the room.

He stood, cast a Flame-Freezing Charm, and walked unscathed through the fire, on to the next room.

It was the final room.

Quirrell was muttering in thought, facing the far wall. He hadn't noticed Harry, and Harry intended to keep it that way for as long as possible.

In front of Quirrell stood a tall mirror, and with a jolt, Harry recognized it as the one he had seen at Christmastime. The inscription at the top... 'Erised Stra Ehru Oyt Ube Cafru Oyt On Wohsi'... It took him only a second to understand what it meant, and instantly his opinion of Dumbledore rose. It was a devious ploy to keep the man guessing.

In the corner were Dean and Neville. Both were bleeding, and both looked to be unconscious, though otherwise unharmed. Harry breathed a mental sigh of relief.

He raised his wand and stepped further into the room.

"Ardetur Epoxiae!"

Quirrell whirled and batted—simply batted!—the jet of blue flame away. "Potter!" he spat. "I wondered if I would see you here. You have a terrible habit of sticking your nose where it doesn't belong."

"I could say the same thing about you," replied Harry. "How long have you been a traitor, Professor?"

Quirrell grinned; Harry was sure he would remember the look in the most terrifying of his dreams. "A traitor, Potter? Surely you don't see things in such black-and-white terms—?"

"The only thing I see is you, dead! Depulso!"

Quirrell snarled, and side-stepped Harry's spell. With a simple hook of the Professor's finger, Harry felt himself slammed backward into the wall. It took the wind right out of him, and he collapsed to the ground in a tumble of his own limbs.

"I am no traitor, Potter," said Quirrell, who folded his arms behind himself and stepped slowly over to the boy. "I, alone, on the merest hint, sought out the spirit of the greatest wizard that has ever lived. I, alone, nursed him back to strength. I, alone, know of his plans, and know of what he has done and how great he is."

He stopped in front of Harry. With a single jerk of his finger, Harry rose in the air, suspended by his throat. He shuddered violently as he struggled to breath, until finally Quirrell allowed him to gasp inward.

"I, alone," said Quirrell, as he looked Harry straight in the eye, "am strong enough to do magic with a mere thought, all because the Dark Lord has seen fit to bestow upon me his knowledge, so that I may restore him to health."

He spun on his heel and paced away. Harry, no longer supported by magic, crumpled to the ground again. "Since you're not surprised to see me, I suppose Severus told you, then, Potter, that I was serving You-Know-Who?" he asked, mockingly.

Harry sat up. "Not exactly, no," he replied. "I mostly pieced it together from discarded sugar packets and bumper stickers."

"A pathetic attempt at humor, Potter. Still, I do not begrudge you the effort. It must be difficult to see the man who will murder you become greater than ever before."

"To tell the truth," said Harry, "you're a bit of a rough crowd, anyway."

Quirrell hummed dismissively. He had turned back to look in the mirror. "I don't understand," he whispered. "I see the stone—I have it; I see myself presenting it to my master... but where is it?"

Harry's hand slid out to grab his wand, but Quirrell apparently had eyes on the back of his head, for Harry's wand jerked away, and flew across the room into his hand.

"A curious wand," said Quirrell, as he looked down at it. "Holly, hmm? And—Phoenix feather, too? Oh, my, Potter. Did you know that your wand—"

"Brother wand with Voldemort's, yeah," said Harry, who was still having problems getting to his feet. His legs did not want to hold any weight, and each time he tried to rise, he collapsed like a new-born fawn.

"You should refer to him with respect," replied Quirrell mildly. "He is a great man, after all—"

"—Was a great man, perhaps."

"—Will be a great man again in a very short time. He is not forgiving, Potter. Now, be quiet. I must examine this interesting mirror."

Harry did as he was told. The longer that Quirrell stared at the mirror, the sooner Dumbledore would arrive.

"What does this blasted mirror do?" muttered Quirrell to himself. "I don't understand. Master?"

To Harry's immense horror, a voice—sibilant like a snake's—spoke from under Quirrell's turban. "Use the boy!"

Quirrell turned straight around and gestured at Harry, who flew the length of the room to come to rest beside Quirrell.

"Look into the mirror, Potter, and tell me what you see. Be warned: I shall know if you are lying, and I will be most displeased if you do."

Harry thought of nothing but lying, anyway.

Quirrell pushed him in front of the mirror, and Harry turned his head to gaze at the reflection—

Only to gasp at the sight.

He saw himself in the mirror. He was not much older there than he was now; his wand was in his hand, pointing downward, and his eyes were narrowed dangerously. He was standing in the Dining Room of Number Four, Privet Drive, and beside him, spread-eagle on the ground with their eyes blank and unmoving were Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon, and Dudley.

His deepest, most heart-felt desire was to kill the Dursleys.

"Well?" asked Quirrell, who must have heard Harry's gasp. "Well, what do you see, boy?"

Harry clamped down on his fear and shock and looked at the Professor. "I see myself killing you, sir."

Quirrell stared at Harry for a long time, not breaking eye contact. At long last, he straightened out. With a snap of his fingers, Harry was tied up in tight ropes that restricted his movement in any which way. "I warned you about lying, Potter. My master did not wish to do this; no, it was his wish that you die a clean, inauspicious death, but if we must, I suppose..."

The Professor stepped away from him, and began to unwrap his turban.

"What—?" asked Harry, who all of a sudden felt very confused.

"My master has been pleased with me, lately," said Quirrell. "Despite my early failings—I did fail to steal the Stone from Gringotts, after all—he has recognized that Dumbledore, that old coot, has been fighting him for it. He has not seen much need to use me to the full extent that he is capable, but—alas—there are exceptions."

Quirrell let the turban drop. On the back of his bald head was another face, if Harry could call it that. It was hideous and snake-like, and when it breathed in, it was with a terrible rattling noise.

"My master," said Quirrell, simply.

"Ah," said the head on the back of Quirrell's head. "Well done—well done—my servant. You have brought me both to the Stone and to my conqueror. Well done indeed."

Harry stared at the face, enraptured and disgusted at the same time.

The face noticed. "Harry Potter! Do you see what has become of me? Smoke and vapor—a parlor trick, one might say. You have reduced me to this—oh, yes, how far the mighty can fall, indeed. To think I was once a god, and now I have no form but for when I can share a body."

"Voldemort," whispered Harry.

Voldemort scowled. "I see that Dumbledore has been planting ideas—delusions—in your head, boy," he spoke. "Let us see what else is in your head, shall we? Legilimens!"

It was pain beyond any Harry had ever felt. His scar was molten steel pressed against his head; he could not hear his own screams for the pain. His memories flew past his mind's eye—he could see himself talking to Hermione just hours before; he could see himself checking Ron's heartbeat again, and getting utterly crushed by the white pieces at Chess; he could see himself killing the Troll, ending its miserable life—

And the memories suddenly shifted. He saw the Troll in much greater detail—was forced to stare at it as its skin withered away, as it screamed helplessly and tore at its face and chest—and he watched as he suddenly recalled his deepest desire—

Suddenly, Voldemort's face swam into view again. Harry was panting; he could feel where tears had fallen down his face. "Interesting," said Voldemort. "You have walked the same path that I have, Harry Potter. Did you know that I killed my only relatives when I was sixteen?

"They were particularly worthless—even more so than your own, I suspect. Tell me: does it intrigue as it does me how similar we are? You are a natural Legilimens—I felt your probing; you, like me, have dived into complicated, deep magic; you, like me, have killed before your first year was over at Hogwarts. You even look a bit like me—that is, before you and your dear mother reduced me to this wretched state...

"Of course it intrigues you. You are too like me for such a connection not to resonate within you, not to make you want to know more, to learn all that you can be." He paused for a second, as if to consider, but in the very next second, his harsh, penetrating eyes were on Harry's again. "Now, Harry," he said, almost kindly, "Where is the Stone? Legilimens!"

Smatterings of his conversation with Dumbledore rushed past again, and he saw himself fly with the Headmaster to the front gates, before his vision returned to normal again.

"So, Dumbledore has the Stone, does he?" asked Voldemort, with anger in his voice.

"Indeed, I did have it, Tom," said a cold-yet-familiar voice from the doorway.

"Dumbledore!" hissed Voldemort. Quirrell's arms raised unnaturally backwards, and a spear of green light flew from his fingertips, past Harry, and presumably at the Headmaster.

A deep gong sounded, and Harry suddenly felt himself flying backward toward the Headmaster. A second later, and the ropes binding him were gone. At his feet was his wand, which Quirrell had obviously discarded. He picked it up at once—

—Only to be shoved back behind Dumbledore as another of the green spears lanced out toward them. Dumbledore conjured a huge silver shield to block the spell, and again, the deep gong sounded.

"It's foolish to resist, Tom," spoke Dumbledore, in one of the kindest voices Harry had ever heard him use. "The Stone has been destroyed tonight. I took it to Nicholas himself, and we summoned the Fiendfyre to put it to rest."

Voldemort hissed, and another jet of light shot from his fingers, so powerful that it smoked on contact with the wall which Dumbledore had stood in front of just seconds ago. "I am glad you joined us, Dumbledore," said Voldemort. "It will be a glorious thing to defeat you and Potter in one evening. I am strong enough for this, I think, and when I am done, I shall use your corpses to resurrect myself, even stronger than before..."

With a flick of Dumbledore's wand, the Mirror of Erised shattered into a million pieces of glass, the fragments of which all shot at Voldemort. At the same time, Dumbledore's wand danced over the wooden frame of the mirror, and it twisted until it was a wooden spider, which went off to grapple with the two-faced man.

The shards of the mirror burst into flame as they shot at Voldemort, but none of them hit him. Instead, they swirled around him in a deadly hot vortex that expanded outward at Harry and Dumbledore. Harry ducked, and raised his own wand to cast a Shield Charm, but Dumbledore just transfigured the glass into water, which dissolved at once, and which doused the fire.

Voldemort grinned. Stone from the ceiling began to fall, and Dumbledore was forced to dive out of the way to avoid being crushed. While the Headmaster was occupied, from Voldemort's fingertips flew a purple curse, and it was aimed straight at Harry. Harry, who had just dived to avoid a stone himself, was caught with his wand arm pinned by his side, and saw no way to avoid the spell in time.

The spell never hit. Dumbledore stood in front of Harry, Shield Charm engaged.

Voldemort only laughed. "You protect him, Dumbledore? You protect him? Do you know what is in the boy's mind?"

Dumbledore said nothing, but sent a cutting return blow at Voldemort, who dodged.

"Oh, no," said Harry. Dumbledore's eyes glanced at him, and Harry pointed.

Dean and Neville had both just arisen, and were walking—stumbling, more like—across the room toward Harry and Dumbledore. Voldemort took advantage of their distraction and lobbed a curse at the both of them, which Dumbledore hastily deflected back across the room. The spell bored three feet into the wall.

Dumbledore flicked his wand thrice, conjuring up two small dogs and a gorilla, which he sent across the room toward Voldemort. With a sharp 'bang!', a five-inch cannonball shot out of Dumbledore's wand, and just grazed Voldemort's robes.

The Headmaster landed the first hit, though. Distracted by the gorilla, which was finally getting within range to start doing some serious damage, Voldemort missed an innocuous little spell from the Headmaster that sent him flipping backwards, end-over-end, until he managed to find his feet. Another green curse from Voldemort put an end to the gorilla, and he turned his attention to the dogs while Harry and Dumbledore dealt with Neville and Dean.

Neville was moving for the Headmaster, who, with a quick spin of his wand, sent the boy back to dreamland, and back past the flames that barred entrance to or exit from the room. Harry was not nearly as polite, and with all his strength, reared back and caught Dean squarely across the jaw with his fist. Dean dropped like a rock, and Dumbledore, with another flick of his wand, sent the boy beyond the flames, as well.

It cost him, though. A second later, Dumbledore cried out and reached for his shoulder. Blood spurted from a deep wound, and Voldemort let out a cry of triumph. The advantage did not last long, though, as Dumbledore sent a trio of spells, spread-burst, at Voldemort, who was forced to take evasive action to avoid them. In the meantime, Dumbledore traced his wand over his shoulder, and the cut was gone, with no trace of it but the spattered floor.

"Harry!" said Dumbledore, in a deathly quiet voice. "You must use a Flame-Freezing Charm and retreat!"

"I'm not leaving you, sir—"

"He is using you to hinder me," replied Dumbledore, as he deflected another spell heading their way, and replied in kind with one of his own. "I will be fine. Go, and I shall cover you. Tell Professor Snape to raise the barrier—"

Harry stepped back toward the fire, and flicked his own wand over himself to renew the Flame-Freezing Charm. Dumbledore stopped to deflect a spell away from Harry while he did it, but in the process, missed one directed his own way. Harry snapped off a Shield Charm, and was satisfied to note that the spell bounced away.

"Thank you!" said Dumbledore. "Now go!"

Harry stepped past the flames, and into the waiting arms of Professor Snape, who was tending to Dean and Neville. "Sir!" he said, as he extricated himself from the uncomfortable position. "Professor Dumbledore says to raise the barrier—"

As he said it, though, there was a cry of great pain, and a second later, a wild wind ran through and out the potion room.

A second later, Dumbledore stepped through, looking older than Harry had ever seen it. He exchanged glances with Professor Snape, and then with Harry.

"A lucky shot, if ever there has been one," he said. "I did not account for Voldemort being able to flee as a spirit. I believed, unfortunately," he said, "that by drinking Unicorn Blood, he had locked himself into a corporeal form. Obviously I was mistaken."

Dumbledore looked expectantly at Harry. "I suspect, in the coming days, that I will hear no end of it from you for such a mistake. I cannot say I do not deserve it, but will you at least hold off your chastisement until you are healed and rested?"

Harry nodded, but had the grace to appear bashful.

"I think, given the circumstances and your injuries, Harry, you will also forgive me if I do this—"

Harry lost consciousness.

"A toilet seat. Ugh—how sanitary," said Harry, as he looked through the pile of presents left by his admirers.

Hermione, who sat in the bed next beside him, laughed.

"Still, a decent haul of Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Botts'. Forget buying my own sweets; I'll just do something heroic again, next time I run out. You reckon people'd pay up for vanquishing Snape—?"

"More people than you might suppose, Harry," said Dumbledore. Harry's head turned to him slowly, unbelieving. When had the man shown up? How long had he been listening there for—? "Dear Professor Snape—" He inflected the word deeply, and surveyed Harry over his glasses. "—Is apparently quite unpopular with his students."

"No surprise," said Hermione under her breath.

Dumbledore seemed to be surprised by the other voice chiming in, but recovered seamlessly. "Ah, Miss Granger!" he said. "I trust you are recovering well from your injuries?"

Hermione beamed up at the Headmaster. "Yes, sir," she replied. "Madam Pomfrey had me better in under an hour, sir, but she kept me for observation—she wanted to make sure that none of my cuts were infected."

"I see," said Professor Dumbledore, and his eyes flicked to Harry, and back to Hermione. "I think Madam Pomfrey might have kept you in the hospital wing for a different reason, Miss Granger, as it is standard Mediwitch practice to disinfect all wounds."

"Oh," replied Hermione.

Dumbledore smiled kindly down on her. "You have my permission to return to your dorm room," he said. "If Madam Pomfrey inquires as to your whereabouts, I shall tell her that my elbow hurts—that should prove sufficient distraction, I think, since nobody can help fussing over an old man's health."

"Thank you, sir," she said, and made to stand up.

"Wait, Hermione," said Harry. "Stay for a few, would you?" At her nod, Harry turned to the Headmaster. "Anything you say to me, you can say to Hermione. I'll just tell her later, anyway."

"Very well," said Dumbledore, and with a brush of his wand, he drew up a squashy leather chair in between their two beds and sat on it. He was silent for a long minute, while he took off his glasses and polished them on his robes, and when he spoke, it was to ask Harry a question: "How much have you shared with Miss Granger about last night, Harry?"

"All of it," said Harry, at once.

"Good," said Dumbledore, "then I shall not have to backtrack. Last night, Harry, you encountered Lord Voldemort for the second time in your short life, though not quite in the same form as you last encountered him. I have no doubt that you found the experience both illuminating and harrowing."

Harry nodded.

"He was once a very impressive young man—very much like you, in fact. He was clever, brilliantly so, even, and very well-spoken for his age." Dumbledore paused. "For all the similarities between you, Harry, there are quite a few differences. Tom Riddle—as he went by as a boy—would never have walked to his death just to save his friends." Dumbledore glanced at Hermione again. "Nor, for that matter, did young Tom ever indeed have friends.

"I am sure he has mentioned the similarities between you two. Do not let his words go to your head, Harry, since he is a persuasive speaker. His speech has a way of insinuating itself into you, slithering stealthily under your sight until he has wrapped himself around your mind. It is an ancient branch of magic that he has resurrected: he attempts to control your fear, and through it, defeats you before the battle even starts. The only way to defeat him is to remember the truth, to stand up to him, and to fight fear and loathing with kindness and mercy wherever you go.

"But enough of that. Have you been enjoying the gifts from your admirers, Harry? I admit to having sent a few Frogs myself, in appreciation of your bravery."

"Yes, sir," said Harry, and he took a few Frogs off the pile. He handed one to Hermione, and offered one to Dumbledore, who accepted it. "Er—if you don't mind me asking, sir, what happened to Professor Quirrell?"

Dumbledore sighed at the question. "Quirrell's life was signed away the moment he allowed Lord Voldemort to share his body. I don't imagine you know much about possession magic, Harry, nor you, Miss Granger, but voluntary possession is much different from involuntary possession. When the body adapts to share space with another, there are a host of physiological changes that occur. In cases of involuntary possession, these changes do not occur, since the possessor usually just displaces the mind of the possessed. However, in Professor Quirrell's case, and in cases of voluntary possession, the body adapts to permit both minds full access.

"After a certain amount of time—a few months, most scholars seem to agree—voluntary possession becomes fatal if one mind should leave the other. I... cannot imagine the sort of pain that Quirrell must have felt. Again, studies suggest that the experience is terribly traumatic for both, and when I sped up their parting, so-to-speak, I had hoped that Voldemort would not survive as well. Disheartening as his escape is, I don't believe that he will have any memory of the events that have occurred since he possessed Quirrell."

"So Quirrell's dead, then," said Harry.

"Yes," replied Dumbledore. He sighed. "I suppose I shall have to find a new professor to teach Defense." He looked at Harry. "That is the tenth Professor I've had in ten years. The position is cursed, Harry: I kid you not."

"Professor Snape has always wanted the position, hasn't he, Professor?" asked Harry.

"Oh, very cheeky, Harry," replied Dumbledore. "I'm afraid you will have to work harder than that to earn yourself some more chocolate, though."

"So why does Voldemort want to kill me, Professor?" asked Harry, in between mouthfuls of Frog. "I don't think I've ever asked you—"

"—And I wouldn't have told you the answer before today, Harry, but having seen your performance against Lord Voldemort leads me to believe that you are capable of hearing if not the whole answer, then certainly part. In short: there was a prophecy made about you before you were born. Voldemort heard only part of it, and he believes that it means that you will be his downfall."

"And does it say that I will be—?"

"Does it matter?"

Harry thought for a moment. "I don't suppose it does, does it?"

Dumbledore smiled.

"One more question, sir—"

"Ask away, Harry. I shall do my best to answer."

"Why didn't you draw an age line in front of the corridor leading to the Stone?"

Dumbledore was silent for a very long time. Just when Harry thought to repeat himself—perhaps the Headmaster had not heard?—Dumbledore spoke. "Sometimes, when you are as ancient as time itself, and you are used to dealing with problems on the monumental scale, Harry, you forget simple things that might be a great deal of help. Remember that, both of you."

He stood. "Now, if you will permit me to say my piece, and I shall leave you both to your chocolate: next year, Harry, I shall summon you to my office. Since you have had the dubious privilege of having your mind invaded by Lord Voldemort, I shall be teaching you the art of Occlumency, in order to forestall any such future invasions. This summer, in addition to your homework, I ask you to please work at clearing your mind for extended periods of time—perhaps before you sleep would be best, since you will be capable of practicing it while you are unconscious, as well."

He handed Harry a book—Unfogging the Mind by Copernicus Tabernathy—and spoke again. "This should tell you all you need to know about how to go about clearing it. It is important that you should practice."

"Now, I know that you are not on the fondest terms with your relatives, but you will have to return there for the greater part of the summer. Mrs. Weasley—Ronald's mother—has volunteered to take you for the latter half of it, if you should wish—"

"That's fine," muttered Harry.

"—but I rather figured, given your coolness toward the boy, that you would rather spend it with Miss Granger and her family. I have spoken to your mother, Miss Granger, and she has agreed to house Harry for the last two weeks before school begins again. I hope this is far more satisfactory to you, Harry?"

"Much," said Harry, with great relief. Hermione's look was inscrutable.

"Since you must remain in the hospital for another night, Harry, I have taken the liberty of dismissing you from your remaining two examinations. Professor Snape was most displeased to hear that you were going to miss taking his—I do believe he has planned to make Gryffindor brew a Boil-Curing Potion from memory—"

Dumbledore glanced sharply at Hermione, whose eyes brightened at the Headmaster's hint.

"—but I have made him understand, as I always do," he finished. "Anyway, get better quickly, Mr. Potter; don't forget that the last Quidditch match of the season is on Friday. I do believe that Professor McGonagall would be most disappointed if you aren't up to flying."

The Headmaster turned to walk out of the Hospital Wing, but stopped short. "Oh, one last thing," he said, as he strode over to Harry's bed. "I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Thomas before he was dismissed, and he said that he had borrowed your Invisibility Cloak to go after the Philosopher's Stone."

Dumbledore's smile was mischievous. "Anyway, since he told me that he had left it in front of Fluffy, I went and checked, and it was missing. It turns out that a passing Mr. Malfoy kindly kept the cloak for you, so that it would not be covered in drool. I persuaded him to return it to me so that I could give it to you." From within his robes, Dumbledore drew out a small square of fabric, which expanded slowly until it was the proper size again. He handed it to Harry. "As I said, Harry, your father would have been extraordinarily proud of you."

"Anyway, a good day to you both."

And with that, the Headmaster strode out of the Hospital Wing.

Harry and Hermione stepped onto the Hogwarts Express together, and found an empty compartment near the end.

"I still can't believe that you beat me in Charms," said Hermione, when they had settled down enough to talk.

"Oh, give it a rest already, Hermione," said Harry, and he bashed his head against the wall of the compartment. "You beat me in Transfiguration and in History, and you were top in Potions, since Snape flunked me on purpose."

"Well, you did beat me by nearly ten points in Defense, so I think that gives me the right to complain."

"You think that Quirrell knew when he scored me at the top of the class that I'd be using his knowledge to help kill him?"

Hermione smiled gently at Harry. "I'm sure it crossed his mind.

The compartment door slid open. In the doorway was Katie Bell.

"Oh, hey, Katie," said Harry.

"Hi, Harry," she replied. "Hermione."


Harry rose to his feet. "Look, Katie, I just wanted to say how sorry I was for blowing you off—"

Katie shook her head. "It's okay, Harry. I stopped being angry the minute that I heard you were responsible for offing that miserable excuse for a Defense Professor."

Harry exchanged looks with Hermione. They had heard the rumor that Harry had been the one to kill Quirrell, before, but at Harry's insistence, they had not tried to correct it.

"Well, I'm glad. Nice flying, by the way," said Harry, by means of transition to a more pleasant subject, "against Hufflepuff. I didn't get a chance to congratulate you—"

"Well, it was a done deal, wasn't it? I just had fun."

Harry smiled. "Well, it was nice flying anyway, even if McGonagall just about skinned you alive for that inverted Porskoff Ploy—"

Katie snorted. "She's got her trophies. That's all she cares about, I think."

Harry chuckled.

There was a moment of silence. "Anyway," said Katie, whose eyes flickered over to Hermione again. "You have a nice summer, Harry. I'll see you in the fall."

"You too, Katie."

She hugged him and went on her way. Harry closed the door and sat down again beside Hermione.

"What?" he asked Hermione, at the look she was giving him.

She smiled elusively and shook her head. "Nothing. It's just going to be an interesting year, next year."

Harry leaned back. "I suspect that you're right, as usual."

"When am I not?"

"On two more questions than I was, if we're talking about Charms."

She shook her head, and waved her wand threateningly at him. Gold sparks shot out the end, just missing his face. "You be careful, Harry Potter. You're going to wish that you never taunted me about marks in the first place. I'm going to practice hard, this summer."

Harry closed his eyes. In his hand, he could feel the cool grip of his holly wand. To his knowledge, it was the first time he'd ever smiled when thinking about the Dursleys.

"So am I, Hermione."


We wanted to write a (short) note before we move on to the second work.

Thank you for reading 'Vincet'. It's been an absolute pleasure to write, and the response has been fantastic. We're so proud that people enjoy our work; it's eclipsed our successes as individual authors by far.

We're not giving up any time soon, either, so those of you who say "It's just like any other canon rehash first year book", neener-neener. And, yes, there is a point to this all. We didn't just decide to rewrite the books with a Harry that was "more like the authors". In fact, dare I say it: none of us are particularly like this Harry, which is why he's so fun to write. As things progress, and his personality ossifies more, it just gets more and more fun, too.

The chapter titles are in Latin for no reason other than to be a reward to those who track the information down. We will be continuing with the trend, I'm sorry to say. So that we don't irretrievably frustrate the rest of you, though, here are the translations:

VINCET - He Shall Conquer.

CAPUT PRIMUS, CAPUT II, etc. - Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc..

ITERUM, PUER QUI VIVEBAT - Again, the Boy Who Lived

DE AEDES FUTURUM CECINIT - It Sang about the Houses and the Future

RESTICULAS ORBIS TERRARUM VIDIT - He Saw the Strings of the World


ALTERUM INIMICUM VICIT - He Conquered One of His Enemies

SENEX OMNIPOTENS - The Omnipotent Old Man

GRADUUM ASCENDISTIS - They Climbed the Stairs

LASCIVITI ANCILLORUM - The Desires of the Servants

Just as a side note, the alternate title for the final chapter was 'Two Guys One Chap'. It was wisely cut.

As a side note, one third of our trio, R—, will be writing a little less on the sequel, since he's just completing his own book for publication. He'll still be the managing editor, and he'll still do some scenes, but he's going pretty nuts and needs to pay his bills first.

Please be sure to add an Author Alert for us, since 'Vincet' will continue in its sequel, VULTUS SERPENTIS.


A—, R—, and T—,

Posted with permission by The Defense Professor