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If you are too dumb to recognize within the first few paragraphs that this is a sequel, we highly recommend sticking your tongue in an electrical socket to stimulate neuron growth.

VULTUS SERPENTIS

CAPUT PRIMUS: CASA DULCISSIMA

When Harry Potter had stepped off Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters a month previous, it hadn't ever crossed his mind that he would ever feel like he did at the moment.

He was bored.

The summer had started well enough. He had suffered the ride home with the Dursleys; he hadn't dared do anything to them while they were on the platform, or in the confined space of the car, but the second they were in the privacy of Number Four, Harry Confunded the Dursleys to near oblivion. Opting for a quiet summer with a minimum of turmoil, he had made himself all but a non-entity in their minds. He had, of course, considered hexing them until they could no longer walk, but in the end he had held off. It was not his promise to Hermione that had stayed his vengeance—as far as he was concerned, he and Hermione were square, since he had rescued her and she had helped him crack the Trace—but rather the thought that any such action would undoubtedly call attention to his underage magic usage. As the Director of Grunnings, Vernon could not go AWOL without turning heads.

In truth, it had started as bliss: an entire week of no bullying, no harassment; a week to practice his repertoire of spells, to lie in the sun in the backyard, and to enjoy a brief respite from ponces and body-sharing mind-rapists. It was the first peaceful time in his life.

Really, it was no wonder he tired of it so quickly.

The spells were interesting enough, and he knew better than most the value of knowing them. In the end, though, he was still a twelve-year-old boy at heart, and spending his summer holiday hidden away in a suburban community felt more like prison than paradise. And so he found himself taking more and more risks, and tormenting the Dursleys more and more—something that he would never tire of, despite how unnerving it had been to confront his own heart's deepest desire. He liked the peace, he really did, but...

The first true breakthrough in his boredom came two weeks later, when his aunt noticed that her triple-layer chocolate ganache cake—prepared painstakingly for a dinner party—was missing a large slice. Unable to blame (or even remember) Harry, she spent an hour fussing at Dudley, much to Harry's amusement. From then on, it became a game to make mischief in the night, just to see how the Dursleys would rationalize it in the morning. Vernon's clothes all became a few sizes too small; Dudley's bottom was the recipient of innumerable stinging hexes; and Petunia's new wedding ring disappeared once more (the gaudy three-carat ring wound up in Harry's possession, since he had a great inclination to sell it to the first person to offer him a fiver for it).

And yet, life at Privet Drive remained unbearably dull. Without an owl, he had no way to contact anyone in the wizarding world. Too late, he realized he should have asked Hermione for her telephone number; it would have had the added bonus of ringing up the Dursleys' bill.

Instead, he ceased renewing the charms, and let the Confunded Dursleys slowly recover to the point that they seemed to recognize him (if still ignoring him) when they passed by him in the house. It took another week for them to remember him without first bumping into him:

"Boy!"

Harry grinned and rose from the desk in his room. It was time to play.

When he found the Dursleys downstairs, Harry had to bite his tongue to prevent bursting out laughing. Dressed in a suit that looked extraordinarily expensive and fit extraordinarily poorly was Dudley, whose pinkish face made him the spitting image of pigs-in-blankets. Petunia, with her green dress and the last vestiges of a tan from their weekend in Majorca prior to Harry's return, could have doubled as a Christmas tree. Uncle Vernon, who was dressed just as Dudley was, had his meaty hands clasped around Dudley's shoulders. His mustache bristled when Harry came into sight.

"There you are," said Vernon.

"There you are," said Harry, as he sized up the three.

The knuckles on the hand gripping Dudley's shoulder turned white. "Listen, boy, we want no nonsense from you," said Vernon. He clearly did not remember the month-long absence of Harry. "We have very important guests coming—worth far more than your sorry self. So, no... freakishness. Am I clear?"

"Of course, uncle," Harry replied.

Vernon Dursley turned slightly pink. Dudley gave a yelp and twisted out from under Vernon's grip. "See to it, then," he said. "You're to stay in your room for the rest of the evening. Once our honored guests go home, you can eat some of the left-overs."

"Your generosity overwhelms me."

It was a mark of how important the dinner was to Vernon that he did not try to cuff Harry for his cheek. Instead, he turned to Petunia. "All right, dear: at quarter past, you will serve the hors d'oeuvres in the living room. And Dudley, you will—"

"I'll offer to take their coats," the boy responded proudly. He held out a pudgy arm to an invisible guest. "Good evening, Ms. Mason. May I take your coat?"

Petunia gave a loud coo of motherly pride.

"Perfect!" exclaimed Vernon.

Harry rolled his eyes and made his way back up the stairs.

"And that's why you should never play golf with a Chinaman!"

Vernon's joke earned a hearty chuckle from Mr. Mason and tittering laughter from his wife. "—Oh, Lucretia, the man does know how to tell a joke, doesn't he?"

Harry crouched on the landing of the stairs, and listened to the conversation as it cycled between discussion of drills, to the failings of the prime minister, to off-color jokes (mostly involving the aforementioned Chinese). At first, he had been disappointed: he was sure that the Dursleys would screw themselves over without his own special brand of interference. Their failure to do so was, at first, startling. As the evening wore on however, it was clear that the Masons and the Dursleys were two pea-pods in a pot. For all he had been raised by talk radio, Harry was not particularly fond of the sort of persons the Masons were, and so, as he resolved to end the good time being had by all except for him, the phrase 'acceptable civilian casualties' sprang to mind.

"Petunia, dear, I think it's about time for the cake, don't you?" Vernon twisted at the waist to explain to the Masons: "Petunia makes a most delicious Pineapple Upside-Down Cake—a real treat, it is."

"Show time," whispered Harry. Under the guise of a Notice-Me-Not, he strolled through the dining area, and stopped in the kitchen. Petunia was in there, cutting knife in hand. Harry watched her pace across the kitchen to retrieve dessert plates and forks. She scooped them up in one hand adroitly, and then hoisted the cake with the other.

"Can I offer you a piece of cake, Roger?"

"Oh, yes, please!" said the large man. "Anyway, I remember when I was your age, Vernon, my father took me on a safari in Rhodesia—shame, isn't it, that we're not allowed to do those things anymore? I say that a man ought to have the right to own however many guns that he wants, and the right to shoot whatever he wants—"

"Yes, yes, quite!" replied Vernon. "I'd have liked to take Dudley out hunting, but you know the hassle that is, these days. It really is a shame; you can't really be a man without having killed something, can you?"

"Indeed!" Roger Mason paused for a second to accept the piece of cake that Petunia was handing him. "You seem like a reasonable man, Vernon: don't you agree that people need guns to protect themselves?" At Vernon's nod, he continued: "If more people had guns, and if those louts in government didn't discriminate against carrying them, why, there'd be no crime to speak of!"

"Delicious cake, Petunia!" pipped Lucretia Mason. "You'll have to share your recipe—"

"—If anyone tried to mug a chap, he'd just pull out his pistol and teach the hooligan a lesson!"

"Right!" agreed Vernon. "And what if the government keeps sliding even further to the lunatic left? Now that the Communists have been defeated, we just can't simply allow them to walk into England!"

"If we had guns—Lucretia, are you okay, dear?"

Lucretia Mason had gone very pale. "I—" She stood up. "P—Petunia? Bathroom?"

"Up the stairs and on the right, my dear—"

She made it barely two steps before she bent over and vomited all over the floor.

"Lucretia!" Mr. Mason stood up, and moved to his wife. Harry watched with a grin. In the hubbub, nobody had noticed Dudley greening...

The great big lump of a boy bent over, wretched twice, and ejected the two pieces of cake he'd already consumed on Roger Mason's Italian shoes.

"Dud—?" Vernon's questioning words ceased, as he, too, vomited all over Roger Mason's shoes.

Harry sat back with a grin.

Twenty minutes later, once the EMTs had finished loading the four ill into a pair of ambulances, and after Petunia's histrionics had subsided long enough for her to summon a taxi to the hospital, Harry pocketed his wand, waltzed through the living room, took a piece of the cake (which, admittedly, was excellent), and made his way up the stairs.

He opened the door and tossed himself on his recently improved bed—

"Bloody hell!"

He rolled off the bed and fell onto the floor with a heavy thunk. Even having hit the floor so awkwardly, his wand was in his hand, pointing up at whatever it was that was sitting on his bed. "Who are you?" he asked, pointedly. "More to the point, what are you?"

The thing—it was roughly humanoid, though only about two feet tall—looked at him with massive eyes the size of and as green as tennis balls. It certainly was hideous-looking, and it was not doing itself any favors when it suddenly burst into tears. "Harry Potter is asking who Dobby is! Too kind, too kind! Dobby knew that Harry Potter was great, but Dobby had not expected—"

Harry tightened his grip on the wand. "Who are you?" he asked once more, as he got to his feet.

At last, the thing seemed to recognize how hostile Harry's posture was. It stood stock still, and looked up with him apprehensively. "Dobby! Dobby the House-elf! Dobby has come to warn Harry Potter about terrible things that shall come to pass!" Somehow, even whispered, the intensity of this declaration, and of Dobby's conviction was clear.

Harry frowned. He had heard the term 'House-elf' a few times, but had never given it much interest. This, apparently, was what one was. He was suddenly very curious about them. How had Dobby managed to gain entrance to Number Four?

Maybe if he humored the beast, it would tell him. "Warn me about what?" Harry asked, though he made no move to lower his wand.

"Terrible things! Terrible things will happen at Hogwarts! And Harry Potter must not go back!"

His first reaction was to tell the elf to shove off, that Dobby was wasting his time trying to convince him not to return to the only home he'd ever really had. And yet he'd snuck in on Harry, and was either trying to help him, or was working for someone who didn't want Harry back at school...

Harry nodded. "I reckon you're right," he said, voice full of dejection. "After last year with You-Know-Who, it's too dangerous for me to go back. And I don't have any friends either..." He couldn't help but wince. He was laying it on pretty thick, and he was not much of an actor. Fortunately, the House-elf seemed to lap it up.

"Oh, don't cry, Harry Potter sir! Harry Potter is too good a wizard to cry!" The elf looked down, as if internally debating some great matter. "If—if Dobby—Harry Potter mustn't be angry at Dobby. Dobby was doing it for Harry Potter's own good—Dobby thought Harry Potter might not try to return, if his friends had forgotten about him!" The elf thrust a hand into his tattered old robe—which looked to be a pillowcase, Harry noted—and pulled out a tightly-wound bundle of letters. He handed them to Harry.

Harry was furious. Dobby had obviously noticed, because he unplugged Harry's desk lamp and began to whip himself with the cord in what seemed to be an act of penitence. Harry almost felt bad for Dobby; he certainly empathized, since he, too, had been taught to be extremely contrite, thought not to the point of self-flagellation. Still, he didn't feel too bad: the little bastard had been stealing his mail, and he was mad.

He was also impressed, though. He doubted that he, even with his wand, could manage to intercept every single letter to a person. Dobby was a potentially powerful adversary, even if he was apparently none too bright. The upside to the whole matter was that Dobby obviously idolized him, and that such a potent adversary was ripe for the picking as a potent ally.

He grabbed Dobby by the scruff of the collar and set him down on the bed. "It's okay, Dobby. I know you were looking out for me. Just—just don't prevent my mail anymore. It'll be nice to write to people, even if I can't see them anymore."

"Harry Potter is so wise! And Dobby is sorry! Of course Dobby will not interfere any more, now that Harry Potter has heeded Dobby's warning!" Suddenly, and again, great tears filled his eyes. "Harry Potter listened to Dobby the House-elf! What a noble wizard Harry Potter is!"

"So, listen, Dobby. What inspired you to come find me—?"

Dobby looked around warily. "Dobby overheard—" He started to wring his hands nervously. "—Dobby overheard his master speaking with another wizard about—bad Dobby!"

And with that, he threw himself at the wall and began to bash his head against it. Patience wearing thin, Harry reached out, snagged the House-elf, and again sat him down.

"Dobby just about betrayed his master's trust," said the House-elf. "Dobby is sorry, Harry Potter, but Dobby cannot tell him much. Dobby's master is a... is a bad wizard—"

Harry beat the elf to the punch—nearly literally. He clapped his hand down on Dobby's shoulder before the elf could lift himself off the bed again.

"No more punishing yourself, Dobby."

"Dobby cannot help it, Harry Potter, sir," replied the elf. "Dobby's master has instructed Dobby to punish himself whenever Dobby errs—"

"Well, there are rules in my house," replied Harry, "and surely your master would want you to follow them while you were here?"

Dobby nodded nervously.

"One of the rules here is that you are not allowed to hurt yourself for what you say. Is that clear?"

Again, Dobby shifted nervously, and began to wring his hands again.

"Now, I don't suppose you can tell me who your master is—?"

"Dobby cannot betray his master's trust—"

"Didn't think so," said Harry. "Maybe you can tell me what the great danger is, though?"

Dobby didn't say anything, but looked down at his feet.

"Is it—is it You-Know-Who?"

Dobby looked up, with a strange glint in his eye. "No, Harry Potter, sir—not You-Know-Who—" He said it in such a manner that Harry was sure that the elf was trying to insinuate something. Unfortunately, far too many possible meanings sprang to mind, each of them seemingly as unlikely as the last.

"Not You-Know-Who?" asked Harry.

"Not He Who Must Not Be Named," clarified Dobby.

"Gee, thanks," muttered Harry. "Dobby, I need some time to think on this. Is there any way I can get a hold of you, if I need to talk to you—?"

Dobby looked like he was about to burst with happiness. "Harry Potter only needs to say Dobby's name, and Dobby will come as soon as he can." The elf reddened a bit, though, as he continued. "Dobby may be some time in coming, though, Harry Potter. Master's estate in Wiltshire is very large, and when Dobby is not cleaning, he is getting into trouble and having to punish himself."

"That's just fine, Dobby," said Harry, who stood up. "Er—you're not hungry, are you? There's a whole half of perfectly good Pineapple Upside-Down Cake downstairs that's just going to get thrown out when my Aunt gets home—"

Dobby gave Harry's left leg the tightest hug it had ever received. "Harry Potter is a great wizard," he said. "Dobby had heard tales of Harry Potter's greatness, but had never imagined—but Dobby must be getting back home, Harry Potter," he finished, and looked at Harry. "Dobby will have to iron his fingers for neglecting his duties for so long. Harry Potter swears he will not return to Hogwarts this year?"

"I swear I'll listen to what you say, Dobby," replied Harry.

"Dobby thanks Harry Potter for listening to Dobby!" With a snap of his fingers, Dobby dissolved into a mist, and then disappeared entirely.

The room was suddenly silent.

"If I ever see that thing again," said Harry to himself, "I'm going to kill it, and then I'm going to get myself a House-elf just like it."

It was only slightly infuriating to Harry that the Dursleys, when they arrived home the next day, were in no mood for confrontation, despite his attempts to attract their attention.

In truth, he was not unduly saddened. His mind was elsewhere—specifically, on Hermione.

Her letters had been a substantial part of the stack that Dobby had handed him. In fact, they had been the only letters that he had received, bar one from Katie, one from Blaise, one from Weasley, and another from Neville. He wrote back to the latter four, first, since their letters were fairly straightforward, spoke of banal things, and mostly just wished him a good summer. Katie's letter was sarcastic as ever, but it ended, he noted with slight nervousness, with a 'Love, Katie'. Weasley's letter was a bit over-the-top, and repeatedly hinted at the secret that he was keeping for Harry, admittedly, but the letter was nothing like the letters that Hermione had sent him.

The first was dated two weeks after term let out, and contained, in typical Hermione fashion, an over-analysis of the debacle with Quirrell. She had methodically thought out everything that he had told her about the confrontation, and while that was far from everything, her comments were clever, fairly insightful, and almost entirely useless. He already knew the things that she had identified, but he accepted it as a necessary evil with her that she would try and educate him.

The second was along the lines of the first—mostly more thoughts that she had come up since writing the first. It was only the impeccably penned end of the letter that gave him pause for a very brief moment.

I've forgotten that you don't have an owl. Call me when you get this.

Her phone number followed.

The next letter was dated a few days after that.

Dear Harry,

I miss you, and I miss school. It's been so incredibly bizarre to be away from Hogwarts, and all the incredible magic. If I didn't know better, I would think I had hallucinated the whole thing. It just doesn't feel real, yet, despite the fact that we've spent an entire year away at school, surrounded by it all. I am so pleased that I am able to do magic, and my parents are, too—when I explained to my mother that I was skirting the law in doing so, she actually patted me on the back and told me that I was growing up! It was nice to show magic to them both. My father has always been fairly accepting and laid back, but my mother, because she tends to be a bit critical, well, she really appreciated seeing the dividends of all the hard work that I did. My dad just asked if Geminio would produce undetectable counterfeits—he really is so silly, Harry.

At any rate, I wonder if you're on vacation. I know you hadn't mentioned it, but that seems like the logical conclusion. You do know how to use a telephone, right?—of course you do. I know those Dursleys are terrible, but surely you would have had to call someone at some point. Do give me a call, would you?

Love,

Hermione

The next letter was dated a further two weeks from that, and the writing was a lot messier than Hermione's normal handwriting.

Harry,

You're either on vacation—that makes the most sense to me—or else you don't know how to work the telephone. It's simple. Just stick your finger in the hole of the number, turn the wheel completely, and let go. Repeat that for all the numbers.

I would call you myself, but I had Mother look up the Dursleys' phone number, and she says that it's not listed.

Call me.

Hermione

Harry put the letter down. There were seven more to go. He knew that he should stop reading and call Hermione immediately, but he also felt the pull to read the rest. He could hardly call her without knowing what he was getting himself into, could he? He didn't really feel like calling to her and listening to her scream at him for being a bad friend...

The next letter was unmercifully short, and it was dated another few days after that:

Harry,

Why are you ignoring me?

Hermione

The one following it was not much longer, but it was dated quite a distance from the one before it. Hermione had obviously tried to forget him for a while.

Harry,

I'm not sure what it was that I did to you. Are you still angry that I went after Neville, Ron, and Dean?

If you are, that's a very childish reason not to call.

Hermione

From there, the dates on the letters were spaced every few days. Three were variations on the same theme as the last few, but both of the last two—sent a week earlier and only a day ago, respectively—caused him to raise his eyebrows.

Harry,

I'm sorry! Dear God, I'm sorry for whatever it is I did to you! You've been such a good friend to me—my best friend ever, really—and I'm so sorry. I don't want to lose this. You mean a lot to me, and I think I'll be crushed if you don't call. I can't imagine Hogwarts without you, Harry. Please, please, please call!

I'm sorry for going after Ron, Dean, and Neville without letting you know. I'm sorry for not listening to you. I'm sorry for making you come and rescue me. It's obvious, now, that you didn't want to, and so I'm sorry, too, that you found me alive. Maybe it would have been better if I had died in that room...

Just call. Even if it's just to tell me that you hate me, you think that I'm ugly, you never want to see me again—just call. I can't take this. I'm not going back to Hogwarts if you don't call. I can survive antipathy, but I can't survive this terrible, terrible doubt.

I love you. You are my best friend.

Hermione

He paused again, and sat the letter down again. Why had he gone to rescue Hermione?—he asked himself that question without any doubt that what he had done was the right thing to do, and without doubt that he would do it again if the situation presented itself. Yet he still did not understand why, and that troubled him. Why did Hermione mean enough to him that he would risk his life to save her, while he had condemned Dean and Ron and Neville to what had been likely death at the hands of Dumbledore's traps and Voldemort's malicious tendencies?

He had no easy answer. Perhaps he should have let her die. There was no question that it was what his head had told him to do. The traps were designed to be deadly. His head told him that he should have left her for Dumbledore.

And yet he had done the opposite. It was troubling. He knew that his actions were what some would call heroic, or the mark of true friendship, but that was not him at all. Hermione was not his friend. She was as close to an equal as he had met, admittedly, but they were not friends; they were contemporaries. His actions were not heroic. They were just—well, he didn't know. Not heroic, at any rate.

He did not understand why, and he desperately needed to understand.

They weren't friends, were they?

The last letter was the one that roused him from his desk to call her.

H—

If I don't hear from you by Monday, I'll bust down your door and raise hell.

Hermione.

He made his way down the stairs and picked up the receiver on the phone. From memory, he dialed Hermione's number. It rang three times—

"Hello?"

"Hermione?"

"Oh—no, this is Hermione's mum, young man. Would you like me to get her?"

"Yes, please, Mrs Granger." Hermione's mother sounded uncannily like Hermione herself.

Harry could hear Mrs Granger yell for Hermione. A few seconds later, there was some shuffling and clicking as the phone was handed over.

"Hello?"

"Hermione?"

"Harry?" Hermione's voice was inscrutable.

"Yeah, it's me—but wait, don't get mad," said Harry quickly. "It's not my fault that I didn't call. The story's a bit weird, too."

"Oh?" asked Hermione. Harry winced—her voice was cool, and despite the fact that it really was not his fault, he could not help but feel a bit of a twisting in his gut like he was in serious trouble. "Well, go ahead, Harry—let's hear it."

He told her.

When he finished, she didn't say anything for a few seconds, though it felt like a lifetime. "Well, Harry, I don't think you could make that story up. That is just too bizarre—"

"Am I forgiven, then?" He couldn't help but grin.

"Yes, I suppose so," she said, and he could tell that she was smiling, too. "I've really missed you, you know—"

"That came across in your letters," he said.

"Oh—" When she spoke again, it was more rushed. "Well, Harry, you should just throw out those letters. I—uh—I've probably embarrassed myself ten times over in those—"

"—One hundred times over, actually, but I thought they were touching."

"Oh." There was an awkward silence for a few seconds. "So, have you finished your homework."

"Within the first two weeks or so," replied Harry. "Did you beat me?"

"Yes," she replied, "but that's only because we went away to the Czech Republic for a few weeks right at the start of the holiday. I finished it on the plane."

"Ah," replied Harry. "And how was your vacation?"

"Eh. Could have been better. I couldn't really use magic there, you know, so I spent the entire trip wishing I was at home."

Harry smiled. "Yeah. I know what you mean."

"And how have the Dursleys been?"

"To tell you the truth, they really haven't been bad," he said.

"Is that because you hexed them?"

"Of course not!" he lied. "I kept my word to you, Hermione. I've been living under a Notice-Me-Not Charm for most of the summer, and there was one point where I had to Confund them—"

"—You know how to Confund?"

"I looked it up before I left school. Needed something to do if they came after me. Anyway, I had to Confund them at one point, but I let that wear off once the situation was under control."

"Well, that's good."

"Yeah."

"So what do you have planned for the next few weeks, before you come here?"

He had no easy answer to that. "Well... I don't know. I've gone through my textbooks as much as I can bear to, pretty much. I really need some more things to study..."

"Can you ask your relatives to take you to Diagon Alley?"

"No, but that's a brilliant idea, Hermione. That's what I'll do."

"Wait—what?"

"If you need me, just owl me, 'kay? I have your address written down somewhere, and I'll call before I come."

"Wait, Harry. What are you going to do?" Tinny though her voice was over the phone, he could detect the concern in it.

"Relax, Hermione," he said soothingly. "I'm just going to make a trip to Diagon."

Hermione sputtered. "But—but I thought you said that your uncle wouldn't take you—?"

He couldn't resist rolling his eyes. "There's more than one way to skin a salamander."

She was silent for a long moment. "There's nothing I can do to dissuade you, is there? You're going to do this anyway, even if I beg you not to?"

"Well, I might tell you that I'm not going," he replied. "But there's no way to dissuade me, really, short of killing me."

"Have fun, then, I guess."

"That seems too easy, Hermione. Can't you try to convince me to stay put? I was all ready for an argument..."

"I'm not going to waste my time arguing something I can't win." She let a harrumph that he heard over the phone. "Unlike you, I already have the second-year books, and am making good progress. By the time we get to school, I'll be so far ahead of you, you'll score second in all of our classes."

"That's dastardly!" he exclaimed. "But—wait, you really think you'll beat me?"

"I'm going to!"

"If you say so," he said dismissively. "Anyway, Hermione, I'm off—the day's going to be a wash, by the time I get to London, and if I waste any more time, these delusions of yours are just going to keep growing. I'll see you in a few weeks."

"Be safe, Harry."

"I will, Hermione. Bye now."

He hung up the phone with a heavy sigh. Merlin, he thought: for a pedantic and socially inept girl, she sure could talk.

His understanding with Dumbledore notwithstanding, he had nothing to keep him at the Dursleys for the rest of the summer. It was so boring there that he thought he was willing to take the risk of being discovered doing magic in Diagon Alley just for the thrill of it. And so, with that thought, a lightening charm on his trunk, and fifty pounds from Vernon's wallet, Harry set off with his entire set of worldly possessions in tow. Turning from Privet onto Wisteria, Harry walked past the perfectly manicured lawns, and let himself into the back garden of a house with a sign in the front yard that read For Sale - Associated Realtors of Surrey.

In the brief time he'd had at school after the confrontation with Voldemort, Harry had corrected his ignorance of magical transportation. Thus, he stuck his wand out, gave it a flick, and jumped three inches when a giant red bus appeared in front of him. Somehow, it squeezed into the length of the garden—magic, he supposed.

The rear door came to a stop just a foot from him. A disinterested boy who couldn't have been more than eighteen or nineteen had an arm hooked around a pole. He was rather unfortunate-looking, and his voice was as mellifluous as metal-on-metal. "Welcome to the Knight Bus, emergency transportation for the stranded witch or wizard. Just stick out your wand hand, step on board and we can take you anywhere you want to go. My name is Stan Shunpike, and I will be your conductor this aft—"

"Here's my trunk," said Harry, and he handed the trunk up to the boy. "And here's a fifty for the trouble of having to exchange it for me. Keep the change." With that, he stepped up onto the bus and made his way into the deserted cabin.

"—ernoon. Oi! Get back 'ere! Where d'you fink you're goin', eh?"

"I'm going to Diagon Alley, please. Could we depart? I don't have all day."

Stan Shunpike just stared at Harry.

"What?" snapped Harry, after a minute of mounting irritation. "Do I have something on my forehead?"

Stan was obviously not familiar with the expression, because he looked right at Harry's forehead and let out a small yip of surprise. "You're 'Arry Potter!"

Harry rolled his eyes. "That's right, I'm Harry Potter, and right now, I'm stuck in Little Whinging, when I should be on the way to London!"

Stan blinked once or twice, then gestured at the driver. With a bang, they were off. For the rest of the journey—all of four minutes—Stan stared down at the fifty-pound note, and resolutely avoided eye contact with Harry.

The journey was unique, if not entirely pleasant. For the first time, Harry appreciated that geography meant very little to the magical world. Having read about Floo and Apparition, he supposed that made sense, but here he was seeing it for the first time. After leaving Little Whinging, the giant map of Britain on the ceiling informed him that the Knight Bus had gone through Donegal, Bedford, York, and Swansea, then Cambridge, Redding, Ipswich...

After the bus rolled to a stop in front of what Harry assumed was the Leaky Cauldron, and just as Harry had grabbed his trunk and was about to disembark, Stan called out to him. "Oi, a'fore I forget it—nex' time you call us, do it on the road. The Muggles can't see us anyway, and we keep a tight ship, we do."

Harry raised an eyebrow—the bus was a picture of chaos, and was driven by a disembodied head, after all. Still, there was no need to pick fights. He nodded. After a return nod from Stan, the bus disappeared with a loud crack.

It turned out that the bus did not stop in front of the Leaky Cauldron, where he had entered with Hagrid the year before. Instead, it stopped in the alley itself, just off the main plaza. Harry was delighted that he could already hear the cacophony of sounds arising from the alley as the morning's business began. He supposed he would need to go to Gringotts some time that day, but for the time being, it was liberating to simply be out, and he fully intended to explore the center of magical London.

And explore he did. While his time with Hagrid had been eye-opening, he had not had the time or inclination to absorb the finer details. Since he had the opportunity, he drank in the alley. Merlin Square lay at the head of the alley, and it was adorned with a giant statue of its namesake cast in polished stone. Around the square were the most ornate shops Harry had seen; clearly, it was an attempt by Diagon Alley to put its own best foot forward.

As he moved further down the alley, Harry realized that the name was a misnomer. Various lanes protruded from the original, and he began to see Diagon more as Londonesque in its own right than a one-off extension of the Muggle city. He felt the urge to explore—there were so many things that piqued his curiosity as he walked by—but he resolutely stayed on the main road, though he did stop every few feet to press his nose to the shop windows and examine the incredible variety of treasures in them.

As he finally approached Gringotts, the imposing goblin bank with an entirely marble façade and gigantic bronze doors, Harry literally could not help but note that a large stage was being erected. Four House-elves, wearing blue overalls with the word 'Facilities' stenciled in black across the back, were performing a sort of gymnastic act, threading themselves through all the scaffolding, tossing various parts to each other and generally raising the stage with impressive alacrity. There were robed men and women with clipboards running around, yelling at each other and generally panicking.

The most noticeable, though, was the small gaggle of slick-dressed individuals that stood to the side. They had bright gold badges on their robes—some even had medals pinned to their chests, of all things—and they had attracted a hoard of cameras between them. Harry wandered forward, curious to listen in.

"Nothing to worry about at all. This is run of the mill; times haven't been better," puffed a short dumpy-looking fellow in a black robe and a lime-green bowler. He frowned. "I do hate these ceremonial robes though. I don't envy the new inductees; they are going to wear these for the next few weeks! All these years, and you'd think we could have made them a little less itchy, wouldn't you? Ha! Bureaucracy in action! Due process! Due process!"

The man standing beside him nodded distractedly. He was entirely occupied by a long roll of parchment he kept writing on. "Very good, sir, very good." He was still writing on the parchment, but continued to address the other people standing there. "Now, when you present the Order of—Merlin's saggy testicles!" The man had looked up, and was staring directly at Harry.

"It's Harry Potter!"

Harry was instantly blinded by cameras, and barraged by questions. His response was instinctual—he began to back away, unable to do respond any way else. He hated how insecure he felt amongst them, but they were closing, pressing in on him, shoving lenses in his face...

Oddly enough, it was the stodgy man in the lime-green bowler who saved the day.

He put his hand on Harry's shoulder and puffed out his chest. "Ladies, Gentleman," he said with a massive smile, "give the poor boy a breath of fresh air—especially you, Charlie; I know what you're like when you smell blood in the water."

A tall reporter dressed in smart blue robes—presumably Charlie—laughed, and endured a few seconds of good-natured ribbing from his colleagues, who seemed to agree with Green-bowler's assessment. Harry, meanwhile, was trying to figure out how this man had managed so swiftly to relocate to Harry's side.

"Now then, Mr. Potter, it's a pleasure to see you. Here for the ceremony, are you?" He leaned down to Harry and whispered in his ear. "Ignore the cameras. Pretend they're not here, and you'll do fine!"

Harry shifted from foot to foot. It was difficult to do so when they were pressed right into his face. "I'm—I'm afraid not, sir," Harry replied. "—or, at least, I'm not here for that purpose, exactly. I'd be delighted to come, of course, but I'm afraid I don't know what's going on."

That seemed the right thing to say, as the man beamed. "Of course there's a place for you, my dear boy!" He put an arm around Harry, and turned them both towards the simmering crowd of journalists and photographers. "After all, if ever there was a VIP to witness the reception of an Order of Merlin, who else would it be but the greatest hero of our time?"

Cameras flashed and quills scribbled. Clearly, Harry realized, this man was someone important. If he could learn the man's name, and appear to know the man in front of the cameras, he could extract nearly anything he could name, he was sure...

"Minister Fudge! Minister Fudge!" Ah, there it was. "Minister, what do you say to the claims that the prestige of the award has diminished since the fall of You-Know-Who? Adlai Crockford—"

Minister Fudge's face briefly became sour. "I've heard Adlai's claims, Tom; who hasn't?" A chuckle from the crowd. "But I assure you that there isn't a recipient of the award who hasn't rightly earned it. Those who maintain the peace and order of our world are just as worthy of recognition as those who valiantly fight for it in times of war.

"Now then, despite what I'm sure some of you will be telling your readers this time tomorrow, Mr Potter's presence here is unexpected. Welcome, of course, but unexpected. I'll be back to talk to you chaps in a bit, but let me get our young hero settled in and up to speed before we go any further, eh?"

And with that, the minister tightened his grip on Harry's arm, and steered him away from the cameras.

"Now then, Harry," the Minister continued when he had dragged him far enough away, "not that I'm not delighted to see you, but what have I taken you away from for the rest of the day? If it's school supplies you're after, I'll have someone fetch the lot while you're occupied. What'll it be?"

Harry stared. The man was either a massive idiot or a brilliant genius. Possibly both. "Well, sir," he began slowly, "I did come for a few things, but we haven't got our school lists yet. Mostly though, I was hoping to find a place to spend a few nights. My family—well, they—they don't really understand magic, but they said I could stay here a few weeks so I could be around it again. They were a little concerned about me being alone, but when I told them how safe the Wizarding world is, and how tough the Ministry is on crime, they decided it would be okay, so long as I sent them post every few days."

Harry never imagined a person in a lime-green anything could preen, but Fudge nonetheless gave it his best effort. "Yes, well, I like to think that looking out for the safety of our children's future is one of my principle duties. Children are our future, after all—heh heh. But, yes, the Muggles you live with, yes—I do remember your file; how very curious it is... Ah, but never you mind. No doubt they have the best intentions, but they do tend to be a little uncomfortable around magic, don't they? A bit too much for them, I imagine..."

"Anyway—" Fudge snapped back to the conversation. "—think nothing of it. I'll have the Ministry pay your tab for a couple of nights at the Mary Celeste; it's the finest hotel in Britain and it's on a boat!" he exclaimed with exaggerated enthusiasm, probably assuming it would excite the young boy. Harry, for his part, smiled dutifully. "Does that sound good to you, Mr. Potter?" Fudge's voice was amusingly needy.

"Yes, Minister," Harry replied enthusiastically. It did sound good, truthfully. He had planned to stay at the Leaky Cauldron on his own dime, so a Ministry-paid stay at a five-star hotel was really quite smashing.

By the end of the ceremony, Harry was glad for that bribe from the Minister. Fudge's speech was decent, but there were many speeches that had preceded his that were the equivalent of literary sandpaper: any more, and Harry would have thought they were trying to whittle him down to nothing.

Even the recipients, who he had thought would be marginally interesting, turned out to be intractably dull. There were three; one, a graying and disheveled woman, had been awarded third-class for her 'tireless work with housing stray Krups.' The other two were not nearly as interesting as even that; both were Ministry hacks, and were inducted third-class for their role in some unimportant legislature enacted years ago.

After the ceremony, though, the day—and then the few after it, too—passed in a blur. Harry's Hogwarts letter had finally arrived. He had picked up a number of books, both those on and those not on his school list. He had also decided to gift himself with his own broom. Though Hogwarts—thanks to his 'efforts'—had a massive supply of state-of-the-art brooms, having one that was his and his alone was too tempting. Rationalizing that such a move was wise in terms of security, since any student could access the school brooms, he purchased the Polish-made Devana, a broom specifically made for racing, rather than the more 'well-rounded' Quidditch brooms. It was not quite professional standard, but it was close enough for Harry.

He also purchased a small brown owl. After the disaster with Hedwig, he knew that he did not want another owl; however, as he wrote in the note he sent to Hermione, he thought it was important that they had a reliable method of communication between them. He also added in the final lines of the letter to her that he was looking forward to seeing her, and that she would not believe his own adventures; with that, he sent the owl off to its new owner. He would make sure that Hermione's owl did not meet Dudley Dursley (although he thought about doing so once he had learned the Engorgement Charm and the Beserker Hex...).

A few days turned into a few more, which turned quickly into a week. Early Saturday evening, he went out for a walk along the Thames. The Mary Celeste was, as the Minister promised, exceedingly posh, but Harry enjoyed Diagon Alley so much that he barely spent longer than the night in it. It turned out that the hotel was actually a merchant's ship that had been nearly scuttled at the turn of the century. Some enterprising wizard had bought it for Knuts on the Galleon, evicted the Poltergeist that had been the cause of much trouble, and moored it near King's College, only a short walk from Diagon Alley itself.

That was the reason he was out walking. It was a very beautiful place, compared to Privet Drive, and having really never seen something like it, he lapped it up.

Without paying much heed to it, he passed an older gentleman and a middle-aged man sitting on a bench. Ten steps later, though, he stopped, turned around, and went back to sit beside them.

"Hello, Harry," said Professor Dumbledore gaily, once Harry had sat down next to him. "Pleasant evening, isn't it?"

"Yes, Professor," he replied. "Sir—"

"You ask about my companion here?" asked Dumbledore, who inclined his head toward the rather haggard-looking man whose clothes were frayed and ripped, though clean and sharply pressed. "Feel free to speak freely."

"Ah," replied Harry. "Um—fancy seeing you here, sir. I almost didn't notice you."

Dumbledore chuckled. "Indeed? I had thought that robes this purple would draw quite a bit of attention. Next time, I suppose I will have to wear pink ones."

"Not aiming to be incognito?"

"If I were aiming to be incognito, Harry, I doubt you would even think about me the whole time I were in your presence."

There was an amiable moment of silence between the two of them. Dumbledore was the first to break it. "Our meeting is not coincidence, however, Harry. Cornelius informed me that you were staying here, and I confess I chose this route in hope that you might be out and about, as young men are wont to be."

The final events of the school year had done much for the once-strained relationship he'd had with the headmaster. As he had a far greater understanding with the venerable wizard than once, Harry did not even think twice about smiling good-naturedly. "Most people, sir, would just call the front desk and ask to speak to one of their guests."

Dumbledore nodded; he, too, was clearly in good spirits. "Yes, I will admit that was my back-up plan. Of course, I had intended to offer you an invitation out to eat this evening, but it was hardly so pressing as to interfere with your plans. Alas, we have eaten, and I believe you have, as well."

"Yes, sir," Harry responded, curious. "And, pardon my manners, but a good evening to you, too, sir—?"

"Remus Lupin," the other man responded, and he smiled at Harry and offered his hand, which Harry shook.

"Mr Lupin, after some measure of badgering on my part, has agreed to take on the role of Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts," explained Dumbledore. "I felt that the pool of applicants this year was far too shallow and—dare I say it?—talentless to settle with any one of them. I am familiar with your disdain for Gilderoy Lockhart, Harry, from your conversation with Ms Zabini last Christmas. It may please you to note that I did not spend half as much time considering his application as I did rejecting it with prejudice and ranting to Professor McGonagall about the man's astounding arrogance and pretense. He was the top candidate of the bunch, but I do not think I am a match for the wrath that his hiring would inspire in you."

Harry snorted.

"But, ah—Mr Lupin, yes. He is a man of many talents, and in addition to teaching the general class, he will be aiding me in a task that involves you.

"As you might recall from our last conversation, I shall be working with you throughout the school year to teach you to defend your mind from those who would do you harm. However—" He nodded to Lupin. "—it will be both impolitic and impractical for us to hold these lessons in any great number. Hogwarts and all its pupils must be my primary focus, as must be preparing for and divining Voldemort's future actions. For that reason, I expect we shan't meet more than once or twice a fortnight, and even that may prove at times impossible."

"Thus—" The headmaster continued over Harry's objection. "—Mr Lupin has agreed to act as an intermediary. Talented though you undoubtedly are, I imagine it will be a few years before you require my exclusive attention." The headmaster laughed softly at this.

Harry eyed the other man. He seemed awkward—uneasy, almost. It was hard to imagine the headmaster entrusting him to the care of such a shady character.

Perhaps sensing Harry's unease, Lupin spoke. "You'll have to forgive me, Harry. I'm not feeling quite myself tonight. I was very close to your parents—your father, particularly... They told me you looked like him, but I had no idea just how much. Except your eyes, of course—you have your mother's eyes."

"You went to school with them, then?"

"Your father was my best friend, and your mother— though we weren't quite as close—she helped me through a couple of rough spots in my life."

"Professor Dumbledore told me that my father and his friends were mischief makers. Was that you?" It was hard to picture a man so down-in-the-dumps as a predecessor to the Weasley twins.

"The rumors were greatly exaggerated," replied Lupin.

Professor Dumbledore coughed into his hand, and it sounded distinctly like a poorly concealed snigger.

"If you'd like, though, I could tell you all about them sometime. I have an album, somewhere... I can dig it out from wherever it's hiding."

Harry nodded, grateful that a link to his parents still existed, and more than a little suspicious at its convenience. "And you'll be teaching me to defend my mind? What are your credentials?"

"Pushy one, isn't he?" asked Dumbledore to Lupin, with a smile.

"Well, someone has got to take my education seriously," retorted Harry.

Dumbledore raised a hand. "I yield, Harry."

Harry looked at Lupin expectantly.

"Well, I've been a student of Occlumency for more than twenty years, now. I'm not particularly good at Legilimency, though, so I can teach you the theory behind closing your mind up, but once you progress beyond a rudimentary state, we'll have to ask Professor Dumbledore to drill you while I continue to teach you."

"Sounds fine to me," replied Harry. "Thanks for being willing, Professor."

Lupin smiled. "Not at all."

"I'm pleased to hear that this has worked out," said Dumbledore, as he stretched his arms out. "There is but one thing to discuss, Harry, and we shall let you on your way. I was quite surprised and concerned to note that you had left your home early. Is there any reason you didn't notify me?"

Harry snorted. "I didn't think you would approve in the slightest, sir, considering you told me that I had to stay there until two weeks before term."

"Ah. Then you were operating on the maxim that it is better to beg forgiveness than ask permission?"

"Something like that, yes, sir."

"Don't do that in the future, Harry," said Dumbledore, with patience that Harry was surprised that he had. "I cannot—will not—stop you from doing anything that you do not want to do, but I hope you will recognize that my suggestions are the product of many, many years of experience."

"I recognize that, sir," replied Harry. "And, sorry, really, but you can't know what it's like there. It's either hell or beyond boring. This year it was both."

"Whatever your reasons, Harry, let me know in the future. I would much rather know that you are about to disobey me than hear that you have been for the past week."

"With all due respect, you'd try to stop me, sir."

"I would try to persuade you otherwise, Harry, but like I said before, I cannot stop you from doing what you want to do. I have neither the legal jurisdiction over you, nor the inclination to do so. Where I may not order you, though, I would aim to persuade you."

Dumbledore got to his feet, and Lupin followed shortly thereafter. "But I feel that we have discussed this topic sufficiently for one night. If you decide to take a field trip elsewhere, Harry, please send me a letter so that I may, at very least, know where to send a reply. Good night, Harry. Have a very enjoyable end to your summer, and give my regards to Ms Granger."

"Good night, sir," replied Harry, and he shook the Headmaster's hand. "Good night to you too, Mr Lupin."

"Night, Harry," said Remus. "I look forward to seeing you in our lessons together."

With a nod from Dumbledore and a final pump of the hand from Remus, both of them disappeared with a loud crack.

Harry remained sitting on the bench for quite a bit of time, trying to discern exactly what was so pressing to bring the Headmaster there to see him.

It was the second-to-last day of Harry's vacation in London, and he was enjoying an ice cream at Florean Fortescue's while thumbing through his second-year Transfiguration text. As he took another bite of the chocolate, trying careful not to spill any on the book, he was interrupted by a sudden jab to his left shoulder.

"Hello, you!"

"Katie!" he exclaimed, quite startled. It took him a second to marshal his own face out of surprise. He schooled it into a very disinterested look. "Guess you got my owl then."

"Mm-hmm," she replied, grabbed Harry's ice cream from the table, and took a big bite. "Strawberry's better."

"Get your own then!" replied Harry indignantly. "I paid good money for that, I'll have you know!"

"That's really kind of you to do so, actually," replied Katie, and she plunked herself down beside him, flicked her hair over her shoulder, and took another bite.

Harry couldn't help it; he was soon grinning madly. "How's your summer been?"

"Well as could be expected," she replied. "Mum's a Warder, so she won't stop nattering on about how I need to take Runes and Arithmancy. I don't mind Runes I suppose, but ugh, Arithmancy. No thanks."

Harry, who had in fact been planning to take both those classes when the time came, wisely kept his mouth shut, opting instead to nod sympathetically.

"Anyway, the Harpies haven't won a game all summer, and the Weird Sisters are canceling their show in Bristol—Dad was gonna get tickets, so that's a wash. Right bummer it is, too."

"Now I know you're full of shite," said Harry with a laugh. "You hate the Weird Sisters."

"No, I don't," said Katie with an overdramatic huff. "I hate Fred's rendition of them. Big difference."

Harry nodded. "Fair enough. Now can I have my ice cream back?"

Katie grinned, and passed him the empty cup. She had such an innocent look on her face that he couldn't even help but go buy another one for them to share.

The two spent the rest of the day wandering the shops in the alley, before Katie demanded to see the hotel. "Of course I've seen it," she muttered sarcastically in response to his asking. "Some of us weren't born yesterday, you know. I want to see the inside."

When they arrived, Katie was suddenly (and rarely, for her) at a loss for words. "It's not much, I know," Harry responded when she continued to simply stare, gobsmacked. "Crystal's a bit sparse and the gold could use a polish, but then, I'm a hero. Don't have much use for life's luxuries. It's all on the Minister for Magic anyway."

"Git," she responded at last.

"Yeah, maybe—but a heroic one," Harry shot back.

"Next year, if you plan on murdering any professors, let me help," she whispered, her eyes still lost in the glitter of the magically expanded and lavishly decorated interior.

"Sure," Harry replied, as he took a moment to once more admire the décor for himself. "How's Snape sound to you?"

"Bonus," she whispered.

DEFENDING

CAPUT II: DEFENDEBAT

Almost a week later, Katie paid Harry a visit again, and again, he found himself buying her an ice cream at Florean Fortescue's. Their conversation was peaceful and blessedly normal.

Until—

"So, what's going on between you and Granger?"

Harry almost spat out his drink at Katie's remark. "What d'you mean by that?" he asked. "You say it like—"

"So you're telling me it's not like that?" asked Katie, with one eyebrow raised.

Harry shook his head. "I don't even know how you could have got that. Honestly, Katie—"

"Well, it's not hard to get!" said Katie, sharply, as she slammed down her ice cream cup. "I mean, first, you're all cuddly with her on the train ride home, you're rarely seen apart from her at school, and she snarls at any girl that even so much as looks your way. Oh, and then there's the rumors that you saved her life—"

"—Just what is that rumor, anyway?" asked Harry. "I'd like to hear it for myself."

"Tell me it's not true, then, that Hermione Granger, Dean Thomas, Neville Longbottom, and Ron Weasley went after Quirrell when he broke into that forbidden corridor, and that you came dashing in, and not only saved Granger's life, but went onward all heroically to save the other three."

Harry scowled. "Who told you this?"

"I heard it directly from Ron Weasley," said Katie.

"Oh, really?"

Katie nodded. "Well, that's to say, I heard it from Angie, who heard it from Fred, who heard it from George, who overheard his little sister Ginny discussing it with Lovegood's daughter, who likely overheard it from Ron, who was discussing the whole thing with Longbottom, I'm told, since he was over at their place briefly the week before since his Grandmother had to ask Arthur Weasley about a chair she'd bought from a Muggle."

"Direct, then," said Harry.

"Direct enough," she replied sharply. "Well, then?"

"Well, then, what?"

"Is it true, the rumor?"

"Which part?"

"Which part isn't true?" she asked shrewdly.

"Well," said Harry, with a moment of hesitation. "It wasn't very heroic of me—"

Katie smashed her fist against the table. Her ice cream cup fell over, and big, runny drips began to trail down toward the end of the table. "You're having me on, Harry!"

Harry stared at her. "What's the matter if I did save her?" he asked. His own voice was starting to creep up in volume.

"Because, Harry," said Katie slowly, "you are a shit, and shits do not go around rescuing little princesses and saving the day. Shits do not put their own lives on the line for idiots who practically try to throw theirs away. Shits do not make somebody else's problem theirs. It means that you're not really a shit, Harry, is what it means."

"What? How do you figure? Just because I wasn't cold enough to leave Hermione there to die—?"

"No, because you couldn't recognize what was a moronic idea in the first place! Do you remember what Dumbledore said at the start of the year? 'Certain death!' Certain death, Harry!"

"That was an exaggeration!" he exclaimed.

"So what?" Katie stood up. "The Harry I know wouldn't run into a deadly situation unless it wasn't absolutely necessary, and saving a spoiled little twat with too little sense is not—I repeat, not—necessary! I don't feel like I even know you anymore." She began to walk away.

"Katie, wait!" he said, as he got to his feet and ran to catch up with her. "You still know me. I'm still the same Harry Potter. I just—"

"You just what, Potter?" she asked.

"I just couldn't leave Hermione there to die, all right?" he snapped. "I might be a shit, but I'm not heartless."

Katie kept walking, but she turned her head to look at him. Her lips were pressed in a tight red line. "To tell you the truth, I don't even really care that you went and saved Granger," said Katie. "I can accept that you had to do that, as she obviously means something to you—though I have no idea why in raving hell that is—, but why the fuck did you go after Weasley, Thomas, and Longbottom?"

Harry opened his mouth, and shut it just as fast. The second time he opened it, he found the words. "I couldn't let them die, either."

"Bullshit," said Katie, who was nearly halfway to the Leaky Cauldron. "You hate Thomas, and you have no lost love for Weasley, either. Is Longbottom worth that much to you?"

"Neville's worth a lot," he snapped. "What the hell was I supposed to do in front of Hermione? Turn to her and say 'Oh, Hermione, I'm so glad you're safe! I'm just going to leave those three people you nearly threw your life away for to die, okay?"

"That's the first bit of sense you've made this entire conversation."

"Preposterous, Katie. I got carried away, too, okay? I admit it. Once I was down there, it was easy to just keep going. It was like... I couldn't really stop myself, knowing who was waiting at the end. I couldn't help but feel it was my responsibility, just a bit, you know?"

Katie finally stopped and turned to face him. "And just who was so important at the end?" she asked. "For Merlin's sake, Harry, it was just goddamn stuttering Quirrell. It's not like You-Know-Who came back from the dead and was waiting for you to come fight him mano-a-mano."

Harry just stared at her.

She stared back, and slowly, her face morphed from derision to panic. "Christ, I'm not wrong, am I?" she whispered. "It was really—him? He's back?"

"He never went away," said Harry, softly. "At least, Dumbledore doesn't think so. We—Dumbledore and I, that is—we defeated him again, but it's not permanent. And inasmuch as I would desperately love to be a shit and not give a care, Katie, it's pretty hard to do that when you know you're the only person who's ever truly beat him before."

"Oh, Harry," said Katie, and she grasped him in a huge hug.

"I got carried away," he admitted again. "I should have left it to Dumbledore, but once I was down there, it wasn't hard to get carried away. Thought I was invincible; thought I could take on God and come out laughing. I'd like to say that I won't do it again, but I won't lie about something as important as me being a shit."

Katie raised an eyebrow. "So is there anything between you and Granger, then?"

"Katie!" exclaimed Harry. "No! Absolutely not!"

"Oh, good," she said, and she stepped forward and kissed him on the cheek.

He blushed red. "Was... all of that necessary? Just for a little kiss?"

"Every little bit," she said, with a straight face. "Hey, Harry, if I ever decided to be an spoiled-rotten bratty slime-nosed princess, and choose to throw my life away like that, will you come haul my ass out of the fire?"

"Yeah," he said after a second. "But only for you!" he added. "And don't go getting any ideas, now. Just because I'll do it doesn't mean I'll like doing it."

"Good," she said, with a smile. "C'mon—I have a little bit of shopping to do yet. Flourish and Blotts?"

He rolled his eyes. "Lead the way."

"So, I was thinking," said Katie, as they rolled up to Flourish and Blotts ten minutes later. "I was thinking—"

"Thinking? That seems like it might give you an unfair advantage."

"Shush, you," she said, and she gave him a light push on his shoulder. "Anyway, I was thinking that for dinner, tonight, we ought to try out that Frog place that just opened up down at the end of the Alley, Esprit de Torte. Sound good to you?"

"Sounds just peachy to me, since the Ministry's still footing my bill," replied Harry, as he opened the door to Flourish and Blotts. "Hey, wait a second," he said, as he saw how little room was available in the bookstore. "I don't remember this many backsides in here before—"

"Oh—oh, sweet Merlin!" exclaimed Katie with wide eyes. "What day is it?"

"Friday, I think?"

"I totally forgot! Oh, I'm so dumb—"

Harry raised an eyebrow. "What's going on that's so important?"

She pushed herself into the bookstore, and he followed in after. The crowd seemed to be excited about something, and even though Harry's good sense told him to move on, his curiosity prodded him enough to remain with Katie, and to see what he could see. "Katie, what's going on in here?" he called to her over the near-constant babbling of the crowd.

He was surprised to note that she, too, was babbling. He could barely make it out when she said, "Come on, Harry! We have to get near the front!" With surprising strength, she latched onto his arm with her hand, and began to pull him through the crowd.

Harry tried to yank his arm free, but the Chaser's grip was iron-firm and didn't give until they were three rows from the front. Harry could almost see through—

"Potter?" inquired a voice from behind him.

"Harry!" exclaimed a voice from his left.

"Come on, Harry!" hissed Katie, as she pulled his arm. "We've got to get closer!"

As he was dragged forward, he turned his head, and was surprised to see the white-haired, willowy Blaise Zabini behind him. He was even more surprised to see Hermione to his left.

"Hi, Hermione! Hi, Zabini!" he greeted, as he was pulled forward through a sudden opening in the crowd to the front row.

Harry opened his mouth to say something to Katie, but found his words caught in his throat at the intense, almost feral look in her eyes. The only times he'd ever seen a look so intense had been when Dudley was eying the last piece of bacon at breakfast; it was an expression of such intensely ferocious want that it sent a visceral chill down his spine.

And then he looked up at who she was staring at. His jaw dropped.

Behind red velvet ropes stood a flamboyantly-dressed, blond-haired man whose face Harry immediately recognized. He was surrounded by mountains of books bearing his likeness, and both he and the books were beaming at the audience.

"Harry, I've been looking for you all day—" came Hermione's voice from his side.

"Not now, Hermione," said Harry with a snarl. "I'm going to go give that man a piece of my—"

"Potter?" came Zabini's voice from over his other shoulder. "What are you doing in here? Don't you hate Lockhart—"

"Yes," said Harry, "and I intend to make that known. Hold on a second—"

And he stepped over the roping, having seen a clear path toward possibly the most arrogant man on the planet, in his opinion. Gilderoy Lockhart was about to find out what Harry thought of him.

"Harry, wait!" said Hermione.

"Potter, you can't do that in here!" chipped in Zabini. "The crowd will eat you alive, if they don't have you arrested—"

"Harry, isn't he amazing?" said a forgotten and besotted Katie Bell from his right.

"Absolutely," replied Harry, as he cracked his knuckles.

"No, Harry!"

"Don't—!"

He ignored them in favor of digging his wand from his cloak.

"Oh, Merlin. Granger, do something!"

"I'm so sorry, Harry..." he heard from behind him.

Just as he'd managed to make his way unimpeded up to Gilderoy Lockhart, who seemed to be too distracted waving and beaming to notice the shrimpy boy approaching him, Hermione's spell impacted his back. He opened his mouth to have at Lockhart. "You're a slimy, no-good attention-seeking liar!"

Only no words came out.

It took a long moment for Lockhart to bother to recognize him: "A little quieter back there, if you please. I'm only here till noon, so let's keep things orderly. We'll have time for every—oh my word, it's Harry Potter!"

Lockhart had finally noticed him. Harry winced. He looked up, fearing the worst. Sure enough, a throng of women, ranging from six to sixty, seemed caught between glares at his interruption and gasps as they realized who he was. Suddenly very uncomfortable without his voice, Harry stepped back, and mentally ran through every counter-spell he knew. None of them seemed promising.

For one brief second, the grinning idiot gave him a look that Harry could only describe as predatory. It did not last long, though. A smooth and effeminate hand took his own, dragging him forward with decidedly masculine strength.

"Oh no! No need for that. Mr. Potter, always a pleasure. Ladies and Gentlemen, what a day this is turning out to be! I give you Harry Potter!"

There was wild applause.

Lockhart grinned rakishly. "I suppose we can now put the rumors to rest: despite that we have never appeared together before today, we are not, in fact, the same person!" Harry scowled as the crowd collectively giggled. "Yes, a real pleasure," Lockhart added. He was smiling at Harry with teeth that quite literally twinkled.

Clearly, the man was insane.

"—When Mr. Potter came by today, he expected an autograph and a maybe a photograph, but he's going to get much, much more. I'm pleased to announce that Mr. Potter will be getting my newest work, Heroics with Hippogriffs. Technically, I'm supposed to wait another two weeks for publication—"—Lockhart gave a great dramatic wink to the crowd.—"—but I think an exception can be made for our boy hero, what do you say?"

And despite everything, the crowd cheered. Harry watched, gobsmacked, as the idiot had everyone giddy that he was being favored for his celebrity. True, he'd seen this behavior before—had in the last year been in the center of it—but seeing it in person, to watch the crowds... it was something else.

But he was a smart boy—he knew this well enough—and like in everything else, he thought for a minute, and found an upside. It was the look of complete rapture on Katie's face that convinced him that Lockhart's power over the crowd was not so much a matter of disgusting hero worship as it was a matter of exploitable hero worship. The crowd's occupation with celebrity could elevate him to a god in a heartbeat if he chose to play to it.

"Now, I shan't keep you all waiting any longer. We'll take one for the front page and then we'll get on with the signing. Front and center... There's a good lad. Smile now—yes! You'll be a Witch Weekly winner, I think... a very long time from now, but you just wait and see!"

Harry fought to keep smiling through a flurry of flashes, and the crowd surged forward, all but throwing smiling pictures of Gilderoy Lockhart... at Gilderoy Lockhart. Despite himself, despite everything he knew, he couldn't help but be impressed.

Even Harry had to sign a few pictures of himself. How photos of him had managed to make the rounds already, he did not know, but there was no sense in being a grouch. He signed and smiled, until Hermione made her way up to him and waved her wand discreetly, and he could talk again.

"Thanks," he said to her. "—but don't do that again, please, even if I'm about to do something really stupid."

"Sorry," she replied, and to her credit, she seemed to mean it. He was just about to turn to his next fan, when he realized that Hermione had plunked down a picture of him, taken only ten minutes before and hastily developed by an opportunistic photographer.

"Really?" he asked, as he looked up her with dry amusement.

She blushed. "How often do you get your hero's signature?"

"I'm your hero?"

"Do you have a better suggestion?"

"How about Mister-Brushes-With-Bleach over there?"

Hermione rolled her age. "Please. He's thrice my age. Not only are you my best friend, but you're also fanciable, too. Forget him—I've got you."

Harry signed the picture as fast as he possibly could, and turned to his next fan.

It was a deeply contemplative Harry that returned to the Mary Celeste that evening, having bade good-night to Hermione some time before. Once in his room, he locked the door, and flopped down on the king-sized bed. He intended to practice Occlumency, as he had done every night that summer; instead, he managed only to stare up at the wooden ceiling, too distracted by his thoughts to even consider quelling them. In two weeks, the room had almost become his own, and it was with some sadness that he realized that he would not be occupying it, would not be coming back to those familiar timbers the next day.

Of course, he would be spending the time with Hermione, and that was nice, too, since he would have much more challenge in his day-to-day life. Still, he had tasted freedom now... and he liked it. He liked it a lot. More than enough to know that he intended to return, next summer—if not to the Mary Celeste, then to some other pasture just as green. He was twelve years old; that was old enough to take care of himself, he thought. Besides, he had magic. If anything went wrong, a solution was only a wand-flick away.

Absently, he twirled a small square of rigid parchment between his fingers while he thought. Harry could not help but scowl as he recalled Lockhart's less-than-modest flirtation with Katie, and, to his disgust, she hadn't shown herself revolted by the advances of a man over twice her age. The man had flattery and bullshitting down to arts.

It took Harry a minute to realize just exactly what it was he still held in his hand. He looked down at the card, from where the beaming face of Gilderoy Lockhart looked back at him. An intricate and flowery script gave the address for what Lockhart had called "Priority-Personal" owls. Harry smiled at the thought. Lockhart himself was worth less than the card stock his face was printed on, but the card itself... The card itself was worth one huge favor from virtually any girl in Hogwarts.

And upon reflection, that sole fact demonstrated the immense power that Lockhart commanded. Power that Harry could not help but feel a bit envious of. It was power that he could achieve, but...

"How many of your own classmates, Harry, would call you 'unpleasant', I wonder?"

He remembered how much that thought, muttered so casually by the Headmaster, had stung at the time. It had done damage that he hadn't even been aware of, even though he'd dismissed his unpleasant nature as an unfortunate necessity if he was to focus on things that mattered. Even so, it had wormed into his head occasionally, as it did now. Had his political capital waned because of his grumpiness? Had he carelessly tossed away some of his admittedly fledgling power?

And to think that Katie wanted him to be colder of heart! It was enough to drive a bloke mad, being pulled this way and that.

That thought stayed with him for a few minutes until he realized just how many people had queued up for him to sign autographs that morning. His popularity was a form of capital itself, he realized, and he was quite popular. If he took the time to be friendlier, to put on a nicer face when conversing with others, to be more visible and to be more heroic, he could grow that capital. His decision to play Quidditch after all finally had a bit of an advantage to it, and Hermione—saving her had won him her loyalty, he was sure of it. If he went into a life-or-death situation, she would follow. That was an incredible power in its own right.

The sudden realization that he was debating emulating Lockhart made him want to vomit.

But, of course, he was not dissimilar to another unfavorable person, too. Voldemort had said so—that their lives were near identical. Even Dumbledore had contended so, though the Headmaster maintained that it was the differences, not the similarities, that counted.

Harry didn't believe a word of that.

Tom Riddle. The very name was alike his own—common enough to belong to anyone. It was so normal that it was humanizing to Voldemort. He was a man underneath it all—a man twisted and bent by evil, admittedly—but a man nonetheless. There was a man worth analyzing. He could not help but wonder where the line between man and monster had blurred. If he ever hoped to beat Voldemort—Riddle, he reminded himself forcibly—then he had to understand both sides. He had to tread where the man had tread, both intellectually and physically. He had to skirt the edges of humanity without feeling the pull himself.

That thought didn't inspire him to vomit, but he felt nervous—as if he were on a vast precipice, awaiting a very long fall...

Harry awoke early the next morning, just as the sun began to stream through the window. He took his time on his morning routine, pausing to read the newspaper from back to front while he ate breakfast in the dining cabin on the ship. In truth, he knew that going to Hermione's place would be a step back. While it would be nice to have decent company—long-term company, not just the few hours with various people from his school who visited Diagon Alley—it was also going to be trying beyond belief for his patience and his preference for solitude, and that was only if Hermione's parents were bearable.

He had deliberately held off buying the majority of what he wanted to take to school, outside of the school supplies the Ministry had bought for him, since he knew that his attachment to new books would inevitably keep him inside the Mary Celeste, and not out enjoying his freedom in the company of the wider wizarding world.

Resultingly, he spent a few quiet hours skimming over the books in a nearly-empty Flourish and Blotts, disguised as a fifth-year Hufflepuff student. That was, at least, until he saw Weasley and his family come crowding in, followed shortly by the Malfoy family. As they were damn near his least favorite two people, he purchased his books quickly and left, rather than stay for the inevitable fireworks. There were fireworks anyway; before he had even made it out the door, both the Weasley and Malfoy patriarchs had wholly abandoned decorum and were rolling about the floor, pummeling each other with their fists.

Instead, he went over to the Apothecary, bought a few things to top up his Potions kit, and spent the last hour of his freedom at Florean Fortescue's, enjoying an ice cream.

At long last, he folded his serviette neatly before he stood up and deposited it in the rubbish bin. He made his way back to the Mary Celeste, packed up all his things in his trunk, checked out, and made his way down the gangway to the taxi waiting there. From the taxi, it was a half-hour drive to London Euston, and another half-hour wait in the station before Hermione showed up.

"Harry! There you are!"

"There I am? I've been here all along," he replied. "Where have you been?"

Hermione blushed. "Well, I spent a full twenty minutes trying to straighten my hair before I even got out of the Leaky Cauldron—"

Harry blinked. Her hair didn't look all that straight. "That long?"

"I couldn't find a plug. I had to magic my straightener to heat it up, and even then, it kept cooling off with no warning—"

"Well, come on," he said. He was impatient to go, but some niggling thought at the back of his head stopped him from simply grabbing her arm and dragging the frustrating girl to where they needed to be. He remembered his thought from the night before—be nice. Ugh, perish the thought. Still...

"It looks... nice. You look nice," he said.

Hermione blushed pink. "You think so?"

He nodded. "Yeah. Now come on! We're going to miss another one if we keep sitting around here all day!"

And so they found themselves sitting on the 12:03 to Birmingham.

Once they were settled—Harry's trunk safely stowed, and Hermione's book bag tucked under her feet—Harry turned to her with a question that had been bothering him. "You know, I have to say I'm surprised that your parents even let you come to London, let alone by yourself."

"Why are you surprised?"

Harry shrugged. "I guess just from what little you've told me, they sound pretty... I don't know—hands-on?"

Hermione looked at him unblinkingly for a long time before she spoke. "You know, I can't imagine where you got that impression," she said at last. "My parents... Well, just don't judge me by them, all right?"

"I wouldn't do that," replied Harry quickly. "You're not your parents. Still, they're okay with their twelve-year-old daughter going into London alone? That shows a lot of trust—"

"—or lack of concern, yes," she said. "They dropped me off at the Leaky Cauldron two days ago, Harry, on the condition that I didn't go out into Muggle London and always carried my wand with me. It's not like they don't care, I guess, but they've always given me a good deal of freedom." She smiled grimly. "And ever since I showed them what I could do with my wand, they've also allowed me even more latitude. But really, Harry: don't judge me for my parents."

Harry laughed nervously. "It sounds like you're preparing me for—"

"I don't know what Dumbledore was thinking," she interrupted. "He certainly didn't ask my permission, and if he does ask it next year, I won't give it. Oh, don't give me that look. It's not that I didn't want you over, it's that Dumbledore doesn't know what sort of people my parents are. They're just a little—well, I mean, my dad's really nice, and my mum's really smart, but they're both very... busy people, and they have things that they like to do that they didn't give up when they had me—"

"Hermione?" said Harry. "Hermione, you're rambling. Relax."

"Sorry," she said quickly. "It's just... not everybody understands my parents like I do. They think that they're neglectful, or bad parents, or... But they're not. They're good parents, just not the type of parents that most people know. But I love them, really, I do."

Harry put his hand in hers and gave it a squeeze. "I understand. Please, relax. Take a deep breath. I'm not judging."

Hermione did take a deep breath. It did not seem to calm her substantially, but he dropped the topic.

She didn't drop his hand.

"So this is the boy you're always talking about," said the willowy (and rather attractive) Mrs. Granger, once they'd gotten Harry's trunk into the boot of their car. A very expensive car, Harry noted, as he regarded it with a magpie's eyes. It still smelled vaguely of the black leather that covered the seats.

Mr. Granger—tall, too, much taller than Hermione, and with model-like looks, square jaw, and bronzed skin—noticed Harry's appreciative eye in the rearview mirror and smiled at him. He started the car and gave a nod toward the dashboard.

Harry leaned forward, and just about gasped: the entire panel was digital, and the car had a spot to show the current temperature and their present heading. "Oh, wow," he said. As Harry sank down into the cushioning, he caught sight of the odometer; the car could have scarcely been to the station to pick up Hermione and him.

Mr. Granger just grinned.

Harry's attention was pulled from the amazing technology by Mrs. Granger, who had sat down in the back seat with them. "Hmm. Interesting, Hermione. Not what I pictured."

He decided to be sociable. "Hello, Mrs. Granger. Pleasure to meet you—Harry Potter," he said, as he stuck out his hand to shake.

She did not extend hers. "Oh, no, Harry. It's Ms. Granger—I'm not married, you see. But you can call me Danielle."

"Oh," he said. "Well, it's a pleasure, Danielle."

She nodded slightly, but her smile looked fake.

"Mum, be nice!" whispered Hermione.

"I am, Hermione," replied Ms. Granger. "It's just not proper to shake a lady's hand unless she offers it to you."

"Nobody abides that antiquated custom anymore—"

"—Well, I do think it's good to be proper, don't you?" asked Ms. Granger. "And I was just taken aback by Harry, that's all. The way you'd made him out... Well! How was your trip, Harry?"

"Fine, ma'am. It was a bit cramped, but otherwise, just fine."

"Cramped, really? That surprises me."

"Why's that?"

"Oh, nothing. You're just a bit tiny, dear. Scrawny, even."

"Oh, god," said Hermione under her breath, and she buried her head into her hands. "Mother, you promised—"

Harry shook his head. "If you must know, my relatives weren't very good shepherds of my health."

"I can tell! Your eyes, too. You poor thing."

"Excuse me?" asked Harry.

"And your hearing? Goodness. Hermione, we'll have to feed him up in this next week, and you'll have to make sure he eats properly while you're at school. Otherwise, he's going to be in a world of trouble later on in his life. You can't keep a brain running on junk food, can you, dear?" Ms. Granger's worry was patently inauthentic.

Harry's brain stalled for words. They hadn't even left the parking lot and he wasn't sure what to say, so awkward was their conversation. In desperation, he latched on to the one thing that had surprised him the most. "So, Ms. Granger, Mr. Granger, you're not married?"

Hermione winced.

"Oh, no, Harry!" said Ms. Granger, as she pressed her lipsticked lips tightly together. "Emilio has been my partner for ten years now, but we've no intention to marry. And just for your information, dear, he's not Emilio Granger, but Emilio Montego. Really, I'm surprised Hermione didn't tell you all of this. Hermione, dear?"

"I don't go around talking about your unconventional views on marriage, mother, and is this really necessary? Harry is just my friend, not—"

"Who you spend time with now dictates who you spend time with in the future, dear. A good choice in the 'now' means an easier choice in the 'then'. Emilio, let's go. We can continue our conversation on the road."

"Mother, you can't say that about Harry! He's a good friend—"

Evidently, Harry had lost the thread of conversation. "What?" he asked in confusion.

Both Hermione and Ms. Granger ignored him. The latter gave a little harrumph of displeasure. "Hermione, watch your language. I am your mother, not some school-chum. You will treat me with the respect I deserve."

Hermione blanched as the car leaped gracefully forward. "I'm not disrespecting you, mother. I just don't want to talk about your complicated—"

"—Nonsense. Our arrangement is not complicated; Emilio understands he's here entirely at my own pleasure. Isn't that right, Emilio?"

"Yes, Miss Granger," said Hermione's father. His accent was so thick that Harry could hardly believe the man had been living in Britain for a decade.

Harry frowned. "Pardon me, because I know it's none of my business—"

Hermione moaned. "Harry!—"

"—but what's going on? You've lost me."

Ms. Granger brushed her hair back out of her face. "It's really quite simple, Harry: Emilio and I aren't married because I don't believe in marriage. We have a mutual agreement, you might say."

"So... what?"

"Well, stop me if you've heard this, Harry, but when you get older, you start to have physical needs that only a member of the opposite sex can fulfill—"

"Muh-ther!"

"Oh, Hermione, shush. The boy obviously doesn't know anything about this. Anyway, Harry, Emilio is here to fulfill my physical needs. In turn, I help fulfill his. He stays in shape for me; I provide him with several other perks."

Harry nodded, finally understanding. "Friends with benefits?"

Ms. Granger regarded him blankly for a second, and then smiled. "Something like that, yes. There's no point in dealing with all the drama that a real relationship entails. Emilio and I have something enviable. If we ever disagree on something—and we don't, since we don't converse much—we can just go our separate ways, no hard feelings. Isn't that nice?"

Harry hesitated. "I suppose so, ma'am."

"You look like you disagree, Harry."

Despite Hermione's piercing look, Harry spoke anyway. "Don't you miss the emotional contact? I mean, isn't that what a relationship is supposed to be about?"

Ms. Granger's look darkened. "Harry, Emilio is not here for touchy-feely sentimentality, nor should you be, if that's why you've been getting so close to Hermione. If Hermione needed that, she could be a lesbian and undoubtedly be far happier for it."

And Ms. Granger's personality suddenly clicked in Harry's head. "Ah. So you don't think that I'd be a good match for Hermione, then."

"I think you're a perfectly lovely boy, Harry, but you can hardly be blamed for your disadvantage." Miss Granger stared at him, as if silently daring him to break eye contact with her. Though she was undeniably an attractive woman, Harry could not ever call her beautiful. It was disturbingly easy to give in, and to turn his eyes.

"It okay, Harry," said Emilio, suddenly. "I very happy."

And to his credit, Mr. Gra—no, Emilio; Harry was having a hard time getting used to that...—looked genuinely happy.

"Nice Ms. Granger, she buy me this car. Nice car, hey?"

Harry nodded. "Very nice," he said, though he was still seething.

"And she put me through school, and pay me to live here, to clean and to cook and to drive."

Ms. Granger seemed to grow a little bit smugger with each passing second.

"She really nice. I like it here. She help put me and my brothers through college, give us a real nice break, you know?"

Harry paused for a second, taken aback by the sudden realization he had. "Wait, so... you've only been here ten years. You're not even Hermione's father?"

Hermione flushed, and buried her head in her hands further. Ms. Granger just laughed.

"Emilio? Father my children? Harry, dear, you're silly."

"Well, I—"

She crossed one hose-clad leg over the other, and brushed her hair back. "You insult me. Hermione's father is a physicist, specially selected for his wit, intelligence, and resistance to the gross majority of hereditary diseases." She beamed. "It was my greatest gift to Hermione; if I could have given her traits of two women, I would have."

Harry turned to Hermione. "I thought—you said your dad—"

Ms. Granger interrupted. "Hermione is a little wistful, though, so she does call Emilio her father, no matter how hard I try to convince her otherwise that she'll never meet her biological father."

"Mother," said Hermione, after a very long silence, "please, please, do not say anything else."

Ms. Granger raised a sculpted eyebrow. "Do you fear I reveal too much about you?"

"I sit here utterly denuded!" she replied. "I don't know how you could possibly reveal any—"

"Well, I don't think your friend here has put it together that you were a test-tube baby—"

"—Mother!"

Harry shut his eyes tightly.

"—Nor do I think he knows that you think so highly of him, Hermione. I find your taste appalling. It flies in the face of convention of everything I've taught you."

"Mother, you will not say another word—"

"I don't think I have to, Hermione," replied Ms. Granger. "I think I've made my point quite well."

"Well, we here!" said Emilio, as the car rolled to a stop. "Get out of car! Go to house! I bring you lemonade in a few minutes!"

"They're embarrassing," muttered Hermione, two days later. "You must think I'm horrible! You had such a horrible childhood, and here I am complaining because my parents are embarrassing. Harry, I'm so, so sorry."

Harry stepped forward and rubbed Hermione's shoulder. "Hermione," he said, "really, it's okay, for the last time. Yes, your mother is terrible. I really feel for you. I don't have a monopoly on a terrible childhood."

Hermione wiped the tear from her cheek. "No, really, Harry," she said. "It's not that bad. We normally get along just fine—"

"Your mother's made you cry twice today, and you haven't stopped arguing since we got here," said Harry in a low voice. "Not to even mention the fact that she's a heartless man-hater who thinks you should be a lesbian if you want love. Your dad—Emilio, sorry—"

"—my dad," corrected Hermione.

"—your dad has only been here to cook dinners, and then he keeps disappearing to god-knows-where... Probably back to his practice? And he keeps asking me to use the duplication spell on a stack of quid. That got old about the fiftieth time."

"Sorry about that," replied Hermione, "and for the record, he's not a dentist, nor is my mother. I try to make them sound as boring as I could, so nobody asks questions. He's a masseuse, and anyway, he doesn't have to stick around. I don't blame him. I'd probably leave if I could."

"See what I mean?" said Harry, in an attempt to be soothing. "You do have terrible parents. That's no way to grow up, Hermione. And look at you—you've turned out pretty all right."

Hermione gave a little uncontrollable snort of amusement. "Pretty all right, huh?"

He smiled. "Pretty all right."

And then a call came from the other room. "Hermione!"

"Oh, good gravy, hide me!" she said at once. "Actually, no. I'd better head it off before it gets any worse. Stay here, Harry." Hermione turned on the spot and left her room.

Harry was not about to argue with her, and so he sat down, pulled out his wand, and practiced driving a pencil around the legs of Hermione's bed and curio cabinets. Five minutes later, a visibly happier Hermione entered the room.

"What's up?" he asked. "You look like you just caught a mouse."

"Hilarious, Harry," she said, without sounding amused in the slightest, but she was still smiling. "Mother has just decided that she's ending her vacation early and is heading back to the office. She's just left."

Harry nodded. "That is good news."

"No, Harry," she replied. "You don't know how good news that is. Mother is very devoted to her job. She's the Vice-Chancellor, you know? First woman, and all that, and not a member of the church—"

"I didn't know, no, but do go on."

"She said that we were too much stress—"

"—Hark who's talking."

"So what are we going to do?"

"I have no idea. So we're just... left here, by ourselves, with no supervision?"

Hermione nodded. "That's how it usually work. There's a Curry place right around the corner, or there are TV dinners in the freezer. What do you want to do?"

Harry thought for a minute, and then a grin slowly spread over his face.

He leaned his head around the recliner—

—and narrowly avoided the Jinx that whizzed by his ear. "Missed me!" he called. There was a foomp!-foomp!-foomp! as Harry felt Hermione's spells impact the chair. "Come on! Is that all you've got?"

But he did not stand still to wait for Hermione's response. Instead, he dove across the large, open living room, and scrambled for the cover of the sofa. As he dove, a a Jelly-Legs Jinx hit him in the ankle, and he immediately found his legs limp, unresponsive, and wobbling wildly out of his control. He applied the Counter-Jinx quickly, but in that time, the spell-fire had fallen silent, and he had lost track of Hermione.

"Dammit," he muttered, as he wracked his brain for ideas. Hermione was undeniably good.

He could levitate all the furniture in the room out of the way, one piece at a time... but that would expose him too long. He could use an area-effect charm, but those were notoriously weak, and the few that he knew were overkill for a friendly duel like this one. That left continuing to rely on speed and daring, really, and he knew from the handful of Jinxes that Hermione had already hit him with that her aim was too good to really chance that. Of course, sitting around was hardly an option, either.

Something occurred to him, and he quirked his head to consider it. In theory, it was a good idea...

"Venefilux Ostende!" he whispered.

Unlike Hogwarts, Hermione's home did not blind him in its intensity. There was a dim glow on the chair where the missed Jinxes and Curses had impacted, and he could see himself throwing off a substantial amount of light, but there was no other radiance to indicate that Hermione was either anywhere near. Either she had learned to mask her presence—something that wouldn't honestly surprise Harry—or she had left the room. When he squinted, he could see a dim trail of light leading from the entrance where Hermione had stood, down toward the hallway.

When a quick glimpse around the sofa confirmed that she was gone, he stood, and made his way against the wall toward the hallway. He could not see magic through walls, like he could couches, but he had a fairly good idea that she had moved up the stairs to take advantage of the higher elevation's narrower dangerous firing angle. Once again, he leaned his head around the corner, just to check—

"I'm sorry, Harry," she said.

"For the hundredth time, Hermione, it's okay. You don't have to apologize for winning. Really."

She sat back on her calves. "I meant that I'm sorry for letting you hit the ground—"

"—It's okay, Hermione. I bounced. Really. I had a lot of fun doing that; we should do it more often. And you! You've gotten so cunning! Talk about unexpected."

Hermione smiled tentatively. "I thought that you'd think that I would think logically, so I made sure to do so for a while—"

Harry nodded. "—And when you'd convinced me, broke the pattern. Brilliant, Hermione. You got me. It was a nice shot, too."

"You did pretty well yourself, Harry. I never would have thought to use the Cursebreaker's Sight to find a person, and when you animated that chair—Harry, that's like... fifth-year magic, at the earliest!"

"Speak for yourself, Little Miss Standard-Book-of-Spells! I noticed some of the things that you were casting weren't exactly second-year material. What happened to our little competition of who could finish every spell in that book first?"

Hermione had the decency to look sheepish. "I wanted to get started on next year's competition?"

Harry just laughed, and Hermione relaxed a little more.

After a companionable silence, he looked up at her. "You know, that was really fun."

"I know!" she replied. "That's pretty much the most fun I've had all summer, what with mother—"

"We should do it again, some time."

She nodded. "We only have a couple more days, though."

Harry picked himself up off the ground, and brushed off his trousers. "Not necessarily."

"What do you mean?" asked Hermione, as she, too, stood. "Harry, we go back to Hogwarts on Sunday. That won't change. We can't just... not show up."

He shook his head. "No, you misunderstand me. We could do it again at Hogwarts. Think of it: instead of just a big house, we'd have an entire castle. The opportunities for ambush would be amazing, and we'd have to work on tracking each other so we didn't spend forever wandering around the school."

Hermione's eyes lit up again at the thought. "That could definitely be done. And—Harry, you know, when I think of it, we could even invite some more people—Oh, Harry! Maybe we could even make it a club, and that way we wouldn't get in trouble for casting magic in the halls—!"

He grinned. Hermione had just suggested to him what he had been planning all summer long. "I think that's a great idea. You know, we could even make more of it, too. We might branch out a bit more—you know, plan offense and defense, practice storming rooms in groups, study new spells together..."

He could tell he had Hermione with 'study', but he continued. "You know, I can't deny we needed help from time to time last year, and if things are anything like they were then, it won't do to for us to always have to turn to Weasley, or, God forbid, Thomas. We could use this club as fun, but also as a tool."

"But if it was a club, we would have to let Ron or Dean in if they signed up—"

"Well," said Harry with a shrug, "no one said that we had to declare it a club. We could keep it top secret."

Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger both had the same awestruck look when they heard the words 'top secret'.

"I'm in," said Hermione, without hesitation. "So what, officially, are we going to be doing? Studying advanced magic? Dueling?"

"Both of those, for sure, but otherwise, this and that," he added vaguely. "What I envision is something like a study group, only more exclusive and more focused. I didn't tell you yet, but Dumbledore introduced me to the new Defense professor for the year. I'm gonna check him out a bit more, but maybe we could arrange a time when we could learn some dueling techniques from him, or something. Anyway, it's more of a way to foster the best and brightest in our year, and to make sure we stick together."

"That sounds wonderful!" Hermione responded, her mind racing once more. "We could have dinner parties, too–adults do that. The best and brightest of our year–we could start planning things, changing things. There's all sorts of things wrong with the magical world, and we could—"

"Yes, quite," Harry replied, himself deep in thought. "Of course, we have to be respectful to tradition, but a true progressive movement starts when tradition becomes too stifling..."

He had no real desire to hold a dinner party, truth be told, but he could see the advantages in it. It would be the appropriate time to find out about Cedric's father from him, and to understand what protected him from Malfoy's father... While learning to fight was crucial to his plans, understanding the political scene—and what was more, making a Lockhartean effort to forge connections and make inroads—was suddenly twice as important.

GAMES OF THE MIND

Author's Note:

If you've been following 'The General', you know that my writing schedule is sporadic at best (still no baby, though). However, this story has always been in my mind, and since A- has found a bit more disposable time, he's been heckling me to write it a bit. He did the first half of this—and then I promptly hacked it to bits—but you owe him a lot of thanks for this.

Those of you who follow us on Twitter know that we have a gift for all you fanfic readers, but for those of you who don't, check out the link to our homepage in our profile. It's a tool that helps mobile users get to FFN so much faster. Please try it out, give me feedback, and if you like it, consider donating to help keep it up. (Seriouly, even pennies help, but I'm reconciled to it being a hit to my pocketbook.)

One last thing: as a side effect of being out of college for two years and not practicing, my Latin has grown extremely rusty. Our chapter names will no longer be in Latin, which I'm sure thrills half of you and disappoints the other half. For your edification, 'VULTUS SERPENTIS' means 'The Face of the Serpent'. At some point, we'll be going back and changing everything but the title of the books to English.

Because it's been so long, here is a synopsis of VINCET and the start of this book:

Harry is a rather intelligent but socially awkward boy. He is very mature for his age, owing to his rather sizeable intelligence and his early forced exposure to talk radio. In his first year at Hogwarts, Harry, with the assistance of Hermione, deduced how to break the Trace on his wand. He did this so he could live without fear from the Dursleys, who have abused him ever since 'the accident'—though at a level that Harry claims substantially worse or better, depending on what is most advantageous to him. Harry also helped defeat Quirrell and Voldemort, though he had no intention of doing so—rather, Hermione went after Ron, Neville, and Dean, who had chased after Quirrell a la canon. Harry goes after her, but is still pondering why, when it was so out of character for him: was it heroism, or friendship, or what?

In VULTUS SERPENTIS, Harry has spent his summer days in Diagon Alley, where he met Professor Dumbledore and Remus Lupin. Dumbledore, knowing that Harry disliked Lockhart, chose to ask Remus to fill in as the Defense teacher. Remus will also be teaching Harry Occlumency, along with Professor Snape, though neither of them knows that the other is teaching this to Harry. Katie, who was close to Harry in VINCET, appears to be upset with him for recklessly risking his life when saving Hermione, but she also hints at having an amorous interest in him, as does Hermione. Harry spends a week with Hermione and her parents before school starts, and it is an awkward week; Ms. Danielle Granger, who is friends-with-benefits to Hermione's non-biological Father Emilio, thinks very poorly of Hermione's choices and friendship with Harry, and suggests that she become a lesbian instead if she is looking for companionship.

Hermione and Harry have discussed starting a DA-like secret group to learn advance techniques, to socialize, etc..—essentially a Hogwarts secret society. Harry is also particularly concerned with his similarities to Tom Riddle, and is intrigued by their last meeting. He is also flirting with the notion of gathering fame like Lockhart, understanding, finally, that it can win him friends and power.

CHAPTER 3: GAMES OF THE MIND

The time he spent with Hermione and, thankfully, the somewhat limited interaction with her family gave Harry a different outlook on his bookish friend. Her mother's absence did as much to improve the atmosphere as Emilio's tendency to be in the periphery when Harry and Hermione played Spell-tag or studied, showing his tan smiling face only to supply them with cooled lemonade and sandwiches around lunchtime. Harry was surprised with the good grace that Emilio took the presence of the two magical children. By the end, Harry had realized that Emilio was not staying for Ms. Granger; though he was perfectly kind and seemed to understand his role in her life perfectly, it was when she left that Harry saw the way he treated Hermione. He was so grateful to the Spaniard; though he was slightly dim, it was so obvious that he cherished her, and it showed in his gentle encouragement and kindness to the girl. Harry knew she needed it.

Nevertheless, he was excited to be gone from the Grangers' house and back at school. The train journey had been long, and once again he'd been forced to sit with Ron Weasley, who could not manage to find another compartment. This time, the boy was quiet, though—definitely owing to his hero-worship of Harry, who had successfully convinced Ron that he was a secret agent of the Ministry of Magic—and so Harry and Hermione tolerated his presence. What was worse than Ron Weasley was his little sister, a short, pale girl with long, straight red hair the same hue as her brother's, and huge blue eyes that never stopped staring at him. It was really quite eery, in Harry's opinion, how her eyes shone with as near a fanatical light as her brother's. Fortunately, Ron was not interested in her presence, and he sent her away rather rudely.

At one point early in the journey, Neville stopped in, too, but his presence was transitory; he asked about their summer politely, spoke briefly about his own ("Gran and I had a greenhouse built on the edge of our property, so I spent a lot of time setting up gardens."), but left a few minutes later with a blush on his face when the rather fetching Hannah Abbott asked for his help in retrieving something from a ceiling rack.

But it was Katie and Hermione who made the trip. Both had resolutely plunked themselves down on each side of Harry, and spent the first half of the journey nipping at each other passive-aggressively.

It got to the point that Harry grew fed up with it. "Ok!" he said, once Ron had left to go use the loo, and he stood up. "That's it. That's enough. You're both my friends, but if you're just going to sit there and fight with each other, then I can't stand to be around either one of you. Apologize! Now!" He glowered, doing his best impersonation of Professor Snape.

They stared at him like he had suddenly grown a second head, and he scowled. "I mean it—apologize. I'm sick of it. Don't think I don't know what you're playing at; I know both of you like me, and somehow you've conflated it in your heads that the other is competition. I am telling you now: this is ridiculous. Stop it. I'm not interested; you'll both be the first to know if I am, so quit fighting, and quit kissing me. It's just weird.

"Well? Come on, apologize!"

"Sorry," said Katie, her eyes cast downward.

"I'm sorry, too," said Hermione.

"That's better," added Harry. "Now, shake hands, come on."

They hesitantly did that. "Now, come on, you have to be nicer than that. You guys are going to be friends, even if I have to shove you down each other's throat. Now, give each other a hug."

"Now that's going a bit far—"

"—I don't think that's necessary—"

"Hug!" he commanded.

And they did, albeit reticently. Harry grinned. "That's better. Would I be pushing my luck if I told you two to kiss and make up?"

As it turned out, he was, since he spent the rest of the journey in stony silence. He chose to interpret it as a heartening sign of their inevitable friendship that they had decided together to ignore them. It had the added bonus of terribly confusing Ron, who kept asking what was going on to no response.

The temporary silence abated as they departed the train into pouring rain, and made their way to one of the last remaining horseless covered caleches that carried the non-first years to the castle. "So, Harry," yelled Katie over the din, "how was the last week of your holiday?"

"Good!" he said, as he tried to pull his cloak over his head to keep dry. "Hermione and I—"

"Hey, Scarhead!" yelled someone from behind them. Harry spun. Draco Malfoy's face loomed out of the darkness, flanked by his pair of breeding experiments gone wrong. He was wearing his characteristic smirk, and walking with a particular swagger, which was rendered slightly less effective by the water pouring down his face. Harry could see the wand concealed up Malfoy's sleeve, and so, as quietly as he could, Harry let his own fall into his palm.

"If it isn't the Poncy Prince," replied Harry. "What do you want, Malfoy? You could have picked a better time..."

"Afraid of a little water, Potter?" taunted Malfoy. "I'm here to deliver a message: you'd better get your kicks in, because your time is about to run out."

"My time is about to run out?" repeated Harry. "You act like you actually have some power, Malfoy. Please, just do the world a favour and drown yourself in the lake. It would go far in making this place a bit smarter."

"Think you're funny, do you?" said Malfoy, as Crabbe and Goyle, no doubt trying to be intimidating, cracked their knuckles behind him. "Laugh it up, comedian, but remember that you're dead before the end of the year."

Hermione gave a short laugh. "If you're the one who's going to kill him, Malfoy, I don't think he's going to lose sleep over it. Now bugger off."

"Shut up, you filthy Mudblood—"

Hermione staggered back, and Harry's jaw dropped. He turned his head to Katie. "That means what I think it does, right?"

She nodded, her own face showing her affront. "That's a disgusting thing to say—"

"I thought so," he said darkly, as he turned back to Malfoy. "You execrable piece of Flobberworm! How dare you say that about anyone! Depulso!"

Malfoy was tossed off his feet and into the muddy ground. Crabbe and Goyle exchanged a look, and advanced quickly. Goyle seized Hermione's wand arm, and then Goyle went for Harry, who dodged, and with an angry snarl, retaliated with a Knee Inversion Hex and a Numbing Charm to the back of the space-waster's neck. Goyle dropped like a brick.

In the meantime, Katie had come to Hermione's aid, but not before Hermione cried out in agony; to Harry's eyes, her arm looked broken. Katie had the situation well in hand, though, as she applied her foot to Crabbe's groin, and Petrified him once he bent over in agony.

"Are you okay, Hermione?" he asked, one eye still on Malfoy.

"Ow," she replied, with tears in her eyes. "I think it's broken—"

"I think so, too," he replied. "Come here, I think I can get that—"

Katie shook her head "It's not that I don't trust you, Harry, but medical magic is really finicky. We should get her to Madame Pomfrey..."

Harry nodded. "Okay, take her please, Katie—I need a word with Malfoy, first."

"We'll wait," said Hermione. "It's not safe to leave you here, Harry. We'll wait. Just hurry up, please."

He nodded, and stepped over a large puddle to step after Malfoy, who was scrabbling backwards, trying to find his wand in the dark. "Accio!" whispered Harry, and Malfoy's wand came flying past Malfoy's outstretched hand, and landed squarely in Harry's own.

With a few flicks of his wand, Malfoy was upright, and stuck to the side of the carriage on his back. His feet dangled free, and he tried to kick Harry in desperation before Harry spoke "Locomotor Mortis!" and Malfoy's feet stuck together.

"Now it's time for you to listen to me," said Harry, two inches away from Malfoy's face. "If you ever say that word again, I will cut out your tongue—"

"—You wouldn't dare, Potter. When my father hears about this—"

"Just try me," said Harry. "Mark me, Malfoy: if you say that word again, woe betide anyone who hides you from me, because I will take it out of their flesh. My mother was Muggle-born, and I won't have anyone besmirch her name, do you get it?" He pointed at Hermione. "That's Hermione Granger, and she's Muggle-born, too. She set two school records for examination scores last year, and that's not to mention that she kicked your spoilt arse and can regularly out-duel me. You do not want to try her."

Malfoy spat in his face.

Harry stepped back, wiped the spittle from his face, and folded his arms. "You know, right, that you're a joke? That the other Slytherins laugh at you behind your back, since you're such a Daddy's boy... that nobody from the other houses likes you, either? You're all alone—no, Crabbe and Goyle don't count—and you're making threats to your superiors—"

Malfoy laughed, and raised an eyebrow in amusement. "You think you're my better, Potter?"

Harry punched him with his left hand, catching the boy square in the nose. "Who's the one stuck to the carriage, Malfoy?" he spat. "Who was the one who embarrassed you in front of the school last year when we dueled? Let's pit you against me, shall we? On this hand, Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived, Quidditch hero, the murderer of Quirrell, as Katie tells me they're calling me... And on the other hand, you, lonely and stupid Draco Malfoy, the pampered poncy prince of Slytherin, who has no friends, and who is currently stuck to the side of a carriage. Still like your chances?

"Let's get one thing straight, Malfoy: piss off. Leave me and my friends alone, and don't you dare call anyone else Mudblood, ever, or I'll come and cut out your tongue. Hell, I ought to, right now..." Harry was panting, the anger coursing through him... and he had never felt stronger, more emboldened. He was so sick of having to deal with Malfoy; he was tempted to just finish him there—how easy was it to kill the troll, last year, when he was chasing the stone?

Malfoy stood there, blood mixed with the rain streaming down his face, and for the first time, looked afraid of Harry. "Now, Potter, don't do anything rash—"

"Tell me who is trying to kill me!"

Malfoy just blinked. "I don't know," he said—

"Liar!" roared Harry. "I can tell you're lying! Tell the truth!"

"I don't know!"

"TELL THE TRUTH!"

And then Harry was suddenly swimming in thoughts. A haughty-looking blonde woman cowered before a tall, stiff-backed man, whose hand was raised aggressively... the same man, sitting in a thick leather chair in a posh study with vaulted ceilings, studying a little black book, by his side a familiar house elf bowing so low its nose was brushing the floor...

Harry blinked. "Dobby," he muttered to himself.

"What the hell was that?" said Malfoy. "Potter, what did you do to me?"

"Shut up!" said Harry. "You're going to shut up and be quiet. Maybe someone will come and find you out here, but I doubt it—after all, nobody cares about you, do they? You're just sad, Malfoy."

And with another few flicks of his wand, Crabbe and Goyle were stuck to the side of the carriage on either side Malfoy. "Enjoy the rain," he said, and turned to Hermione and Katie. "Come on. Let's leave these idiots."

They were a few minutes late when they entered the Entrance Hall, but not so late as to be terribly conspicuous; other students were still milling around in front of the doors to the Great Hall, conversing with each other, and so they slowed, and cast Drying Charms on each other, rather than potentially provoking the ire of Mr. Filch, the caretaker.

"Okay, hold on just a little longer," Harry told Hermione. "I'll just poke my head into the Great Hall, and see if Madame Pomfrey's there—"

"No need," came a quiet voice from the base of the Grand Staircase. Harry's head whipped around, and he winced. Professor Snape was before them, and his normally cool countenance was just as menacing as ever. "Madam Pomfrey is upstairs in the hospital wing, tending to Mr. Malfoy's nose, a case of temporary paralysis in Mr. Goyle, and testicular trauma, in the case of Mr. Crabbe. You can imagine my surprise when I found them stuck to the side of a carriage minutes ago. He had a most interesting story to tell me."

Harry winced again. How on Earth had Snape managed to find Malfoy so quickly, and how had he beat them back?

"Bell, take Granger up to the Hospital Wing," said Snape. "Her arm is clearly broken. Both of you will report to Professor McGonagall tonight for detention. In the future, if you are attacked, you may defend yourself, but you will not participate or be a party to brawling or unsupervised dueling. Am I clear?"

"Yes, Professor Snape," replied Katie, and she grabbed Hermione's good arm, and dragged her up the staircase past Snape.

"As for you, Potter," said Snape, his face inscrutable, "you will come with me."

And, as he had the year before, Snape led him with a blistering pace, so fast that Harry had to half-jog to keep up. It took Harry a few seconds to realize that they were not ascending the staircase to the third floor to visit Dumbledore's office. Rather, they were descending. Snape was taking him to the dungeons.

They tore past gargoyles half-hidden in the darkness, whose faces flickered in torchlight, and down the winding corridors made of smooth, blackest basalt, until they stood before a wide oaken door tucked off the beaten path. Snape waved his wand, and the door flew open to reveal a dimly-lit room, not wider than a few metres. "In," he commanded.

Harry obeyed.

The room was Snape's office, obviously: there was a rickety desk stood in the center of the room, with a chair that had had its padding worn out of it. Stacks of paper were lined up neatly on the corners of the desk, and in standing folders that were labeled alphabetically. Certificates illegibly signed proclaiming some illegible skill hung off the wall behind the desk, and little jars of potion ingredients lined the walls on narrow shelves.

"Sit," said Snape, and he pointed to a chair in the corner of the room.

Harry obeyed.

Snape himself sat behind his desk, and rummaged inside the desk for a minute before finding what he was looking for. It was a piece of parchment, but Harry could not see what was written on it. Snape produced a quill and a jar of ink from his robes, and he began to write.

Shortly, Harry began to grow restless. Snape had been writing for more than ten minutes without saying anything at all. He cleared his throat—what he was hoping for, he didn't know—but it did attract Snape's attention. "Silence," he commanded, as he looked up at Harry for only a brief moment before he went back to the parchment.

He wrote for another five minutes, almost, before Harry got impatient again. "If you're going to expel me," he said, "would you kindly do it before you fill out the paperwork? I'd rather get on with my life—"

"Cease your impertinent blathering," replied Snape. "You are not being expelled; and as for the paperwork, you will consider it a lesson appropriate for treating your obvious impatience." But he did not take much longer to finish filling the parchment, and he set it to the side to dry as he stood up.

"This is the summary of the events: you approached Mr. Malfoy, and without provocation, viciously attacked him. Then, once you had soundly defeated him, you threatened to mutilate him if he told anyone what happened to him."

"Sounds about right, yeah," replied Harry, whose anger bloomed fresh at Snape's synopsis.

Snape scowled. "Need I remind you, Mr. Potter, that I am an authority figure at this school, and as such you should treat me with respect? This summary is not what I believe has occured, merely what I was told had transpired. If you wish to remain a student of the school, however, I would urge you to tell me the truth. How did the insufferable Ms. Granger break her arm?"

"Crabbe broke it," said Harry. "It wasn't her fault—he grabbed her and she tried to get away. She doesn't even deserve a detention—"

"That will be for me to decide, Potter. Now, I do not believe that you would have approached Mr. Malfoy; to date you have shown utter disinterest in his presence. So answer me this, what did Mr. Malfoy approach you about?"

"Same thing he always does," replied Harry. "Wanted to make some death threats and taunt me."

Snape raised an eyebrow. "I have your personal record sitting on my desk, Potter. None of your professors would describe your temperament as 'mercurial', so why is it that Mr. Malfoy provoked your ire? Simply offering to murder you would be well within the norm of your relationship."

Harry stared Snape in the eye, who did not flinch. Harry had to look down after a few seconds. "He called Hermione a 'mudblood'," he said, quietly. "I wasn't going to let him get away with something so vile. He gets away with enough here, and Dumbledore isn't interested in correcting his behaviour, so I had to."

Snape said nothing, and Harry, surprised by the silence, looked back up after a moment. The Professor was again sitting at his desk, writing on the parchment again. He looked up, and Harry was surprised to see Snape's emotionless facade gone, and the anger written on his face. "He called her—"

"A 'mudblood', Professor."

"You are sure of this?"

"Positive."

"Expecto Patronum!" A beautiful white doe burst from the tip of Snape's wand, and settled ethereally on the ground in front of him. Snape spoke to it, instead of Harry: "Tell Mr. Filch that he is to detain Mr. Malfoy before he arrives at the Feast. Malfoy is confined to his dormitory without supper, and I will speak to him before the night is over. Go now."

The doe cantered off, gliding ghastly through the door and out of sight.

Snape turned his back.

"Sir?"

"Nobody in Hogwarts may use that word," replied Professor Snape, "no matter what they think or say about Muggle-borns. If I had my way, it would be an expellable offense, but the Headmaster and I disagree about many things.

He turned. "However, this does not lessen your culpability in this incident, Potter. "So Mr. Malfoy called Ms. Granger a—he spoke ill of Ms. Granger, and you attacked him."

"Yes, Professor," replied Harry. "And I would do it again in a heartbeat."

"I believe you," replied Snape. "Once you attacked Mr. Malfoy, Messrs. Crabbe and Goyle then proceeded to attack you, is that correct?"

Harry nodded. "Partially, at least; Goyle attacked me—"

"—And you punished him with a Numbing Charm to the back of the head; a rather inventive, if dangerous use of such a rudimentary charm. Go on."

"—And Crabbe went after Hermione."

"Where he was dispatched by Ms. Granger, though not before he managed to inflict some damage on the girl," stated Snape.

"No, sir," replied Harry. "It was Katie who kicked that idiot in the—"

"Yes, thank you, Potter. Crabbe's injuries are well-documented enough without your—no doubt—colourful rendition. Once these two were dispatched, you stuck Mr. Malfoy to the carriage, where you proceeded to threaten him—"

"I told him I'd cut out his tongue if he ever said that word again, you mean," snapped Harry.

Snape raised an eyebrow. "So amended. When did you break his nose?"

"After he spat in my face and tried to challenge my authority over him."

"So to encourage his fear, then?"

Harry nodded.

Snape wrote a few more sentences on the parchment. "Is there anything else you wish to add, Mr. Potter?"

"Just that I'm serious—if he says that word again, I really will cut off his tongue."

Snape folded his arms and stood. "I do not doubt your word, Mr. Potter, and this is the problem. I am not expelling you, as I have said—I do not have the power, nor do I wish to exercise it—but I am assigning you detention for the rest of the year."

"What?" exclaimed Harry.

"You will attend detention with me every Monday night until the year is up. You have a dangerous emotional imbalance, Mr. Potter, and you will correct it. You are too quick to anger, are unwilling to socialize with your peers, and are intensely self-centered. But for your lack of social ability, you remind me entirely of your despicable father." Snape picked up a heavy jar of aconite and slammed it against the desk, making the entire office rattle.

"You take that back."

"Mind your tongue, Mr. Potter. None of what I have said about your father is untrue. He was a waste of air—the unfortunate cross of Mr. Malfoy and you. He spent his time here at school alternately bullying those less fortunate than him and invoking his father's name for material gain. Perhaps even worse, he was charismatic enough to enamour the professors to him, and he was opportunistic to the extreme."

Anger coursed through Harry. How dare Snape speak of his father that way!

"—But you will calm yourself, Mr. Potter, or I really will have you expelled. You may be gracious that I am not taking the news of this incident to the Headmaster, who is both repulsed by acts of violence and particularly worried about your temperament and your future. Instead, you will have to do your time with me.

"Let me be clear upon one matter, though: if I ever catch you physically attacking a student again, whether in response to taunting or unprovoked, I will not only see you expelled, but I will treat it as a criminal matter and involve the Ministry of Magic. You must learn to control your anger. I am clear?"

"Yes," replied Harry. "What's going to happen to Malfoy?"

"He will receive a dressing-down from me, and will serve a week's detention with Mr. Filch," replied Snape coolly. "What he said was improper, and deserves to be punished; as I have said, I will not tolerate such a word being used in this school. However, his sentiment was not born in isolation; it is the way his father, Lucius, speaks, and it is a word that is common to hear around the wizarding world. I doubt the Minister for Magic would be so impolitic to use it himself, but I have little doubt that he thinks it."

"That's outrageous!" exclaimed Harry.

Snape nodded. "Quite. Whether you agree with the philosophy of Pureblood Supremacy, it is quite another thing to speak such a despicable slur.

"However, Potter, if Mr. Malfoy says it again in your presence and you do make good your threat, you must understand the consequence. Saying despicable words might result in minor penalties, if it was even an unpopular sentiment, but it is not. Mutilation is regarded as a felonious act, and if you are caught doing so to Mr. Malfoy, you will be imprisoned. However, I understand you personally, Mr. Potter, like Professor Dumbledore does not. I know that if Mr. Malfoy says such a thing again, nobody will catch you cutting out his tongue, because you will not be caught; and when you are questioned about the sudden disappearance of his body parts, you will have a rock-solid alibi and will clear yourself under Veritaserum. This much I know about you, and you must know that even if you think you are smarter than the law, you are not smarter than I, and I am watching you closely. Am I understood?"

"Perfectly."

"Stand up, Potter. We will have our first detention immediately."

"But what about the feast, sir?"

Snape smirked. "Perhaps you should have thought of that before you assaulted three students. Stand, and draw your wand. I will begin teaching you the basics of Occlumency. You have practiced clearing your mind over the summer as I instructed you?"

"Yes sir," replied Harry, "and I also practiced compartmentalizing my emotions and thoughts, since I thought you might have also suggested this."

"A prudent decision. You have obviously read on the subject. You understand that there is no proven method to learning Occlumency, then? That the best way to learn is to be subjected repeatedly to attack, and to begin to understand your own mind?"

"Yes, Professor. Do you have any strategy for repelling attacks?"

"Focus on identifying attacks first, Potter. Put the shoe on your foot before you lace it. Legilimens!"

Two hours later, Harry made it up to the Gryffindor Common Room. He was slightly dizzy; he felt like his brain had been torn in half, and the right half was trying to ask the left half questions to which it received only smells as a response... but he was glad to be back in the relative safety of the tower, once he'd managed to get himself let inside. He was equally heartened to see Katie and Hermione waiting for him in the otherwise deserted Common Room. They were sitting together, talking, and not ripping each other's throats out. He was so pleased to see that.

They both stood when he arrived. "Harry," said Hermione, with relief evident in her voice. "We were really worried. What did Snape do to you?"

"I've detention with him every Monday of this year," replied Harry, as he plunked himself down into a chair and began massaging his temples.

"All for attacking Malfoy, even when he deserved it?" asked Katie. "Isn't that a bit extreme?"

Harry exchanged a glance with Hermione, and then leaned in to Katie. "Okay, you can't tell anyone about this, but Snape is giving me lessons."

Katie frowned. "In what? I thought you were really good at potions."

"I am," he replied. "Although he originally planned to call the lessons 'Remedial Potions', I guess this was a better excuse. At any rate, they're Occlumency lessons, which, don't feel bad if you haven't heard of it, since it's a really obscure subject. It's the magic of protecting your mind from intrusion, so that other wizards called Legilimens can't pluck thoughts from your mind."

"Oh," replied Katie. "So, wait, was that what you did to Malfoy when you zapped him with your brain?"

"Not intentionally," replied Harry, "but yes."

Hermione quirked her head to the side. "I hadn't noticed that—"

"It was over in a second," replied Katie to her. "Harry yelled at Malfoy, and then both went rigid for like a blink of an eye—frankly, I thought I was imagining it. It's no wonder you missed it, given your arm."

"So did Malfoy give you any trouble when you arrived at the Hospital Wing?" asked Harry.

"Nah," replied Katie. "Little shit took off running, in fact. He'd been all healed up, though, and Crabbe and Goyle were both in beds, unconscious. Everyone knows his bark is bigger than his bite, anyway."

"Huh," was all Harry replied. His stomach growled loudly, and he looked down at it forlornly. "Breakfast is a long time away."

Katie beamed at him. "We thought you might be hungry, so we brought you some food from the feast." She pulled a plate of food from the other side of a stack of books, and handed it to Harry. It was loaded with mashed potatoes, turkey, peas, carrots, pirogi, sausage, a huge helping of salad, and finally a slice of pumpkin pie on top of a healthy amount of whipped cream.

"You two are brilliant," said Harry, as he accepted a fork from Hermione. "Seriously, what can I do to thank you?"

Katie just smiled at him, but Hermione leaned in and kissed his cheek. "I'm the one who should be thanking you for standing up for me."

While the months changed, the truce between Katie and Hermione stayed. There were a few things that you could go through together and not wind up as friends, but giving an overgrown mountain troll testicular trauma was not one of them. Whether it was Hermione's trust in others versus Katie's cynicism, or Katie's skill with a wand to Hermione's expertise at theory, the two seemed to complement each other perfectly, and in short time were thick as thieves. Sometimes, Harry even felt left out, as he was so frequently attending detention with Snape, or attending a second set of Occlumency lessons with Professor Lupin, who happened to be nearly just as adept at teaching the subject as Snape was. Harry was pleased, though, and didn't begrudge their friendship, since he had time with Hermione in class, and Katie in Quidditch.

He also spent some time cultivating other acquaintances, though. His effort culminated one night in mid-October, when he walked into the deserted classroom in the Charms wing, closed the door, and turned to face twelve people sitting around a large circular table that was bedecked in the finest utensils and plating that the House Elves could find.

"Good evening," he said, as he flicked his wand a few times to raise the enchantments he'd laid on the room earlier. They were minor spells: a suite of Notice-Me-Not Charms, an Inverted Sound Muffling Charm, Detection Charms outside the hallways, a transfiguration on the door to change it from wood to glass, and a one-way Mirror Hex that he modified to make the door appear to be a mirror to anyone passing by. But the effect was rather impressive. With just a few flicks of his wand, he appeared to be commanding a massive amount of magical power, and he had secured the room, too. "Thank you all for coming.

"You're probably wondering why you're here, or rather, you're wondering why I didn't tell you we were going to be meeting with other people. You were all under the impression you were meeting me alone here for a discussion over supper about a number of current events. This is still the case; there are just a few more like-minded people whom I felt would be able to provide interesting perspective." He cleared his throat. "We'll start supper shortly. But before we begin, I have to ask you all to sign a document for me. Hermione, do you have it with you?"

Hermione, who was sitting to the right of the one empty chair at the table, rummaged in her bag and withdrew a folded piece of parchment. "This isn't a formal contract or anything like that," she said in response to Harry, and to the rather tense atmosphere that had settled in around the table. "It's just a piece of paper that says that you won't reveal to anyone what happened or was said during this meeting. Just a little precaution so we can all speak with complete honesty."

"Thank you," said Harry, and he clapped her shoulder kindly. For a very brief second, it disturbed him that Hermione had learned to lie so adroitly in just a few scant months under Katie's tutelage, but he pushed that thought aside. "You're under no obligation. If you want to stay and enjoy some supper and some conversation, I'd ask you to sign this now."

He handed the document to Katie, who was sitting to the left of him. She smiled up at him, accepted the document, and a quill from Hermione, and wrote her name down on the page in messy scrawl.

"Er... not to be a sticky wicket, or anything," said Percy Weasley, who was seated to the left of Katie, "—But I'm not sure I'm really comfortable signing something like this. I thought we were just going to chat. I've got a future to keep in mind, you know? I'm not sure how kindly the Ministry would look upon me making an agreement like this—"

"Don't sweat it, Perce," replied Harry. "If you don't want to sign, that's okay—you can leave now, too. But let me tell you why I asked you to come here: I think you've got an amazing grasp of politics and a good understanding of the Ministry. Moreover, you can explain it to people without a head for such things like me. Any idiot can see that you're a shoe-in for Head Boy next year, and I want to help you be successful: I'm going to make sure that you're tapped in to the very heart of the student body. I'm going to get you ears on the ground, and help you be the best Head Boy you can be. In exchange, I need your help, Percy. I need your brains, and I need you to teach me and the other people here what you know."

Percy was silent for a moment, but then spoke again. "I just don't know, Harry. It's not that I don't want to teach you. It's just that I'd be in a world of trouble if that list was ever found—"

Harry opened his mouth to reply, but he was beat to the punch by the beautiful and lanky girl with curly blond hair that sat next to Percy. "Just sign the thing, Percy," she said. "I trust Harry. You wouldn't leave this lying around, would you, Harry?"

"Not a chance, Penelope," he said with a smile. His central objective in forming the group was already bearing fruit; they were reinforcing each other, and backing him up. Percy was an easy choice, and so was Penelope, who was clearly angling to be the next Head Girl, but he hadn't known that they were a couple. It made his smile grow even wider, hungrier.

"It's Penny, Harry. Call me Penny. Sign, Percy."

"Okay," replied Percy, who blushed red enough to match his hair, and he signed the document with a flourish and handed it to Penelope. She signed quickly, too, handed the document off to Kevin Entwhistle, who was sitting next to his prefect. Kevin was an interesting selection, thought Harry, a wildcard amongst the other solid choices. He was Muggle-born, and not particularly influential inside of Ravenclaw... but his older brother who had just graduated was, and his father was a wealthy businessman. Kevin was mostly there to solidify Blaise Zabini, who he desired for her close connection to the Pureblood community, but he had the potential to be much more.

Kevin promptly signed and passed the document off to his white-haired Ravenclaw friend, who gave Harry a lascivious look that made him feel just slightly uncomfortable. Nevertheless, Blaise signed it. The paper then fell into Neville's hands, and though he gave Harry a questioning look, he signed it once Harry had nodded reassuringly at him.

The latter half of the table, with the exception of Hermione, was where he first expected more than token resistence, and so he was surprised when Susan Bones and Cedric Diggory both signed without resistance, and passed the parchment on to Zacharias Smith, who was a short, nervous-looking blond-haired Hufflepuff in his second year.

"You and I disagree on everything," stated Zacharias. "We've talked exactly once, and we didn't agree on a single thing."

"And that's why I invited you here," replied Harry, "because you and I disagree, but you disagree with principle, and even if I think you're full of shit most of the time, you make the most compelling arguments against what I say. I asked you here because you're going to be the one to say 'no', even if I don't like it, and even if I don't listen."

"What's in it for me?"

"The chance to potentially do amazing things," replied Harry, "and the opportunity to regularly socialize with these other fine people."

Zacharias frowned, and paused for a long second, before he signed, and handed it off to the green-robed Parvati Patil, who signed with a smile, and who handed it off to Daphne Greengrass.

"And you want me because you want my connections," she said to Harry, as she flicked her dark hair out of her eyes. "You remember what I offered you when we first met on the Hogwarts Express our very first day. I can introduce you to Purebloods who you'll really fit in with. But you don't agree with my politics."

Harry nodded. "Let me be clear, Greengrass; I don't subscribe to the notion of Pureblood Supremacy in the slightest. I happen to think it's disgusting, and I can point out at least four people in this room who blow that theory to pieces. However, I appreciate that there's a significant Pureblood faction out there, and power never cedes without a struggle. I'm counting on your connections, your ability as a socialite, and your desire to be a kingmaker to supercede your beliefs. As for why I think that will happen, take a look at the room. You're a kid in a candy shop. In ten years, everyone in this room will be someone important, and you're practically salivating at the thought of ingratiating yourself to them. Most importantly, you want me, since if I survive, you stand to benefit greatly."

She smiled at him. "You understand."

"Sign the parchment, then," he commanded, and she obeyed, before passing the document back to Hermione, whose name was already at the top of the list.

"Let us eat," said Harry, and he clapped his hands. At once, a magnificent banquet appeared on the table, and he grinned as he sank into the remaining chair. Ingratiating himself to the House Elves had returned many times his initial investment in time, and as he ladeled himself some French Onion soup, he gave himself a mental back pat.

"Wine?" he asked Katie, before taking a chunk of bread and passing it to Hermione.

"Yes, please," she said, and he poured her a glass of the Elfin wine that had been procured for him.

"Now, my friends," he said, after they had got down to dinner, "let me tell you what my plans are for this group..."

"You've done quite well for yourself so far," said Professor Lupin on Halloween afternoon, as they were taking a breather after a particularly violent attempt at penetrating Harry's mind. "I'm honestly impressed how far you've grown. You must be practicing hard."

"You don't know the half of it," replied Harry. "But I'm hoping to get good enough in a few months to take lessons with Professor Dumbledore, and then maybe I can progress on to Legilimency, which is what I really want to learn."

Lupin hummed non-committally, and wiped his hand through some of the accumulated dust on his desk. "It's a difficult discipline," he said. "Given your progress and your age, I suspect you'll be quite a natural at it, Harry—the only thing I wonder about is why you would need to use it at your age?"

Harry shrugged. "A few reasons. I hear mastery of it lends you the ability to speak in almost any language—"

"Not quite," replied Lupin. "It is true that master Legilimens can speak fluently to another individual who does not speak their language, but only a few retain the capability to speak in that language after the conversation ceases." He quirked his head. "Though given your capacity at Occlumency, I wouldn't be surprised if you found yourself a lot more capable. What else, though?"

"Well, it's also really handy for dueling, too. Speaking of which..."

"Yes?"

Harry feigned hesitation. "Well, I've got a study group—"

"—And you'd like me to tutor you all in dueling? I'm not sure I'm the best choice, Harry; Professor Snape is far more talented than I ever was, and Professor Flitwick was a champion dueler on the circuit for many years."

"Yes, but they're not you, Professor. Snape's a miserable git and while Flitwick's okay, he'd never consider tutoring an unofficial club, not in the capacity we need. Please, just think about it?"

Lupin smiled at Harry. "I think I can be persuaded."

"Perfect!" said Harry, perking up. "Also, I know this is a more esoteric request, but it's really hard for us kids to understand what it was like when Voldemort was around—"

Lupin grimaced at the name, but Harry ignored him and continued. "—But can you tell us what the war was like? Everybody says it was so terrible, but they don't talk about it... You have an appreciation for history, Professor, even if it cuts close to the heart, and if we don't know—"

"—We're doomed to repeat, yes," replied Lupin. "I'll think about it. Ask me again next week, all right?"

"Okay," said Harry. "Thanks."

They lapsed into comfortable silence for a few minutes. "Ready to go again?" asked Lupin, finally.

"Thought you'd never ask," said Harry, springing to his feet, his mind already working furiously to try and come up with a better strategy, to completely repel the Professor this time.

Suddenly, a klaxon rang out, and it blared so loud Harry clapped his head to his ears to block the noise. "All students will return to their dormitories at once," spoke Professor McGonagall. "I repeat, all students will return to their dormitories immediately. Anyone outside of their dormitory in five minutes will lose one huindred points for their house."

Professor Lupin frowned. "You'd better go, Harry. I don't know what this is about—"

And then an ethereal phoenix soared in through the window and perched itself on the edge of Professor Lupin's desk. "Remus, we'll need you in the Great Hall as soon as you can," it said, in the voice of Professor Dumbledore. "Sirius Black escaped from Azkaban Prison some time in the last ten hours, and we have reason to believe he's after Harry."

The silence in the room was tremendously loud.

"On second thought," replied Remus, "maybe I'll walk you to your dormitory."

"Professor," asked Harry, as they stepped out the door, "do you mind explaining who Sirius Black is?"

"Let's jog, Harry; I'll have to be in the Great Hall in just a few minutes here. To answer your question... Sirius Black was your father's best friend, and a person who I had at one time called brother. He was a brilliant young man with a penchant for mischief—all of us were, back then—but he came from a family as dark as they come—"

"And by 'dark' you mean?"

"Supported You-Know-Who's agenda through and through. Very evil."

"Why didn't you just say 'evil', or 'misguided', then?"

Remus shrugged as they rounded a corner toward one of the staircases. "It's easier to give things a label like 'dark' or 'light'. It makes it easier to talk about people—"

"It makes it easier to generalize, you mean," said Harry. "I've heard lots of people use it to describe people who practice arcane magic, and it's always bothered me—"

"You make a very good point," replied the Professor. "I can speak from personal experience; the label is applied very broadly. I'll remember that, Harry; consider me chastised."

"Sorry to interrupt," said Harry quickly, as they ascended a staircase two steps at at time. "Anyway, Sirius came from a family supportive of Voldemort..."

Professor Lupin nodded, and picked up the thread again: "He came from a bad family, too—he wasn't very loved, you see; his father was very cruel, and his mother was best described as a Harpy, really. He was the first member of his family to be sorted in Gryffindor, all the rest were Slytherins, but in the end it didn't really matter. I don't know how much you know about your family going into hiding when you were born, Harry—"

"Next to nothing."

"—But your mother and father elected to hide under a charm known as the Fidelius Charm, which squirrels a secret away into one person, who then becomes the only person able to reveal the secret. For—well, for good reason, they thought I might have been an agent of You-Know-Who, though they were wrong... and our other best friend, Peter Pettigrew, wasn't really a strong wizard, not like Sirius. Even Dumbledore offered to keep the secret, but your dad always had trusted Sirius like a brother, and always took his advice without question."

"And he betrayed them," spat Harry. "He betrayed them and gave them up to Voldemort, didn't he?"

Professor Lupin nodded. "He not only gave them up, Harry, but he tracked down Peter Pettigrew a few days after Lily and James were killed, and reduced Peter to tiny pieces, along with thirteen Muggles who were killed collaterally. The biggest piece of Peter they found was his finger." He paused for a second here. "I could hardly believe it, Harry. I thought we knew Sirius. I thought for sure he was a good man, but I guess it goes to show what you can assume about a person. If the Aurors hadn't caught him then and there, I don't imagine I'd be alive. He seemed intent to wipe clear the rest of his life. He laughed all the way to Azkaban."

"And now he's escaped," Harry said, as they caught up with a group of Gryffindors who were making their way quickly up the stairs.

"It would seem that way. He could be after me, I suppose, but I've heard reports that he's been chanting 'he's at Hogwarts, he's at Hogwarts' for a year now. I think it's safe to say—and I'm sorry to have to tell you like this, but you're a strong boy and you deserve to know—that he's coming to finish the job he started on Lily and James."

Harry nodded. "I appreciate you telling me—Merlin's ghost..."

They both pushed their way in front of the Gryffindor crowd, and took a long look at the scene that greeted their eyes. Watery blood pooled on the floor in front of them, and Harry's eyes traced it to the wall, where a cat—Mrs. Norris, he realized—was hanging by words that had been scrawled in its blood:

THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED ENEMIES OF THE HEIR BEWARE

"Oh, Sirius," said Professor Lupin with a deep sigh, "what have you done?"

FRUSTRATION AND IMPATIENCE

CHAPTER 4: FRUSTRATION AND IMPATIENCE

"Good!" exclaimed Dumbledore as he withdrew from Harry's mind.

Harry sank back down into the comfortable chair upholstered in red velvet, and exhaled loudly. "That was... intense," he said, searching for the right word and finding it at last. If Professor Snape's mental attack was a battering ram, and Professor Lupin's was a sapper who quietly eroded Harry's defenses, Professor Dumbledore's attack was a foggy day. Harry had braced, tightened at the shoulders, ready for the attack once Dumbledore had enunciated the incantation... but the attack, if it had come at all, had been so subtle that he hadn't known. He'd stood there, feeling like a fool, but trying to strengthen his defenses, and trying to keep sentry, trying to keep Dumbledore out of the bastion that was his mind, but every time he thought he could perceive some sort of intrusion, it was only his own paranoia.

He had began to think that Dumbledore was not actually attacking him, and he began to think how exactly like Dumbledore that was, how it was so like him to make Harry wait, and to bide his time. He recalled his frustration at Dumbledore's unwillingness to provide further protection to the Philosopher's Stone, his frustration with Dumbledore for failing to take the offensive against Voldemort. And then when Dumbledore had finally taken him seriously, he recalled having to be so patient for Dumbledore to leave with the Philosopher's Stone so that he and Hermione could—

And then he realized that his mind was under attack, and, recognizing the value of that particular secret, clamped down hard on the presence, and shoved it from his mind.

"I've never experienced something like that before, Professor," he finally replied, once he had caught his breath and had reassured himself that he hadn't let anything critical slip, that he had been timely enough in his recognition to prevent incriminating himself. He slouched further in the chair, sinking into its dense cushions as he tried to take all the weight of the impressive attack off himself. "And I admit to being rather alarmed at how effective it was against my defense."

Dumbledore had turned his back on Harry, and was standing with his hands folded behind his back, looking out the window of his office at the glowing orange sky, alit by the fast-falling sun. "You should be proud, rather than alarmed, Harry," he said. "That was an unconventional method of attack, and one that is designed to counter an Occlumens who decides to entrench his defenses, rather than remain responsive. It worked so well, you see, because you tensed up and prepared for an assault. Only the Occlumens who remains nimble in his preparedness will succeed against such an attack—paranoia is tremendously exploitable."

"Sir," replied Harry in acknowledgement. He looked down at his hands, which were trembling as the after-effect of the mental battle. "Now that I'm prepared for it, I doubt exposing me to it again today is an option?"

"In time," replied Dumbledore, as he turned. He was smiling gently at Harry, and he took a few steps away from the window and toward the sitting boy. "We will continue with these lessons, and I will continue to expose you to a variety of different methods of attack. I appreciate what Remus—ah, Professor Lupin, excuse me—has done for you, but as effective as he is, you are at the point where my tutelage is necessary to, as they say, bring your skill to the next level. That is not to say that further instruction from him would not be beneficial to you, but only to say that it will only serve to increase your exposure, and not improve your theoretical knowledge of the subject."

"So we should begin having lessons, then?" asked Harry. "Instead of seeing Professor Lupin, you'll be teaching me now?"

"Yes," responded Dumbledore.

Harry grinned.

Dumbledore nodded in acknowledgement. "With this, of course, comes several stipulations. You understand that I am constantly under pressure from certain segments of the Hogwarts Board of Governors to remain—unnecessarily, I add, but you are not here to listen to me editorialize—to remain completely aloof and disinterested in the students."

Harry frowned, but the cogs in his head were turning, and his face slowly morphed into a look of disgusted understanding. "Purists, you mean," he said. "They don't want you teaching their children—"

Dumbledore shook his head. "You have only half of it, I'm afraid. They would prefer I do not teach their children, yes. They are also concerned, I believe, that I will teach Muggle-born students, and... particular students who are of interest to this small section of the board."

"Me, you mean," replied Harry, who stood up and began to pace. "They mean me. They don't want me taught because it weakens their cause—" He staggered sideways as a crushing realization overcame him. "Draco Malfoy's father is a governor, isn't he?"

Dumbledore nodded. "Lucius Malfoy, yes."

"Then he knows that I don't tolerate abuse against Muggle-borns. He knows that I'm too big a name to let me stand in opposition. He—" Harry looked up at Dumbledore, fixed his headmaster's blue eyes in his own, and said slowly, "He thinks Voldemort is coming back, doesn't he?"

Dumbledore shook his head and leaned against his desk. "I do not believe this to be the case. I think the shade of Voldemort would be extremely unwilling to reveal himself to any follower, since he would be unable to significantly defend himself should his follower betray him." Dumbledore looked as if he had something more to say, but turned his head to the side and swallowed whatever those words were. He turned back to Harry after a pause of a few seconds, and smiled congenially. "At any rate, this is all to say that our lessons must be clandestine. You still possess that wonderful, hallowed cloak that I returned to you last year at Christmas?"

At Harry's nod, he continued: "Then kindly use it to reach our lessons. If you are spotted, or must make excuses about your absence, say that you are spending time with Professor Lupin, speaking about your parents. He has kindly consented to keep up such a ruse one evening a fortnight for us. We will meet every second Wednesday here in my office; you will find the Gargoyle out front will be most willing to let you in without a password. Have I forgotten anything?"

"Sir, would it be possible to—that is to say, could we start teaching me Legilimency?"

"Now what would you need that for?" asked Dumbledore, as he peered at Harry over his half-moon spectacles. But the scrutiny was not serious, and Dumbledore's serious look gave way to his characteristic smile. "You know, Harry, I haven't forgotten that it is every teenage boy's dream to know what a girl is thinking—"

"Every man's dream, you mean," corrected Harry, with a smirk of his own, "not just the exclusive domain of teens."

"Ah, yes," replied Dumbledore easily. "But yes, I believe that the study of that discipline is required to truly master Occlumency. One cannot hope to defend without learning how to attack, or some such drivel. Well, then," he said, and he pushed himself off of his desk and gracefully back onto his feet, "have at it, Harry: let us see your worst."

Harry faltered. "Just like that, sir? Isn't that... I don't know, dangerous?"

Dumbledore snorted. "It's a discipline that aims to trigger a reliving of memories, Harry, not a discipline to shuffle synapses. About the worst damage you could do to me is forcing me relive a particularly boring memory. I won't try to Occlude you for now, so try to choose something juicy, if you succeed."

Harry frowned. "So, just... cast the spell, and think of something I want to know?"

"Precisely."

Harry nodded, and slowly raised his wand. "Okay, then. Legilimens!"

It felt as if he had suddenly stuck his head next to a radio set in between stations. He jerked back in response, but did not withdraw whatever mental tendril was connecting him to Dumbledore, and soon, he began to see a memory take shape. A big, scraggly black dog and an impressive stag kept pace alongside a running wolf that was foaming and drooling rather noticeably.

The memory gave way, and suddenly Harry could see a beautiful red-headed girl, surely not much older than himself, clutching her books to her chest as a black-haired, rather disheveled boy pulled her hair and laughed at her cry of pain. Another boy with black hair—who looked rather suspiciously like the big dog in the previous memory, was talking animatedly to a short and mousey sandy-haired boy who was nodding, enraptured, before the memory again dissolved into nothingness.

The redhead had returned, and she was older, clearly, by a handful of years; she was wearing the Head Girl badge, which sat on the right breast of her robe rather smartly. Her beauty had not faded, only grown muted by the gravity of her presence, which, even in memory, was astounding. She was noticeably more confident, noticeably more settled in her skin and mannerisms than she had been when she had been a first or second year. And so it was with growing amusement that Harry saw her blush at the sight of the boy who had been pulling her hair. If he hadn't begun to understand what he was seeing, he would have been startled to see a more dashing, smarter-dressed version of himself in conversation with two or three other seventh years. The Head Boy badge was pinned lopsided to the wrong side of his open robe. He was even more amused to see his doppelgänger keep talking to the girls, but to also turn his head to wiggle his eyebrows suggestively at the Head Girl.

And then he was standing in the middle of a tall room, decorated festively in red and green for Christmas. He held a bald and chubby baby in his arms, and he was tossing it above his head and catching it, to the delight of the squealing child. And the redhead—again a few years older—opened the door of the room to let in a tired-looking man who was without doubt Professor Lupin. Lupin was followed by the mousey boy, who had grown up into a nervous, skittish man, and this man was followed by the last, the boisterous black-haired man. The latter stepped past the threshold, grabbed the redhead, spun her around, and gave her a rather dramatic kiss on the cheek.

And then he saw Professor Dumbledore's blue eyes, and he had to blink the tears out of his eyes and duck his head briefly before he could even think of asking questions about what he had just experienced.

"You chose well," said Dumbledore, after Harry had wiped his eyes. "I have said it before, and I will say it again, Harry: your parents were some of the nicest, most genuine people I have ever met, or had a chance to work with. It's a tragedy that they are gone, but the best things about them live on in you."

Harry nodded his head in appreciation. "Thank you, Professor," he said, still feeling rather emotional. "What relation was the first memory to the other two?"

"It is my first thought when I think about your parents, Harry; that is all."

"I'm not sure I understand—"

"You will with time," replied Dumbledore cryptically. "You have other questions, then?"

Harry nodded. "I recognized Professor Lupin, and my parents, obviously, but who were the other two—?"

"The short man," replied Dumbledore, "was Peter Pettigrew, a man who grew up in the shadow of his peers, and who was always a rather timid boy. He died—"

"—by the hand of Sirius Black," said Harry. "Professor Lupin told me. That was Sirius Black, wasn't it? That was who betrayed my parents?" He could feel a cold feeling in the bottom of his stomach, and it was rising.

"Ten months thereafter, yes."

Harry turned, keeping his face from Dumbledore. He was so angry, could feel the rage building just beneath the surface... "He was their friend, I knew that... but to see him act like that to my mother is disgusting."

"None of us thought it possible, Harry—your father and Black were as close as two friends can be; I believe he even moved in with your father for a brief while after his family kicked him out—"

"My dad was a brother to him," said Harry. "Lupin as good as said it—"

"—Professor Lupin, Harry," corrected Dumbledore gently—

"—That's not how you treat family!" yelled Harry. "My dad trusted him, and he betrayed them—my mum, my dad, Pettigrew." He spun around. "So help me, Professor. So help me, if I find him, I'm going to kill him."

Professor Dumbledore blanched. "Harry—"

"No," interrupted Harry. "Nobody in this world cares about what's right. All the fucking Purists care about is keeping down Muggle-borns. Even you don't care to discipline Draco Malfoy, and he's been an absolute arse to me. And now Sirius Black has escaped from jail, and if they don't put him back there, I'm going to put him where he belongs—down like a dog."

"I think it's best we cut our lesson short," replied Professor Dumbledore, whose face had recovered from the shock of Harry's words and whose lips were now pressed in a thin line, disapproval obvious. "I hope that some time and some sleep will dull your bloodlust."

"He's trying to kill people, Professor," replied Harry. "Surely a single fortnight hasn't made you forget the Chamber of Secrets, yet? Mrs. Norris is dead because of him, and that was a lucky accident if ever there was one—that message could have been written in the blood of a student. If I find him, I am going to stop him permanently before he kills another person—that's a promise."

Dumbledore shook his head. "Black is not responsible for the Chamber of Secrets, at least not directly—the only remaining heir to Salazar Slytherin is Lord Voldemort, Harry. It cannot be Black alone—"

Harry stared up at Dumbledore, their eyes clashing silently, uncomfortably. "All the better, then," replied Harry, as he processed what the revelation meant. "If he's playing host to Voldemort, then he'll meet the same end as Quirrell did. I won't abide traitors, or those who harbor the thing who killed my parents."

"Good night, Harry," said Dumbledore, who turned his back to stare out the vast window again.

"Good night, Professor," said Harry, and he turned on his heel and left the room, all the while thinking of how enjoyable it would be to protract Sirius Black's death, and resolving to look up a Disemboweling Hex.

"The wand movement is a small anticlockwise circle, followed by a helical spiral to the right," said Professor McGonagall the very next day, as she demonstrated the selfsame motion. "Now, in contrast to our study of animate-to-inanimate Transfiguration, you will notice that the bias toward rightward movement of the wand has increased somewhat. You will have better results the wider your helical arc is—to a point, of course. Turn to page three hundred fourteen, and let us discuss exactly why this is the case. Mr. Finnegan? Would you read aloud for us the third paragraph?"

Seamus Finnegan began to drone on in the monotone voice that he used for reading—stumbling over half the words, too—and Harry let out an involuntary sigh. His wand was flicking back and forth underneath the desk, and the rubber ball he had been given was in his other hand, on its way from being a hamster to a rather impressive working replica of a Snitch.

"Harry!" whispered Hermione, who was sitting on the pine bench beside him. She elbowed him in the ribs. "Harry, pay attention—Harry!"

Harry scooted over out of reach of Hermione's elbow, and kept his wand moving. Paying attention was useless in this class, as it was in most classes, and so he kept to his own little transfiguration project under the desk, shifting it from a Snitch into a full-size Quaffle, and making sure the stitching was exactly perfect before he vanished it, and conjured another little red ball. He was particularly proud of that feat, which he had managed the night before; basic conjuration had proven especially troubling for him, but with the amount of time he had sunk into it, it was really not a matter of if but when he would accomplish the task. Of course, his difficulty was related to his own insistence on being able to do it silently, a skill which he still had not completely mastered, either.

But the fact of the matter was that he was incredibly bored at Hogwarts. Quidditch practice was boring. Occlumency with Snape was interesting, admittedly, but it was only one night a week, and practicing for it was boring beyond belief. His classes were boring—this was the third day they had gone over theory in preparation to begin inanimate-to-animate transfigurations, and Charms was much the same way. Even Professor Lupin's class was getting a little tedious, as they rounded out some of the less-interesting magical creatures that the Professor had procured. Hinkypunks and Kappas were boring, compared to Boggarts. The little dinner club he had rounded up had met a few more times, and those times were very interesting, but it was a rare occurrence, too, and not really one he could sink his teeth into; in fact, he wasn't even sure he was going to continue it, since its use to himself had yet to be proven.

The fact of the matter was that he was very bored, and most of all, strongly feeling a mixture of guilt and anxiety for not doing anything with his time. He knew he needed something to do. Breaking the trace the year before had kept him occupied, very occupied... but he had nothing to entertain himself with this year, and he felt so utterly incompetent for achieving so little when he was capable of so, so much.

That was why he was feeling particularly angry about having to waste another hour of his time in a classroom where he wasn't learning anything at all.

A shadow loomed over him. "Mr. Potter, is something the matter?" inquired Professor McGonagall, once he looked up.

"No, ma'am," he replied warily.

She sniffed. "Then why, pray tell, have you ignored my question for the last three times I asked it?"

He blinked. "Erm—"

"Are you confused by the subject material?"

"Not in the slightest, ma'am."

"Have you lost your quill?"

"No, ma'am—"

"Well, you are not taking notes, and you are not paying attention. Am I failing to entertain you, is that it?"

Harry recognized the trap implicit in answering that question truthfully. "No—"

Professor McGonagall gave a loud hrmph. "Then what is it, Potter, that has you so distracted?"

"It's just…" he paused for a moment, pondering whether it was worth saying something or not—but his frustration overrode his good judgment, and he opened his mouth anyway. "It's just we're wasting a lot of time, aren't we? I understood the spell after your introduction to it. This is the third hour that we've spent learning about it. At what point does simply talking about casting the spell become counter-productive?"

From a few rows behind him, Draco Malfoy guffawed loudly.

McGonagall cleared her throat loudly, silenced Malfoy with a look, and looked down on Harry with some distaste. "The theory to this spell is particularly important to the rest of our study of the subject, Mr. Potter, because it deals with the core mechanics of animate transfiguration. You can do substantial damage by performing this spell—or any spell that creates or modifies a living object, for that matter—incorrectly."

"I understand that—"

"As I told you the first day you walked into this class, Potter, I will abide no silliness or tomfoolery while we are learning. Failure to grasp this theory can have serious consequences. That is why we dwell on it for so long."

"But I understood it after the first ten minutes you gave on it," he said with confusion. "I don't get it. You assigned us reading to do on it. Surely once we'd read the book on the subject, and you'd stressed what was important to us, we should have proceeded?"

"I suggest you speak to me after class, Potter, if you wish to file a complaint about the speed at which we proceed. This is not the forum to air such an opinion."

Harry disagreed, and judging by the attention the rest of the class was paying the altercation, he rather thought they disagreed. Padma, Hermione's chatty roommate, looked very thoughtful, and from across the room, her twin in Slytherin, Parvati, looked just as pensive. Ron was confused, clearly, but Dean Thomas was obviously trying to puzzle something out. Admittedly, Theodore Nott, a weedy boy from Slytherin just looked bored, and Malfoy's twin goons looked confused, but the rest of the two houses seemed to be—if not agreeing with him—giving him a fair hearing.

McGonagall paused for a moment, waiting for his nod of acknowledgement. When she failed to receive one, she continued, anyway. "In the meantime, I would advise you to put away your wand, sit up, and take some notes. Your participation has declined, Potter, and your attitude has gotten worse. You need to put your nose to the grindstone and work harder at understanding theory, rather than just practical application, if you hope to succeed in the long term—"

"—but that's the thing, Professor," he replied. "I get the theory. I thought we'd all gotten it after the first day. It's not alchemy, it's just inanimate-to-animate transfiguration."

"Mr. Potter, I suggest you close your mouth before I close it for you. Speak to me after class. Ten points from Gryffindor."

There was some angry murmuring from the Gryffindor side of the classroom.

"You're not going to believe me until I prove it, are you?" he replied. And so he put his ball on the desk, waved his wand properly, and looked down at the perfect grey-green puffer fish that was now flopping around lazily on his desk.

Professor McGonagall's face seemed to be torn between astonishment at his success and absolute fury. She waved her wand, and the fish was replaced by the red ball, which rolled halfway down the slightly-angled desk until Harry caught it.

"Now do you believe me?" he replied, buoyed by his repudiation of her claims. "If that didn't convince you, will this?" Again, he waved his wand, and in the place of the ball was now a baby gibbon, which gave a terrified squeak and latched on to Harry's hand.

"You will leave the class now, Potter," replied McGonagall. "I told you not to fool around, and as I told you last Christmas, you are not qualified to be experimenting with difficult spells on your own time. I had hoped the lesson you had learned then would have sunk in, but it apparently has not." She folded her arms, and glared at him in consternation. "I will not tolerate this behaviour in my class. You're dismissed."

"Professor!" exclaimed Harry, all the more frustrated at her stubbornness. "I'm not trying to disrespect you. I'm trying to tell you that we're moving too slow, and that more people are going to start trying to do things on their own if you don't pick up the pace!"

"Harry, shut up and leave!" hissed Hermione.

Harry slid from his seat. "Fine, Professor. I get it; you're okay with wasting time, and with expecting less from your class. You know, where I grew up, the way you learned not to touch a hot stove was to try touching it in the first place.

"But maybe you're right," he added. And he paused there, and conjured a seamless bookbag, into which he shoved all his books and his quill. "All I know is that I'm working on NEWT-level magic, and it's because I'm pushing myself."

"Detention at seven tonight, Potter," said McGonagall.

He didn't bother to reply as he stalked out of the classroom, past Draco Malfoy's smirking face.

His detention had not been as loud or protracted an affair as he had anticipated it to be. Upon arriving at Professor McGonagall's office that evening at seven, she had sent him away immediately. "I can't deal with you tonight, Potter," she said with a sigh, as she clutched her knit cardigan tight around her shoulders. "Go back to your dorm and write me three feet of parchment: one foot on fatal transfiguration mishaps, one foot on why respecting your professors is important, and one foot on how you intend to improve your behaviour in my classroom."

And so he had pumped out three feet in a matter of hours—dreck, all of it, of course—but resolved to at least pretend to follow the lecture, even if he planned to read out of a fifth year textbook while McGonagall lectured. If that was the price he had to pay to attend Hogwarts and to keep a wand, so be it.

He was still very discontented, though. It was getting harder and harder to sit still through his classes, and though he had no more unbecoming outbursts at his Professors, he felt his tolerance for mediocrity slipping at an alarming rate. Neither Katie nor Hermione was any help, either, as both had been mortified that he had spoken to his Head of House in such a rude manner (and the latter perfectly scandalized that he'd lost the house ten points).

He was almost glad to have the Slytherin-Gryffindor Quidditch match that Saturday to help take the edge off. The day came quickly, and he awoke in the morning absolutely vibrating with energy, ready to leap out of bed and get to his broom. But when he arrived in the bathroom for morning ablution, he realized his hair was rapidly shifting colours, and he calmed himself as best as he could—his Occlumency training was a big help.

Soon enough, he found himself in burgundy Quidditch robes with his Devana in hand, standing near the exit of the change rooms, watching as the school noisily filled the spectator boxes. It was an unseasonably hot day, and he could see the heat rising off the pitch, and the girls in open-shouldered colourful tops, at long last allowed their weekend defrocking. It was a beautiful day for Quidditch, and he almost hummed in excitement.

He didn't bother to turn his head when he felt someone move to stand alongside him. It was always Wood, who, for some reason, seemed to always feel the need to instruct him on exactly what he was supposed to do.

"Ollie," greeted Harry with a nod of his head.

"Harry," replied Wood, who folded his arms across his broad chest. "Listen—about today... catch the Snitch, okay?"

"Gee, really?" asked Harry. "I mean, are you sure about that?"

"Quit being a smart-arse. You don't understand," replied Wood. "I need you to catch the Snitch today. We absolutely have to destroy Slytherin—Madam Hooch told me there's a scout for the U-18 national team in the stands, and this is my only real chance to get on that team and to play Quidditch professionally. I can't bank on him coming back, so we—can't—lose!" He punctuated his last words by grabbing Harry by the arm and shaking him.

Harry just smirked. "Count on it, Ollie," he replied. "Besides, when have I ever let one get away from me?"

Wood smiled nervously. "Just don't start now, okay?"

Harry shook his head. "I'm not planning to, but I'm not worried at all—Higgs couldn't catch Wizard Lice if he schlepped into a broom closet with Melinda Turpin."

And so when Madam Hooch tossed the Quaffle in the air and blew her whistle to start the game, Harry decided it was finally time to let off steam.

Katie snagged the Quaffle from right underneath Marcus Flint's bulbous nose, and tossed to Angelina, who had to dodge two Bludgers sent in tandem by the Slytherin Beaters. She slowed, did a barrel roll, and reverted upright only to have the ball knocked from her hand and into the air by Adrian Pucey. He sped after it, but Harry had accelerated to his speed—silently praising his purchase of the Devana, since it was such a thrill to ride, rather like holding on to a rocket booster—and he nabbed the Quaffle before Pucey could grab it, and he took off toward the Slytherin goal with everyone else hot in pursuit.

"If I wasn't seeing it with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe it!" came the familiar colour commentary from Lee Jordan. "Harry Potter has the Quaffle, and he's racing up the pitch. That's unusual!"

Harry just grinned. As Warrington approached him head on, he veered up and to the left, and planted his knee in the green-robed boy's shoulder. He let out an 'oomph' of pain as he took a jolt, but it was nothing compared to what Warrington felt. The older boy's torso snapped back awkwardly, and he dropped from the sky like a ton of bricks, nearly slipping off his broom.

"And Warrington fails to dodge Potter, who seems to have come off better—"

Harry was knocked off course, though, and before Flint could steal the Quaffle from him, he flipped it behind his back to Katie, who was streaking upfield again. She tossed it cross-pitch to Alicia, who faked with her head one way, and threw it hard the other way.

"GRYFFINDOR SCORES! 10-nil!"

Harry soared upward, half watching the action, half searching for the pitch. Higgs was circling near the Gryffindor goals, entirely focused on finding the Snitch... but Harry knew he had a keener eye, a faster broom, and better skill. He scanned the skies quickly, and finding nothing, took off to keep up with the action as it proceeded back toward Gryffindor's side.

And then he spotted the Snitch in the centre of the pitch, and he dove furiously, pushing his new broom faster and faster, until he had to pull up to chase it as it darted forward against the oncoming traffic of Chasers and Beaters. He ventured forward, dipping and climbing over the players who approached at breakneck speed, a collision surely bringing substantial broken bones—and then he had to throw his entire weight into his broom as the Snitch suddenly reversed and he was caught unprepared.

In no time flat, he was back even with them. He kept his eye on the Snitch, and it darted right in front of Flint, who was carrying the Quaffle. He pulled up to shoulder level, only a few feet behind the tall Slytherin, but at the last second, he was forced to pull back as Katie came soaring toward the two of them to make a tackle.

Unfortunately, Flint evaded, and gave her a shot in the side with his boot as she passed. In that short time, though, Harry lost sight of the Snitch, so there was nothing for it but to get in front of Flint and knock him out of the way. The other two Gryffindor Chasers were having no luck, either, because Warrington and Pucey were running all kinds of interference—some legal, some rather borderline—and they substantially outmuscled the two girls.

"Slytherin continues to play dirty, and—what's that? Has Potter seen the Snitch, or is he just trying to take Flint off his game? Whatever it is, everyone's cheering for him!"

Harry accelerated, coming from below Flint, and when he'd pulled almost level, pulled up sharply and pushed into Flint hard. Flint was caught off guard, but he was not light, not nearly as movable as Harry himself was, and so once Harry had nudged him a bit, he began to push back.

So Harry reached out and punched the Quaffle from his arm, where it fell down toward the field. Flint dove, and the absence of his pressure against Harry forced Harry to course-correct, but he found the Snitch again, maybe fifty feet in front of him.

Higgs was in pursuit, though, and so Harry sped up, as the Slytherin Seeker shot straight toward it. They were both heading for a straight-on collision, but Higgs was angling himself up slightly so he would miss Harry, but hopefully have a great chance at the Snitch.

"Flint shoots—save by Wood, who tosses to Spinnet, who—oh, no, she's absolutely creamed by Pucey—what a cheat!—who takes the Quaffle with a wide-open goal... and I don't believe it! Wood's nearly tossed himself off the broom, but he makes a brilliant save. And what a throw, too! It's almost at midfield, and there goes Bell, who doesn't look injured, thank heavens—"

Higgs and he were twenty feet apart, and the Snitch was in between the two. Harry grinned and accelerated. They were both going too fast to stop, now, and the sudden downturn of the little golden ball led them both to falling after it toward the green grass below. They were side-by-side, nearly in the other's hip pocket... Higgs snarled at Harry, and tried to jostle him off his broom, but Harry retaliated by giving him a sharp but discreet elbow in the ribs. Higgs winced, but stayed level with Harry, and they both pulled even with the ground, not two feet off of it as the Snitch flitted back and forth like a hummingbird, darting closer and closer to their outstretched hands...

"Bloody—they're close! It's a race to the Snitch—!"

And then it took a giant leap to Higg's side, and the boy's fingertips grazed the Snitch... except Harry knocked the arm away roughly, and plucked it from the sky.

It was as though someone had turned on a switch, and he could hear the crowd surge to its feet, clapping and stomping at the daring catch. He grinned wildly, the feeling of adulation washing over him, making his soul throb in delight. They were astounded and pleased at his play... He had brought them to their feet.

He thrust his hand into the air, and let the sun radiate brilliantly off the golden ball.

"Harry," said Percy, who was standing at the entrance of the Common Room, an hour later. He looked slightly unnerved—an unusual look for the normally egregiously confident prefect.

"Hey, Percy," replied Harry. "You look like you've got something on your mind."

"I do," he replied. "It's been kept quiet, but you ought to know, I think. There was another attack—"

Harry inhaled sharply. "Another? When?"

"During the Quidditch match," replied Percy. "I'm not sure of all the details—I was just informed by the Head Girl that Kevin Entwhistle is in the Hospital Wing. He's been Petrified—it's like becoming a statue," he explained, correctly interpreting Harry's questioning look. "He's alive, and it's a restorable condition with a draught made of the Mandrake plant, but you're essentially in suspended animation, unable to move, unable to think. The best time to cure for Kevin is about six months, since we don't have any Mandrakes, but Professor Snape is inquiring internationally to see if there's a crop near harvest..."

Harry's mind whirled. "Kevin's Muggle-born," he said aloud. "Kevin's Muggle-born, and Zabini is going to be absolutely devastated." He paused and looked up at Percy. "Get everyone together. We'll meet in the normal place in an hour or so—I need to track someone down. I was planning to do it later this week, but I think this means that we have to accelerate my plans a bit."

"One hour?" confirmed Percy.

"One hour," replied Harry, who—instead of entering the Common Room, took off toward Professor Lupin's office.

"I'm flattered you thought of me, Harry," replied Professor, who scratched his stubble-dotted face idly, "but I'm not honestly sure what I can do for you or your study group—"

"It'd mean a lot, Professor," said Harry, and he looked up at the weathered man with entreating eyes. "We're all too young to really remember what the war with You-Know-Who was like, and we're just trying to understand."

Lupin shook his head. "It's obvious that there are a lot of things that you don't understand about the war, Harry—first and foremost that you don't talk about it. It was an incredibly dark time; nobody knew whether they'd come home at night to find their family murdered, or even worse—to come home and find that your wife was under the Imperius Curse and was about to kill you herself—"

"Sorry, Professor—the Imperius Curse?"

"It's a spell that makes you do the caster's bidding, Harry. It's called an Unforgivable Curse, because the attempted use of it on another human being will net you a life sentence in Azkaban prison. It's a terrible thing to experience because there's no visible effect when you're under it; one day the victim is just acting normal, and the next thing they've pulled their wand on you and are trying hard to kill you. The Order—I mean, we lost a lot of friends that way... the entire McKinnon family... Benjy Fenwick, and we think that's what happened to Caradoc Dearborn—"

"But you see what I mean," replied Harry, and he nodded earnestly at the Professor, who slumped in his office chair. "You say these names, and it puts a face to it. All we've got are the quiet whispers and haunted looks of our elders. We don't get it, and we're trying to. Those who ignore history—"

"—I just don't know that I can do it," replied Professor Lupin.

"Please, sir," said Harry, with some desperation. "If not for me, then for my parents—I have no idea who they were or what they were fighting against, and I really need to know. I need to know there was a reason that they gave their lives, instead of just running away so I could have a family. I need to know that what they did was noble, and not just dumb, sir."

Lupin folded his arms and tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling. It took him a long few seconds before he blew out a deep breath and nodded at Harry. "All right," he said. "I'll tell your club what it was like."

Harry grinned. "Thank you so much, Professor. You know where that empty classroom is in the Charms Corridor? Oh—and I forgot: come hungry. The House Elves love cooking for parties, it turns out."

Harry turned the corner, and practically ran into Ginny Weasley, who was not looking where she was going, but rather clutching desperately to some book and looking rather distressed.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, as she looked up at him in shock. Her face suddenly turned as red as her hair, making her look rather a lot like poorly prepared butter chicken. She seemed to shrink into herself even more if that was possible, and let out a squeak when he grabbed her shoulders to steady her.

"Are you all right?" he asked, raising an eyebrow at their unfortunate collision and the girl's sudden imitation of a clamshell.

"Eep," she said—or at least, that was what it sounded like, he thought. He scowled; this was the second time he had been introduced to Ginny Weasley, and the second time he found himself drawing the conclusion that she was as light on brains as her youngest brother was.

"Well, if you're all right," he said, "I'll be on my way. Excuse me," he said, and he stepped around her and down the hallway until he arrived at the deserted classroom. He steadied himself before he opened the door, and entered the room with a sort of grim expression that he'd been practicing in the mirror for exactly such a situation.

He took his place at the head of the semi-oblong table, which was, as usual, decked out in finery. They all looked at him, and in semi-unison, each greeted him. He nodded, making eye contact with each person in turn. There was an unspoken agreement in the club that he was their leader, even if they did not know where he was leading them. Nevertheless, they all deferred to him, and looked to him for instructions, even though he didn't particularly want that responsibility. What he had hoped to create was a meritocratic community, but they had rallied to him, for better or for worse. Even Percy, who was naturally commanding, and even Cedric, who was terribly charismatic, and even Zacharias, who was an absolute arse whom Harry wished he could smack across the face for some stress relief—they listened to what he said. It was irritating at first to have to initiate most everything the club talked about... but it was growing on him, definitely.

"Let's start with some bread," he said, "but let's hold off eating. Katie, will you start the wine, please?—I'll have a half a glass of the red, yes please.

"Anyway, I'm sorry for calling you here on short notice," he began. "But I figured that a gathering on Saturday evening was at a low risk to upset schedules, and given the situation, perhaps a reassuring thing for all of us."

"Aren't you going to cast the enchantments?" reminded Hermione gently.

"No," he replied. "We've got a guest joining us tonight in a few minutes. I'll raise the enchantments then, and we'll have some supper. But until then, I'd like to discuss what's going on in the school, if that's all right with you. As you all know by now, we're short one member today. Kevin was a presumptive victim of the Heir of Slytherin. He's alive and will survive, but he's not conscious. It's going to be an interesting day or two, watching this play out inside the school.

"Gryffindor is fine," he said, after a few moments. "There's fear, sure, but until someone from the house is struck, there will always be a rather selfish 'not-my-problem' thing. That, I suppose, and between bragging about finding the Heir and putting a stop to him. It's hot air, really. Nobody knows how to do a thing about it."

He turned to Cedric. "Ced, how's Hufflepuff?"

"The same as Gryffindor," he replied. "Worried, but without all the bravado. There have been murmurs that Professor Dumbledore will have to close the school, and people are focusing on that for the time being—"

"That's a question I'd like to know the answer to myself, as well," interjected Harry.

"—but we're not as bad off as Ravenclaw is, clearly."

Harry nodded, and, at first, turned to Blaise, who was his natural go-to for the affairs in the house. She looked rocky, though: he could see spots where tears had dried in the corner of her eyes and her mascara—lightly applied though it was—had bled. So instead, he gave her his best attempt at a caring smile, and turned to Penelope.

Her eyes locked onto his, and he was struck by how tired her blue eyes looked. "It's chaos," she said frankly. "It had only broken that Kevin might have been attacked when I left, but there were sobbing people all over the Common Room, and a lot of people were saying they wanted to go home, that Hogwarts isn't safe enough to stay any more."

Harry noticed the eyes in the room swivel to him, and so he spoke up. "I think it's something that needs to be asked, certainly," he said, well aware of the way the shoulders in the room tensed up just a little more. "We're facing an attacker who is capable of doing serious magical damage. He got Kevin, but the last time the Chamber of Secrets was opened, a girl died—"

"How do you know that?" demanded Zacharias Smith.

"Unlike you, I can read, Zach," replied Harry. "I'm sure Hermione has three or four redundant copies of Hogwarts: A History if you need to know more. At any rate, the last time this happened, someone died—Slytherin's monster is capable of killing. Supposedly, a student was expelled from Hogwarts for the act, but I'm positive they had the wrong person, and I think they knew it, too. My question is this: at what point do we say that staying here is tempting fate?"

"We don't!" scoffed Percy. "We don't back down when things get tough—"

"But this is more than tough!" said Susan Bones, who surprised everyone by talking. She had not said more than two words since they first began meeting. "This isn't just tough, Percy, it's dead. You can't out-tough some person if you're dead!"

"I'm not saying—"

"—I'm with Bones," interjected Zacharias.

"So am I," replied Parvati, as she bundled her hair up into a loose ponytail to pull it out of her eyes. "To be frank, I'm surprised my father hasn't pulled me from school yet."

"And I'm surprised the Ministry hasn't stepped in yet," added Hermione, from Harry's right.

"They will," replied Susan with confidence. "I've had to write to my Auntie, and I know she's been in contact with Professor Dumbledore. They won't want to shut down the school, but they're going to have to make sure that they do their best to make sure students are protected."

Katie smirked and chimed in. "Dead children would make the Board of Governors unhappy, I'd bet."

Harry nodded, before he raised a hand for silence. They fell quiet not a second later. "Daphne," he said, nodding to her. "I think most of all, we're dying to hear from Slytherin."

"Slytherin is scared," said Daphne, after she had savoured the eyes on her for a moment.. "You have to understand that most of what others infer about the house is really the result of a very loud minority. Few members of Slytherin actually sympathize with Blood Purism, and even fewer—myself not included, I have to add—agree with violent action, and so we're very scared, because we know what that sort is responsible for. As for the less pleasant quarter, they're doing a lot of strutting right now." She paused, and quirked her head. "They're scared too. Nobody in the house knows who the Heir of Slytherin is, and it's making them nervous. They have to worry about whomever is attacking, and they have to worry about vigilantism from the other houses."

Harry nodded, pondering. "That's about as I expected, though I thought your house might have known who the heir is."

"It doesn't seem that way," said Parvati. "Daphne sees it better than I do, but there's been none of the malice that comes when people know big secrets in our house."

He sighed, and rested his head in his hands, wiping at his tired eyes. Had the Quidditch match really been just a few hours ago?—it felt like an eternity.

Smith chimed in again, as he always seemed to do. "Do you who the heir is, Potter?"

"Yes," he said.

There was a sudden outburst of noise. "Well?" demanded one voice. "How?" demanded another. But it was Zacharias's strident tone that cut through them all.

"You act like you're so old, Potter," he said, his eyes narrowed in judgment. "You act like you're so old, but you're only twelve. Quit being a drama queen and just tell us—you're not as mysterious as you make yourself out to be."

Harry raised an eyebrow. "Touché, Zach."

"Shut up, Zach," said Katie. "Harry, tell us, though! Who is it?"

He cleared his throat. "Fifty years ago, the Chamber of Secrets was opened by a half-blood by the name of Tom Riddle."

"I've heard that name," spoke Neville.

"Neville!" replied Harry. "I almost forgot you were here, you've been so quiet—"

"Just a lot on my mind," he said. "It's no secret that people think that I'm closer to a squib than a wizard. I reckon I'm a prime target."

Harry grimaced. "We won't let that happen, Neville," he replied. "I've got some ideas about basic security we can undertake, but let's talk about that later—where have you heard the name?"

Neville pursed his lips. "I had a detention earlier this year, after Filch claimed I was tracking mud into the castle. He made me polish the trophies in the Trophy Room by hand over and over again until they shone like mirrors. I'll never forget his name, now—Tom Riddle, Award for Special Services to the School, 1943."

"He accused a man of the crime he had committed," Harry explained. "I would bet that was his reward."

He cleared his throat. "Fifty years ago, the Chamber of Secrets was opened by Tom Riddle, the last heir of Salazaar Slytherin—the man who would one day become Lord Voldemort." Harry continued, ignoring the various gasps, denials, and looks of surprise. "No one knows much of anything about how he did it, and it looks like all the records of him as a student are missing or erased. Which, I can't tell. But from what little I've been able to find about that time, there's no doubt that he was the one responsible. It's been hell trying to find what little I have, but you can rest assured I'm not just throwing out ideas here."

A moment passed as they digested the information Harry gave them. The absence of shock or denial was reassuring. He was glad to see that by all their faces, they were carefully considering what he'd told them.

Parvati was the first to break the silence. "So what we're looking at is two possibilities, aren't we? Either the Dark Lord had an heir, or he told one of his Death Eaters how to open the Chamber."

"Or he's still alive," Neville interjected.

Everyone except Hermione and Katie looked stunned and ready to deny this idea, but Harry's nod of affirmation shocked them into silence. "Neville's got it on the nose, unfortunately. Professor Dumbledore is sure of it, and I can tell you that that's enough for me." Harry said, holding back the events of last year. "Still, the Headmaster would close the school himself if he thought Voldemort was directly behind it," he said, closing his eyes briefly as he hoped that he was not lying, "so I think we can focus on the other two possibilities: either Voldemort has an heir, or he told the secret to one of his subordinates. And for what it's worth, Professor Dumbledore is certain that Voldemort doesn't have an heir."

"Sirius Black," Neville interjected. "Black broke out of Azkaban, and only days later, the Chamber's open. That's too much a coincidence for them not to be related."

Harry gave Neville a look of approval. "You know, Neville, you're so quiet and unassuming that it's easy to forget that you're here, but I'm really glad you are. Now," he turned back to the group as a whole, "obviously, none of us are capable of fighting a Death Eater, especially someone like Sirius Black. I don't want us to go around looking for a fight, but there are some ideas about basic security and safety I think we can undertake to minimize the risk to the student body. The last thing we want is a dead body.

He cleared his throat. "My plan is to turn this group into an organization whose purpose is primarily to defend Hogwarts against all threats inside and outside. Sirius Black is near the castle, even if he's not inside it right now according to the teachers, but I can guarantee that he's going to be back—he's going to want to finish the job. I want to make it our mandate to stop him." He glanced at Daphne. "Whatever your affiliation, I think you can agree that protecting Hogwarts and keeping our school safe is top priority—everyone loves it here, and nobody wants that to be taken from them."

"So how do we do that?" asked Parvati, who sat up eagerly. "I'm on board, you know—whoever the heir is, the Dark Lord or not, I don't like him. Nobody should be allowed to hurt us children."

Daphne shook her head. "Doing this would put us in a really tight situation, Potter... If anyone catches wind of the fact that we're trying to protect the school from the heir, there will be consequences—severe ones, too..."

"I know it will be tough," replied Harry, "but this is important. And besides, nobody has to know. Here's my plan, and I want your feedback. First, we always travel in pairs. No alonesies—that way if we run into Black, one person shields and defends while the other summons help."

Cedric nodded. "It's going to be hard for me, since nobody else here is in my year—"

"—Get someone you trust in Hufflepuff to stick with you, Ced," replied Harry. "Norice or Stebbins would be a good pick. Even if you don't have someone inside this group to watch your back, make sure you try and stay with someone competent.

"Second, I want everyone to keep their eyes and ears open for any mention of Tom Riddle whatsoever. We need any information we can get on him. It's all the better if we can figure out where the Chamber of Secrets is, and what Slytherin's monster is—then we can remove Black's weapon from him."

"Potter—"

"I get it, Daphne. Do what you feel comfortable with. Even your presence in these meetings is a help."

"It's nice to hear from Slytherin," agreed Penny. "Everyone in my year is so frosty—"

Hermione nodded. "We really do appreciate you being here, Daphne, Parvati. You really do your house a credit."

"—And if they ever try and punish you, tell us, and we'll set them straight," said Katie.

Harry found the corner of his lip curling into a smile. They were really supporting each other, which was one of his best hopes for the group. But he broke his reverie and continued: "In general, I just want to keep meeting, and keep our eyes open. If we can do anything to forestall another student being petrified, we're going to do it. Kevin's fate can't go unnoticed."

There was a resounding murmur of agreement before Zacharias spoke up.

"I think this is the smartest thing you've suggested to date, Potter," he spoke. "Not that I think that any one of us is a match for a top-tier Death Eater like Black, but it can't hurt us to be more vigilant."

Harry gave an appreciative nod. "Glad I have your vote, Smith. Mostly what I want to do is to continue to meet. I think if we keep getting smart people together and talking out issues, we stand to do very well for ourselves. And what's good for the goslings is good for the goose."

"We need a name," interjected Susan Bones. "I'm sick of trying to discuss things with Zach and having to call it 'Potter's Club'. That just sounds icky."

Harry raised his hands. "Hey, don't look at me—I'm pretty much the least creative person in this room. Anyone else have any suggestions?"

"The Hogwarts Elite!" replied Zacharias immediately.

"Champions of the Houses," suggested Cedric.

Katie shook her head. "Nah, that's too long."

"Okay, wait for it," said Blaise, and her mouth curled up into a smile, the first Harry had seen on her all day. "Kevin would have thought this one was brilliant. How about 'Potter's Little Association for the Defense of Hogwarts'?"

"PLADOH. Charming," said Hermione, with a chuckle. "I don't think that's it; sorry Blaise."

Susan nodded. "That's not a bad start, though!" she replied, though Blaise looked only mildly upset, rather actually amused by her own suggestion. "Maybe if we just drop the 'Potter' bit, we have something. 'The Association for the Defense of Hogwarts,' or something similar."

"'The Defense Association,' prompted Penny.

They all looked at him. He nodded, after considering it for a moment. "I can live with that. Frankly, I was hoping for 'Potter's Crusaders,' but if that's the will of the group—"

"Aw, I like 'Potter's Crusaders' better," said Parvati. "It's cute—"

"—We'll take 'The Defense Association', Potter," Daphne interrupted. "Then we can call it the 'DA' inside Slytherin, and nobody will be the wiser."

Harry nodded his head, but then grinned. "And to think I said I was the least creative one here..."

A knock at the door cut Harry off from continuing. He glanced at his watch and stood. "Alright, he's here. Now, nothing about what we were just discussing, I don't want it getting around that Sirius Black is sneaking into Hogwarts and opening the Chamber of Secrets, or that anyone thinks that we're planning to do anything about it." After everyone around the table nodded their consent, Harry made his way to the door.

"Welcome, Professor." Harry stood aside as Professor Lupin stepped into the classroom, his keen gaze sweeping over Harry's fellow students. The calculating look in his eyes told Harry that the older man was trying to figure out why Harry was studying with such an eclectic group.

The looks the DA was returning varied from cold calculation to quiet confusion to questioning as they all greeted the shabby older man. Zacharias Smith looked about to say something critical and potentially offensive, to which Harry forestalled with, "Professor Lupin was in school around the same time as many of our parents, and he's had the experience of fighting Death Eaters that no amount of preparation can match."

The Defense Professor gave a tired smile at Harry's explanation. "Well said, Harry, though I can assure you that nothing I say will truly give you an understanding of what battling for your life, and the lives of your loved ones, can mean." A few faces around the table seemed skeptical, although Percy gave Harry a quick nod of approval and Neville seemed riveted. "I assume, however, that the lot of you are hungry, so if you can stand to wait until after supper, I'd be more than happy to teach you what I can..."

Despite Professor Lupin's suggestion, few of the students could wait until the end of supper to ask him about the war. Rather than trying to defer until after he ate, Professor Lupin answered every question he could, telling stories and reliving memories of fighting and struggling against seemingly hopeless odds, all amongst nibbles at Penne Alfredo and Leg of Lamb.

"If it hadn't been for your father, Mr. Longbottom, I don't believe I'd still be here today. One of the best duelers I've ever seen, and your mother Alice complemented him beautifully." Neville's plate sat cooling as he hungrily ate up every word he could. If nothing else, Harry considered the evening a success if all that came of it were a few stories of Neville's parents the boy had never heard. He finally felt as if he were making progress, though—he was stepping closer to Tom Riddle, slowly but steadily retracing his steps and figured out what made him tick, and how to beat him.

But it was the way that the rest of the group sat, listening raptly, but calculating all the while how they would have done it differently that made Harry truly beam inside. As Lupin spun tales—and he was truly a student of history, and had a command of language that pinned every person to their chair—Harry could see the future of the group, now, could see it as it donned robes and came out to the fight that was bound and determined to happen. He could see it choosing to act, not to react, to counter Voldemort by means of direct action, rather than through defense. He could see it maturing into friendships that lasted beyond war; he looked about the room, and felt a warmth in his heart as he surveyed each of his friends...

He couldn't help but wonder, though, just how many would be alive to see to Voldemort's end.

A PROCESS OF ELIMINATION

CHAPTER 5: A PROCESS OF ELIMINATION

"Professor," Harry pleaded with desperation in his voice, "don't do this."

Professor Lupin looked back at Harry, a frown on his face. "I'm not doing it to be mean to you, Harry—"

"—Sure seems likes it," he muttered, while he crossed his arms and looked down at the massive limestone blocks that interlocked beneath his feet.

Lupin shook his head. "As I said, Harry, it's not personal; but the headmaster needs to know if there's a connection between the victims. First Kevin and now Percy and Penny. It's far too coincidental that those people should just happen to be in your study group—"

"Remind me why I told you that Kevin was in our group?"

"I believe it was because you were trying to draw my sympathy to you so that I'd agree to teach you some more," replied Lupin, who seemed mildly amused by the notion. "... Transparent though your attempt was."

"Right, I knew there was a reason—"

"At any rate, surely you can agree that this is an important connection. Professor Dumbledore needs to hear about it."

Harry shook his head. "I don't have to agree with anything. You know what Dumbledore will do to you, don't you?"

Lupin knocked on the thick oaken door that separated the headmaster's office from the small antechamber where they stood. "Why would he do anything to you?" he asked. "You've done nothing wrong, Harry; I can't think why he'd be mad."

Harry swallowed nervously. "You don't get it. Dumbledore watches me closer than he watches anybody else in this school. He used to trust me in my first year—he was the one who gave me my dad's cloak, you know?—but since we started having Occlumency lessons, things have been more strained between us. I can't hide anything from him, he thinks, and when he finds out I've been leading a study group, not only is he going to find out that I'm capable of concealing from him, but that I am and have been."

The professor surveyed Harry with a steady eye, obviously thinking. "I can understand why you're reticent to admit that you've been hiding anything from Professor Dumbledore—Lord knows I wouldn't want to hide anything from him, since nothing seems to escape him, anyway... But what I can't understand is why having a study group would be such a thing to hide."

"Because he's not going to see a study group when he finds out who's in it," spat Harry. "Even you said the group's composition was strange. Dumbledore's eyes are on me all the time; he's watching for anything I might do that would indicate I'm not precisely who I make myself out to be to him. He's going to take the fact that I'm concealing this from him as a sign that I don't want him to know about it. That means he's going to see the group as a political move—"

Lupin interrupted. "I think you're putting a bit more on Dumbledore, Harry, than is the truth. You're twelve, not seventeen. He's not going to care that you're studying—in fact, he might even be glad to hear it. You need to relax, and stop being so serious. It's okay to act your age. You don't have to try to be so mature."

Harry shook his head, and he fixed his eyes on the hem of his cloak. "You really don't get it, Professor. I can't act my age; I'm not trying to be 'more mature' or anything—I just am more mature. But it's not something I can change now, because I've already set the tone. Dumbledore's watching me because I'm a lot like Voldemort, who had a 'study group' when he was my age, too. I can tell Dumbledore thinks it; remember, I've been in his head. He likes me, but he's worried. He's watching because he doesn't want to let it happen again like it did with Voldemort. If I start acting less mature, he's just going to take it to mean that I'm hiding more, and he'll use that opportunity to push further, to embed his surveillance mechanisms so deep that he's sure that what I'm hiding isn't dangerous. I literally can't be less mature. It would be a disaster for my autonomy."

Lupin's jaw dropped, and he seemed to scramble for words, yet none came.

It was then that Professor Dumbledore, tall and keen, opened the door and poked his head out. "Ah. Remus, Harry—a surprise visit, to be sure. Do come in, the both of you." He stood back to let them enter the room.

"Please, Professor," whispered Harry, before he turned to enter the room. "Don't say anything."

Lupin shook his head. "He needs to know, Harry."

Harry despaired. The day had been one emotional roller coaster. First, he had found out from Katie that Percy and Penny had been Petrified—and in a rather lascivious state of dress in the Prefects' bathroom, too, if Katie's source was correct. Then he had had to endure the fear of Gryffindor on the whole as they were confined to their dorm. The prevailing mood was panic; if Percy, a very capable prefect (and a pure-blood, though it was only mentioned with a sort of 'Oh-isn't-that-interesting' nonchalance) was a victim, then what chance did a third year or a first year have? They collectively pondered if the school would remain open, and quite a few used the time to pen letters home to their parents, no doubt inquiring about withdrawing.

For Harry, the notion of withdrawal was preposterous. Where would he go if the school was closed, he wondered? He could return to the Dursleys, but that was not a good solution; he'd barely lasted a month there over the summer before becoming incredibly bored. If Hogwarts closed, he was out of luck; he had no way to get to France to attend Beauxbatons, not on his relatively meagre trust fund, nor did he have a hope of making it to wherever Durmstrang was. Transportation was expensive.

And then when he'd managed to find his way to the hospital wing to see Penny and Percy, he'd met Professor Lupin, who had first told him off for sneaking around while they were under curfew, and who had then told him of his intent to notify Professor Dumbledore.

Maybe he wouldn't have to withdraw after all—maybe Dumbledore would just expel him.

"Do sit down," said Dumbledore, who indicated two teal-green armchairs that were moseying up behind Professor Lupin and Harry. "Tea?"

Both Professor Lupin and Harry inclined their heads. Harry had no real desire to sit for tea—his real desire was to flee—but he had to stay to do damage control, and he needed the tea to stop his hands from shaking.

Dumbledore sank into his own chair behind his desk with a sigh of exhaustion. "Perhaps you will start with why you are out of your Common Room, Mr. Potter, after I have sequestered you and your cohort?"

Professor Lupin exchanged a look with Harry, and then spoke up. "That's my fault, Headmaster," he said quickly. "I had something I had to discuss with Harry, and then I asked him to accompany me here."

Dumbledore nodded. "You are off the hook, then, Harry," he said with a faint smile, as he levitated a beautifully hand-carved wooden tray over their heads and set it on his desk. On it was a silver kettle, and with a touch of his wand, the water inside of it began to boil.

They were silent for a two or three minutes as Dumbledore preheated the fine tea cups and teapot, and steeped the tea. It was only when he finally handed them steaming cups and pushed a small container of honey and milk toward them that he spoke again, one eyebrow raised. "I am to take it, then, that this meeting has to do with the unfortunate accident that occurred this afternoon."

"Indeed," replied Professor Lupin. "We think we may have found the beginning of a pattern in the Heir's choice of target."

Professor Dumbledore put down his tea and leaned forward, placing his elbows amidst the inch-deep desk-detritus. "Do tell?" he asked, his face no longer convivial but deadly serious.

Professor Lupin once more glanced at Harry, who was biting his lip, and then turned back to Dumbledore. "All three of the human victims—Kevin Entwhistle, Penelope Clearwater, and Percy Weasley—were in Harry's study group."

Dumbledore leaned back, and tilted his head to stare at the ceiling far above them. "I see," he said, as he folded his long-fingered hands over his chest, and began to rock back in his chair. "I wasn't aware that you had a study group, Harry."

"I didn't think it worth mentioning, sir," replied Harry stiffly. "Just trying to learn a bit more in my spare time."

"Good for you, my boy," said Dumbledore idly. "But—ah, Percy and Penelope, hmm? Your study group has a rather impressive roster, it seems. Do you meet regularly? Who are the others?"

Harry shifted in his chair. "I—uh, I'm not sure I should say, sir. There are a couple of students who wouldn't like it to be known that they spend time in my company."

Dumbledore finally looked at Harry, and fixed him in the eye. "It's important that I know, Harry. If this is indeed a trend and your group is being targeted—which, from the sound of it, seems to be the case—then I must be able to take quick action to increase protection or to remove the targets. It may very well help us understand how or from where Black is striking."

Harry shook his head. "That's what I don't understand, sir," he said, seeing an opportunity to divert the conversation. "How does Sirius Black—or even Voldemort, for that matter—know about who was in my study group? Like I said, some people didn't want it known they were associating with me, and so we've been very secretive."

"I thought we weren't keeping secrets from each other, Harry," murmured Dumbledore.

"It wasn't intentional," lied Harry, though he could feel his frustration building, coming to the same sharp point that it had been hinting at for the past few months. "And with all due respect, sir, you assumed we weren't keeping secrets. We both know you've got secrets; it should come as no surprise that I have things I'd prefer to keep private myself. I feel under the microscope enough as it is."

"I'm sorry you feel that way," replied Dumbledore, with a sad shake of his head.

"And yet you're worried about me, and thinking right now that you need to watch me closer," snapped Harry. "Don't try to deny it—I understand how you think, I see you thinking it. This is exactly what I'm talking about. If I tell you everything I'm doing, then you watch me closer. If I don't tell you what I'm doing, then if you find out, you watch me closer. I'm not Tom Riddle, sir, so I'd appreciate it if you quit treating me like his second coming."

There was a long minute of silence, during which Harry stood up and began pacing the room. Dumbledore finally spoke again. "I don't know how Sirius Black has achieved the knowledge he has, Harry, if you have managed to be so secretive—and indeed, you can say you have managed, I suppose. Perhaps he overheard one of your friends speaking of it?"

"Impossible," said Harry at once, though he kept his eyes on a strange polished-chrome doodad sitting on Dumbledore's shelf. It was chugging up and down like an oil derrick, though it was shaped rather amorphously. Every seven bobs, it let out a tiny hoot of steam. Harry watched it rise and fall hypnotically, though he was not concentrated on it, but the conversation at hand. "There was rather some complex charmwork on the sign-up sheet to join the group—Hermione, Katie, and I worked on it for a few weeks. Nobody in the group can talk about it to anyone outside of the group—it just sounds like gibberish. Beside the point, there's an instant failsafe that lets us know when our secrecy has been compromised. We've charmed the room we meet in so that it's entirely impermeable and un-buggable." He paused a second. "In short, we've taken precautions, and I have no reason to believe they've been compromised. The only person who could have spilled the secret is me, and I haven't said a word to anyone outside of the meeting room to anyone but Professor Lupin."

"And for what it's worth, Harry, I've sworn an oath to Professor Dumbledore that I'm not helping Black into the castle," added Professor Lupin. He pursed his lips. "Voluntarily, of course, but I want it to be clear that I'm not helping the traitor."

"I know you too, Professor, don't forget," said Harry, tapping his head. "You can keep secrets, but you can't completely hide your personality. I know you're not behind it, just the same as I know my study group hasn't betrayed the secret."

"I'm afraid I'm at a loss, then," replied Professor Dumbledore. "It could merely be a coincidence, however unlikely; but I do take you at your word, Harry, when you say you have been extraordinarily cautious, since you are not one for half measures. Nevertheless, I ask you one more time: is there any way that Black could have come by this information?"

"None that I can think of," said Harry.

"Or anyone else, for that matter?"

"Equally unlikely," he replied.

They lapsed to silence. "This, evidently, is yet another mystery," said Dumbledore, after some thought. "There is much to be explained—how Black escaped from Azkaban, how he is sneaking onto the grounds, how he has gained the inexplicable ability to Petrify students, and what his intentions in doing so are; is this an intentional act, or is this simply a string of luck. All questions we will not have answers to, I believe, until we capture him in the act."

Dumbledore pushed himself to his feet with a sigh. "Who is in your group, Harry? I need to know so we may have a chance to protect them, to prevent this from escalating further."

His stomach tempestuous, his mind afire—but his understanding of the necessity perfectly clear—Harry told him.

"You what?" raged Daphne, after Harry told her during the scuffle to hand in their completed potions. "Potter, tell me you're kidding me—"

"I'm not," he said morosely. "It wasn't a choice I had to make. If I'd refused to answer, he would have ripped it from my head and then Obliviated me, probably, and then I wouldn't even remember telling him so that I could warn you."

She folded her arms, and her dark hair only served to make her cheeks seem all the more red. "I joined on the condition that it was kept an absolute secret, and you run off and just tell the one person who I wanted it kept from the most?"

He snorted. "There's no need for hyperbole. We both know the person you want it hid most from is Malfoy."

She turned her head at the very mention of the name, scanning the classroom, but finding the selfsame ponce in conversation with Professor Snape, she grabbed Harry's arm and dragged him into the storeroom. "Listen to me very carefully, Potter. Slytherin isn't as polarized a place as it appears to be. There's a breadth of opinion there, just as you'd find in any other house. But Malfoy sees things in black and white—he wants it to be us versus them, and he exerts a lot of social pull. So if he finds out that I'm fraternizing with you—"

Harry couldn't help it, and he snorted again. "Sorry, continue," he bade her to continue.

"If he finds out, he's going to try to bring the house down on me. The way he sees it, the Heir has the right idea. He's going to turn everyone against me."

That was rather an over-emotional evaluation, Harry thought, but if it was the truth, Daphne became much less useful to him. He was worried himself, worried and sick at the position Professor Lupin had put him in... Needless to say, the Professor wasn't invited back to their study group—that was, if the study group still existed. He could detect definite unease about meeting from those he'd discussed the issue with. Daphne was the first who had cared more about his revelation to Dumbledore than that Voldemort was attacking them one by one.

He needed to meet Sirius Black in a dark corridor. His wand twitched in his hand at the thought. He was sick of the disruption in his life.

"It's Dumbledore," he said, at long last. "He's not going to go spread it around. You might not appreciate him, but he's nothing if not politically sage—I was sure to make it clear to him that our roster can't be spread around."

She shook her head and bit her lip. "No, you don't get it—if it's a matter of school security, the Governors can compel Dumbledore to reveal any pertinent information to them—"

"—and Lucius Malfoy is a governor," replied Harry. He swore. "I hate that guy."

"You and everyone else in this world. Come on—we're going to be missed."

And she pulled him out of the storeroom again. "You owe me one," she whispered to him, and he nodded. "A major one. And don't think I won't collect."

"Potter!" called Professor Snape from the head of the room, and Harry's head swivelled to him. "How do you explain this potion?" He held up a phial that was ostensibly Harry's—'ostensibly,' because it was clearly not his; he had brewed the Depilatory Draught to a perfect potency. The potion Snape was holding was orange, not blue.

"Sir?" he replied. "I don't think that's my potion, sir."

"Preposterous," replied Snape. "It has your name on it. Stay after class, Potter."

Harry scowled, opened his bag sitting on the potions bench, and handed his Charms homework to Hermione. "Give this to Professor McGonagall, would you?" he asked her, "and tell her I'll probably be late. Just what I need—another thing to piss McGonagall off."

Hermione frowned. "I'm sure she'll understand, Harry—and your mouth! Nobody will ever kiss you if you keep speaking like that."

He laughed, and gave her a confident smile. "Are you sure about that?" he replied.

She blushed. "Hurry up with Snape and I'll save you a seat. How'd Parvati react, by the way?"

"Same way as everyone else, I guess," he said, with a shrug. "I think we're on hiatus. 'Tempting fate' is the prevailing opinion, never mind the fact we're more vulnerable if we don't continue meeting. I don't intend to stop, though, so we'll see who wants to come."

Hermione nodded, smiled at him, and placed a calming and warm hand on his forearm. "It'll be all right. Katie and I will be with you always."

He let out a sigh. "Thanks, Hermione. You'd better get going."

She slipped around him, and made her way out the door after Seamus, leaving Harry alone with Professor Snape.

The latter flicked his wand, and the door slammed close. Harry flinched, and Professor Snape smirked.

"Sit down, Potter," said Snape, who left the dais at the front of room to come speak to him face-to-face. Far from comforting, the gesture was rather more intimidating.

Nonetheless, Harry obeyed, and sat down on the worn bench, releasing his bag and letting it slip to the cool grey stones beneath him. Snape's black eyes bore into his own, and Harry stared back up at the hook-nosed man, not willing to give ground. They were not equal Occlumens—far from it; Snape was terribly clever, as Harry had found out the few times he had managed to reverse their connections—but both could fend the other off, and both knew they held a stalemate.

Snape spoke. "The Headmaster has given me a summary of what occurred two nights ago between you two," he said. "He has asked me to watch you. Not with your knowledge, of course, but he does not know of... this mutual understanding we have accomplished. I am telling you this because I believe you deserve to know."

"He thinks I'm turning into a second Voldemort," replied Harry.

"He does not," replied Snape, who, after flinching at the use of the name, conjured sets of scrub brushes and sudsy water, and set them to scrub the work tables. "You are simplifying the matter too greatly. The Headmaster is a man who appreciates and deals in intimate intricacy and nuance. He does not think of you as the revenant Dark Lord. If anything, he thinks you far more capable."

He paused, as if debating to say anything at all, but then chose to say it—"The Dark Lord is primarily a destructive force. He is a brilliant man, peerless in his understanding of magic, and charismatic as he is violent, but he is nihilistic and ultimately interested in destruction.

"You, by contrast, have morals, and are driven toward generation and amelioration. You are no less charismatic, and you share many of the Dark Lord's gifts for magic... but you are more complex in your desires, and it is your unpredictability that unnerves Dumbledore. He would like it if he knew you were in agreement with him politically, but he does not know for sure where you stand, and he sees too much of his younger self in you. He wants you watched because he respects you as much as he respects the Dark Lord."

Harry was silent as he digested this information. "Why doesn't he just trust me?"

"You hide things from him," said Snape, with a hum.

"I hide things from him since he's always watching me," replied Harry.

"He is always watching you because you hide things from him," he returned sharply, "and because you are a momentous individual. You would find if you shared everything with him, he would become much less suspicious—still watchful, perhaps, but less suspicious."

Harry thought for a long moment. "I don't really want to share everything with him, though."

"Then at some point, you will be forced to make a choice whether to protect your carefully presented reality, or to let it slip. Lupin's... unfortunate discretion to the Headmaster was one such occurrence. The next time will not be so consequence-free. This is the Occlumens' dilemma: which reality at what cost?"

"And there's no good answer, is there?" asked Harry.

Snape just shook his head as he tipped one cauldron after the other upside down to dry. "Keep it in your mind, Potter, that you are dealing with the Headmaster. I have had to deal with the Dark Lord, who was... not inclined to kindness."

Harry pushed himself to his feet. "I appreciate the advice, Professor, but I'm not really sure that I can do anything about it." He paused for a second, and then cocked his head to the side. "To be perfectly frank, I'm not sure I understand why you're telling me this in the first place. I was under the impression that we weren't under great terms—"

Snape paused in his dusting of the jars of ingredients that lined the flimsy pine shelves circumnavigating the room. He looked Harry in the eye, and for just a brief second, Harry was struck by how tired Snape looked—"As I said, you are momentous. Though I find you to be an execrable reminder of everything terrible about your father, I believe that with careful nurturing, you might provide an alternative to the political dichotomy that plagues our world.

"You might not, however; it is conceivable. Nevertheless, for the first time in my years teaching at Hogwarts, I find myself with one student who mightn't turn out to be a complete dunderhead." With that, he whirled and retreated to his desk.

Harry blinked for a second, took his bag, and walked to the door.

"Potter," called Snape, just before Harry stepped from the room.

"Professor?"

"I still think you are a spoiled, overconfident brat, and your potions work is not up to my standards."

"And I still think you're a greasy-haired hook-nosed git," replied Harry, "but I appreciate the warning and the advice, Professor."

Harry tossed yet another musty newspaper on top of the stack of twenty lying on the floor of the library. "Damn," he said, as he brought his hands up to his face and rubbed his eyes. There were still another two or three newspapers he had to go through that evening—back issues of the Daily Prophet from fifty years before that he hoped would contain a reference to Tom Riddle somewhere—but he'd had no progress that evening, nor for weeks beforehand. He, Hermione, and Katie had read all the way through 1936 to 1942 already, and they were no closer to finding a mention of him, of finding any sort of information they might have missed about him. The words on the papers were starting to blur together, and as interesting as it was to see the history of the Wizarding World's tussle with Grindelwald from such a primary perspective, the reading was just as dry as the paper it was printed on.

He sighed, and slouched in his chair. Hermione looked up at him briefly as she turned the page in the paper. "Anything of interest?" she asked.

"There was an article about Professor Dippet's incompetence and resistance to policy change in response to Myrtle Mahoney's death... but that was it. No real hints. No mention of the killer at all—it looks like they're even pretending at this point that her death was an accident. It's kind of all overshadowed by the Battle of Stalingrad."

Katie, sitting opposite him at the table, put her own newspaper down. "This is such a waste of time," she said. "We could be playing Quidditch right now, and it would be more rewarding than this."

"This is important," replied Hermione with a frown. "We need to understand Voldemort if we're going to figure out where the Chamber of Secrets is and what's inside of it. To do that, we need to know something about Tom Riddle, and there's no trace of him anywhere. If we find him in the newspaper, maybe we'll find out something about him that will give us a lead on some sort of material that hasn't been destroyed."

Harry sighed again, and shook his head. "Katie's right, Hermione. We could be playing Quidditch and getting farther than we have now. This isn't working. If we had a compilation of newspapers, we could use an Indexing Charm to find out if he's mentioned. But there're hundreds of issues, and we have no guarantee that that his name will even be mentioned." He flicked his wand, and the remaining newspapers on the table, plus the ones on the floor, all soared off through the library to reshelf themselves. "This idea is a bust. We need to find a different thing to look for."

Katie stretched her arms and yawned. "We should call it a day. Maybe actually go to the Leaving Feast—it's the last Hogwarts meal I'll get before Christmas, and since my mum doesn't know how to cook, I need to eat something good enough to remember when I'm eating greasy Chinese food on Christmas Day."

Harry rolled his eyes. "If you thought with your stomach any more, Katie, your first instinct would to eat anything that moved."

She grinned. "Just because you're rail-thin, pumpkin, doesn't mean the rest of us want to be."

"Fine," he said, as he pushed himself up to his feet. "We'll go to the feast, but not yet. I'm feeling optimistic today—I still think something's going to happen. We're just not looking in the right place."

"Maybe we should ask Madam Pince what she thinks?" suggested Hermione, who folded up her own newspaper and waved her wand to send it back to its home.

"Exactly my thought," said Harry. "It's time to get some professional help."

So they trooped over to the reference desk, and waited rather impatiently for Madam Pince to finish helping a sixth-year Ravenclaw boy. She finally did, pointing him toward the Transfiguration stacks, and as he went ambling off, the three approached the desk.

Hermione spoke first, at the first sign of Madam Pince's expectation. "We're doing a research project on Prefects," she began, with the air of authority that she always managed to convey when speaking of academics. "Specifically, we're looking at Prefects 50 years ago and where they are now. But we have this one Prefect, and we can't seem to find much information on him at all—"

"—And you were wondering where to look," finished Madam Pince, and all three of them nodded their heads. "It's a rather odd research project, I guess, but not the strangest I've ever heard of. I saw you scanning the periodicals; did you find nothing there?"

"No," replied Harry. "Not a lick. It's like he dropped off the face of the planet after he graduated."

Madam Pince's face pinched unpleasantly like she had just bitten into a lemon, but her eyes gleamed with passion at a problem unsolved. For a very brief second until he remembered that she was a bitter old hag, Harry felt a flicker of kinship with her. "Well, if you haven't had any luck there, then you have two options. The first I'm sure you've seen—it's a book called Where Are They Now? Twenty Hogwarts Prefects and their Careers. It's a long shot, I suppose, but it's worth a check—"

"Checked it," spoke Harry dispassionately. "Good idea, though; it was the closest we've come, but it only goes back to 1952. This Prefect graduated in 1945."

"Then your best recourse is in the Restricted Section," replied Madam Pince. "Old student records are kept in there; we ought to have student records back to the mid 1700s dating up until the class that just graduated. Of course, you'll have to get permission from a Professor, since there are obvious issues of confidentiality."

They thanked her profusely, and shuffled back to their table. "Well, that was a bust," said Katie, who plunked down in her chair with a huff.

"We could get Professor Dumbledore to sign for us," suggested Hermione, her eyebrows optimistically raised.

"No," said Harry sharply. "No, we're not dealing with Dumbledore—"

"—You need to get over this, Harry," she replied. "Everyone in the DA has told you it's not your fault, even Daphne. Professor Dumbledore is just trying to protect us."

"Sure," admitted Harry, "but at the same time, he's watching me." And then, remembering Snape's warning, he flicked his wand. "Homenum Revelio!"

There was no change around them, and Harry breathed a sigh of relief.

Katie blinked at his sudden motion. "We could always try and get Hagrid to do it."

"I have a better solution," said Harry, as he peeked around the stacks to make sure nobody was coming. "You have to swear to tell nobody about this, though."

Hermione frowned. "Of course—"

Katie just nodded, and folded her arms.

And so he squinched up his eyes and concentrated hard on the terribly trollish face of Marcus Flint. He could feel his entire face rearranging itself, and, much more confident in his ability to change his size as well, now, he grew almost a foot and close to three stone of muscle mass.

When he opened his eyes, it was to Hermione and Katie looking utterly shell-shocked. "Harry?" asked the former. "Harry, is that you? What have you done?"

Katie just looked like she'd been winded. "You're a Metamorphmagus?" she asked, as she ran a hand through her hair. "No way. Those are so rare—"

"A what?" asked Hermione. "A Metamorph?"

"Metamorphmagus," corrected Katie. "He can change his appearance at will. It's a talent you're born with, and it's really, really, really, really rare. There's only been one recorded Metamorphmagus in the past fifty years, and she just graduated—"

"Nymphadora Tonks," prompted Harry, as he touched the wand to his tie to colour-correct to Slytherin green. "We're third cousins, or some absurd relation like that. Who do you think taught me? Anyway, you two plus her are the only ones that know—tell nobody. This is my biggest secret."

They both nodded their heads at him, and he smiled, feeling very awkward in Flint's bigger body. "Stay here—I'll be right back."

He strode off confidently, though he had a few missteps. He really couldn't understand how Tonks could be so clumsy; adjusting to longer legs was simple, if you gave it time. That thought occupied him until he arrived at the entrance to the Restricted Section, which was unguarded anyway; with some annoyance, he realized that he could have entered looking like Harry Potter; and no one would have cared, anyway, and his secret talent would have been substantially more secret... even if it was just Hermione and Katie who had found out.

He lifted the small barrier arm that separated the section from the rest of the library and stepped inside. The Restricted section was rather large — half of the size of the rest of Hogwarts' library, but still considerable. In the interest of a quick strike, some direction was necessary: "Point me Student Records!" he whispered, and his wand rotated in his hand to point to the far corner of the section, where a series of dusty filing cabinets stood.

He hot-footed it to them, and then examined the filing cabinets for some marking information to explain how they were sorted. He found nothing of the sort, and so he began to pull out drawers and inspecting the folders contained inside for graduation dates. He was at the upper end of the spectrum, he realized, as he reshelved Melissa Adderley from 1983; and so he moved down two or three filing cabinets and began opening drawers.

He was a lot closer, as he removed and replaced a record from 1930. When he opened the next drawer, he flinched reflexively as a small bat suddenly flew out and fluttered up to the rafters. Despite the temporary setback, he was in the right place; the drawer contained those who had graduated in 1944, and as he leafed through the folders, he saw where the year ended, and the next year began. When he was twenty-five names in, he pushed Julianne Roberts's folder aside, and removed the folder of Tom Riddle, which was unsurprisingly thin.

He grinned to himself and opened the folder.

Tom Marvolo Riddle

b. December 31st, 1926

S: Thomas Frederick Riddle, Sr. (d. 1943)

D: Merope Riddle (nee Gaunt) (d. 1926)

Residence: Wool's Orphanage, London

But then, with a sound just like a match strike, the folder lit itself on fire.

He was so shocked that he almost dropped it, and it was only by reflexes that he managed to hold on. Flames were tearing through the top half of the paper, rapidly eating through the section he had just read. He fumbled for his wand, and with a rough wave, cast a Bubble-Head Charm around the paper. "Sumpnigo!" he added, casting a Suffocation Charm inside the bubble... but to his shock, it had no effect, and with wide eyes, he saw the flames start to consume the part of the folder he hadn't managed to read yet.

He tossed it down on the thick marble table behind him. "Geminio!" he cast desperately, and to his relief, it worked. He had a replica of the folder—nearly half-burned, but better than nothing. He breathed a sigh of relief as the original completed its immolation, leaving nothing but a pile of ash.

He turned, closed the cabinet behind him, and then grabbed the copy and took off at a jog back toward Katie and Hermione. The Duplication Charm was an effective way of making a copy, but it was impossible to make a permanent replica; not only did the Charm not work that way, but it was actually illegal to research ways to improve it so that it did. He didn't know how long the copy would last; normally, he got a quarter of an hour out of the things he duplicated, but he wasn't sure whether the adrenaline flowing through his veins would improve or decrease his performance. It was best just to get the copy back to Katie and Hermione, where they could copy down as much information as possible.

He arrived back at their table, and at their startled glance, let his face and body snap elastically back to their normal shape. "Here," he said, thrusting the copy at them. "The original was cursed—it caught fire almost the second I opened it. This is a copy, so write fast."

They both continued to stare at him. "What?" he finally snapped. "We don't have a lot of time!"

"Harry," said Hermione slowly, "your hand—"

He looked down at it. It was as though someone had turned on a lightswitch inside him, and he felt pain blossom through his hand and up his arm. He had not completely avoided the flames, it seemed, for his skin was a mottled beet red and was oozing pus. He very nearly threw up, but instead grabbed his arm just below his elbow, and held it across his body. "Ow!" he said, his eyes prickling, but even with the pain, he tried to sit down and grab a quill—

"Go to the Hospital Wing!" said Katie. "Go, you fool! We'll copy this!"

He nodded graciously, and set off at a sprint through the library, not caring for once if Madam Pince minded.

He wasn't quite sure how he got to the Hospital Wing—his legs moved automatically, and his mind was incontrovertibly on the pain in his hand—but somehow he managed, and he backed through the doors and into the quiet chaos that was Madame Pomfrey's demesne. Bottles of potions were hopping themselves across the floor from her office to the cabinets in a steady stream, and the two furthest beds were in the process of changing their own linens. Along the outside wall, in the same spot they had laid the last time he had been in the hospital, were the three victims of Slytherin's monster. Kevin Entwhistle looked strange without his glasses, but utterly peaceful. Penny looked just as strange, frozen with her arms in such an interesting position—locked around Percy, that was; they obviously hadn't managed to separate the two yet.

That was when he noticed Ginny Weasley sitting at the side of Percy and Penny's bed. She looked a wreck: her hair was matted and uncombed; her face looked splotchy; and she had obviously been crying for some time. As much as he disliked her, he felt a stirring of emotion inside of him. He missed Percy, too; the elder boy had been full of advice and was obviously eager to pass it down. For once, he understood what Ginny Weasley was feeling, and despite the pain in his hand, he spoke to her.

"Cheer up, Weasley."

She spun around as if surprised by his presence.

He winced, but tried to turn it into a wan smile. "Be strong. Percy would want that."

She looked up at him with wide doe-like eyes. He stifled an internal groan but rather forced himself to continue smiling.

Fortunately, he was saved by the arrival of Madame Pomfrey. "Are you still here, Miss Weasley? Off you go—I don't need you neglecting your health anymore, or you'll wind up in here next to your brother. Shoo!"

The littlest Weasley shot to her feet and high-tailed it out of the Hospital Wing as if stung. Harry could only blink at her hasty departure.

"Now, what's the matter with you, Potter—? Oh, your hand; goodness me. Have a seat on the bed," she said. "What did you do to get such serious burns?"

"Grabbed a bit of parchment," said Harry sulkily as he sat down on the corner of one of the beds. "Honestly, it wasn't my fault—"

"I don't blame you, dear," replied Madame Pomfrey, whose matronly face was unusually kind. "There've been all sorts of accidents around here lately. It's the Petrifications, I think; they've set everyone on edge. So just a standard immolating page, then? Took you by surprise, did it?"

He nodded. "I wasn't expecting it at all."

Madame Pomfrey clucked her tongue and snatched a jar of salve up from the back counter, and then crossed the room back to him and knelt down before him. "This will sting going on, but it works miracles; you'll be fine to go in 15 minutes."

He bit his bottom lip as she applied the salve, wincing every bit as her fingers touched his charred skin. He tried very hard not to cry, steeling himself against the pain, but it was no use, and he soon had tears rolling down his cheeks. Finally, she finished, capped the jar, and stood up again. "Good as new," she replied with a smile, and he sniffed to try and stop his tears. "Just sit still for ten minutes," she said, pointing up at the clock ticking above the entrance, "and then you can leave."

She disappeared back into her room, and the minutes began to march on. Halfway through, Harry stopped feeling much pain, and he watched with only detached interest as his hands literally healed before his eyes. Instead, his thoughts wandered back to Tom Riddle. Why had the paper caught fire only once he had opened it? Given the amount of dead ends he had faced, was this some residual hex that Voldemort had left behind? If so, it was effective, no doubt, but he had managed to secure some information that Voldemort hadn't wanted him to have.

But he had to fight tooth and nail to get even scraps. Voldemort was smart, he reminded himself, but he was arrogant. There had to be a way to find the Chamber of Secrets without studying Tom Riddle's history. He couldn't believe that the boy who would grow up to be Tom Riddle wouldn't want to leave open the path for a like-minded individual to continue what he had started; rather, he would welcome the murderous kinship. Perhaps, thought Harry, it was time to focus on searching for the Chamber of Secrets the way Tom Riddle would have—through the fragments of Salazar Slytherin's life and history.

He stood, brushed off his robes, and flexed his hand. It was sore, but felt infinitely better. He left the Hospital Wing and began the trek down to the library...

... Only to stop dead halfway along the way and clap his hands to his ears.

"Kill, rip, tear!"

His brain froze in sheer terror. "I've lost it," he said, after a second. "I need to get more sleep—"

"Sssoooo hungry... let me rip you, let me kill you..."

The voice trailed on as it moved down the corridor from him, and without thinking, he ran after it as fast as he can.

He kept track of it for as long as he could, but it moved much faster than him, even when he lengthened his legs.

"Mmassster has promised usss food... Mmasster is so kind... Kill! Rip! Ssseize..."

He stopped, paused, and looked around. He was a few corridors away from the library, and near the Ancient Runes corridor... maybe it had gone that way, he thought—pled, even—but he raised his wand nonetheless and squinched up his eyes. He had only managed the spell once before when Professor Lupin had been tutoring them, and happy memories had been in short supply lately... "Expecto Patronum!"

He was greeted by a misshapen and lumpy white wisp when he opened his eyes. "Tell—tell Professor Lupin that I think someone else has been attacked," he commanded. "Tell him to bring Professor Dumbledore to the fourth floor."

The wisp shot off up through the ceiling, and Harry turned and ran into the library.

He passed the shock-white Madam Pince, whose face was permanently frozen in surprise, whose pince-nez spectacles had fallen off her face and shattered on the ground in front of her. He rounded the stacks, running as fast as he could, until he screeched to a halt behind the table where they had sat.

He could see Hermione and Katie's eyes in the reflection of the darkened window nearby. They were both smiling, but they made no move to acknowledge him as he approached cautiously.

"Katie..." he spoke. "Hermione. I'm back."

They said nothing, and he stepped closer.

"This isn't funny," he said, with a sick twisting in his stomach, and he placed his hand on their shoulders. They were cold and unyielding as ice.

RED AND BLACK

From the Authors:

1. Please, make the heat stop.

2. Having a baby really messes up your writing time.

Last time:

Sirius Black has escaped and it appears that he has opened the Chamber of Secrets.

Harry has been practicing Occlumency with Snape and Lupin (though neither knows that he is having lessons with the other). He has found out through accidental legilimency that the Malfoys own Dobby, who has tried to warn him about danger at Hogwarts.

Harry's 'study group' — his collection of influential people at Hogwarts — is being targeted by the heir of Slytherin, and one-by-one Harry's friends, including his two closest, Katie and Hermione, have been petrified.

Harry is trying to find out about Voldemort, whom Dumbledore has revealed is the heir, so that he can find out where the Chamber of Secrets is and put a stop to the attacks.

Meanwhile, Dumbledore and Harry's relationship is growing more strained, since Harry hides things from Dumbledore and since Dumbledore tries to watch Harry too closely for his comfort. Harry thinks that Dumbledore believes that he is turning into another Tom Riddle.

CHAPTER 6: RED AND BLACK

Exactly two weeks later, Harry was in the Headmaster's office, pacing back and forth, an open bottle of Butterbeer forgotten on Professor Dumbledore's desk.

Professor Dumbledore was humming—not happily, to be sure, but absent-mindedly, at least—as he stood at an elaborate mahogany cabinet that opened outward, its frosted glass panes obscuring him partially from view. Harry could hear the aged wizard pouring himself a drink, a rare indulgence that took Harry aback at first. But Dumbledore turned back around a moment later, hoisted a shot of what Harry presumed was Firewhiskey, and practically threw it down his throat. He grimaced, and fixed Harry in the eye. "I assure you, Harry, the thought has occurred to me several times. Nevertheless, closing the school is one of the worst possible outcomes."

Harry stopped momentarily in his pacing. He could feel his anger simmering right at its highest level, nearly ready to spill out of him. "The worst possible outcome, Professor," he enunciated, "is someone dying at Hogwarts. If that were to happen on your watch—"

"—Someone has died before, I remind you—"

"I'm aware, sir," he interrupted. "But you've said it yourself; the Board of Governors are simply looking for a reason to sack you. If someone gets murdered, I'd be shocked if you didn't face criminal negligence charges, even though you're not the guilty one. A dead student means a hard fall for someone, and we both know they'll make sure that someone is you."

Dumbledore quirked an eyebrow. "You are right, of course," he said slowly. "In honesty, my concern does lie more with the prevention of any death than whatever repercussions await me for closing the school, but—alas—I cannot close it."

Harry shook his head. "Pardon my impertinence, sir, but that's stupid," he replied. "Close Hogwarts and then deal the problem. Once Black is re-captured and Voldemort defeated, then the school can reopen and no student is at risk. As it stands, I don't think we're doing enough to capture Black."

"And what would you do, pray tell?" asked Dumbledore, as he fell heavily back into his chair.

"Sweep the school, for one—"

"As we have done every day, and as a team of Aurors now does thrice daily?"

Harry shook his head. "Not like that. I mean, go from bottom to top, keeping a continuous line so nobody can escape behind us, and try to flush Black out that way."

Dumbledore shook his head negatively. "That is a tactic I debated briefly, but ultimately dismissed, Harry, and this is why: Hogwarts itself holds too many secrets. Your father—and Sirius Black beside him—had the best knowledge of the castle of anyone I have ever met; I caught the both of them in more secret passageways than I ever thought existed. It is simply this: if Sirius Black is, in fact, acting for Lord Voldemort, and if, in fact, he is staying inside the castle while he pursues his nefarious work, then we have little hope of catching him, short of patrolling and watching closely. I have been focusing my attention outside of this small window of confluence."

"I don't accept that," replied Harry. "We know that Black is Petrifying students. We have to do something—"

"But do we know that?" interrupted Dumbledore, who stroked his beard as his eyes, vivacious and confident, caught the light. "I had assumed like you that Black's escape and the reopening of the Chamber of Secrets were directly related. But I find that as time goes on that I become less convinced of Black's involvement of all this."

"I don't understand," said Harry.

"Black is not as calculating as the attacks have been. If you are indeed the target, there are many more direct ways to achieve his objective in the moments when you are alone or vulnerable. If he was so motivated, he would have simply grabbed you—as I mentioned, he is somewhat of an expert on Hogwarts. That you are yet unharmed is a significant point against the hypothesis."

Harry shivered involuntarily. "That's comforting."

"He has not yet done so," rejoined Dumbledore, "and I believe that says more than anything else. As a student, he was utterly direct—frank to the point of cruelty. Convoluted scheming is not part of his nature. Even if he has been changed by Azkaban, I cannot see him choosing such a time-consuming, indirect method."

"If he was possessed by Voldemort—?" asked Harry.

Dumbledore shook his head. "If he was bodily capable, Voldemort would prefer Black physically seize you as well. He would not rely—not for long, at any rate—on a method of attack that has proved itself unreliable such as whatever is petrifying students. No, I suspect that the reason our attacker has not confronted you yet is that he is unable to do so, or prefers causing pain rather than simply finishing the deed—again, neither Voldemort's nor Black's style."

Harry pushed himself out of his chair. "I thought we already agreed that it was Voldemort," he said, as turned to examine Fawkes, who had been crooning softly at him for some time.

"For all I've said, Harry, I do not believe it to be anyone but. Lord Voldemort is the only heir of Slytherin, was responsible the last time the Chamber opened, and has the motive to attack you. It might be one of his more sane supporters, I have thought at times, but Voldemort has always hoarded his knowledge, ever since he was a young boy. I cannot see it being anyone but him, myself."

Harry paused, his hand frozen raised in mid-stroke. Fawkes chirped querulously, stretched his neck out anyway, and resumed rubbing himself against Harry's fingers. "I'm very confused, sir," Harry said after a moment. "It is Voldemort, but it's not. How can you explain that?"

"I wish I could," said Dumbledore with a sigh. "The paradox has vexed me for some time."

"And in the meantime, people are getting hurt," added Harry. "If it is Voldemort, why haven't you shut down the school?"

"And so we come full circle. You would wish it closed?" asked Dumbledore.

"Of course not," replied Harry, exasperated, "but if we're dealing with Voldemort, then it seems like the pragmatic choice, given he's a mass-murdering psychopath."

Dumbledore surveyed Harry for a long moment, his forehead creased in concentration. "In truth, I have pleaded the subject with the governors," he said, after a long moment. "They have declined to give me the clearance to do so, despite the fact that we have now seen our hundredth withdrawal. It was against their wishes that I sent out a notice to parents this morning, but they cannot sack me for such a transgression, lest they be forced to explain that they prohibited me."

Harry turned, outrage growing on his face. "But why would they do that? Do they want students to die?"

"Oh, they're hardly a homogenous group," Dumbledore replied, tilting his head and rubbing his chin in consideration. "Some were in agreement with me. A few were concerned about tradition, that if we were to close the school it would become difficult to reopen, especially if catching the responsible party proves troublesome. Once there are no children here, there is much less incentive for the full squad of Aurors to remain, you see—or, for that matter, for the perpetrator. They cite the greatly enhanced security as a reason not to allow the school's closure."

"And the others?"

"The others, though they do not say as much, are very much in favour of my removal. The cost to achieve that is acceptable to them."

"Disgusting."

Dumbledore hummed quietly in agreement. "Of course, we have a tertiary option to consider, and that is that we send you away."

Harry turned, stricken, and looked at Dumbledore. "You would expel me from Hogwarts?" he asked, unable to keep the panic from rising in his voice.

"No," replied Dumbledore, as he ran his fingers through his beard. "No, if I were to expel you for no reason, I would be sacked, which would subsequently result in an extremely conservative administration for Hogwarts. If you were to actually commit an expellable offense, I would be unable to reinstate you later."

"I could go to Beauxbatons," offered Harry reluctantly.

"Could you, now?" asked Dumbledore, with a hint of amusement. "I was unaware that you spoke French."

Harry coloured. "Fine. How about a family emergency—?"

Dumbledore looked down his glasses at Harry.

"Oh, I don't mean an actual family emergency," replied Harry. "About the only family emergency the Dursleys have ever had was when they ran out of bacon on a Saturday. I just mean I could leave the school for a short while—"

"And who would take you?" replied Dumbledore. "Here, you are at least under my watchful eye, and the watchful eyes of sixteen Aurors. I appreciate your selflessness, Harry, but I don't believe you truly want to leave, do you?"

"No," replied Harry. "I can't imagine it would help keep the students calm, either."

"Quite," replied Dumbledore, as he leaned over. "Thus we are at a stand-still: we cannot send you away; I cannot unilaterally close the school... we cannot do anything but pray that parents heed my advice and withdraw their children."

"That's not enough," replied Harry, feeling the anger simmering in his gut again. "That's not enough, and one of my friends is going to die sooner or later—"

"And I hope it will not be so," said Dumbledore with a sigh, "though I would not be surprised at this point. If my resignation would serve at all to prevent further attacks, I would deliver it to the governors immediately, but I do not believe that it would do anything but embolden the attacker—though that is uncertain, of course. The only conclusion I believe it is safe to draw, at this point, is that Lord Voldemort is behind the attacks, but his motives are inconsistent with his past actions."

Dumbedore paused for a second. "Reaffirm to me, Harry, since it has been some time since I asked you: but are you sure that nobody in your study group has revealed its membership?"

"Positive, sir," replied Harry, "and I'm still positive that none of them are behind the attacks."

"You have recently confirmed this?"

"I don't need to reconfirm," he snapped, with some measure of annoyance at being questioned. "I would have known in the first place if we had been betrayed from the inside—"

Dumbledore frowned, and steeped his fingers. "I have been remiss: how, pray tell—?"

Harry turned his head to look Dumbledore in the eyes. "Because I would feel it in my heart if they violated the contract that they signed when they joined, and so would they. The contract they signed is enforced by a Greater Hex of Regret, amongst other things."

Dumbledore deflated, and fell back into his chair. "That is..." he said, hunting for words.

"What, headmaster?" asked Harry with a twisted grin. "Brilliant? Frightening?"

"'Disturbing' was the word I was looking for," said Dumbledore quietly. "Harry, I have said it to you before: though you are very intelligent, you are also very young. To be fooling around with such... complex magic... Well, it is alarming, no doubt. You have placed your colleages in a great deal of danger—"

"I have ensured their loyalty!"

"Be that as it may... ten points from Gryffindor, Harry, for being so flippant with such weighty magics." He paused. "You are only twelve years old, Harry, not thirty—"

"Quit using my age as an insult!" demanded Harry. "Just because I'm young doesn't mean I'm dumb, and doesn't mean I'm not capable of acting without consideration of consequences. I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

"And what will you do when one of them slips up and betrays you, and goes into cardiac arrest?"

"I'd deal with it," replied Harry. "I'd deal with them. Don't forget that I feel it too, Professor—the pain of betrayal. I wanted it to be a sharp, cutting pain, so they know that I will know. That I'll be able to see it on their faces."

Harry leaned back. "I don't expect any betrayal, though," he replied. "We're a study group, but I take privacy very seriously. We're careful not to be watched, not to be seen together too closely. I'm not the most political-minded of my group, sir, but I've learned enough from Daphne Greengrass and Percy Weasley to know that our association, if it were to be known, would raise eyebrows. It evidently has already."

Dumbledore was silent, a look of mild distaste on his face.

"I mean it, sir—I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

"You should leave," replied Dumbledore. "We have been meeting for far too long; people may begin to notice your absence if you do not return to your bed. Wear your cloak back to Gryffindor Tower, and do not be caught."

Harry stood, and wrapped his invisibility cloak around his shoulders, recognizing a dismissal when he heard one.

"Good night, Harry," replied Dumbledore, not bothering to look up at him.

Harry was two steps to the door when he hesitated, and looked back over his shoulder. "I'm not Tom Riddle, sir," he said slowly, "but nor am I you. I'm my own person, and I'll continue to act in the way I best see fit."

Dumbledore looked Harry straight in the eyes, his lips pressed in a straight line. "Your actions are reckless, Harry, and if you continue to proceed with such a lack of attention to consequence, it will cause you immense trouble in the future. As gifted as you are, you can only toss a coin so many times before it comes up tails."

"What did he think?"

Harry closed the door behind him and turned back to the cross-armed Daphne Greengrass. "He thought what we'd learned was reasonable," he replied. "He made minor amendments to our timeline, but on the whole, he was impressed with what we'd pieced together."

"And—?"

"He didn't give me any more information, if that's what you mean," added Harry with a sigh. He ran his hand through his hair. "He says he doesn't fully know what Riddle did once he left school, but that he would see what he could find out for us."

Daphne blew a raspberry. "He's been a metric ton of help."

Harry brightened. "He did, however, give me a recent biography of Slytherin that the library doesn't have, and it looks like it has a bunch of newly researched information in it. He says that we might see something that he hasn't... I'll start reading it right away and we can discuss it tonight with Neville—"

It was a sad state of affairs that Neville, Daphne, and Harry were the last remaining members of the Defense Association at Hogwarts. Katie, Hermione, Percy, Penny, and Kevin were all petrified; Blaise, Cedric, Susan and Padma had all been withdrawn, and Zacharias made it clear that he had no interest in meeting.

Daphne nodded, but her smile was uneasy. She, unlike Harry and Neville, had applied to her father to withdraw from Hogwarts; unlike her non-petrified contemporaries in the DA, she had been denied it. Her father was a Governor of Hogwarts, and evidently one who felt that withdrawing her showed improper faith in the Auror squad assigned to the school—or at least that was the excuse she had been given.

Daphne had been unusually vocal in expressing her displeasure with that decision, and therafter Harry spent much more time in her presence than before.

Neville, on the other hand, had been commanded to withdraw by his grandmother, a rather stern-looking woman whom Harry had met for the first time in the Gryffindor Common Room a week ago, when she showed up to pull Neville from the school in person. Neville had refused, shocking both Harry, his grandmother, and—Harry suspected—himself.

"It's simple, Harry, isn't it?" Neville had explained to him when he had asked Neville what had transpired between him and his grandmother. "You're the first friend I ever had at Hogwarts. You're the sort of person who stands by his friends, and it's only right that I stand by you when things get rough."

Harry stared at Neville, almost walking into a suit of armor, stunned at the admission. "I don't know what to say, Neville. That means a lot to me."

Neville shrugged it off, though his cheeks were colored pink. "I was pretty surprised that Gran didn't take me out of school anyway, though. She just looked at me, and said that I reminded her of my dad."

Harry didn't have anything to say to that. "Are you sure you want to stay here?" he asked instead.

Neville had just nodded. "At least I get the choice," he had said. Then he lowered his voice. "I feel bad for Ron and his sister, though—they both asked to be withdrawn, but I hear his parents said no because they couldn't afford to feed them both for all that extra time."

And now Harry, Daphne, and Neville were the last three remaining. Far from discouraging them, the fear and anxiety had pushed them to double down on their efforts to sleuth out how the attacks were taking place, and to put a stop to them. They had spent hours upon hours meticulously detailing what they knew about Tom Riddle, and they had done the same with Salazar Slytherin, thinking that if they could find out what Tom Riddle had learned, they could retrace his steps. They were close, Harry knew, but they were one or two steps away from a breakthrough, and those steps had no intention of yielding.

Neville stepped through the door and closed it behind him. The boy looked more confident since his chat with his grandmother—his shoulders were held straighter, his eyes were always up and were looking directly into Harry's own, and his voice seemed to carry just a little more. It looked good on him, and Harry found himself thinking their relationship as an actual friendship with growing frequency.

"We'd better get going to Transfiguration," he said.

"Somehow, the thought of sitting through another one of McGonagall's lectures just doesn't appeal to me," said Harry, and he stuck out his tongue in revulsion. "You two go ahead; I'm going to skive off and read the book Dumbledore gave me."

"Oh, no you don't," said Daphne. "If you're skiving, we're skiving too—"

"We are?" asked Neville with a raised eyebrow.

"We're taking him to the Hospital Wing," explained Daphne.

Harry snorted. "I'm not actually sick, you know," he said, "just skipping Transfiguration."

"The hell you're not," replied Daphne. "Your skin is waxy, you look paler than you ever have, and you're brasher and quicker to anger—"

"I am not—" he snapped, and then realised what he'd done, and hung his head.

Daphne put her hand on his forearm. "You haven't been sleeping since Granger and Bell got petrified," she said, with an uncharacteristically patient air. "Or, to be correct, you've been imbibing so much Dreamless Sleep that you haven't dreamt once since then. There's a reason why that potion is considered addictive, Harry—"

"—Your subconscious has to catch up, yeah?" explained Neville. "That's why."

"Exactly," said Daphne with a self-satisfied smirk. "If you don't dream, you don't have an outlet for the crazy things your brain thinks, and your behaviour just gets more and more erratic until you wind up like moon-brain here."

"Fine," said Harry at last. "I get it. I can walk myself, though—you two should get to Transfiguration. Madam Pomfrey will just send you right back."

Neville grinned. "I'm sure you know the way to the Hospital Wing by yourself," he said, "but I suspect you might get lost this time."

"We'll walk with you," said Daphne in agreement, "if only to tell Madam Pomfrey that she's not to give you any more Dreamless Sleep potion, since you're perfectly capable of brewing it yourself—and have been."

Harry grumbled as he rose from the desk he was leaning against, but he did not feel so bad. Daphne and Neville had turned out to be formidable companions in their own right, even though he could still feel his gut ache when he thought about Katie and Hermione.

As predicted, Madam Pomfrey sent Neville and Daphne off to Transfiguration nearly as soon as they'd arrived—but not so soon that they couldn't tell her about his overuse of the sleeping potion, and not so soon that they couldn't stand behind her back and grin at him while she berated him over such 'careless, foolish, silly, childish behaviour'.

But then they were gone, and Harry was in his pyjamas, getting ready to take a forced nap.

"You children are preposterous," Madam Pomfrey said as she bustled about, her tone as patronizing as only she could. "I've had three more students in for nearly the same thing—just about killing themselves with stress." She shook her head. "The situation is stressful enough without adding the pressures of attending classes and doing homework to it. Why you lot don't come to me when it starts to get bad, rather than when it's at full-blown crisis mode, I'll never know—"

Harry's head lolled to the side. It was difficult to sleep when she kept nattering.

"I had Miss MacDougal in here just the other day—poor girl needed a hug more than anything, but she sat down for a few minutes and wound up running a fever over night. You children just don't take care of your bodies the way you should. And Miss Weasley's been in here so frequently she's hardly left—"

But Harry had lost her, and was staring at the blurry shape of an owl that was sitting at the window sill, tapping to be let in. With a flick of his wand, the window unlatched and slid open, and the owl flew across the room to land on one of the iron knobs of the headboard of his bed.

He slipped the letter off the owl's leg, and let Madam Pomfrey shoo it out of the room, all the while she muttered about barn animals in her hospital. Meanwhile, he was rather focused on the letter in his hands. It was addressed to him, and it was closed with wax, pressed with a seal in the shape of a Snitch.

He broke the wax and opened the letter.

Dear Mr Potter,

As you may know, several scouts for England were present at the Gryffindor-Slytherin Quidditch match on 24-10-1992, and all of them were effusive in their praise of you. As such, we offer you the opportunity to come play as Reserve Seeker for your country in next year's pre-World Cup tournament. If you are so inclined, please send your owl immediately, and we may address any concerns you may have, as well as discuss compensation.

Yours,

Martin Dalrymple,General Manager, England Under-18

He sat the letter down on the bedside table and sighed. At another time—another half-hour later, perhaps, once his mood had shifted again as it seemed to do so freely as of late—he would have been ecstatic about the offer. As it was, he could barely muster up the energy to ponder it. Finding the Chamber, and stopping Sirius Black seemed far more pressing than Quidditch. It had been so long since he had flown, anyway...

With another deep sigh, he leaned his head back, and closed his eyes. There was no way he was going to fall asleep. He just couldn't.

Harry awoke many hours later—how many, he didn't know, but it was dark outside—and sat stark upright to the sound of distant hissing.

"Rip, Kill, Tear," said the voice.

He tossed the rumpled sheets off of his legs, and slid of the side of the bed, wincing as the cool stone froze his toes. He grabbed his wand, and quickly threw on his glasses. Only barely cognizant of the fact he was still wearing his pyjamas, he took off running out the door in the direction of the voice.

He could hear it far ahead of him, though he was gaining. And then—

"Nasssty thing has turned to ssstone again! Massster promisssed food tonight and we WILL have food!"

And then it was moving very quickly in the opposite direction. Harry could hear it move past him... but above, at the same time. Not on the same floor, he thought. He turned the corner, vaulted up the stairs two at a time, and then turned back in the direction that he'd came, past Mr Filch, who was standing stock-still, a look of utter fear visible in the cracked mirror he'd been polishing.

Harry backtracked along the second floor corridor, following the sussurations of whatever it was—

"Master promised us food! Where is our food, Master? Master—?" came the voice. "Master—Master, someone is coming... Master must hide us... Master must hide us now, we mustn't be caught or they will kill us!"

Harry rounded the corner. The door to the perpetually out-of-order girls' bathroom was wide open, a slow trickle of water snaking down the cracks in the stones beneath his feet. One half of his mind noted the cool water between his toes, but it was the other half that was screaming for attention: the scaly tail end of... well, of something was undulating back and forth as the rest of it slid down a giant hole in the middle of the floor.

And then it was gone. Stone began to grind on stone, at first quietly, but then growing so loud that Harry was shocked the rest of the school hadn't awoken. Like a hand rising from the depths, the octagonal sink basin which was common in all of Hogwarts' bathrooms slid out of the floor and recoalesced into one piece—a fist clenching together. Harry pinched himself on the arm; it was hard to believe he was not dreaming.

When that failed, he brandished his wand. "Expecto Patronum!" Once again he was face to face with an amorphous wisp of whitest smoke. This time, Harry thought for a brief second that he could make out a horn, or antlers of some sort, but the smoke shifted and the resemblance lost.

Harry cleared his throat. "Go to Dumbledore, and tell him that Filch has been Petrified, and that the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets is on the second floor in the broken bathroom."

The wisp shot off, going right through him and warming him as it did. He continued forward cautiously, his wand out. "If you make eye contact, it kills you," he said, now realizing what he was dealing with. "Only if you don't look at it directly—Hermione and Katie saw it in the window glare; Filch saw it in the mirror; Madam Pince was wearing glasses..." On instinct, he pushed his own spectacles further up his nose. "But how on earth did nobody ever notice a basilisk living in Hogwarts?"

He stopped suddenly, a few feet from the door to the bathroom, and just about hit himself in frustration. If Hermione had not been petrified, she would have gotten the answer right away. "Pipes," he told himself. "It's using the pipes to move around in, and there have to be exits all over the school—probably in every bathroom..."

He stepped into the bathroom and looked around. His eyes fell at once on the red-headed girl who was standing stiffly, her hands clenched around a book, eyes glazed.

"Ginny?" he said, tentatively, and he ran across the floor toward her, his bare feet splashing the pooled water that was pouring from one of the toilets.

"She won't wake," said an ethereal voice from over his shoulder as he sank to his knees in front of her. "She got it face-on. She deserves it, too, since she was the one behind the attacks."

Harry spun, bile rising in his gorge. "Who are you?" he demanded the ghost, a girl who couldn't have been much older than sixteen at the time of her death.

"Most people call me Moaning Myrtle. It's not a very kind nickname—"

"—and how do you know she was the one behind the attacks?" demanded Harry. His heart was pounding wildly.

Myrtle looked a little put-out at being interrupted, but answered anyway. "Why, she's been here before giving that monster orders."

Harry blinked. "What do you mean?"

"She stands at the sink and then hisses something. The sink falls into the floor, and then a minute later, that snake comes crawling out, listens to her say something, and then goes back into the hole. Ten minutes later, the whole castle's in an uproar, and she's still in here, looking very satisfied with herself." Myrtle shivered. "I think it's a good thing she's dead."

"Wait, you're Myrtle Mahoney, right? That's what you said?" asked Harry,

She giggled. "Oh, you know me, then!"

"Of course I know you," he replied. "You died by that monster—a basilisk."

"Is that what it is?" she asked, as she drifted lazily by him. "I just remember seeing its big, yellow eyes. I didn't ever take Care of Magical Creatures."

"I haven't either," he mumbled, as he felt at Ginny's wrist for a pulse. She was still warm, but her skin had a strange stiffness to it, a resistance to his touch that wasn't quite right. "But a basilisk isn't exactly an obscure thing. Hell, it's in a popular kid's book about me. 'Harry Potter Conquers the King Serpent.' One of Rosenby's best sellers—an utter fabrication, of course—"

"You have books written about you?" asked Myrtle. "You must be a very, very important person. Should I curtsey?"

"No need," said Harry hastily. He was looking at the book Ginny Weasley held clenched in her hand. It was matte black with roughly hewn pages and golden tips, bound by hand. It was also so old that it looked like it was ready to fall apart. But it was the embossing on the spine that made the hair on Harry's neck rise. Tom Riddle, it said.

He took the book from her hands and slid it into the inside pocket of his robe. It was better that nobody else stumble upon the book without knowing precisely who it belonged to, he told himself. It was proof, too, that Black had been working with Voldemort.

Once he'd removed the book, he took a closer look at Ron's younger sister. Her long hair was dishevelled, and looked like it hadn't been combed or even washed in weeks. Likewise, her skin was waxy, pale—even moreso than it usually was, due to her very fair complexion—and he could smell her. He could hardly describe it: it was a smell that made him want to run away, a smell that reminded him of pure terror. She had been pretty, he remembered, though unconventionally; now, she just looked like a frightened, sick little girl.

"She couldn't have been behind it," he said, mulling the thought over in his mind. "Could she? She had no motive... she was just a first year..."l

He resisted the impulse to leave her for Dumbledore to deal with, felt for her pulse, and brightened shortly thereafter. "Ginny isn't dead. She's been petrified, too—"

Myrtle frowned. "But she looked it straight in the eye—"

Harry shrugged and Myrtle's frown grew into a scowl. "She should have died! I died! Why is she not dead?"

"That's a good question," said a gravelly voice from the door behind him. Harry turned.

Standing there was a man of middling height, with thick, unkempt, curly black hair and a beard that rivalled Hagrid's. He was wearing robes that were clearly too small for him, since they only just covered his knees, as well as a pair of faded slacks over a pair of worn shoes that had a hole in the toe of the rightmost. He looked like he'd been dressed straight out of a charity bin. The most out of place was a toothy grin—a grin full of rotting, pointy, black teeth; a grin more manic than happy.

Harry's mind took forever to catch up. He could see the man, knew who he was... could even see the man's hands shake slightly as he took two steps forward, but he could not say anything, could not do anything but stand there, his mouth agape until the rest of his body caught up. "Sirius Black," he finally managed.

"Very good," said the man, his smile growing even larger and more terrifying. "I suppose Remus told you all about me—"

"He did," spat Harry, and he reached into his cloak, grasping for his wand. "He told me all about you—"

Black just continued to smile, and kept advancing like it was nothing at all. "And did he ever visit you at your relatives'?"

Harry leveled his wand at Black. "Don't come any closer," he commanded, though he worried that the quiver in his voice had been detected. "I'm not afraid—"

Black stopped suddenly, and blinked, as if seeing Harry for the first time all over again. "You are," he said, slowly. "You are afraid of me. I didn't realize it had gotten this bad. I'm not here to hurt you, Harry. I'm just here to take you away—"

"Take me away?" replied Harry. As scared as he was, he was also furious at Black. "I'm not going anywhere with you. I know you were the one who betrayed my parents. I know that you killed thirteen Muggles. I know that you're responsible for the Chamber of Secrets being opened again and you've been hurting my friends. Whatever you've done to Ginny Weasley, you fix her right now."

Black's face shifted through a wild range of emotions: disbelief, shock, anger, and finally determination. "Whatever you've heard, Harry, it's wrong," he said. "I'm not—"

"Don't try to deny it!" yelled Harry. "I know you did it. I'll kill you for it!"

"I'm innocent!" shouted Black back at him, as he threw himself out of the way of the two bright beams that rocketed from Harry's wand.

Harry snorted, as he took a step back, shifting his weight and settling into a proper dueling stance. "That's what every murderer in Azkaban says, I'm sure," he said. He shot off a Blasting Curse at Black, who narrowly avoided it by throwing himself into a roll that placed him within ten feet of Harry when he popped back up.

"You don't want to get into a duel with me, Harry," said Black with intense surety, as he took three quick steps forward before being halted by a quick barrage of spells. "I'm one of the best duelists there's ever been—"

Harry scoffed. "You don't even have a wand."

"Don't I?" asked Black, as he pulled a long, dark-stained wand from the inner pocket of the too-small robe he wore. He grinned, but his grin fell almost immediately, and he hastily added, "I don't want to use it, but don't think I don't have it."

Harry paused, considering. "I can still kill you anyway—"

Black's face fell. "What have they done to you, Harry?" he demanded. "What happened to the sweet little bubbly boy I remember crawling around your parents' home? You used to call me 'Unka Siris'—"

"—Don't pretend like we're friends," interrupted Harry, who took a handful of steps back, trying to put distance between himself and Ginny Weasley lest she be hit by an errant blast. She was flesh made stone, but she was still flesh, he reminded himself.

"We—"

"You probably weren't ever my dad's friend, were you?" asked Harry. "You were always—"

"Harry," interrupted Black, "cut this out. I don't have a ton of time before we have to go, and I need to make you understand—"

"I have nothing to say to a Death Eater."

"But I'm not a Death Eater!" shouted Black. He pulled up his sleeves, and showed his bare arms to Harry. They were filthy, grime-encrusted, but they were bare. The Dark Mark did not mar the supremely marred features of Sirius Black.

Harry felt his resolve waver just a little, but he quickly clamped down on the feeling. This was the man who had killed his parents, who had tried to have him killed... For all intents and purposes, he had killed fifteen people, maybe more, and Harry was not about to let him steal him away, or even leave Hogwarts alive.

He flicked his wand again, sending some of the nastier hexes that he'd learned with the DA whistling toward Black, who promptly caught them on the tip of his wand and sent them right back at Harry.

He had not expected that at all—nor, in fact, was he aware it was possible—and found himself flipping end over end until he landed on the hard stone floor with a thud. Pain flared up his left shoulder, and as he tried to push himself up to get himself moving again, he accidentally jostled his arm a bit. A sharp jolt shot up from his forearm and made him gasp in pain, tears uncontrollably coming to his eyes.

Black took the opportunity to close the gap. He was only two feet from Harry, towering above him. "You've broken it," he explained. "Let me mend it and we can talk. I promise not to hurt you—"

"Everte Statum!"

Black went flipping backward, but Harry was forced to watch in awe as Black's wand twirled while he shot through the air. The uncontrolled head-over-arse tumble became a tight corkscrewing spiral and settled into a neat backflip that left Black back on his feet and rising with his wand held in front of him.

Harry jumped to his own feet, trying to hold his arm as close as possible to his body. He fired off two more hexes—simple ones, ones that he knew Black would bat away, but he needed the time—and he lunged for the cover of the sinks.

As he predicted, Black knocked the hexes into the ceiling, where they ended their short existences as scorch marks. "Harry," he called. "I don't want to have to duel you. I promise—I swear it—that I won't hurt you. I just want to talk."

Harry's arm throbbed in tempo with his seething breath. "I have nothing to say to you, murderer!" He leaned out just slightly, and shot another Blasting Curse straight at Black's head.

Harry's jaw again dropped when Black quickly conjured a void that ate Harry's spell in entirety before disappearing. This was what Malfoy must have felt like when they had dueled, he thought. He could tell he was so far outclassed that only Black's restraint—strange though it was to think about—was keeping him alive.

"I don't want to fight," called Black, moving to use the sinks as cover between them too, "but if I have to to get you to talk to me, I will."

"You won't take me," said Harry, poking his head out to try and track him as he moved. "I'll kill myself before I—"

"Petrificus Truncus!" yelled Black, as he appeared around the far side of the pillar of sinks.

And just like that, Harry's arms snapped to his sides and he could no longer feel them. It took a second again for the horror to set in, but he very quickly realised that his only path was to run for the door—

And six steps to the door, just as freedom loomed big in front of him, Black caught him around the midsection, lifting his feet clean off the ground.

Harry struggled with all his might, kicking back at the man whose smell was so much more nauseating up close. It was a terrible scent of long-soured body odor, the mold of the rags he was wearing, and hints of urine and alcohol, and it made Harry gag just being close to it.

Black held firm, and soon they both slumped to the floor. "Don't try and run," he warned. "I only petrified your torso because I don't want you falling and hurting that arm any more. If you try to run, you're going to fall flat on your face, and it's going to hurt. Sit still and let me fix it."

Harry had no intention of obeying, but Black's weight—considerably more than Harry's own meager handful of stone—pressed down on his shoulders every time he even shifted. Meanwhile, Black's wand was a blur, removing the sleeve of Harry's robe at the bicep, numbing his forearm before he slid the broken radius bone back together and sealed it with charm.

"I'm no healer," said Black, after he had finished inspecting his handiwork, "but we did enough field medicine in the Auror corps that it should hold up. Even Madam Pomfrey would be proud—that old bird is still here, right? Anyway, sit five minutes and wait for that to set."

Harry was silent as Black sat himself on the floor beside him. "So let's talk," he said, clapping a hand against Harry's knee. "Where have you been living?"

"I've nothing to say to you," replied Harry, and he turned his head away from the man.

"No worries!" he exclaimed. "I've got plenty to say to you—"

"Better say it fast," said Harry. He grinned. "Dumbledore's going to be coming for me, and when he shows up, he's not going to be very happy with you."

Black shook his head. "Dumbledore's not in the castle tonight," he said. "Summoned out by the governors, I believe—they're sacking him. That's why I have to take you away now."

"How do you know?"

An old piece of folded parchment came out of Black's robes. He sat it down on Harry's lap. "I made this magic, you know," he said conspiratorially to Harry. "Me, your dad, Remus Lupin—we all sat down and studied how to create magic to do what we wanted to do. Took us an entire term, but the payoff was huge. I found the Weasley twins using it the other day, and I nicked it off of them pretty easy. Shocked the thing survived this long." He ran a hand through his tangled hair, wincing as it snagged along the way.

Harry looked at the parchment dubiously. "There's a lot of magic going on there," he said. "However did you get it to act so much like a blank piece of parchment?"

"Have some patience!" snapped Black. "'I solemnly swear I'm up to no good.'" He sat back, his eyes darting over the map. With a curt laugh, he turned to Harry. "There's your proof: no Dumbledore anywhere on the map."

Harry scanned it quickly. "How do I know this map isn't lying?"

"Why would it lie?" replied Black.

"To make me give up hope and go with you quietly," said Harry. The numbness in his arm was starting to fade, and he could feel a slight twinge of pain, though nothing like the pain when he'd broken it.

"Well, believe me or not," snapped Black, "Dumbledore's not here. Now listen up... I don't want to be short, but you're not co-operating, and that's not okay with me. Show me some courtesy."

Harry snorted. "I'm the one in an upper-body bind here," he said. "Apparently courtesy is a one-way thing—"

"If you wouldn't run away, I'd let you free," said Black. "But as it is, I'm seriously thinking about just stunning you and then having this talk later—"

And Harry suddenly realised that toeing the line was the most dangerous thing he could do with Black, but it was the only thing he could do to stall. He seriously couldn't believe that Dumbledore had left—how stupid was that! The governors had suspiciously terrible timing.

"Fine," he said. "Tell your story then. See if I care."

Black frowned, and shifted slightly—his bottom obviously sore from sitting on the stone. "It starts fifteen years ago, I guess," he said. "Heh—it's funny; I never thought I'd ever actually get to tell this story, so I don't really know where to start—"

"Utter hilarity," said Harry.

"So your dad and I were as close as brothers—literally. Your grandmother and grandfather were in the process of adopting me when they passed away. As it was, when I left my mother's house in the summer before my sixth year, they took me in, fed me, sheltered me... Jamie and I were so close. So when he and your mum had you, he confided in me that they were going to go into hiding—that their first priority was making sure you survived the war with both parents alive, regardless of whether You-Know-Who won or not. They figured they'd leave the country, but right about that point, You-Know-Who started quietly taking over the Ministry and had control over all the exit points—"

"Right. Why didn't they just fly out on a Muggle plane?" asked Harry, as he tried his absolute best to look disinterested.

"They tried," replied Black, his face lined with long-remembered grief. "They tried, but somehow You-Know-Who found out—"

Harry frowned. "Wait, hold on," he said. "Why was Voldemort after them anyway? What had they done that made him our enemy?"

Sirius scratched his head. "Y'know, I don't rightly know the answer to that question. I mean, Jamie was an Auror, and your mum worked with the Department of Mysteries before she took time off to have you, but I can't think of why he cared beyond the fact that they opposed him. They weren't big-name opposition, anyway, and they were pretty good about hiding their identities and their opinions in public..."

"Nobody has ever been able to explain to me why he tried to kill me," replied Harry absentmindedly. "I'd like to know someday."

"And someday soon," said Sirius, "I'll help you find out, I promise. Anyway, You-Know-Who caught them, and they only just escaped, though your dad lost most of his right arm to a dark curse trying to escape. Well, after that, he couldn't rightly work as an Auror, since he hadn't trained to use his wand with his left hand at all, so Lily—your mum—and he decided that they had to go into hiding within the country, which was obviously more difficult.

"There's a charm that your mum had been studying—it was called the Fidelius Charm. It was a clever piece of magic that was used for legal work; it's still used even now to secure secrets against Legilimens—mind readers, that is—or against truth potions."

He paused, scratched under an armpit, sniffed the air. "In its original form, it works to conceal information, but it didn't go quite far enough for your mum. If someone already knew where your family lived, read it in a phone book, or just happened to walk by your house in Godric's Hollow, they could see right into the windows—your house wasn't secret, nor was the address; the only thing the spell did at the time was prevent people from telling it or accidentally revealing it to someone else. Your mum, she changed that."

He paused, looking at Harry intently. "I'm sure you hear stories of your dad pretty frequently—"

"Some," replied Harry.

"Right, and I could tell you a bunch of them—enough to make your heart fat—but it's your mum who was the amazing one. People loved your dad... but in no way was he an equal to Lily. It'd be like comparing me to Dumbledore. Sure, I'm good with a wand, I'm aces on the dueling field... but Dumbledore just makes me stand there in awe. Your mum was like that."

He seemed to lose himself, scratching under his chin roughly for a few seconds, but he turned back to Harry, and looked at him with a serious expression. "She essentially rewrote the entire charm from the ground up. Instead of just hiding a secret, it actually prevented comprehension until you were told of it. You couldn't even know there was a secret.

"Think on it, though. She had done something that should have been impossible, and she hadn't even realised the ramifications of it at first. Did you ever hear of Rainier Mulciber?"

Harry shook his head, and stretched his legs. He had most of his feeling back in his arms, but there was still a residual numbness and tingling—like he'd slept on them. "Should I have?"

"You're too young, I guess," replied Black. "A Death Eater, of course. He was in the cell next to me for years before they moved him down the hall, once they realized he'd managed to dig a two-foot hole under his bed. Anyway, he was the first victim of the Fidelius Curse—"

"I'm sorry?" asked Harry. "I thought it was a charm—"

"In some cases, yes," replied Sirius, "but what's the difference between a charm and a curse except for consent?"

Harry fell silent, thinking on the notion, but Black rambled on, oblivious. "The Fidelius Curse—or Charm, if you prefer it—caused, in effect, a mass Obliviation throughout the world. There was no counter to it, no way to regain the knowledge of what you'd lost... and worst of all, you didn't have to be the proprietor of the piece of knowledge to hide it; you only had to know it. We hid Mulciber's estate on him. Mad-Eye Moody cast the Curse; your father was the Secret Keeper. Mulciber could never find his house again—or, evidently, his wife or his kids, though we didn't know that until much later. Ever heard of Octavius Rosier?"

Harry shook his head.

"I'll let you in on the secret: he forgot he was a wizard entirely. Do you see now why it was an immensely dangerous spell?"

Harry nodded, shocked. "And my mother came up with that?"

"She was so sweet and innocent," replied Sirius, as he pushed himself slowly to his feet. "Always thought the best of everyone and everything, and did things so earnestly that you couldn't help but love her. But the Order—you do know about the Order, right—?"

"Yeah," said Harry.

"Well, we had some darker minds," he said, "mine included. The few of us who knew about the Charm—just your dad and mum, me, Dumbledore, Mad-Eye, and the Prewett Twins—we figured out how to use it. Of all of us, only your mother, Dumbledore, and Mad-Eye could cast it. Your mum, because she knew it already, and had to know how it worked to continue researching. Dumbledore, because it had immense strategic value to the Order, and Mad-Eye, because he was resistant to torture and we needed someone with an offensive mind to plan it. The modified Charm itself was under Fidelius, and the only reason I can talk to you about this now is because your mother told me the secret while I was holding you."

He stopped, sighed, and looked at Harry. His eyes were sad, Harry noted. He looked the way Harry himself had when he'd first had to go to class without Hermione.

"Anyway, I mention this to give you context," continued Black. "We were extremely cautious with the spell; nobody ever found out about it, and it was only toward the very end that Voldemort even learned that we were stealing things and people from him. It alone was starting to turn the tide, even as we lost members, but it had three flaws.

"First, you couldn't make the Secret Keeper someone who was going to be obscured by the same Charm. Why, I don't know, but your mother seemed to think it would make your house explode. Second, you couldn't have a reciprocal Secret Keeper arrangement; so, for example, I couldn't have kept the secret of your address while you kept the secret of my address; that didn't work either for the same reason.

"Third, it was immensely draining to cast. Think of a month's recovery time with minimal magic for the first two weeks. That was the Fidelius." He paused again, quirked his head, and offered a hand to Harry. "You look a little stiff," he said by way of explanation. "You're not going to run if I help you up, are you?"

"Not yet," answered Harry, as he accepted the hand up.

"Don't," said Sirius. "I know you're interested in what I'm saying., so don't be childish and do it because I told you not to—"

"I said I wouldn't!" snapped Harry. "Don't call me a child—"

Sirius took a deep, steadying breath. "Okay. So, anyway, to compensate for the fact that he himself couldn't be Secret Keeper, James looked at our friends. At first, he wanted Remus to be his secret keeper since Remus is so reliable, but he was worried that Remus might be swept up into one of You-Know-Who's Werewolf groups, since he was promising them full independence... Or worse, that Remus would be easily kidnapped, tortured, and forced to reveal the secret, since he acted as the Order's liason with the Werewolves. And then he wanted me, since we were so close, but I was an easy guess."

"So that left Pettigrew," prompted Harry, all pretext of ignoring Black forgotten.

"Exactly," replied Sirius. "And to protect him, I took on the secret of his address. It wasn't reciprocal, you see, and they had to break me before they broke him."

Sirius sighed deeply, and his eyes fell to the ground. "One week later, your parents were dead," he said with a flat tone. All the emotion in his animated body had bled into his grief, into graves of his unforgotten friends. "They were dead, and I hadn't spoken to anybody at all since we took our secrets, I swear on my life.

"So I found Pettigrew. I found him, and when I cornered him, he acted like he had cornered me—shifty bastard couldn't even act contrite. He blew himself up. I don't know how he found the power or the will to do it, but he blew himself up, and took thirteen innocent Muggles with him."

They fell into silence.

"Don't get me wrong," replied Sirius, after a long minute. "I'm still an attempted murderer, and given the chance, I'd happily be a convicted murderer. If I had another shot at Pettigrew, I'd rip him limb from limb."

"Are you telling the truth?" asked Harry, looking directly into Black's eyes. "Tell me the truth."

"I swear it," said Black, his own dark eyes unable to move from Harry's. "Peter Pettigrew betrayed your parents. He killed himself and thirteen Muggles to try to escape from my wrath. The only thing I'm guilty of is escaping Azkaban and neglecting my duties to you for so long. That changes now."

Black was not lying, Harry was sure of it, but he could hardly believe it. Black had been the one to betray his parents, had been the one to open the Chamber of Secrets... but he had bared his soul, and unless he was a better Occlumens than Harry was a Legilimens, he was telling the truth, and Harry had been wrong. "Do you swear it?" he demanded.

"I do," said Black. "I'd swear the Unbreakable Vow that I'm telling you the truth—"

"—I, for one, should like to hear those vows," said an aged and wise voice from the door.

Black jumped back, his wand coming instinctually up to bear. "Dumbledore!" he said. "Stay back—"

"Sirius," said a tired-looking Professor Lupin, who was one of the men dwarfed beside Dumbledore's tall frame. "Are you telling the truth? Are you innocent?"

Black nodded. "I swear it, Remus. I'm so sorry for doubting you—"

Lupin nodded, looking every bit like there was a lump in his throat. "We were here for the last fifteen minutes," he said with a forced evenness. "We heard nearly everything—"

Black's eyes darted back and forth between the three men—Lupin, Dumbledore, and Kingsley Shacklebolt, whom had been introduced as the Auror-in-Charge of the Hogwarts detachment. "I've always appreciated your ability to move about unnoticed, Dumbledore," he said. "How did you do it?"

"I have my ways," replied Dumbledore coyly, an almost-smile on his face as he moved around the circular bathroom toward Ginny Weasley, "just as I admire your own methods. No doubt you noticed my absence on that lovely map that you have borrowed from Fred and George Weasley?"

"Who told you about that?" demanded Black.

"That was my doing," replied Lupin. "I swore an oath to Dumbledore, Sirius. The minute we knew you were in the castle, we removed ourselves from the map."

"Professor Lupin has been undoubtedly helpful in tracking you," replied Dumbledore with a hum.

Black slowly edged away from him to place himself equidistant from Dumbledore and Shacklebolt. "What ho, Kingsley," Sirius addressed the latter, his chest puffed out. "Are you here to arrest me?"

"Yes," Kingsley replied laconically, "but if you take that vow, understand that it'd be with a very different result than without. Mr Potter, would you come here? I think it would be a good idea if you left the room at the moment—"

Harry froze. He understood what that meant with a flash of clarity, and to his own surprise, he stepped closer to Black. "I believe him," he replied.

All three of the other men drew wands at the instant he stepped closer to Black. "Harry, step away," coaxed Dumbledore. "No undue harm will befall him, I promise you."

"Mr Potter," came Kingsley's soothing voice. "You should step away, or else you might be considered to be aiding a fugitive—"

"He's not a fugitive," replied Harry, "not anymore." He turned to Black, and held out a hand. "If you're not the one who opened the Chamber of Secrets, then we need to move on. Give me your Unbreakable Vow."

Black clasped his hand like it was pulling him from the frigid ocean.

Dumbledore was suddenly beside them, peering down critically at Harry over his glasses. "Can you devise a sufficient vow—?"

"Of course," replied Harry, and he turned back to Black. "Will you swear you were telling the truth, that you did not betray my parents, and that you did not murder anyone after their betrayal?"

"I so swear," said Black. A jet of red flame shot from Dumbledore's wand and wrapped around their wrists, intense in its heat.

"—And will you swear that you have never served the Dark Lord willingly?"

"I so swear."

Another jet joined the first.

"—And will you swear that you did not open the Chamber of Secrets, or knowingly assist anyone open it, or obfuscate the responsible party?"

"I so swear."

With that, a third jet circled around, clasping their hands tightly together, searing into both of their wrists but not leaving a mark. A second later, Harry let go.

Sirius looked down at his hand, lowered it to his side, and smiled. "As you can see," he said, "I'm very much alive, and very much a man of my word."

RECKLESS

Last time:

Harry's going a little insane. He's lost his balances in Katie and Hermione, and without their counteracting, socializing presence, he begins to slip back into his customary calculatingly egocentric viewpoint. Neville and Daphne (the only faithful two from the DA remaining at Hogwarts) become surrogate friends, but they don't stop the nightmares or fill the absence of sleep. Even Dumbledore's noticed the changes in Harry, and he berates him on his lack of attention to consequence.

Harry has also received a letter inviting him to be part of the England Under-18 Quidditch team. He hasn't considered accepting yet, since he is preoccupied with the attacks on his friends by Slytherin's Heir and hasn't really played much Quidditch.

Harry is awoken by the hissing of the Basilisk, which he tracks to the second floor bathroom. There, Moaning Myrtle reveals that Ginny Weasley has survived the Basilisk's attack, even though she looked it directly in the eye. Harry notices she is carrying a book inscribed 'Tom Riddle', which he takes 'to protect the innocent'.

Sirius Black then arrives, and after subduing Harry, proceeds to give him a lengthy lecture on theoretical charms. In the process, he reveals that he is not guilty of any of the offences levelled against himself. This talk is overheard by Dumbledore, Lupin, and Shacklebolt, the latter of whom takes Black into custody after Black has sworn an Unbreakable Vow to Harry, attesting to his innocence.

CHAPTER 7: RECKLESS

Harry sat in his room three days later, his legs crossed underneath him and his straggly hair pulled out of his eyes by a transfigured strip of leather. He was looking at his Transfiguration essay, trying to figure out how to answer the question without revealing that he knew that the theory they were studying was pablum, that it was actually substantially more complicated (as they were scheduled to learn in fifth year), and trying to hint at the same time at the inconsistencies in the theory without appearing too knowledgeable.

He was failing utterly. It was his second draft, meant to be written cleanly without striking any word, but his parchment looked like he'd been trying to light his quill aflame like a match.

He threw up his arms and yelled incoherently, scaring Neville, who was sitting on his own bed ensconced in the same essay.

"What's the matter?" asked Neville, who clutched his chest, very obviously alerted by Harry's cry.

"I had to let it out," replied Harry. "This essay, Nev—it's dreck. Utter dreck. The more I write, the more it turns to dreck."

"Put it down," suggested Neville.

"You have a gun?" replied Harry. "I would happily put it down—"

"That's not what I meant, and you know it," said Neville, laughing. "Come back to it later then. You can always turn in something bad, too—it's not as if you're going to fail the class."

Harry looked down at the parchment in front of him, and then back at Neville. "But then how will I set a Hogwarts record?" he asked. "And more importantly, if I don't set a Hogwarts record, how then will I irritate Hermione when she's unpetrified?"

"You'll have to think of something," replied Neville, as he slid off his bed. "I'm going to the Owlery for a few minutes—want to post a letter to Gran. You want to come?"

Harry looked back down at his essay one more time. "No," he said. "You go. I'm going to finish this off so I never have to look at it again."

Neville nodded at Harry, and then slipped out the door without a peep.

Harry waited two minutes for him to go, and then shuffled the parchment. "I solemnly swear I'm up to no good," he said quietly, and stared as the lines drew themselves to reveal the map of Hogwarts. He had used the map five times now—left conveniently in his possession by Sirius, with Dumbledore willfully turning a blind eye—and each time it was like new.

There was nobody nearby. The Common Room was reasonably busy, but Neville was well on his way to the Owlery, and Ron—the only other second-year boy in Gryffindor that remained at Hogwarts—was in the Potions classroom, serving the detention he'd earned from Professor Snape for nearly incinerating his cauldron by following directions poorly.

So he tapped the map with his wand again, wiped it clean, and reached underneath his bed. Tom Riddle was a boring book, if you could call it that—most of it looked like a diary that nobody had bothered to write in, except for random pages which contained a mishmash of ink in utterly unintelligible patterns. Inkblots, it reminded Harry of.

But it was when he flicked his wand and uttered Venefilux Ostende—the Cursebreaker's Sight—that the book became something truly interesting. He'd tried it on a whim a day before, and the thing had lit up like a Christmas tree—albeit one that had been tossed in mud. The magic surrounding the book was so complicated that he could only begin to piece out how it was built, though he could understand from the magic that it was not a benign object. It had a menacing presence, and parts of the enchantment actually moved, spinning in tidal circles, eddying around the cover of the book, spitting flecks of magic as they whirled.

But it was clear that it was damaged. Sometimes the magic tried to spin in a way that it had spun before and failed. It managed to recover after a bit of time, but it was like watching a professional Quidditch player after a head injury—the movements were still there, but the intensity was gone, and one could tell by looking at it that it was overdue retirement.

"What are you hiding?" he asked it curiously, as he turned it over in his hands again and again.

There was a whole host of enchantments on the diary geared toward preventing its destruction, he though, though what the actual result of attempting to destroy it would be, he couldn't say. There was a shambles of enchantments that had clearly served to encourage the beholder to open the book, to write in it... though those were clearly not functional, since he felt no drive whatsoever to do so. What did that leave?

He couldn't tell what a small, isolated cluster of enchantments did, though they didn't seem at all harmful—an assumption he knew was dangerous to make, yet one he made instinctually. If he had to guess, it was a cluster designed to communicate with someone. It was different magic from the magic of the rest of the diary; clean, professional... but not as mind-bogglingly powerful as the other enchantments were.

The pièce-de-résistance, however, was a swirling vortex of blackness that pulsed like a heart. At first, he thought he was imagining things, but its pulsing sped up when Harry looked directly at it. He felt like something was watching him from across the room, but each time he turned his head, there was nothing.

He put the diary back down on the bed and breathed a sigh. He could tell that it was something he ought to bring to Professor Dumbledore immediately, something dangerous in the extreme. It had obviously snared Ginny Weasley—obviously, he thought, because there was no way that a first year could be preoccupied with murder, and because Tom Riddle was far more likely a murderer than Ginny Weasley, littlest child of the most rottenly loving family ever.

He knew that he ought to turn it in, but he also knew that he had no intention of doing so—not yet. If he gave the book to Dumbledore, then he would never see it again. It was terrible, dark magic, but Harry could tell it was also the key to Tom Riddle. In the months of studying Voldemort's youthful self, Harry had begun to get a feeling for how the psychotic youth had acted, had begun to be able to guess with some accuracy his reactions and interests... Had even begun, really, to feel the familiarity of Riddle's magic, like an intangible scent that would float on the air and would draw Harry's mind to the boy like the smell of peppermint reminded him of Mrs Figg.

The diary screamed Riddle. It was so strong that Harry often found himself thinking of it as Riddle. If he gave the diary to Dumbledore, he would never have the opportunity to come to understand it, to really appreciate what he was dealing with. Voldemort had said they were so alike, and now Harry burned to figure out in which way.

And so he closed his mind, occluding as best as he could, and then pointed his wand at the diary. "Legilimens!"

"Miss," said Tom, reaching up to grab the matron's sleeve. "Miss, Moll and Bertram knocked me over and put dirt in my mouth—"

The matron—a greying, portly woman whose cheeks sagged like jowls—ripped Tom's hand from her sleeve. "So?" she replied, not bothering to look up from whatever it was she was writing in on the desk (Tom couldn't see exactly what, since he was only just tall enough to see that she was writing something).

"But they put dirt in my mouth—"

"And what do you want me to do about it?" she replied. "Tell their parents to come pick them up?"

Tom shrunk from her. The matron was a scary lady at the best of times, but when she'd taken sips from the bottle that was inside her desk, she was cruel, as well as scary. "No, Miss," he replied.

"You listen up, and you listen up good, runt," she said, finally taking her eyes off of her paper and looking at him. "If you're not happy with it, you knock them over and put dirt in their mouths."

The notion seemed completely foreign to Tom. "But... they're bigger than me, Miss—"

"Then learn to knock them over some different way, then," she replied. "But don't bother me again or it'll be the cane for you. Understood?"

Tom nodded—and then he was standing in the line of first years at Hogwarts, eyes narrowed in anticipation.

Under the cap sat Theophilus Lestrange, the one acquaintance Tom had made on the Hogwarts Express. He was a squat boy with a broad chest, a flat nose, and wet-looking brown hair—not much to look at—but he had immediately attempted to befriend Tom, and even when Theophilus's friends had come to steer him to their compartment, Theophilus had remained steadfast with Tom.

Tom valued that loyalty.

"SLYTHERIN!" shouted the Sorting Hat, and everyone applauded. Everyone in Slytherin, that was; nobody else liked Slytherin house because they got all the good jobs at the Ministry of Magic and were far more successful than the other houses. At least, that was what Theophilus had said. Tom didn't believe it wholly, but he recognized the desire in the boy to succeed, and he recognized that desire as kin to his own desires. Games did not interest Tom; nor did silly, simplistic things like bravery, love, or philosophy. The fool was brave; the sage was cautious. The fool loved and was destroyed by it; the sage never let himself be distracted, allured by shallow promises of everlasting happiness. The fool worked hard; the sage never did the same thing more than once. The fool loved knowledge; the sage used knowledge.

There was only power, thought Tom, and those too weak to seek it. Such was the way of fools.

Soon enough, it was his turn, and he walked at a sedate pace to his own sorting. He knew where he was destined to be. The cap soon fit over his head, and he heard the whispering in his ears.

"Clever, very clever... but twice as ambitious. Not a hard choice. SLYTHERIN!"

He stood up, brushing the dust off of his robes and straightening his prefect's badge before grabbing his rucksack. "Sir," he said, turning around to face a rather swarthy man with a walrus-like moustache that was greying at the tips. "Sir, I was wondering, sir—I was doing some research, and I came across a reference to a word that I didn't understand."

Professor Walrus beamed at him. "You're so studious, Tom," he replied. "You should remember to take some more time off, maybe come to a few more of my dinners. But what was the word?"

"Horcrux, sir," replied Tom, no hint of emotion at all on his face.

The man's eyes went wide like he'd seen a nundu stalking toward him. "Where did you read about that, Tom?" he asked. "That is very dangerous magic—"

"In researching an essay for Professor Merrythought, Professor Slughorn, sir. What does it mean? I couldn't find anything else on it in the library at all."

"I should hope not," replied Professor Slughorn, who dabbed at his moist forehead with a cloth he pulled from his robe. He hesitated for a second. "Your interest is purely academic?"

Tom nodded. "I don't even know what it is, sir—only that it was a magick most potente and terrible. It doesn't sound like something to dabble in lightly."

Slughorn nodded. "Indeed. I can tell you this, my boy—but you must promise me never to repeat it to another. A Horcrux is a container, you see, a container for a portion of the soul that a wizard has hidden to anchor him to life... It is a terrible thing, Tom, for it can only be created by murder—"

For a brief second, there was a flash of something in Tom's eye. And then, the very next instant, so quickly that the flash must have been imagined, Tom recoiled—

Myrtle Mahoney pulled away from him, her hand still wrapped around his stiff length. "Tom?" she asked. "What's the matter? Didn't that feel good?"

He sneered down at her. Without her glasses, she looked mousy—so mousy that he thought for an instant that she was actually a mouse, a perfect treat for his pet—

"I didn't say you could stop," he said, and he grabbed her hair and resumed thrusting into her mouth. He was disappointed at how unappealing the sexual pleasure was; it was supposed to be glorious, said Theophilus... but it wasn't the stimulation that was causing the rush of pleasure, he could tell. She was kneeling before him, doing as he said—and looked like she was enjoying it too, moaning throatily. Just as quickly as his arousal peaked, it fell again at the thought. That she was enjoying it... That wasn't pleasurable at all, and so he yanked hard on her hair, pulling her up to his height, his right hand balling into a fist...

His fingers uncurled, and he forced his face into a polite smile, the sort that he could only pull off these days by occluding his mind. "I beg your pardon, Miss," he said, looking around at the walls of the orphanage. They hadn't changed in the two years since he'd left, only grown a bit dustier. Filthier.

"Oh, no problem," she said, her jowls quivering as she stepped around him like a bulldog tottering sleepily sideways. She squinted at him, taking a second look. "Do I know you? My eyes aren't as good as they used to be—"

"I don't believe so, Miss," he replied. "I'm just an old friend of theirs from school. They're in the other room?"

"Yes," she replied. "Yes, they've just returned from the market—"

"Perfect," he said, and he flicked his wand. "Avada Kedavra!"

She slumped to the floor. He stepped over her corpse and into the next room, all the while fingering the ornate silver locket around his neck.

They were sitting on the largest beds at the far end of the room, speaking to each other. Tom stepped deftly around an ugly child who nearly collided with his legs, and made his way toward them. The room fell silent as he walked down the centre aisle between the beds, his shoes clacking noisily on the chipped robin-egg blue tile.

Moll was the one who noticed him first. Her straggly locks had turned into a fine mane of red hair that was pleated neatly down her back, and her unshapely nose had turned quite shapely in only two years. Tom was aware that she would be considered quite comely; he himself saw in a flash of imagination her kneeling before him, bent and broken, her features bloodied, bent, no longer pretty...

Bertram had sprouted to be taller than Tom, and far more muscular. He was wearing a brown caddy cap, had his pressed shirt rolled up to the elbow, and looked by all means a young man ready to take on the world.

"Little Tommy, is that you?" asked Moll, a smile growing upon her face.

Tom smiled, though he felt no joy inside of him. "Not so little now," he replied.

Bertram leapt up and grabbed Tom's hand, pumping it wildly like an utter fool. "Tom! I didn't imagine in a thousand years that we'd see you again—"

"Nor did I," replied Tom, quite honestly, "but sometimes fate plays strange tricks. How are you?"

"Well, quite well!" answered Bertram. "I'm eighteen in a week, and I'm finally joining the air force—"

"That becomes you well, Bertram," replied Tom.

"It's just Bert now, Tom."

"And you, Moll?" asked Tom. "You've come of age, too. Have you caught the eye of some young man? Has young Bert here made you a proper woman yet?"

"Bert?" replied Moll, staring off into the distance. "He tried... but I had someone else in mind."

"Did you now?"

Moll blushed. "You've grown up," she said. "I'm not seeing anyone at the moment... maybe you could buy me dinner one night?"

Tom smiled at her. "I don't know if that will be possible," he said. "I'm only back for a short while, and then I have to return for my last year of school—"

Bertram nodded. "You still go to that boarding school of yours, Tom? Hall-Arts? What was it called, again?"

"Hogwarts," replied Tom absently. "At any rate, my business brought me nearby and I couldn't help but stop in. I remembered the strangest thing the other day: do you remember when we were four years old, and you pushed me over, Bertram, and held me down while Moll put dirt in my mouth?"

Moll giggled. "I'd forgotten. Oh, Tom, how terrible we were to you—I'm so sorry..." she said as she laid her hand—her filthy Muggle hand—on his forearm.

"We were so young, then," said Bertram. "Sorry about that, Tom. Bygones?"

He held out his hand, and Tom shook it. "All will be forgiven," he said. "Imperio!"

Harry shot back with a deep gasp, and then felt his muscles begin to seize. He fell backward, bumping his head against the wall before he hit his pillow. His arms and legs and torso jerked wildly as his heart pounded inside his chest.

His body calmed after a few seconds, but it seemed like forever. Afterward, he lay there panting for a long time. "That... was so unbelievably stupid a thing to do," he said aloud once he'd managed to regain some control.

"Necessary, though," the little voice inside his head reminded him. "You had to know, and now you know."

Harry leaned over the edge of the bed and vomited.

"Dobby!"

A day later, Harry was sitting cross-legged on a desk where the DA met. He'd just come out of the bath, and out of the blue, a thought had come to him. He raced to his bedroom, threw on clothes, and blasted himself with a hasty drying charm before nearly bowling Ron over as he left.

He wasn't sure how he'd come to the idea; it had just bubbled up from the depths of his subconscious. It was too tempting to resist. So he sat, and waited for the House Elf who had said he would come if Harry called.

Sure enough, even though it took a minute, Dobby appeared with a crack. He looked tired, with deep bags under his eyes and his skin mottled grey. The spindly fingers on his right hand were all bandaged with thick, looping spirals of gauze and medical tape, and as Dobby approached him, Harry noticed the slight limp with which the House Elf proceeded.

"Dobby," said Harry, pleased. "You came."

"Mister Harry Potter is calling, and Dobby is coming, sir," replied Dobby, who bowed low to Harry, exposing the back of his neck to Harry (revealing finger-shaped bruises). "It took Dobby longer than expected, because he was busy punishing himself for existing, sir. Dobby's master is not happy at him."

Harry nodded. "Well, I'm glad you came," he replied. "Let me get right to the point: your master is Lucius Malfoy. Do you deny it, Dobby?"

Dobby began to wring his hands. "Dobby does not want to lie to Harry Potter, sir, but Dobby must be protecting his master's secrets—"

"I know that it's the truth," stated Harry. He leaned forward and looked Dobby right in the eyes. "Tell me, Dobby: must you obey your master's rules inside his own house?"

Dobby nodded earnestly. "Of course, Harry Potter, sir! Dobby must follow all of his master's commands and rules inside his manor."

"And tell me, Dobby," continued Harry, "when you visit another home that does not belong to your master, would your master want you to follow the rules set by the master there?"

"Dobby has never been to another home, Harry Potter, sir, other than Harry Potter's, sir—"

"Then tell me what you think the answer would be."

Dobby paused, and quirked his head, blinking his huge eyes. "Dobby—Dobby supposes that Master would want Dobby to be a good House Elf, sir. House Elves are always following the rules, sir, so Dobby supposes that he should follow the rules wherever he is. Dobby is wondering why Harry Potter is asking him these questions, sir."

Harry smiled. "In good time, Dobby," he replied. "Let me tell you where you are standing: you're inside the classroom where my study group practices. I spend many hours here a day, and I am usually by myself. Do you understand so far?"

Dobby nodded.

"You are inside Hogwarts Castle," added Harry. "The master of Hogwarts is Professor Dumbledore. But inside this room, I am the master. I use it more than anyone. When anyone else is inside this room, they listen to what I say. That makes me the master."

"Dobby understands, sir," replied the House Elf. Harry worried for a second that the Dobby would shake his head clear of his shoulders, given how scrawny his neck was.

"Good," replied Harry. "Now here's the question: do you believe I am the master of this room?"

Dobby's face fell to a frown, and he said, "Dobby must think about this for a moment, Harry Potter, sir." He fell silent for a minute, before he looked up again. "Dobby believes that Harry Potter and Professor Dumble are both masters of this room—Harry Potter is the master because he is master inside this room, but Professor Dumblydore is the master because he is the master outside this room. Does Harry Potter understand?"

"I understand," said Harry. "I understand, Dobby. Do you understand that you must obey my rules while you are in this room?"

"Dobby does understand, sir, but Dobby must follow his Master's rules, first—"

"—And in the absence of your master, he would want you to listen to the master of the place you are at the moment, right?"

Dobby nodded tentatively. "Dobby understands all this, Harry Potter, sir. What Dobby still does not understand is why Harry Potter has brought him here—"

Harry struck a finger. "I will tell you in one minute, Dobby, but first, you must understand my rules and follow them, okay?"

Dobby nodded, and Harry continued. "My first rule is that you may not leave until I give you permission. It is rude to depart without my leave. Am I understood?"

"Dobby understands, sir."

"I also order you to keep my secrets, and not to disclose anything we have discussed in this conversation without my permission."

"Of course, Harry Potter, sir. Dobby would do this anyway—"

"Would you tell your master if your master ordered you to tell?"

Dobby's face fell. "Dobby... isn't sure, Harry Potter, sir. Dobby supposes he would have to do what his master ordered—"

Harry smiled. "Well, it's a good thing I'm the master of this room right now, isn't it? Dobby, let me ask you a question. Is there any magic that binds you to your master, or are you simply serving him because it's what you've always done?"

Dobby looked up at Harry. "Dobby does not understand, sir."

"Let me explain, then," replied Harry. "Sit down, Dobby—"

"Dobby is never allowed to sit! Oh, Harry Potter, sir is a great wizard—a great wizard, sir. Dobby had never imagined how great Harry Potter, sir, is, but Dobby's master is not allowing him to sit—"

"—but the master of the room is ordering you to sit, Dobby, so sit."

Dobby's look was deeply skeptical, but he nevertheless sat on the rickety chair beside the desk.

"You see, I was reading the other day," explained Harry, as he unfolded his legs and let them dangle over the edge of the desk, "and I came across a section on House Elves. It said that your magic binds you to a family, and that the magic of your master keeps you alive. Does that sound right?"

"It is known, Harry Potter, sir. House Elves who don't have a family will die, sir."

"Except it's not true," Harry replied. "House Elf children live with their mothers until they're nearly five years old. They don't 'bind' themselves at all until they're well into adolescence. How long did you stay with your mother, Dobby?"

Dobby looked down at the floor. "Dobby was three when his master killed his mother, sir. Dobby has been bound to his master ever since."

"And did your master ever say any magic words, wave his wand, or make you sign a contract saying that you were bound to him?"

"Not that Dobby recalls, sir—"

"And did you ever do any magic to bind yourself to him?"

Dobby shook his head again. "It is not like that, Harry Potter, sir. It is the magic of being a House Elf that binds an Elf to his family—"

"You've got him now," said the little voice inside Harry's head.

"See, I don't think so," replied Harry. A smirk slowly crawled onto his face. "Your master's word isn't law, because I know for a fact that you have never been ordered to come speak to me, and yet here you are."

"Dobby is disobeying his master to be here—"

"And if you can disobey your master without penalty, then what's the harm? Do you know what I think, Dobby? I think the House elves who die when they don't have a family actually die because they feel alone, and they stop trying to take care of themselves. They give up, Dobby. You don't actually have to obey your master—you only think you do."

Dobby was very quiet.

"You are in my room, Dobby, and you have agreed that you will abide by my rules while you are here. Here are my orders: you will never again obey, listen to, or associate with your old master, Lucius Malfoy. I am your new master—"

"Dobby does not understand, Harry Potter, sir!"

"Listen to me, Dobby! You choose which rules you follow, just like you chose to disobey your old master. If you want me to be your master, you can choose to do so. If you want to choose not to have a master, you can choose that, too."

"But Dobby has to obey his old master," said Dobby, his eyes awhirl, flickering back between the ceiling, Harry, and his hands, which he was wrenching together.

"Dobby has to obey his old master only if he chooses to do so," corrected Harry. "And now I'm offering you a choice. You can choose to be my House Elf if you like, or you can choose to continue to be Lucius Malfoy's House Elf if you want. The choice is yours, though." Harry paused. "I know what I'd pick."

"Dobby must think!" said the House Elf, and he winked out of existence.

"How rude," said Harry, after a second. "Totally against the rules of the room, even if it does prove my point."

"Here, sir," said Harry, and he slid the diary across the desk to Professor Dumbledore.

They were in the Professor's office, sitting in their usual spots. The air was one of relief in the room, and both Harry and Professor Dumbledore were slouched slightly and sporting half-smiles.

The Professor picked it up. "Ah, yes," he said, drawing in a deep breath as he inspected it. "This was what Miss Weasley was holding, you said?"

"Yes, sir, " replied Harry. "I didn't want to leave it lying about when I saw whose name was on it, so I took it and kept it in my trunk."

"I hope you didn't inspect it too carefully?" asked Professor Dumbledore, his cool blue eyes settling on Harry's. "This book is incredibly dangerous—"

Harry felt a wave of anger toward the headmaster wash over him. "He wants to keep me from learning the truth," he thought. Nevertheless, he kept his eyes square on Dumbledore, and Occluded as best as he could, though he did not detect any probing. "No, sir," he lied.

Dumbledore put the book down on his desk. "It is good that you brought this to me, Harry. It's also good that you took it, since I am glad that Kingsley Shacklebolt did not see. I believe this is evidence of terrible crimes on Voldemort's behalf. What is not clear to me is how this diary was petrifying students, nor how it came to be in Miss Weasley's hands. Two most peculiar instances."

"I can tell you how both happened, actually," replied Harry. "The book wasn't petrifying people. It did something to Ginny to make her act weird. Moaning Myrtle says that she was responsible, but Ginny was acting strange all year—strange for a Weasley, I mean. The book itself wasn't petrifying people, though—it was a basilisk."

"Truly?" asked Dumbledore, with a look of shock. "Are you sure? I admit I had researched the possibility, but I have a hard time believing someone would not have seen it."

"I saw it fleeing four nights ago when Ginny and Mr. Filch were petrified," replied Harry. "It fled into the girl's bathroom, and went into the sink, which was somehow retracted. I think it moves through the pipes—"

"Clever," replied Dumbledore. "Clever, though perplexing, since at the time the school was built, there were no pipes. That necessitates the rumours of it being Slytherin's monster false. Have you tried to locate the entrance?"

"No, sir," replied Harry.

Dumbledore nodded. "Good. See that you don't, Harry. I have an inkling of how it was achieved, now, and I think we are out of the woods for the time being, but I am uncomfortable with its presence in my school. I will want to speak to Kingsley and the other Aurors, so that we can devise a plan to handle the basilisk. Until I come to you, please do not seek it out."

"I've had enough danger for one year, sir," replied Harry.

Dumbledore nodded. "I imagine so. You said you know how Ginny Weasley acquired this artefact, though?"

"I do," replied Harry. "Lucius Malfoy slipped it in her books when he and Arthur Weasley got in a fight at Flourish and Blott's."

Dumbledore stared at Harry. "That is a very serious accusation, Harry. I trust you have ample evidence—?"

"I do," he replied. "Dobby!"

There was a crack, and Dobby appeared. He looked taller, straighter in limb, his skin was less mottled and a more vibrant green, and most importantly, he looked immensely happier—even greeting them both with a grin.

"Harry Potter called Dobby?"

"I was unaware you had a House Elf, Harry," said Dumbledore, who lowered his glasses on his nose to scrutinize Dobby closer.

"Not just any House Elf," replied Harry with a cheeky grin. "He's the first truly free House Elf, Professor. Dobby, this is Professor Dumbledore. Professor, meet Dobby."

"Hello, Professor Dumble, sir," said Dobby with a deep bow.

"Hello, Dobby," replied Professor Dumbledore. He turned to Harry. "I'm afraid you have lost me, my boy."

"Dobby is the former House Elf of Lucius Malfoy," replied Harry. "Long story short, I noticed that Dobby could disobey his master, so I offered him the choice to be my House Elf or to be free."

"Dobby chose to be free, Professor, sir," chimed in Dobby. "Dobby has never been free before, and Dobby is very much liking his freedom, sir."

"Fascinating. Are you not concerned about Elvish attrition, Harry?"

"It's a lie, sir," said Harry. "House Elves can live perfectly fine without any sort of 'bonding'—which never takes place, I might add. House Elf servitude is entirely a notion in the heads of House Elves. The reports of House Elves dying when freed are usually the cause of mistreatment or neglect. They need family to live, sir, like we need family and friends to keep us sane, only they're more social, so they need it more. Dobby's now part of my family—my only true family, really."

"I admit that I know little on the subject, never having had the opportunity or desire to own one, so I will take your word for it from now. Why did you call Dobby here?"

"Dobby, tell the Professor what you heard your old master saying."

Dobby looked at Professor Dumbledore, back at Harry, and then back at the Professor. He tugged nervously on his long floppy ears. "Dobby can speak freely to the Professor? Harry Potter, sir, won't be mad that Dobby is telling secrets?"

"Absolutely not, Dobby. Please go ahead."

Dobby nodded. "Back after young Master Draco had gone to Hogwarts, Dobby overheard his Master speaking with his friend Mister Yaxley. Master told Mister Yaxley he had hurt Mister Weasley so he could give Harry Potter's Ginny a book of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Master wanted to embarrass Mister Weasley and get him fired."

Dumbledore nodded. "Thank you, Dobby—very courageously said."

Dobby smiled up at Professor Dumbledore, and turned back to Harry. "Does Harry Potter, sir, need anything else?"

"That's it. Thanks, Dobby!"

Dobby disappeared with a crack.

Professor Dumbledore and Harry fell silent for a long few moments. Finally, Dumbledore spoke. "I will make sure that Lucius pays in one way or another for what he has done. He has committed serious crimes, if what Dobby says is true. It is only regretful that our justice system will not take testimony from House Elves."

He perked up, though. "Speaking of serious, I suspect you're very eager to hear news about him?"

Harry nodded, and perked up hisself. "Yes, sir."

Dumbledore cleared his throat. "The Ministry of Magic has officially laid charges on Sirius for his collusion with Lord Voldemort and the murder of thirteen Muggles all these years ago, and they have also laid charges for his role in the Chamber of Secrets now, and for his escape from Azkaban." He held up a hand to forestall Harry's indignant cry. "This is part of the process, Harry. He is expected to enter his plea this week, but his trial will not begin for another month or two. Nevertheless, I expect his record to be completely expunged: he has three signed affidavits affirming his vow with you, one from Professor Lupin, one from Kingsley Shacklebolt, and one from myself—"

"I could give one, too," replied Harry eagerly.

"While I am sure Sirius would appreciate it, Harry, the Ministry of Magic nevertheless places less weight on the testimony of children. If that was not enough, though, Sirius is liable to be released nearly immediately since he was not tried within a reasonable timeframe. The European Convention—a Muggle agreement by which our Ministry is nevertheless bound—guarantees it. I would be shocked if he was not compensated handsomely for his time served behind bars."

"It's still not right what they did to him," replied Harry. "Money can't make it right."

"No, it can't," replied Dumbledore. He chuckled "... And so replied Sirius when we spoke. However, your Godfather did also say, 'But it can buy a hundred thousand whores,' so please do not think that he is too disappointed by the prospect."

Harry laughed.

"With that cheerful note, I will send you on your way," said Dumbledore. "I will, of course, inform you the minute anything changes. But things are looking up for Sirius now, Harry, and the attacks have been stopped—this is the critical thing. I think I will have an Award for Special Services to the School made up for you, if you don't mind."

Harry blushed. "I don't mind at all, sir."

"Good good!" exclaimed Dumbledore. "Well then, off you trot." And he brushed Harry out the door.

But despite Dumbledore's promise, Harry heard nothing for the next week. To make things worse, he had been sleeping just as poorly as before—nightmares of a Petrified Hermione and Katie... but also deeper, more disturbing nightmares that he hadn't dared share with anyone.

When he arose that morning, he showered slowly, scrubbing himself beyond clean in an act of penitence for his dreams. As he left the bathroom, he nearly jumped when he looked at himself in the mirror. His eyes were so red, his cheeks sunken and gaunt. He needed a good night's sleep so badly.

He found himself sitting next to Hermione after breakfast. She was regarding the ceiling with a look of utter shock—unmoving, of course, as she had been for the past few months. He felt sad for her that she was missing so much; she loved school so much in no small part because her home life was so embarrassing to her... and yet summer vacation was already creeping up. She would be stuck at home again with no escape.

"I've got to respond to the Quidditch people," he said to her, absently, as he re-folded his legs. "At first, I thought I was going to say no—I haven't had any real experience, beyond one year, and the game this year wasn't even that great..."

He paused and looked at Katie, who was lying on the bed beside Hermione's with an equally glazed look. It was strange to look at her, Harry thought, and to actually see her. She was petrified in his mind, too, preserved exactly how she had been . Yet he could see how different her—corpse? What was the right word here, he wondered?—had begun to look in the past month alone: her hair had darkened from dark blonde to a richer shade of chestnut, and she was obviously taller, since Harry kept having to pull down the thin blankets to cover her toes. He wondered absently if she would have the same difficulties with coordination that he had whenever he morphed his legs out long.

He tried to imagine what she would say to him. "I'm sure you would have told me that I have to take it, that it was an honour and that I won't get the chance again... but the thing is that I'll have to miss a good bit of school next year if I do it, and I won't be allowed to play on the Gryffindor team any more." He sighed deeply. "I've already missed so much of you both, it feels stupid to accept it."

Madam Pomfrey came into the room. "It's time for you to go back to your Common Room, Mr Potter," she said. "It's a beautiful Saturday morning. You should be out enjoying the sun, not sitting cooped up in here."

"Ten more minutes, please, ma'am?"

"Five."

"Five," he said, acquiescing. A question suddenly occurred to him. "Madam Pomfrey, are the Mandrakes just about ready?"

She smiled—a closed-lip smile that nevertheless pulled at the corners of her eyes. "I spoke to Professor Snape this morning. He says the Mandrakes will be available in just a few weeks, so you shan't have to wait long, Potter."

He smiled, feeling somewhat buoyed by the notion. There was something reassuring, steadying about that fact. "I'm glad to hear it."

"Me too," she replied, and then turned to scrutinize him closer. "Have you been sleeping any better?" she asked. "Your eyes are a little pink, and the bags around them have grown."

"Yes, ma'am," he lied. "Much better since Black was apprehended. Just need to catch up a bit yet."

"Good," she replied. "See yourself out, dear. I'll be in my office."

As she made her way out of the room, he turned back to the two of them. "Two weeks," he said. "I have two weeks before you're back. I don't know how I'm going to do it. I feel like I'm going insane as it is—I still can't sleep; every time my eyes I see that great ruddy snake, and the worst thing is that half of the time, I'm the snake.

"And then there's the mess of things I learned about Voldemort that still don't make sense. Every time I wake up, I remember something new. My spellcasting has improved, Hermione—I can cast most spells silently now, which I'm sure will irritate you to no right, once you forgive me for even trying to figure out such a dangerous item."

His voice grew quiet. "And even though I've learned so much, I feel different than I did before. I think less about consequences, I'm constantly trying to figure out how every little thing can benefit me... And the worst one is that I got irrationally mad when I saw Professor Dumbledore. It took all I had not to snap." His head sank. "I need you guys more than ever, because I need someone who knows me well to tell me I'm not actually going crazy."

He looked at the both of them for a long few seconds, and then rose, brushing the wrinkles out of his robes. "I'll survive for two more weeks, though," he said. "Just... hurry up and get better."

He turned and made his way out of the closed ward, out of the Hospital Wing itself, and down the corridor.

The rest of his day was spent in a funk. The overcast sky burst at half three and stormed fiercely for the rest of the afternoon. This seemed to portend Harry's own mood, and he snapped at Daphne for some snide comment over dinner. He took it as a sign that he was done for the day, and retired to his room, where he fell asleep on top of the blankets with his trainers on.

It was a stormy sleep, too. He dreamt Daphne was trying to drag him out to find the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets before Dumbledore called upon him to do it. Glory, dream-Daphne explained him, Glory and the sure knowledge that you won't lead him on a wild goose hunt. In truth, he thought it was a good idea—he'd been tempted, in boredom, anyway—but he knew he had been acting irrationally, and that Dumbledore was watching him closely. Better, he thought, to wait.

And that was where the fight began. Daphne commanded him, and he felt himself rise, felt his dream-self compelled to do it. He tried to convince himself to wake up, but that didn't work, and when that didn't work, he tried to change the dream, thinking hard about playing Quidditch.

But that didn't work, since every time he thought about Quidditch, he imagined himself in the white uniform of the U-18 team, hoisting the Snitch in the air as the crowd chanted "Potter! Potter! Potter!" And then he would hear Daphne whisper 'Glory' to him again, and he was right back where he started, pondering the Basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets. It was so dangerous that he couldn't possibly let it sit there. It had been starving, and without the direction and control of Tom Riddle, who knew what it might do? It would be so simple to find the entrance, slip down, and conjure a rooster. One crow would do it, and he would have his glory.

It was unassailable logic, at least to his dream-self, and he found himself floating down the hallways of dream-Hogwarts, stopping at one of the windows to gaze at a horde of spiders scuttling furiously out into the black of night. Soon enough, he was in Moaning Myrtle's bathroom. She floated by silently, scrutinizing him with one raised eyebrow, but the second she opened her mouth to speak, Harry raised his hand and she shot away from him as if he'd turned on a turbine fan. He was glad she was gone, and he suddenly felt a pang of regret that he'd not been able to kill her properly the first time.

The entrance to the Chamber was comically easy to find when one knew what he was looking for. There were small snakes inscribed in the faucets around the sink. A quick hiss had his red-eyed reflection sinking into floor. Then he was floating downward through a wide and twisting pipe that simply oozed, his wand raised in the air like an umbrella.

The landing of the pipe was a grimy pile of bones, mostly of rats, but of some other sizeable animals that had accumulated over a very obviously long time. With the same brush of his hand he'd used to banish Myrtle, he swept the bones to the side of the room, and glided down the long corridor, past terrifically long basilisk skins, and through a massive port door and into an even more massive cavern.

In front of him stood the imposing statue of his ancestor, an ancestor he'd discovered fifty years ago. He, Tom Riddle, was—

He, Harry Potter, was—

He screamed and clutched at his head, tearing madly at the scar on his forehead. It wasn't possible—How did the boy know how—?"

Harry squeezed his eyes shut, occluding as best he could. He could feel his arms again, could feel the sensation of feeling return slowly throughout his body. The fog slowly lifted from his brain even as he fought off vicious, angry right hooks of a mental fist from the remnant of Tom Riddle. His hand shot of its own accord, and brought his wand to bear against his temple, but he stilled his arm, wrested it right back, and put it down at his side, even as the words to stun himself were on his lips.

He had not been dreaming. He was possessed.

"You can't do this!" screamed Tom at him.

Harry winced at the volume. "Get out! he yelled right back. "Get out of my head, you filth!"

"You think you're strong enough to beat me. I've been inside your head, Harry Potter. I know what you're made of. You are nothing—nothing—compared to me. I am Lord Voldemort, greatest of all Legilimens—"

"Well, I'm Harry Potter, and I'm beating you, so shut up and get out!"

And then Harry dove after Tom, chasing off every creeping vine of Tom's influence as he found it—again freeing his arms, then his legs, then his eyes and ears. Sound flooded in, a rushing wave of nearly silent chirpings and groans of shifting stones. He dove against Tom's own attack, the adrenaline coursing through his body making him invincible. The kicks and blows bounced off of him; he turned them all away.

He had backed Tom into a corner, finally. He could sense the growing desperation in his parasite, could feel Tom shrinking into himself, hardening his defences—

And as he struck deeply at Tom, Tom shifted and wrapped his wraithlike presence around Harry, surging through his defences, and seized control of Harry's mouth, even as he exposed his flank to Harry's assault.

"SPEAK TO ME, SALAZAR SLYTHERIN, GREATEST OF THE HOGWARTS FOUR!" hissed TomHarry.

And as Harry's own mental attack eviscerated the remnants of Tom's possession, his own jaw dropped in unison with the gigantic statue of Salazar Slytherin's.

"We are so hungry..." came a distant hissing that was coming closer—quickly, by the sound of it.

Harry did the only thing he could think of—he ran. His footfall splashed in the inch of water pooled in front of the statue, soaking his pant legs and the back of his robe, but he hardly noticed. The huge door was just ahead—

"We hear food!" hissed the basilisk.

Harry could not place the reason why he knew to do it, but he stopped running abruptly and threw himself to the side. It was fortunate he did, since a quarter-second later, the basilisk came crashing down right where he'd been standing. It missed him only by a foot, and he first truly comprehended the utter futility of his situation when he saw just how big it was up close. He was short for his age, but the basilisk was twice his height, and who knew how many times how long.

It slithered past him and began to turn around. "Oh Merlin, help," cried Harry, and he scrunched his eyes shut before he took off running down the length of the snake, trying to stay away from its pointy end, or from simply being flattened by the weight of its body.

But it was simple to see that such a strategy wasn't viable. The Basilisk could hear him move, and, as he risked a quick peek through his eyelashes so that he didn't stumble and lose his footing, he knew it was turning to reorient itself to where he was running... and he was running in the wrong direction, further back into the Chamber.

But then the basilisk stopped moving and it shrieked in pain. Harry couldn't help it, and he turned around to see what had happened. There, flying around the basilisk's head was a red-gold plume of fire that darted in and clawed at the beast's deadly eyes. "Fawkes..." whispered Harry. That meant Dumbledore was near.

But his search returned nothing. He was not about to dally, either; his only way out was to seal the basilisk inside the Chamber, and so he ran for the humongous circular door.

When he reached the door, the basilisk was reared high, its eyes tightly shut. Harry could see the gashes that Fawkes had raked. It was using its sense of smell, though, to track the phoenix, and one lunge just connected, making Fawkes screech, and sending him spiralling off before he disappeared in a flash of flame.

"Close!" ordered Harry. The door began to swing shut. But it came with a price: the basilisk turned and shot toward him, undulating closer and closer every second. "Reducto!" he cried, aiming for its head, but the red streak simply crossed the distance and caromed off the basilisk's skin. So Harry did the only other thing he could possibly do: he ran, and prayed the door would close in time.

It did.

He stopped to catch his breath. "Sweet Merlin," he said, bent over at the waist, his hands on his knees.

BAM!

Harry stood up straight. The port door had buckled inward six inches.

BAM!

The door buckled another six inches inward, and Harry didn't need any more prompting.

"ShitshitshitshitShitShitShit SHITSHITSHIT!" he screamed as he ran down the corridor that led to the bathroom pipe, but when he arrived, it turned out that there was more than one pipe, and he had no idea which idea he'd come from—the pipe he'd emerged from twisted and turned so much that no light survived.

BAM!

The basilisk had burst a hole in the door. Its tongue flicked through, sensing, before it pulled back for another ram.

Harry chose one at random—hoping it was the right one—but there were no stairs, no way to climb up the steep pipe. "Think, idiot!" he said to himself as he racked his mind, trying to think of something. He cursed himself for not having learned anything that could help himself out—

But the little voice in his mind echoed just slightly, and in a blink of an eye, he knew what he was doing.

Black vapour surrounded him as he launched himself upward through the pipe. It was a bastard form of apparation, he knew, that Tom had discovered in the summer of his fifth year, and had kept it to himself. Harry wasn't even entirely surely how it was done, and tried not to think too hard about it, lest he suddenly stop his upward progress and be plunged back downward.

Finally, the pipe ended ahead of him, and the basins split to move upon his approach. He shot out of the lip, and then saw to his disappointment that he was on the first floor, just off of the Great Hall, not on the second.

The sink began to close behind him, and he flicked his wand, casting his Patronus. The wisp hovered in front of him, and he got as far as "Tell Dumbledore that I need help—" before the sink exploded in a shower of stone and ceramic that drove Harry backward and opened up a huge gash in the arm he'd put up to protect his face.

The basilisk lunged at him, and he was only a step ahead of it. It just missed him, slamming into the wall behind him.

Harry raised his wand again and brought down a good chunk of stone with a well-aimed Bombardment Hex. Some of the rubble hit the basilisk, knocking it back slightly, but the majority of the rubble only got in its way. Harry turned, ran across the hallway, and into the dimly-lit Great Hall.

The basilisk was right behind him, knocking over the benches as it slithered after him, making up the distance in little time. Harry tried what offensive magic he knew—the Blasting Curse again, a Stunner, a vicious little Cutting Curse he'd picked up, another Blasting Curse... but each and every one bounced off the basilisk.

The last Blasting Curse ricocheted away and hit one of the windows, shattering it. The basilisk froze.

Harry froze, too, realizing that he'd found a way to distract it. He whispered another blasting curse, blowing out another window as he stepped slowly backward, trying to put distance between himself and the snake. Then another window, and a fourth window shattered, and he finally had a little room to breathe for the first time.

He had to do something. His Patronus was out—and, in truth, shattering the windows in the Great Hall was probably just as effective an alarm. There was only one thing he knew he could do to kill a basilisk, but he wasn't sure if magic would suffice. It was his only chance, though, so he waved his wand, and conjured a rooster a foot in front of himself.

Before it could even open its beak to crow, the basilisk's head turned, and it darted forward, devouring the conjuration whole.

It was only a foot from him now, its putrid breath spilling from its jaw. He could see the fangs of the thing now up close; each was the size of his forearm, and dripping blackness.

He kept backing up, trying to escape it as it sniffed at him, not contented with one transfigured meal, but he bumped into the head table. There was no way to go but over, and so he put his hand down, and vaulted himself up, just narrowly missing the basilisk's head as it, too, bumped into the table...

But its bump sent him off balance, and he fell backward, off the table, with an uncontrollable "Oof!"

The basilisk heard, and reared. Spittle ran from its jaw as its forked tongue darted out, tasting the air—

And then it lunged at him. He could not evade fast enough, and the largest of the fangs drove through his left leg, shattering the bones and severing muscles. It was agony beyond belief, and the world seemed to be going black at the edges...

He could not move, his leg still pinned by the basilisk, so he took his wand, jabbed it in the eye socket of the reptile, and shouted "Reducto!"

The snake looked the same from the outside, but there suddenly came a gushing of viscous red liquid from the socket, and it pulled back, off the remains of his leg, before it began to thrash in agony.

But Harry couldn't care. The world had darkened, and all that was left of the basilisk to him was high-pitch screams. Far from being scared, though, he felt suddenly at peace. He could even hear the soft chirping of a bird, and the rushing of wind in his ears, and the cooling waters of a spring brook on his legs.

Dying was not so terrible.

But he wasn't dying. The world was regaining colour. He could feel his heartbeat return to normal, could hear the regular murmur of Hogwarts' stones shifting and popping at night time.

He opened his eyes again, and looked straight into the black eyes of Professor Snape.

"Sir," greeted Harry.

"Hold still, Potter," said Professor Snape. "What do you know of Phoenix tears—?"

"They're—they've got healing properties, don't they, Professor?"

"Yes," replied Snape. "But your leg is not well. I don't encourage you to look at it—in fact, I have temporarily paralyzed you from the neck down while I move you to the Hospital Wing, since you need significant healing."

"I'm okay, Professor," said Harry. "Really. I don't hurt at all."

Professor Snape just looked at Harry for a long moment. "Be that as it may, you have a basilisk fang protruding from your leg, and you had been dead for three minutes when I reached you. Phoenix tears can heal most anything, and can neutralize basilisk venom, but they do not restart hearts that have stopped."

Harry fell silent. "Thank you, Professor," he said, at long last.

Snape was silent. As Harry began to float off the ground, Snape paused, and turned Harry's head for him. The great hall was a mess. The Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff tables were cracked in pieces, strewn about the room, covered in glass from the windows. There was a great black puddle of liquid underneath the carcass of the largest snake Harry had ever seen. It had rolled over, its lighter-coloured belly upward, and he finally got a measure of it. It was over fifty feet long.

"How did you kill it?" asked Snape, at long last.

"A blasting curse in the eye socket, I guess. I don't really remember too well."

"I see. Try not to throw your life away again, Potter. It would deprive me the pleasure of one day murdering you for your incorrigible behaviour."

"I'll try, sir."

It seemed like it was another day entirely, but it was only late in the evening that day that Professor Snape was escorting Harry to Professor Dumbledore's office. He'd been given a miraculous all-clear from Pomfrey, who had set his arm to rights in less time than it took her to berate him about its condition. She had demanded he return that evening for observation, but a privately exchanged word with Professor Snape later and she had changed her mind.

Now, they stood outside of Professor Dumbledore's office. The door was closed in front of them, and Snape rapped on it with his knuckles as they waited for an invitation in.

"Enter!" called the Headmaster.

Snape opened the door, and pushed Harry inside the office. All eyes turned to him—Snape's black, Dumbledore's cool blue eyes, and the grey eyes of the man who simply had to be Lucius Malfoy, given his resemblance to Draco.

"Lucius, I am sorry to cut our conversation short, but I must ask you to leave us, please," said Dumbledore, his eyes still focused on Harry. "Good day."

Mr Malfoy's blue eyes were nearly glacial. "If the boy is not expelled, Dumbledore—"

"The boy will be punished appropriately, Lucius, as is my prerogative. Good day. Severus, please show Lucius out."

Snape nodded, opened the door again, and stepped outside.

Mr Malfoy whirled, his loosely clasped cloak billowing around him as he made his way to the door. He stopped for one moment, his hand on Snape's shoulder. "I will be filing a complaint with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Dumbledore. The boy endangered hundreds of lives, and did untold damage to the school—"

"—And I look forward to reminding you that Mr Potter is underage, suffering from sleep withdrawal, and has done a substantial service to the school in resolving a dangerous situation that you yourself engineered. Good day!"

Mr Malfoy made a harrumphing noise and whirled again. "Slam the door, Severus!" he commanded as he walked past the dour Potions Professor.

Snape closed the door behind him quietly, his face as inscrutable as ever. Harry could hear the click-click-click of Lucius Malfoy's cane on the stones through the door for several long seconds.

When Harry turned his head back to Professor Dumbledore, he found that the Headmaster was looking right at him. Harry was grinning, but the grin fell to uncertainty as he realized that Dumbledore's look was utterly inscrutable, too. The Headmaster was occluding against him—the ease with which they shared emotion that had been forged during their Occlumency lessons now walled off.

"Sir—?" he began.

"—I recall saying to you, Harry, that you were too reckless by far. You told me that your youth did not disqualify you from being capable of acting without consideration of consequences."

"Yes, sir—"

"I have read Professor Snape's report of the debriefing you underwent with him. Though I would have liked to perform it myself, I'm sure you can understand that I have been very busy preventing squads of Aurors from arresting you. To summarize: you disobeyed me, Harry. You went and pursued the Chamber of Secrets without my leave, and you went on, foolishly, to fight a beast that I myself am unqualified to fight alone. Then, when you found yourself outmatched, you lured the basilisk to the surface so you could escape it, thus endangering your classmates and teachers. If you had not lost a good deal of memory in the process, I would ask you what in Merlin's name you were thinking."

Dumbledore steepled his fingers. "Professor Snape finds that you have failed to consider the consequences of your actions, and it is your own assurance to me that damns you most of all. I considered you a child, still, Harry, albeit one with good control of his faculties in most circumstances. Yet you have indulged your vainglory to the potential detriment of all the other students living here. Your deeds have damaged your name, and have placed me in the precarious position of having to discipline you to appease three or four different standards. I thought you appreciated the need to keep yourself out of the politics of the school, but I was evidently mistaken.

"Do you have anything to say in your defence?" Dumbledore asked, his eyes narrowed.

"Tell him," whispered the voice in his head. "Tell him how you invited me in, how we've been fighting. You did this—you are responsible... Tell him everything, let us see how he looks at you then..."

"No, sir," he said, swallowing with difficulty the words that sprang to his tongue so easily.

"Professor Snape is constantly reminding me that you are an important person, Harry. 'Momentous'—I believe that's the word he keeps using. I am inclined to agree with him. You are momentous because of where you choose to put yourself, how you choose to comport yourself. If you are going to play at being an adult, then you must understand that there are adult consequences that will apply. If you do not learn to control your recklessness, then you will face terrible consequences. Not a lost friendship, not a failed test or a broken bone as someone less momentous might incur. People will die if you are reckless. Let me say it again: people will die. We came so close to nearly losing you."

"Professor Snape has tried throughout his detentions with you this year—yes, I knew about your lessons with him—to impart the importance of controlling your anger, your spontaneity. We come to the same barrier we have faced before: detention is no good at correcting your behaviour. Nor is offering you incentives, like extra lessons or looking the other way at the classes you do not attend. It seems to me that I must be more forceful at imparting my lessons. I wish it was not the case."

Dumbledore stood, his chair scraping the tile behind him as he pushed it away. "This is an expellable offence, Harry. If the circumstances were slightly different, you would be packing your trunk at this moment. As it stands, politics once again prevent me from acting as I should. You are therefore suspended for the next four weeks," he said. "You will return to your Aunt and Uncle's where you will remain until the school year has let out. In the meantime, you will still be expected to complete your assignments and essays—"

"No," said Harry, interrupting.

"No?"

"No," he replied. "No, I'm not going back there—"

Dumbledore bristled. "I wasn't offering you a choice in the matter—"

"I'm not going back there, no matter what you said," replied Harry. "I don't accept your punishment. You can keep it."

"You will serve your punishment, Harry, or you will not be permitted to rejoin Hogwarts—"

"Then sod Hogwarts!" he retorted, and turned. "Keep your goddamned school. I'll go elsewhere and learn something useful. Maybe learning French will actually keep me preoccupied for more than a fortnight—"

"Harry—"

"—I said no," he replied, opening the door. "I did this school a bloody favour by killing that basilisk, and this is how you repay me? On the very night that I literally died to protect the school, you, force me back to my relatives for an extra month? These are the same relatives who neglected me most of my growing life, sir—"

Dumbledore grimaced. "I will have a word, Mr Potter, and will ensure that you are treated fairly while you remain at your Aunt and Uncle's house."

"Don't bother," said Harry. "I'm not going back. You can keep your punishment, because I'm not coming back to Hogwarts."

"I urge you to pause and reconsider. There is every chance you may be arrested if you leave this school at this moment—"

"I don't care. My mind's made up." He stepped out the door.

"This is utterly reckless, Harry—"

"Yeah, well, it seems like that's all I'm good at anyway," he retorted, and he closed the door behind him.

Author's notes:

Thus ends VULTUS SERPENTIS—The Face of the Serpent, and it only took two and a half years. Hooray! Raise your hand if you thought we'd ever finish this. Got your hand up? Put it back down, you liar; we all know what you really thought.

I guess I can quit pretending that this is a collaborative work. I'm still in touch with A–, who chimes in every now and then, but he's busy with his life, and I'm too detail-oriented (read: bossy) to let him write anyway. We're going to continue to collaborate on original works, but this series is now—for all intents and purposes—written by me, Rob.

I admit I had a crisis of conscience halfway through this. When I came back to it after my son was born, I reread, and felt an utter disgust for my protagonist. He's been given a lot of advantages that have not been conferred upon his adversaries (indeed, since the start of the series, he's really not had a lot of adversarial conflict). I've made a point to start redressing this, but it was nearly enough to make me want to stop. I recognize that people are invested, though, and I do believe that this series has a story that should be told...

That said, the stresses of serial fiction are clearly not for me. I've found the characterizations wander too widely because of the time that elapses in between writing chapters, and the pressure to respond to criticism is just too great. So I'm going to write the next book in isolation, and post it when it's done. This will make it get done faster, I promise you (I'll be struggling less to retcon and to balance character personalities), and you can follow my progress on Twitter at nostresreges.

(By the way, how do you all feel about me turning this into Harry/Dumbledore slashfic? I wasn't sure, but my astrologist suggested it, so...)

Without further ado:

VULTUS SERPENTIS will venture onward in its sequel, FORTUNA AUDACES IUVAT—Fortune Favours the Bold.

Yours,

Rob (and A– and T–, in absentia),

Posted with permission by The Defense Professor,

NOS TRES REGES