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Fics begun in 2003 (post-OOTP)

Chapter Thirty-one

ALL ABOARD

September 1

Harry

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap.

“Go away!” Harry shouted, and he instantly regretted it. The sound echoed in his ears and he nearly bit his tongue, which seemed to be in need of de-gnoming.

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap.

He rolled off his bed and fell hard onto the floor. “The rest of your life with a pig’s tail – that’s what’s coming to you!” he bellowed, and then quickly cradled his head in his hands.

Hedwig screeched at him from her perch and he groaned, “Not you, too?”

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap.

At last it dawned on him that the tapping was an owl at the window, not a wizard at the door. He threw up the shade and opened the glass in one motion. Before he could duck, the angriest owl he’d ever seen was upon him – screeching, nipping and clawing madly. He flailed his arms to keep it at bay, but it proceeded to shred his shirtsleeves. With a piercing shriek, Hedwig fell upon the mad owl and it retreated to the corner of the bedroom. Harry took in heaving breaths as he stripped off his shirt and used the remnants to stanch the blood dripping from his forearms. The owl began to advance again, wings flapping menacingly, but Hedwig snapped and hissed and cowed it back into the corner.

Harry stormed to the shelf beside Hedwig’s perch, which was a mistake since the quick movement sent blood pounding into places in his head that had apparently been absent of fluids for some time. He snatched up a handful of owl treats and flung them at the crazed owl, one at a time, as hard as he could manage. “Look what you did to my arms, you lunatic!” he snapped, and the sound nearly put him to the floor.

He knew that the owl was unlikely to leave until he collected the post, but he wasn’t about to get near enough to snatch it. Instead, he held up his hand, concentrated on keeping his voice as quiet and small as possible, and whispered, “Accio owl post.” The mad owl was flung onto its back as it shot toward Harry, talons first. He quickly moved to one side, but the post worked its way free and flew into his outstretched hand before the owl reached him. Hedwig attempted to force it back to the corner; instead it perched in the open window, lifted its tail to make a substantial deposit atop Harry’s writing table, then screeched loudly and raced into the murky sky.

Harry held the post close to his face – he had only just realised that he wasn’t wearing his glasses. The handwriting on the envelope was precise and familiar. It slowly seeped into him that the poor owl had probably spent a week returning from whence it had been banished. It could have been sent to Australia, for all he knew – he’d been furious at the time, so he’d thrown around a general banishing charm instead of the one intended for owls.

Rap-rap-rap-rap-rap.

“Right… now that’s the door,” he croaked. The rapping felt as though it was slowly opening a hole in his head. He stumbled across the room, tossed the post atop his bed as he passed, tripped over a side table, stubbed his toe on one of the settee’s feet, swore loudly, stopped before the door, and sneered, “Accio wand.” His wand struck him in the back before he could turn to reach for it. “Forget it – I’d rather be cursed,” he muttered, and assumed the fighting stance Dudley had shown him.

It was an ordeal to clear his throat. “Come in, you great prat!” he bellowed, and gritted his teeth.

The door opened with unnatural smoothness. Professor Detheridge grinned at him, eyes wrinkled nearly into slits under the weight of his brows. He was wearing coal-black trousers and a patterned shirt that Harry couldn’t look at without causing his temples to throb; he carried neither robe nor cloak. “You look terrible,” Detheridge chuckled.

“What do you want?” Harry snapped, even though it was an incautious approach to adopt toward a new Defence professor – after all, three of the man’s five immediate predecessors had turned out to be evil incarnate.

Detheridge held out a shiny flask, similar to Moody’s. “It’s a housewarming gift. By the time I ran across you last night, it was too late for a sobering charm. Two sips will take the edge off. Three sips will leave you unconscious for a week. I recommend two sips.”

“By the time… you…” Harry stood there, slack-jawed, as the previous evening flowed through his mind. He wanted to explain himself, but couldn’t think of an explanation that wouldn’t give away the Grangers’ presence in the Headmaster’s chambers. “You brought me back here,” he grunted instead.

“Do you remember what I told you, before I left?” Detheridge asked. When Harry nodded slowly, he added, “I meant that – all of it.”

Harry looked away, on the off chance that Detheridge was a Legilimens. “Yes, sir.”

“We don’t stand on formality where I come from,” Detheridge said. “I’m Marcus, which makes you Harry – understood? Now… what in the Nine Hells did you do to your arms? You weren’t like that when I left you here!”

“There was a problem with the post,” Harry deadpanned.

Detheridge laughed. “A problem? Looks to me like a mail owl mauled you! Familiar with battlefield healing charms?”

“I’ve heard of them,” Harry conceded.

“You’ve heard of them… oh, I forgot how much work we have to do!” Detheridge shook his head. “Get your wand, Harry. We can squeeze in a quick lesson, and still make it to London –”

Harry stared at Detheridge through bleary eyes. “London? Wha…?”

Detheridge looked down at the flask still in his hand. “Oh!” he exclaimed and quickly spun open the cap. “Remember – two sips.”

Harry picked up his wand from the floor and slowly stood. He held it over the open flask and muttered, “Toxicum deprendo.” There was no telltale blue flash, so Harry took it from Detheridge and downed two quick sips.

Detheridge waited until Harry had swallowed the thick, foul concoction before he observed, “You would have spotted poisons or re-agents, but I could have fed you all manner of foul germs without tripping that charm. In the future, be sure you add aegroris deprendo.”

Harry choked, but kept down the potion. It felt like something warm flowed through him, and his head was immediately clearer. “Thank you,” he muttered.

“It’s important you keep your head, Harry,” Detheridge said. “You don’t want to be paranoid, but you do want to be careful. So, about those cuts… hold your wand vertically, and we’ll have you perform a basic incantation: consanesco. After you speak it, the tip of your wand should glow red; you trace it across the wounds.” He examined one of Harry’s arms. “If these were deeper, I think we’d go with medela. If you’re ever bleeding out, there’s always focilare… but that one can be temperamental… best to leave it to someone who heals for a living, unless your back’s against the wall.” He let Harry’s arm fall. “Go on! You don’t want to stand there and bleed, do you?”

Harry tried the charm, but his wand tip only flashed red a few times. He stared at it nervously. “I must have said it wrong. Hermione would know how to say it, where to emphasize –”

Detheridge grasped and stilled Harry’s wand hand. He shook his head in a friendly way. “Stop thinking about it. If you’re bleeding, you say consanesco, and you run your wand tip across the wound. It’s like a broom – you don’t think about the charms holding it up, you just push off and go,” he advised, and then he let Harry’s hand free.

Harry stared at Detheridge and then at his wand. “Consanesco,” he said, and the tip of his wand exploded in red. A few seconds later, his skin was bloodstained but unmarred.

Detheridge produced the smallest, strangest wand Harry had ever seen. It was no longer than a fresh Muggle pencil and little wider, crafted of a reddish unpolished wood. “Six inches, redwood and horned owl feather,” he explained. “Size doesn’t equate to power… but you know that, of course.” He waved it in a circle, and said “delavo” in little more than a whisper. The bloodstains were instantly washed clean; Harry could see very faint tracings where he had been cut. “May I?” he asked, and reached for the remains of the shirt. With another flick of his wand, and a muttered “resarcio”, the shirt knit itself together. “I find resarcio works better on clothing than reparo,” he explained offhandedly. “You’ve probably never thought about a mending spell as something for battle, but it’s hard to fight without pants.” Harry snorted, and Detheridge appeared puzzled for a moment before his eyebrows shot up. “Trousers!” he exclaimed, and added, “It’s always important to remember where you are.”

Harry ran the mended shirt through his hands, and then slipped it over his head. “About London…?” he prompted.

“Ah, that. Albus suggested that we ride the student train as a precaution. I thought we could turn it into a lesson.” Detheridge’s expression became very serious. “You need to learn how to properly conceal yourself.”

Harry suppressed a smile, for this played perfectly into his plans. He retreated into his bedroom for fresh trousers. Detheridge told him to tuck his trouser legs into his dragon-hide boots; Shacklebolt had recommended the same once, he recalled. He strapped on his wand holster and his watch, and tucked Hermione’s post into his shirt pocket. It was a few minutes before ten o’clock. “Do we have time for a bit of breakfast?” he asked.

“We need to leave time for the Floo… unless you have a better way of getting around?” At that, Detheridge gave Harry a knowing look that left him absolutely shaky. Since popping wasn’t the same as apparation, he imagined that an apparition license didn’t actually apply. However, it struck him as a clear advantage that no one save Dobby knew what he could do. He couldn’t fathom how Detheridge might have seen him pop, unless he had been spying on the tower house the day that Harry breached the wall.

“Should I Floo from here, or Hogwarts?” Harry asked; he preferred to avoid any sort of direct answer to Detheridge’s question.

“We’ll head up to Hogwarts,” Detheridge answered. “I think I’ll Floo with you instead of apparating; it’s less stressful. Besides, Albus told me there’s a direct connection to the platform.”

Harry reluctantly donned one of his old student robes. “You, er, might want to wear a robe,” he suggested. “It’s sort of expected.”

Detheridge grinned. “Of course… remember where you are, yes… I’m not accustomed to robes.” He reached into a pocket in his trousers and withdrew an iridescent square of fabric, which he began to shake vigorously. After several shakes, it blackened and took the shape of a voluminous robe. I need one of those, Harry thought immediately.

Downstairs, Madam Rosmerta thrust a sack into Harry’s hands. He ate a scone and Detheridge gave an impromptu lecture on concealment as they walked up the path leading to the gates. Harry thought that Detheridge was almost too friendly, too familiar, and he was reluctant to trust any Defence professor that Dumbledore might hire. He settled on giving the man a wary benefit of the doubt, for the time being.

Hermione

Dr. Covelli had told Hermione that she would have more vivid recollection of her dreams, as a consequence of using the Dreamweaver. That had certainly been the case thus far, even when the dreams made little sense. She had developed a habit of lying quiet after she awoke, so that she could take in what she remembered – she learned from what was useful and discarded the rest.

Most of the previous night’s dreams were worthy of discarding – they were either muddled or they were about boys. Hermione remained surprised by the frequency with which she dreamed about boys. It wasn’t as though her waking thoughts were consumed by them, like Parvati or that tart Lavender Brown. She could appreciate an attractive boy or man, of course, but she had no intention of measuring her worth or marking her days based on anyone else’s attentions. Parvati and Lavender had both taunted her with the irony that her two best friends were both boys and were both reasonably fit – Harry was considered a top prospect, especially by exactly the sort of girls he wanted to avoid. Her dreams about boys were nothing like her dreams about Harry or Ron; she didn’t equate the two at all. She’d had those dreams for years, and they were too often of the worrying variety.

She had dreamed of being dragged on a date by one of the Weasley boys; the niggling parts were that she couldn’t place which one it was, and that Mrs. Weasley pelted them with rice as they left. In any case, the symbolic significance of that dream was clear enough. Then there was an embarrassing little romance-novel dream, in the library with someone – she wasn't certain whom and really didn’t care to know. After that was a fuzzy sort of dream about her parents; she remembered that her parents were dining and her dad wasn’t acting like himself, and she remembered frayed nerves and guilt.

Hermione opened her eyes. The sun had barely risen behind the clouds – it would be hours before they left to catch the Express. Her left hand was clenched tightly, and she slowly became aware that it was clenched around something. The room was a little blurry, and she worried not for the first time that all of her reading was taking a toll. She had to consciously think of opening her hand. She squinted at the golden object on her palm for a long time, and then nearly dropped it when she realised what it was. She was holding a Gringotts key, and had no idea whose it was or how it had come to be there.

It took her less than fifteen minutes to ready herself and re-pack her things. Her hair proved to be as advertised; if anything, it required even less care than the Italian cut. She found Hestia Jones seated on a small wooden chair in the corridor.

Jones withdrew a pocket watch from her robes. “It’s… barely past six,” she yawned. “Why are you up and about?”

“I need to exchange some more money at Gringotts,” Hermione explained hastily, “for Hogsmeade trips, extra ingredients for potions… that sort of thing.”

Jones stood and sent the chair into nothingness with a flick of her wand. “They opened a few minutes ago,” she said. “It’s best if we do this early. We’d planned for you to spend the balance of the morning here.”

Hermione stood close behind Jones as they descended the stairs to the dining hall. It was nearly empty, but Jones made immediately toward the one red-haired person in the room. Hermione followed with her eyes closed.

Jones leaned over, and Hermione barely heard her mutter, “Hate to intrude, but I need a wand and a pair of eyes. Hermione Granger wants to go to Gringotts before the train comes.”

Hermione heard the sound of a bench sliding against the stone floor. “I expect Bill and I could manage that, if you’d rather remain here. He should be here any moment,” Mr. Weasley offered.

“I’d be grateful,” Jones said. She nudged Hermione’s arm. “Hope you don’t mind. I was scheduled off at six, but Tonks is running behind. I’ll get word to her and be off, then.” Hermione nodded dumbly, her eyes still closed.

“We missed you last night,” Mr. Weasley said.

Hermione slowly opened her eyes; he wasn’t scowling, at least. She didn’t know what to say and barely managed, “I guess I made my feelings known, didn’t I?”

“That you did,” he agreed. She was saved from responding by Bill Weasley’s arrival. Bill bantered with someone at the door for a moment, before he looked to them and his eyes widened in surprise.

Bill seized her hands, and kissed her on each cheek; she decided he’d surely picked that up from Fleur Delacour. “Welcome back,” he said quietly. “We’ve been worried sick, you know.”

“Thank you,” she mumbled.

“I suppose you were smothered last night – Ron and Ginny all over you, Mum dashing over with one of her bone-crushers…” Bill caught the tightness in his father’s face and Hermione’s burning cheeks. “Er… did I miss something?”

“Your mother made some unfortunate remarks to Hermione’s parents prior to their leaving,” Mr. Weasley began.

Bill’s eyes squeezed shut. “That’s a familiar story this summer,” he groaned.

“Hermione here used a time-honoured means to express her displeasure,” Mr. Weasley went on. “It seems that the owl intended to deliver that message was unexpectedly delayed by a few days. As a result, the message arrived last night.”

“Last night… oh!” Bill bit back laughter. “You’re telling me that Hermione sent Mum a Howler, and it turned up here?”

“It took your mother a bit longer to find the humour in it,” Mr. Weasley deadpanned.

“You should have owled me,” Bill sniggered. “Merlin, you should have owled Charlie – could have used his expertise, I’d wager!”

Hermione closed her eyes again. “I wasn’t trying to be cruel – I wasn’t!” she insisted. “It’s just… the things that she said to my Mum… I was so angry!”

Mr. Weasley patted her on the shoulder. “Let’s walk, shall we? Bill, Hermione needs to venture out to Gringotts. Do you mind…?”

“There might be time for a bite afterward,” Bill said. “If not, we can talk during the week. It’ll quiet down once we ship off this lot, eh?”

“I don’t want to intrude,” Hermione insisted. “I can wait, if you like.”

Mr. Weasley looked to the stairs. “It’s not a bother,” he assured her. “Better that we go now, I think.”

Bill was silent as they walked down the Alley; he spent his time glancing at rooftops and the few passers-by. Mr. Weasley seemed as though he was about to say something shortly after they passed through the guards at the barrier, but then fell quiet. Hermione broke the silence. “Mr. Weasley, do you agree with what she said?” she blurted out.

Mr. Weasley stopped walking, which drew a scowl from Bill. “Hermione… sometimes… sometimes the most painful comments are the ones with a spot of truth behind them. Tell me, do you honestly think that I should be heading up the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts office?”

“You’ve done a brilliant job, Mr. Weasley!” Hermione said immediately. “Without you, there would be no Muggle Protection Act –”

Mr. Weasley smiled, but raised a hand to stop her. “I’ve done what I can, but you didn’t answer my question. I want you to be honest now.”

“It seems like the perfect post for a Muggle-born,” Hermione said quietly.

“It does, doesn’t it?” Mr. Weasley agreed. “I have my post because I’m a pureblood and no other pureblood would sully himself with it. That isn’t just, and it isn’t right, but it is the truth.”

“I see,” Hermione whispered.

“I wasn’t finished,” Mr. Weasley said. “Molly meant well – she always means well…” He sighed. “You have to understand that Molly has sacrificed quite a lot over the years. She could have had a career as a Healer – she was very talented in that way – but she believed that our children had to come first. She believes that a witch makes her mark through her children, you see. I imagine you don’t see your future in the same way?”

“It’s… not something I’ve thought a lot about,” Hermione returned, “but both of my parents are professionals. I was brought up to make my own mark, I suppose…”

“Then that’s what you’ll do,” Mr. Weasley said. “If the Ministry is closed to you, you’ll find your own path. I’m aware of what Molly said about estrangement, and there’s a spot of truth behind those comments as well. I think… I think that she was trying to make your parents see that there would always be a place in the wizarding world that you could call home.”

“That’s not what my Mum heard,” Hermione said.

“No, I suppose not,” Mr. Weasley admitted. “Molly made a right botch of things, and she feels horrible about it. We were getting on rather well with your parents, and I do hope that we’ll have occasion to restore that when… you know, when things have settled.”

Hermione wanted to be snappish, but Mr. Weasley was managing to defuse her. “It might help if my Mum knew that I wasn’t going to be married off in a few weeks,” she offered.

Mr. Weasley turned unexpectedly serious. “It is possible that you’ll receive enquiries as soon as you become of age, but it’s not very likely.” he said. “Most marriages take place without that sort of formality these days. Generally, that’s something you only see of the old-line families, and we’d be very suspicious if any of those sorts were to approach you. Their reasons might be something less than noble, I’m afraid.”

Hermione shivered. “Obviously, I can refuse… I can refuse…?”

Mr. Weasley nodded fervently. “Oh, yes – the days when a witch could be forced into a marriage arrangement are long past. Even childhood betrothals can not be enforced against a witch’s will.”

Hermione continued to shiver; she felt uncomfortably exposed standing there on the Alley. “Um… can we continue walking? I’d like to get to Gringotts now.”

Once inside, Bill led her directly to the exchange desk. She waited until he drifted back to speak with his father. “Are you here to make a currency exchange, Miss?” the goblin behind the desk hissed.

“Yes,” she said, startled. “Also, I found a key this morning. It looks like a Gringotts key, and I thought that I should turn it in.”

“Key, please,” the goblin said in a demanding tone.

She surrendered it. The goblin turned the key several times in his hands, and then began snapping something in Gobbledegook. One of the ornate wooden panels behind the desk opened outward, and a second goblin waddled toward the first. The second goblin withdrew a set of several wire-rimmed lenses from his waistcoat, seized the key, and gave it a scrupulous examination.

The two goblins entered into a snarling exchange. Hermione saw Bill coming from the corner of her eye. The second goblin thrust the lenses back into his pocket, and glared at her. “You will come with me now,” he demanded.

“What’s this about?” Bill asked.

The second goblin broke into something vaguely resembling a smile, but all the teeth made Hermione think of a dog’s smile, which was not a smile at all. “It is a matter between the witch and Gringotts,” he said.

Bill moved smoothly beside her, and looked as if he was prepared to put himself between her and the goblin. “She’s family,” he said in a tone that brooked no opposition.

The goblin’s dog-smile grew wider and toothier. “She is not your kin, Weasley. We read the Daily Prophet. We know she is the Granger witch, and this is a matter between her and Gringotts.” He crooked a claw-tipped finger toward her. “You will come with me now.”

Hermione stilled Bill with her hand. “It’s all right,” she said. “I’ve done nothing wrong.” She moved past him and nodded at the goblin.

Bill’s face was flaming red, and Mr. Weasley was fast approaching. “She’s back here in twenty minutes, Rishok, or I’m in Ragnok’s office,” Bill growled. “I trust we have an understanding?”

The goblin – Rishok – no longer smiled. “This should require little more than half that allotment, Weasley. It would be a great surprise were you to gain the Director’s attention within a day’s time, so it is in your best interest to remain here. Come, Granger.”

Hermione let herself be led through a warren of corridors and open offices filled with goblins and the occasional human doing who-knew-what for who-knew-whom. “All I wanted to do was return a key,” she muttered.

Rishok turned his head without slowing the brisk pace. “Gringotts appreciates your forthrightness,” he said briskly.

“Are you certain this won’t take long?” she asked. “The Weasleys really are like family; I don’t want to worry them.”

Rishok snorted. “If Weasley believes that Gringotts would harm any being that has personally stood against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, then he is a fool.” She stopped walking, and he added, “We do read the Daily Prophet.”

Hermione began to follow him again. “You don’t like Bill,” she observed.

Rishok’s toothy smile returned. “He is unnaturally skilled with dice,” he snapped.

The goblin knocked on a heavy door in an intricate pattern. After a few moments, the door shuddered and slid to one side. Inside was an office that looked to Hermione as if it belonged in the Stone Age. The desk, or what she assumed to be a desk, consisted of a giant slab of granite perched atop two carved rocks; a third rock appeared to serve as the chair. There were several curio cases, and a stuffed and mounted graphorn’s head hung above a second door. Rishok showed her into the office, and strode directly to a well-dressed and particularly saturnine goblin. They snarled and muttered to one another, and Rishok produced the key. The goblin who occupied the office held the key close to his eyes, then looked her up and down and broke into a broad dog-smile. She tried not to quail, and instead turned her attention to the curio cases. Within moments, she wished she hadn’t done that; she identified a half-dozen highly illegal objects in plain sight, and wondered why the goblin would be so obvious.

Rishok left, and the senior goblin motioned to a wooden chair that sat before the slab-desk. She seated herself, while the goblin kept his full attention on her. “I am Fliptrask,” he said. “The Trust Department at Gringotts is mine. I am the governing trustee for the Potter Family Trust, among other duties. You are Miss Hermione Granger, and that fact earns you several minutes of my inordinately valuable time.”

Hermione resolved to consider every word before speaking. “I am honoured that you would take the time, sir,” she said. “I was only trying to return a lost key.”

“Yes… the key.” Fliptrask sat on the rock behind the desk, and placed the key at the centre of the slab. “How did you come by this, Miss Granger?”

“I woke this morning with the key in my hand,” she answered honestly. “I have no idea how it came to be there. I haven’t an account of my own, but I’ve seen Harry’s key – Harry Potter, of course – and it looks rather like this one.”

“Yes, it does,” Fliptrask agreed. “In fact, this is a duplicate of Mr. Potter’s key. This would not be noteworthy except that no one has ever requested or produced a duplicate of Mr. Potter’s key, and it is theoretically impossible to duplicate a Gringotts key anywhere other than in our Key Shop. Rather remarkable – wouldn’t you agree, Miss Granger?”

Hermione’s eyes widened. “I can assure you, sir, that I’ve had nothing to do with any effort to counterfeit a key or anything of the sort!”

“Certainly not, Miss Granger. You lack both the technical skills and the sort of connections that would be required to even attempt such a feat. I do not say this to diminish your accomplishments; no witch of your age and experience could possibly manage it. In addition, you have no motive. You are already an approved party with regard to Mr. Potter’s vault, and thus do not require a key.” Fliptrask’s dog-smile stretched from ear to ear. “You did not enquire as to how I know that this is a duplicate, and not the original key. If you were involved in its manufacture, you would ask the question in some way.”

“I wouldn’t presume to waste your time, sir,” Hermione said. “You wouldn’t possibly give an answer.”

“You were evaluating the contents of my cabinets with evident curiosity,” Fliptrask asked abruptly. “No doubt you were wondering about the particular selection of items? Your thoughts, Miss Granger – why would I choose to display these items?”

Hermione looked at the disturbing curios for a moment, and then returned her eyes to the goblin. “For the same reason that you choose an office that is clearly suited to a goblin, sir – you are making the point to visitors that Gringotts is connected to, but not part of, the wizarding world,” she said in one breath.

Fliptrask pursed his lips. “That is a suitable answer. You are thoughtful and well-spoken, Miss Granger. I find it interesting that the wizards and witches who are most respectful of our time and activities are almost always those who were sired by Muggles or have a fondness for them. There are several thousand million Muggles, and a few million of you; I cannot help but wonder whether we are allowing great opportunities for wealth to elude us. What do you think Mr. Potter would say to such a statement?”

Hermione tried hard not to appear surprised by the sudden reference to Harry. “He’s generally very open-minded. I imagine he would be happy to listen to whatever you might have to say on the matter.”

“I developed a similar impression of the young man in the twelve minutes that I spent with him in July,” Fliptrask said. “If Mr. Potter were to seek out the management group of this institution for purposes of a brief conversation, we would not be averse to his request.”

“I haven’t spoken to Harry for some time but I’ll be sure to convey your message, sir,” Hermione offered.

“Perhaps Mr. Potter might accompany me and others of my station on the hunt,” Fliptrask suggested.

Hermione’s eyebrows rose despite herself. “I will… be sure that Harry understands the honour you wish to offer him.”

“Acceptable,” Fliptrask said. He stood, and Hermione understood that the meeting was concluded. He reached across the desk to shake her hand briskly. “Mr. Potter has made an exemplary choice in a companion,” he added.

Hermione nearly dropped the goblin’s hand. “Companion, did you say?” she squeaked, knowing full well what that meant in goblin terms. “Oh, no, it’s nothing like that! Harry is a long-time friend, that’s all.”

The goblin cocked his head to one side. “It is not customary to offer unfettered access to one’s vault unless one is married, affianced or related by blood – not customary at all.”

Hermione flinched at the goblin’s second reference to Harry’s vault. She struggled to say something that wouldn’t cause offence. “Harry… is not inclined to behave as other wizards,” she managed.

“In general, we take that as a positive attribute,” Fliptrask said. “I would also be remiss if I did not offer my congratulations to you.”

Hermione’s brow furrowed. “I’m sorry – congratulations? For what, if I might ask?”

Fliptrask seemed unnerved for a moment. “I… am confused as to why you would not know this. It is most unexpected that I should be the first to recognise your accomplishment. In fact, you may wish to consider Gringotts as a future source for employment.” He reached beneath the slab, and withdrew a newspaper. “We do read the Daily Prophet, of course. In fact, we receive it prior to general subscribers.” He opened to the third page, and spread it across the slab.

GRANGER SETS NEW STANDARD FOR O.W.L. SCORES

A near-perfect performance for Potter’s partner

Hogwarts student Hermione Granger, 16, has earned the highest score recorded on the Ordinary Wizarding Level (OWL) examinations in more than fifty years, and the third highest ever recorded, according to the Wizarding Examinations Authority. “It was a wholly unexpected accomplishment. We were not prepared to assess such a high level of performance,” said Bronwyn Bester, interim Head of the Authority. Amelia Bones, chair of the Hogwarts Board of Governors and Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, praised the current crop of Hogwarts students and extolled Miss Granger’s performance as proof that the school has maintained a standard of excellence. Madam Bester offered apologies for the delayed announcement of Miss Granger’s accomplishment, and defended the Authority’s rigorous scrutiny of the results as indicative of its commitment to assuring the integrity of the examination process.

Griselda Marchbanks, the immediate past Head of the Authority, resigned her post on August 24 to join the Hogwarts faculty as Professor of Astronomy. Sources within the Authority suggest that Madam Marchbanks’ resignation was in part prompted by the review of Miss Granger’s scores, which the same sources described as ‘unusual’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘quite barmy, actually’. For more on the rumoured faculty shake-up at Hogwarts, please turn to page 7.

Miss Granger’s close friend, Harry Potter, was unavailable for comment at press time. Mr. Potter’s OWL score for Defence Against the Dark Arts was the highest recorded in 140 years. Mr. Potter’s plans for the fall, in light of his dismissal by the Hogwarts Board of Governors, remain undisclosed. The dismissal was issued after Mr. Potter dispatched several reputed supporters of Voldemort during the course of an unprovoked attack upon Miss Granger’s family home, which occurred earlier this month.

Her eyes were drawn to the adjacent inset by a glimpse of familiar names. It was a list of the ten highest overall scores ever recorded on the OWL examinations. All had received the maximum number of OWLs, of course.

1. R. Fawcett, Ravenclaw, 1681

2. T. Riddle, Slytherin, 1943

3. H. Granger, Gryffindor, 1996

4. L. de Montmorency, Ravenclaw, 1839

5. G. Stump, Hufflepuff, 1786

6. G. Hipworth, Ravenclaw, 1858

7. (t) A. Lufkin, Ravenclaw, 1770

7. (t) A. Dumbledore, Gryffindor, 1897

9. P.N. Black, Slytherin, 1736

10. L. Evans, Gryffindor, 1976

“Thank you,” Hermione said distantly. “If there’s nothing else, I should be going… wouldn’t want to worry anyone…”

Fliptrask seemed not to notice. “Your efforts are appreciated, Miss Granger.” He took a quill and parchment and scribbled something with a flourish. “Present this at the exchange desk. There will be no transaction fee today, with our compliments. Good day; through the second door, please.”

Hermione drifted beneath the graphorn’s head and through the door into an unfamiliar anteroom, past a bored-looking clerk of some sort, and into the main hall of Gringotts. Bill ran up to her, spouting something about Ragnok and outrage, but she didn’t take it in. The list was all that she could see. It consumed her.

T. Riddle, Slytherin, 1943

H. Granger, Gryffindor, 1996

“Take me back, please?” Hermione requested.

“Are you finished, then? What about your exchange?” Bill asked.

“Just… just take me back,” she whispered.

Harry

Harry stood to the rear of Platform 9 ¾. He spoke to no one, acknowledged no one. Less is more, Detheridge had advised with regard to concealment. Rather than the comprehensive glamour that he had been using, he had merely changed his hair colour to brown with blond highlights and had rendered his skin somewhat paler. Detheridge had charmed Harry’s spectacles to darken. With black robes donned over black trousers and loose white shirt, Harry thought that he presented an image more befitting a Slytherin. Still, he had expected someone to call him out. Instead, the returning students bustled around him – carriages were boarded, trunks were stowed, good-byes were exchanged, and he didn’t draw a second glance. Detheridge had informed the Aurors and DFDL volunteers that Harry was part of the Hogwarts official detail, and they also ignored him.

Luna Lovegood appeared lost in the crowd, but in point of fact she nearly always appeared lost. He resisted the temptation to greet her; Detheridge was watching him, he knew. He was very surprised when Cho Chang briskly cut through the crowd and approached Luna, with a half-dozen senior Ravenclaws in her wake. Concealment practice or not, Harry resolved to hex Cho and her fellows into October if they made any trouble for Luna. He moved along the platform until he stood within earshot. It was then that he spied the Head Girl pin that adorned Cho’s lapel.

Cho set her hand on Luna’s shoulder. “Lovegood, may I have a word?” she asked quietly.

Luna took a small step backward. “A witch who approaches a hippogriff without its permission is likely to be bloodied or worse. I learned that in Professor Hagrid’s class,” she said off-handedly.

Cho let out an exasperated sigh, but let her hand fall to her side. “Look… Lovegood, I’m here to convey our House’s regard for you. What you did with Harry… you brought honour to Ravenclaw.” When Luna said nothing – merely blinked her big eyes twice – Cho went on, “I also wanted to ask your reasons for declining the position of Prefect.”

“Being a Prefect seems like a bother – all that walking around the corridors and opening closets,” Luna said. “I wish to be treated no differently than any member of Ravenclaw House.”

“You’re owed more than that,” Terry Boot said.

Luna responded, “I seek nothing.”

Morag McDougal squinted hard at Luna. “Lovegood, what’s that on your neck?” she asked bluntly.

Luna drew down her high collar to reveal a bright red weal that ran nearly from ear to ear. “This is a curse scar,” she said. “Bellatrix Lestrange cursed me when she and two of her fellows sacked our flat.”

The assembled Ravenclaws goggled at her. Terry Boot laughed nervously, “Loon… Luna, this isn’t like those Snorkling things you were going on about last year… is it?” Cho muttered something about having seen a mention in the Daily Prophet.

“It was before Hermione Granger’s home was attacked,” Luna went on. “Why don’t you ask Harry about it – he’s right over there.” Luna proceeded to point directly at him.

Harry nearly swore aloud. He cast the first thing he thought of on himself – a Look-Away charm – an instant before Cho’s head whipped around and the other Ravenclaws followed suit. “You mean that fellow over there?” McDougal said dismissively. “Lovegood, that must have been quite a curse you took.”

Luna shrugged. “Things are not always as they seem.”

Cho cleared her throat imperiously. “These are the House prefects for the year, Lovegood. If someone takes your things, if you’re wronged in any way, you’re to come to them – do you understand?” She turned her attention to the group of Prefects. “Twenty points per offence, and I expect all of you to comply.”

McDougal’s eyes bulged. “Twenty points?

Cho crossed her arms. “Twenty points, Morag. We’ll nip this within the week, and then I’ll see about rewarding those who come to Lovegood’s aid.”

McDougal smiled faintly. “I understand, Cho.”

Cho returned her focus to Luna. “Consider starting a Defence study group for the other fifth years, if Granger doesn’t carry on the D.A. We’ll see to it that it’s well attended.” She nodded smartly, and the Ravenclaw prefects and their leader swirled away into the crowd.

Luna looked directly over Harry’s right shoulder and just past his ear. “We’ll hold a seat for you,” she sing-songed. He watched her skip away, and hoped that Detheridge’s attention had been elsewhere.

The Look-Away charm seemed effective – on everyone save Luna, at any rate – and Harry continued to watch the milling crowd. Neville’s gran was unmistakeable as she made the barrier; her hat peeked above the assembled students. He noticed that Neville was drawing a very different sort of attention than in years past – the looks thrown his way were of curiosity, not pity. Neville carried himself differently as well, as he had at Gringotts. Harry felt a grim sort of satisfaction that perhaps the Department of Mysteries had benefited one of his friends in a way.

A coterie of redheads came onto the platform at three minutes to eleven. It took Harry several glances to recognise that Tonks was beside Bill Weasley, sporting spiky tomato-red hair. Detheridge caught Harry’s eye; rather than greeting the Weasleys, Harry thrust his hands into his pockets. It wasn’t until the round of good-byes began and the twins moved aside that Harry spotted Hermione in their midst.

If she hadn’t been in the Weasleys’ company, he thought that he wouldn’t have recognised her, at least not immediately. Her long bushy hair was gone, traded for a cut that was short – as short as his own hair. She had regularly returned from holiday tanned and visibly rested; now she was quite pale. From fifty feet, he recalled the sight of her peering from her bedroom window, when he had waited for Madam Bones to call him inside; she had been almost ghostly then, lost and afraid. He moved closer until Detheridge began to stare at him. From twenty feet, her eyes showed something other than fear; he didn’t know what it was that they showed, but it didn’t strike him as anything good.

Detheridge sidled up to him and stilled him until all of the students had boarded and the Aurors had assumed their posts at the junctions of several carriages. Then he led Harry into the first carriage, to a compartment next to the one reserved for the Heads and prefects.

“You were seen,” Detheridge said evenly.

“That was Luna Lovegood,” Harry explained. “She has a knack for seeing things other people don’t see.”

“Not a bad trait in an ally,” Detheridge observed.

The train slowly pulled away from the platform. Detheridge unpacked several books from a satchel, and made notes as he read on what was surely a Muggle pad of paper using what looked to be a fountain pen. Harry watched London go by, and continued to stare out the window until the grey buildings were replaced by green meadows.

“Do you think your friends can hold their tongues until after we arrive at Hogwarts?” Detheridge asked.

Harry snapped away from the window. “I’m sorry?”

Detheridge kept his eyes on his book and his notes. “You must feel strange right now – neither a student nor a teacher, sitting here with me whilst your friends are assembled elsewhere on the same train. I imagine you’d rather be with them. You understand that Albus would prefer to avoid a fuss until everyone is tucked away in the Great Hall, don’t you? A concealment lesson wasn’t an idle choice.”

Harry sat back in his seat and crossed his arms. “Then why send me at all? Was he trying to make a point?”

Detheridge set down his pen, and met Harry’s eyes. “He concluded that if something happened to the train and you weren’t present, you’d never forgive yourself. As such, I was asked to accompany you. I’d have much preferred to sleep in. Of course, you’d still be laying there in your own blood with a pounding headache, so I guess everything happens for a reason.” He returned to his notes with a snort.

Harry didn’t know whether to be angry that Dumbledore had sent him along with a minder, or pleased that Dumbledore had for once correctly anticipated his feelings. He settled on watching the meadows roll by. The sound of a door opening drew his attention; the Prefects were assembling. When he saw Ron approaching, he made a point of not looking directly into the corridor. He nearly fell out of his seat when he realised that Parvati Patil accompanied Ron. Where is Hermione? he wondered. Dumbledore wouldn’t have taken her badge, would he?

The door to the Prefects’ compartment closed and the curtains were drawn. “I know you want to go. Go on, then,” Detheridge said. “Just be subtle about it.”

Harry didn’t pass through the whole of the first carriage before a third or fourth year student gave him an uncomfortably long looking-over. He ducked into the loo as soon as he crossed into the second carriage. The face staring back at him from the mirror just wasn’t different enough, he decided. A thought occurred to him, and he stifled laughter. If he was here, I’d have seen him, Harry thought; he definitely would have settled in the first carriage. He closed his eyes, let his mind settle on a particular moment from his night at the Cabaret Moliére, and then cast the familiar glamour charm. He gave the mirror a satisfied smile, and then practiced the proper expression for a moment. One thing was readily apparent within a few moments of leaving the loo: taking on the appearance of Severus Snape on a train full of Hogwarts students was more effective than any Look-Away charm ever cast.

On two occasions while walking the length of the train, Slytherin students caught his eye. Harry summoned the foulest look he could recall from Potions class and took on a determined walk; it was a struggle to hold back a grin both times as the students quailed and fell back into their respective compartments. After that, however, Harry was mindful of looking for and avoiding Slytherins of his year or above; he knew that it would be difficult to avoid a terse conversation at minimum, and he wasn’t confident that he could mimic Snape’s voice for more than a few words.

As he entered the second to the last carriage – without any sign of Hermione, Luna, Neville or Ginny – he very nearly ran into Gregory Goyle. Goyle looked up at him with dazed, red-rimmed eyes. “P-Professor! I didn’t mean –”

Harry went rigid. Sneer, I have to sneer! he thought. “Stand aside, Goyle,” he barked.

Goyle hung his head. “Yes, Professor,” he said. Harry bustled onward with the best swish of his cloak that he could manage, all the while thinking that Goyle looked broken up about something. He crept into a hidden corner just shy of the final carriage, dropped the glamour, and Disillusioned himself.

He saw a number of familiar faces through the glass doors; it seemed as though a good share of Gryffindors had taken up the final compartments, along with a number of Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs. As he thought about it, he realised that most of the returning D.A. members were here.

The last two compartments were both open to the corridor. One compartment was a crush of sixth years – Neville, Dean, Seamus, Susan Bones, Mandy Brocklehurst – as well as Ginny and Colin Creevey. Hermione sat in the very last compartment of the train. Harry couldn’t look at that particular compartment without thinking of Dementors. Only Luna sat with her, and Harry was very surprised to see the two deeply engaged in conversation. The door to the next carriage thumped and Harry pressed himself against the final doorway.

“Cho Chang is a nutter!” Ron bellowed.

Mandy Brocklehurst stuck her head out of her compartment. “She’s not that bad… a bit too structured, I’ll grant you.”

Ron entered Hermione’s compartment and threw himself onto a seat. “Timetables for rounds… timetables for making timetables for rounds… and bossy!” He leaned back toward the corridor. “Cho Chang is a bloody timetable!”

“Don’t forget, she’s also our Quidditch captain,” Mandy returned from across the corridor. “We’re going to wipe the pitch with you this year.”

“Hey! Weasley is our King, and don’t you forget it!” Seamus said indignantly, which set his entire compartment into raucous laughter.

Ron shook his head. “No respect at all,” he moaned. “All I did last year was win the Quidditch Cup, after all.” Luna began to hum ‘Weasley Is Our King’, which reduced Seamus to a choking fit and caused Ron to instantly turn crimson; even Hermione smiled.

Harry found a comfortable place to lean, and quietly watched. People kept changing places between the carriage’s compartments and a number of different people sat with Hermione at various times, but the last compartment was never crowded and remained quieter than the rest. All of the remaining D.A. members took their turns with Hermione except Lavender Brown, who remained seated at the opposite end of the carriage. It seemed orchestrated, and it dawned on Harry after a while that Ron was doing the orchestrating.

Hermione doubtless knew she was being handled – Harry figured that if he could see it, she certainly could – but she voiced no complaints. Luna was the consistent presence with Hermione, and they kept slipping into conversation. Part of Harry wanted to find a way to move closer, to hear what they could possibly be saying to one another, but his better instincts told him that he would be intruding. He continued to watch, until he heard Anthony Goldstein say firmly; “Go back the way you came, Malfoy.”

“I wasn’t aware that there were reserved carriages, Goldstein,” Draco Malfoy drawled. With Goyle distraught and Crabbe presumably off to Azkaban, Harry had figured that Malfoy might skip his usual provocation. Instead he had come with Pansy Parkinson and Millicent Bulstrode; Bulstrode looked especially surly, Harry thought.

Anthony stood in the doorway to the first compartment and crossed his arms. “Awfully inquisitive, aren’t you? Umbridge isn’t around to help your lot anymore.”

Malfoy gave him a dismissive look and continued down the corridor with a smirk. “My, my… a few houses damaged here, a few people ruffled there, and suddenly everyone’s on edge.” Anthony instantly put the tip of his wand to Malfoy's nose.

Ron leaped into the corridor with his wand at the ready. Neville was on his heels; he grappled with Ron and insisted, “He isn’t worth it!”

“Of course I’m worth it,” Malfoy sneered. “Do your worst, Goldstein; it won’t be much, I’m sure. Come on, Weasley, I’m sure you want to show off a bit – after all, with Potter out of the way you’re the big man in Gryffindor, aren’t you?”

Hermione stood, and it took everything in Harry to keep himself from stopping her. She had a strange look in her eye as she turned into the corridor. Her voice was low and cold. “Say what you came to say, Malfoy.” Luna followed her closely, and Ginny immediately emerged from the next compartment to flank her.

“Rumour has it you spent your summer in a madhouse, Granger,” Malfoy sneered. “Apparently five years as a swotty grind catches up with a person?”

“You know perfectly well what happened to me, Malfoy,” Hermione snapped. “You must have read it in the Daily Prophet… or did you get a first-hand account from your father?” Her hands were at her sides, and there was no sign of her wand.

Malfoy’s eyes narrowed. “My father is none of your business.”

Hermione advanced, even as Ginny slipped in front of her. She pushed past Ron. “Your father tried to kill my parents and my friends, Malfoy,” Hermione said. “Where were you that day, I wonder?”

Malfoy laughed. “Do you think I would actually consider setting foot in your home, Granger? I don’t muck out stalls; that’s what house-elves are for.”

Hermione kept closing on him. “I think you’d do whatever your master told you to do. Perhaps you paid Vincent Crabbe to go in your place?”

“Crabbe was under Imperious,” Bulstrode said in a monotone.

“Do you know what happened to Crabbe?” Hermione asked. “My dad beat him with a cricket bat.” Parkinson’s expression hardened and she levelled her wand toward Hermione. The corridor filled and a dozen wands shifted toward Parkinson in response; she immediately relaxed her stance. Hermione continued to stand there, seemingly relaxed, and it baffled Harry. Draw your wand, Hermione, he thought.

Neville stepped forward past Ron, until he stood immediately behind Luna. “Why are you here, Malfoy?”

“Just paying my respects to the Mudblood, Longbottom, as if it’s any of your business,” Malfoy sneered. He glared at Hermione. “You should have run when you had the chance.”

Neville bore himself up in a way Harry had not seen before. “Our family vault at Gringotts is number fourteen,” he said. “The Browns’ vault is number twenty. The Macmillan’s vault is on our level, as well. I don’t recall ever seeing yours, so I doubt it’s lower than sixty. You didn’t buy up for it, did you?”

“I see someone drank a Draught of Courage this morning,” laughed Malfoy. “Our vault is number eleven, by the way.”

“That belongs to the Black family,” Neville said.

Malfoy slipped into a fatuous grin. “Precisely.”

“That’s Harry’s vault, then,” Hermione said, and Malfoy’s face exploded with hate.

“Draco is the rightful heir of the Blacks,” Parkinson hissed.

“Spoken like a true gold-digger,” Parvati Patil called out from the front of the carriage.

Lavender Brown slid out of one of the forward compartments, wand drawn. “What line do the Parkinsons stem from, I wonder? Funny that I’ve never seen you at any of the Daughters of the Goblin Wars cotillions, isn’t it?”

Hermione began, “Your father is a fugitive, and you’ve lost your Prefect badge –”

“The Ministry’s likely to seize your family’s assets,” Susan Bones chimed in.

“You have no honour,” Neville said coldly.

“So why are you here? Why are you doing this to yourself?” Hermione finished.

Parkinson snapped, “Shut it, Mudblood!”

“I almost feel sorry for you, Malfoy,” Hermione said.

“I’d have thought you would have learned your place,” Malfoy hissed. “My father –”

“Slapped my father,” Hermione finished for him, “and would have killed him if he’d had the chance. He didn’t, and that’s the only reason you’re going to leave this carriage alive.”

“I’m sure I didn’t hear that correctly, because it sounded distinctly like you were threatening Draco.” Parkinson sneered.

“You’re dead, Granger – you and everyone like you,” Malfoy said coldly.

Ron moved forward in a duelling stance, pressing past Neville, Luna and Ginny to stand beside Hermione. She grasped his wand arm and said, “Don’t, Ron – please?”

Malfoy summoned a wicked smile. “How touching! Is it possible? Now that Potter’s gone, did the Weasel King finally manage to catch the Golden Bitch?” Several more wands snapped to attention.

Hermione rolled her eyes and laughed, which surprised Harry; every face that Harry could see reflected shock. “Did you spend your entire summer concocting that line, Malfoy?” she asked. Her head shook as she waved her hands at him dismissively and turned toward her compartment.

“You don’t walk away from me! No one walks away from me!” Malfoy roared. Harry saw something in Malfoy’s eyes, and levelled his wand. As Neville and Ron moved to cover her exit and Ginny and Luna moved into a compartment, Malfoy moved hard to the outside wall of the corridor and muttered something that sounded vicious. A purple flash shot past Ron and over Hermione’s shoulder. She gasped and dropped to the floor, and Harry let out a guttural howl.

The windows of the nearest four compartments cracked, and the corridor cleared except for the three Slytherins, Hermione, Neville and Ron. Harry felt a strange stillness in the air. He popped from his resting place, still Disillusioned. A torrent of air burst along the corridor that knocked Ron and Neville to the floor. Harry managed to stop a few feet behind Bulstrode, but his momentum nearly carried him into the door to the next carriage. Bulstrode turned toward the sound, but Anthony Goldstein rolled out of the first compartment and struck her with a curse that Harry had never seen before. Harry cast everbero on Parkinson, who was distracted by Bulstrode’s fall; her chin snapped back and she collapsed. Malfoy moved to leave the carriage in a panic; he unknowingly charged right at Harry and Anthony. Harry levelled his wand and hissed, “Catadromarius stranguria!” His Disillusion fell for an instant, but he managed to re-cast it.

Thick magical ropes wound around Malfoy until he was trussed. One end looped twice between his legs and raced to the ceiling, where it tied itself around a light fixture.

“Wha… let me go!” Malfoy bellowed. With each struggle, the ropes tightened further.

Harry quickly dashed down the corridor, ducking the flailing Malfoy. Hermione lay still on the floor, and he kept seeing the purple flash in his mind’s eye. As he neared her, she stood and brushed debris off her clothing. She faced Malfoy with a satisfied smile, and began to walk toward him; Harry retreated ahead of her toward the front of the carriage.

Malfoy continued to fight against the ropes, and they tightened without remorse. He began to howl in pain. Ron flicked his wand and said “Finite incantatum,” but nothing happened. He tried again, and Malfoy continued to dangle.

“Cancel the spell, Seamus,” Ron said.

What?” Seamus bellowed.

Ron shrugged. “It’s your style, mate.”

“I didn’t do it! I don’t even know what it is!” Seamus insisted.

Dean held up his hands. “Don’t look at me; I couldn’t do that to another man’s bits, not even to a wanker like Malfoy.” The loops between Malfoy’s legs tightened again, and Dean winced. “Cor, that has to hurt!”

Students hung out the doors of every compartment in the carriage, watching Malfoy’s increasingly grim struggle, but few seemed willing to enter the corridor. “Right then… whoever did this, it’s time to let up,” Ron called out.

Detheridge burst into the carriage, his stubby wand drawn and at the ready; Harry had to press himself against the outside wall of the corridor to let him pass. He stopped for a moment at the sight of the writhing Malfoy and the two unconscious Slytherin girls. “Well, well… this looks like it’ll take some sorting out,” he frowned.

The students watched in rapt silence as Hermione reached Malfoy. “Is it painful? Are you miserable?” she asked with venom in her voice. Malfoy responded by coughing furiously, which made the ropes draw closer still.

Ron gaped at her. “Hermione… you couldn’t have… did you…?”

“Hermione Granger?” Detheridge stopped on Malfoy’s opposite side. “I am Marcus Detheridge, your new Defence professor. That’s a vicious use for a conjured rope – a well-conjured one, I must say. If you’ll release him, we can work this out.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir,” Hermione said. “My wand is in Professor McGonagall’s possession.” That explains why Ron was having her looked after, Harry thought, and he wondered why she was wandless.

“Is that so?” Detheridge leaned in to examine the bonds more closely. “Stop struggling, boy,” he told Malfoy. “The rope will tighten until it crushes you.” Malfoy’s eyes bulged, but he continued to move.

Harry stood next to the first compartment and watched Malfoy writhe. Anthony Goldstein was standing not more than two feet away, and Harry thought he looked very satisfied. Anthony raised his hand to his mouth, and muttered, “Look, Potter… I saw you appear for a second. You shouldn’t kill him, not with a professor here.”

Detheridge walked around Malfoy, over Parkinson, and past Hermione. “If the boy is released right now, there will be no recriminations. If I have to stun him and remove the ropes, I will find out who is responsible and will show very little mercy.”

Thankfully the front half of the corridor remained clear. Malfoy was deadly still; it seemed that he had finally absorbed Detheridge’s instructions. His breathing was laboured and raspy. Harry put his lips close to Malfoy’s ear and whispered, “If anything happens to Hermione – anything – you will die.” He walked back to the front of the carriage and cancelled the spell from there; the ropes vanished and Malfoy slammed hard to the floor.

“Thank you,” Detheridge said. He returned to Malfoy and knelt. “What’s your name, boy?”

“M-Malfoy, sir. Draco Malfoy,” he croaked.

Detheridge’s face went slack. “Malfoy,” he said flatly. “I know your family.” He collected a loose wand from the floor. “Is this yours?”

Malfoy looked around for a moment, before he squeaked, “Yes.”

“If I were to inspect this wand, would I like what I found?” Detheridge asked.

Malfoy was silent for the best part of a minute, before he muttered, “I’m not sure.”

“These two were with you?” Detheridge asked, pointing at the fallen Slytherins.

Malfoy’s eyes seemed to cross. “I don’t know… it’s all dodgy… I… I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing here…”

“Don’t embarrass yourself, boy,” Detheridge warned. “Pick yourself up, and go to the first car. There’s an empty compartment across from the one for the Head students. Sit there and wait for me. I’ll take care of these two.” Malfoy struggled to his feet, and walked slowly and awkwardly toward the next carriage. Harry resisted the temptation to kick him as he left.

Detheridge waved his wand strangely and then flicked it. “Compunctio,” he said. Parkinson and Bulstrode both jumped up as though bees had stung them. “Good afternoon, ladies,” he addressed them. “I am Marcus Detheridge, your new Defence professor, and we are not off to a good start. I’ve sent Mr. Malfoy to sit in the front car. Find him, and wait with him until I come for you. Do it now.” Neither had to be told twice.

Detheridge stood and looked up and down the corridor. “Well, we certainly can’t leave the train in this condition. Ordinarily, I’d ask whoever was responsible to take care of it, but this is a special circumstance. So… who knows the best charm for glass repair?” Harry backed into the door that led to the next carriage just as the corridor began to fill with curious students.

His former schoolmates were quickly taken with Detheridge. Harry figured there would be no need for anything like the D.A. now, and he was glad for that; everyone needed proper training, he figured. He crouched near the door until Detheridge expressed satisfaction with the repairs and was well on his way to the first carriage, and then picked his way down the corridor and stood just outside the last compartment.

Ron sat across from Hermione, and he looked concerned. “I’m not trying to start something here. We were willing to do whatever was necessary to protect you, but there’s no getting around it… that was a stupid stunt. You were three feet from him without a wand!”

“I was fine. He’s nothing more than a bully and a coward,” Hermione insisted.

Ron’s neck was tensing, and Harry knew that the red flush would come next. “He fired a slashing curse at you, for Merlin’s sake! Do you want people to believe you’ve gone mad?”

Hermione shook her head and pointed toward the last doorway. “The spell he cast struck the doorway, there. The stain’s barely marred, Ron; that was no slashing curse. Malfoy was simply trying to scare me. That’s what he does.”

Ron ploughed on. “Then when he was hit with that rope thing, you… you actually enjoyed it. You didn’t just want to hex him; you really wanted to hurt him, didn’t you?”

“You’ve wanted to hex Malfoy to death for five years,” Hermione snapped. “Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy it, Ron!”

“What would you have done to him, then, if you’d had your wand?” Ron demanded.

“Well, I certainly wouldn’t have trussed him up like that, if only because I don’t know how to do it. I have seen it in a book, though,” Hermione returned.

“You really have changed, you know?” Ron said.

Hermione gave a weak shrug. “Ropes wouldn’t have occurred to me, actually. I suppose I would have cast pruritus aegrius down his trousers.”

Ron’s eyebrows shot up and he instinctively crossed his legs. “You’re scary, Hermione. I know I’ve said that, but only because it’s the truth.” He stood. “Look… if you need anything –”

Hermione smiled faintly. “You’re a good friend, Ron. I haven’t said that as often as I should.” Ron left, and she was alone. She balled up an anorak, placed it between her head and the outside wall of the compartment, and closed her eyes. Harry quietly entered and sat across from her. She seemed to relax, and he contented himself with listening to the clacking of the train against the tracks.

“I know you’re there; I can hear you breathing,” she whispered, and Harry nearly jumped out of his cloak.

“Hello,” he whispered back as soon as he settled himself. “Are you all right?” She had dark circles beneath her eyes, he noticed, and she seemed even paler than on the platform at King’s Cross.

He had to strain to hear her. “No, but I will be,” she said. “I recognised the ropes straight away, from Scandalous Tactics. Liked that book, did you?”

Harry snorted softly. “I didn’t know if it would work. I just blurted it out.”

“You’re not supposed to be here, are you?” she whispered.

“Not exactly,” he answered quietly.

She relaxed against the wall again. He wanted to do the same, but knew that he definitely shouldn’t be found out, not after what had happened. Detheridge is going to eat me for dinner, he was certain.

Hermione stretched, and repositioned the anorak. “You’d better go before someone sits on you,” she whispered.

He rose from the seat, and cursed himself for having neglected to silence his breathing, his robes or his footfalls in the first place. She sat up and reached out; her hand brushed against his leg. “Thank you, Harry,” she said quietly. “I’d like to see you soon; tonight, if that’s all right.”

“I’ll try,” he said.

Harry was in no hurry to reach the front carriage of the Express. Detheridge was going to lay in to him for certain, and his brief time with Hermione had left him very much on edge. It wasn’t like her to leap into the unknown unless pushed, usually by him or Ron. He couldn’t reconcile that with the sight of her standing three feet from Malfoy – without her wand – and provoking him into a rage. There had been a dozen or more wands trained on Malfoy; if Harry had stayed with Detheridge, then Malfoy would have been hexed instead of crushed, but Hermione would still have left unscathed. He wondered why she had been so reckless, and he wondered why she wanted to see him that night. He wanted to talk to her about her parents’ decision, and it was best that he get that out of the way very soon. She hadn’t said ‘meet me tonight in the Common room’ or ‘come to the Room of Requirement’; she’d asked if he might see her. It was nice of her to ask, he thought – he actually appreciated it – but it was one more thing about Hermione that seemed off.

Detheridge’s compartment was closed, and the blinds were drawn; Harry presumed that it was silenced as well. Malfoy sat one compartment behind, alone. He shifted uncomfortably from one position to the next as Harry watched him. His robe lay beside him; he was wearing a half-sleeved white shirt and jerkins. Rope burns trailed across both his forearms. If Malfoy had taken the Dark Mark, then it was located somewhere else.

The door to Detheridge’s compartment opened, and Harry backed away. Bulstrode and Parkinson emerged, and the door quickly closed behind them. Parkinson was deathly pale, while Bulstrode looked furious. They scuttled into Malfoy’s compartment; none of them showed the presence of mind to cast an Imperturbable charm against the door, and he figured none of them knew how to create a silent space. Harry withdrew an Extendable Ear from one of his pockets and slipped it under the door. He then leaned against the door, which hid all but an inch of the Ear from the view of any potential passer-by.

“He knows things,” Parkinson whispered, “things he shouldn’t possibly know!”

“He knows things about my family that no one knows – at least until now,” Bulstrode fumed. There was a pause, before she added menacingly, “Anything comes back to me and I’ll know where it came from, Parkinson.”

“It wasn’t Legilimency,” Malfoy said flatly.

“How would you know?” Parkinson asked.

“My father made Snape use it on me; I’ll never forget how that felt,” Malfoy returned. He sighed loudly. “I’ve been telling you to avoid Dumbledore’s eyes since second year, and you didn’t know why?”

“Then we’ve been ratted out,” Bulstrode growled, “and not just once. Nobody from the Squad could have known all of that… except you, Malfoy.”

“Stop thinking; it doesn’t become you,” Malfoy sneered. “If I’d decided to give you all up, I assure you that I wouldn’t be sitting here.”

“You’re good at keeping up appearances,” Parkinson snapped.

“This is all your father’s fault, so shut it,” Malfoy whispered forcefully. “If my father was still seated on the Board of Governors, we wouldn’t be stuck with that right bastard for a professor.”

Parkinson’s voice grew louder. “No, Malfoy, this is all your fault. Did you listen to me when I said we shouldn’t waste our time messing about with Granger? No, of course you didn’t listen! I guess you forgot that it was your father who turned her into a heroine of the unwashed masses? I’ll wager she’s got three houses standing up for her now, and some of us are going to have to play nicely if we plan to salvage any credibility –”

“Another year and it won’t matter what they think,” Bulstrode sneered.

“That’s one possibility,” Parkinson said. “The other is that a year from now, the Dark Lord is dead and we’re stuck with Dumbledore as Minister and Potter as hero of the bloody realm, which would leave most of us taking turns dishing ice cream at Fortescue’s.”

“Planning to play both sides against the middle, are you? Like father, like daughter,” Malfoy mocked.

“Wouldn’t you prefer that your father had done the same?” Parkinson asked. “There’s only one possibility left to you now.”

“There’s always more than one possibility,” Malfoy said confidently.

There was a long silence, before Parkinson offered, “I have an ampoule of unction in my trunk. It’ll soothe those burns.”

“Who conjured those bloody ropes, anyway?” Malfoy snapped. “Someone’s going to pay for that!”

“It wasn’t Granger,” Bulstrode grunted.

“Don’t be so sure,” Parkinson returned. “She sounds serious about killing you, Malfoy.”

“She does, doesn’t she?” Malfoy said quietly. “I want to know what happened to Granger after the Daily Prophet went and declared her Queen of the Mudbloods, and I’m not interested in the usual rumours. There’s something off about her, something different, and I’m not referring to the hideous mop of hair she used to wear.”

“You think there’s really something worth knowing?” Parkinson asked.

“I don’t know… but I’m not about to leave a Galleon lying on the walk,” Malfoy said.

“Like Granger said, ask your father,” Bulstrode said.

Malfoy hissed, “That’s the last thing I’d do! You know I haven’t spoken to him in a long time. If he comes for me now, then you’ll be right, Parkinson – I’ll be down to one possibility.”

Harry heard movement inside the compartment; he quickly coiled the Extendable Ear and scuttled to one side until the three Slytherins had passed. So… it looks as though Bulstrode’s a Death Eater, Parkinson isn’t, and Malfoy might actually be undecided, he thought. There were at least two surprises in that. Before he could slip into the empty compartment, Detheridge’s door opened. Harry didn’t want to go in, but he was certain that the door had opened for a reason and that it was best to have it out immediately. He entered the compartment, closed the door behind him, and cancelled the disillusionment.

“Subtle,” Detheridge said.

“No, sir, I wasn’t,” Harry admitted.

“The word refers to attaining an end via indirect means, marked by guile and cunning…” Detheridge began to rummage through his knapsack. “No, ‘subtle’ certainly doesn’t match with what I saw back there.”

“Look… I had to protect her. Malfoy was –” Harry began.

“Oh, is that what you were doing…? A-ha! I knew I’d brought it along!” Detheridge held out an uncomfortably familiar book. “Shall I locate the appropriate section, or have you committed those particular page numbers to memory?”

“Chapter eight,” Harry mumbled.

“I love this book, always have,” Detheridge said lightly as he turned the well-worn pages. “About two-thirds of it is either unworkable or foolishly dangerous, but I’ll give de Maupassant his due for sheer style… and some of it is actually damned impressive. The man is a genius… and here we are. Number twelve… catadromarius stranguria.”

Harry never had the slightest chance. Detheridge had tossed off the incantation as though he was simply reading it aloud from the book, and had artfully concealed the flick of his wand. Harry found himself upside down and flailing, and then very quickly trying not to repeat Malfoy’s mistake.

“Good! You’re a quick study,” Detheridge snapped. He set the book down face-up directly in Harry’s view. “Hurts, doesn’t it? You seriously insulted the Malfoy boy back there, and I’m betting that you had no idea why. Do you understand why this little rope trick belongs in a book with ‘scandalous’ in the title?”

Harry wanted to shout, but he knew what would happen if he did. Instead, he measured his breathing and bit out, “I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”

“In a world where bloodlines matter, what is truly important to the eldest son of a family?” Detheridge asked.

“Living long enough to inherit?” Harry managed to say.

“That’s a given, but you’ve started up the right path,” Detheridge said. “You survive, you get the money, and you pass along more money to your own eldest son instead of leaving it to your brother’s brat. Fertility, Harry – it’s as important as money to old wizarding families. Read aloud, from the top of the right hand page – now.”

Even though Harry was moving very little, even the small rise and fall of his chest was encouraging the ropes to constrict. He didn’t want to read aloud, but he wanted out of the ropes and it surely looked like the quickest means to that end. He was swaying a little, so he squinted to keep the words in focus. “If you are made into a cuckold against your will, number twelve is the best revenge. It is made all the more delicious when your transgressor stands to claim his family’s seat of honour. In a bare hour, you can end the man’s line; if he has not yet claimed the seat of honour, you may even have the pleasure of thwarting his climb altogether –” He had no idea what a ‘cuckold’ was, but the general meaning of the passage was clear enough.

Detheridge cut him off. “If the poor wretch thrashes enough, it doesn’t take an hour. Malfoy’s family may be dubious at best, but he still stands to lead it. Skip a few paragraphs… read from here.” He planted his index finger near the bottom of the page.

Harry was afraid to clear this throat. “For a particularly wicked revenge,” he read, “conceal your identity from the transgressor. He will be unable to affect the direction of his fury, and will reap his reward in mere minutes.” He added uncomfortably, “I don’t remember that part, from when I read the book.”

Detheridge picked up the text, and looked through it for something. “Perhaps you have an earlier edition,” he suggested. “Now then… ‘he will be unable to affect the direction of his fury’… there’s an important clue in that for learning how to get out of most of the Marquis’ little rope tricks.”

“A clue… what? You’re going to make me get out of this bloody thing myself?” Harry growled. The ropes quickly tightened, and he immediately wished that he’d kept his mouth closed.

“Angry with me?” Detheridge asked.

“Yes!” Harry seethed through clenched teeth. He barely breathed, barely moved, but the ropes tightened. “Bloody…!” It was like being kicked, he decided – by several people at once.

“Control yourself and think,” Detheridge said quietly. “You know that I cast the ropes. It’s true that the ropes are ‘conjured’, but it’s just as accurate to describe them as ‘cursed’.”

It was difficult, but Harry managed to slowly relax one part of his body at a time until he hung limp. The ropes loosened somewhat, enough that the pain receded and his thoughts came to the fore. If I didn’t know that Detheridge had done this, then I couldn’t ‘affect the direction of my fury’, but why would I want to affect it? he wondered. When he pushed me, when I got angrier, the ropes tightened – even when I wasn’t moving. Is that the difference between ‘conjured’ and ‘cursed’?

He could see the Department of Mysteries again; Bellatrix Lestrange was mocking him for his failed Cruciatus Curse, telling him that he had to mean it. Detheridge didn’t mean it, Harry realised – he was teaching a nasty lesson, but no more so than Shacklebolt’s first session at Grimmauld Place. The ropes weren’t intended to injure; they had loosened when he relaxed. I’m not truly angry with Detheridge, he told himself. I cast this on Malfoy and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t need to cast it, even though I wanted to do it; I didn’t need to do anything at all, really…

“I’m not angry with you,” Harry told Detheridge. “You’re not trying to hurt me. I wasn’t thinking when I set after Malfoy with the ropes.” The bindings sagged and Harry’s legs dropped loose. He didn’t waste any time; before they could possibly tighten again, he wriggled free and threw them across the compartment.

Detheridge returned Scandalous Tactics for Duelling to his knapsack. “Well done,” he said casually. “Snape was wrong about you; you’re prepared for advanced studies.”

Snape?” Harry spat. He was certain that he saw the ropes suddenly wriggle in the corner, and bit back the rest of his thought.

“He seems to believe that you can only act on impulse… come to think of it, I don’t think he’s described anyone as anything but a mindless twit.” Detheridge snorted. “Strange man, that Snape. You are impulsive – find me a teenager who isn’t – but there is a working mind inside that head of yours. Most of any given battle is waged with the mind, Harry, not with a wand or a sword or a staff.”

Harry’s eyes locked on the ropes; they were definitely shaking. “Erm… could you get rid of those things?”

“They’ll fade away when you allow it,” Detheridge explained. “Nasty things, very nasty… I’d love to ask the man what possessed him to create ropes that feed off the victim’s emotional state.”

Harry forced himself to turn away from them, and to change the subject. “Have you arranged a time for our sessions?” he asked. “Dumble… er, the Headmaster is setting a timetable.”

“Oh, we’ll meet here and there,” Detheridge said dismissively. “I find that fixed times rarely work out. It’s enough for me to manage a complement of regular classes. I might ask Albus if I can put you to work with the younger students, and… and…” His eyes suddenly glazed over.

“Are you all right?” Harry asked immediately.

Detheridge’s face was vacant. “Just… one of those things… overtaxed myself the last few days… a glass of water will… yes, a glass of water…” He withdrew a handkerchief from somewhere and mopped his brow with it. “See you at the castle,” he mumbled, and abruptly walked out of the compartment.

Harry closed the door before anyone could steal a look inside. I can be subtle, he fumed. Resolving to stay sealed inside the compartment for the rest of the journey, he closed his eyes and savoured the sensation of an easy breath. When he opened them again, the ropes had faded away.

The grey skies became darker and more turbulent as lush meadows gave way to steep Scottish hillsides. Raindrops streaked the windows by the time the Express switched onto the last leg of track that took them to Hogsmeade. Detheridge still had not returned to the compartment when Harry felt the train begin to slow. Detheridge had left behind his knapsack. Harry took it up, opted for a Look-Away charm and a raised hood, and dashed to the foot of the carriage during a lull of activity. The train was rolling at a snail’s pace when the first Aurors hopped off the train to the platform, and Harry followed suit. Hagrid had taken up his usual place to await the disembarking first years. McGonagall also stood on the platform, a black umbrella raised stiffly above her head.

Harry watched the great scramble from the train to the thestral-drawn carriages. Owls hooted and screeched, cats slunk around the ankles of rushing students, and Hagrid bellowed, “Firs’ years over here!” It was more of a drizzle than a rain now; Harry could recall worse years to be consigned to the boats. He watched his old life push past him in a great teeming mass; Ron’s head was barely visible from within a knot of sixth-years. McGonagall fished Hermione from the crowd and spirited her to a carriage waiting behind the station house.

The Aurors seemed more focused on the students than the platform, so Harry recast his disillusionment and scrambled after McGonagall; he managed to hoist himself onto the footman’s step just as the thestrals started forward. McGonagall’s carriage raced ahead; they were through the gates and on the winding drive to the castle well before the first students began their rides.

Harry watched through the windows as McGonagall produced Hermione’s wand from within her robes. Hermione took it; she looked upset and began to exchange words with the professor. McGonagall seemed to let forth with long gales while Hermione fired back in short bursts. If it had been he and Ron, Harry wouldn’t have described it as an outright fight, but with McGonagall and Hermione he wasn’t so sure. He couldn’t hear Hermione’s voice over the din of the wheels and the unexpected clacking of the Thestrals’ hooves, but McGonagall’s burr carried through the doors now and again: “…endangering yourself… her motives are far from noble in this… you should never have… we all care… that simply isn’t true… ten points…”

They seemed to settle back for a moment, but then Hermione shouted something unintelligible and McGonagall’s voice sliced through the sounds of the carriage rumbling along the pebbly path. “…the same mistake… wrong road for the right reasons… perhaps I should have held your wand a while longer?” Hermione’s hands waved and her head shook; she was red-faced and furious.

The carriage stopped quickly, and Harry had to grab hard for a hand rung to keep himself on the step. Hermione flung the door open and it nearly slammed into him. She leapt from the carriage wide-eyed and wand drawn, and stared up at the castle in the oddest way; it was almost as though she was trying to ward it off, he thought.

McGonagall leaned heavily against her staff as she clambered down. “You bear the same obligations as any other student of this school, and you are subject to the same disciplinary standards. I do hope you weren’t thinking otherwise when you resigned your post as Prefect; if so, then you have miscalculated,” she snapped.

Hermione whirled, and her hands went to her hips. “I’m not threatening them; I’m telling you that I won’t be threatened again. I behaved as you asked, and Malfoy would have happily killed me if someone hadn’t stepped in. If I’d had my wand, I wouldn’t have stood for it.” Harry almost flinched at the anger in her eyes. Her hands were shaking. “You tell… you tell Professor Snape that if they come after me again, there will be a price paid for it,” she finished.

McGonagall’s face fell. When she spoke, it was in a very formal way. “It is my opinion that you are not ready to be in attendance, Miss Granger. It is my duty to report that impression to the Headmaster; I dearly wish that I could do otherwise.” She inclined her head toward the doors. “If you will be remaining here, I think it best that you affect a gradual return. Your present temperament is not suited to the Welcoming Feast. The password to the Common Room is ‘fortune favours the brave’. The house-elves will provide you a meal.”

Hermione put away her wand, rushed up the steps and ploughed inside without a look back. McGonagall clung to her staff as though she was being buffeted by a sharp wind; she appeared unthinkably close to tears. I’ve cocked up twice in twenty-four hours; why not go for a third? Harry figured. He let his disillusionment fall. “Are you all right, Professor?” he asked.

McGonagall’s hand clutched at her chest. “Where did you come from?”

The impulse to gaze at his own feet was too powerful to resist. “I just left the train; the Headmaster sent me along with Professor Detheridge to ride… well, to ride with the students.” He laughed nervously. “It’s passing strange to put it that way.”

“I imagine it is. So, Potter… you were on the train?” she said slowly. “How long have you been standing there?”

Harry shuffled his feet. “Long enough,” he admitted.

McGonagall nodded gravely. “I see. Was there something that you needed?”

“No, I just wanted to be sure that you were all right,” Harry said, and thrust his hands into his pockets.

McGonagall sighed. “It’s very difficult to watch someone…” She trailed off and didn’t finish the thought.

“I’ll be speaking to her later,” Harry offered.

McGonagall looked at him with a sad, strange smile that reminded him of the looks he received from the portraits throughout the castle. “Thank you for asking after me, Po… Harry. It says something about the sort of person that you are, something very good.” She repositioned her staff and began to climb the steps. Harry quickly put out his arm; she hesitated for a moment and then took it until they reached the top.

“You wait for the first years here, right?” Harry recalled.

“The tradition begins at these doors, as it always has,” she said quietly. The lights from the first-years’ boats stood out against the dark horizon.

At the sound of the approaching student carriages, he opened the door. The realisation that he was expected to sit with the staff at the head table struck him soundly, and he hesitated there. “Get yourself to the Great Hall,” McGonagall said. “Please meet me in the anteroom following the Feast; there is additional information that the Headmaster wishes me to pass along.”

Harry hesitated for a moment at the foot of the main stairs, but he knew that he couldn’t go chasing after Hermione. He continued to wonder what had gotten into her; the wondering led him down a path that he wasn’t prepared to walk, not until after the Feast at any rate.

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