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Fics begun in 2003 (post-OOTP)

Chapter Thirty-three

OTHER KNOWS BEST

September 2

Harry’s shout could have roused every sleeping wizard in Hogsmeade, and he wouldn’t have cared – his watch read fifteen minutes to nine and he was supposed to be in Dumbledore’s chambers at nine, but he’d been too thick to pick up an alarm clock, and his stomach was rumbling, and he sat there on the edge of the bed with his hair in disarray even by his normal standards, clad only in boxers.  He knocked Hermione’s letter – which he had read several times before falling asleep – onto the floor in his haste, and scrambled to the sink. 

“My, you’re a fright this morning,” the mirror said.

“Sod off,” Harry grumbled, and thrust his toothbrush into his mouth.  Hermione had once told him with a straight face that he needed to spend half a minute on each tooth, and he’d actually done it once before he found out that she’d been having him on.  As it was, there was barely time to rinse-and-spit, and then a scouring charm that felt like it stripped off his skin rather than cleansed it. 

He donned a grey shirt, pulled on black trousers that tucked into black boots, and thrust his black student’s cloak and robe into a black knapsack – and managed it all in less than two minutes.  “Is your entire wardrobe monochromatic, young man?” the mirror asked as he struggled with his hair.

“Bloody mirrors,” Harry muttered under his breath.  He tossed aside his comb in surrender, checked that he had packed parchment and quills and ink, scooped up the Bonnie and dashed out the door for the stairs.

He nearly ran down Madam Rosmerta as he reached the landing.  “Oh, dear!” she cried out.  “No time for breakfast?”

“Have to meet Dumbledore at nine,” he said quickly.

Rosmerta pointed to two platters set at the bar.  “Take a scone at the very least, Harry.  Good luck today!”

Harry thanked her and pocketed two scones.  He stopped just beyond the front door and enlarged the Bonnie; it was second nature for him now, and he supposed that it looked to an observer as though the motorbike simply poured from his palm. He straddled the bike in one smooth motion and cranked the throttle once, savouring the growl. Eyes fell upon him and glanced over his shoulder; heads seemed to magically appear at windows and out of abruptly-opened doors.

An ancient wizard making for the Three Broomsticks stopped beside him, eyes widened.  “Great Merlin’s ghost, it’s Sirius Black!” he wheezed; “When’d they let you out, boy?” Harry flinched and mumbled a vague pleasantry over the rumble of the bike, then turned hard and pulled away fast. 

Another wizard scrambled out of the way and shook his fist as Harry passed.  He was past Hogsmeade Station before he became conscious of the wind whipping his hair; it was too late to turn back for a helmet.  It’s not as though I’ll have a traffic accident here, he figured. 

 The gates to Hogwarts opened as he approached; he didn’t recall them having been closed when he’d walked back the previous night.  As he thought about it, Dumbledore had never said anything about the gates at all; somehow, Harry was recognised.

He picked up speed again.  The roar of the Bonnie seemed terribly out of place, especially as the castle drew closer, and he smiled.  He figured that the sound of a Muggle motor had never been heard on this path before, even if it was nothing more than a magical copy of the real thing.  There was something satisfying about riding the Bonnie on the ground, roaring up the path to Hogwarts – something exciting and rebellious and his alone.

The empty Quidditch pitch called to him.  He glanced at his watch, which read six minutes to nine, and told himself, I can round it and still make the entrance in two minutes.  The roar of the Bonnie faded away as he took flight.  He hadn’t gone flat out since the chase to catch Ginny, and the speed startled him.  It was as fast as his Firebolt, but the ride was rough and the Bonnie was far more difficult to hold steady.  He had to stand on the footpegs to snap around the hoops at the far end of the pitch, and even then came uncomfortably close to sideswiping the wall.  Four minutes to nine, his watch read.  He turned the throttle as far as it would turn and thundered toward the entrance to the castle.

Harry swooped over a low spot in the outer walls and streaked down into the courtyard; he had to let the Bonnie bounce and slide through a 180-degree turn in order to stop.  He heard the muttering of the startled students before he actually saw them.

It’s a Muggle!  Inconceivable!

Don’t be thick; the thing was flying.

Charming that bike’s worth a year in Azkaban, I’ll wager.

Harry dismounted and found himself face to face with a shuffling knot of Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs, fifth-years from the looks of them.  He guessed that they were straggling to Hagrid’s hut for Care of Magical Creatures.  “Good morning,” he said casually, as though flying into the Hogwarts courtyard at a hundred miles an hour on a Triumph Bonneville was as perfectly ordinary as scones for breakfast.

“Merlin’s balls, it’s Harry Potter!” someone blurted from the back, which immediately provoked alternating fits of laughter and shushing.

“Good morning, Harry.  Were you taking a morning constitutional?” a familiar sing-song voice called out.  Luna stood well off to one side from the rest of the students.

“Shut it, Looney,” came a hiss.

Harry’s jaw clenched.  He shrunk and pocketed the Bonnie, which brought forth gasps; then he summoned a broad smile and returned, “Hello, Luna.  It’s great to see you again.”  The second round of gasps from Luna’s year-mates was rather more pronounced.

“Thank you once again for allowing Daddy and me to stay with you,” Luna said.  There were whispers and sharp mutters, and Harry could almost feel Luna’s fellow Ravenclaws calculating.  Prats!  he snarled inside, and quickly decided that he had a good reason for keeping the Headmaster waiting.

“It was my pleasure,” Harry said softly.  Luna’s wide eyes flickered ever-so-slightly, which he took as a note of surprise.  “Perhaps you’ll take another ride with me sometime?” he added.

“I’d like that,” Luna replied.  “I enjoyed the last ride immensely, although the stroll afterward was even better.”

Harry gave her a warm and friendly embrace.  She stiffened for an instant, and then yielded.  Harry couldn’t feel the other Ravenclaws after that.  A catty thought flitted through his mind: Perhaps we’ve killed them?

“You’re quite skilled at play-acting,” she whispered in his ear.

“Play-acting?  No, I really am glad to see you,” he whispered in return.  “Er… I need to talk with you soon… it’s about Hermione.  I saw her last night.”  Then he let Luna go and took a step back as though he was appraising her.  “I’m late to see the Headmaster,” he added in a normal voice.  “I’ll be sure to pass along your regards.”  She nodded and smiled enigmatically.

Luna’s housemates stared in mute shock as Harry walked toward them on his way to the oaken doors.  He stopped before them, knowing that Luna might not appreciate what he was about to do.  “Luna stood with me and my other friends against a dozen Death Eaters,” he snapped.  “My friends are loyal to me, and I’m loyal to them.  If I find you’ve mistreated Luna, having Cho take away house points will be the least of your worries.”  He stood firm and watched the implication soak in for an uncomfortably long moment, and then continued on his way.  From the corner of his eye, he observed that Luna’s housemates still stood in shock while her Hufflepuff year-mates smiled as one.

Harry pushed quickly through the doors and very nearly ran into Dumbledore.  He was so startled that he managed nothing more intelligible than “Oh!”

“Good morning, Harry,” Dumbledore greeted him.  “I was watching for you from my window.” He looked Harry up and down.  “Sirius’s mode of transportation always fascinated me; it seems to favour you.”

Harry’s cheeks flushed despite himself.  “I should have come directly, but I just had to take a spin around the pitch… I know it was childish…”

“I know that you will miss Quidditch very much,” Dumbledore said.  “I suspect that you would have arrived precisely as scheduled, were it not for the time required to address Miss Lovegood and her colleagues.”

Harry frowned.  “I won’t let them treat her badly, not like last year.”

Dumbledore seemed to be quite surprised.  “Miss Lovegood has been poorly treated by members of her own house?  I was not aware of this.”

“I don’t think she ever told any of the professors, not even Flitwick,” Harry said.  “She didn’t want a fuss.”

“She didn’t want a fuss, you say?”  Dumbledore stroked his beard thoughtfully.  “I see… then you acted in what you perceive to be Miss Lovegood’s best interests, even though she does not share your opinion.”

“They steal her things, they call her awful names, they lie to her about revising for exams – she’s done nothing to deserve that,” Harry protested.

“What if your action leads to unforeseen consequences, Harry?  Perhaps Miss Lovegood’s colleagues will be emboldened to seek new and uglier ways to mistreat her?  Would that lead you to reconsider your actions?” Dumbledore asked.

“Someone needed to talk to them.  Someone had to tell them that what they’ve done before is wrong.”  Harry crossed his arms tightly.  “If I say nothing, nothing changes; so I said something.”

Dumbledore gave a wry smile, and showed a hint of the twinkle in his eye that Harry had come to genuinely dislike.  “It is always tempting to make decisions on behalf of those for whom we care, but always dangerous. The future consequences are never completely clear in the best of circumstances.  Sometimes we cannot remedy our errors, but only move forward.”  He motioned toward the corridor that led past the ground-floor classrooms.  “Shall we?”

They exited the corridor into the main entry hall and Dumbledore turned toward the stairs that led to the dungeons.  Harry slowed his pace.  “Are we… um… going down there to, you know, talk to him?”

“I believe that we both require some more information from our colleague, prior to passing judgment,” Dumbledore returned.  “I offer to handle the enquiry, unless you prefer otherwise.”  Since Harry had no idea what information Dumbledore sought, he agreed.

As they descended, Dumbledore seemed lost in his thoughts.  He doffed his hat and ran the brim through his hands as he walked.  A smile formed on his lips.  “Unspoken communication, Harry – it is critical to effective partnerships,” he said.  “Many tasks in the magical world are carried out in pairs; Aurors generally work in pairs, as do Unspeakables in the field… curse-breakers as well… even the Four Founders formed two pairs.  I wonder if we overlook the significance of partnership and teamwork at Hogwarts…?” 

Before Harry could decide whether he should answer, Dumbledore went on, “Unspoken communication… yes, it can provide a valuable advantage.  When Professor Croaker and myself – I imagine that you did not know the Professor has been a superior and a colleague of mine at various times? – when we were engaged in fieldwork, we had a system of unspoken cues in addition to simple familiarity.  For example, if I was to rub the side of my nose thusly, Algernon knew that someone with hostile intent was attempting to flank him.”  He tugged in a particular way on his beard.  “If I was to pull on my beard just-so, then Algernon knew to secure a room – in other words, to securely seal the door, scatter Imperturbable Charms and create a silent space of appropriate dimensions.  You surely see how these sorts of cues could be useful in an uncertain situation?  Yes, I think that unspoken communication should be addressed in both the Defence classes and the Defence Club –”

“Defence Club?  Is Detheridge going to run something like the D.A., then?” Harry asked.

Dumbledore straightened his hat and returned it to its normal perch.  “No, Harry.  You are going to lead the Defence Club, with able assistance of course.  I believe that such a Club should conduct its meetings on a regular basis, and there will be times that you are unavailable.”

“Erm… I don’t think Hermione –” Harry began.

Dumbledore interrupted firmly.  “Miss Granger has been charged with a more important task, one better suited to her current situation.  No, I prefer that you work with Professor Detheridge’s teaching assistants.  I will arrange a meeting with his assistants this afternoon.  Ah… we have arrived.”  They stood before the door to the Potions classroom.

Dumbledore knocked twice and then entered.  The classroom was vacant, and the door to Snape’s office was ajar.  “Severus?  Do you have a moment?” Dumbledore called cheerily.

Snape’s voice echoed from the office.  “I am engaged.  I shall be with you shortly, Headmaster.”

“There is no need to ruin a potion,” Dumbledore said quietly.  He ran the tip of his index finger along the top of one of the student desks, and his nose wrinkled; then he sniffed deeply.  “Fluxweed has a very distinctive scent when parboiled.  It is primarily acrid, yet at the same time there is a hint of something floral.”

Harry sniffed the air as well.  “Fluxweed?  Why is he making Polyjuice Potion?” he muttered.

Dumbledore frowned.  “Although fluxweed is used in several preparations, it is a rather esoteric ingredient.  I am inclined to support your assumption.  Professor Snape is expected to inform the Order of his, shall we say, unsavoury potion-making responsibilities… you pose an excellent question, Harry.  I shall add it to my growing list.”

Snape emerged from his office.  His outer robe was absent, replaced by a dragon-hide apron, and he was wiping his hands on what looked to be a tea towel.  “My apologies, Headmaster – I…” His eyes swept to Dumbledore’s right and narrowed.  “What is he doing here?  Is this about his Potions training?”

“I do hope this will not come as a disappointment, Severus, but I have decided to offer Harry tuition in potions myself,” Dumbledore said.

Snape’s face twitched oddly; Harry suspected it was from the effort of keeping back a smile.  “I am… not entirely disappointed, Headmaster…” He paused and shifted uncomfortably.  “Without intending disrespect, may I ask if you are certain that you will be able to address all aspects that may be required?  I will offer any assistance that you require, of course.”

“Of course, Severus; I am aware of your commitment to the betterment of our students,” Dumbledore said evenly.  “I am certain that you would extend the same courtesies to my apprentice.  Though I am not a Potions Master, but merely an alchemist, I feel that I can provide Harry with all the potions instruction that he shall require.”

Snape lowered his head.  “You are not merely an alchemist, Headmaster.  No insult was intended.”

“None was taken,” Dumbledore said.  “I have a lesson plan in mind, Severus, and I shall need to obtain the associated materials.  If it is not an imposition, I thought that perhaps you could provide initial supplies from your personal stores.  In addition, I would prefer that you handle future procurements on my behalf; in that way, we shall be guaranteed highest-quality supplies.”

“Certainly, Headmaster,” Snape agreed.

Dumbledore moved toward Snape’s office.  “Excellent!  Now, I had in mind –”

Snape moved to one side, deterring Dumbledore’s progress.  “I can outfit a small potions laboratory on your behalf, Headmaster,” he said.  “Dungeon Five is not in use this term, and the conditions are favourable for potions of NEWT-level sensitivity.  When did you intend to commence this… training?”

“I had hoped to offer a brief lesson this afternoon, one that should not necessitate a special environment,” Dumbledore returned.  He resumed his trek toward the office.  “I only require –”

“Headmaster, I have four different potions brewing at present, two of which are prone to instability.  I would prefer that no one else enter my laboratory until tomorrow at the earliest,” Snape said, his tone authoritative and firm.

Dumbledore let out a long sigh.  “Very well; would you please fetch the appropriate supplies, then?”  He adjusted his hat and then tugged on his beard.  “I shall require six Jobberknoll feathers…”

Snape’s face went slack.  “Six, Headmaster?  I doubt that I have six available –”

Dumbledore went on as though Snape had said nothing.  “I shall also require a vial of Erumpent fluid, six grains of coracesia –”

“Sir!  I must insist that you allow me to prepare Dungeon Five before you allow… are you certain that you want to put coracesia in Potter’s hands?” Snape sneered.  “I will admit he hasn’t engaged in wanton cauldron-melting like Longbottom …” Dumbledore tugged on his beard again, as Snape droned on.  Harry realised that it was the same sort of tug as before – the same unspoken cue that the Headmaster had once shared with Croaker. 

Dumbledore continued to list increasingly dangerous ingredients, Snape continued to grow paler, and Harry understood that he was supposed to secure the room while Snape was distracted.  With a furtive flick of his wand, he sealed the door.  Snape was so incensed that he didn’t seem to hear the faint squelching sound.  With a few more flicks, the walls and ceiling and floor were all rendered Imperturbable.  He flopped onto a bench as though bored, and Snape never gave him a second glance.  Lying on his back, he moved his wand to-and-fro, and built a silent space that enclosed the entire classroom.

“Do any of your potions require attention in the next fifteen minutes, Severus?” Dumbledore asked.

“The Blood-Replenishing Potion must be stirred in less than ten minutes,” Snape answered.  His eyes flickered slightly.  “Do you require something of me other than potion ingredients, Headmaster?”

Dumbledore nodded.  “Yes, I do.”  He sniffed deeply.  “Are you certain you have fifteen minutes to spare?  I believe your fluxweed may be softening into an unusable state.”

Snape sniffed, “Certainly not; it will be more than thirty minutes…” His face tightened, and he took a long pause before he said, “I did not think that this particular request merited the attention of the Order.  I am being made to accelerate the brewing process, and I assure you that the potion will work for no more than ten minutes.  Whoever will be assigned to use it is doomed to failure.”

Dumbledore’s eyes flashed dangerously.  “We had an understanding, Severus – an agreement that you would report all of your activities for Voldemort and his supporters.  This was not limited to those activities that you may feel are important.  Ten minutes is ample time for unspeakable acts to be committed – you know this all too well.”

Snape bowed his head.  “I understand, Headmaster.  I did not seek to overstep my bounds; the error is mine.”

“Yes, Severus, the error is yours,” Dumbledore agreed.  He turned to Harry.  “I have another minor question to ask of Professor Snape.  I am sorry that we are encroaching on your lesson time… ah, of course!  Harry, I would like you to go into Professor Snape’s office and, without sampling or any sort of direct contact, identify the four potions currently in process.  If you succeed in identifying all four, I shall award ten points to the house of your choosing.”

Snape was horror-stricken.  “Headmaster… I must protest!  If he interacts with my work, not only might he reduce himself to ashes, but he might succeed in taking us with him!”

“Thank you for the warning, Severus,” Dumbledore said.  “Harry, it seems that one of more of the potions possesses an explosive potential; do be mindful in your examination.”  He waved toward Snape’s office door until Harry began to move toward it.

Snape drew himself up into the haughty posture that Harry expected of him.  “Headmaster, as an accredited Potions Master I possess certain rights and privileges with regard to the sanctity of my work,” he sniffed.  “I refuse to allow someone so thoroughly unqualified to enter my work area.”

Dumbledore’s eyes narrowed in a way that Harry had never before seen.  A draft rushed through the room; the Headmaster’s hat fell to the floor and his hair rippled behind him.  “Any privileges that you possess within these walls are based upon your tenure as a Professor, Severus, and the continuation of that tenure is at my pleasure,” he pronounced.  “I believe we shall discuss the likelihood of continuation, among other things.  Sit.”

Harry barely managed to move aside; he suddenly felt incredibly heavy.  Snape slid backward into the chair behind his desk at the head of the classroom; his expression betrayed utter shock and fear.  Once Snape was seated, he tugged and pulled and wriggled but might as well have been tied down.

“What is the meaning of this?” Snape demanded.

Have you betrayed the Order, Severus?” Dumbledore roared.  The student desks rattled in their places.  Harry wasn’t certain whether the desks and benches rattled from the strength of Dumbledore’s voice or the sheer power radiating from him; he couldn’t help but be awestruck, as well as shocked by the turn of events, and very pleased to be someone other than Severus Snape.

Snape’s eyes grew wide before they grew angry.  “No!  How… how dare you!  After all that I have done, all that I have given… NO, I HAVE NOT!

Harry could feel the Headmaster’s fury roiling just beneath the surface.  Dumbledore withdrew his wand and rolled it between his fingers.  When he at last spoke, his tone was controlled but bitterly cold.  “I am inclined to test that assertion.  I have received approval to cast Proditionis Aequiparabilis.

Snape blanched, but responded with defiance.  “You would invoke the Betrayer’s Curse upon me, Headmaster?  From whom was permission sought – your Gryffindor protégés?  I surmise as much; they would happily allow you to strike me with the Killing Curse,” he spat.

“This is not a matter of likes or dislikes; the matters at hand are the keeping and the breaking of oaths, of long-held personal promises,” Dumbledore returned.  “I will know whether you have betrayed Harry to Voldemort.  You will tell me or I will discern it myself.”

Snape tried to sit up straight, but it seemed that he was forced into a slouch.  “This is about Potter?  Do I not sit accused of betraying the Order?”

“There is no longer a distinction to be drawn, as you are well aware,” Dumbledore snapped.  “There have been too many inconsistencies, too many half-truths, Severus.  I can no longer tolerate obfuscation; resist if you wish.  Legilimens.”

Snape writhed in the chair; he tried to turn his head, to avert his eyes, but he could not.  The veins in his neck bulged, and he began to sweat profusely; Harry wondered whether he was seeing Snape as Snape had seen him the previous year.

“I… was… I was in the right!” Snape choked out.  “Did… what… you asked… the boy… couldn’t use Occlumency… doesn’t… possess… the mind… had to make him… resist the… the Dark Lord… as you said… why not… make him… strike a… hammer blow…”

“You were completely wrong,” Dumbledore said quietly.  “Harry is not a weapon to be wielded.”

“We… are all… weapons…” Snape managed.

Dumbledore seemed profoundly sad and disappointed; Harry could feel it and wondered if it was having any effect on Snape.  “Severus… your actions were premised upon a distorted view of the connection between Harry and Voldemort.  We can only hope that you did not succeed in dooming us all…” The Headmaster’s eyes fluttered and he staggered forward.  Harry moved to his side, but he raised a hand to stop him.  “Harry, please remove yourself to Professor Snape’s office.  I still wish you to identify the potions in process – quickly, please.”

“Blood… Replenishing… P-Potion…” Snape said hoarsely.

“Thank you, Severus.  The Blood Replenishing Potion will soon require stirring.  Harry, be certain to follow the Professor’s notes with care,” Dumbledore said.

NO… Potter… m-menace …” Snape spat.  His head shook, and then he squeezed his eyes tightly shut.  “Headmuh… Headmaster… no… don’t make me… I don’t want to see… please…” His eyes snapped open again, pupils contracted in stark terror.

“Oh, no… Severus, did he actually require you to do those things…?” Dumbledore muttered, and then added forcefully, “Harry, act with haste!”

Harry scrambled into Snape’s office.  There were four cauldrons brewing, each with a store of ingredients before it, all carefully organized and meticulously prepared.  A set of notes on parchment was placed adjacent to each ingredient set; stirring and brewing steps were logged on each.  He struggled to clear his head; the air was filled with fear and disappointment and anger and the crackling of raw power, and it was a battle to push all that aside and focus upon his task. 

He first identified the cauldron in which the Blood Replenishing Potion was brewing, and followed Snape’s next steps exactly as they were described.  Boomslang skin lay amongst the ingredients before the second cauldron, and the liquid gave off the odour that Dumbledore had identified as fluxweed.  That would be the Polyjuice Potion, he recognised. 

The liquid in the third cauldron was clear, and the only remaining ingredient was a single Jobberknoll feather.  He leaned over the cauldron and sniffed; there was no discernable smell.  There was a stray droplet on the edge of the cauldron.  He threw caution to the wind and took up the droplet on the tip of a finger; his skin tingled for a moment.  Veritaserum, he decided.   

Only traces of the ingredients remained before the fourth cauldron.  Harry read the notes several times, in hopes of seeing a familiar pattern in the clockwise and anticlockwise stirring and the addition of tincture of… Forgetfulness Potion?  Why on Earth would he be brewing that? he wondered.

“I have it, Headmaster,” Harry called out.  “He’s brewing Blood Replenishing Potion, Polyjuice Potion, Veritaserum, and Forgetfulness Potion.”

Dumbledore released a long sigh.  When Harry re-entered the classroom, the Headmaster was seated at a student desk, his face lowered into his hands; Snape was sprawled in the chair behind his own desk, dazed and shuddering. When Dumbledore at last spoke, his voice was muffled by his fingers. “I assume that Harry is correct, because it is abundantly clear that you have been partaking of Forgetfulness Potion. That is not the answer, Severus.” 

Snape coughed loudly.  “Perhaps I was able to penetrate Potter’s skull after all,” he croaked.  “Ten points to… to…”

“Slytherin,” Harry said.

Snape remained slouched in his chair, but his eyes betrayed his surprise.  “I… m-must have heard incorrectly.”

“Ten points to Slytherin,” Harry confirmed.

Snape’s eyebrow quivered as it rose.  “What on Earth for?”

A part of Harry wanted very much to smirk, but the rest of him couldn’t deliver on it.  Instead he snapped, “I figure Slytherin will need the points before the year is out, and… and because I would have gone along with it.  Did you ever think about that?  Did it ever occur to you that if you’d just told me what you were trying to do, I would have agreed?”

Snape gaped at him.  He was silent for a long time, before he slowly whispered, “Foolish, foolish Gryffindor.”

“I’d have gone along with it, if it would have gotten rid of Voldemort,” Harry growled.  “Who’s the fool here, Snape?”

Dumbledore raised his head.  “I will not hear of this again, Harry.  As for you, Severus… you have been found out; Voldemort knows.  He assigned you the most reprehensible tasks – evil tasks – because he knew that you would perform them; he knew that you would not dare fail him, no matter the consequences.  It appears that he was not able to breach your deepest secrets, but the Forgetfulness Potion has eroded your shields over time – as you surely knew it would. Did you truly believe that Voldemort would not sense this? You should have come to me; this could have ended weeks ago! Lives would have been saved – innocent lives!” The Headmaster rippled with power, and Harry understood how it was that he could be feared. 

Snape bore himself up with obvious discomfort but without any note of complaint.  “Shall I consider myself in custody, Headmaster?”

Dumbledore shook his head.  “I am satisfied that you have not knowingly betrayed the Order.  I am, however, profoundly dissatisfied with your conduct.  As of now, you are forbade from responding to a summons, nor may you leave the wards of Hogwarts for any purpose until I am convinced that it is safe for you to do so. I shall confer with Harry as well as some of our colleagues from the Order.  We shall meet with you no later than tomorrow evening.”

Snape struggled to his feet; his eyes were still glassy.  “The third-years will be arriving in thirty minutes…  I must…”

“You need not concern yourself,” Dumbledore said firmly.  “I relieve you of instructional duties until further notice.  You may use your office and private work area, if you wish.  Your Floo access is suspended, as well.”

Snape began a weak protest.  “But who will –”

Dumbledore stopped him.  “As you pointed out, I am not merely an alchemist.”  He turned to Harry.  “I am afraid that my meagre attempts toward establishing a timetable have once again collapsed.  I would appreciate your assistance in preparing the classroom and monitoring student activity.  You will meet with Professor Detheridge’s assistants this afternoon, and there are two readings that you must complete today.  We will meet over the evening meal to organise the remainder of the week.”

“Is there… anything that I may do, Headmaster; any task that I may perform?” Snape asked quietly.

“You may complete the potions in process, Severus,” Dumbledore answered.  “Please see that the Blood-Replenishing Potion is delivered to Madam Pomfrey, and that the Veritaserum is delivered to my chambers.  You shall complete and then destroy the Polyjuice Potion in my presence.  I shall destroy the Forgetfulness Potion myself and remove the active tincture from your stores.”  When Snape simply stood there, he added, “The balance of your attention this day and tomorrow should be devoted to thorough and sober reflection upon your choices.”  The Headmaster watched impassively until Snape recognised the dismissal and slunk into his office.

Dumbledore sat against the edge of the teacher’s desk and seemed to survey the classroom for a moment.  “Third years… third years… what say you, Harry – shall we begin with the Draught of Peace?”

“Erm… that’s covered in fifth year.  Snape said it was tricky,” Harry offered.

Dumbledore looked at him with faint surprise.  “Is that so?  In my day, the associated skills were of the third year, or the fourth year at worst.  Well… no matter.  I believe the Draught of Peace is very appropriate for today’s lesson.  Please obtain the proper supplies for twenty-five students from the potions stores, Harry.  While you are readying the ingredients…” He rose up and strolled down the centre aisle, wrinkling his nose all the while.  “This classroom could stand a proper scouring.”  With that, the Headmaster began directing various cleaning charms at the desks, the chairs, even the walls and floor.

When Harry returned with the ingredients for the impending class he found Dumbledore standing before the sidewall, staring at the stone with some intensity.  “A rather dark and dismal room, wouldn’t you say?” he seemed to ask the wall.

“I always figured it was for the ingredients or something,” Harry admitted; “I supposed it had to be dark and cold.”

Dumbledore laughed.  “Stuff and nonsense!” he declared.  “There are no ingredients used in the instructional setting that fail to thrive at normal indoor temperatures, or under lighting that falls within the normal spectrum.  When I was a lad, a Ravenclaw held the Potions post and the classes were held in Ravenclaw tower.   No, Harry, this classroom is a reflection of the Professor’s personal preferences and nothing more.”  He stepped back from the wall until he nearly toppled a student desk.  “Now it is true that certain categories of ambient magic can impact adversely upon the brewing of a variety of potions.  Enchanted windows do not emanate that sort of magical energy.” The Headmaster gave his wand a terribly complicated wave and muttered something that didn’t sound to Harry like it came from any language he had ever heard, let alone any incantation.  A very large portion of the sidewall brightened and then shimmered.  When the shimmering stopped, it appeared as though the classroom had been transported up into one of the towers; a full set of windows and French doors opened onto a balcony that overlooked the grounds. 

Harry attempted to touch the handles of the doors, and found that they were simply part of the enchantment.  “Brilliant!” he said with a grin.

“It is more to my taste, at any rate.  We shall see if the students share your assessment,” Dumbledore said.  With that, Harry set the morning’s raw ingredients at the worktables while the Headmaster rapidly jotted teaching notes in the air.

Over the next two periods, Harry at last had an opportunity to weigh Dumbledore as a teacher.  There couldn’t have been a greater contrast to Snape, he decided.  The Headmaster was calm, patient, brilliant, and above all else, fair-minded.  Even the Slytherin third-years whom he overheard while leaving the classroom spoke highly of the session.

Harry followed the students up the stairs and into the Great Hall, where the midday meal was in full swing.  He automatically took a seat at the Gryffindor table.  Several younger students who he didn’t recognise cast strange looks toward him. 

“How goes the battle, Harry?” Dean asked brightly.

Seamus snorted.  “Whatever you’re doing, it has to be better than Transfiguration.  That class is going to be a thorn in my –”

Katie Bell, who had taken a seat opposite Harry, cut off Seamus with a wave.  She subtly inclined her head toward the staff table.  McGonagall was delivering a stern stare.  Seamus cringed at first; he was slow to realise that the look was meant for Harry.  Marchbanks and Croaker were both frowning slightly and Flitwick appeared very interested in what was to come next.  McGonagall turned to face an empty seat to her left, and then returned her eyes to Harry.

Harry stood just as Hermione sat.  Her wan smile quickly faded in confusion.  Harry gave a slight shrug.  He looked briefly to McGonagall, muttered something vaguely apologetic to his former housemates, and then made for the anteroom as fast as he could manage without appearing to run away.

He closed the doors behind him and sat there alone for a while.  It was a quiet room, and he could avoid the students’ stares.  With a quiet pop! a house elf appeared before him.  “Does the Headmaster’s esteemed apprentice wish to eat?” the house elf asked, nearly cowering before him

Harry sighed.  “I just can’t eat out there.  I don’t belong at the staff table and I guess I can’t sit with Gryffindor now… I’m glad I’m here, but I don’t belong here.  Does that make any sense?”

The house-elf’s ears quivered.  “If the Headmaster’s esteemed apprentice is saying it, then… then it must make sense.”

Harry laughed.  “I wouldn’t place a wager on that!  Look… my name is Harry.  I’m not an esteemed anything.”

The house-elf gaped at him with huge and confused eyes.  “Begging pardon from the Headmaster’s esteemed apprentice, but the esteemed apprentice is not telling the truth!  The house-elves, we know who the esteemed apprentice is!”

“What’s your name?” Harry asked.

The house-elf twitched.  “The Headmaster’s esteemed apprentice asks this lowly being’s n-name?”  When Harry nodded, the house-elf squeaked, “Spat… the house-elf’s name is Spat.”

“Well, thank you for offering me a meal, Spat. I’m not very hungry…” Harry chuckled and added in a conspiratorial whisper, “I’d take a butterbeer, if you can give me one… but only if you’ll call me by my name.”

Spat nearly tore his ears from his head.  “C-call you… this lowly being could not… could never…”

Harry frowned, and said firmly, “Please stop calling yourself a lowly being, Spat.  My name is Harry.  I suspect you can say it just fine.”  He didn’t want to cause the poor creature distress, but he wasn’t interested in being treated as anyone’s master.

“This lowly… Spat will bring H-H…” The house-elf struggled mightily, and finally squeezed its eyes shut.  “Spat will bring butterbeer to Master Harry straight away,” he squeaked in a single breath and promptly disappeared.

The door opened with a prolonged creak, and Hermione peered inside.  She looked to the left and then to the right before she entered the room.  “I wasn’t sure if I was allowed…” she began.

“Consider yourself allowed,” Harry said quickly, and gestured to the adjacent armchair.

Hermione sat down heavily.  “I was concerned,” she said.  “The look on your face out there… it’s difficult for you, isn’t it: being here but not being a part of the house?”

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” Harry admitted.  “I was going to sit by you, but I thought bloody McGonagall was going to have my head over it.  Croaker was giving me the eye, besides.”

“You shouldn’t have to be alone,” Hermione said flatly.  “I think it’s poor planning on the Headmaster’s part.”

Spat reappeared, with a butterbeer on a small tray.  “Spat returns with butterbeer for Master… eek!”  The house-elf’s arm shook and he nearly dropped the tray.  He swiftly handed Harry the butterbeer and slowly backed away. 

Harry looked around anxiously, his wand drawn.  “Spat?  What is it… what do you see?”

Spat shuddered and shook his head.  “She-Who-Knits!  Spat mustn’t talk to She-Who-Knits, it’s not seemly…” He waggled his finger at Hermione.  “No hats, miss, if you please… no hats!” he squeaked and then disappeared.

Hermione sat quite still, her eyes wide.  Harry cleared his throat, and spoke with no idea of what to say.  “Hermione… he just doesn’t, erm, appreciate –”

“They… they hate me…” Hermione said haltingly. 

Harry didn’t know what to say.  “I don’t know that they hate you, exactly,” he burbled.  “I mean, it’s only one house-elf; perhaps…” He trailed off as Hermione’s cheeks flushed. 

“They have a name for me!  I can’t believe they call me… they call me…” Hermione’s lip quivered.  “‘She-Who-Knits’?  For goodness’ sake, they… they equate me to V-Vol…”  Her breathing quickened and threatened to speed out of control.

No!  I’m sure they don’t, not really!” Harry insisted.  He scooted his chair along the floor until he was near enough to rest his hand on her back.  “It’s just… I think it’s right to want them to be free.  I think it’s wrong to treat anyone like a slave.  I just don’t think it’s as simple as you wanted it to be.”

Hermione crouched forward and buried her head in her hands.  “I know that.  I don’t know what I was thinking last year at times.  I think it was Umbridge and… and everything else, you know?”  She let out a strangely punctuated sigh, and added, “It’s not as though I could free a house-elf bound to Hogwarts; only Professor Dumbledore could do that.”

“Even so, they weren’t happy about the hats,” Harry acknowledged.

Hermione sat up so fast that Harry’s arm was flung back.  “You knew!” she accused.  “I don’t believe it!  You knew they called me –”

Harry began to babble.  “No!  I mean… erm… we didn’t really know anything – that is, uh, Ron and me, we knew that none of the house-elves but Dobby would come into Gryffindor Tower –”

“I spent all that time making a fool of myself! Why didn’t you tell me?” Hermione snapped.

You had something to believe in and I wasn’t going to be the one to take it away, right?” Harry shot back without a moment’s thought.  Hermione immediately shrank back, and Harry’s eyes slammed shut.  He took long breaths and tried to sort Hermione’s fear from his own irritation.  He felt her hand cover his.

She sniffed loudly, and he vowed not to open his eyes and see her cry.  “I’m sorry… I’m very sorry,” she said.  “You were trying to be… I should have given you the benefit of the doubt, but… considering last year…”

“I was hard to be around last year, I know,” Harry sighed.  “I don’t want to be like that anymore.  Sometimes I feel so out of control, you know, and – what?”  He was sure that he had felt her flinch.

“It’s nothing.”  She continued to sniff, but her voice took on a note of determination.  It sounded like the Hermione he knew.  “You have to try as hard as you can, Harry.  It’s very important – you have to remain in control.  I’ll help you any way I can, I promise, but you have to be in control.”

“I know that,” he said.  “I know what happens when I’m not in control.  You could have been killed on account of that dream.  You’ve every right to be concerned.”

Hermione left her hand rest lightly on the collar of his robes; she stood close enough that he could feel her breath.  “It’s not that.  You’re… you’re a good man, Harry, and you have to stay that way.  You can’t… mustn’t let yourself be dragged down by V-Voldemort,” she said earnestly.  It was difficult for her to say Voldemort’s name now – that much was clear – but she kept at it and Harry was quietly proud.

“I won’t be like him, not ever,” he assured her.

Hermione pressed on.  “There are so many great things you can accomplish, Harry – I know you can.  You have a lot of influence, and that’s only going to increase now.  Goodness, even the goblins –”

Harry’s eyes snapped open.  “Goblins… what about the goblins?”

Hermione was suddenly very excited.  “Oh, yes! I can’t believe that I… well, you see, I went to Gringotts to exchange some pounds for Galleons… honestly, I went because somehow I received a Gringotts key… oh!  I didn’t mention the key, either – that was passing strange, I can tell you – anyway, a Gringotts key turns up in my hand yesterday morning –”

“Goblins, money, a key… I’m struggling to keep up!” Harry laughed.

Hermione lowered her head and grinned.  “Sorry – I was all over the place, wasn’t I?  Perhaps I should begin with the key?”

“Is that the beginning?  You might want to start at the beginning,” Harry said with a smirk.

“Prat,” Hermione said; she smacked him on the shoulder, but she had a smile on her face.  “I woke up yesterday morning and I was clutching a Gringotts key.  It wasn’t mine of course, as I don’t have a vault.  Mr. Weasley and Bill escorted me to Gringotts so that I could visit the moneychanger but I mentioned the key while I was there.  They escorted me to the back rooms in a trice; at first, I thought that I was in trouble.  I met with a goblin called Fliptrask – he mentioned that he was in charge of your trust –”

Harry nodded.  “Fliptrask was the goblin who had me sign Sirius’s will.”

“Harry, the long and short of it is that the key was a copy of the key to your vault – a precise copy.  They had no idea how it came to be, let alone how I came to have it,” Hermione explained.

“You found this key yesterday morning, before you caught the Express,” Harry confirmed.

Hermione worried her lip and then looked dead centre into his eyes.  “Did you pay me a visit, Harry?” she asked suspiciously.

“No!” Harry insisted.  “I don’t even have my vault key – Ted Tonks has it in safekeeping.  I don’t know of any second key, either.”  He thought for a moment, and asked nervously, “Um… when did you go to sleep that night?”

Hermione’s face tightened.  “Mrs. Weasley received her howler that afternoon.  I turned in rather early.”

Harry grinned.  “I can imagine you didn’t want to come out of your room after that.”

“She was almost gracious about it, in the end.  I hadn’t expected that,” Hermione said.  Her brow furrowed and she asked, “Why did you want to know when I went to sleep?”

Harry’s cheeks flushed.  He certainly didn’t want to bring up the disastrous dinner with her parents; for that matter, he didn’t want to bring up her parents at all.  Hermione rolled her eyes at him and said, “You’re usually better than this at keeping secrets.”

His resolve stiffened, and he sought a way to reveal his growing suspicion without giving away too much.  “Remember the book and the rose?  I wonder if it was something like that?”

Hermione hesitated, but then shook her head.  “They didn’t last for more than a few seconds.  This key was solid metal, and it must have lasted for hours.”

“It was smaller,” Harry pointed out.

“Yes, but the key was far denser,” Hermione countered.

“It was just a thought,” Harry conceded.

 Hermione let out a slow breath.  “It’s as good a thought as any, I suppose.  That book appearing in our front room violated a dozen basic rules of magic… but then again…” She reached out and patted him on the knee, which startled him.  “If there’s one thing I can always count on with you, Harry, it’s that you’ll constantly force me to rethink the rules.”

Harry fidgeted.  “I’m sorry?”

“I can’t figure why you would cause a key to appear in my hand,” she went on, “or why my name is listed on your vault.  Erm… that was rather a shock, by the way.”

Harry couldn’t bring himself to move; he had to remind himself to breathe.  Hermione answered his unspoken question.  “From that first telephone call until you came for dinner, strange things happened whenever you were upset.  You were very upset on the telephone, Harry.  It stands to reason that you did it; I don’t think you set out to scare us silly.”

“I… I don’t know for certain, but… yeah, I probably did,” Harry acknowledged.

Hermione rubbed at the runes on her hand.  “You do have a knack for long-distance magic,” she murmured.

Harry tried to change the subject.  “So… about the goblins…?”

“Why did you send me a key?” Hermione blurted out.  “I mean, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to say, but I’d like to know why, because it must have taken a very strong emotion and I worry about what’s been happening to you and what else might happen to you and –” She seemed to realise that she was prattling on and quickly stopped herself.

Harry stared into the fire at the far end of the anteroom.  He told her the truth, just not the whole truth.  “I was… thinking about Sirius’s money that night,” he said quietly, “about how it’s blood money and how I don’t want it, and how I think it would be brilliant if you had it.  It’d serve the old Blacks right.  You’d know what to do with the money; you’d do something good, I’m sure of it – great, even.”

A wash of different emotions played across Hermione’s face, and Harry felt their echoes in his mind.  He couldn’t sort any of it out save a deep sadness.  For a moment he thought of holding her, and wished he knew whether holding her was what he wanted to do or if it was just a matter of reflecting her thoughts and feelings, or if it was something else, something darker.  The more he circled through the possibilities, the more confused he became.

“I think you should keep the money, Harry,” she said at long last.  “It might be needed before all of this ends.  After you kill V-Voldemort, then give it all away if that’s what you want.  You can see it put to good use; you don’t need me to assure that.”

“Maybe we can do it together?” Harry offered.

Hermione nodded hesitantly.  “I’d like that.”

Harry didn’t remember having so many awkward pauses before, when the two of them would talk.  “Now… about the goblins…?” he asked with mock impatience.

Her eyes suddenly widened.  “The goblins - yes!  You should contact this Fliptrask as soon as possible.  He told me to pass along an invitation to their hunt!”

Harry immediately thought of the graphorn head that hung in Fliptrask’s office.  “Erm… he wants to invite me to a goblin hunt?  That isn’t done, is it?” he asked.

“There’s very little documented about the goblin hunt, let alone any mentions of wizards being invited,” Hermione said excitedly.  “It has to be important, don’t you think?”

Harry mulled that over.  He suspected that it was mostly to do with the Potter Trust, but nodded in agreement.  “I’ll contact him, then,” he said.

Hermione started as if to say something else, but her eye caught her watch.  “I see I’m late for Potions,” she said unhappily.

Harry sat back comfortably in his chair and tried not to smirk.  “No worries.  Dumbledore’s teaching Potions, today and tomorrow at any rate.”

“The Headmaster’s teaching?  What happened… was Professor Snape, you know, called…?”  Hermione’s expression went from confusion to concern and on toward doubt.  “You’re smiling, Harry.  What have you done?” she added suspiciously.

Harry raised his hands.  “I didn’t do anything.  Snape managed this on his own,” he said.

“O…kay…” Hermione’s brow furrowed.  “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”

Harry allowed himself to smile broadly.  “I imagine you’ll figure it out on your own,” he said.  She reached for her book-filled knapsack and made her way to the door; she cast curious looks back at him several times, but he simply maintained his smile.  For a moment he was certain that she stuck her tongue out at him as she passed into the Great Hall, but decided that it was merely a trick of the light.

The door to the Defence classroom was ajar.  Harry didn’t think that Detheridge would ambush him, but he figured that one should be cautious with any Defence professor hired by Dumbledore.  Besides, I don’t know anything about these assistants – not even how many there are, he thought.

Detheridge was standing on the stairs that spiralled up to his office.  There was an easel before him, upon which sat a large and rather brightly coloured canvas; he held a brush in one hand and a tray of some kind in the other.

“Good afternoon,” he said.  “Running ahead of schedule, I see?”

“Dumbledore’s day is a bit of a mess –” Harry began.

Detheridge snorted.  “Yes, yes – Snape is, uh, indisposed… of course, I shouldn’t be one to talk.”

“I can return at three,” Harry offered.

“No reason for that,” Detheridge said.  “My assistants should be here any minute.  I have to say that Albus has been nothing if not generous.  I certainly never expected he’d grant me two fully qualified wizards, not to mention… ah!  Here they are!”  He looked past Harry’s shoulder.

Harry turned to face the open door behind him, caught a flash of dark robes and promptly met a fist.  He crashed into the nearest student desk before he knew what had hit him.  The owner of the fist grabbed him by the lapels and dragged him to his feet.

“Wotcher, Harry,” Tonks spat.

“What do you think you’re doing?” a familiar voice rang out.  Harry’s glasses were askew; he couldn’t make out anything save Tonks’s crimson face.  As he burst into action, it occurred to him that the voice belonged to Bill Weasley.

Harry brought his arms up and shoved Tonks backward as hard as he could; she stumbled into Bill.  Harry pushed his glasses into place and barked, “Accio wands!”  Two wands flew out of Tonks’s robes, another two came from Bill, and a fifth wand struck Harry between the shoulder blades.  He moved automatically into the stance that Dudley had taught him, and swung swiftly at Tonks.  The first blow connected; the second was just off, as she moved aside.

Tonks wiped a trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth.  “You think you can take me on?  Let’s play, little boy,” she sneered and raised her arms. 

“Damn it, Tonks!” Bill snapped.  He moved between Harry and Tonks, and she attempted to push him aside.

“He isn’t stupid – he knows what he needs to say,” Tonks snarled.  She tried to burn a hole through Harry with her eyes.  “I was too surprised to say what I thought that day, Harry.  You know what I would have said, when you tried to lay all that guilt on me?  I would have said that he came there to protect you.  Sirius is dead because of you.  Don’t ever try to blame me for it again!” 

Bill advanced on Tonks and grabbed her by the arms.  “If I’d known this was to be an ambush, I’d never have come!” he shouted.

“Get out of my way, Bill,” Tonks said.

“If she wants a fight, then we’ll fight,” Harry returned.

“This is ridiculous!” Bill snapped at Tonks.  “You spent an entire day last week talking this through with your mum – we were over it for the better part of a day on it, besides – and here you are, nursing a grudge like… like… like some Slytherin school-girl –”

Tonks’s head ploughed forward into Bill’s brow.  Bill let go of her like she was on fire, and grabbed at his forehead.  “Merlin’s balls!  What the bloody hell was that for?”

“A Slytherin school-girl?  A Slytherin school-girl?” Tonks spat.

Bill turned his head, winced, and turned it back again.  “Let me understand this… he insults your family and gets a punch –”

Two punches, including the last time” Harry growled, “and she knocked loose a tooth that time.”

“… while I merely tell the truth, and you try to crack my skull?” Bill went on.

Tonks crossed her arms.  “Calling me a Slytherin is a family insult,” she said coldly.

The tips of Bill’s ears turned a familiar shade of red.  “Who’s sixteen here, you or Harry?  I’m having a devil of a time deciding!”

Detheridge still stood at the top of the stairs.  His voice was calm, almost quiet.  “Is this finished yet, or should I send out for coffee and doughnuts?”

Tonks stood very straight and put her hands behind her back.  “P-professor Detheridge, I didn’t see you there… uh… I understood that we were meeting with… er…”

Detheridge slowly descended; something about the way he moved reminded Harry of Crookshanks.  “It seems I’m free today rather than tomorrow, Auror Tonks; I have a knack for mixing up my daily schedules.  It’s best that I was here, don’t you agree?”

“Professor, I can explain –” Harry began.

“She moves in tandem with her dominant hand,” Detheridge said casually.  “Next time, aim to the left with the second punch.”  He motioned toward the student desks and added, “Sit, please.”  Despite the even tone it was not a request, but an unmistakeable command.  Bill and Tonks found seats as quickly as did Harry.

Bill shifted uncomfortably on the bench; he was too tall for it, and his knees rose nearly as high as the tabletops.  “Er… Professor Detheridge –” he began.

“Next time, Mr. Weasley, protect your head.” Detheridge’s brief smile faded.  “Mr. Potter, I don’t want to know what you said to Auror Tonks that earned you a fist to the jaw.  I’m guessing it warrants an apology?”

Harry looked away uncomfortably.  “I’m… not proud of what I did, Professor.”

“You meant to be cruel; you struck where you knew it would hurt,” Bill scolded him.  “I know Tonks was being stubborn –”

“I was responsible for protection,” Tonks said through gritted teeth.

Dumbledore made you responsible for that; I didn’t ask for any of it,” Harry snapped.  “I shouldn’t have said what I did, but I told you to leave my property and you wouldn’t go!”

Tonks sighed.  “I was there because I wanted to be there, you twit.  Dumbledore asked, sure, but it was what I wanted to do.  You see, for some odd reason I do care about you.  Never considered that, did you?”  She wrung her hands nervously.

Harry had certainly not considered that, and somehow it felt true.  “Dumbledore’s always in charge.  The Order’s all about Dumbledore…” he began to protest, but he froze when he realised what he’d said aloud.

“I am aware of the Order, Mr. Potter,” Detheridge said quietly.

“It’s not all about Dumbledore; it’s about ridding ourselves of Voldemort,” Bill insisted.  “Dumbledore makes mistakes; pulling everyone away was the most childish –”

Tonks interrupted, “I wanted to be there, Harry.  I should have been there for Sirius but I wasn’t; of course he had to go and do something brave and stupid.  I was supposed to protect Hermione and her parents, and I didn’t – I couldn’t…so I wanted to make up for it and be there for you.  I wanted to do something right for once.  We were getting on well enough, and then you just tried to toss me aside, and then you just had to say…” She trailed off; her eyes were dry and clear but her jaw quivered slightly.

Harry wished that the floor would split open and swallow him up, but it seemed unlikely.  Instead he cleared his throat, closed his eyes and said, “You didn’t hurt Sirius, you didn’t kill him; I know that.  I just wanted you to go and you wouldn’t listen.  I am sorry for what I said, Tonks.”

“You didn’t kill him either,” Tonks said sadly, “Peter sodding Pettigrew did, fifteen years ago.  Bellatrix, she just finished the deed.  The rest of us… maybe we helped him along.  Me, you, Dumbledore, Remus… it feels like it could have ended well if any of us had done just one thing differently – just one.  But, no – everything turned to shite.”

“This is about your godfather, Harry?” Detheridge asked.

“Tonks is his cousin, as well,” Harry said.

Detheridge sighed.  “No one your age should have to deal with these sorts of things.”  He looked to Tonks and Bill.  “No one your age should have to deal with this, either, but here we sit with a war just around the corner.  It’s up to us to give the students of this school a fighting chance to survive it.”  Harry joined Bill and Tonks in a solemn nod, and Detheridge went on, “Good – we understand each other.  Now… if there are going to be any more fistfights, this is the time for it.”  He stood up.  “Last opportunity, folks… going once… going twice…” Tonks stared resolutely at the floor.

Detheridge ambled to one of the cabinets that lined the side of the classroom.  He withdrew a slender sword and casually tossed it toward Bill.  Bill easily caught it by the hilt and gave it a practiced swish.  “I know these well – practiced regularly with them,” Bill said.  “They’ll be too light and a bit short for most of the older boys, but I can charm them.”

“Everyone should learn the basic elements of swordsmanship,” Detheridge said.  “Flitwick raves about you, Mr. Weasley.  Show me.”  He raised a matching sword and immediately set after Bill.  Detheridge moved as though he knew how to fight with a sword, but Bill disarmed him twice in less than three minutes.

Detheridge leaned against a student desk, panting.  “You’re very… very… good.  Do you compete?  You’re easily… at the… elite level.”

“By the time I was able to enter myself in competitions, I already had an offer from Gringotts.”  Bill still wore his easy smile, but Harry thought that it didn’t match the tone of his voice.

“You mean that was without regular practice?” Detheridge laughed.  “Are you experienced with any other weapons?”

“A few,” Bill admitted.  “Staff, mace, and a few Muggle things as well – one of them spits out tiny lead balls kept in a capsule –”

Detheridge’s eyes widened.  “Uh… I think we’ll stay clear of shotguns.”

“ – a bullwhip, a switching blade –” Bill went on.

“Switchblade, you mean,” Detheridge corrected him.

“ – and a right nasty piece of business called a brass knuckle,” Bill finished.

“You know how to fight like an ordinary person, then,” Detheridge observed.  “Good – that’ll be useful.”

“I learned how to box earlier this summer,” Harry offered.  “My cousin’s a boxer; he’s won some big contests.”

Detheridge nodded.  “Your stance was obvious.  That may also be useful.  Auror Tonks, do you have any experience with physical combat?”

“No more than we cover in training,” Tonks admitted.  “I fall back on other abilities, Professor.  I’m a Metamorphmagus.”

“Albus mentioned that,” Detheridge said.  “You move more gracefully than I expected.”

Tonks snorted.  “You haven’t been ‘round me long enough!  Dance helped a fair bit, but I’m still a wreck after I alter my arms or legs.”

“You dance?” Detheridge asked.

“It’s part of Auror training, Professor,” Tonks said.

“You’re kidding!  They teach you dancing?” Detheridge asked in disbelief.

“I don’t know what they do in America, but here in England we work in twos.  Dancing teaches an Auror to be aware of her body and her movements, and the movements of her partner as well,” Tonks explained.  “I found it quite useful.  Dumbledore asked me to teach Harry, before… um… well…”

Detheridge picked at his lower lip, seemingly in thought.  “Dancing… certainly wouldn’t have thought of that… you’d think I’d have remembered…” He looked up, almost as if he was surprised to see anyone else before him.  “Do you believe this would be useful on a broader scale?”

“I hadn’t thought about it,” Tonks admitted.

Detheridge walked away from them, toward the stairs that led to his office.  “I’d like the three of you to prepare a report detailing your recommendations for this year’s curriculum.  Be sure to note what belongs in the courses proper, and what should be left to the club.  I expect to receive the report by noontime tomorrow.  That’s all I have.”  He took up his brush and his tray and stood before the half-painted canvas atop the stairs, as though no one else was present.

Bill looked to Harry and then to Tonks, shrugged, and moved into the corridor.  Tonks was the last one out of the room, and she closed the door.  “What in the name of all that’s cursed…?” she exclaimed.  “Is he fishing for recommendations, or are we expected to plan the year for him?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Bill said.  “We should assume that we’re planning the year, don’t you think?  We’d best get to work on it… has Dumbledore given you rooms, Harry?”

“I took rooms in Hogsmeade,” Harry said.  “We can probably use the room just off the Great Hall, or the staff room if it’s empty.”

“Is that the one with the bloody gargoyles?” Tonks asked.  “I was walking with Mum earlier, and I swear one of them tried to lick me as we passed.”  She shuddered.  “The other room sounds smashing to me.”

Harry led the way.  After a few steps, Bill fell back several paces and Harry found himself walking beside Tonks.

“I’m sorry I knocked out your tooth,” she said abruptly.

“You didn’t knock it out,” Harry grumbled.  “It was loose; Dobby fixed it.”

“Dobby, eh…?” Tonks went silent again, until they neared the entrance to the Great Hall. 

“How’s Hermione faring?” she asked.

“I’m not really sure,” Harry answered. 

Tonks worried her lip.  “Being with Hermione this summer was like having a sister, Harry; I miss that.  I should go and see her – we had a bit of a row at the Leaky Cauldron – but… I didn’t do my job.  I was supposed to protect her.  Maybe I should let well enough alone?”

“She doesn’t think she belongs here anymore; she’s lonely.  She’d be happy if you called on her,” Harry offered.

Tonks stopped walking.  “Are we all right, Harry?”  She seemed so expectant; Harry felt like he could crush her with the wrong words, and that was something he’d never imagined of Tonks.

He opened the massive door.  “Sure, Tonks; we’re all right.”

At a certain level, Harry had understood that Tonks would be knowledgeable – she had to be, of course.  Her expertise was more specialised than he had expected but ran quite deep.  Bill, on the other hand, seemed to know a bit about everything; he also had a sense of how to pass along what he knew.  Bill had gone out of his way to compliment Harry’s skills and ideas, going so far as to say that he could now appreciate why Harry had been so successful with the D.A. members of the year prior.  He seemed genuine enough, but Harry couldn’t escape the sense that Bill was flattering him a little.

Harry in fact felt rather like an idiot upon leaving the planning session, or hopelessly inexperienced at the very least.  He quickly lost himself in thought, eyes fixed to the floor and mind grasping for readings from the Black library that likely weren’t remembered in the first instance.  He lurched into a slender mass of sky blue cloth and fell flat.

Dumbledore smiled down at him.  “I believe the accepted maxim is to look down before looking up.  Perhaps you would be better served by the inverse?”  The Headmaster extended a hand; Harry mumbled an apology as he rose that was dismissed with a wave.  “Nonsense, Harry; your timing is impeccable.  Come along, would you?”  He motioned to the ascending stairs.

Harry followed without a word, still stung by his incompetence in the face of Bill and Tonks and now embarrassed for having tumbled into Dumbledore.  He barely heard Dumbledore call out the name of some sugary confection or another and continued to trail behind.  He looked up before looking down just as he reached the entrance to the Headmaster’s office and instantly wished that he hadn’t done so.

Mad-Eye Moody sat heavily opposite Dumbledore’s great desk.  Shacklebolt was speaking in quiet but determined tones to Mr. Weasley, just to one side of a bank of whirring silver objects that Harry had shattered in June.  Remus Lupin stood closest to him, and it was clear to Harry that his erstwhile protector and teacher was just as uncomfortable as he.  Dumbledore ushered them forward to newly conjured chairs before either Lupin or Harry could speak.

“Gentlemen, I regret the need for this additional unpleasantness,” the Headmaster said gravely.  “It is all too reminiscent of times past, is it not?”

Moody’s eye picked up speed; he asked coldly, “Did you cast the Curse on him, Albus?”  He was met with muttering from Lupin and Mr. Weasley; Shacklebolt crossed his arms and appeared rather smug.

“That was not something lightly entertained,” Dumbledore said sternly.  “In any case, it was not required; Severus did not engage in knowing betrayal.  He has, however, exercised abominable judgment – on this point we doubtless agree.”

“Judgment?  You still give him credit for any sort of judgment?” Shacklebolt boomed. 

“Once a traitor, always a traitor,” Moody muttered.

“Albus has repeatedly said that Snape is not a traitor,” Mr. Weasley interjected.  “Merlin knows I don’t care for the man, not at all; nonetheless…”

Lupin gave a slight sigh before he spoke.  “You never choose your words casually, Albus.  He has engaged in unknowing betrayal, then?”

The room was full of loathing, and Harry felt himself fill with it.  Most was directed to Snape, of course, but he already knew how Lupin felt – he knew.  It had hurt and he had lashed out.  Now he was merely angry; it was uncomfortable to be in the same room with the man.  “Better than knowing betrayal, Remus,” he seethed.

Lupin sagged.  “Go on, Harry.  Do your worst.”

Shacklebolt balled his fists.  “You can’t be serious… are you trying to play the victim?  It certainly looks as though an oath no longer means a tinker’s damn to you; perhaps you found a way to avoid taking one?”  Lupin reddened but said nothing.

“You’ve declined a mission and you’ve missed shifts,” Moody barked.  “What’s wrong, Remus – does that woman have her claws in you?”  Mr. Weasley hissed and even Shacklebolt winced.  Moody’s expression went blank and his eye stopped moving entirely.  “That’s not what I meant, of course,” he added quietly.

Mr. Weasley broke the cold silence.  “Let’s stick to the knitting, shall we?  Snape didn’t set out to betray us.  I accept that he has broken his personal promises to you, Albus; whether those constituted an oath is something for Snape and yourself to consider.  We need to come to agreement as to whether he has broken his oath to the Order.”

“I’ve made my opinion clear,” Shacklebolt glowered.  Moody took in a breath as if to speak, but stopped himself.

Dumbledore steepled his hands before his face, lost in thought.  No one spoke, though it seemed to Harry that all were tempted.  “Harry, I’d like to hear your opinion on this matter,” the Headmaster said at length.

Harry could feel the loathing again.  He knew that it wasn’t directed at him but it was confusing.  The rush of other people’s emotions and thoughts was harder to bear now that he knew what was happening.  “Part of me wants to tear Snape apart,” he blurted out angrily.  He glared at Dumbledore, then went on, “Part of me says you’re to blame.  I didn’t want him to teach me, and I know he didn’t want to do it; you forced both of us.  I figure that he wanted to hurt me, to make me miserable; he’s done that since the first day I came to Hogwarts.  That doesn’t mean I want to see him killed.”

“Killed?  No one was suggesting –” Shacklebolt began.

Harry cut him off.  “If you turn him out, he’s as good as dead.  Isn’t that right, Headmaster?”

“Most likely, yes,” Dumbledore admitted. 

“So he’s above punishment, then?” Moody growled.  “What do you want of us, Albus?  Do you want to fit him with a dunce cap and sit him in the corner?  We went over this when we approved the Betrayer’s Curse –”

“He has been punished beyond even your imaginings, Alastor,” Dumbledore said quietly. Harry thought about the horrible tasks that Dumbledore had mentioned in the dungeons – horrible enough to drive Snape to Forgetfulness Potions – and shuddered inside.

“And now we know that there was no betrayal,” Mr. Weasley reminded.  “It may be appropriate to remove Snape from the Order, but what would we do with him?  We can’t let him loose, of course.”

“He wouldn’t simply be killed; worse, he’d be taken in and tortured until he revealed every last thing he knows,” Shacklebolt agreed.  “I doubt he’d talk; the man does have a perverse sense of pride about him.  Still, we can’t take the chance.”

“I think Harry should decide what’s to be done,” Lupin said.

Harry erupted.  “Oh, now Harry should decide!  I guess it’s all right when you don’t want a decision on your head, eh?”

Lupin stiffened.  “This is different, and you know it.  Don’t be childish.”

“Then don’t be two-faced,” Harry sneered.  “Don’t tell me to decide about Snape when you won’t let me decide who I want to see.  Don’t tell me to live my life and enjoy myself when you just want a sodding weapon.”  His voice rose; part of him was vaguely aware that Shacklebolt was backing away, but he didn’t care.  “Don’t tell me you owe my parents and then just walk away!  Who’s the betrayer here?  You couldn’t even look at me!  You blamed me for all of them – for Sirius, for Cedric, for… for Dad and M-Mum…”

“No!” Lupin gasped.  “I would never… I never said that – I didn’t!  You were a baby, for Merlin’s sake!”  He reached toward Harry.  “How could you think – ?”

Don’t touch me!” Harry roared.

Lupin kept coming.  “Is this why you lit into me, Harry?” he asked.

Harry’s hands shook, and he began to sweat.  He recognised the feeling now, and it frightened him.  “Stop!  I’ll hurt you!” he shouted.

“You will not,” Dumbledore said firmly as he moved briskly past Lupin and approached Harry.

“I can’t control it!” Harry insisted. 

“You will learn, Harry,” Dumbledore calmly assured him.  Harry squeezed his eyes shut and ground his teeth; he willed away the heat, but it seemed unwilling to obey.

“Is this Snape’s doing?” Shacklebolt demanded.

“I sense that it is unrelated to Legilimency,” Dumbledore observed.  “I do wonder, however, what Severus may have unleashed.”

Lupin melted into a chair.  “I didn’t say that,” he mumbled, “I couldn’t have said that… I couldn’t have… Harry, I…”

Harry wiped sweat from his brow; the room was cooling at last.  “You didn’t say anything; you didn’t need to say anything,” he growled through gritted teeth.

“I couldn’t even think that!” Lupin insisted.

“To the contrary, Remus,” Dumbledore said, “that is precisely what you did.”  Harry gasped and Lupin let out a low moan.  The rest went very quiet.

Dumbledore let one of his hands come to rest on Harry’s shoulder.  “Have you ever had a thought, Harry, that you had absolutely no intention of acting upon – a completely irrational thought, like pushing a friend from a high place – something that your conscious mind instantly rejected?  I daresay that you have; this is a normal part of our internal dialogue, Harry.  Do you understand what has happened?”

Harry slowly began to see where the Headmaster’s thoughts were leading.  “You’re saying that I can’t tell the difference,” he said slowly.

“Occlumency does not just form a barrier; it also serves as a filter, if you will,” Dumbledore explained.  “Once you have achieved mastery, you will be able to feel patterns in emotions and thoughts, and discard extraneous information.  This aspect of Occlumency is absolutely necessary in order for Legilimency to be useful – or safe, for that matter.”

“So… just because I pick up on a feeling from someone doesn’t mean anything… it might be a real feeling, or it might be rubbish?” Harry confirmed; his stomach began to ache.

Dumbledore sighed.  “You were not progressing with Occlumency last year; Severus said as much, and I observed the same.  It did not occur to me that I should test your Legilimency skills.  Tom’s attempted possession showed that you had developed the ability to resist.  Severus explained this away as a consequence of his teaching approach, and I accepted his word.  That was a grave mistake.”

Lupin was ashen.  “The idea that I thought… at any level… Harry, I swear to you that I don’t hold you responsible for what happened to James and Lily,” he said distantly.  “I don’t know what I can offer, beyond my deepest apology.”

Harry heard him, but he was mired in the implications of what Dumbledore had just said.  This was even worse than simply reflecting the feelings of others, he realised; there was no way of knowing what had been real and what had been meaningless.  His anger could have been his own, or a reflection of someone else’s feelings, or it could have come from silent suppressed rage all around him.  He might have liked Hermione as something other than just a friend, or perhaps he had picked it up from her thoughts and feelings, or perhaps it was just the reflection of a fleeting thought on her part – perhaps she’d never actually felt anything at all?  If that was the case, then he had merely felt an echo of nothing; it didn’t seem that way to him, but he didn’t know.  Heather was even more complicated; she had been exercising the same uncontrolled Legilimency as he had, more or less.  Maybe Shona was right, he thought, maybe it was just an out-of-control bit of magic?   It didn’t seem that way to him as he thought about her, but how was he supposed to know?  “How am I supposed to trust anything?” he said aloud.

“I’m sorry,” Lupin said sadly.

The anger came back.  “You wanted to be there for me, and then you didn’t.  You were going to do whatever it took, right?  As soon as something better came along, off you went!  It’s like there are two of you, Remus.  How am I supposed to know which one is real?” Harry seethed.  “Being sorry isn’t good enough.”

“What must I say, then?” Lupin asked.

“I don’t care what you say, not anymore.  What are you going to do?” Harry asked in return.  “I want you to be the person who I thought you were.  If that’s not what you want, then I guess this is where it ends.”

No one seemed to know what to say after that, including Harry.  After a pause so lengthy that even Fawkes seemed to fidget, Dumbledore offered, “Perhaps you would prefer to meet in the morning with regard to your timetable, Harry?”

Harry nodded silently and walked briskly to the spiralling stairs.  Lupin called after him, “Harry… I am sorry.”

“More words,” Harry choked out, and he quickened his pace.  He pushed through students massing toward the Great Hall, firmly enough to cause some grumbling.  He fiddled for the Bonnie in the pockets of his robe even as he burst through the door that led to the courtyard.  He took an angry step forward, and his other foot met uneven soil.  His glasses crumpled when his face struck the ground. 

He stood, even angrier, and cast an awkward repair charm.  It wasn’t until he had replaced his glasses that he noticed that he was surrounded by trees.  He was on the path to Hogsmeade.  I’ll be switched – I popped through the wards, he realised.  His first thought was that Hermione would be shocked.  His second thought was that no one must know.

September 4

Dumbledore had promised that Harry would learn Occlumency from someone other than himself, and he continued to insist that this would be the case.  Apparently, Harry’s instructor had not yet arrived; he presumed that it would be this Covelli woman – the one who had apparently cared for Hermione in August.  In the meantime, the Headmaster had laden him with books and sent him off to read; he said that Occlumency would come first, with Potions to follow after Harry had achieved some level of mastery.

Harry had begun to assist Detheridge with the Defence classes for first through third years, and had come to the conclusion that the young students were more frightened of him than of their professor.  It was awkward, but Detheridge had made the best of it.  He liked the new Defence professor, even though part of him insisted that it was dangerous to do so.  In Detheridge’s case, Harry refused to listen – it was only echoes of Quirrell and Lockhart and the false Moody that made him suspicious, not anything that Detheridge had done or said.

Croaker, on the other hand, was surely dangerous.  He had developed a tutorial in ancient runes for Harry, one that seemed as steep and treacherous as an icy cliffside.  It was also very focused, and Harry couldn’t help but decide that he was being led toward a specific destination.  If Croaker had selected the destination, then Harry didn’t care to reach it.  As a teacher, Croaker seemed harsh but fair – not a new Snape, at any rate.

Snape.  Harry could scarcely think the name without anger.  It was because of Snape that Harry could no longer walk down the corridors without being flooded with emotions and thoughts not his own.  It was because of Snape that Harry didn’t know where he stood with anyone – certainly not Dumbledore, nor Remus, nor Hermione, nor Heather.  Being allowed to remain within the walls of Hogwarts was too good for the horrible git, Harry thought, but the alternative was most likely death – and that only after everything Snape knew had been forcibly extracted.  Snape had been suspended from the Order but Harry wondered what that actually meant; it wasn’t the same as being tossed out, apparently.  Shacklebolt had told him that Mr. Weasley had absolutely insisted Snape lose his teaching privileges, but that would leave Snape rather exposed.  Remus had devised a solution, however.  Harry had balked at first; it was Shacklebolt that had talked him into agreement.

Harry leaned hard against the ropes that bounded the side of the footbridge.  He preferred to look to Hogsmeade in the distance than face Shacklebolt.

You know Dumbledore’s right on this, Harry,” Shacklebolt went on.  “Too many of Fudge’s cronies have ties to the families of Death Eaters.  For that matter, Snape has made his own enemies.  Without his professorship, he’s vulnerable to eviction.  We’ve enough trouble with the Board of Governors…”

Don’t remind me,” Harry fumed.  The Board was frothing about Dumbledore’s circumvention of their order; Harry was at the fore of the next Board meeting’s agenda, he had learned.

Remus’s idea has merit,” Shacklebolt said.  “I know that you wish otherwise.  Still, you should consider the advantages.”

Snape can’t sell out the Order.  That’s the only advantage I see,” Harry said angrily.  He settled a bit, and added, “That’s enough reason to do this, I suppose.”

Shacklebolt’s mouth twitched as though he was keeping a smile at bay.  “Has it occurred to you that Snape would be employed by you?  In fact, his life would be in your hands.  The only thing keeping him alive would be a research sinecure provided by James Potter’s son… Sirius Black’s godson…” The smile broke through.  “Wouldn’t that be rich?”

Harry sniggered first, then broke into a full-throated laugh.  “Oh, that’s brilliant!” he managed.  Snape would owe him; it was practically a wizard’s debt, in fact.  Suddenly Remus’s plan looked much, much better.

After a while, Shacklebolt turned serious.  “There are some in the Order who would happily bleed you dry, Harry; they know that you could single-handedly finance a war.  Remus didn’t want to propose this for that reason, nor did I.”

I can always say ‘no’,” Harry pointed out.  “This time, I’ll say ‘yes’.”

I thought it was important that you know this,” Shacklebolt said gruffly.  “Remus was looking out for your best interests, truly.”

Harry gripped the ropes tightly.  “Give it a rest, please?” he asked.

Shacklebolt nodded and strolled away.  Harry watched the gaslights in Hogsmeade flicker to life, and then headed toward the castle to contact Ted Tonks.

Dumbledore had insisted that Snape should not be told that Harry had financed his safety, only that the Order had found a benefactor to pay for a research stipend.  The appointment appeared to be under the aegis of the International Confederation of Wizards.  Harry expected that Snape knew the source of the funds; the man was horrible, but Harry didn’t think that he was stupid.  Harry hadn’t disagreed with the Headmaster, but he hadn’t bothered to agree either.  He had decided to hold back the fact like a spare wand, and level it against Snape when the time was right.  A voice in Harry’s head warned him that he was treading onto Slytherin ground, but that only seemed fair where Snape was concerned.

After his second lesson with Croaker had concluded, Harry had headed for the library.  Among the many surprises that had awaited him upon joining the staff, he had discovered that the teachers had a reading room of their own.  Located just to one side of Madam Pince’s station, a portrait concealed it as well as a Confundus charm tailored to leave the staff unaffected.  He began reading the Occlumency materials and slogging away at Croaker’s assignment.  “You will write three feet that convince me you have mastered the third year materials, before I will devote another second to your instruction, Potter,” Croaker had pronounced at the end of the lesson.

He didn’t set aside his work until his stomach began to grumble, and was very surprised to see that it was nearly nine o’clock.  Madam Pince gave a start when Harry came through the portrait.

“Mr. Potter, have you been reading all this time?” she asked.

Harry nodded.  “I lost track of the time, actually,” he admitted.

“If I’d known, I would have notified you when it was time for the evening meal,” Madam Pince said.  Then she nearly beamed at him.  “Goodness, is it possible that Headmaster Dumbledore will make a scholar of you yet?  Perhaps Miss Granger has rubbed off on you?”

“I can study when I need to study,” Harry insisted.

“True enough, Mr. Potter,” Madam Pince admitted.  “In future, I shall make more careful note of your study practices.  If there is anything I can do for you, any assistance that I can provide… the Headmaster has made it clear that you are to have access to all materials, of course.”

“Thank you, Madam Pince.  I appreciate that,” Harry said.

Madam Pince gave a formal nod.  “On your way out, could you inform Miss Granger that I am preparing to close for the evening?  She is at the rear.”

“Her usual table?” Harry asked with a grin.

Madam Pince appeared suddenly unsettled.  “Further back, I’m afraid,” she said cryptically and returned to her work.

Harry strolled to the back of the library.  The study tables were virtually empty; it was only the third day of classes, after all.  As Madam Pince had said, Hermione’s customary table was vacant.  A familiar Ravenclaw sat at the table adjacent, poring over several open books.  Anthony Goldstein glanced upward, and waved in recognition.

“ ’Evening, Harry,” he said.  “Are you looking for Hermione?”

“Madam Pince asked if I would roust her – I suppose that goes for you,” Harry replied.  Anthony carefully closed one book after the other.  He lowered a handful into his bag, and then gave his wand a complex wave; the remaining books flew smoothly into various places along the shelves.

“She’s back there,” Anthony said, gesturing toward the gate that marked the entrance to the Restricted Section.  “She was there last evening, too.  Harry… it’s clear she’s not well.  It’s about what happened this summer, then?”

“It’s not my place to say,” Harry said evenly.

Anthony broke the awkward silence.  “Will you be running the, erm, Association this term?”

“We’re having an official Defence Club,” Harry told him.  “Three of us will be running it – Ron Weasley’s brother Bill and an Auror named Tonks are assisting Detheridge this year.”

Anthony whistled.  “An Auror, eh?  That must mean we’re taking the threat seriously; it’s long past time for that.”  He lowered his voice and added, “It’s time for some offence, you know.  Will you be addressing that?”

Harry was surprised.  Anthony had seemed capable but quiet over the previous year.  There was a glint in the Ravenclaw boy’s eye and his posture was ready; the glint in his eye matched the feelings that he emanated.  He’d also been the first to confront Malfoy on the train, Harry recalled. 

“I’m not sure we’ll be allowed,” Harry admitted.  “Besides, offence has to be planned.”  His throat tightened slightly.  “I’ve learned the price of running into danger without a plan.”

“Lovegood was truly in the thick of things?” Anthony asked him.

“Luna is very brave and very powerful – best that you don’t lose sight of that,” Harry returned.

Anthony grinned.  “You scared most of the fifth-years out of their knickers, you know​?  Between that and Chang’s little Educational Decree…” He rolled his eyes.

Harry snorted.  “Comparing Cho to Umbridge?  Bit harsh, isn’t it?”

“Chang wouldn’t have been my choice for Head,” Anthony observed.  “She’s full of herself and she holds grudges…” He straightened up and quickly added, “No offence meant, Harry, you know… I mean, I know you and she were… um…”

“And now we’re not,” Harry said firmly.

Anthony quickly responded, “I know that; it’s like there’s a Sticking Charm on her and this Pucey fellow from the Snakes… what do you think of him, by the way?  He’s not one of Malfoy’s crowd, is he?”

“I don’t think he is,” Harry answered.  “He’s always seemed as though he plays fair, you know – on the pitch at least.”

“You’ve fallen in with Hermione at last, then?” Anthony asked casually.

Harry’s breath hitched.  “I’m sorry?”

“Um… you were at her house – it was in the Prophet when, you know – so I guess I figured… erm… everyone sort of figured that, well…” Anthony tugged at his collar as though it was too tight.

“She’s my best friend,” Harry said. 

Anthony pressed.  “Er… that’s all?”

“That’s quite a lot, I think.  Why?” Harry said, trying not to be snappish.

“If that’s true, I think most of my mates would be happy to hear it,” Anthony admitted, “or at least they would have been.

Harry allowed himself to snap just a little.  “Er… most of your mates would what?

Anthony shook his head.  “I know you had a lot to handle last year, but I would have thought you’d notice… um… the thing is, Hermione probably ranked second to Padma Patil as a desirable partner for Ravenclaw men.  If they hadn’t assumed she was spoken for and hadn’t worried that you or Weasley might hex them into the next decade, I’d say that most of my housemates fifth year onward would have chatted her up last year.”  He sighed.  “This year… I think everyone’s confused by her.  Chang won’t confirm whether she gave up her prefectship or had it taken, which surely means that she gave it up.  She even looks different…”

“Would you have asked her to Hogsmeade?” Harry blurted out.

Anthony smiled faintly.  “I don’t think so.  I’d never have measured up – that seemed quite clear to me from the first.”  He added very seriously, “I’ll say this much, Harry… I developed tremendous respect for her last year – for the both of you, in fact.  When Weasley approached us on the Express, we didn't hesitate to help her.  Come to think of it… Weasley’s changed quite a lot.  I swear he was taking notes in Charms – there’s a first time for everything, I suppose.”

“Look… I appreciate that you’re all looking after her,” Harry offered.

“We are, I promise you,” Anthony assured him.  “Do me a favour, then – give serious thought to what I said about offence.  It’s time, Harry; it’s well past time…” The same glint returned to his eyes; something had happened over the summer, Harry knew, and he wondered what it had been.

The wall sconces throughout the library flashed three times.  “Time for you to clear off,” Harry said.  “I’ll look in on Hermione.”

Anthony slung his bag over one shoulder.  “Oh!  I nearly forgot to thank you for my O in Defence.  I won’t deceive myself – I’d never have managed it without what you and Hermione and Weasley did.  I know I’m not alone in that, by the way. You saved my life, actually.”  He gave a half wave and made for the doors.

“Glad we were of help,” Harry said quietly. 

He didn’t care for the Restricted Section.  Everything about it was darker than the rest of the library, from the flickering light that came from too few sconces to the deep grain of the wooden shelves to the thick tomes that sat upon them.  There were only two worktables in the entire section, as there was surely no need for more.  Hermione had fallen asleep atop an open book.  There were at least two dozen other books stacked atop the table, along with an assortment of scrolls.  She had written several feet of notes in small, tidy script; the parchment rolled off the far side of the table and nearly reached the floor.  Harry’s eyes ran across the spines of the books, and his discomfort grew. 

To one side sat Curses That Kill: Forgivable Combat Tactics; to the other Infamous Wizarding Assassinations lay open.  Some of the titles meant nothing to Harry, but left him uneasy: there was The Energetics of Will and Arithmancy for Predictive Analysis of Thaumaturgical Events and a crumbling ancient tome called The Physical Properties of Magick.  One of the scrolls lay open; it was littered with what Harry knew to be arithmancy formulae, although he couldn’t begin to comprehend them.  One book looked as though it was bound using boil-covered skin, and Harry had no interest in touching it to confirm his observation, nor of knowing what sort of animal had given up its skin; according to the raised reddish lettering it was The Grimoire of the Most Ancient House of Lipscomb

He glanced across Hermione’s notes despite himself; they too were littered with incomprehensible formulae and charts.  From the words scribbled throughout it looked as if she was studying something related to the interaction of different types of spells – or at least he thought that might be the case.  He assumed that it had something to do with her research for Dumbledore; it was too complex and seemed too dark for a mere N.E.W.T. level assignment. 

As he moved forward to rouse Hermione, he heard Madam Pince’s voice.  “Welcome back to Hogwarts, Lucia,” the librarian called out warmly. 

The unfamiliar voice that responded was clear and lightly accented.  “You have me at a disadvantage… good heavens!  Irma Albright?”

“It’s been Irma Pince for nigh on forty-five years,” Madam Pince said.

“No!  Not Calvin Pince?” the unfamiliar voice shot back.

“Indeed!” Madam Pince laughed.  “Sweet Merlin, Lucia, I can’t believe it’s been fifty years.  It was a great shock when the Headmaster informed us that you would be returning.  So… how does it feel, being back at Hogwarts?”

“It is… not somewhere I expected to see again.”  The unfamiliar voice was strained, then halted before adding, “I understand that Hermione Granger is here presently?” 

“She is in the Restricted Section,” Madam Pince said with clear disapproval.  “Harry Potter went back to send her out; I’m preparing to close the doors.”

“Mr. Potter, you say?  The Restricted Section… I am unsurprised,” the other voice sighed.  “The library is organized as it was before, no?”

“Yes, the castle hasn’t seen fit to reshape the library,” Madam Pince said.

“I shall fetch her.  It is a pleasure to see you, Irma; we shall become reacquainted over tea and cappuccino very soon, I hope,” the unknown witch called out.  Harry could hear light footsteps closing in.  He stood his ground, but left Hermione to her sleep.

The woman who entered the Restricted Section was dressed unlike anyone Harry had ever seen inside Hogwarts.  She wore a cream-coloured garment that fell somewhere between a robe and a cloak, over a tailored Muggle suit.  He couldn’t recall seeing a grown witch other than Rita Skeeter wearing high heeled shoes; this woman’s heels were easily three inches high.  She had dark hair finely streaked with grey that fell almost to her shoulders.  Her eyes were warm but her expression was not.  “Good evening,” she said.  “You are Mr. Harry Potter.”

“I am,” he returned.  “You’re Professor Covelli, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Covelli said.  She advanced toward the worktable rather than toward Harry, and turned her attention to the books upon it.  “Has Hermione been working late into the evenings?”

“Another student told me that she was here until closing last evening, and she’s here now,” Harry said.  “I haven’t spoken with her for two days.”

Covelli used the edge of Hermione’s parchment to turn one of the books over.  “Do you approve of her choice in readings, Mr. Potter?”

“Erm… I don’t have the slightest idea what most of them are for, but… it all seems awfully dark,” Harry offered.

“Yes, quite dark,” Covelli said.  “Were you about to wake her?”

Harry shook his head.  “I’m sure she’d rather see you than me,” he offered.

“I doubt that,” Covelli said in return.  Harry stepped away from the table, making his intentions clear.  Covelli nodded and added, “We shall see each other in the coming days.  Good evening, Mr. Potter.”   

As he left, Harry stopped to look back into the Restricted Section.  Professor Covelli leaned over Hermione, with one hand against the table and the other smoothing Hermione’s hair.  “Wake up, uccellina,” Covelli said softly.  “It is time to wake so that you can go to sleep again.”

Hermione lifted her head and Covelli pulled back.  “Wha… D-Doctor Covelli?”

“Hello, Hermione,” Covelli said calmly.

Hermione burst out of her chair.  “You’re here!  I’m so pleased you’re here!  I’ve been… I’ve been waiting…”  She enveloped Covelli in a hug of the kind with which Harry was very familiar, and the new professor seemed surprised for a moment.  Abruptly, Hermione’s shoulders began to heave and she burst into sobbing.  For her part, Covelli said nothing; she simply ran one of her hands slowly up and down Hermione’s back.  It looked like something that Harry imagined of a parent.  He stood there and watched until he satisfied himself that Covelli was helping and not hurting; then he forced himself to stop watching and continued on his way.

September 8

Harry rose to start another CD, but stopped upon checking his watch – it was nearly four o’clock.  Arranging to see Heather had been a nightmare, and he wasn’t about to miss the appointed time.  His laptop computer was open atop the counter, still displaying her electronic mail message:

DATE: 08 September 1996 01:07:55 GMT

TO: 60791.55555@compuserve.com

FROM: 80908.55555@compuserve.com

RE: Sunday plans

I’ll be at MacEvil's tent city for a good part of the day.  We’re putting last touches on a track, then there are photos at two [complete misery], and then the orchestra comes in at seven for a first run-through.  I can fit in an hour or two at four.  Meet by the northern stack on the beach; I’ll call if I have to put you off.

HM

Her message was just as abrupt as each of the calls on the mobile had been.  He’d spoken with her every night since his trip to Teller Brothers, but she always seemed to be headed somewhere or another – at all hours – and she always made it a point to tell him how busy she was.  Guess she doesn’t care whether I might need to put her off, Harry thought; maybe it’s for the best if she doesn’t have time for me.  For his part, he had scheduled a meeting with Fliptrask at Gringotts for half past six.  He figured that it wouldn’t take more than an hour to know whether anything he might have felt for Heather was real.  As for whether they were still nosing around each other solely because Remus forbade it, he figured he’d know that in mere minutes.  Heather had been the one to bring up that possibility, very shortly after Harry had called her for the first time; Harry certainly couldn’t reject the idea, not yet.

The day had turned out glorious after an inauspicious start.  It’s probably still gloomy in Hogsmeade, he guessed.  Presumably the minders thought he was holed up in his rooms; he’d told Madam Rosmerta as much, and he’d popped directly from his empty bedroom to St. Ebb – by way of a steeple that had crossed his path.  He rubbed his sore elbow at the thought, as he slowly strolled down the switchback.  There didn’t seem to be any activity in the area of the tower, but he carried his Invisibility Cloak in a knapsack just in case it was needed.

Heather was walking Harry’s beach.  She was wearing a dress; it was like blue liquid that fell to a scoop in the front and a plunge in the back.  She was barefoot and she charted her course in a straight line, not caring whether or not the surf might cross it.  She looked furious, and Harry couldn’t take his eyes off of her.  She saw him and stopped and took a slow deep breath.  He watched the rise and the fall and she smiled a little.

“Bad day?” he called out.

“Horrid!” she returned loudly over the crashing of the surf.  “It’s amazing I can still see, after all the bloody flashes!”

He was shocked by how different she looked as he drew closer.  She was wearing quite a lot of makeup; it wasn’t completely awful, but it seemed very out of place. Her hair was sprayed and teased and curled into something that he knew it wasn’t.  “You look… nice,” he offered.

She let out a humourless laugh.  “I look like a whore, Harry, but that’s the general idea.  Let’s see….” Her fingers counted off as she went on, “I’ve gone from musical prodigy to the girl with the pretty voice, to the bad-girl ‘woman-child’, and now to this.  I hate this part of it; I’ve managed to push some of it off until now, but it’s become a trading game with Vox.  I get more creative control, and they get to market my… um… assets.”

Harry didn’t like what he was hearing; it didn’t sound right to him.  He changed the subject, hoping to take his mind off of her assets.  “Other than having to take these, er, pictures… how are things coming along, then?” he asked.

Heather rolled her eyes, and began excitedly, “Well, everything started out disastrously on Monday – I mean, Kirley was really throwing me off – but then I had this idea, you see; instead of…” The anger seemed to bleed out of her as she went on.  Harry slipped off his shoes and socks, and they walked on as she continued to talk.  From time to time he added something or asked a short question, but mostly he just let her ramble.  His eyes glanced to his watch, and it dawned on him that he had gone thirty minutes without thinking about Voldemort or Hogwarts or Dumbledore or anything of real consequence.  He still liked the sound of Heather’s voice very much.

“…and he really has turned out to be a good fellow, after all…” Heather stopped abruptly.  “Okay, that’s it,” she said.  “I can really go on, once I’ve started.”  She scratched at her cheek.

“It’s all right,” Harry said.  “Something the matter?”

“Just this makeup; they absolutely cake it on for the camera,” Heather fumed.  “It was bad enough listening to that cow lecture me on skin care –”

“I can remove it, if you like” Harry offered.

Heather stiffened.  “I… I suppose you can do that, can’t you?” she said.  After a long hesitation, she nodded.

Harry took out his wand, and barely whispered the Delavo charm that Detheridge had used to clean away bloodstains.  He didn’t know why that charm had occurred to him; it just seemed the proper choice.  The makeup slowly disappeared from Heather’s face as he moved the tip of his wand from place to place.  He was especially careful around her eyes, not wanting to hurt her in any way.

When he lowered his wand, Heather raised her hands to her face.  “It’s all gone – just like m-magic,” she laughed nervously. 

Harry could feel fear.  “This isn’t going to work, is it?” he said; it was more of a statement than a question.

“Do you think that’s all it was at the club?” she blurted out.  “Was it just… you know… magic?”

Harry sighed.  “Is that what Remus told you?”

“Shona said it.”  Heather’s jaw tightened.  “I’m not speaking with the wolfman.  That’s her business, not mine.”

“Shona told me the same,” Harry said.

Heather’s eyes grew wide.  “You talked to her?  When did this happen?”

“It’s been a couple of weeks now,” Harry answered.  “She wanted to talk to me about patching things up with Remus.”

“Did she say anything else?” Heather pressed.

“Well, she said she liked me –” Harry began.

“She said that?  I’m… I’m surprised,” Heather cut in.

Harry frowned.  “She also said that we’re bad for each other, because I’m dangerous and you’re…um…” He trailed off quickly.

Heather flushed.  “Because I’m what?  No, wait, I’ll make a guess at it… I don’t know what I want, I don’t care about anyone but myself…”  Her voice rose powerfully.  “… or was it that I’m a tart who won’t stay with a man for more than a week at a time?  Am I on the mark?”

“Er… that’ll do…” Harry managed.

Heather let forth a withering stream of cursing that she had surely picked up the kitchen with Shona.  He was feeling stirred up as well, so he interjected, “Oh, and she threatened my life, besides.”

Heather stopped as if the air had been let out of her.  “I’m sorry?” she gasped.

“Uh-huh, she said that if I got you crossed up in my business, it was her I should fear,” Harry said.  He couldn’t help a small grin – Shona had a loud bark, but he really didn’t fear her bite.

Heather slowly shook her head.  “She’s always direct, isn’t she?”  She turned and began to walk back down the beach.  Her hand reached for his, and their fingers casually intertwined.

“That she is,” Harry said.  His mouth was very dry, which seemed odd in the presence of so much water.

“I suppose you want to know the truth of it,” she said slowly.  Before he could say anything, she went on, “I’m not one to let people in – I know that… um… you probably know it, too.  That doesn’t mean I don’t care about anyone.”

“I didn’t say I agreed with her,” Harry offered.

“I’m quick to make a choice, right?” Heather said.  “Most of the time, I think I feel something for a fellow and then I spend a bit of time, and then I know that he’s not right.  He clubs too much or he’s on the prowl or he’s hiding something.  I always knew eventually… it’s hard to stick it out, when you always know.”  She looked at him for a moment, and her eyes seemed enormous.  “It’s even worse now – it happens all the time,” she added, and then quickly looked away.

“I didn’t mean for that – ” Harry started.

“I know you didn’t, but there it is,” Heather snapped.  “It’s like the din in a crowd.  I can almost hear it, and I can… you know… feel it.  When someone’s angry or sad, it’s like… it’s like being struck by a wave.”  She waved her hands at the sea.  “Then another jumped-up twit comes along, and there’s another wave, and I can’t get out from underneath it, and… how can you stand it?  Is it like that for you?”

“More or less; it’s worse since Dumbledore explained what was happening, actually,” Harry said.  “He says this has been happening to me since the spring, and I just didn’t know it.  People would get angry and I’d get angry.  I guess I wasn’t around very many happy people, not until I came here.  He says it’s easier away from wizards – ”

“It could be worse?” Heather shrieked.  “It’s like bloody voices in my head already!  Worse?  He was serious, then, when he said it could eventually… wasn’t he?  He… he meant it… Well, I’m never going back to that mad place - I don’t care how bad this gets, I’m not going back there!”

“‘Mad place’?  What place is that?  Where did they take you?” Harry asked.

Heather erupted.  “To that… that… castle!  It was terrible – dark, drafty… there were ghosts – real ghosts, for God’s sake – and a big thing in the lake and creaking noises everywhere and… and… taking my meals with a three-foot-tall pointy-eared thing was the most normal thing in the whole bloody place!”

Harry sagged inside.  “Heather… that was Hogwarts.  That was where I’ve gone to school; it’s where I’m an apprentice now.”

That was your school?” Heather howled.  “No one ever said anything about that!  I thought it was a prison!”

“It’s not a prison… it was my home, at least for a while,” Harry said dangerously.  “You know what was a prison?  The Dursleys’ house, the place I grew up and spent my summers until now – that was a prison!”

Heather backed away from him.  “I’m sorry, all right?  It just felt wrong!  It was like… it was like having the whole world pressing in on me… and then the ghosts!  I mean, that’s what Dumbledore said they were… I could see them sometimes, when the light was right… I could hear them, all right, wondering what somebody like me was doing there.  The one with… you probably know, then – the one with the b-blood all over – it kept following me, closer and closer.  Dumbledore, he told it to stop but it just kept on.  The last three days, I didn’t leave my room!”

Harry tried to understand, but he felt stung – she hated Hogwarts, and he couldn’t imagine why the castle had been so horrible for her.  The castle repelled Muggles, of course, but he didn’t think that it did the same to Squibs; Filch was there, after all.  And what was the Bloody Baron doing? he wondered.  It was true that Hogwarts no longer felt like his home, but he couldn’t imagine that a place that he liked so much would be so repellent to anyone that he cared for.

“This really isn’t going to work,” he murmured.

“Then why did you come?  Why do you think I’m here?” Heather demanded.  She grabbed him roughly by the arm; he reacted out of instinct and reared out of her grasp.

“I don’t know!” Harry snapped.  “I just wanted to know…”

“You feel it too, then,” Heather said.

Harry wiped the sweat from his free hand against his trousers.  “Feel what?” he asked without meeting her eyes.

“Is it magic or is it real?  Tell me,” she said.

“I… erm…”  I wish I knew, he thought.

Tell me!” she demanded.  “I must be going mad with it!  Everything – and I do mean everything – says that I should run like hell, Harry.  I should run like Shona did, and never look back!”

Harry ran out of patience.  “Then run!  Be done with it!  You could have said that on the telephone and saved us both the trouble!”

I don’t want to run!” Heather shouted.

Then tell me what in the bloody hell you want, because I can’t figure it out!” Harry roared.

“Oh, sod it!  This!  I want this!” Heather growled.  Before Harry could react, she thrust one hand into his hair, wrapped the other arm around him and crushed her mouth against his.  He was bewildered for a few moments and struggled to free himself, before he realised what was happening; then he gave in to it.

She tasted salty, he thought vaguely, though perhaps it was just the nearness of the sea.  They were pressed together and he decided that this was amazing in and of itself.  Her hands roamed through his hair and up and down his back and he found himself doing somewhat the same, which led to the recognition that she was wearing very little other than the blue dress.  It was all very different than in the club – that kiss had been magic, undeniably, where this one was overwhelmingly physical.

Heather broke off and took a step backward, heaving for air.  She stared at him for a long moment, and he remembered just how bright her eyes were.  “I… um… er…” She stopped stammering and fanned herself with her hands, and then started laughing.

“What?” Harry said, feeling a bit defensive.

“That’s… why I couldn’t… run away,” Heather panted.

Harry slowly found himself grinning.  “Oh...”

Heather smiled and gripped Harry’s hands.  “Um… wow…” 

Harry wasn’t sure what to do next.  The whole thing had an air of madness to it.  She was afraid of everything around him but didn’t seem to be afraid of him, and that was completely upside down as far as he was concerned.  He also knew that his knees had nearly buckled, and he felt a powerful urge for more of the same.  He knew it was a mistake, and he kissed her anyway.  Her eyes caught his for an instant as he advanced, and then she slammed them shut.  Her hands were everywhere, and he became very aware of the feel of her bare back.

She broke off again, but held him close; they were both panting this time.  “I’ll never be able to kiss with my eyes open again, thanks to you,” she whispered in his ear.  She raised her left arm high, without letting go.  “Blast!  They’ll be looking for me.”  She gave him a quick peck on the lips, and asked, “When can you see me again?”

Harry tried to gather his wits about him.  It was definitely madness, all of it.  “I… I don’t know… um… I’ll be at your concert on the 21st, you know… er… terribly busy, the both of us… uh… are you sure about this?”

She stepped back, smoothed her dress and chewed on her lower lip in a way that made him draw in a sharp breath.  “I don’t even know what ‘this’ is… I just know that I want to see you.  Find a time, Harry.  Call me!”  She walked away from him slowly; she kept turning to look at him, grinning.  After thirty paces or so, she started walking backward.  She fanned herself again and laughed – it was a near-giggle.  He stood there and watched her walk and laugh and skip until she disappeared beyond the northern stack.  It was then that he breathed again.

“What was that?” he murmured to himself, and sank to the sand.  He watched the surf roll in and let his breathing fall into time and remembered the feel of Heather’s dress and the taste of her lips.  It was a mistake, he was sure of it.

He heard the sound of footsteps.  Has she come back? he wondered excitedly as he turned.

“Hallo, Harry!” Mr. Weasley said warmly.  He was clad in light coloured Bermudas and a garish jumper that upon closer inspection bore the Weasley Wizard Wheezes mark, and he held a butterbeer in each hand.  Harry tried to speak but only managed a squeak and a burble as his stomach fell to his shoes. 

Mr. Weasley handed him one of the butterbeers and took a seat on the sand.  “It’s a beautiful place, Harry.  Molly and I can’t thank you enough, you know.”

“Uh-huh… beautiful… just cracking…” Harry managed.

“Harry…” Mr. Weasley began.

Harry struggled for words.  “How long… erm… how long have you…?”

“I didn’t expect to see your hand on the clock move to ‘Home’ this morning,” Mr. Weasley said.  “Then it jumped to ‘In Transit’ for the longest time, and then back to ‘Home’.  Yes, I was quite surprised.”

Harry cursed himself inside.  The clock… shite!  He looked around nervously; there was no sign of Mrs. Weasley.  “Where is…?”

“One of the advantages of being head of the house is a certain measure of control over the family clock,” Mr. Weasley said off-handedly.  “You’re at Hogwarts presently.  Molly is fussing with the gardens, and I’m out for a stroll.”

“Oh,” Harry said.  He stared determinedly at the advancing surf.

“This is your beach, Harry; it’s your home.  We’re boarders, and it’s not our business whether and when you come and go,” Mr. Weasley said.  When Harry began to fidget, he smiled and added, “It’s not Molly’s business, either.  You’ve become like a son to us but truth be told, you’re not our son.”  He paused and seemed to take in the sand and the surf for a time, and then added quietly, “You’re not a child anymore; sometimes I wonder if you ever were?”  He sipped at his butterbeer, and went on, “I assume that Albus and the others think you’re in Hogsmeade?”  When Harry said nothing, he went on, “I’m impressed that you made your way past Moody and his crew.  It’s not the safest thing you could have done, however.”

Harry waited for the criticism to begin, but it didn’t come; Mr. Weasley simply sipped on his butterbeer and sat there companionably.  “I’m never alone,” Harry said at last.  “Someone’s always watching.”

“I imagine that’s frustrating,” Mr. Weasley admitted.  “In fact, I suspect it would have driven me half-mad at your age.”

Harry waited again.  It’s for your own good… he was certain that the words would come, but they never did.  “I thought we were alone,” he blurted out.

“I had no intention of intruding,” Mr. Weasley said.

“I suppose you’re going to tell Remus,” Harry fumed.

Mr. Weasley set his butterbeer down, stood, and brushed the sand from his Bermudas.  “No,” he said.

Harry’s brow beetled.  “No?”

Mr. Weasley scooped up his bottle.  “Fine afternoon for a walk, don’t you think?” he said.  Harry stood and followed.

Both were silent until they reached the northern stack.  From nowhere, Mr. Weasley said, “She’s a lovely girl, Harry.”

“Yes… no doubt about that,” Harry said.

“Do you honestly want to introduce something this complicated into your life?” Mr. Weasley asked.

“I don’t know,” Harry admitted after a long pause.

“That’s a fair answer,” Mr. Weasley said.  “Best you figure that out before proceeding too far, eh?”

Harry nodded, and said, “Fine.”  When does the other shoe drop? he wondered; When is he going to light into me?

“No matter what you decide…I want you to be sensible, Harry,” Mr. Weasley said slowly.  “You, uh, know how to be sensible in these matters… right?”

Harry flushed instantly.  “Erm… by ‘sensible’, do you mean…?”

“I don’t think I’m being unreasonable,” Mr. Weasley returned.  “She’s lovely and she obviously fancies you, and you were showing rather a lot of interest… ahem… in any event… I’d rather you come to me about this sort of thing than fail to be sensible.”

Mr. Weasley!” Harry groaned

Mr. Weasley held his hands up.  “All right, then – I’m finished.  Let me know if I need to disable your hand on the family clock, would you?  Be sure that you stop by the tower some time, as well.  I know Molly would love to see you.”  He took Harry’s empty bottle with him and walked away. 

Harry was reeling; he didn’t even manage to call after Mr. Weasley.  He walked up and down the beach, and then began to run.  The running would clear his head, he hoped, or lead to some kind of new understanding – some sort of realisation, some answer that he could embrace.  He was willing to settle for making sense of the afternoon.  He accomplished none of it. 

September 9

Harry now loathed entering the Great Hall; after a week, he still caught a hundred stares each time that he passed through the doors. It wasn’t as though he was especially noticeable, he figured, wrapped in a plain student’s cloak and dressed in greys and blacks. He approached the Gryffindor table, in hopes of entering and leaving quickly.

Ron was sitting rather close to Lavender Brown, all the while trying to carry on a conversation with Katie Bell – Quidditch, surely – and at the same time to down half the table’s repast on his own. He had a mad grin on his face; one arm waved wildly as he talked while the other skilfully manoeuvred scones and bangers and whatever else it could locate. Ginny was almost as animated, and Harry was surprised to see Seamus Finnigan leaning in on the conversation as well. Seamus was apparently using food to demonstrate a play, which looked to be messy business. A bit of marmalade flew onto Hermione’s open book and she shot a death glare at Seamus and Ron. The glare was replaced by a smile as Harry came into view, and it occurred to him that he missed seeing Hermione and Ron in the mornings.

“Quiet down! The enemy’s approaching!” Ginny said with a smirk.

Ron let out a barking laugh. “Oi, Harry! Hope you have the proper password – otherwise these Gryffindor girls will eat you alive!”

Harry grinned. “A bit full of yourself, Ron?”

Seamus gave a mock-bow. “That’s a proper password, eh?” he said, and slid to one side. Harry declined a seat, and forced his eyes to stay on his old housemates rather than risk a glance at the staff table.

“So, is Dumbledore working you seven days a week?” Ron asked.

“We don’t have a fixed timetable, not yet at least,” Harry said. “I suppose it’ll be five or six days a week; even Dumbledore likes his free time, right?”

“I see,” Ron said off-handedly. “Guess I figured you’d drop in yesterday… you know, maybe help me organise for the Quidditch tryouts? It was a brilliant afternoon for flying, besides.”

“There was a meeting to attend,” Harry said.

Hermione looked up from her book and he gave her a knowing look. “With Fliptrask?” she asked.

Harry nodded and fished an envelope from within his robes. “He sent this along for you.”

Lavender’s brow beetled. “Fliptrask the goblin sent something for you? No offence intended, Hermione, but… I can see why Harry would be of interest, of course…”

“They’re interested in my performance on the OWLs for some reason,” Hermione said off-handedly; Harry knew that she was seething underneath.

“Why is it that you know Fliptrask?” Harry asked Lavender.

“Well, I wouldn’t say that I know him, not exactly,” Lavender bubbled. “Usually his associates come to the manor, but he’s visited Dad at least once that I remember. He’s responsible for the Blake family holdings, you see.”

“Um… Blake family? Wouldn’t it be the Brown family?” Harry said.

Lavender snorted at him. “Come on, Harry, you’re head of the Black family now and your name isn’t Black. Neville’s heir to… oi, Neville! Where’d your estate come from, anyway? Richards, is it?”

Neville, who sat several places down the table. “Castor on the Longbottom side,” he said, then added, “and I'm Inheritor of the House of Collier, through Gran's grandmother – no boys for two generations.”

“Thought I recognised the seal on that envelope,” Ron said.

“Do you know what it is?” Hermione asked Harry.

“An invitation, I expect.” Harry answered.

“What? I’m invited, as well?” Hermione gasped.

Ron put down his fork. “Invited to what? Gringotts invited you to something?”

Harry began, “Hermione’s invited on her own and I’m to bring a friend as well…” He smiled at Ron. “Think you can keep from being a right plonker for a few hours next Sunday?”

“Very nice, Harry,” Ron pouted. “I’ll have you know that I have this sidekick business pat, thank you very much!” Lavender laughed and clung to Ron’s arm.

“That’s a ‘yes’, then? Dumbledore wants to see Hermione and me at half past eleven; if you’re in, then you’ll need to be there as well,” Harry said.

“Of course I’m in,” Ron said; then he tightened up, and asked hesitantly, “Er… do you think I have the right sort of clothes, or whatever else – ?”

“You’ll be fine; I wouldn’t worry over it,” Harry assured him. “Half past eleven, then.”

Hermione tucked away the envelope and slung her rucksack over a shoulder. “I’m off to Ancient Runes,” she said flatly.

“I’ll walk with you,” Harry offered. He gave Ron a half-wave and moved quickly to catch up.

As soon as they exited the Great Hall, Hermione groaned loudly. “How can he tolerate that… that… cow?

Harry took a half step back in confusion. “Who… what, you mean Lavender? I could tell you were out of sorts at the table, but –”

“It’s like she’s cast a permanent Sticking Charm, for goodness’ sake!” Hermione grimaced.

Harry offered, “Maybe that’s what he wants… maybe he wasn’t leading her on, at the party – ?”

Hermione ploughed on. “You should see them in the Common Room; it’s disgusting!” She reached up as though she was twirling long hair at the ends, assumed a perfectly vapid expression, and went on in a screechy high-pitch, “Oh, Ron, you’re so funny! Tell me about all of your adventures with Harry and… oh, you know… what’s her name…” Her voice fell to its usual tone, and she added scathingly, “Apparently five years in the same dormitory hasn’t familiarised her with my name. She’s cast too many beauty charms on herself, if you ask me… stupid bloody bint…”

“Hermione!” Harry snapped.

“He can do better than her, much better,” Hermione insisted. “The only reason she’s draped all over him is because she’s noticed that other girls are interested. I should revise my description – she’s not a cow; she’s a leech.”

“She can’t be that awful – I think I’d have noticed,” Harry insisted.

“You haven’t had to live with her,” Hermione grumbled.

“True, but I don’t recall you being quite so furious with her before,” Harry pointed out. The rest slipped out before he thought it through. “Besides, I thought you turned Ron down. Why are you making such a fuss?”

Hermione glared at him. “Because she’ll go from crushing on him to nasty gossiping in the blink of an eye,” she snarled. “He can do better than her – it’s practically staring him right in his thick face.” She glanced at her watch and added coldly, “Professor Croaker’s not kind to latecomers. I’ll see you at half past eleven, I suppose – oh, and thank you so much for bothering to tell me about the meeting.” With that, she stomped off without so much as a goodbye or even a glance his way.

Harry proceeded to drift through his Defence tutorial. Detheridge told him that the theme for the day was to take advantage of an opponent’s obvious weaknesses. Harry held his tongue and managed to drop a steel ball atop Detheridge’s head. Detheridge wasn’t as forgiving as Shacklebolt. After a brief stop with Madam Pomfrey, Harry made his way to Dumbledore’s chambers.

Ron arrived shortly before half past eleven. Harry contemplated bringing up Hermione’s growing dislike of Lavender, but settled on glancing at his watch every few seconds instead. After five minutes, he grumbled, “Where do you suppose she is?”

Ron rolled his eyes. “The library, of course. Send her an envelope, and she’ll go off and study the sort of parchment it’s made from.”

“I guess she’s on her own,” Harry said. “Cadbury Cremes.” The single gargoyle slid aside to reveal the stairs that led to Dumbledore’s study. Just as they mounted the stairs and the gargoyle began to move behind them, Harry heard a squeak and then the bustle of a sack full of books. Hermione stopped just inside the stairwell to catch her breath. As soon as she did so, her hands flew to her hips. “Thought you’d just leave me standing there, did you?” she snapped. “Well… you’re not the only one who knows the password, Harry.”

“What did you do to her?” Ron whispered to Harry. Harry suppressed the impulse to wrap his hands around Ron’s neck; he merely shrugged and continued to climb the winding stairs.

Dumbledore looked up from papers on his desk as they entered. “Ah, Harry… and Mr. Weasley? This is an unexpected pleasure… and where is Miss Granger?”

“I apologise for being late,” Hermione said from behind them. “Professor Croaker refused to allow me to leave prior to half past eleven.”

“Is that so? I shall have to speak to Algernon… he is orderly by nature; perhaps he expected a written request of me?” Dumbledore stroked his beard thoughtfully. “He does seem to demonstrate a certain disdain for you, however, and I am at a loss as to why that may be.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Hermione said flatly. “You needed to see us, Headmaster?”

“Yes, be seated please.” Dumbledore conjured three chairs with a tiny wave of his hand.

Ron became very still. “W-where is your wand, P-Professor?”

“My wand? Oh, yes… my wand… I am certain that I left it here somewhere…” Dumbledore began to pick through the papers before him. “It is rather inconvenient to always need one’s wand at the ready, is it not?”

“Honestly, Ron! You’ve seen the Headmaster perform wandless magic before; you simply weren’t paying attention,” Hermione chided.

Dumbledore produced his wand from beneath a book. “It is not a skill that I take pains to advertise. I should not be surprised that you have remained undiverted, of course.”

Hermione pulled out her envelope. “It seems that I’ve been invited to the hunt along with Harry.”

Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled, which immediately set Harry on edge. “Yes, it appears that the goblin community has taken an interest in you, Miss Granger. Let me pre-empt you by noting that this interest is in part due to your association with Harry, but only in part. To say that your performance on the OWL examinations was noteworthy is a profound understatement. Gringotts would consider it rather a coup to secure your services when you go out into the world.”

Ron’s face paled. “Hunt? Did you say ‘hunt’? This is about a goblin hunt?”

“That’s right,” Harry said. “I’ve been asked to bring a friend – so here you are.”

“A goblin hunt? Do you have any idea what goblins hunt?” Ron groaned.

“No,” Harry answered. “Do you?”

Ron fidgeted considerably before he returned, “Er… not exactly, but that’s not the point! Do you actually want to go hunting for some sort of monster and kill it with a sword?”

Dumbledore broke into a crooked smile. “I believe Harry has already accomplished that feat,” he pointed out.

“Look, mate, you don’t have to go,” Harry offered.

Ron shook his head. “Oh, no, I’m going! Someone has to look after the two of you, after all!”

“Headmaster, you’re not going to attempt to persuade Harry that he should take you or a member of the Order?” Hermione asked; she sounded rather suspicious, Harry thought.

“I have already made my attempt at persuasion, Miss Granger. Harry rightly pointed out that the goblins requested a friend accompany him. Since you were separately invited, Harry immediately brought up young Mr. Weasley here,” Dumbledore said. “As much as I might prefer that Harry take along Mr. Weasley’s brother William, I shall accede to his wishes.”

Hermione stood, which surprised Harry. “If that is all, Headmaster…?”

Dumbledore waved her back into her seat. “I have set a time for the three of you to meet with Professor Covelli, for a review of what is known about the goblin hunt and contemporary goblin culture. Regrettably that comes to little. You will be witnessing something very rarely observed by wizards; I am somewhat envious. On Sunday, Gringotts has arranged for you to be collected from here. I have informed Mr. Fliptrask of my preference that you be returned to Hogsmeade no later than nine in the evening. However, this event will transpire in the manner that the goblins see fit. If the hour grows sufficiently late, you will be excused from your Monday class meetings and other commitments. Do you have any questions of me?”

“Which member of faculty will accompany us?” Hermione asked.

“Mr. Potter will accompany you,” Dumbledore said. “Three wizards have been invited and only three shall attend. It is possible that Professor Flitwick will be in attendance; he is occasionally invited to goblin ceremonies. At any rate, I will not risk provocation - not in a matter as unique as this. I cannot impress upon you sufficiently the gravity of this invitation. The three of you will be representing the wizarding community of the United Kingdom at an event that is believed to lie at the very heart of goblin culture.”

“We won’t let you down, Professor Dumbledore,” Ron insisted; Harry could sense raging doubts, and he fought back a grin.

Dumbledore smiled broadly. “I should hope not, Mr. Weasley! You see, I have no intention of sharing this bit of news with Minister Fudge until after the fact, and I should very much prefer it if there is nothing of a disastrous nature to report. As it stands, Cornelius will expire of apoplexy should he find out that the goblins expressly forbade his attendance.”

“We’re to keep this quiet, then,” Harry confirmed.

“That really would be for the best,” Dumbledore agreed.

Ron began to ask, “So I shouldn’t tell…?”

No, you shouldn’t!” Hermione snapped. She turned to Dumbledore. “May I be excused now, Professor?”

“If you wish, Miss Granger,” Dumbledore said slowly. “Something between the three of you appears to require resolution; I do suggest that it be resolved prior to Sunday.” Hermione nodded curtly and walked quickly to the stairs.

Ron threw up his hands. “What did I do to her?” he asked Harry.

Harry glared over the top of his glasses at Ron. “You can’t be that thick; please tell me that you’re not,” he said coldly; without waiting for a response, he headed off after Hermione. Behind him, Dumbledore advised Ron, “I recommend that you pursue your friends with all haste… and with alacrity if you can summon it, Mr. Weasley.”

Ron caught Harry before they reached the last stair. “Fine, then,” he snapped, “consider me thick. I swear, every time that Lavender’s name comes up, she… oh.”

“And the torch is lit at last,” Harry grumbled.

“Don’t get shirty with me!” Ron protested.

Hermione was standing in the corridor just beyond the gargoyle. Her expression lightened for an instant as she saw Harry, and turned positively icy as Ron followed him into view. She headed off as quickly as Harry thought possible without running. Harry quickened his pace to keep up, and Ron loped alongside.

“Hermione! Hermione, wait!” Ron called out.

“I’ve had enough, Ron,” Hermione snapped back without slowing.

Ron used his long legs to their advantage; in a score of steps, he overtook her. “I’m the one who gets accused of being a stubborn mule but you take the prize!” he growled. “You make up your mind about things, and that’s the end of it – no questions, no chance to tell you what I think, nothing!”

“I thought you were finally growing up…” Hermione began.

Harry caught up and firmly planted himself between his two friends. His voice was low and as dangerous as he could make it. “This is the one thing I haven’t missed a bit: watching the two of you go at it like cat and dog,” he said. “We’re not doing this in a corridor. The Common Room or the other place – choose one.”

“The other place, then,” Hermione said fiercely.

“Fine – I’d rather that the midgets weren’t hanging about,” Ron agreed.

This time it was Harry who scrambled forward; he forced Hermione and Ron to keep up with him. By the time they followed him up five flights to the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy both were a bit bedraggled, which suited Harry fine.

“Cripes, Harry, the castle’s not under attack!” Ron complained as Harry paced back and forth and ignored him. The door to the Room of Requirement appeared, and Harry flung it open.

Hermione peered in. “What is this place?” she asked.

Ron laughed uneasily. “Not what I would have expected, mate,” he said. “I was ready for, you know, a dungeon or something.”

Harry passed through the door and into a fair duplicate of the bothy. “I was thinking of a place where I’d want to be, where I’d want my two best friends to be,” he said quietly. “I guess this is it.”

“This is Harry’s place,” Ron explained to Hermione.

Hermione looked around appraisingly. The door closed after they all entered; she turned and looked out the front windows to the cliff’s edge and the sea beyond. “What sort of place? This isn’t your rooms in Hogsmeade.”

“It’s where I was living in August,” Harry said.

She wandered past the shelves laden with record albums. “These are all rather old; they’re along the lines of what my Mum and Dad would listen to… did they come from Sirius?”

Harry nodded. “The CDs are mine.”

Ron flopped down on the settee and put his feet on the small table before it. Hermione started to scold him, but stopped herself.

“It has to stop,” Harry said. “There’s too much to be going on about, without the two of you fighting.”

“Now, look here,” Ron started. “Last year, you were –”

Harry felt his hands begin to shake; he squeezed them tight. “Last year,” he cut in, “I was a horse’s arse, you were a foul braggart, and Hermione was a hovering know-it-all – even though she was right most of the time; if I’d had the good sense to listen, a lot of things would be different. That was last year. It’s time to talk about this year, Ron. None of us are the same now; nothing’s the same anymore, can’t you see that?”

“I think I’d rather do last year over,” Ron grumbled.

“We’re not children anymore,” Harry said. “If I had any doubts about that, Dumbledore killed them in June.”

Hermione had returned to the front windows and leant against the sill. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” she said quietly.

Ron bit his lip for a moment, and then blurted out, “I don’t think you’ve become a man, exactly.”

“It’s a quotation, for goodness’ sake,” Hermione groaned. She slowly moved to one of the armchairs, let herself sink into it, and looked pointedly at Ron. “I’ve been half the problem, Ron; I know that. It’s just that you… you… you infuriate me sometimes!” Ron sat up sharply, but said nothing. Hermione went on, “You could have done so much better; you could have been so much better! Instead, you just slid through life. With Harry, I’ve always been able to help somehow. With you… honestly, you wanted me to do your work – and you didn’t need that! You’re not stupid, Ron! You could do so much better than Lavender Brown.” Harry could tell that it took a lot for Hermione to keep from spitting Lavender’s name. She was trying, and he hoped that Ron could respond in kind.

“You need to stop treating Lavender like this, if you really want to be a friend,” Ron warned her. “It has to stop. She hasn’t asked me to tell you off or stop talking to you. One of these days she will, if you keep it up. She’s not stupid either!”

“She doesn’t love you, Ron,” Hermione said.

Ron laughed. “I don’t love her, either! She’s nice and funny and she makes me feel good, and she doesn’t expect anything that she isn’t going to get from me. I like her to pieces, right?”

“Ron… you can do better than that,” Hermione sighed. “It’s right there in front of you.”

“No, I can’t!” Ron insisted. “Harry, help me out here?”

“Harry, will you explain to him what he’s missing?” Hermione pleaded.

“Me? You want… you want me to explain… are you joking?” Harry spluttered. “I’ve been out with two girls; had… what… three kisses? Four? I think someone has to explain it to me!”

“See?” Ron exclaimed.

Harry rounded on Ron. “And you! If this is about what those ruddy brains showed you…”

Ron’s eyes widened. “I thought you believed me!”

“I believe what you saw,” Harry returned. “Are you really going to live your life based on it?”

“Oh, don’t even…” Ron fumed. “Everything you’ve done since the end of last year has been about that stupid prophecy –”

“Not everything,” Harry said. “When I was in St. Ebb –”

“You were doing exactly what I’m doing,” Ron finished for him. “Don’t tell me you had any kind of big plans? You thought she was a Muggle, right? You know it wasn’t anything more than a bit of summer fun.”

“Well, she’s not a Muggle, is she?” Harry snapped.

“Fair enough, but…” Ron stopped and his eyes widened. “You’re not still… oh, you are!” He laughed loudly. “Forget about the goblin hunt, mate – Lupin’s going to hunt you down!”

“You’re still seeing Professor Lupin’s daughter?” Hermione asked.

Harry’s jaw tightened. “No, I'm not.” His eyes fixed on Hermione as he added, “And how would you know about that, anyway?”

Hermione cast her eyes downward. “You weren’t alone there, you know? Ginny was around…”

“Ginny was just saying this morning how she’s hardly seen you, that you’re off to the library even more than usual,” Ron said.

“It was probably Tonks – she’s talkative,” Harry concluded. “Go on, then – let me have it for not telling you everything about the summer.”

Hermione was obviously stung. “You know that I haven’t told you everything, either. I meant what I said, Harry; I meant what I wrote to you. Tell me what you want to tell me, and I have to trust that it’ll be enough.”

“You disapprove,” Harry said.

“Does it matter?” Hermione asked.

“Of course it does,” Harry assured her.

“I honestly don’t know enough to say,” Hermione said. Harry thought that she was telling the truth, but it was obvious that she was distressed – he could see it in the set of her eyes and the tiny pout of her lower lip.

“Well, I do,” Ron said, “and I think it’s a mistake. Nothing good will come from this.”

“Basing this on your date, are you?” Harry growled.

Ron sighed. “I thought you were tired of fighting. So why mess about with this? You’re going to lie to everybody and be cut off from Lupin forever for Heather? Hope she’s worth it, mate.”

“We're not dating,” Harry said.

Ron threw up his hands. “It’s not my business.”

“I just want you to be happy,” Hermione said. She added quickly to Ron, “I don’t want to fight with you, I swear. I want you to be happy as well. If Lavender makes you happy, then… er… then I’m happy for you. Everybody’s happy, see?” She stood abruptly. “I have to go; I’ve already been late for Defence twice, and I don’t want to antagonise Professor Detheridge.”

“Are… are you sure everybody’s happy?” Harry asked.

Hermione stopped at the door and put on a smile that seemed forced. She glanced around the room once more. “I can see why you like this place – it feels right, somehow. Be seeing you,” she said as she slipped out into the corridor.

Ron stood next. “It does feel right, doesn’t it? I… uh… don’t suppose you could find some time to play a bit of chess? It’s hard to find people willing to let me beat them senseless.”

Harry shook his head but grinned. “I suppose it’s not right for me to leave other Gryffindors to that fate. You want to play here?”

Ron nodded. “I figure you don’t want to hang about the Common Room anymore. I’ve been staying clear of it myself except to meet up with Lavender.”

“Are you happy, Ron?” Harry asked abruptly.

Ron shrugged. “I like being with Lavender. Maybe I’ll like being with somebody else next month – I don’t know. I’m happy enough.” His brow furrowed a bit. “Who do you suppose Hermione was going on about? Right there in front of me, she says.”

“Do you, um, think maybe she means herself?” Harry wondered aloud.

“Not a chance,” Ron said. “Look, she was my chance to do better – I wouldn’t ever tell her that because she’d get in a huff about it. You know what? It wouldn’t have been fair, anyway. You heard her – she wants love straight out of the gates.”

“That’s awfully grown up coming from you, mate,” Harry said.

“What’d she say… time to put away childish things, or something?” Ron nodded. “I reckon she’s right about that. Like you said, she’s right most of the time.”

Harry followed Ron out of the room, and the door disappeared. “She just seems so unhappy; she completely avoided answering my question about that,” Harry sighed. “I wish I knew how to cheer her up. I mean, she has every right to be in a bad way, with everything that’s happened. I just don’t like to see her this way.” He looked to Ron. “What do you think I should do?”

“Make her happy, of course,” Ron said.

Harry rolled his eyes. “That’s brilliant. And just how am I supposed to manage it?”

Ron laughed at him. “You’re kidding… right?”

“Come on, it’s your big idea,” Harry pressed.

Ron shook his head. As he headed off to class, he called over his shoulder, “Don’t ask me. I’m the thick one, remember?”

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