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Fics begun in 2003 (post-OOTP)

Chapter Thirty

RETURNING TO WHAT WE ONCE KNEW

August 31

Harry

Delicate silver instruments stood atop spindle-legged tables, making all manner of noises and going about their business as though Harry hadn’t smashed them in June. He remembered the sense of wonder he had felt upon first seeing Dumbledore’s chambers; that feeling was gone now. It had seemed absent when he had helped Dumbledore return from Grimmauld Place – an event that seemed so long ago now – and there was no doubt this time. Harry simply felt empty; he drew the same hollowness from the whole of Hogwarts. He was an intruder.

The portraits were mostly present but chose to silently regard him; he had heard nothing save the puffing and whirring from the instruments since a house-elf he hadn’t known had ushered him in. A line of ghostly orange penetrated the grey eastern horizon and cast long shadows through the windows.

Phineas Nigellus broke the silence. “You are early, Mister Potter. Dumbledore has not yet returned from abroad.”

“Abroad?” Harry asked. When there was no reply, he said, “I’ll wait here.”

Phineas raised an eyebrow. “It is unlikely that he will come prior to your scheduled meeting. Go raise mischief elsewhere, Mister Potter – take breakfast in the Great Hall; prepare a gazetteer of the broom closets; visit Dumbledore’s great pet, that fellow who keeps the grounds…” Harry bristled, but held his tongue.

“You are not welcome here in the Headmaster’s absence,” sniffed a portrait that Harry didn’t recognise; the comment drew sharp looks from several peers.

“I’m here, aren’t I?” Harry’s voice was suddenly loud and strong. “Apparently the house-elves don’t agree.”

Impudence!” the unfamiliar portrait hissed.

Harry glared at the entire wall of faces, and walked behind Dumbledore’s desk. There was a scattering of whispers and there were a few grumbles, and he ignored all of it. Snatching up a bottle of ink and a quill, he dashed a note to the Headmaster on a stray scrap of parchment.

I arrived early. Phineas told me that you will not be here until our nine-o’clock meeting. I will be on the grounds, if you want to find me prior.

Harry

As soon as the ink was stoppered and the quill properly cleaned, he left the room without a word and wandered the quiet halls for a second time. The eyes of the portraits along the way all seemed to watch him as though they knew something – something profoundly sad.

“Hem, hem,” a woman’s voice sounded. Harry’s wand was in his hand and he faced toward the sound before he was fully aware that he’d moved.

“I was only wondering whether you wanted inside, Mr. Potter!” the Fat Lady squealed.

Harry slowly lowered his wand. “I’m sorry… I thought…” he mumbled.

The Fat Lady gave him the same look as he’d seen again and again from the portraits outside the Headmaster’s chambers. “Mr. Potter, you needn’t draw your wand; you merely need ask me for entry.”

“I don’t have a password,” Harry admitted.

The Fat Lady smiled warmly, in the way he remembered Mrs. Weasley in years past. “Firstly, there are no student passwords to give until the morrow. Secondly, we have been told to give you the run of the castle just as we give to the professors.” She bore herself up proudly. “Thirdly… once a true Gryffindor, always a true Gryffindor.”

Harry smiled faintly. “Thank you,” he said. “May I?” The Fat Lady nodded proudly and the entry to the Gryffindor common room opened before him. He heard a faint voice trailing down the stairs from the girls’ dormitories, and quickly Disillusioned himself before he tried Shacklebolt’s jumping spell. In one hop, he found himself several steps above the common room floor. He waited, but the stairs did not flatten and he did not slide. What am I doing? he asked himself. It’s probably just McGonagall… or Filch. He had to admit that the thought of unexpectedly greeting Filch was rather delicious.

“…yes, the entire castle possesses a certain charm… indeed, it is easy to lose sight of that… here, I believe… perhaps she made some sort of permanent marking?... if you say so, but in my experience…” It was Dumbledore’s voice. Harry quieted his feet, and moved steadily up the stairs. The door marked for the sixth year girls was ajar.

“This isn’t so different from Smithson Hall, honestly; much older, of course, but not so different.” Hearing Mrs. Granger’s voice made the hair on Harry’s neck stand on end.

“Excuse me for a moment, would you?” Dumbledore said. The door slowly opened, and the Headmaster peered into the stairwell. “Please join us, Harry. I had thought that we would not see you until later this morning.”

Harry looked down slowly, to find that he was no longer Disillusioned. There was no sign of a wand in Dumbledore’s hands, but the Headmaster was regarding him with twinkling eyes and a frustrating smile. Merlin, I have a lot to learn, he thought.

Mrs. Granger stood just inside the door, arms crossed and brow worried. Mr. Granger was looking out a window with obvious purpose. Both wore rather large and elaborate pendants; Harry wondered it they allowed Muggles to see the castle. There was no sign of Hermione. Harry thrust his hands into his pockets. “Erm… good morning, ma’am,” he croaked.

“Good morning, Harry,” Mrs. Granger said with a very firm tone that caused his shoulders to inch higher.

“The Grangers were interested in seeing where their daughter spends her time. We first visited the library, of course,” Dumbledore said lightly. “In addition, they require your assistance; they have reluctantly taken the decision to conceal themselves from the wizarding world.”

Harry took in a sharp breath. Conceal them? Did Dumbledore mean… “The Fidelius charm?” he asked. Dumbledore nodded slightly, and Harry felt a chill at the thought. Mr. Granger turned from the window to face him; his expression was too much like that of the Fat Lady for Harry’s liking.

He wondered where Hermione was and why she wasn’t with her parents. “And Hermione? She…?” Harry managed to say.

Mr. Granger responded with clear discomfort, “She will be staying here.”

“With you,” Mrs. Granger added; she seemed even less comfortable with the idea.

“I see,” Harry said. A small part of him wished that Hermione would simply go with them, but the rest felt a flicker of satisfaction that he consciously held from his face – at the very least, she was well enough to return. He couldn’t seem to evade Mr. Granger’s gaze. “Erm… thank you for the picture. I never said thank you,” he offered.

Mrs. Granger’s brow beetled, but Mr. Granger said, “You’re welcome, Harry. I meant what I said that day.”

Harry thrust his hands into his pockets, and tried to think of the right thing to say under the circumstances. “It’s the right decision, I think. If you went back to your home, you wouldn’t be safe,” he offered.

Mr. Granger’s face tightened. “We’ve been left with little choice.”

“You certainly couldn’t have a better Secret Keeper than Professor Dumbledore. I can’t imagine how anyone could ever get him to…” Harry stopped as the Grangers scowled simultaneously. “I’m sorry… did I say something wrong?”

“A word, Mr. Dumbledore?” Mrs. Granger snapped, and inclined her head toward the door to the stairs.

Harry’s jaw dropped as he realised what was happening. He held up a hand to stop the Headmaster and Mrs. Granger, and took an unsteady breath. “Me? Wait… you want me to be your Secret Keeper? Are you…?”

“Distrustful of him?” Mr. Granger asked, pointing harshly at Dumbledore. “Yes, absolutely.”

Mrs. Granger glared at Mr. Granger, who returned the look full-force. “Mr. Dumbledore told us that the effectiveness of this bit of magic is connected to the strength of the person who puts it into effect,” she explained.

“We wouldn’t have believed him, but Hermione and McGonagall and Dr. Covelli all said the same,” Mr. Granger cut in.

Harry turned to Dumbledore, puzzled. “Who’s Dr. Covelli?”

“They refer to a new member of the Hogwarts staff,” Dumbledore returned. “You will meet her within the week.”

Mrs. Granger looked at Harry, but her eyes quickly fell to the floor. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that you’re a powerful young man, not after what we’ve seen,” she said.

Harry said nothing for a while; he let the implications of what had been said churn in his mind. The Grangers waited expectantly. Dumbledore closed his eyes; he appeared tired. When Harry spoke at last, he was slow and measured. “First, I’m not as powerful as the Headmaster. For that matter, I’m not as –”

“It won’t be him; that is not acceptable,” Mr. Granger said harshly.

Without looking, Dumbledore said, “You really must stop underestimating yourself, Harry. You are as powerful as you wish to be.”

“Second, I should think this rules me out,” Harry sneered and jabbed roughly at his scar.

Dumbledore’s eyes remained closed. “When properly cast, the Fidelius charm buries the secret very deeply within the Secret Keeper’s mind. Voldemort would have to invade your mind sufficient to take possession of you, Harry. I doubt that he would again subject himself to the injury that would accompany such an invasion, not after his experience at the Department of Mysteries. In addition, I expect that your barriers to intrusion would be heightened by the knowledge that you hold a secret of this nature.”

Harry clenched his jaw at the last; there was no doubt that Dumbledore was preying upon him. He forced himself to let the rush of anger fade away. The nearest bed rattled and shook for a moment, and then stilled itself. “It requires a strong wizard? Before I’ll agree to this, you’ll have to explain why Wormtail was ever allowed to be my mum and dad’s Secret Keeper,” he said coldly.

Dumbledore’s eyes snapped open. “If Sirius related the circumstances to you, then you should have your answer. However, I will provide you with an explanation if you still wish it,” he said.

Harry was acutely aware of the feel of his wand in his sleeve. “I don’t know the charm,” he said very quietly.

“The Fidelius charm is quite simple to cast, deceptively so,” Dumbledore said. “The success and the strength lie in the power applied and the intent within the wizard.”

Harry couldn’t help but think of what had happened to his parents. “Then… when Wormtail cast Fidelius… he wasn’t strong, his intentions were bad…” His throat tightened. “It could have been broken, couldn’t it? A strong wizard could have broken it.”

“Even if Peter hadn’t directly betrayed your parents, it is possible that they might have been found out by determined Death Eaters,” Dumbledore said sadly. “This would not have been the case if Sirius had cast the charm. Sirius and your father made a terrible miscalculation. It was doubtless one of the moments that the Dementors drew upon when they were in Sirius’ presence.”

Harry tried to summon a happy thought, and failed. “I’d… I’d rather not talk about Sirius.”

Mr. Granger cleared his throat. “Harry, it sounds as if you have to want this. We can find another way.”

Harry shook his head. “What I want is for all three of you to be safe, for everyone to be safe.”

“I have asked the Grangers to remain sequestered in my quarters for a brief time, a few days at most; it is not possible to give proper attention to the charm until after the start of term,” Dumbledore said.

Dumbledore’s posture made it clear that the conversation was at an end. “In your office at nine-o’clock, then?” Harry asked.

“I look forward to it,” Dumbledore returned.

Mr. Granger motioned for Harry to stop. “Harry… would it be possible for you to join Cordelia and me for dinner this evening?” he asked.

Harry looked nervously to Dumbledore, who merely regarded him with sparkling eyes. “Erm… uh… apparently it is?” he advanced.

“Dinner will be served at half past six in my quarters, Harry,” Dumbledore said merrily. “I shall be otherwise engaged this evening, but the house-elves prepare a magnificent table.”

Hermione

It was grey and drizzling in London, but the window to room eleven at the Leaky Cauldron was open. Hermione wanted to hear the din of the minibuses and lorries from the street below. She didn’t mind the coolness after nearly a month in the Italian heat, and she figured that there was no avoiding the damp. It was a nice enough room, not as large as her quarters at Dr. Covelli’s villa but nearly the size of her bedroom at home – or what was once her home, at any rate. The room was reasonably well appointed; but for the lack of electric lights, she could have been in any number of older lodgings throughout England.

She looked in the mirror above the basin and scowled. Her hair was disastrous. In the warm trade winds, it had been vibrant and free. In the cool damp, it clumped and clung to her head. In Italy, it made her feel like she had a life of her own. In London, it made her look like her mother. She idly reached up to tuck her fringe behind her ear out of habit, but there was no longer anything to tuck.

“You should save that scowl for your hairdresser, dear,” the mirror said cattily.

Someone rapped sharply at the door, in the appointed pattern. Hermione faced the door warily and gave the correct response. “Enter at your own risk,” she said.

A vaguely familiar-looking woman with long dark hair slipped into the room. “Wotcher, Herm –” she began, before she froze in place and goggled.

“It’s lovely to see you as well, Tonks,” Hermione huffed.

Tonks slowly advanced, as though she were examining a strange and undiscovered creature. “Your hair… it’s… it’s short… and flat…”

“I’m overwhelmed by your powers of observation,” Hermione said dryly.

“It’s all wrong,” Tonks said. She circled Hermione quickly, regarding her with a critical eye. “Your hair’s too thick to be cut that way. I hate to say this, but… well; it looks like you have a wet Kneazle atop your head.” Hermione glared at her, but she merely smiled and went on, “I should know; I’ve had it all – thick hair, thin hair, long hair, short hair, old hair, young hair, braids, pigtails, bobs…”

Tonks!” Hermione snarled.

Tonks shrugged. “What? It’s the truth. You’re in need of Miranda Elspeth.”

“Who’s Miranda Elspeth?” Hermione asked.

Tonks eyes bulged. “Who’s…?” She started to laugh, but stopped when it apparently dawned on her that Hermione was asking a legitimate question. “Cor, you’re serious! Hermione, you’re the only witch I know under the age of one hundred who could ask that and mean it… well, there is McGonagall, I suppose…”

“I gather that this person cuts hair?” Hermione snapped.

Cuts hair, you say? Miranda isn’t some menace with a wand and a pair of charmed shears! She’s a personal stylist,” Tonks announced with put-on airs; she managed to hold a serious expression for a few moments.

“I have no idea what that means,” Hermione said flatly. She looked to the mirror, and feared that she might prefer the devil she knew to anything Tonks might conjure up. “I don’t want to offend you; it’s just… you wouldn’t be the first person I’d think of in terms of style.”

Tonks let out a barking laugh. “What, did you think I was going to point out something pink and spiky?” Her eyes screwed up in concentration; within a few moments, she appeared to be Hermione from the neck upward. “I had something rather like this in mind.” She looked into the mirror, and her hair reshaped itself; it took on a fringe and fuller sides, though it still didn’t reach her collarbones. She smiled with satisfaction. “What do you think?”

Hermione nearly spoke several times before she managed, “It wouldn’t look like that on me.”

“You’re selling yourself a bit short, dear,” the mirror said kindly.

Tonks continued to smile. “More than a bit, I’d say. So… how is it, then?”

“It does look better,” Hermione admitted, “but my hair would have to grow out. Perhaps you could take me to see this Elspeth woman over Christmas? I… I’m sure I can do something with this mess for a while.”

“I doubt any ordinary person could arrange an appointment with Miranda on only four months’ notice. Of course you’re with me, which means you jump the queue.” Tonks shot Hermione a playful smirk. “Now, as for growing out your hair… you are a witch, aren’t you? All you need is a spot of Hair Restoring Potion and you’ll be right as rain.”

Hermione returned Tonks’ smirk with a dubious stare before facing the mirror again. She huffed at her reflection and reached for a cloak – a hooded cloak. “I’m not letting this woman do anything that requires more than two minutes’ extra care each morning,” she insisted. The hood fit low and tight on her head.

“You’ll love it,” Tonks promised. Her wand moved about in a complicated wave, and which provoked another knock at the door. “Kirley rocks!” she squealed in response. Hermione rolled her eyes.

Hestia Jones entered, closed the door, and laughed. “You’re incorrigible, Tonks.” She took Hermione’s hand warmly, and began, “I don’t know if you remember me…”

“I remember you, ma’am,” Hermione acknowledged, and hoped that there would be no discussion of the attack.

“Please, it’s just Hestia. How have you been getting along, since all that business?” Jones asked.

Hermione sighed. “I’m getting along.”

Jones nodded silently for a few moments. Hermione willed the woman to look for a way to end the conversation; it didn’t work. “Back to your studies tomorrow, then? What are you, a seventh year?

“Sixth year,” Hermione returned.

“It’s a bit gloomy, I know, but I doubt you’ll be needing that hood,” Jones offered after more silence.

Tonks grinned wickedly. “Hermione’s hair is misbehaving, so I promised that we’d have it suitably punished.”

Jones laughed. “I’m game; we’re off to the Alley now?” she asked with the sort of false cheer that Hermione associated with trips to the Hospital Wing.

“Apparently so,” Hermione said. There was hesitation in her voice, but neither of the women seemed to hear it.

It seemed as though every wizard and witch in England had descended upon Diagon Alley at once; Hermione couldn’t recall ever seeing such crowds there. She drew her hands inside of her cloak, where she could dig her nails into her palms without anyone taking notice. With each rustle of a long black cloak, her stomach tightened. She took in a nervous breath when the intersection of Knockturn Alley came into view and didn’t release it until they were well past. A well-dressed man with long slicked blonde hair burst forth from the apothecary, and Hermione clutched at Tonks’ arm.

Tonks’ head jerked around and she nearly lost her footing. She looked Hermione up and down, and flashed Hestia Jones a quick hand signal. Jones shifted subtly, and literally watched their backs as Tonks guided Hermione to a surprisingly secluded spot between two storefronts and quickly cast silencing and concealment charms.

Hermione looked away. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to do that.”

“That fellow looked a bit like Lucius Malfoy for a moment, didn’t he?” Tonks sighed. “Look… it wasn’t hard to see that you were in a bad way, afterward… If you need to talk, or you just want someone to listen…”

Even through the haze of the charms, the bustle of the alley felt overwhelming to Hermione. “Thank you,” she managed, “but could we simply get to wherever it is you’re taking me?”

Two hours later Hermione found herself thrust back into the crowd and flanked by Tonks and Hestia Jones, her hood now lowered. Tonks had been right about Miranda Elspeth, who was apparently a school friend of Mrs. Tonks. However, Tonks’ special abilities and not her parentage had earned favours; on occasion, she had apparently modelled hairstyles for Elspeth.

Hermione’s hair was still short, as she had settled upon, but it was fuller and lighter now – much more as it had appeared in Italy, though a touch longer. Tonks burbled about the style so incessantly that Hermione simply stopped listening. Eventually they budged their way into the throngs that filled Flourish and Blotts and Hermione relaxed somewhat; she was in her element.

Someone nearly jostled her into a large placard set next to the service desk. Tonks let forth a stinging upbraid to the poor unfortunate wizard who had pushed Hermione, and drew a few looks that Hermione would have preferred to avoid. She looked to see if she could slip behind the placard or beside the desk, but stopped dead before it as her eyes took in the bright blue words.

GILDEROY LOCKHART

will be signing copies of his new memoir

JOINED-UP LETTERS:

Rediscovering the Real Me and How the Wizarding World Should Be

Today 11:00 A.M. to 12:00 P.M.

It was only then that she noticed the usual crowd of anxious students and parents had been joined by a large number of witches roughly the age of her parents and a fair number of similarly aged wizards as well. There wasn’t the near-mania she recalled from her first encounter with Lockhart, four years prior; instead, people seemed to flow toward the back of the shop in orderly fashion. She couldn’t resist sneaking a look though she certainly hadn’t the faintest genuine interest in the man, not after what he’d nearly done to Harry and Ron.

Lockhart was seated at a table surrounded by pictures of the jacket to his new book. His face didn’t dominate the jacket this time; Lockhart’s small image in the lower corner gave only the barest hint of his unnaturally white teeth. His robes followed suit, muted but stylish grey checks instead of the brilliant forget-me-not blue that had been calculated to match his eyes. He had a pleasant look on his face, but a serious one. Hermione wondered how in Merlin’s name Lockhart had recovered his memory, and what had possessed him to change his image.

A photographer moved about the crowd, taking pictures of Lockhart shaking hands with readers and well-wishers. Occasionally the brilliant smile came out from hiding. Brilliant flashes lit the room, and purple smoke wafted amidst the rafters. “Mr. Lockhart, look this way please!” the photographer called out. “Let me through, please… Daily Prophet… Mr. Lockhart, here please!”

Hermione hefted a copy of Lockhart’s new book, and paged through the contents and the author’s notes, which she hadn’t expected to find. On first glance, it appeared to be a book of some substance. I wonder who wrote it for him? she mused. The crowd lurched to one side as the photographer moved in her direction. Lockhart released the hand of an autograph seeker and came to his feet.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, waving his hands. “Thank you for coming today. As has been detailed extensively in the Daily Prophet’s recently completed five-part series, I have spent the last three years recovering at St. Mungo’s from grievous injuries. My memory was severely damaged as a result of a Basilisk attack that also wounded one of the wizarding world’s other well-known figures – the one who has caused me to finish second in the polling for Witch Weekly’s Most-Charming-Smile Award this year, as I understand it – Harry Potter.” Knowing laughter echoed from the assembled crowd. Hermione thought that Lockhart’s eyes flashed for a moment as he went on. “In my book, Joined-Up Letters, I describe how I went from having no memory at all to rediscovering everything as well as reaching a new understanding of…”

Hermione stopped hearing Lockhart and her blood ran cold. How much does he remember? she wondered. If he truly recalls everything… One page after another turned as she tore through the book, looking for the description of events. As Lockhart told it, he and Harry had battled a basilisk deep beneath Hogwarts. They had saved two students, according to the book, before Harry was injured and Lockhart was struck by his own rebounded spell. Neither Ginny nor Ron was mentioned by name, much to her relief, but she couldn’t fathom why Lockhart had actually taken responsibility for his own injury – even if he was still embellishing.

She was jostled again, and lost her grip on the book. It struck the floor with an audible thump. “Pardon me… are you Hermione Granger?” someone called. Without thinking, she turned to face the unknown voice. A brilliant flash flooded her eyes and purplish smoke tickled her nose.

By the time Hermione blinked back tears from the light, the photographer lay on his back and his camera was slowly contracting into a ball. “Ask permission next time,” Tonks growled. The crowd formed a restless circle around the fallen photographer, the enraged auror and Hermione. Hestia Jones stood in the first row of the circle but dispensed as many deadly stares as did Tonks.

Hermione shrunk back against Tonks. She felt as exposed as in her worst dreams, and desperately hoped that either Tonks or Jones would move to spirit her from the room. The crowd stirred, and then parted to her right.

“Good morning, Miss Granger,” Lockhart said. “My, but this is an unexpected pleasure.” He flashed his famous smile, which did nothing whatsoever to put Hermione at ease.

Jones stepped out from the crowd. “We have matters in hand, Lockhart,” she snapped.

“You are familiar to me…” Lockhart murmured.

Jones scowled at him. “How I wish that weren’t true.”

The pieces of the puzzle appeared to fall into place; Lockhart laughed nervously. “I apologise, cousin; my memories are still hazy at times.”

Jones was cold as ice. “Tell it to Emmeline or someone else who’s interested in your wares, Gilderoy.”

“All in good time, cousin Hestia, all in good time,” Lockhart said with a lightness that was almost jarring. He turned to Hermione, and the smile broadened. “How do you fare, my dear girl? I’m sure everyone here is interested to know the answer. Very few people face the Dark Lord and his minions and return to tell the tale, after all.

Before she could say anything, he made a flamboyant whirl to face the breadth of the crowd and said, “This poor young lady’s experience goes directly to my points about the state of wizarding in England today, which are detailed in my new book, Joined-Up Letters. How is it that she and others like her continue to face random violence?”

Hermione snapped, “Random?” but no one save Tonks appeared to hear.

“The Dark Lord was absent for more than a decade,” Lockhart blathered on, “yet he was able to return to a powerful position quite rapidly. What could possibly cause today’s young witches and wizards to join with the Dark Lord? The answer is quite simple, actually.” He took a pause clearly intended for effect, and Hermione had to bite on the side of her hand to remain quiet. “The wizarding world is under assault, good people. The age-old traditions that formed the glue for our way of life have disappeared or have gone to ground. We have forgotten who we are.”

Hermione could hold her tongue no longer. “Thus, all the Muggle-borns attacked in recent days were responsible for their own attacks – is that your point, sir?”

Lockhart turned slightly to face her – not so much as to put his back to the bulk of his audience, Hermione noted. “We are all responsible – not just us, but also those who came before. Those born of wizards and witches thwart the efforts of newcomers to enter into our society.” He gave her a pointed look. “Those born outside of our world deride wizarding ways and seek to impose their world upon all of us. Centuries pass, all of us become more firm in our positions, and we find ourselves clinging to Dark Lords on the one hand and mad prophets like Keith MacLeish on the other.”

“Societies are always influenced by newcomers,” Hermione returned stridently. “The Ministry must be a direct product of that, sir. The civil service arose in England long after the wizarding world broke with the Muggles. If not for Muggle-born influence, there would be no Ministry at all.”

Lockhart smiled. “I see that someone has been sleeping through Professor Binns’ classes,” he said waggishly. “Not to fear, Miss Granger; that puts you in excellent company. It’s true that the Ministry has been reshaped over time to reflect its Muggle counterpart, but there was a Minister for Magic well before ties were severed. In this case, it seems that they were influenced by us.” With a flourish, he returned his full attention to the crowd. “This is the sort of exchange we badly need, ladies and gentlewizards. We are under siege both from outside and from within. We cannot and should not rob ourselves of what the best among our newcomers may bring – one need only look to the young lady behind me to see that there is value to be found. However, we cannot tear down a thousand years of wizarding culture over one conflict, however serious it may be. It is time for us to all rediscover ourselves and our purposes.” The trademark smile burst forth. “To that end, I am pleased to announce that I shall be resuming my role as chief spokeswizard for the Dark Forces Defence League, as well as assistant director. The League is committed to standing against violence and standing for wizards and witches everywhere.”

As soon as he stopped speaking, the crowd began to applaud. Lockhart continued to smile as he retrieved the book at Hermione’s feet. “I believe you dropped this,” he said. Before she could answer, he drew a quill from somewhere and dashed off something inside the front cover. “With my compliments,” he added, and placed the book in Hermione’s hands.

“Thank you,” she said, almost as a reflex.

Lockhart bowed slightly. His smile faded, and he said in a near whisper, “Pass along my respects to your little friends, especially the redheaded one.” He was seated at the table again and jovially signing books before Hermione could breathe.

Tonks planted a hand on her shoulder. “Hermione, I am so sorry. I overreacted to the photographer, and ended up drawing more attention.”

Hermione shivered. “Here’s my booklist. Please, let’s just pick these up and go.”

Tonks stiffened. “What did he say to you?”

“I just want to fetch my books and go, Tonks,” Hermione said. “Please leave it alone.”

Harry

Madam Rosmerta seemed possessed of a permanent smile, and Harry decided that he could easily become accustomed to that. “I can’t believe that you’re old enough to let rooms from me, Harry,” she said, with a shake of her head. “Well, I suppose that you aren’t old enough, really; you know what I meant.”

“It’s been an odd summer,” Harry allowed.

She filled a glass with pumpkin juice and slid it across the bar top to him. “Obviously, I’m thrilled to have you lodge here.”

The Three Broomsticks was empty excepting the two of them, but Harry lowered his voice all the same. “I’m not the… safest sort you could take in, you know.”

Rosmerta’s smile dimmed. “There’s trouble in the wind. You could lock yourself in the castle, and trouble would still find us.”

“If you’d prefer that I slip in and out of the back…” Harry offered.

“Nonsense,” Rosmerta insisted. “Hogsmeade is a small place, Harry; there’s no hiding you here.” She added with a laugh, “If you’re going to bring trouble, then I may as well profit from it.”

Harry swallowed uneasily. “I’d understand if you wanted, I don’t know, something extra for the trouble?”

Rosmerta’s eyebrows shot up. “I was poking fun!” She reached out and set her hand atop his. “I was fond of your parents, and your parents’ friends. How… how is Remus faring?”

Harry looked to the front doors. “I wouldn’t know,” he said flatly.

“Oh,” Rosmerta said quietly.

Harry broke the silence. “I have another meeting at the castle… could I see the room?”

Rosmerta’s smile returned. “It’s rather more than a room. You don’t mind being up in the garret, I hope? You’re a young buck, so the stairs shouldn’t trouble you.” Her smile became more of a smirk. “Besides, it has its own way in and out and it faces the rear… if you were of a mind to be slipping in and out, of course.”

“That might present a challenge,” Harry sighed.

Rosmerta laughed. “I suppose it might, with the new Defence professor lodging under the same roof.”

Harry sat up straighter. “Marcus Detheridge?”

“You know him, then?” Rosmerta asked.

“Not yet, no,” Harry said.

“You needn’t concern yourself, Harry,” Rosmerta told him. “His references are sterling, and that’s understating it. He's the sort of fellow you want to hoist a pint with, eh? The man does keep some odd hours, I’ll grant you.”

Harry gestured toward the doors. “I’m not worried about Professor Detheridge,” he said glumly, “it’s the lot outside that’s keeping watch.”

“Keeping watch… what’s this?” Rosmerta ambled to the front window and peered out. “I’ll be switched! Let’s see, there are… two… three… is that Mad-Eye Moody?”

Harry stood behind her. “That’s Moody. Over there, that’s Mundungus Fletcher –”

Rosmerta spun around angrily. “’Dung Fletcher? Is this Dumbledore’s doing?” Harry nodded quickly, and she railed on, “I’ll be talking to him, if he thinks that conniving thief is coming with shouting distance of my establishment! He’s banned, has been for years!” She stopped abruptly, and her expression darkened. “Mad-Eye Moody and ‘Dung Fletcher, together? That brings back old times… times I’d rather not see return.” Harry said nothing; he preferred that she drew her own conclusions. It sounded as though she had at least a passing acquaintance with the ‘old crowd’.

She collected herself, and extended a hand to Harry. “Shall we go up?”

At the top of the first flight, there were four doors down a long hallway. “Those are the single rooms,” Rosmerta explained. “Professor Detheridge took two of the four for the year. I offered him the flat, but he said that he preferred two rooms.”

Harry wondered why Detheridge had foregone quarters in the castle, but the thought left his mind as Rosmerta opened the door at the top of the second flight. The flat ran the entire length of the garret; it was more spacious than the bothy. The door opened into a living area with two dormer windows. There was a genuine kitchen, but it was a wizarding kitchen; Harry made a mental note to have Dobby teach him how to use the appliances. The bath and water closet were small, but there were two bedrooms – a larger one at the end with a large window, and a smaller room against the bath.

Except for the small bedroom, there was a window in every room. He could access the concealed side stairs from the larger bedroom – his bedroom. The flat did face the rear, but it also faced the street. He could see the lake from the living area, and he could see the rest of Hogsmeade from his bedroom. Having Detheridge immediately below him was less than thrilling; it meant that he’d have to work on his popping – both to reduce the noise and to keep from strewing half of the flat across the meadow behind the building. On the whole, it certainly seemed to meet his needs.

“Perfect,” he said. “Did Mr. Tonks – ?”

“He returned the papers this morning,” Rosmerta said. “We’ll just charm your keys and you can be on your way.”

“Erm… about the money…?” he began.

Rosmerta frowned. “I was serious about one galleon for the year, Harry. That’s very far from what Ted Tonks returned, very far indeed.”

“That was really kind of you, Madam Rosmerta, but I can pay,” Harry insisted.

She seemed to look right through him for a moment. “It’s not about you, Harry… it’s out of respect for your mum and dad.”

Harry didn’t know what to say in return. He supposed that much of the concern shown him by adults owed to his parents, but few people ever said that aloud. “I think… I think they’d be pleased to see me paying my own way,” he offered.

Rosmerta seemed to deflate; she leant heavily against the dining table. “I wish they could see that, Harry; they were good people, the best,” she said quietly. Harry wondered just how well she had known his parents. He signed the Gringotts draft Mr. Tonks had sent to cover the first two months’ expense.

She set it aside. He moved to shake her extended hand, and she pulled him into a warm embrace. He stiffened for a moment, but accepted it. “Welcome, Harry. I hope you’re at home here,” she said.

Hermione

Tonks muttered into her ear. “If you’re certain you don’t want to be seen, it’s best you keep moving, maybe even put up the hood.”

Hermione followed her eyes to the absurd storefront for Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes; the twins certainly appeared to be doing well, if the stream of people in and out the doors was any indication. She looked nervously from side to side for evidence of red hair; seeing none, her pace toward the Leaky Cauldron quickened. There were people everywhere, all pressing in at her. Not yet, she told herself. Tomorrow I can do this, but not yet.

“I don’t know if I can keep up,” panted Fred Weasley in Hermione’s left ear.

“It’s times like this when I realise we’re not playing Quidditch anymore,” George Weasley added in her right ear. Hermione hadn’t heard a hint of a pop and she shrieked, which caused an untold number of bystanders to turn and look.

She was surrounded by a blur of movement. When it stopped, Fred stood very stiffly and quietly in front of Tonks. George was in similar shape, and Hestia Jones’ arm was around his waist in a way that would seem friendly to a casual passer-by. “Not funny, boys – not at all,” Tonks said in a low voice.

Fred’s head relaxed, but he remained still with his arms tight to his sides. “Didn’t see you there, my darling Nymph,” he said. “We were too busy trying to check out… er… I mean… you know…”

Tonks’ hair flickered as red as her cheeks. “’Nymph’? Remember, little boy, I know what’s behind some of your latest creations –”

“Oi, it was a joke! Joking!” Fred squeaked.

Hestia Jones smirked at George. “Just exactly what were you… what was that? ‘Checking out’?”

George’s ears flushed. “Erm… the thing is, we, uh, saw Hermione here… didn’t know it was her at first…” He gave Hermione a pleading look. “We wouldn’t have been bird-watching if we’d known it was you, honest!”

“Is that so?” Hermione ground her teeth, something that would have sent both her parents into hysterics. For his part, George appeared to be seeking an escape route.

“We swear it!” Fred insisted. “When we figured out it was you – smashing hair, by the way – we had to pop over straight away! Friend to our sister and brother –”

“More importantly, friend to our business partner –” George chimed in quickly.

“A sheer genius with Charms and Transfiguration and… well, just about everything, really –” Fred added.

“Don’t forget… she surely trod all over dear Percy’s pompous arse on the OWLs –” George noted.

“Percy?” Fred protested. “She surely trod over Bill’s arse.” He smirked at Tonks. “Course, you’d rather be the one doing the trodding there.” Tonks promptly smacked him atop the head.

“I don’t know anything about my OWLs,” Hermione said. In truth, she hadn’t thought about them, not even when the Headmaster had mentioned preparation for her NEWTs. “I never received my scores,” she added, suddenly very perplexed.

Hestia Jones scowled. She let go of George, who nearly fell before she released the bind that held him still. “That’s dodgy,” she said. “Those scores should have gone out weeks ago.”

“Perhaps they couldn’t find me,” Hermione said quietly. Given that she’d seen Professor Dumbledore a number of times, that explanation seemed out of order. Only then did it dawn on her that Professor McGonagall had provided her a booklist without a course registration.

“Let’s keep moving,” Tonks said with a casual air. “With those jackets of yours, we might as well wear advertisements.” There was nothing casual about the way her eyes swept the crowds flowing up and down the alley.

Fred let out a deep breath as his arms came free. Hermione noticed that both of the twins were also watching the surroundings; they were simply good at hiding it. She felt a rush of nervousness, and began looking herself for dark robes and blond hair and silver hands.

George put his hand atop her shoulder and she nearly jumped out of her cloak. “Sorry,” he said awkwardly.

“Okay,” she managed.

Tonks caught her eye. “I’ll fetch the rest of your list. Can you lot manage the last hundred feet or so?” The twins grumbled at her.

Hermione hadn’t noticed how close they had come to the wall. Both George and Fred followed her through the portal and into the Leaky Cauldron, with Hestia Jones close at their heels; Fred said something about waiting on a delivery. The dining hall bustled with patrons, and the twins weren’t hesitant to clear a path. She drew curious looks; apparently some of the crowd from Flourish and Blotts had beaten them down the alley.

“Well, well, look who’s here!” Fred shouted out. Dashing through the crowded room from the direction of the Floo were Ron, Ginny, Mr. Weasley and Mrs. Weasley.

Hermione felt the room closing in. “I can’t,” she gasped.

George looked at her curiously. “Hermione?”

She saw Mrs. Weasley’s face, and her shoulders rose. “I just can’t,” she cried, and took a step backward.

George’s expression softened and she cringed inside – not pity; anything but that, she thought. “Oi, Fred! Play Keeper for a minute, right?” he called out without glancing away from her. She felt herself being drawn by the hand back through the crowd to the stairs that led up to the rooming house. Waves of fear and anger and self-loathing pulsed through her until she could barely keep her feet.

George gripped her by the shoulders, and pushed his face toward hers. “Hermione? You in there?” She managed to nod but couldn’t speak; her throat was too tight. He guided her up the stairs and down the corridor until she stopped before number eleven.

“I’m sorry, I just… I can’t…” she said weakly.

George’s voice was low and calm. “No worries. Look…” He seemed to struggle for a few moments. “Been enough nightmares to go around the last few weeks, eh?”

“More than enough,” she said hoarsely.

George sighed. “You’re all lucky to be alive, you know. Fred, Dad, Mum, Bill, Ron, Ginny, Harry… it would have been just me and Charlie… and Percy, the bloody ponce. The thing of it is, you’re one of us – you and Harry both. Don’t ever forget that.”

Hermione let out a half-sob and half-snort. “I… I sent your mum a Howler,” she choked out.

“You… what? Bloody hell… a Howler? Honestly? Wish I’d been there for that…” George’s laughter subsided. “No one’s said anything, and believe me, we’d have heard. Are you sure?”

Hermione wiped at her nose and eyes, and groaned. “Honestly, George, I know how to send a Howler. I even masked it – you know, made it a normal colour.”

“A masked Howler?” George perked up. “You know how to do that?” He cleared his throat. “I see… well… another time for that. I’d better go help Fred before he’s served up for dinner.”

“Thank you,” Hermione whispered, and she pulled George into a hug.

George returned it for a while, but started to fidget. “I… er… really should get down there… uh… right, then.” He dashed quickly down the stairs, and Hermione fought with the door to her room until it recognised her and allowed her in.

She thought of her Dreamweaver for a moment, but she wasn’t tired in the slightest; if anything, she was edgy to the point of being unable to breathe. It occurred to her that her problems no longer lay within her dreams; now her problem was the waking moments in between. She splashed water on her face from the basin.

“What a lovely hair style, dear,” the mirror chirped.

Her eyes were red and her face was blotchy; her hair was the only thing in order. “Sod off,” she snapped.

She tried reading as a diversion, but it failed her. Her Muggle books were worn from re-reading, and she couldn’t bring herself to look at the materials Dumbledore had provided. She had gone through a book of Hawthorne poems in a daze and was forcing her way through Pride and Prejudice, when the floor rumbled and a loud din echoed through her door from the corridor. She crept nervously to the door and pulled it open.

Moody must have sent the two posts with a single owl, Hermione decided; Harry banished both, but the owl had apparently been persistent. The awful sound of her own voice amplified a hundred times tore through her, and for a brief moment facing Voldemort again seemed preferable to standing there in the open threshold.

Harry

“Dunno, Cyril… smells like an ickle student to me,” the first gargoyle said.

The second gargoyle shook its head profusely. “Me thinks it’s the one the Baron was going on about, Godfrey.” It reached out with blazing speed and poked Harry in the chest with one of its claws. “See? Round head, round glasses, lots of that black stuff sprouting every which way –”

“It’s called hair, you dunce,” the first gargoyle snapped.

“Right… black stuff… and look there – the mark on its head. This one’s the Headmaster’s new boy,” the second gargoyle insisted.

The first gargoyle moaned. “No eating it, then? Not even a wee nibble?”

Harry chortled, as the second gargoyle growled and swatted the first hard enough to dislodge a chip of stone. “Not a lick, Godfrey!”

The first gargoyle sighed. “No pranking it, I suppose?”

The second gargoyle crossed its arms sternly. “No pranking.”

Harry decided to try politeness. “Look… I really do have a meeting to attend, so if you could just see your way to –”

The first gargoyle licked its lips. “It talks like an ickle student, Cyril…”

The dark wooden door between the gargoyles opened. McGonagall fixed them with a stern look. “Are you deterring Mr. Potter?” she demanded.

The second gargoyle – Cyril – insisted, “No, Madam, we was just having a chat with the little one.”

The first gargoyle – Godfrey – readily agreed. “That’s it, Madam – just a chat, we was!”

McGonagall let out a snort. “Don’t press me, boys. We can always arrange for a changing of the guard.”

Cyril snapped into a salute. “No, Madam! Won’t happen again, we can tell you!”

Godfrey moved clear of the doorway, shivering. “Never again, Madam… can’t face the parapets again…”

McGonagall harrumphed, and briskly re-entered the room. As Harry passed through the door, Godfrey sniffed, “Not even a little lick… blimey…”

A long table had been conjured in the centre of the panelled room beyond, and most of the chairs around it were filled. Dumbledore sat at the far end, chatting eagerly with Professor Sprout. Snape sat closest to Harry, glowering. “Well, well… look what the cat dragged in,” he sneered.

McGonagall glared at him. “I’m in no mood, Severus.” She looked pleadingly to Dumbledore. “Albus, you must do something about those gargoyles. Godfrey wanted to taste Potter.”

Dumbledore looked up and smiled. “Ah, Harry! Welcome to our little gathering!”

Flitwick disengaged from an animated conversation with a wizard Harry didn’t recognise. He seized Harry’s hand with both of his own and pumped profusely. “Splendid to see you, my boy – splendid, indeed!”

Harry became acutely aware of the eyes upon him. “Erm… thank you, Professor…” he managed.

“It’s Filius, Harry, and nothing more,” Flitwick went on gaily.

“Really, Flitwick, must you encourage the boy’s conceit?” Snape grumbled.

Flitwick released Harry’s hand. He shook his head at the Potions Master, and chided, “As rust consumes iron, Severus, so envy consumes itself.”

Snape didn’t respond to Flitwick; instead he tipped his head back just so, fixed Harry with a haughty look, and sneered, “Why, Potter, you have something to which you may look forward… after all, the envied generally find love and adulation upon death.”

Harry felt Hagrid’s presence before he actually saw his enormous friend erupt from a too-small chair in one corner of the room. “Is tha’ some kind ‘o threat ta Harry, Snape?” he boomed.

Dumbledore raised his hand. “Hagrid, that is quite enough,” he said gently. “Severus, do try to be less boorish.”

Hagrid clapped Harry on the back hard enough to make him stumble. “Welcome back, Harry – saved a seat fer yeh,” he said warmly. Harry found himself more or less deposited immediately to Dumbledore’s right. Hagrid moved from his seat in the corner to another directly across from Snape.

Professor Vector, the Arithmancy instructor, said quietly, “We are missing some of our complement, Headmaster. Are we seeing the consequences of your letter and… and the rest of it?”

“That seems as good a place to begin as any,” Dumbledore said with a nod. In a more forceful voice, he continued, “To those of you returning, I welcome you back to the hallowed halls of Hogwarts. To those of you newly joining us, I offer my greetings and the appreciation of the Board of Governors. It seems as though the students have scarcely left us, and yet the autumn comes. Hogwarts’ nine hundred and ninety-ninth academic year comes to us amidst the spectre of war, my friends. It is hardly the first time that this has been the case. In fact, 1996 is uncomfortably reminiscent of 1976 in many respects. The difference between this and all previous conflicts that have swirled around this institution is that the present Dark Lord views Hogwarts as a symbol of all that he reviles. Simply put, Hogwarts is in peril.”

The room took on a deep quiet – not the kind that came from a silencing charm, Harry thought; it was the kind that he associated with the worst sort of news. Dumbledore surveyed the room before he went on. “After I sent the letter of which Anneliese made mention, some of our number decided that they could no longer serve this institution. Camille Sinistra has withdrawn her motion for a vote of no confidence in my service, and instead chose to resign her post. Mathias Reed was supportive of the vote, and also chose to resign –”

“Good riddance,” someone muttered.

Dumbledore crooked an eyebrow. “Professors Sinistra and Reed articulated reasons for their lack of confidence that merit an open response on my part. I expect that we will display respect for their years of service, at the very least.”

“Where’s Professor Golding off to, then?” Flitwick asked.

“Margaret concluded that it was time to retire,” Dumbledore answered. “She didn’t have it in her to ‘muddle through another war’, as she put it. She asked that I convey to you a letter of apology, but I would have none of it. Margaret served admirably for the side of light in the last war, and will spend her dotage in Canada amidst her many grandchildren. I ask that you join me in three cheers for Professor Golding and best wishes for her future.”

After three rounds of ‘huzzah’, Professor Sprout waved her floppy hat in the air. “Excuse me, Albus, but Binns doesn’t seem to have joined us. That’s not like him; he’s usually here waiting a day or two prior, isn’t he?”

Dumbledore nodded. “Yes, well, that would be related business. You see, Professor Binns came to a momentous decision sometime around the second week of July –”

“What, did the old buzzard realise he was dead?” Madam Hooch muttered. Harry put his hand over his mouth to hide the grin.

“Not exactly, Rolonda… you see, Professor Binns has been complaining for some time about a persistent pain in his abdomen as well as recurrent gout,” Dumbledore explained. “Thusly, he elected a one-year sabbatical to sort himself out.”

Professor Flitwick winced. “Oh, Albus… the opportunity presented itself, and you elected not to tell him…”

“It’s not the sort of thing one springs as a surprise, Filius,” Dumbledore sighed. “Sir Nicholas and the Bloody Baron have consented to have a long conversation with the Professor. I am hopeful for a satisfactory outcome.” Harry noticed that the Headmaster seemed not to notice the twitters here and there.

“That makes for a rather large number of replacements in one year, Headmaster,” Madam Pince noted. “Goodness, there’s Astronomy, Ancient Runes, Muggle Studies, History of Magic… and the customary Defence vacancy, of course – though this time I’ll offer no complaint whatever.” She shifted stiffly in her chair at the resulting laughter.

“Indeed,” Dumbledore agreed, “and our friends at the Ministry did nothing to ease the burden of soliciting replacements.”

McGonagall waved her wand, and a stack of parchments distributed themselves around the table. “The Wizarding Examinations Authority took it upon themselves to develop guidelines for the hiring of new professors,” she spat.

“Can they do that?” Sprout gasped.

“They can and they have,” Dumbledore returned. “The Governors endorsed the guidelines for History of Magic by a bare majority, and will be taking up the balance in October. As of August 1 of this year, any wizard or witch hired into the position of professor for History of Magic must have attained a score of O on the related NEWT, and must possess an unbroken wizarding lineage to the Goblin Rebellion or before.”

Vector pursed her lips. “A witch or wizard of long lineage would know the oral tradition that a Muggle-born would not,” she reasoned.

“That would be fine, if the wizarding oral tradition were reflected in either the OWL or NEWT papers,” McGonagall countered.

“I suppose they’ll want purebloods for every position now?” Sprout mused.

Dumbledore cut through the buzz that had begun to fill the room. “I have obtained a replacement for the History of Magic post who satisfies the Examination Authority’s new guideline. While I had given serious consideration to Mr. Arthur Weasley for the position –” He had to wait for the room to settle, before he went on, “– we have unexpectedly acquired another of our alumni who is eminently qualified. She earned one of the highest OWL scores for the discipline ever recorded, and in fact tied for the highest NEWT score. Professor Covelli… Dr. Covelli, rather… will be joining us at some point during the first week of classes.”

Snape drew himself up. “Headmaster,” he asked in a dangerously silky voice, “surely I misheard… did you refer to our future colleague as a ‘doctor’? Is that not a term used by Muggle healers?”

“Most definitely, Severus,” Dumbledore said with the air of a man telling a splendid joke. “I wouldn’t trifle with Lucia, however; she is most definitely one of us.”

Flitwick appeared deep in thought. “Lucia… Lucia… er, Albus, didn’t you have an apprentice by that name? That would have been during your Transfiguration days, if I recall correctly. I seem to remember meeting her…”

“I compliment you on your splendid memory, Filius,” Dumbledore said. “Dr. Covelli went by the name Lucia Greengrass during her school days.” Snape sat stone-faced, while McGonagall took on a smile that Harry could only describe as wicked.

“Is this doctor a relation of Daphne Greengrass?” Vector asked.

“She is Miss Greengrass’s aunt,” McGonagall replied.

Snape said tonelessly, “Headmaster… this news will cause distress in certain circles… we must discuss –”

“At the earliest possible convenience, Severus – I promise you,” Dumbledore said lightly.

Flitwick laughed merrily. “I take it that your other appointments will cause the Ministry equal distress?”

Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled. He cleared his throat to recapture everyone’s attention. “Having made mention of my erstwhile apprentice and having referred to the likely reception of some of my appointments, it seems appropriate to introduce the first new member of our staff. I am very pleased to formally present my new apprentice, Harry Potter.”

Snape’s icy voice cut through the polite applause. “Camille’s concerns do indeed merit a response. Is it possible that she was making a valid point about the Headmaster’s capacity for impartiality?” The room went deeply quiet for the second time.

McGonagall’s flinty burr tore at the silence. “What are you playing at, Severus?”

“You left hundreds of students and the balance of your staff at the mercy of Dolores Umbridge, Headmaster, solely to protect Potter from punishment,” Snape accused. “I have been forced to watch the increasing marginalisation of my charges, chiefly for the edification of Potter and his minions. Now you bait the Ministry, and to what end? I do not – and I will not – question your capacity to lead this school. I ask pointedly whether you might someday weigh the fate of an entire school against that of your golden boy, and find the school wanting.”

No one dared speak. Harry watched Dumbledore for any sort of reaction, and there seemed to be none – no flash of anger, no sense of betrayal, nothing. The Headmaster simply said, “Our new colleagues have been kept waiting long enough. I shall address your question after they have been properly welcomed.” He motioned to McGonagall, who opened the door, stoutly reprimanded the gargoyles and waved her wand.

The Fat Friar drifted through the wall, just to one side of the door. “A pleasant day to you, good people. Sir Nicholas and Lady Fawcett have vested in me the honour of introducing to you the newest members of our Hogwarts family –”

“I take it we’re to come in now?” called a wizened voice. The tiny and stooped woman who owned the loud voice nearly walked through the Friar as she entered. “I’m not one for standing on ceremony. Good afternoon to you all.”

“Oh, my!’ shrieked the Friar. “Er… may I present Professor Griselda Marchbanks, appointed to the Astronomy vacancy.”

“Hello, Albus,” Marchbanks bellowed as she walked along the perimeter of the room. “Nice to see you, Filius – how could I ever forget that unorthodox stance of yours?… hello, Pomona – still the highest Herbology practical score I’ve ever given… ah, Snape – a masterful paper in last month’s Proceedings, I’ll have you know… Minerva, how do you fare? That was a most cowardly attack…” She stopped before Harry. “And you, Mr. Potter… I see Albus has taken you on… splendid.”

Sprout doffed her hat like a schoolgirl brought before her Head of House. “Madam Marchbanks! But you’re the head of… that is to say, we’re deeply honoured to have you, but… how shall I put it… why do we have you?”

Marchbanks turned to face the length of the table, and leaned heavily on her walking stick. “My faith in the integrity of the Ministry has been tested beyond repair,” she proclaimed. “Any remaining hope for the education of our youth lies here, and it is here that I shall stand.”

Amidst the murmurs, Harry distinctly heard Flitwick sigh, “Heavens, the Ministry’s running out of good people…”

“Professor Marchbanks, would you be so kind as to speak to the specific events that led to your resignation from the Examinations Authority?” Dumbledore asked loudly.

Marchbanks hesitated for a moment. “I will not divulge the names of certain specific parties, Albus; they are sure to sully their own reputations without my assistance. Suffice it to say that undue influence was placed upon the Examinations Authority to vacate the OWL results of one of your most recent examinees. I was able to quash this nefarious scheme, and the certification of said results was my last act.”

Dumbledore smiled broadly. “Thusly I can now announce that Miss Hermione Granger has become the thirty-eighth Hogwarts student to earn the maximum number of OWLs. Further, her overall average score is the highest recorded in fifty-three years, and the third highest ever recorded.” Even Snape applauded at that, Harry noted.

“I daresay that the young lady’s overall score may well have been higher, were it not for the interruptions during the Astronomy and History of Magic examinations,” Marchbanks added. Harry felt a twinge of guilt at the last. Worse, he was immediately certain that he knew why Hermione’s examination scores had been questioned, and he wanted to be wrong.

Sprout put the question before he could bring himself to speak. “Why would someone single out Miss Granger’s scores…?” She trailed off, and Harry assumed she had just drawn the same conclusion he had reached.

Marchbanks’ deeply wrinkled face fell. “There was absolutely no evidence that Miss Granger manipulated the examination results in any way. In fact, there is little point in attempting to manipulate the system; any student capable of a successful effort would by necessity exceed the O-standard in most subjects. Despite this, a protest was carried as far as the Minister’s Office.” Her voice trembled. “I am a proud member of the Daughters of the Goblin Wars. I am proud of who I am. I am not proud of what others are willing to do in the name of blood. Examinations – are – a – matter – of – merit!” She banged her walking stick against the floor as an exclamation point.

“Well said, Griselda,” Dumbledore said, to mumblings of approval all around. Harry was nauseous. He placed one more mental check in his column of reasons why the wizarding world might not be worth saving.

The Fat Friar drifted around uncomfortably. “Headmaster… if it pleases the assembled staff…”

“Yes, yes, of course, mustn’t keep everyone waiting,” Dumbledore encouraged him.

“Very good, noble sir!” The Friar plunged his head through the wall for a moment, and then returned to his position. “May I present Professor Marcus Detheridge, appointed to the Defence vacancy…” As the professor entered, the Friar added quietly, “…and may God have mercy on you, my good man.”

Detheridge's hair was black with hints of grey.  He had keen, dark eyes on a careworn face and carried himself with a certain rangy sort of grace. His clothes were thoroughly Muggle: a stylish but casual leather jacket over a cabled sweater and dark denims.  “It’s a bit late for that, Friar,” Detheridge said.  His eyebrows lowered and he squinted as he smiled.

Dumbledore stood, and gave over his seat at the head of the table to Marchbanks. He strode to Detheridge and warmly shook his hand. “Welcome, Marcus. Any words for us?”

“Your students have lost a year of instruction,” Detheridge said. “There is much to do.” Harry had seen a few shows from America on the telly, and Detheridge sounded as if he might have come from there. The new professor abruptly turned to face Snape. “You have something to tell me?” he rumbled.

“Later, perhaps,” Snape sniffed.

Detheridge leaned toward the Potions Master. “Severus Snape,” he declared; then his eyes opened wide. “Yes… I know about you.”

“Here, take a seat next to Professor Hagrid,” Dumbledore offered.

Detheridge broke into a smile. “Hagrid, is it? Oh, I certainly know about you!”

Hagrid stammered, “Yeh do? Er… well… there might be summat I ken do fer yeh… yeh know, if yeh need ‘ta bring in some creatures…”

The Fat Friar attempted to catch Dumbledore’s eye. After a while, Harry tugged on the edge of Dumbledore’s robe and pointed. “Of course… do go on, Friar,” the Headmaster urged.

The Friar announced, “To the Headmaster and esteemed faculty, may I present Professor Andromeda Tonks, appointed to the Muggle Studies vacancy.”

Mrs. Tonks nervously entered the room. “Hello, everyone,” she said quietly.

Dumbledore quickly went to her. “For those who are unacquainted with Professor Tonks, she attended Hogwarts as Andromeda Black. Both she and her husband are licensed solicitors who specialise in the needs of Muggle-borns and others of us who retain financial and legal ties to the Muggle world.”

“Severus, you should close your mouth; it’s not a good look for you,” McGonagall said primly. Snape was gaping like a fish, and it took everything in Harry to keep from bursting out laughing.

Mrs. Tonks spoke so quietly that Harry could barely hear her. “It really should have been Ted, you know? He’s better qualified for this. The Ministry’s desire for a pureblood in this post is appalling. I take some solace in knowing that I’m not the sort of pureblood they had in mind.”

“Morgana be cursed… they really are insisting on a completely pureblood faculty?” Sprout said in a near whisper.

“The Examinations Authority has only made that recommendation for History of Magic, Ancient Runes and Muggle Studies… thus far,” McGonagall told her.

Mrs. Tonks sat between Sprout and Trelawney, who Harry had suspected of being asleep despite her open protuberant eyes. Mrs. Tonks extended her hand toward Trelawney, who suddenly came to life. “Welcome, my dear,” the Divination professor said mistily. “I’ve been expecting you.”

Mrs. Tonks muttered, “Likewise, I’m sure,” and Trelawney withdrew in confusion.

“If I might complete my duties, Headmaster? There is a ghosts’ council scheduled for four o’clock,” the Fat Friar said pleasantly.

“Of course, good Friar,” Dumbledore said. “Make our final introduction, if you would?”

The Friar announced with a flourish, “Lastly, may I present Professor Algernon Croaker, appointed to the Ancient Runes vacancy.”

No one was forthcoming. The Friar looked around, and shrugged. He waited for a few moments before passing through the wall and into the corridor. “Oh, quite sorry!” someone called out.

Croaker was ancient and rotund, almost comically so in contrast to Dumbledore. He looked as though the Friar might have been one of his forebears. “Lost in conversation there,” Croaker explained. “Never thought I’d see the day when a centaur was teaching at Hogwarts. I believe old Nigellus would have died of pleurisy on the spot.”

Firenze followed Croaker into the staffroom. “Good afternoon, my colleagues,” he said. “Mars is exceptionally bright. It is visible to the eyes of centaurs through the daylight hours now.”

“Mars?” Marchbanks bellowed. “Mars isn’t particularly bright at present; it’s receding toward aphelion. Now next fall, when it reaches perihelion… then we will see the closest conjunction in fifty years.”

“Yes, Mars will become too bright for the eyes of the centaurs to behold,” Firenze agreed. “It may be the end of times for my people.”

“Indeed, I have foreseen great darkness upon us –” Trelawney intoned.

Croaker sat heavily. “I heartily agree with the Seer,” he said. “The sun does set in about five hours, so we’d best be on with this.” Trelawney excused herself to her tower amidst gales of laughter.

“Yes… well… welcome one and all,” Dumbledore said. “Before we address questions of curriculum and logistics and such, I wish to address Severus’ question. However, I am not quite certain how I wish to approach the response… Harry? What do you wish to be told?”

Harry had to force his eyes off of Croaker. He focussed on the Headmaster and sought to clear his mind. “How much do you trust the people in this room, sir?” Harry asked. “Do you trust them as much as… the old crowd?”

“I do not require an answer, Headmaster,” Snape insisted. “The question was rhetorical in nature.”

“I believe that all concerned require some sense of what is at stake, Severus,” Dumbledore responded. “I shall address your question.”

Snape fidgeted in his chair. “I would prefer that you did not.”

Dumbledore gazed at Snape silently for several seconds. “You have the look of a man prepossessed by potions left to heat,” he offered at last.

“Asphodel is inherently unstable,” Snape grumbled.

“Attend to your work, Severus,” Dumbledore said. “Nothing will take place here that cannot be gleaned later.”

Snape nodded in a very formal way and exited with a swish of his cloak. “Every staff has one,” Croaker muttered.

Harry’s eyes drifted back to Croaker, even as Dumbledore launched into his explanation of Harry’s significance. It wasn’t as though he needed to pay attention to the story – he’d heard it more times than he cared to hear, and he had to live it. Dumbledore gave to the staff the first half of the prophecy, just as he had given to the Order. He went on to summarise Harry’s experiences over five years at Hogwarts. It was mildly interesting to note the reactions of various professors; clearly, none of them knew all the details, not even McGonagall. Strangely, it seemed that Croaker might know as much or more than she did. He began to consider how he might corner the ancient wizard and force a conversation. So many roads seemed to lead to or through the man – the cognivores, Heather’s wild talent… Harry wondered if Croaker had been the source for the servant-binding curse. He wondered what had caused Croaker to leave the Department of Mysteries after a century or more.

It was clear that all of the professors wanted to participate in Harry’s further education, even ones he didn’t know who taught fields he hadn’t studied – like Vector and Croaker. He supposed that they weren’t doing it for him; some were doing it for Dumbledore, others for their own self-interest. He chose to be grateful just the same. Croaker caught his eye at one point, and seemed to look right through him. Surely the man was at Hogwarts for more than the teaching of ancient runes, Harry decided. For some reason it didn’t feel like the reason was for Harry’s instruction, and there was something disquieting about that, something very unsettling. There was an air of danger about Croaker, Harry concluded, and he resolved to discover what that might be.

Hermione

“Hermione? I know you’re in there,” Tonks called through the door. “The window’s still spelled shut, and you can’t do McGonagall’s tabby cat trick… at least I don’t think you can…”

Hermione lay in the dark, curled almost into a ball with a pillow clutched to her chest. They’d left her alone at first, all of them, for two hours or more. Tonks had been at the door half an hour now, and she hadn’t even had to shout out a ‘go away’ or a ‘sod off’.

“You know, I could turn this over to Fred and George,” Tonks warned. “Things could get out of hand.”

I can wait this out, Hermione thought. If I wait long enough, they’ll all leave.

“You’ll have to come out eventually, you know; the loo’s down the hall,” Tonks shouted. “I know… hang on…”

Hermione wondered what Tonks had planned; she wasn’t nervous or frightened about it, just curious. Nothing can touch me in here, she told herself; number eleven was a safe place. Clomping footsteps in the corridor marked Tonks’ return. She heard the whispering and muttering of a complex spell, and then she heard water… running, rushing water.

“Go away!” she moaned.

“I’ll just come back, of course,” Tonks laughed.

“Fine,” Hermione shouted, “I’ll see you in October!”

“That’s bollocks – McGonagall would hex me if I let you hold out for that long,” Tonks pouted loudly, over the sound of the water. “I’ll definitely have to set the twins after you by morning.”

Hermione sat up. “You’re a nasty bint,” she snapped, “and running water won’t work.”

A half hour later, Hermione bounced uncomfortably on the edge of the bed. Tonks definitely pays for this, she promised herself. She dug through her cases until she found the object of her interest – a carefully folded Extendable Ear. A few moments of listening placed Tonks immediately outside the door, and one or two older Weasleys to the right – it could have been the twins or Bill, she imagined. The water closet was to the left. She decided to put her faith in the element of surprise.

Tonks howled when the door struck her, and she howled again when Hermione ran over her. Someone behind her called, “Hermione, wait!”, as though anything short of an outright war could successfully stand between her and the water closet. She slammed shut the door, and was pleased to discover that Tonks hadn’t disabled the door lock. All the doors and walls at the Leaky Cauldron were spelled for privacy; she was still safe.

“Damn it, Hermione!” Tonks bellowed. “What sort of shoes were those?”

Hikers,” Hermione hissed, “and you deserved it for that water business.”

“Ha! Wouldn’t work, she said!” Tonks crowed.

Hermione growled, but resolved to resume her silence. After a few minutes, Tonks sighed loudly. “Fine, have it your way. We leave for the station tomorrow morning at ten o’clock.”

Hermione waited a little while longer. She knew that someone would eventually want to use the water closet and it was only right that she give it up. The corridor was empty, as was her room save her belongings. She turned to close the door and found her way blocked by Ron.

“You didn’t think you could wait us out, did you?” he said with a grin as he closed them inside the room.

“Persistent lot, aren’t you?” she grumbled.

“That Howler… a thing of beauty, that’s what Fred said,” he laughed. “One brilliant bit of work, I figure.”

“I’m surprised your mum didn’t drag all of you straight back to the Burrow,” Hermione sighed.

Ron faltered. “There is no Burrow… oh, maybe you didn’t remember…”

“I knew it was sacked, but it’s been a month,” Hermione pointed out. “What happened? Was it just too much to go back there? I mean… that’s understandable…”

Ron took a step back, and then began to pace across the room and back. “Nothing will stand there. We were set up in tents for a good long while – like at the World Cup, right? – and we kept hoping…” His fists were clenching and unclenching. “Nobody can figure it out, see? We’ve had everyone you can imagine wandering about the place. They didn’t just sack the house, Hermione, they… they poisoned it somehow. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

Hermione decided that if it was possible to feel worse about the Howler, she indeed now felt worse. “W-what are your Mum and Dad going to do, then?” she asked.

“Harry let them use his new place, up in Scotland.” Ron’s grin came back, at least a little. “You should have seen him trying to give away a bloody castle to my mum – it was cracking!”

“Right… your mum…” Hermione trailed off.

“Hermione… this isn’t all over the Howler, right? That wasn’t the first one she’s ever gotten, you know. She didn’t exactly deny saying those things to your mum, or something like them. Dad wasn’t pleased. I’m not happy about it, myself. Ginny… gods, Hermione, you should have seen her. ‘Oi, if you think you’ll be breeding me off like some prize Kneazle…’ Poor Mum…” Ron shook his head. “At this rate, she might give up talking for a while…”

“Good,” Hermione muttered. “Just desserts, I’d say.”

Ron kept ploughing on. “Yeah, she cocked things up with Professor Lupin even worse than… hold on there! Did you say ‘good’?”

The thinking part of Hermione wanted to just let it all slide away, to avoid the Weasleys for a time and pretend nothing had happened. The newly risen part of her – ‘Hermione, version 2’, as Dr. Covelli had put it – was just as furious as when she’d written the Howler. “She didn’t think for a moment how my Mum would feel, Ron. It was no different than saying that my Mum’s not good enough for me, that I’d look down on her now because I have this thing – because I can use bloody magic!”

Ron took a step backward, his hands held up. “Hermione, I said she was wrong! What do you want from me?”

She knew she was getting too angry – angrier than was justified, angrier than was safe – but she couldn’t stop herself. “What do you think, Ron? How do you see it? Do you think I should look down on my Mum and Dad? Do you think you’re superior to Muggles?”

“No, I don’t think you should look down on your Mum and Dad!” Ron snapped. “Superior? I don’t know! I can use magic, they can’t – that makes us different, right? Look… I don’t even understand how you get through a day when you’re home with them – it must be nothing but work all the time! I mean, how do Muggles ever get anything done? The thing is, somehow, they’ve got all these things – the tellyphones and the autocars and the flying machines and the buildings. I guess we’re just different, that’s all… just different.” He stepped forward and took her shaking hand in his. “Er… you aren’t going to blow me up or anything… are you?”

She let out a nervous laugh that quickly descended into tears, and she hugged him like he was the last thing left to keep her afloat. She could feel his instant discomfort but she held on nonetheless. After a while, he draped one arm around her shoulders and ran his free hand awkwardly up and down her back. “I’m sorry, you know, about what happened and all,” he blurted out.

“You were there, too,” she said. “I’m glad nothing happened to you, to any of you.”

“It wasn’t the same, and you know it,” Ron protested. “I just had to sit there and watch what V-Voldemort did, and then afterward with Harry… I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where I should be. You were hurt, and he was just… you know how he was…”

“No, I don’t,” Hermione whispered. “I wasn’t really there, not afterward.”

“Well, you know how he is. At least you… you know, you went off and did something about it. He just kept going.” Ron sighed. “I keep wondering when it’ll hit him, like last summer when all the business with Diggory hit him? It’ll be the moment we get back to Hogwarts – you just know it.”

“I’m not ready for it,” Hermione said.

“What, for Harry to go off like a blasting curse?” Ron snorted. “I don’t think there’s any getting ready for it, not really.”

“No,” Hermione said, “I mean I’m not ready for any of it. I’m not ready to go back.”

Ron briskly rubbed at her back for several strokes, before he at last pulled free. “I’ve always had an itch to get back – every year, see? By the middle of August, it’s time for me to go. But this year… it’s never going to be the same, is it? Four of us in the dorm, probably half my classes without either of you… no Quidditch with him… probably won’t eat with us anymore, probably has to sit up there with the teachers…”

“Everything will be different,” Hermione agreed.

Ron set his jaw. “It’s up to us to keep things right, then,” he said. “We drag him to meals, we bring him to study in the Common Room, I take him out flying… maybe he’ll help coach the team –”

“No,” Hermione said.

Ron’s eyes bulged. “No? What does that mean – ‘no’?”

Hermione’s hands went to her hips in frustration. “It’s an act of refusal, Ron. N – O. No.

“I’ve heard you say ‘no’ before; I know what it means,” Ron fumed.

Hermione closed her eyes. “I didn’t set out to hurt you. I…”

Ron sighed. “I know you didn’t. Everything is for the best with you – always has been… and that’s why I don’t get it – it’s not like you to just chuck him out in the cold.”

No!” Hermione shouted. “That’s not it, not at all! I intend for him to do as he wants! We leave him an open seat at the table, we make sure he has access to the Common Room, you invite him to watch a practice if he wants, and then we let him choose. He’s Albus Dumbledore’s apprentice, Ron! His life isn’t going to be like ours, not anymore. We give him the choice to keep the best parts of his old life – that’s all we can do!”

The tips of Ron’s ears went blood red. “We can do better than that, Hermione!”

Hermione held firm. “We can be strong enough that he doesn’t have to worry about us – that’s all we can do!”

“You’re different. You’ve changed, a lot I think,” Ron said. “I’m sorry that happened to you.” He smirked. “Except for the hair – I’m not sorry about that. George was right, it’s good on you.”

Hermione looked strangely at the young man before, the one who she suddenly didn’t know anymore. “I’m not sorry about the hair either. You know… you’ve changed, too.”

“I wish I could change it all back,” Ron grumbled.

“You can’t,” Hermione said.

Ron smiled faintly. “I can wish… that’s allowed, isn’t it?” They stood quietly in the lengthening shadows for quite a while. He broke the silence. “Ginny will come looking, eventually… or Mum.”

“I can’t handle them, not today,” Hermione said.

Ron nodded. “Then you don’t have to handle them.” He reached out and squeezed her hand. “If I don’t see you… I’ll save a compartment on the Express.”

He left, and she stared at the door that divided them. The Ron Weasley who had come to call on her in room eleven definitely wasn’t her Ron, not her and Harry’s Ron. It took her quite some time to admit to herself that she preferred this changed Ron. He was more thoughtful, more considerate, better groomed, better spoken – and all he’d had to do was arrange an attack by monstrous psychic brain-creatures and then become convinced that he was fated to die young.

The old Hermione would have comforted this Ron, would have felt something more than long-standing friendship for him – it occurred to her that the old Hermione might have said ‘yes’ to this new Ron, that night at the Shrieking Shack. She wondered what Luna was making of the new Ron, and what Luna – also clearly changed forever – wanted for herself. The new Hermione and the new Ron would be better friends, she decided. She didn’t know for certain what else the new Hermione wanted, other than victory and a full life for Harry and justice for herself, or perhaps revenge, or something that fell between the two.

Harry

Mr. Granger topped Harry’s glass with more red wine – chianti, he’d called it. “Just the right sort of body for this meal, eh? It must be from a small vintner… too strong an edge to it for a commercial house… what do you think of it, dear?”

Mrs. Granger toyed with her food, from one side of the plate to the other. It was the same way that Hermione toyed with food leading up to examinations, Harry recognised. “Perhaps it was brought from the villa?” she offered absently.

The meal was Italian. Harry knew this from Shona’s food, and from the reading that had come of it. Unlike so many meals of the last four weeks, there were two dishes he’d eaten before. Apparently, Dumbledore had arranged for the house-elves to learn these recipes; Harry wondered if his intention was to impress this Dr. Covelli, his old apprentice. The Grangers had met the woman – had stayed with her, in fact. Harry had begun to wonder what sort of doctor this Covelli might be, and whether Hermione and her parents had stayed there because she was a particular sort of doctor, and the wondering had left him on edge.

He hadn’t the slightest idea how to go about asking the right sort of questions, and he was wary of giving the wrong sort of answers; it was far easier to focus on the food, at first. Mr. Granger declared the meal very good. Mrs. Granger had very little to say at all. Harry decided as the meal progressed that Mrs. Granger had the right idea, because he was fairly sure he’d had too much to drink, and part of him wondered if that was Mr. Granger’s intention. He’d begun surreptitiously pouring a good portion of his chianti into an adjacent potted plant. Unfortunately, the plant had begun to sway in time to the light background music that the house-elves had arranged. Harry had struggled to find a new destination for the wine that had continued to come, one other than the floor or his mouth. He had figured that the Grangers would notice even a quick evanesco – Mrs. Granger at any rate – and he feared that he might vanish the entire table in his hazy state.

Mrs. Granger placed her hand atop her husband’s, which was wrapped around the neck of a fresh chianti bottle. “Thomas… please don’t open another,” she said in a near-whisper.

Mr. Granger took up his glass with his free hand. “Why ever not? We’re celebrating tonight.” He raised the glass and winked at Harry. “To our imprisonment!”

“What do you want from me?” Harry asked before he knew what he was saying. Mr. Granger’s glass stopped halfway to his mouth. Mrs. Granger’s hand fell limp to her side. “I’m sorry, that didn’t come out right,” Harry hastily added. His mouth was suddenly quite dry.

Mr. Granger jabbed his finger in the air dramatically. “We want our life back, that’s what we want. We’ve only just recovered our daughter, and now we’re supposed to just give her up again – just walk away and hide? Bloody sodding damn, Harry!” Mrs. Granger eased the still-sealed bottle free and quietly set it beneath the table.

“I wish there was another way,” Harry told them. “I wish I could just fix this, you know; I wish… I wish a lot of things.” He licked his lips, and wished they would stay moistened.

“We don’t hold you responsible for what’s happened, Harry,” Mrs. Granger offered. She did, of course – Harry felt something not right coming from her, something like pain or hurt or anger.

“We’re responsible,” Mr. Granger blurted out. “We brought her into the world, she came from us. She’s what she is because of us. She’s nothing to you people, but she’s something to us, I can tell you; she’s everything to us!” He shook his whole glass at Harry, and chianti dribbled down his hand.

Harry’s mouth dropped open. “What do you mean, she’s nothing to us? What’s that supposed to mean?” It was odd – he didn’t mean to shout, but it came out that way. “Did you know –” He stopped for a moment, determined to lower his voice. “Did you know that your daughter had the third highest scores ever on the OWLs? Third highest ever! I was… well, I was over the moon when I heard that, I can tell you!”

Mr. Granger’s eyes widened. “Wha… we never heard a thing about that… nothing of that sort at all! That’s… that’s fantastic – isn’t it, Cordelia? It’s fantastic!”

“Yes… smashing, isn’t it…” Mrs. Granger responded weakly. Her mind was churning on something, Harry was sure of it. It was strange how much like Hermione she was; he almost laughed aloud at the thought, but somehow managed to hold it in.

Mr. Granger pushed back in his chair, confused. “It’s not fantastic?” he asked. “Seems as though it should be fantastic…”

“She was expecting those scores weeks ago; they never arrived,” Mrs. Granger said. Her brow wrinkled. “How is it that you know Hermione’s scores?”

Harry awkwardly back-pedalled. “Well… it’s not that I know her scores, exactly. I know how she did generally… er… it really is fantastic – amazing, actually… I mean, it’s not amazing that she did so well… it’s just… she’s amazing, that’s what I meant…” He glanced around nervously. “I could stand for a glass of water right now. Merlin, it’s dry in here… um… do you think it’s dry in here?”

“Not especially, no,” Mrs. Granger said. She had the oddest expression, Harry thought – it seemed almost as if she was trying not to laugh at him.

Mr. Granger abruptly leaned forward. “You know, that’s a really good question – a brilliant question. What happened to Hermione’s scores, then?”

Harry felt trapped. His head suddenly throbbed, but the throbbing was nowhere near his scar. He sighed. “The thing is… oh, sod it. The bloody Ministry was playing with the results. They can’t handle that someone like Hermione is so smart. Everyone wants to be able to pretend that blood matters, that the right blood is better.” Something he’d heard before – on the telly, or the wireless, or some such place – popped into his head and out of his mouth: “This is a perfect example of what happens when cousins marry.”

Mrs. Granger froze for a moment, before her mouth began to flicker. Mr. Granger immediately burst into rolling laughter. “Cousins… oh, good Lord… that’s it exactly!”

“They’re like poodles,” Mrs. Granger snorted, “or… or the royals!”

“Oh, yes!” Mr. Granger howled. “Poor buggers… can you imagine being a man with Queen Margaret’s face?”

When she caught her breath, Mrs. Granger smiled at Harry. “Oh, you’ve no idea how much we needed that,” she explained. “Things were said, and… it’s just good to hear someone else say that this pureblood business is ridiculous.”

“It’s dangerous, that’s what it is,” Harry insisted. Mrs. Granger’s comment slowly sank in. “Er… what sort of things? What did someone say to you?” he demanded.

Mrs. Granger looked away. “We really shouldn’t draw you into this,” she said.

“If someone’s on to Hermione about who she is or where she comes from, then I’m already in,” Harry snapped. He couldn’t figure why his voice was so bloody loud; it was as though he couldn’t keep it down.

Mrs. Granger sighed. “You see, Molly Weasley –”

“Oh, bloody hell!” Harry shouted. He tossed back the contents of his wine glass, and for a moment his lips were whetted though his throat burned. “Molly Weasley can’t keep her bloody mouth shut to save her life!”

“Harry!” Mrs. Granger chided him.

He angrily brushed his fringe from his eyes. “It’s true! She called Heather a tart, and she never even met her! She… she was screaming at Remus Lupin for no reason, not really… I mean, I’m angry with him, but she had no right… she had no right…” He found himself lost in the thought, and it took a moment to right himself. “What’d she say, then? Come on, out with it!”

Mrs. Granger faltered. “I honestly don’t think –”

Mr. Granger waved her off. “Molly wanted us to know that we shouldn’t feel bad when Hermione eventually quits on us, since that’s what happens… seems she’ll decide it’s too hard to live around us, once she’s completely become one of you. Even better, she’ll have no prospects unless she marries the right sort of man, because she comes from us!”

Harry felt the blood run out of his face. “Mrs. Weasley… she said that? She… she actually said that? She said that about Hermione?” he stammered.

“That’s a fair summary,” Mrs. Granger conceded.

“That’s… it’s… well, it’s mad, that’s what it is!” Harry thundered.

“Hermione even admitted that purebloods seem to do all the advancing in your world,” Mrs. Granger added.

“That’s ridiculous… it’s… she’s better than that!” Harry raged. “I… I won’t allow it, that’s all. It won’t be like that!”

Mr. Granger shifted awkwardly in his chair. “Harry… I know you’re a powerful young man, but you ‘won’t allow it’? Seems a bit grand, doesn’t it?”

“She might not be able to go anywhere with the Ministry – who would want to? – but I won’t let her be anything less than she can manage,” Harry insisted. “If she wants to write, I’ll have it printed. If she wants to do research or something of that sort, I’ll get her a laboratory, whatever she needs. What she wants, she gets, and the bloody purebloods can just get out of the way!” The idea that Hermione would have to rely on some fool like Fudge in order to get along made him absolutely furious; his face felt steaming hot.

“A few million pounds will allow you to live comfortably, Harry… but it’ll hardly allow for that,” Mrs. Granger said gently.

“A few million pounds?” Harry struggled for several seconds to make the connection. “Oh, you mean what I got from Sirius? That was nothing.”

Mrs. Granger’s eyebrows slowly rose. “I’m sorry… did you say that your inheritance was ‘nothing’?”

Harry waved his hands dismissively. “There’s a couple hundred times that much in cash alone in the Potter Trust, plus all the property and other things. I’m stinking rich, you know – rolling in it.” He broke into a big grin and started to laugh – it was more of a giggle, really, and he was sure that he should feel ridiculous but he didn’t feel that way at all. It was so easy to talk to the Grangers, and that fact seemed rather odd.

“That’s my reward for not getting offed,” he went on. “Thirteen family lines stop with me – how about that? What would I ever do with it all? So, Hermione gets whatever she wants, do you hear? I can’t imagine a better use for it! I mean, the Black money… it’s just blood money. It’s all on my hands…” His throat tightened sharply, and turned his voice into a croak. “It’s all over my hands… the blood… he’s dead… Sirius, he’s dead… and all those people… they were Death Eaters, I hadn’t any choice, but there was all the blood…” He wasn’t right, and he knew that now. The room was warm, he was warm, there had been too much wine, the back of his hand tingled – he wasn’t right.

He looked up. Mr. Granger was staring at him in something like horror. Mrs. Granger was getting up from her chair. “Harry…”

Harry stood and stumbled backward; his chair tumbled onto its side. “No… um… there’s no better use for it. Hermione… she gets what she wants, and you… look, I want you to think about where you want to go. Don’t tell anyone else, of course! Anywhere… you can go anywhere. If you have to do this… anywhere! I… I mean it! Oh, and I’ve been thinking about how you can communicate with Hermione; it’ll have to be discreet, of course, but… I’ll figure this out, so I can… I can fix this, you know, I… is it hot in here? It’s really hot in here…”

Mrs. Granger was coming for him. “Harry, please… sit, would you?”

His legs felt like lead. “So much to do tomorrow, you know… really must be off…” He leaned heavily against the hidden door that led from Dumbledore’s private dining room into the corridor beyond. “Now you think about it… I mean it, anywhere!” He had to do that much for them; they were losing everything, and he had some idea of how that felt. Something about a lovely dinner fell from his mouth as he pushed through the door.

He couldn’t manage the staircases. Every time he thought one was supposed to move, it didn’t. When he though he should descend, he found himself ascending. He nearly fell several times. After something on the order of a million flights, he found himself within sight of the entrance hall and decided that a respite was in order. He sat down carefully, feeling first for a trick stair. It had become even hotter, if that were possible. He thought that he heard Mrs. Norris padding along at one point. At some time after that – minutes, or hours; he couldn’t be sure – there was a hand on the back of his shoulder and words in a vaguely familiar accent. Some words made sense, others did not; few remained in his memory.

He rose and he fell and he drifted along weightlessly. He was inside, then he was outside and enjoying the cool breeze, and then he was inside again. A woman’s voice joined the first.

“…I can’t believe he was drinking in the castle. Thank the stars you found him first, Mr. Detheridge.”

I had an inkling something was wrong. One of the house-elves told me that he was dining in the Headmaster’s chambers tonight, which is strange – Albus is out until the morning. I’m very surprised that Albus would leave strong drink within reach, in any case.”

The poor lad’s certainly seen enough to drive him to drink. He won’t be served here, I can promise you that.”

I assume that I can trust your discretion regarding this evening, Rosmerta?”

He won’t be hurt on my account. I’ve seen nothing, nothing at all…”

There was nothing for a time, at least nothing that sunk in. Then the first voice drew close to his ear. “The first one’s free, Mr. Potter. Don’t let this happen again,” Detheridge said. The door opened and closed, and all went quiet.

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