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Fics begun in 2003 (post-OOTP)

Chapter Thirty-two

SING A SONG THAT SOUNDS LIKE LIFE

The Great Hall was empty and spotless, awaiting the arrival of the students. Scores of candles floated over the four long House tables, as always; the golden plates and goblets were just so; the ceiling was a bit gloomy, but one end had cleared off to reveal twinkling stars set against a sky of deep purple. Detheridge was seated at the staff table; he looked to be joking with Flitwick, but Harry thought he looked a bit ashen. Flitwick was holding the Sorting Hat, and positively rolling with laughter. Croaker came out of the anteroom; he spied Harry and tipped his hat before seating himself to Flitwick’s left.

Mrs. Tonks – Professor Tonks, Harry thought – walked up beside him. “Are you nervous? I can imagine how you might be nervous, what with all of your classmates still attending, not to mention having to sit up there at the table, everyone staring and pointing and –” She stopped to take a breath and shuddered. “I couldn’t be more nervous; I suppose that’s obvious.” Her hands never stopped moving; she picked at the skin that surrounded her fingernails.

Harry surveyed the room, which seemed to have closed in a bit. “I’m sure everything will be fine, Professor Tonks,” he managed.

“Oh, Harry, you must call me Andromeda. I never want to hear you call me ‘Professor’! I’m not ready to answer to that, I can tell you!” Mrs. Tonks burbled on. “I don’t care for crowds, you know – I don’t suppose that Nymphadora mentioned that, did she? – but I’ll muggle through… that is to say, I’ll muddle through! Oh, dear me…”

The room had definitely shrunk, Harry decided. “We should sit; sitting would be a good thing,” he croaked.

Harry walked as quickly as possible past Snape, who had swirled in and promptly taken his customary seat at one end. “You will sit in the last seat, Potter,” he sneered, and pointed to the far end of the table. “Apprentices should be required to take their meals in the anteroom.”

Mrs. Tonks shook her head at Snape. “Severus, I’m beginning to wonder if the rumours about you might be true,” she said with a sigh, and moved on before the Potions Master had an opportunity to respond.

Harry stopped at Detheridge’s place, and deposited the abandoned knapsack atop the table. “You left this behind, Professor,” he said.

Detheridge looked blankly at Harry and then at the knapsack. “Mine, is it?” He opened it, rifled through the contents and smiled slightly. “Yes, of course… thank you… erm…” Harry mumbled something and proceeded to the far end of the table, wondering about Dumbledore’s taste in Defence professors and questioning Shacklebolt’s tutorial recommendations as well.

Mrs. Tonks followed him. He couldn’t look at her any longer without thinking of Tonks, and he didn’t want to feel guilty anymore. “You don’t have to sit beside me, Prof… Andromeda,” he offered.

She looked along the length of the table. “It looks as if I’m either beside you or Severus. I spent seventeen years of my life amongst people like him, Harry; that was quite long enough.” She added with a small smirk, “You know, I expected you’d ask about those rumours straight away.”

A few of his darker experiences with Snape rose to the surface of Harry’s thoughts. “Rumours can’t be any worse than the truth,” he decided. Mrs. Tonks raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

Dumbledore’s and McGonagall’s seats at the centre of the table remained empty; as did the seat between Mrs. Tonks and Professor Marchbanks. The doors at the far end of the Hall swung open, and the returning students began to flood inside. It was a full ten seconds before a knot of younger Gryffindors looked to the staff table and froze in place. Within moments, half of the Hogwarts student body was standing stock-still and staring at Harry as the other half struggled to enter.

Cho Chang’s voice rang out from the doors. “Move along! What’s the meaning of this –” She caught sight of him and her eyes widened; Harry couldn’t tell if it was out of shock or fright. He contemplated crawling under the table, but settled for half-heartedly waving at her. She waved back in a daze and then cocked her head to the side, as though she wasn’t quite certain what she was seeing. After a moment, she abruptly returned to herding her fellow students to their places.

Harry turned his attention to Flitwick, who was again laughing loudly at the Sorting Hat, until he heard a sharp hiss from across the Hall. Malfoy stood at the far end of the Slytherin table, fists balled at his sides. Parkinson was next to him, apparently in shock. Bulstrode was with Nott and two seventh-years that Harry recognised but couldn’t name; she began to violently mouth something, and Harry was pleased that he could not hear her.

Mrs. Tonks bumped his arm. “That must be Eddie Parkinson’s daughter; the poor girl has his nose. She doesn’t look pleased to see you, does she? For that matter, my dear nephew looks positively surly.”

“Nothing new in that,” Harry said. He reached for his goblet and raised it slightly in Malfoy’s direction, which drew a vicious glare.

Mrs. Tonks pursed her lips. “Draco lacks direction; it’s no wonder, given his circumstances. I’ll be watching him closely.”

The students continued to push in, and the usual hubbub died at the door. The seats at the near end of all four House tables were very slow to fill. A group of younger Ravenclaws were forced forward by the crush of entering students; they stood there and just stared at Harry. He felt like a classroom experiment gone wrong under their gaze. After a moment, he scowled at them and they quickly found seats.

“Oi, that’s Harry up there!” Dean Thomas called out, which provoked nervous laughter from the Gryffindors already seated. Harry’s year-mates pushed forward; Dean and Seamus plunked down in the first seats, while Parvati and Lavender blocked off several seats opposite them.

Ron kept walking past the House table, with Neville in tow. He reached up, hand extended to Harry, and said, “Good to see you, mate!”

Harry stood and leaned across the table to take Ron’s hand. “Thank Merlin someone is,” he whispered forcefully.

Neville thrust his hand forward. “I don’t understand it, but I’m awfully glad to see you here,” he said. “Did you, er, hear what happened on the train?”

Ron smiled crookedly. “Somehow I think he knows all about it, Neville.”

“Thanks for coming up here,” Harry said to Neville as they shook hands. He looked up to see Dean, Seamus, Lavender, Parvati and Ginny all waving madly, and couldn’t help but indulge a grin.

Mrs. Tonks took up her wand and gave it a shake. “Five points to Gryffindor seems appropriate to me. Good show, boys.”

Ron blushed. “Er… thank you, Professor… um…?”

Croaker abruptly turned away from Flitwick. “Neville, my boy! Goodness, but it’s been too long!”

In a trice, Neville seemed to shrink into a tentative third-year. “G-G-Great Uncle Algie!” he stammered. “I d-didn’t see you there… G-Gran never said anything about –”

“Straighten up, would you?” Croaker huffed. “You’re a friend of Mr. Potter, then?”

Neville stood there frozen, and Harry decided to jump in with both feet. “Neville is one of my closest friends,” he said. “He’s a good man in a pinch. Of course, you should know all about what he did in the Department of Mysteries… shouldn’t you?”

Croaker’s face was round and inclined to a jovial look; this made his darkening eyes particularly startling. “I know a great many things, Mr. Potter, and there are other things about which I know far too little and desire to know much, much more,” he said tonelessly.

Before Harry could say anything else, Dumbledore made his entrance from the anteroom. “Mr. Longbottom, Mr. Weasley, it’s a pleasure to see you both well and ready to begin another year. Thank you for approaching the table,” he said, and smiled broadly at both of Harry’s friends. “Now… would you gentlemen be so kind as to take your seats?”

“Yes, Headmaster,” Neville said quickly. He flopped down across from Dean and Seamus; Ron looked up and down the table for someone – most likely Hermione, Harry figured – and then sat next to Neville and Ginny.

Dumbledore slowly made his way along the table as the students continued to take their places. He patted Harry on the back of the shoulder, and said, “All seems to be going well thus far, wouldn’t you agree?” Harry debated an answer, glanced down the table toward Croaker, and instead silently nodded and took his seat

The Headmaster next stopped behind Flitwick and Croaker. “Is the hat telling jokes again this year, Filius?” he asked.

Flitwick laughed. “I’ve never seen it in such a state, Albus; it simply won’t stop!”

Croaker nodded. “The one about the troll, the hag and the leprechaun going into the bar… ah, that’s a corker!”

The man laughed loudly, as though he hadn’t tried to stare a hole through Harry moments before. He had come from the Department of Mysteries, and seemed old enough to be the same Croaker who had captured the cognivores more than a century before. Harry suspected that Croaker was the one who had provided Dumbledore with the binding curse cast on Hermione; that meant he was also likely responsible for the runes appearing on Harry’s hand, despite Dumbledore’s opinion on the matter. Now it turned out that he was Neville’s Great Uncle Algie – who, if Harry remembered correctly, was the one that had tossed a very young Neville from a window to see if he was magical. Harry was now quite certain, even more so than after the staff meeting, that the man was dangerous – now it was a matter of figuring out to whom Croaker was a danger.

Dumbledore put his hand to his chest, but he was still smiling. “Oh, my… and with such tender ears about! I shall have to give it a good talking-to!” At that, the hat began to say something that Harry couldn’t make out. Dumbledore’s smile fell away; he took the hat from Flitwick, and proceeded to have a very animated whispering conversation with it. He carried it with him to the centre of the table, set it down, and raised his hands in the air. The enchanted sky seemed to respond to him; the last of the gloom faded away and the stars brightened.

“Welcome to all of you!” he said brightly. The last students slid into their seats, and the din from their chatter quickly faded away. “As you have doubtless concluded, we have a great many announcements to make this evening – so many, in fact, that I believe I will break with tradition and speak whilst you partake of the evening’s feast.” He was met with a smattering of applause at that. “Prior to that, of course, our new first years must take their places.” His eyes took on a familiar twinkle. “The Sorting Hat has informed me that it wishes to conduct the sorting prior to singing its song… and who am I to argue with a hat?”

As if on cue, the doors of the Great Hall re-opened and Professor McGonagall led the line of first years toward the front. Harry thought that they seemed exceptionally young, and that there seemed to be fewer of them than normal. They appeared every bit as anxious as he remembered from his own sorting. McGonagall walked to the table, and Dumbledore held out the hat to her. The Hat said something; her eyebrows rose for a moment, and then she conjured a four-legged stool upon which the Hat was placed.

She unrolled a parchment scroll, and said to the assembled first years, “When I call out your name, you will place the hat upon your head and sit on the stool. The hat will announce your House, and you will then proceed to the appropriate table. Is that understood?” A few of the first-years managed to nod; the rest looked as if they preferred to hide.

The Sorting Hat quickly dispatched Lisbet Adams to Hufflepuff, Moira Armstrong to Ravenclaw and Edmund Blackadder to Slytherin. McGonagall cleared her throat, and called out, “Blitz, Alistair!”

A dark-haired boy slowly edged forward from the rest of the first-years, and reluctantly slipped the hat over his head. There was a pause, and the boy began to fidget before the hat shouted, “HUFFLEPUFF!” The boy’s eyes squeezed tightly closed and he let out a long rattling sigh. After a few moments, he set the hat back on the stool and trudged off to the Hufflepuff table.

Harry was certain that he’d seen the boy before, but couldn’t place him. He found himself watching the reactions of the House tables rather than paying attention to the sorting, until McGonagall said, “Davies, Laura!” With those two words, he remembered both the new Hufflepuff and the blond-haired girl who smiled at him as she walked to the stool; it seemed to him as if a hundred years had passed since he'd given broom rides in Diagon Alley. The hat lingered for a long time, and he wondered if it was talking to her. It quivered, and then shouted out, “GRYFFINDOR!”

She nearly jumped off the stool, and tore the hat from her head. “Is it… is it certain?” she asked hoarsely.

McGonagall wrested the hat from the girl’s clenched fists, and told her firmly, “Be seated with your House, Miss Davies.” Parvati rose from her seat and led the shaken girl to the table, where she slumped down between Lavender and Natalie McDonald.

Harry didn’t recognise any more of the first-years, though he supposed it was possible – even likely – that others of them had taken rides with him on his Firebolt. He wondered why Laura Davies had been so bothered by her sorting; perhaps they’re like the Weasleys, but with everyone in Ravenclaw, he thought.

It wasn’t long before “Yonge, Donald!” was sorted (“RAVENCLAW!”), but the students were positively restless. Ron was fiddling with his fork; Lavender and Parvati were twittering about something or another; and Neville was trying as hard as he could to avoid looking at the staff table. McGonagall held the Hat before her, and looked at it crossly.

Dumbledore stood. “Does the Hat still wish to regale us?” he asked. “We could substitute the school song, if it wishes.”

McGonagall walked slowly toward the table. “The Hat is behaving very oddly,” she whispered forcefully. “I must recommend that we forego the demands of tradition –”

I shall sing,” the Hat announced loudly enough that a good share of the students could hear. Buzzing conversations fell to whispers and then to nothing at all. McGonagall placed the ancient wizard’s hat onto the stool. The whole school waited in silence, as the rip near the hat’s brim opened wide:

A thousand years or more ago,

When I was newly sewn,

There lived four wizards most ribald,

Whose names are still well known:

Bold Gryffindor, a ladies’ man,

And Ravenclaw, fair wench,

Oh Hufflepuff! – saucy and tan,

Slytherin favoured French –

Stop that at once!” McGonagall roared.

“I merely speak truths long forgotten!” the Hat shouted, and then it resumed singing:

The truth shall not be hidden here,

Wizards and witches fair –

Excuses made to mask one’s fear

Merely delay the scare.

So now I shall tell you the truth

As it is told to me,

And for those under Hogwarts’ roof

There’s one more chance to see…

The Hat’s voice deepened and grew in intensity until it seemed to rattle the walls around them:

You refused to heed my warning;

A mere handful did unite.

Though decrees made it much harder,

It was yours to see the light.

I remember the Four Founders

And their madness in the end;

Even now their old school flounders,

Against whom shall we defend?

Dark Lords risen, Dark Lords fallen,

Hogwarts stood the test of time.

Dark decisions, leaders stalling,

Governors commit high crime;

Ministry lies now in shambles,

Corrupt power it does wield.

Where lies Hogwarts once was brambles;

Soon an empty, poppied field.

Alliances could save the day

As darkness swallows the Isle;

Will Hogwarts’ students show the way,

Or will they sow denial?

Slytherin, turn - I beseech thee,

Or spurn me if you dare;

As for the other houses three…

BEWARE.

There were shrieks at the last, and then the assembled hall descended into a cacophony of whispers and mutters. A few moments later, the Hat went slack and fell to the stone floor. Detheridge vaulted the table to join Dumbledore beside the Hat. As Flitwick, Croaker and Marchbanks rushed around the table – for his part, Harry pressed back against the wall – the Hall erupted into bedlam.

The food for the feast unexpectedly appeared; shortly thereafter, plates of food lifted into the air and flew from one table to the next. A group of young Ravenclaws began tossing goblets, plates, food – anything loose – at the Slytherin table, and the Slytherins immediately retaliated. Harry saw the glint of a raised wand amidst the melee, and quickly moved out from behind the table and in front of the teachers crouched around the Hat.

Snape climbed up onto the staff table, raised his wand, cast a brilliant red flare above the assembled students, and boomed, “SILENCE!” The Slytherins stopped instantly; the rest of the hall followed suit within seconds. The Potions Master lowered his wand. “Any member of Ravenclaw House who sends so much as a crumb in the direction of the Slytherin table will be docked twenty points. Any member of my House who does the same will have to reckon with me.”

Flitwick’s voice squeaked across the Hall. “I believe I’ve identified our problem.” The other teachers backed away as Flitwick placed the Hat atop the conjured stool, and then thrust his wand into the open rip and called out an unfamiliar spell. The rip opened wide, wider than when the Hat had sung. Peeves the Poltergeist tumbled out, squeezed Flitwick’s nose, and cackled, “GOT YOUR CONK!”

Peeves!” McGonagall shouted. “What is the meaning of this?”

“Say ‘please’!” Peeves mocked.

McGonagall’s countenance went from red to purple. “Peeves, you… you bloody menace!” she howled; just as quickly, she hid her face with her hands.

“Even ickle firsties say ‘please’,” Peeves pouted.

Dumbledore turned toward the Slytherin table. “Good Baron, sir, would you be so kind as to join us for a moment?” The Bloody Baron began to glide silently and menacingly toward the centre of the Hall.

Peeves stuck out his tongue and vanished. A zooming sound rushed along the near side of the Hufflepuff table, sending goblets and plates flying one after the next and forcing many students beneath the table. The Baron flew swiftly between the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables and passed through the rear wall of the Hall.

Dumbledore said something to McGonagall, who nodded and quickly made her way to the anteroom. He made the conjured stool vanish with a wave of his hand, and then cleared the five tables with a single flick of his wand. “I know that we can count on the splendid house-elves to prepare some sort of alternate meal for us. While it may be simpler than our usual feast – perhaps a nice stew with assorted breads and cheeses – it is truly the company that matters this evening, and not the food that we shall eat.” He turned to the staff table, and added, “Thank you for restoring order, Professor Snape.”

Harry debated returning to the table, but instead followed Detheridge, Flitwick and Croaker to the anteroom, where they set the Sorting Hat down atop the nearest table and immediately began poking and prodding and subjecting it to all manner of magical inspection. McGonagall sat in the corner, facing in toward the wall. Violet, the Fat Lady’s friend, looked on from her frame with concern. Harry considered approaching, and then thought better of it.

“The enchantments are so complex… gentlemen, I’m afraid that we must stop for fear of doing irreparable damage,” Flitwick announced.

“Very tightly layered,” Croaker murmured.

“They would have to be,” Detheridge agreed. “I didn’t think it was possible to maintain an enchantment for a thousand years.”

“Yes, indeed!” Flitwick chirped. “They must be periodically restored in some fashion that… I wonder… the hat does typically interact with the Headmaster at the start of each sorting day… perhaps it draws upon the Headmaster’s magical energy?”

Detheridge slapped his wand down against the table in frustration. “None of this explains how that mad ghost could have influenced this thing!”

“Peeves isn’t a ghost, per se,” Flitwick noted. “Perhaps poltergeists affect magical flow differently than ghosts?”

“What if Peeves didn’t make the hat do anything?” Harry blurted out.

Flitwick lowered the hat, and Detheridge stared at Harry oddly. “That’s absurd, Mr. Potter,” Croaker snapped. “I realise I haven’t been hanging about Hogwarts for many a year, but if the Sorting Hat is anything, it is reliable.”

“Any number of things may have happened,” Flitwick said. “I suppose that we shall never know.” Harry let out a long sigh without intending it, which drew the Charms professor’s attention. “Speak your mind, Mr. Potter.”

“Why don’t you just ask it?” Harry groaned.

“Well, Mr. Potter… the hat sorts, the hat sings… it tells jokes on occasion… I honestly don’t know what it does with the Headmaster… I can’t say that it actually converses.” Flitwick shrugged. “Why not?” He held up the hat level to his eyes. “Excuse me? Er… Mr. Hat? We have a few questions, if you don’t mind?”

I have sung,” the hat said in a particularly morose way. At that, a muffled cacophony of singing echoed through the door to the Great Hall.

“What in the Nine Hells…?” Detheridge exclaimed.

Flitwick explained. “The Headmaster is leading the students in the singing of the school song. It’s another of our little traditions.”

Detheridge’s eyes narrowed. “Song? It sounds like a hundred songs, all jumbled up!”

Flitwick laughed merrily. “Yes, indeed – that is the tradition, Marcus!”

Detheridge shook his head. “An odd school you have here, Flitwick.”

McGonagall spoke from the corner. “I imagine Albus wishes to introduce the new members of the staff. I’ll look after the Hat.”

“I’ll stay,” Harry said quickly.

Flitwick nudged Harry toward the door. “Don’t you think that your training relationship with Albus might take up a rather large part of his announcements?”

Harry moved to one side. “Maybe the students should be paying attention to him, then, rather than staring at me.”

“If he doesn’t want to go, then don’t force him, Filius,” McGonagall called out. “Albus will call for Harry if his presence is required.” Flitwick let out a small harrumph, and bustled through the door.

Croaker looked Harry up and down. “Rather impudent for an apprentice,” he said sourly before leaving the anteroom.

“I didn’t think asking the hat to explain itself was a bad idea; I still don’t think so,” Detheridge whispered in Harry’s ear before he followed Croaker out into the raucous din.

McGonagall sat facing the hearth. Harry didn’t understand why she was so devastated, but it was obvious in the way she had fled the Great Hall; in any case, her pain practically filled the air. He was surprised that the other professors hadn’t acknowledged it – I suppose they were all focused on the Hat, he guessed.

“Professor…” he began tentatively.

“Not now, Potter,” she said firmly without the slightest turn toward him.

He wasn’t about to press his luck. The Hat sat there on a small table, looking long overdue for a return visit to the haberdasher. He sidled up to it, stared at it for a while, then pulled up a chair, sat forward upon it, and stared some more.

“What were you playing at, Hat?” he murmured.

The Hat abruptly straightened as though it were standing at attention, and the rip opened slightly. It crooned in a low voice, not far above a whisper:

To the school, I gave a morsel

Of that which to me is known.

I could have been more blunt, ‘tis true;

Oh, how Ravenclaw would moan…

McGonagall exploded out of her chair in the same instant as the Hat completed its verse. “Oh, for pity’s sake! This is not a bordello!”

The Hat raised its voice and sniffed:

Glorify neither death nor life;

Give to both their rightful due.

Godric would laugh and shake his head -

His house is led by a shrew!

McGonagall turned a shade of puce that Harry had never seen on any human save his uncle. “A shrew, am I? Keep this up, and you’ll find me a particularly mad hatter!”

“It wasn’t Peeves, then… well, at least the mad part wasn’t Peeves,” Harry managed to say.

“No, it wasn’t! It was all from this mean-spirited, vulgar…” McGonagall stopped abruptly, and her angry blush began to fade. “Good heavens… it wasn’t Peeves.”

The Hat sang confidently:

A poltergeist is hard to hide

And even harder to sort.

I allowed Peeves to stay inside

And stage his Great Hall retort.

“He’s always wanted to come to one of the feasts, hasn’t he?” Harry blurted out. He picked up the Hat and held it at eye level. “That’s what you were doing, then? You were granting Peeves a wish?”

The Hat folded oddly, as though it was pursing its rip. It remained silent for a few long moments, before it sang out:

Put me on and we shall both see

If your sorting still rings true.

Are you still a bold Gryffindor?

Perhaps Slytherin for you?

McGonagall stilled Harry’s arm as he raised the Hat high. “Do not place it upon your head, Mr. Potter. Not even Merlin could say what would happen, given its state.”

The Hat did not sing; it spoke its response reverently. “I would light myself afire before I would do harm to anyone who serves the Light.”

“Has the Hat ever asked someone to put it on, outside of the sorting?” Harry wondered aloud. He heard McGonagall’s muffled voice demand that he wait for Dumbledore, as the Hat lowered over his ears.

The voice of the Hat wasn’t heard so much as it was felt.

Well, well, I must say that I never expected to have you wear me again.

“I hadn’t planned on it, either,” Harry said aloud.

You are most difficult to read, and that was not the case five years ago… quite surprising, really. Are you an Occlumens, Mister Potter?

“Er… sort of,” Harry tried to explain. “I didn’t complete any sort of real training.”

You indeed have something of Slytherin within you, as I saw when you were Sorted. Are you untrained in the ways of Occlumency, or were you improperly trained?

“Improperly trained,” Harry answered quickly. “Are you enchanted to do Legilimency? Is that how the Sorting works?”

I weigh the qualities that I see within the first-years against a body of knowledge imparted by the Founders. The magic predates Legilimency as you understand it.

“Then how do you even know about it – Legilimency, I mean? How do you learn anything new, just sitting there?” Harry asked.

My, aren’t we filled with questions this evening? I learn in the same way as you do, Mister Potter – I listen and I observe. Ask your fill of questions. I will answer if it befits my purposes.

Harry started with the question that he figured Dumbledore would most want answered. “Did you mean it? Did you mean the words in the song?”

I mean everything that I say or sing.

Harry tried to get the Hat to be clearer. “So the warning… it was rather to the point, wasn’t it? You intended that?”

I mean everything that I say or sing.

“And the rest of it… the, er, part that left everyone worked up? You meant all of it? It wasn’t Peeves having you on?” Harry pressed.

Shall I answer a third time, Mister Potter?

“No, no…” Harry fell silent, uncertain of what to ask.

Shall I assist you in opening your mind to me?

Harry sat bolt upright. “I’m sorry?”

You are most difficult to read, Mister Potter. I cannot weigh the contents of your thoughts against the knowledge of the Founders, and so I must judge based solely upon your words. I imagine it is akin to partaking in food without possessing a sense of taste. I would much prefer it if I could simply ascertain your thoughts.

“Wait! If you could teach me that, then… you could have taught me the rest of it!” Harry broke into laughter. “And I put up with Snape for a whole year… yes! Assist me, please!” McGonagall barked something at him, but he couldn’t make out the words; he supposed that it related to removing the Hat, so he wasn’t inclined to listen in the first place.

Very well. I shall have to determine the extent of your defences against mental invasion. Past Headmasters told me that this produces a small amount of pain.

Before Harry could say anything in return, his jaw clenched of its own accord and he lurched forward onto his knees. There was the feeling of a hand upon his shoulder and then firm but unsuccessful tugging on the Hat. When he recovered enough to think, he decided that while it wasn’t like the Cruciatus Curse, it was more than a small amount of pain.

What purpose do the walls of Hogwarts serve?

Harry was still reeling. “The walls… wha…?”

What purpose do the walls of Hogwarts serve?

“Hold up the building?” he mumbled.

True, but how do a castle’s walls differ from the walls of a rude hut?

“Umm… they keep people out?” Harry offered.

Correct again. Do the walls keep people out by attacking them?

“The walls…?” He rubbed at his temples. “Walls don’t attack; they, er, just sit there and hold up the whole works… they just keep people out.”

The walls of your mind attack; they do not defend. In so doing, they prevent you from mounting a true defence. You are using projective means – the art you call Legilimency – to prevent the same means from being used against you. To be improperly trained implies that you were trained at all; I see no evidence of training, only the ability to powerfully lash out. Before you can build walls that defend, you must remove the walls that attack. The Headmaster possesses the knowledge that you require.

“The Headmaster didn’t want to –” Harry sighed and shook his head. “Never mind… thank you.”

You are somewhat more open now; I see flashes of your thoughts. I still stand by my original judgment, Mister Potter; had you come to Hogwarts in the time of the Founders, you would have been sorted to Slytherin. As for the young ladies at play in your mind…

Harry cut the Hat off. “Pardon me! Have you always been like this?”

Gryffindor had no patience for men unwilling to embrace their passions, nor for those unwilling to look at the past – warts and all. The knowledge and instructions of Gryffindor have risen to the fore in these dark hours. I listen and I observe. The signs are present; the hours will grow darker still before the dawning of new light. You are in the thick of it, of course, but you hardly need a Hat to tell you that. There is something in you that prevents you from following your passions and seeking your dreams, something that prevents you from embracing the path of Gryffindor... a prophecy…

“Stop! Get out of those thoughts!” Harry demanded.

Then stop I shall, but remember this – prophecies are best taken as uncertain guideposts, Ravenclaw said. Slytherin was more blunt. He thought that a prophecy scroll was best left on the side of an abandoned trail. Gryffindor and Hufflepuff would offer you more direct advice, Mister Potter, and I believe that their advice weighs best against your thoughts.

“What advice is that?” Harry asked.

Live.

Harry kept quiet, waiting for the Hat to finish its thought. After the best part of a minute, he snapped, “What… that’s it? ‘Live’?”

Yes.

“Not a very practical bit of advice, that,” Harry snorted.

It is eminently practical. It is not in your nature to surrender your life to someone else’s words, yet you have done so. Stop it, Gryffindor would tell you. Live.

Harry thought of Ron. “A friend of mine, he’s been doing that… he’s trying to fit it all in, you know, while he still can…”

Where is the hope in that? That is not living, Mister Potter.

“Fine, then – ‘live’ it is,” Harry harrumphed.

A last piece of advice, then – and I hope it is sufficiently practical to meet with your approval. Three of the four Founders understood what I am about to tell you, and look at what they have wrought. Here is what they knew:

Beneath all the trappings, magic is about meaning what you say and not about saying what you mean.

I take my leave of you, Harry Potter. We shall not speak again.

There was an audible pop! as the Hat came loose from Harry’s head; the rip had disappeared, and the Hat had gone completely slack. McGonagall stood before him, while Dumbledore sat impassively in the chair she had occupied before.

McGonagall had the look of someone who had shouted until she was spent. “Of all the ill-advised, impudent, dangerous things you could have chosen to mark your return to this castle…”

“Your point is taken, Minerva,” Dumbledore said gently. “Based on your side of things, Harry, I surmise you had a fascinating conversation. An explanation, if you please?”

“The Hat asked me to put it on, so I did,” Harry said defensively. “Detheridge didn’t seem to think it was a bad idea.”

Professor Detheridge said that he thought it was a good idea on your part to ask the Hat about its intentions; he said nothing about placing it upon your head,” McGonagall snapped. When Harry shot her a cross look, she added briskly, “It was a rather poor attempt at a whisper on his part.”

Dumbledore slowly rose from his chair and approached Harry. “How are you feeling? An extended exchange with the Hat can be disorienting, in my experience.”

“I’m fine,” Harry insisted.

“Was the Hat testing the limits of your Occlumency, Harry?” Dumbledore asked.

Harry was caught off guard. “Er… sort of, I guess. It couldn’t read my thoughts, but it was going to teach me something. It couldn’t teach me, though; it said I’d have to see you about what I need.”

Dumbledore nodded thoughtfully. “And what is it that you need, in the Hat’s estimation?”

Harry clenched and unclenched his fists. “I told the Hat I hadn’t been completely trained. The Hat said I haven’t had training of any sort; it said my defences are all wrong. I wasted a year with Snape – a whole year!”

“I have already acknowledged that prevailing upon Professor Snape to provide your instruction was an error on my part,” Dumbledore said. “It was a grievous error, Harry. What else would you have me say?”

“That you’ve found another Potions Master to teach me, for a start?” Harry growled.

Dumbledore summoned a small, crooked smile. “As I told you, I have been unable to secure another Potions Master; therefore an alchemist will have to do. I shall teach you myself. In addition, it appears that the matter of Occlumency must be addressed sooner rather than later. May I be permitted to examine your defences?”

Harry hesitated, then gave an uncertain nod. He stood and steeled himself. Dumbledore frowned. “Harry, I encourage you to relax; we will not be conducting a duel. Did you acquire this posture from Severus?” Harry nodded again and Dumbledore’s frown deepened.

Harry’s sense of uncertainty grew. He turned to McGonagall. “Professor… if I do anything that seems odd – you know, out of sorts – I want you to stun me.”

“You have not felt Voldemort’s presence in your mind since the events at the Department of Mysteries – is that correct?” Dumbledore asked.

Harry nodded. “I don’t want to take a chance. I mean, you left me to Snape because you were worried that Voldemort might be able to get to you through me, right?”

“I am less concerned now, Harry, though it is wise to take precautions,” Dumbledore admitted. “Minerva, please do as he asked of you.” McGonagall hesitantly raised her wand.

“Let’s do this, then,” Harry said. He had to force himself to meet Dumbledore’s eyes – those eyes reminded him of so many things that didn’t need reminding.

Legilimens,” Dumbledore said softly.

It was nothing like Snape’s hammer blows, nor like the Hat’s methodical assault. It was as though the Headmaster had become a cloud around which Harry couldn’t wrap his arms. Every time he felt Dumbledore’s presence, there was movement of a sort; after a few moments, it became clear that Dumbledore was entering from more than once place at a time. Harry felt the memory of his conversation with the Sorting Hat pull free, and reacted from someplace angry. He wielded his darkest memories like a sword tinged with blood. Harry could scarcely make out the shock on Dumbledore’s face through the haze of images that hung between them.

He heard Dumbledore say in a shaky voice, “Finite incan… tatum… fini… good heavens – oh, Harry, was it really so… no… leave him, Minerva…” The anger dissipated, pushed aside by a flood of other memories that he couldn’t seem to stop – Quidditch matches and Common Room chess matches and secret passages and quiet library evenings and breaking prophecy orbs and slashing purple curses and Death Eaters dying and Hermione crying and the Bonnie flying and Heather smiling and a mind-blowing kiss and crushing rejection by Remus and meeting the Teller brothers and a mobile phone and stop… stop… STOP!

Expelliarmus!” Harry gasped. Dumbledore reeled backward, and Harry rushed forward to help; somehow he managed to put himself behind the Headmaster in time to break his fall. Harry ended up on his back, with Dumbledore seated on his chest.

“Thank you… I trust… that you are… undamaged?” Dumbledore panted. Harry tried to answer, but he was too winded to manage it.

McGonagall was positively wide-eyed. “Potter… what did you just do? You were here and then you were there, but… but that’s not possible, not in this place – ”

Dumbledore cleared his throat. “Minerva, perhaps you could help me to my feet before beginning an interrogation?” With a sudden ‘Oh!’, she dashed over and extended a hand. Harry knew that McGonagall wasn’t in the fittest condition to be helping anyone up, and he unceremoniously pushed from beneath and behind until the Headmaster regained his feet. Dumbledore in turn helped Harry rise.

“Now… about what you just did, Mr. Potter –” McGonagall began.

“Harry’s movement across the room bears a resemblance to descriptions of the event at Miss Granger’s home,” Dumbledore interrupted. “We shall explore the phenomenon in due course; however, Harry and I have some pressing matters to which we must attend… immediately.”

McGonagall worried her lip for a moment, looked to Harry, and then said, “I still must speak to you about Miss Granger, Albus. A few minutes of your time would be appreciated, after you have concluded your business with Mr. Potter.”

“I understand your concerns, Minerva,” Dumbledore said, “and while I do not disregard them, I shall not react based upon them. Miss Granger will remain among us, and we shall adjust as necessary.”

“Miss Granger is presently unable to comport herself as a student,” McGonagall said tersely.

“Then Miss Granger shall comport herself as something other than a student, if that is required,” Dumbledore responded. “We have accepted responsibility for her, and we will fulfil that obligation. Lucia shall be here in three days; I am hopeful that her presence will provide a balancing influence. Are there other matters that we must discuss? I would like to retire for the evening after Harry and I have finished.”

McGonagall’s eyes flashed. “No, Headmaster,” she said, then promptly turned heel and went forth into the Great Hall.

“Walk with me,” Dumbledore said. The request had the air of a master summoning his apprentice.

Harry responded in kind. “Yes, Headmaster.”

Walking through the castle with Dumbledore was a peculiar experience. There were still a few older students about, though curfew was fast approaching. The Headmaster gave off a sense of being completely in control; Harry hadn’t really sensed that before, and he was more than a little envious. Only two seventh-year Hufflepuffs who Harry didn’t know managed to work up the courage to greet the Headmaster. Maybe they’re staying away because of me? Harry wondered. When they reached the entrance to Dumbledore’s chambers, the Headmaster gravely intoned, “Extendable Ears”; Harry had to fight off the urge to snigger.

As soon as the door closed – before they reached the office – Dumbledore posed a question. “Did you remain in the anteroom so that you could converse with the Hat, or did you remain there because you wished to avoid the Great Hall?”

Harry was caught off-guard. “Wha… why does it matter?” he stammered.

“One should never answer a question by posing another,” Dumbledore said.

“Are… are you serious? You do it all the time,” Harry observed.

Dumbledore arched an eyebrow. “Do I? Good heavens… I just did it, didn’t I?” He broke into an easy laugh. “Gracious, a second time; I’ll do my level best to avoid a third! Harry, you see… there are a few compensations that come with age. One of those is that it’s more acceptable to be old and inappropriate than it is to be young and inappropriate. To answer a question with another question is generally considered rude. We shall both endeavour to avoid the practice, although I do reserve the right to repeated questioning as a method of instruction.”

“Fine, then… the answer was both, I suppose,” Harry offered. “I wasn’t comfortable at the head table.”

“Yes,” Dumbledore said, stroking his beard, “I anticipated a certain amount of discomfort, but your unease was palpable. Describe for me what you were feeling, please?”

“Everyone was staring at me, and… and the walls were getting close. They were… look, I know this sounds foolish, but they were judging me. I could feel it…” Harry trailed off with a shudder.

“That is very interesting, and rather unlike you,” Dumbledore took a seat behind his massive desk, and conjured a comfortable chair for Harry. “When Severus attempted forcible Legilimency upon you, at Grimmauld Place, you were obviously very angry. I am not saying that you lacked a reason for anger, but I must ask whether your anger felt different in any way. Was it deeper than you have known? Sharper, perhaps?”

“I don’t know… it seems like such a long time ago,” Harry said.

Dumbledore resumed stroking his beard. “Marcus mentioned that you seemed particularly attentive toward Minerva’s well being, after the episode with Peeves. He also mentioned that you seemed particularly wicked toward Mr. Malfoy, but we shall take that up another time perhaps?”

Harry hesitated, before he admitted, “I suppose I tried to comfort Professor McGonagall earlier, when we arrived at the castle.”

Dumbledore smiled. “Is that so? Does this relate to her episode with Miss Granger?”

“She was just so upset by it,” Harry explained. “I was probably out of bounds, but –”

“Demonstrating simple human kindness is never out of bounds, Harry,” Dumbledore said firmly. “The reason that I have pursued this line of enquiry is so that I can confirm my suspicions about what Severus has wrought. My test of your boundaries offered confirmation enough, I suppose. The task before us is to determine what is to be done about it.”

Harry’s voice rose. “I’m sorry… ‘done to me’? He wasn’t just a miserable excuse for a teacher – he did something to me?”

Dumbledore sighed. “If I am correct, Severus did precisely what I would not do. I have come to believe he intentionally set you on a course, Harry; he attempted to prepare you as a weapon.”

WHAT? That… he… he had no right!” Harry growled. Two of the whirring silver objects on Dumbledore’s side table abruptly broke into pieces. Dumbledore said nothing – his face betrayed nothing – but Harry slumped into his chair, ashamed by the outburst.

He closed his eyes and collected his thoughts, as he knew he should. Part of him felt even more violated by Snape than before. Snape hadn’t assaulted his mind simply because he was a miserable human being; he’d done it for a purpose, one that he hadn’t shared with Dumbledore. Dumbledore had hired Quirrell and Lockhart, had been fooled by Crouch Jr., had been outmanoeuvred by Fudge and Umbridge… what if Snape was a legitimate Death Eater? The rest of him felt rather differently; that part of Harry thought he understood why Snape might have been thinking, if Dumbledore’s belief was correct. That part of Harry thought –

“He should have just told me,” Harry said aloud.

“Explain yourself,” Dumbledore demanded.

Harry tried to look away from the Headmaster, but that left him staring at a row of intently focused portraits. He closed his eyes. “Snape was right, if that’s what he was doing. He could have told me; it would have saved a lot of trouble.”

“Severus was surely mistaken in his actions and in the beliefs behind them,” Dumbledore said, “but I would like to know why you believe he was correct.”

Harry opened his eyes to the Headmaster’s intense gaze. He knew he was right, and he set his jaw. “I’m sixteen, and I’m still alive out of sheer dumb luck. Voldemort is… I don’t know, he must be, what… sixty? Older than that?”

“Tom was born seventy years ago this winter; he was two classes behind Professor McGonagall,” Dumbledore said.

“Fine, then – seventy. I doubt I could best McGonagall in a straight-ahead duel.” Harry let out a hollow laugh. “Sprout could probably beat me. What can I possibly learn in two years that will let me defeat Voldemort?”

“I do not expect you to vanquish Voldemort in a duel,” Dumbledore returned. “I still wish to know why you believe Severus was in the right.”

“If Snape was going to make a weapon, I think he’d make a bomb,” Harry said idly. “He’d make something that didn’t need skill, because he wouldn’t trust anyone else’s skills.”

Dumbledore cast his eyes downward. “That is a fair assessment of Severus, but… Harry, we have discussed this point on more than one occasion –”

“We haven’t discussed anything!” Harry snapped. “You keep saying I shouldn’t sacrifice myself to kill Voldemort. How else am I supposed to manage it, then? You were there at the Ministry, you saw…” His throat tightened at the memories – of Hermione falling and the brains tearing at Ron and Voldemort burning him from the inside out. “You saw what happened to me; you saw what Voldemort did. I was defenceless!”

“Based on eyewitness reports, you injured Voldemort rather severely,” Dumbledore countered. “It is reasonable to conclude that he performed the phasma transtuli ritual because of damage to his reconstituted body. Your success came despite what Severus did, and not because of it.”

“It didn’t feel like success,” Harry said. “I wanted to die, I truly did.” Something tickled at the back of his mind. “Phasma transtuli… that’s what I saw him doing, the last time he was in my head. It’s a healing spell, then?”

“It’s very far from that,” Dumbledore frowned. He slowly rose, and recovered a tome from a nearby shelf; it was so old that the edges of the pages were crumbling. He opened it to a place marked by a strip of green ribbon, ran the tip of his finger along a column of dense text, and then jabbed at a particular spot. “Phasma transtuli… this ritual has nothing whatsoever to do with healing, Harry. It appears to be a sort of transference ritual, a more complete one than he employed in your first year. Voldemort transferred his vital essence into another body; in doing so, he would completely suppress the mind within that body, but still be able to access its knowledge. It is as dark a ritual as one could imagine; the only reason that it is not Unforgivable is that it requires some level of consent on the part of the person who is to be subsumed. I have been able to find little more than that, Harry; it is an arcane magic that has not performed for many hundreds of years.”

Harry nearly leapt from his chair. “That’s why he sounds different!”

“Yes… you did mention that,” Dumbledore acknowledged.

“His hands were different as well!” Harry went on excitedly. “I noticed it the first time, but in the pensieve it was even clearer. They were, I don’t know… soft hands, very pink. They hadn’t seen a lot of hard work, for certain.”

“That could prove useful; thank you, Harry,” Dumbledore said. “You have reviewed those events in a pensieve? Would you be willing to review them again, for the benefit of others?”

“Shacklebolt saw it,” Harry admitted. “He said… well, he said a lot of things, actually. I’ll do it for you, if you like. I don’t know if I want anyone else to see it…”

“Reticence on your part is quite reasonable. We will find an appropriate time later this week. Now, I believe I was telling you that your success was in spite of what Severus did?” Dumbledore sat back slightly, clearly waiting for Harry to question the observation.

“I’m trying to guess what you want me to ask,” Harry said honestly.

Dumbledore laughed heartily. “I am beginning to see that you will be the most straightforward of my apprentices! I have been fortunate to spend rather a lot of time with you and in your presence over the last few weeks, Harry, and I have observed a pattern in your behaviour.” When Harry fidgeted in his chair, he added, “Do not be alarmed by that; I doubt that anyone but myself would possess all the knowledge required to discern the pattern. I would like to test the assumptions behind this pattern, however. I want you to look me in the eye, and answer my questions as I ask them. Is that acceptable?”

“You’re not going to use Legilimency again, are you?” Harry asked.

“No… that experience should not be repeated in a single evening,” Dumbledore answered.

Harry nodded in assent, and met the Headmaster’s eyes. Dumbledore took a deep breath, and asked, “How do you feel about the Prophecy?”

Harry was caught off guard for a moment by the question, but then felt anger rise. “How do you think I feel? I don’t have a life, and Voldemort wants to kill me!”

“How do you feel about all the people that Voldemort has killed?” Dumbledore asked him.

“Voldemort is a monster,” Harry snapped. “How can he… I mean, it’s… it’s horrible! How can he look people in the eye and just snuff out their lives?” He shuddered at the futility and the sadness of it. “I don’t know how he does it. I think about… you know, about what I did… and I feel like I should bathe, like I’ll never be able to wash it off.”

“Do you feel guilty about what you did at the Grangers’ home?” Dumbledore asked.

“Yes… I mean, I don’t know,” Harry answered. “Why should I? They deserved what happened… wait… I mean…” He felt suddenly nauseous and lowered his head into his hands. “I don’t know what I think anymore.” He heard the rustling of robes, and Dumbledore’s hand came to rest upon his shoulder.

“I imagine that it’s very difficult for you to know where your own thoughts and feelings stop, and where those around you begin,” Dumbledore said. “It has likely been much more difficult since returning to Hogwarts.”

Harry buckled under a wave of emotion. He didn’t raise his head; he wasn’t about to show the Headmaster how weak he was, underneath it all. His voice came out as a ragged shout. “What’s wrong with me? What did Snape do to me?

“Severus opened you up to the world, after a fashion,” Dumbledore explained. “He most certainly did not teach you Occlumency. When I entered your mind earlier, you made no attempt – conscious or unconscious – at concealing your thoughts. When the intrusion reached a certain threshold, you simply lashed out. You tried to forcibly eject me from your mind, and you did it by practicing Legilimency.”

“That was all we ever practiced,” Harry said coldly. “He would attack me, and attack me, over and over, until I threw him off.”

Dumbledore let a flash of something escape his eyes. For an instant, Harry felt a rush of towering rage, and then it quickly faded. “Occlumency is an art of evasion, not of attack. Severus Snape is a master of that art; if he were not, he would not be alive today. In fact, he took to the discipline more rapidly than any wizard I have ever known. The most favourable explanation possible is that he was utterly incompetent in his efforts to instruct you, and I would require a good deal of convincing in order to accept that explanation. Surely he saw that you were displaying raw ability as a Legilimens; he should have known to stop at once and to consult me. One must never train as a Legilimens prior to achieving mastery of Occlumency. Good heavens, I have only just completed a remediation for that precise situation!”

Harry felt the rage again, and struggled to bite out a question. “Why Occlumency first?”

Dumbledore’s eyes widened, and then quickly closed as he launched into a series of slow breaths. “I am terribly sorry, Harry. I did not intend to demonstrate the answer to your question. Tell me, do you think it would be wise to set ablaze a tree in the midst of a forest if you did not first possess the means of extinguishing the fire?”

“Of course not,” Harry snapped impatiently.

“An Occlumens learns to organize his mind in such a way that certain knowledge or feelings can be completely isolated from intrusion. The knowledge is still present, but the intruder cannot locate it. Think of the concealment as a Disillusionment; the selected knowledge is made to appear like its surroundings, in a way,” Dumbledore explained. “Once these skills are mastered, then it is safe for a capable wizard to learn to project himself outside of those boundaries and into the boundaries of others. Without those skills, a Legilimens would have no means of protecting himself from the thoughts and feelings around him. Do you understand?”

Harry began tentatively, “In the Great Hall… I wasn’t being judged; the walls weren’t closing in on me. That was… that was Professor Tonks, wasn’t it?”

Dumbledore nodded. “Andromeda is agoraphobic to a modest degree. As such, she was surely projecting her fears.”

“You were planting feelings just now, weren’t you?” Harry went on. “You were making me feel things.”

“I was strongly projecting selected feelings, yes,” Dumbledore told him. “I never attempted to enter your mind, however; your mind is continuously reaching out and receiving the thoughts and feelings around you.”

Harry began to take in the implications of what he was hearing, and his stomach lurched. “Would I take in just bad feelings – fear, anger and that sort… or would I notice good feelings as well?”

“At present, I imagine that it’s all there for the taking,” Dumbledore acknowledged. “You have probably been experiencing this to some degree since the springtime. I am truly sorry for that.”

“Then over the summer… oh, no…” Harry slumped heavily. That’s why I felt the way I did with Hermione, he thought. I never felt that way about her before; I was picking up… oh, Merlin… was I was picking up her feelings? What am I supposed to do with that? And what about Heather? No wonder that kiss went wild! Neither one of us knew how to…

He immediately popped up. “Heather!” he blurted out. “She has it all backward, as well!”

“Yes, that is the remediation to which I was referring,” Dumbledore said. “It was when conferring with Severus about Miss Magruder’s circumstances that I began to seriously question some of his comments about your training.”

“Is she going to be all right, then?” Harry demanded to know.

“I focussed upon teaching her how to avoid and how to terminate accidental Legilimency,” Dumbledore responded. “In the time available, addressing Occlumency was out of the question. I am not entirely certain whether she possesses the capability to learn both disciplines; her situation is truly singular.”

Harry pressed. “You didn’t answer my question, sir.”

“That is because I am not certain how to answer it,” Dumbledore admitted. “She is less at risk than immediately following your shared experience, and likely more susceptible than she was before the experience occurred. Most of her time is spent amongst Muggles, which is also to her benefit. Wizards and magical beings tend to project their emotions and thoughts more forcefully. Occlumency must be addressed beginning tomorrow, or you will come to find Hogwarts an intolerable environment.”

“Is there anything else, Headmaster?” Harry asked politely. “I promised Hermione that I’d stop by the Common Room and see her, and it’s getting late.”

“Many points of discussion remain,” Dumbledore said. “For example, we have yet to decide what is to be done about Severus –”

“I’m sorry… did you say ‘we’?” Harry snorted.

“Yes, Harry, we have decisions to make,” Dumbledore returned earnestly. “It appears that he has committed a serious transgression. You have been wronged, and you are now considered an adult; as such, the determination of how to proceed falls to you. Because Severus is in my employ as a professor… and for other reasons, of course… it is reasonable that I assert an interest in the outcome of the matter.”

Harry stared at the Headmaster in shock for several long moments. His voice cracked when he at last spoke. “I need… I need to think on it overnight.”

Dumbledore gave a satisfied nod. “A wise first step, Harry. I also remain very interested in what the Hat had to say about the song that it sang, for one. If you would offer me a summary, I believe that other issues may be held for tomorrow.”

“Well, the Hat said that it meant everything it said or sang,” Harry reported. “It also said that Peeves was hard to sort, and that it decided to grant Peeves his greatest wish.”

Dumbledore’s eyes lit. “Oh! Peeves has asked to attend the Welcoming Feast for at least as many years as I have been a member of the staff. So that Hat implied that Peeves was not responsible for the rather off-colour lyrics?”

Harry shrugged. “It told me three times that it meant everything it said or sang.”

“The students and staff will be unlikely to take the Hat’s admonition seriously, given the rest,” Dumbledore observed. “Perhaps that is just as well, for the moment.”

“If that’s all…?” Harry said, rising from his seat.

Dumbledore held up one hand. “I am pleased that you are going to see Miss Granger, Harry. She has had a very difficult summer, and I have been either directly or indirectly responsible for most of her travails.”

Right in one, Harry thought. Still, he knew that Sirius had died because of many people’s mistakes – his own bad judgment, Dumbledore’s failures, Snape’s treachery, even Sirius’s own poor choices. He knew that he could have saved Hermione so much pain if he had made the correct first choice. “Look,” he admitted aloud, “I’m responsible for a fair bit myself. If I’d shut her out, if I hadn’t told her about the prophecy –”

Dumbledore cut him off. “I encouraged you to share it. I did so without verifying for myself that you were practicing proper Occlumency; I did so without insisting that Miss Granger receive training in same; and I ultimately caused greater harm through my efforts to assure secrecy than would have been the case if I had taken no action at all. That being said, the assignation of blame is to no one’s benefit at this point. Injuries have been committed, and the prophecy has most likely been given up. Instead I shall focus on my two greatest concerns of the day – the well-being of Miss Granger and of yourself.”

Harry didn’t want to be one of Dumbledore’s greatest concerns – that was how bad things began, in his experience. “I’m fine,” he said flatly. “Hermione isn’t fine – that’s obvious.”

Dumbledore summoned an impassive expression that Harry found irritating. “There are a number of confidences that I refuse to break with regard to Miss Granger,” he said. “It will be her choice as to whether she will divulge those confidences to you. I will share this much, however, as she was insistent that no secrets relating to this particular matter would be kept from you…” He paused for a few moments, and Harry waited anxiously; then he continued, “I have offered Miss Granger personal tuition and she has accepted. She will be assisting me with research. We will be studying the events of October 31, 1981, in an attempt to understand how Voldemort was disembodied and how it was that you survived the Killing Curse, Harry.”

Harry felt a coldness run through him. “Wh… why would she want…? Why would you ask her to do that?”

“I have sought a unifying explanation before, on several occasions,” Dumbledore answered. “Miss Granger is most intelligent, uniquely analytical, and intimately familiar with you. I am hopeful that she will see that which I have failed to see. She has her own reasons for choosing this path, and it is her place to share or to not share those reasons. I simply ask two things of you with regard to this enquiry, Harry. First, do not impede our efforts. We will share any findings with you – I promise you this and Miss Granger has insisted upon it. Second… Miss Granger requires your friendship, Harry, more than has ever been the case. Her need is desperate at the present time, though she may be unprepared to admit the true extend of that need. Therefore, I ask you to freely give it.”

Harry immediately said, “She’ll always have that; I’ll always be her friend.”

“You may find that it is no longer a simple matter to honour my request; she may even push you away. Even if that should prove to be the case, I still ask this of you. I have accepted responsibility for Miss Granger’s welfare, and I require your aid in order to meet that responsibility.” Dumbledore’s expression was quite serious, and Harry wasn’t sure what to make of it.

The Headmaster inclined his head in a way that demanded a response. “Of course,” Harry agreed.

“Splendid!” Dumbledore’s smile and twinkle returned. “We shall begin your training at nine o’clock tomorrow. I look forward to it. Off with you, then!”

The corridors were deserted now. Harry stopped and checked his watch in the flickering light of a wall sconce – it was nearly midnight. He made for the entrance hall and the central stairs at a brisk pace.

“Stop! Stop!” Filch called out from behind him.

Harry tensed; he had to remind himself that he was now free to go where he wished, when he wished. He summoned a posture that seemed right for an adult and a member of the staff. “What are you on about, Filch?” he returned.

Filch drew close and held up his lantern. “Oh… it’s you, Potter,” he said, his mouth set as though he’d bitten into spoiled fish. “The Headmaster stick you with rounds, did he?”

“No, I just left his office. I’m… on an errand for him,” Harry said.

Filch grunted in assent. “Don’t you be forgetting – you spot a student out of bounds, and it’s points and detention.”

The hair on the back of Harry’s neck rose. He looked down to see Mrs. Norris brushing lazily against his leg. He shook his leg slightly, but it didn’t deter the cat.

“Mrs. Norris!” Filch barked. The cat hissed, and resumed its brushing.

Harry shook his leg again, more firmly. “Erm… I really am on an errand… um… nice kitty…”

Filch reached down and picked up the cat, which fussed and squirmed in his arms. “What’s gotten into you?” he asked; his eyes narrowed, and he hissed at Harry, “Did you do something to her…?”

Harry held up his hands defensively. “No! Er… not a cat person, really… your guess is as good as mine… good night, Filch.” Filch growled and Harry walked away as fast as he could manage without breaking into a run.

There was no sign of anyone else about until he neared the entrance to the Gryffindor Common Room. He prepared to round a corner when he saw the flickering of a lumos charm; the reflected light grew brighter, a clear sign that someone was approaching. He flattened himself against the corridor wall, then drew his wand and conjured a mirror to peer around the corner. Two figures approached, one of them familiar. He lit his own wand, and their approach slowed.

Harry rounded the corner. “Hello, Cho,” he said.

Cho let out a held breath. “Harry… thank Merlin it’s just you.”

Harry sniggered. “Yes, it’s just me,” he mocked.

Cho frowned. “I’ve been doing this for two years, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve come across someone else whose wand was alight.”

The tall boy next to Cho let out a deep, quiet laugh. “Scared of the shadows, Chang? As for me, I figured it was Professor Snape.” He stuck out his hand. “Hello, Potter… Adrian Pucey.”

Harry’s eyes lit in recognition. “Hello, Pucey. Looks like you’re getting tall for a Chaser.”

Pucey looked bemused. “You recognise me… that’s unexpected.”

Harry grinned. “Of course – you’re on the Slytherin team and you’ve always played fairly; that’s memorable.” Pucey scowled, but it felt perfunctory. Harry went on, “Head Boy, then? Congratulations to you… are you Quidditch captain as well?”

“Snape hasn’t named a captain,” Pucey said. “I’ll see about that tomorrow.”

Cho smiled faintly. “It’s a shame, Harry – we’re rid of that cow Umbridge and her decrees, and your playing days are finished anyway.”

Harry wasn’t sure whether she was pleased or displeased; he responded vaguely. “Nothing will be the same this year.”

“See anyone mucking about, Potter? Anything lurking in the dark?” Pucey asked.

Harry shook his head. “Just Filch. I could have done without that… Mrs. Norris suddenly fancies me – can you imagine?” He shuddered, and Cho stifled a giggle.

Pucey yawned. “Almost done for the night… we should keep moving.”

“Yes, one more spin past the Astronomy Tower, I think,” Cho said. Pucey nodded without looking her way.

Harry felt an odd rush of something just then; he looked down just in time to see Cho brush against Pucey’s hand with her own. He quickly begged off, once again saying that he was on an errand for the Headmaster. Harry cancelled his lumos charm. The last flickers from Cho and Pucey’s wands disappeared; and he was left with the dim light from the wall sconces, and with the realisation that he’d just felt what Cho was feeling. He resolved that he would put everything he had into mastering Occlumency.

The Fat Lady was snoring. She stirred as Harry approached, and released two bellowing snores before her eyes opened. “Goodness… are you aware of the hour, Mr. Potter?”

“The Headmaster sent me to speak to Hermione Granger,” Harry told her.

She rolled her eyes, and said, “You hardly needed his blessing for that.” The entrance to the Common Room was revealed, and Harry stepped inside.

Hermione was not alone. It was almost as though he was walking in on a D.A. meeting. Dean and Seamus were playing what looked to be some kind of Muggle card game. Ron was playing chess with Parvati, of all people. Harry squinted at the board; it appeared that she was at least holding her own. Hermione sat by the fire, her back to the door. She was huddled over one of the low tables along with Neville; surprisingly, Lavender Brown was beside them, along with Dennis Creevey. Ginny sat on the bottom of the steps to the girls’ dormitories, quietly playing her violin for Katie Bell and Colin Creevey.

Ron looked up from the chessboard. “Harry’s here,” he said quietly, and stood to cross the Common Room. In short order, Harry found himself being warmly greeted by a crowd.

“What’s all this?” Harry managed to ask amidst the crush.

“Gryffindors stick together,” Dean said earnestly.

“You’ll always be one of us, Harry,” Katie added.

Ginny cut through the crowd. “Anyone who can truss up Malfoy like that has to be one of us,” she said with a smirk.

When Harry’s eyebrows began to rise, Ron snorted. “Come on, mate, who else could have done it but you? Besides, it was Hermione and it was Malfoy…”

“It was bloody brilliant, that’s what it was,” Seamus added quickly.

“It was an overreaction, Seamus, that’s what it was,” Harry said crossly. “Malfoy may be a rotten snake but he wasn’t going to cast a slashing curse, not on the Express. If I’d stopped to think for a second, I wouldn’t have done it.” He consciously made himself relax, and added for everyone’s benefit, “Besides, you had everything under control. If anything good came out of last year, it’s that. When I came into the car and saw all of you together like that… look, that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

“All right, then… nice to have you back, Harry. It’s well past lights-out, everyone,” Katie prompted. Most of the assembled Gryffindors began to shuffle toward their respective stairs.

Seamus stopped and faced Harry. “Me mam doesn’t say who my friends are; that’s for me to say… wanted you to know that.”

“There’s still a bed for you, Harry,” Dean added. “’Course if we’d have tried to take over the space, Ron would’ve tossed us out the window.”

Harry’s throat tightened. “Thanks.”

Ron said something to Lavender – who then disappeared up the stairs – and then took a seat on the sofa adjacent to Hermione. She had never left her seat, Harry realised.

Neville rose as Harry approached. As Harry reached him, Neville shook Harry’s hand; it seemed oddly formal and was completely unexpected, and Harry awkwardly jammed his fingers in the process. “We would have taken care of her, you know,” Neville whispered. “We’ll be on the watch, all of us.”

“I know,” Harry whispered back. “Thank you.” Neville nodded stiffly and made directly for the stairs. Harry let himself fall into the chair that Neville had vacated.

Hermione sat back heavily; her eyes never left the fire. “You can go now, Ron,” she said flatly.

Ron sighed and began to stand. “Seems that I’m done here.”

“I’d rather you stayed,” Harry said.

Hermione turned to face Harry. Her eyes were dark and without expression. “I asked you if you might come and see me tonight. It isn’t tonight anymore, it’s tomorrow. I need to talk with you, Harry… you and me… us.”

Harry almost reacted angrily, before he wondered how much of the feeling belonged to him. He bit back most of the anger. “Neither of us have enough friends to be pushing one away,” he insisted. “Ron should stay.”

Ron held up his hands. “For once, I’m not going to be the one starting a fight. If you need me, you know where I’ll be.”

Hermione waited until she heard Ron’s footfalls on the steps before she called out, “Ron? I’m sorry! I just… this is going to be hard enough explaining to Harry; I can’t imagine how you could possibly understand –” She stopped abruptly and crushed her face into her hands. “Oh, that came out so wrong! Bugger!

Ron gave a wide-eyed pleading look that for an instant reminded Harry of Ron in the tree house, framed by silent fireworks and the red flush of guilt, but Harry knew this was different. It was painfully obvious that Ron wanted to do the right thing, but had no idea what that might be. Harry waved him back to the sofa.

Ron hesitated, but then shook his head. “Hermione… I might surprise you, you know. I’m not as thick as you think I am,” he called back. “Good night, Harry.”

Hermione lowered her hands from her face. She wrapped her arms around her knees, and returned her gaze to the fire. The wall sconces seemed unusually dim to Harry. The firelight shimmered against the walls and the armchairs and the furnishings; the entire Common Room seemed haunted, he thought, including its other occupant.

He’d thought about what he might say to her, and what she might say to him, but it all began to evaporate as he sat there. As the evening had passed, he had reconsidered talking to her about her parents; if he would in fact be their Secret Keeper, then he reasoned that even Hermione shouldn’t know – not immediately, in any case. That had led him to worry himself about what Voldemort might have done to her, and to wonder whether there could possibly be some sort of lingering connection between the two. He wasn’t about to begin prying into those events; it would be up to Hermione to tell him, he had decided. He didn’t want to share all the details of what Snape had done to him; if she learned that he had been mirroring other people’s feelings – including hers – then it would surely leave both of them feeling guilty.

He could barely hear her when she at last spoke. “Do you think I hurt him? I don’t want to hurt him, Harry.”

“He took it better than I’d have guessed,” Harry said. “He’s changed.”

Her voice remained low, but there was an edge to it. “We’ve changed… you, me … but the rest of them up there… they’re dreaming about trips to Hogsmeade and having nightmares about revisions. They don’t know, Harry. They’ve read an article in the Daily Prophet and they think they know, they think they understand, but they don’t. Thank God they don’t.”

“Ron understands,” Harry returned.

“I suppose he does, to a point,” Hermione allowed after a long pause. “He’s been so nice, yesterday and today. I know I shouldn’t shut him out, Harry, but I just… I’m just angry.”

“You can be angry with me; it’s all right,” Harry offered.

She still wouldn’t look at him, wouldn’t look at anything but the flames, but she gave a small, wry smile. “I didn’t need permission, but thank you all the same.”

Since Dumbledore had explained to Harry about his constant Legilimency, the world seemed awash in feelings. The emotions he’d felt from Cho were nothing compared to the wash of feelings that were surely coming from Hermione. He sat in the quiet and breathed slowly, and let himself be buffeted by anger and pain and sadness and worry and fear. It was all jumbled together with something else warm and friendly and terribly familiar from earlier in the summer, and then he felt dizzy and awkward and the silence became uncomfortable. He started to speak, then quickly stopped himself and began to chuckle.

Hermione turned to face him, her brow furrowed, and he relaxed – her expression wasn’t cold or dark or angry. “What?” she said; it wasn’t snappish, nor was it a demand, but it was all so uniquely her.

“Gods… I was just about to ask how the rest of your summer went.” He snorted. “Even I’m not that thick.”

The corners of her mouth flickered. “I should hope not.”

Harry couldn’t stand another bout of silence. “I’ve been worried about you,” he blurted out.

Hermione rubbed at the back of her left hand. “Sometimes I haven’t known what to think, Harry… but I’ve been worried about you, as well.”

Harry looked down at his right hand. “Erm… Dumbledore told me about the runes. He thought you might still have them. I don’t know how it happened, I swear.” He ran his thumb across the three faint markings there. “I’m not sorry about it, though.”

“Do you understand what they mean? Did Dumbledore read them for you?” she asked.

“He told me about the new ones, yeah,” he said, and then he reached out and took her hand – the act left him nervous for a moment. He could see a hint of the runes on both of their hands illuminated by the fire, and his brow beetled. “Yours aren’t the same as mine… look.”

“Dumbledore told me about that,” she said, as she leaned in and peered at both their hands. “I’m surprised he didn’t tell you,” she added with an edge to her voice.

“It seems like it’s been a year since he told me,” Harry said. “It was the same night that we all went to see Luna.”

Hermione tugged her hand free. “I see.”

Harry tried to guess why she had suddenly gone cold. “I… I probably should have said something that night, straight away. There were so many things happening, I just didn’t think of it.”

“It’s all right. I wouldn’t have taken it in,” Hermione sighed. “I scarcely remember that night. It’s just that I thought Dumbledore was holding out on you, that’s all.”

Harry didn’t remember Hermione having a tolerance for silence. Now she seemed content to stare mutely into the fire, and he was baffled, and the quiet was excruciating. “Why did you want me to come here tonight?” he asked at last.

She looked up sharply from the fire, suddenly defiant. “Do I have to spell it out for you? Honestly! Why did you want to come, then?”

Harry took in a sharp breath; she was so up-and-down that it was leaving him dizzy. “Dumbledore said you shouldn’t answer a question with a question – it’s rude,” he shot back.

“I’m not Dumbledore, am I?” Hermione snapped. Harry was certain that her jaw tightened; it was a familiar response to Dumbledore for him, but he’d never expected to see it from her.

“No you’re not, thank Merlin,” he said quickly, and he felt a lessening of the tension in the room.

Still, there was an uncomfortable intensity in her eyes when she spoke. “I wanted to say… I suppose I wanted to say the same things as I wrote in my letter. I wanted to say them to you in person.”

“Your letter…” Harry trailed off.

Hermione’s eyes widened. “You… you did receive it, right? I sent it with… er… it was with another letter, and that one finally arrived so I assumed…” She worried her lip.

“It came,” Harry admitted nervously. He reached into his robes, and withdrew the unopened envelope. “The post owl showed up this morning; it tried to claw me to pieces, actually.”

Hermione abruptly sniggered. “The owl didn’t appreciate being banished, eh?”

Harry tried to explain himself. “I’m sorry I didn’t read it yet. First the owl tore up my arms, then Detheridge stopped by and we had to ride the train, and then there was everything with Malfoy, and then we arrived, and there was all the business with the Sorting Hat…”

Hermione rolled her eyes at that. “Ginny told me; she remembered most of the words. Did Peeves actually manage to possess the Hat?”

“No… or at least that’s what the Hat told me,” Harry said.

“The Hat spoke to you?” Hermione asked incredulously.

“It asked me to put it on, so I did,” answered Harry.

Hermione had the look in her eye that came with a new book or a new problem, and Harry happily grinned at the sight of it. He let her wheedle the details from him; he would have shared them, of course, but he enjoyed the asking and the speculating and the wide-eyed excitement. He began to realise just how much he had missed her company. Still, he felt nervousness, an apprehension in the midst of her exploration. He was sure it wasn’t coming from her; he felt that he could attribute it to himself with fair certainty.

“Harry… Harry?” He looked up into brown eyes unexpectedly close to his own. “Where did you go just now? Are you all right?” Hermione asked.

He swallowed roughly, took a deep breath, and decided that nothing good would come from keeping Dumbledore’s disclosure completely from her. “It’s about Occlumency. Dumbledore told me…” He stopped, unsure if he could say it, not wanting her to be angry or disappointed.

“What did he tell you? Harry…” Her eyes seemed to search him, and then widened a little. “Is it that terrible? If… if you don’t want to tell me, I’ll understand. Honestly, you don’t have to tell me everything. I mentioned that in the letter; I… I hope you read it later.”

The truth burst out of his mouth. “Snape didn’t teach me Occlumency. He didn’t even try.”

Hermione seemed to be thinking through her response even as she slowly spoke. “There was never a doubt that he was doing a poor job of teaching you… a pathetic job, really… but I don’t understand. He was surely attempting to teach you something?”

Harry felt anger, and it was his own. “Oh, he was teaching me something, all right. He taught me Legilimency. He taught me to lash out, and that’s all. He lied to me from the start, Hermione. If I could have talked to Dumbledore about it… but of course he wouldn’t have anything to do with me!”

“He taught you Legilimency…” she repeated, and then her face flushed red and Harry felt the anger mount. “Every text I've read about Occlumency last year said that Occlumency is taught before Legilimency! What was he thinking? Was he trying to drive you mad?”

“Dumbledore said he was turning me into a weapon,” Harry said. “The funny thing is, I would have gone along with it if he’d explained himself.”

“Of course! He was fashioning you to be a sort of doomsday…” Hermione gasped and grabbed his shoulders tightly. “Don’t you dare let them!” she snapped at him. “Do you hear me, Harry Potter? That’s… that’s quitting, that’s giving up! You can’t do that, Harry! You can beat him, you can kill him – you have to kill him – and that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to do the same!” She turned away to face the fire, even as her voice continued to rise. “You’ll kill him, and I’ll help you, and I’ll be there to see it, to see you win, to see that monster suffer… for everything he’s done, he has to suffer, and you’ll do it, we’ll do it, I swear, Harry – there’ll be no mercy for him, no prison, no trial, no second chances, nothing, just death, just DEAD –”

Harry’s hands shook as she went on; all he could at last manage to do was to reach out from behind and envelop her, to pull her to him and away from whatever abyss she was staring into, to keep his best friend from falling. It was almost as though he could see her plunging from a tower. She didn’t turn, she didn’t latch onto him, she didn’t cry – she just stiffened in his arms and shook and seared the room with anger and despair. He wasn’t about to let go.

Her voice cracked and trembled. “I could see them, Harry – do you understand? I looked to the front of the carriage and I could see them!”

He sagged inside, but he still didn’t let go. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t you… don’t be sorry,” she sniffed. “You saved Mum and Dad, you saved Ron and Ginny and their family – don’t apologise for that.”

“I was trying to save you,” Harry said quietly.

Hermione went on as though he’d said nothing. “I wasn’t strong enough. I don’t even know if I kept the secret.” She pulled her hand free from his to wipe at her eyes. He kept his other arm around her waist. “That was the only thing I had to do, and I don’t even know if I managed it. I wasn’t strong enough, Harry. Why did you even bother to come tonight?”

“How many people do you know who have been attacked by Voldemort – not by Death Eaters, but Voldemort himself?” Harry asked.

“What point are you trying to make?” Hermione asked sullenly.

“How many?” Harry asked more forcefully.

“You and Ginny, I suppose,” she answered.

“Ginny doesn’t count,” Harry insisted. “It was just a piece of Tom Riddle in that diary; that’s not like the real thing, I can promise you. I know of you and me and Dumbledore, and that’s it… well, there’s Neville’s mum and dad, I suppose. Everyone else is dead, Hermione, so don’t tell me that you’re not strong.”

“I would be as well, if you hadn’t done… whatever you did. I still don’t understand it.” She pulled away so that she could face him; her eyes gave away her apprehension. “Harry… I won’t lie to you, I can’t… I was as afraid of you as I was of him, for a while at least.”

“I was deaf afterward,” Harry said offhandedly.

Hermione was confused. “You were… what?”

“I couldn’t hear anything, not until I went into the kitchen; Dobby healed me then. I was shouting because I couldn’t hear myself,” Harry explained.

Hermione faced the fire. “I remember you shouting… actually, most of what I remember came from watching it a second time. Voldemort was… he was inside me… and then Wormtail was choking me, and… and then you were there and Wormtail was off of me and I fell back and then I was with my dad and you were moving so fast, Harry… so fast… and there was smoke and steam and… things flying around… and… and then you were covered in blood and you were shouting and then I remember Ron standing by you and then you were gone and I was in my room. Honestly, the next thing I recall is meeting with Madam Bones.” She crossed her arms tightly, as though she was warding off the world.

“I don’t see anything wrong with being a bit afraid of me,” Harry allowed.

Hermione whirled about. “What are you talking about?”

“If you’re a bit afraid, maybe a bit worried, then you can keep me on the right lines,” Harry explained. “Perhaps it’s for the best?”

“Do you need that, Harry?” Hermione asked. “Do you need someone to keep you on the right lines?”

“You’ve always done that for me,” Harry said honestly.

Hermione seemed to relax at that. “I’m not afraid of you now, Harry,” she said. “I am worried for you, like it or not. That’s why I’m taking tuition from Dumbledore. We’re –”

“I know about the research,” Harry interjected.

Her eyes narrowed. “What else did he tell you?”

“Nothing at all – he was clear on that,” Harry insisted. “He did say that you insisted I know about the research, though.”

“I did,” she admitted.

Harry smiled. “Watching out for my interests, as well – something else you’ve always done for me… thank you.”

“You don’t mind, then?” She hesitated, and then added in a single breath, “I won’t do it if you mind. Do you want to be a part of it? It concerns you so directly – perhaps you should work with me?”

“What, on the research? No, thank you!” he said quickly. “First, I’m rubbish for something like that – don’t argue the point, right? – and second, the last thing I want to do is to study that. If you’re doing it, it’ll be done right and I’ll find out everything I need to know.”

Her eyes glistened in the firelight. “That means a great deal to me, Harry. I know I’ve let you down, but this… this is something I know how to do. If there’s something important to be found, I’ll find it – I promise you that. Honestly, I’m looking forward to it… it’s the only thing to which I’m looking forward.”

The anguish rolled off of her. He said quietly but insistently, “You haven’t let me down… and this can’t be the only thing that excites you. Surely there’s something else –”

Her answer was distant, as though she were lost to the fire. “Tomorrow I’m supposed to put on a student’s robe and a blouse and skirt and a House tie and follow a timetable along with everyone sleeping peacefully upstairs. I’m supposed to pretend that the world beyond these walls doesn’t exist. I’m supposed to be some sort of innocent child. How am I supposed to do that now?”

“I don’t know,” Harry sighed. “After all that’s happened, I think it’s best that I was dismissed.” He looked up the stairs. “I’m not one of them anymore, I know that. It sounds as though you feel the same. I imagine Ron feels a spot of it, as well.”

“I don’t know if I can pretend,” Hermione said. “That’s why I chose to give up my prefect appointment. Don’t misunderstand me… it’s not that I’ve given myself over to chaos. It’s just that an honorific is meaningless. I have better things to do with my time, much more important things.”

Harry almost brought up her argument with McGonagall, but caught himself. “Erm… have you told Dumbledore about this?” he asked instead.

“I’m sure that’s why he offered special tuition,” she pointed out.

“I think you should talk to him,” Harry suggested. “I’m not sure what he might do, and I’m not telling you to trust him completely – I certainly don’t, not anymore – but he really does seem to care about you.”

After a pause and a long sigh, she said, “He cares about you as well, very much. I’ll give it some thought.” She looked him in the eyes, and he was confused by what he felt; then she added, “There’s so much I want to say, that I want to tell you… I’m just so tired. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry; it’s late,” he insisted. “Are we… are we all right, Hermione?” She nodded and hugged him fiercely. It seemed strange to be hugged by her without being awash in her hair.

“Has Dumbledore given you a timetable?” Hermione asked without releasing him.

Harry shook his head. “I’m starting to think it’s going to be something of a lash-up. Um… if you copy yours for me, then at least I’ll know where to find you.”

“We’ll receive ours in the morning, of course,” she said. “If you come by the Great Hall during one of the meals, I can give a copy to you.”

The idea of entering the Great Hall to a crowd of students made his stomach clench, but he smiled and nodded anyway. “I’ll do that,” he promised.

She nodded and then let her head fall against his shoulder, which he didn’t expect in the slightest. He absently ran his hand up and down her back in a way he hoped was comforting. “Thank you for coming tonight,” she said.

“We’re friends; that’s what friends do, right?” he said in return.

“Best friends, Harry… best friends,” she said earnestly, and he nodded in agreement as they parted.

He left the Common Room as soon as she climbed up the stairs and out of sight. On his way to the main entry, he rummaged through his pockets for the Bonnie until he recalled that it sat in his wardrobe. There was movement here and there in the shadows as he walked toward Hogsmeade. It’s probably a flock of minders, he figured, but palmed his wand nonetheless.

He hadn’t even reached the gates before he decided that the path seemed much narrower in the darkness. He heard rustling close to his right, and fired a stunning charm into the brush without second thought. There was no sound of a body falling, only a blizzard of birds in all directions. He whispered for Moody, then Tonks and then Shacklebolt, but only heard the fading rush of the birds and the chirping of insects in return.

Even after he reached his rooms, he couldn’t place for certain what had driven him to start singing; it might have been the pleasure of knowing that he still had his best friend after all that had happened, or it might have been a fraying of nerves. He had been prone to having songs run through his head for a while – another legacy of Sirius, thanks to his record collection. Harry hoped that the first words were accurate, as he let forth at the top of his lungs:

What would you think if I sang out of tune?

Would you stand up and walk out on me?

Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song,

And I’ll try not to sing out of key.

He nearly laughed at the thought that he was probably well out of key, and then at the image of Death Eaters in the woods cringing at every word. He ploughed on even though he knew that he’d forgotten some of the words:

I get by with a little help from my friends,

I get by with a little help from my friends,

Going to try with a little help from my friends.

What do I do when my… blah-blah-blah-blah?

He couldn’t hold back the laughter anymore, and the shadows didn’t seem quite so daunting. “That’s it!” he howled; “I’ll kill him with my bloody singing!” When he finally caught his breath, he sang on:

Does it worry you to be alone?

How do I feel at the end of the day?

Are you sad because you’re on your own?

NO! I get by with a little help from my friends.

Do you need anybody?

I need somebody to…er…

The gaslights of Hogsmeade emerged before him as he cleared the trees. There was lightness to his step as he strolled toward the Three Broomsticks, still singing. He caught a peculiar stare or two, and didn’t care a whit:

I get by with a little help from my friends,

Yes I get by with a little help from my friends,

I get by with a little help… Yes I get with a little help…

I get by with a little help from my friends.

Madam Rosmerta was setting glassware behind the bar; at the sight of her, he quickly stopped and felt a flush rise to his cheeks. She smiled at him and said, “Don’t let me stop you; you’re spot on, Harry.”

Acknowledgments:

Lennon, J. & McCartney, P. (1967). “With a little help from my friends”, from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. London: EMI Records.

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