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The Second String

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XIII. Some Dark Sarcasm in the Classroom

23 April, 1977

The next morning Ab trudged down and tucked into his breakfast without looking at or speaking to Harry, who was at a loss as to what to do other than return the same treatment.

Of course, both kept eyeing the other when his attention was turned away.

As he folded up his Prophet, Ab finally seemed to surrender. “Today you read up on those shields I wanted you to learn. We’ll practice ‘em tomorrow morning when we start workin’ on duelin’. Later Pel’s gonna come and start on your History of Magic with you before you start on the cookin’ for the dinner rush tonight.”

Harry looked at him. Shields? Dueling? . . .  I don’t know what this means, but it seems like he’s at least accepting I need to work on fighting.

“Sounds good, Ab,” he managed to say neutrally.

“Talked with that Goyle fellow about your service requirement. You’ll be at Hogwarts, of course. Set up a schedule for you, though if you need to be here more or whatever you can change it around a bit. Got you down for twenty hours a’ work a week. Monday through Thursday, 8 in the mornin’ to 1, startin’ next week. That keeps you here on the busy days, but also gives you time in the afternoons and weekends to work on your O.W.L.s.”

Harry mulled over the schedule. “Monday through Thursday in the mornings? Students are usually in classes for most of that. So I don’t have to worry about time-travel complications as much.”

“Aye,” Ab agreed. “Was actually Goyle’s idea. Man was concerned that you’d be a target for the students and wanted to keep you well away from ‘em. ‘Course it’ll be easier come June when they go home. But make no mistake – those that know what you did, older ones especially –may come after you. Others may just try to fuck with you even if they don’t know about Macnair. Don’t get into fights, and don’t take your wand with you.”

Harry made to protest that he didn’t start fights, they just found him, but Ab talked over him. “I know that’s easy to say, I know. But you fight with the wrong wizard’s little prince or princess, and I’m not sure even Albus could protect you. So try to be smart, be creative, and tonight, stop working on that stupid wandless Alohamora that ain’t ever goin’ to work and concentrate on how to control that wandless Accio of yours so well that you can use it on the sly if you absolutely have to without anyone noticin’.

Nodding, Harry cleared their dishes and began speaking without knowing what he was going to say. “Ab, about last night, I –”

“Shut it.”

“Ab! I –”

“Shut it. You said your piece like a man last night. Don’t fuck it up by acting like a kid today.”

Harry blinked as Ab sighed. “Don’t know what I make of it all yet, lad. We might both just be different brands of fools, for all I can see. But …” he paused uncomfortably. “But I’m thinkin’ on it. And you think on what I said. And we’ll see what comes.”

With a stiff nod he gave Harry a scrap of parchment and turned to leave the room. “Those are the books you need – they’re all on the shelf in my room. Grab them, take ‘em to the stables discreetly, and get to work on those shields. We’ll see if you learned anythin’ tomorrow. If not, your arse is mine,” he finished with relish.

Harry’s arse throbbed in anticipation of what he assumed would be many, many falls to the ground. But Ab was still going to work on fighting with him. It was an olive branch, he understood that, and he accepted it. “Thanks, Ab. Thanks.”

He easily found the defense books in Ab’s room, propped up against a tarnished silver picture frame with a grainy photo of a pretty young woman lazily spinning on a swing attached to a great oak. Not Ariana … Maybe I’ll ask Ab about her later. The next few hours were spent memorizing four new shield spells and all their applications. Harry wasn’t used to studying spells this closely, but he could admit to himself that he wanted to do well for Ab far more than he’d ever wanted to excel for any of his Defense teachers, even Lupin.

Eventually, the time came to clean up the two guestrooms that had been let out the night before, and then to await Pel in the stable for his first History of Magic lesson with the old lawyer. This has got to be better than Binns, he assured himself.

Two hours after his lesson with Pel had ended, he grinned to himself about how right he’d been.

Pel was the most engaging teacher Harry had ever had. He came armed this time with a single slim volume entitled The History of the International Confederation of Wizards: The Whole Truth, Including What the Bastards in Power Don’t Want You to Know, by Logius Verian. Harry had raised both eyebrows at the title.

The former barrister shrugged. “It was written by an acquaintance of mine in the Department of Mysteries some years back. Poor sod was the lead researcher on variants of truth-telling spells and potions and used himself too often as a test subject. Couple years later, he couldn’t tell a lie to save his life and got drummed out of the Ministry for telling the Minister exactly why he thought the man’s wife would choose to take up with some French siren.” He paused as Harry chuckled incredulously. “At any rate, his loss is our gain. Bloke wrote a number of history books that don’t whitewash anything. You can probably guess that wizarding Britain banned them all immediately. I’m lucky enough to have gotten copies from him. Now, you take an hour and go over the first two chapters on the ICW’s formation. I’m goin’ to get a pick me up at the bar and come back then.”

Verian’s book turned out to be quite different than bland panegyric that was the Bathilda Bagshot text he had been assigned for years. The man took to rambling digressions that told way more truth than he wanted to know, but were fascinating nonetheless. He vaguely recalled from Binns’ droning lectures that Lichtenstein had refused to attend the first meeting of the newly-formed ICW. While Bagshot had claimed that this was because the new leader of the ICW didn’t agree with them that troll-hunting should be banned, Verian – who was no fan of Bagshot’s – told a much seedier tale. Apparently, Pierre Bonaccord, the first Mugwump, was involved in an illicit affair with a half-troll, and promised his lover’s family that French trolls would have representation in the ICW. However, Bonaccord’s ex-lover, Geliebt Getränkt, was the principal adviser to the Lichtenstein government, and had convinced them not to attend simply out of spite for his errant boyfriend, using the rising number of troll attacks in Lichtenstein as the ostensible excuse. Verian even included copies of steamy love letters-turned scathing missives between Bonaccord and Getränkt that testified to the true reasons for Lichtenstein’s obstinacy.

Wow. History’s a lot dirtier than I expected.

By the time Pel returned – smelling strongly of Firewhiskey – Harry had encountered a number of eye-opening stories about the ostensibly banal origins of the ICW. He easily answered Pel’s questions and listened as the man expounded even more on what Verian had said. One worry, however, nagged at him.

“Pel, uh, thanks for helping me with all this, I really appreciate it. But, er – can I actually write any of this in my O.W.L. exam? Wouldn’t they prefer the more boring version?”

Pel laughed. “Oh don’t worry about that, my young friend! Sure, there’s no way you could get away with writing anything from Verian in a British O.W.L., but you’ll be taking them in Belgium, and Belgians love this sort of thing. I suspect they may even use Verian on the sly. Of course, the Belgians haven’t really done anything to be embarrassed about, at least compared to the British, French, and Germans, so it doesn’t fuss them much.”

He stood. “Well, I’m off back to the pub. We’ll meet this time next week for more, yeah? For then, read the chapters on the development and early history of the International Statue of Secrecy, and write me a short something on the real history and implications of the actions of Emily Rappaport. When you do it, think of at least three different ways to defend her. I don’t give much of a crap for reading essays, but I want to make sure you can write without coming off as an idiot.”

After Pel left, Harry sat back in his straw thinking about his day at what he was secretly calling “Hog’s Head School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.” His first lesson had involved a lot more cursing, alcohol, and interspecies sex than anything he’d encountered at Hogwarts. However, he vaguely recalled that Binns had spent weeks on the formation of the ICW, yet he didn’t really remember anything much from those lectures. A two-hour session with Pel and he felt he had a firmer grasp on history than he’d ever had before.

The Hog’s Head School would probably drive Hermione insane. But … but it might just be perfect for me.

April 25, 1977

Two mornings later and Harry was walking slowly up the path to one of the places he had been most keen to avoid his arrival in the past. Typical. Live in the Forest, pretend to be a squib, and I still end up going to Hogwarts.

He sighed and began running through his general plan for the next several months. Keep my head down, do my work. I’m a squib. Most will be in classes, and if they aren’t, most will ignore me.

As he rounded a once-familiar bend of the road, the castle spread out before him, the morning light that glanced off the hundreds of windows making the whole building gleam. The Black Lake in the distance glittered in the sun, and even the entrances to the Forbidden Forest seemed less … forbidding than normal. A curl of smoke rose lazily from the chimney of Hagrid’s hut, but today there was no time to stop and see his friend.

Instead, he headed straight for the front gate, having been informed by Goyle via Ab that he was to meet his “liaison” there. He’d been wondering just who this liaison would be. For some reason, he expected Professor McGonagall – probably because he associated arriving at Hogwarts with seeing her – or maybe some other professor (please, please don’t let it be Pemphredo!), or perhaps a house-elf?

He found himself stopping short and biting back a groan the moment he saw the person waiting for him on the other side of the great Hogwarts gate.

Seriously, universe?

Lily Evans watched his approach suspiciously, her back rigid and her eyes sharp.

Why the hell would my mother be my liaison?

When he reached the gate she drew herself up in a way that reminded Harry just a bit of Percy Weasley. “Mr., ah, Harry, I’m to be the Head Girl here at Hogwarts next year.(*) I’ve been sent because I’m authorized to give you contingent admission through the wards from 8 a.m. until just after lunch. Please take care that you leave no later than 1:30 in the afternoon, lest the Headmaster be informed of an unauthorized presence. Now I shall add you to the wards.” She looked rather nervous as she drew her wand. Harry barely had time to worry that this was probably her first time casting whatever spell she was going to cast before she fired a bolt of painless gold light at him, then the gates. “And now I shall lead you to your first occupation, which should take you several days. I’m told that your liaison will fetch you later this afternoon before your scheduled departure.”

Oh, so she’s not the person who oversees me. Thank God.

The gate creaked open as the winged boar statues on either side looked him up and down suspiciously. Lily turned on her heel to begin marching towards the front doors without looking back. Harry had to jog a bit to catch up with her.

She gave him an even more suspicious glance when he drew up to walk beside, rather than behind her.

“It is also my duty to inform you of the code of conduct you must observe while you are on Hogwarts grounds.” She ran through a long list of rules that all essentially amounted to ‘leave magic folk alone and don’t start shit,’ as they walked through the halls of the schools to whatever Harry’s destination was. “Do you understand this code of conduct?” she concluded in a formal voice.

Harry nodded neutrally as she led him towards up flights of stairs towards and down the long corridor on the fourth floor.

At one point she glanced over, the pretense of authority momentarily abandoned. “You don’t seem impressed with the school. You’re barely looking at it!”

Shite. I’m not supposed to have been here before.

He shrugged silently. Let her think what she wants about how I feel about Hogwarts. The less I say, the better.

Eventually, they reached a tight circular stone staircase that Harry knew led to only one place – the Owlery in the West Tower. It seemed his first job wasn’t going to be all that pleasant or educational.

The two climbed the staircase quickly and Lily led him into the still-cold Owlery. Harry had to physically restrain himself from instinctively looking to Hedwig’s customary perch, the pang of her loss hitting him harder than it had done since he’d arrived in the past.

Lily must have misinterpreted his small grimace, for she smiled tightly. “Yes, your job today and until you complete it satisfactorily is to thoroughly clean the Owlery. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but witches and wizards use owls to carry their post and  –”

“I’m aware, thank you.” Does she know how condescending she sounds?

She gave a small hmph. “Well then, I’ll leave you to it. Just remember, Hogwarts does not condone the sort of actions you engage in.”

Her tone bordered on actual hostility, and Harry couldn’t check the look of surprise that he felt flitter across his face.

Lily narrowed her eyes. “Of course, I know exactly why you’re here – it’s your little punishment for murder.” Judgment burned in her tone, and Harry felt it scalding him.

Looks like someone’s a Prophet reader.

Oh fuck this. I love you mum, but fuck this.

Keeping his tone as light as he could, he responded. “Thank you for your thoughts, Miss – shite, she never introduced herself – Miss Next Year’s Head Girl. I’ll certainly take your morals into account the next time me and my friends are kidnapped, tortured, and about to be murdered simply for existing.”

Her mouth dropped open, her eyes wide with indignation and shock.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, it seems I have quite the job ahead of me.” He should have stopped there, but he couldn’t resist. Her whole tone just irritated him. “I do find it rather odd that a school with this many witches and wizards has to rely on manual squib labor to clean its owlery. I would think one could easily do it in seconds with a spell.”

Lily recovered from his earlier retort enough to pull a puzzled face at his last comment. “That’s – that’s actually true …Why would they have you do this?”

He gave her a hard, humorless smile. “I believe it’s metaphorical.” With that he turned and began going over the cleaning supplies in the corner. It took a few minutes before he heard her quiet footsteps exiting through the door and walking slowly down the tower steps.

Of course it’s metaphorical. Put the squib in with animal shit. Where he belongs.

He sighed and picked up a large scraping tool that could only be for one thing.

After nearly four hours of scraping bird shit off stone, Harry was wishing he had time to go into the Forest this afternoon because he seriously felt that he needed to blow some shit up.

Only a few students had visited the Owlery that morning. Three ignored his existence completely, a pair of mealy younger Ravenclaws had snickered at him, and the lone Slytherin had looked at him imperiously before “accidentally” overturning Harry’s bucket of collected droppings. Two little Hufflepuffs had looked at him curiously, but were too timid to attempt a conversation.

The owls, on the other hand, seemed highly offended that he had the audacity to alter than home, so he had to regularly ward off angry, dive-bombing balls of feathers.

A bit after noon, by his estimation, he heard very light steps on the stairs once again and tensed in case a more aggressive student was sneaking up to pay him a visit.

He had to blink several times when his newest visitor turned out to be a kitten. A rust and gray striped kitten holding a neatly folded piece of parchment in its tiny jaws.

The little thing strode over to Harry with all the confidence of any cat and looked up at him, the demand clear in its eyes.

Shrugging, Harry sat down and gently removed the parchment from its mouth. “Er, thank you.”

The demand in its golden eyes remained. “Oh, er, right. Sorry.” Harry let it sniff his hand before beginning to scratch it behind the ears. A rumbling purr resounded through the Owlery, drawing the attention of its hungry occupants. The kitten glared the parliament of owls into submission. “Oh, you’re bloody adorable,” Harry couldn’t help but gush. Thank Merlin no one was here to hear that. The kitten closed its eyes in contentment.

Smiling, Harry turned his attention to the parchment.

Mr. Harry: Please come to my office upon receipt of this. You may follow Mrs. Norris, who knows the way. – A. Filch, Hogwarts Caretaker.

No fucking way.

“Mrs. Norris!” Harry bit out. The kitten continued purring. Harry looked at her carefully and realized that yes, add on nearly two decades and a ton of grime, and the kitten could become the evil ball of hissing fur he so knew and despised. “Damn, Mrs. Norris, you look great!” She nuzzled his hand. And you’re a right sight nicer.

“Well, Mrs. Norris, I’m to see Mr. Filch. Would you mind showing me the way?” Of course, Harry knew precisely where the cantankerous old caretaker’s office was, but it wouldn’t do to give that away, even to Mrs. Norris. In his time she had always seemed to know more than one would expect of a cat.

The kitten regretfully hopped away, stuck her tail straight up in the air, and marched out of the room, turning once to make certain that Harry was following her.

Bemused, Harry trailed behind her on the short walk down to the fourth-floor corridor where he knew Filch’s office was located. On the way, he puzzled over the unexpected tone of Filch’s note. He even said ‘please.’ Weird.

He knocked on the door as Mrs. Norris disappeared through a cat flap. “Come,” a brusque voice responded.

The office looked somewhat similar to what Harry remembered, though it was nowhere even close to approaching the over-stuffed state it would boast in the future. The man seated at the old-fashioned desk turned away from his filing cabinets and Harry just barely kept his mouth from dropping open.

Holy shite! That can’t beyeah, that’s Mr. Filch!

The forty-something-year-old man at the desk had rather poor posture, a hint of the hunchback he would eventually develop, but his caramel-colored hair was neatly-cropped and framed a fairly, well, normal – perhaps even attractive – face, at least in the right light. (*) The frown that seemed cut into his skin and the pale eyes that gazed steadily at Harry were nonetheless eerily familiar.

Merlin, Filch must have had a rough 19 years to go from this to what I remember!

“Have a seat young man,” Filch said in a clipped, if polite tone, gesturing to the dark green leather office chair perched in front of his desk.

“Thank you, sir.” Harry felt decidedly wrong-footed. He had no idea what to do with a nice-ish Filch.

The caretaker clasped his hands together and put both elbows on the disk, giving Harry a penetrating look. “I take it the girl they sent explained their rules about your time here, eh?”

“Yes sir. She was quite … thorough.”

Filch sneered. “I take it also that you understood the gist of them.”

Harry nodded.

“And that is?”

“Don’t bug magic folk and don’t start shi – anything.”

Filch nodded and snorted. “That’s about the right of it.” He sat back in his chair. “I’m trying to set your assignments so that you can avoid most students. After the Owlery – which Dumbledore suggested you do – I’ll be in charge of your work, so if you finish a task, check in with me when you’re done.”

“Yes sir, I will.” This is the most civil I’ve ever seen Filch … I guess it makes sense. He does think I’m a squib after all.

“You’re done for today, so you can go. But listen up and mark my words. The shits out there are spoiled little cretins who think having wands makes them gods. They may well target you for some of their little ‘pranks,’ which usually hurt and always leave a bloody mess that’ll be on you to clean. It ain’t nice, and it ain’t right, but you squawk at all and their mummies and daddies will be here before you can breathe, and it’ll be all your fault. No one cares about the truth when it involves the likes of us. I expect you know that already, but don’t dare forget it.”

“I won’t, sir,” Harry responded quietly. He knew this all too well.

Filch sneered at his desk. “Off with you, then, Mr. Harry. Oh, before you go,” he rummaged in a drawer, “have at ‘em,” and tossed Harry a few chocolate frogs. “Took him off some misbehaving second years, eh?”

Harry laughed. “Thank you, sir, but please just call me Harry.”

“Argus, then.” Harry raised his eyebrow. That would take some getting used to. “Oh, and good work on those scumbag wizards that messed with you. Bloody good work.”

Harry grinned sheepishly and bid the man goodbye – stopping also to wish Mrs. Norris a nice day, to Filch’s surprised approval – before making his way down through the bowels of the castle to the entrance hall.

Just as he was about to leave, a familiar voice called out to him. “Ah, young Harry!” Harry cringed when he realized his first thought was at least he got my name right this time. He stopped and turned, wrestling with the sudden rush of feelings that voice caused to well inside him. Ab’s description of the headmaster as a “political creature” had stayed with him. It was apt, he thought, and Harry couldn’t bring himself to trust a Dumbledore whose motives were part of some giant political game that he couldn’t even begin to understand. At the same time, the old feelings of affection for the man he had known stirred themselves within him. Was he always like this and I just didn’t see it, or did the first war change him into the man I believed I knew?

At any rate, the man was smiling at him genially enough now. “Hello, Headmaster.” I should thank him or something for helping Ab get me out of as much trouble as I should have been in … But the headmaster’s wand raised in favor of his condemnation seemed burned into his brain, regardless of the helpful intentions behind that action.

Dumbledore didn’t give him time to decide whether or not to express any gratitude. “I do hope you found your first morning at Hogwarts magical!” he beamed.

I cleaned up owl shit.

“It’s – it’s a beautiful castle sir.”

“Indeed, indeed she is. I’ve spent almost my entire life here, and yet she can still surprise me!”

Harry smiled and nodded, unsure of what he should say to that.

Dumbledore peered down at him, blue eyes alight. “Although I can’t, regrettably, extend such an invitation every day of your time here helping us, I was wondering if you would like to join me at the Head Table for lunch in the Great Hall? It’s one of the most astounding magical rooms in all of Europe – the ceiling is even enchanted to reflect the outside sky!” He smiled at Harry encouragingly.

If Harry had still been eleven, if Harry had really been a squib who’d never experienced Hogwarts, if Harry was some lost waif disowned by his family, if Harry had been any of those things, he probably would have jumped at the invitation. Dumbledore spoke as if he believed he was offering Harry something of a treat, a rare privilege, and honestly he probably really was.

But this Harry was not some wide-eyed lost young thing. He stood in the entrance hall of Hogwarts, sweaty and disheveled from hard labor, covered in and stinking of bird shit, paying the penance for saving his own life. Walking into the Great Hall, sitting at the Head Table, he’d become a side-show, something for the students to point at, to use to confirm their assumptions that squibs were stupid, dirty things who deserved, at the very best, a sort of patronizing pity. Some of the less prejudiced might look at Dumbledore and praise his magnanimity, his generosity in letting someone who didn’t belong enjoy their world for a day, despite his ‘dark, criminal past.’ Nine months ago, when he had first arrived in the past, he would have refused the invitation because of his fear of changing the timeline. That fear still thrived within him, but it wasn’t the real reason he was going to refuse today.

“Thank you, Headmaster, that’s a very generous invitation,” Harry smiled, trying to make his lips feel less tight than they were. “But I’ve got a lot to do today, so I’m just going to head home now.” He turned and strode to the front door. Opening it, he cast what he hoped was a polite look over his shoulder. “I hope you have a nice afternoon, sir.”

Dumbledore’s brows were furrowed slightly in confusion, but he smiled again nonetheless. “And you as well, my boy.”

Harry was out the door and halfway down the road back to the village before he realized that Filch and Mrs. Norris made rather better impressions on him today than his mother and the Headmaster had.

Time travel can be so, so confusing.

13 May, 1977

The next three weeks passed contentedly enough without any real incidents. It took Harry all four days of his first week to finish cleaning the Owlery, though he wasn’t entirely sure how Filch could decide he was actually done. Sure, there were a lot fewer droppings, but the owls had risen valiantly to the challenge of restoring their home to its former, stinking glory.

After that, he’d spent another two days – strange days – helping the librarian, a heavily-accented man named Zenodotus Furcsa, track down wayward books. Apparently, this was actually a job that couldn’t be completed in a moment with a wand. Rather, Harry discovered that some of the Darker, more powerful books in the Restricted Section had a tendency to wander off and go undercover, so to speak, in the benign stacks where they gradually attempted to corrupt their more innocent neighbors. The books had long since wised up to their human captors, and had managed to figure out a way to avoid being summoned. Thus it was Harry’s task to hunt down those texts that Furcsa believed had infiltrated the stacks over the course of the school year and to notify the ancient, but still sharp-eyed, old man whenever he had one cornered.

He was too nervous about being caught to attempt to use his time in the library to research spells on the sly, though he did pay close attention to books whose titles suggested they treated either time travel or Dementors. The few he found were quickly added to a list for Pel, who had offered to try to research Harry’s predicament.

The rest of that second week had been spent helping Professor Sprout in the greenhouses. She was pleasant enough, certainly, but couldn’t seem to stop herself from making sure that Harry understood she wasn’t like the rest of the bigoted wizarding world.

“It’s so terrible what they do to you poor folk,” she had gushed on the first day. “In fact, as a child some of my very best friends were squibs. The things we got up to … well, I won’t bore you.” She had paused thoughtfully. “I do wonder whatever happened to them … I suppose I haven’t heard from Susie – she was my best friend before Hogwarts – since I was eleven or so …”

And later: “I don’t understand why folks say squibs are so useless. Look at you, you can clearly pot a plant and sweep a floor just as well as anyone! Why, I’ve always said that squibs can be contributing members of society, we just need to find the right sort of jobs for them!”

And finally: “Well done, my dear! Such a sweet young man you are! Have I mentioned that some of my best friends were squibs?”

Only about ten times.

Harry was glad to leave the greenhouses on the last day of that week.

After that, he’d been delighted to spend this third week helping Hagrid. For the first time his service at Hogwarts felt more like a return to his first home than a punishment. Much of the week saw Colin delightedly following Harry all around the grounds, to the shock of those few students and professors who could actually see his companion.

Hagrid had been dumbfounded by Harry’s facility with his charges, though the boy desperately wanted to tell him that he himself was principally responsible for everything Harry knew about creatures. He’d been worried that he’d revealed too much when he’d automatically bowed upon seeing Windracer, a lanky brown hippogriff, but Hagrid had just proudly proclaimed he was a natural.

This week had seen him introduced to a number of creatures he hadn’t yet had experience with, including Porlocks, a large family of which resided in the thestrals’ winter stables, Bowtruckles, and Knarls, which followed him around for the better part of a morning for some unknown reason. In the back of his mind, Harry hoped his time with Hagrid helped him on his upcoming O.W.L.s., but at least he wasn’t dealing with anything as alarming as Blast-Ended Skrewts.

His afternoons and evenings were largely now spent in the stable or Forest studying. Ab had procured the fifth year Charms and Transfiguration texts for him, and Harry was steadily trying to work his way through them, though without peers to compare himself to or professors to grade him it was hard to say if he was making normal progress. He’d enjoyed another few history lessons with Pel, as well as several sessions of “Getting My Arse Handed to Me 101,” otherwise known as Ab’s DADA lessons. Soon enough, the old man promised, they’d start working on Potions. When he heard this, Harry tried to avoid imagining Ab striding about the pub kitchen in black robes that billowed just so, but was unsuccessful and dissolved into giggles.

Ab was less than amused.

After he had strung up the last of the dead ferrets that Hagrid would use that afternoon to work on training Windracer, he bid farewell to the half-giant and headed through a glade towards the gate that would lead him to the path back to Hogsmeade.

As he rounded a corner he was suddenly met with a group of more than a dozen students – sixth or seventh years, judging by their height – who looked to be setting themselves up for a Care of Magical Creatures practical lesson.

“Is that him?”

“He’s the one who –”

“…seriously, a wizard-killer!?”

“–s’a squib, yeah?”

“— killed —!”

Shite. Keep moving.

Harry refused to duck his head but quickened his pace almost imperceptibly. It wasn’t enough.

“Oi! You! Squib!” A rough voice bellowed out.

Harry could have kept walking, but he couldn’t bring himself to offer his back as an easy target. He turned in the direction of the voice, face calm and neutral.


A bulky, dark-haired Slytherin who looked to be some relation to Marcus Flint, the captain of the Slytherin Quidditch team back in the 1990s, was standing with his wand trained on Harry.

“So you’re the little plonker who killed a wizard.” The boy scoffed. “You don’t look like much. Maybe we should teach you to respect your betters.” Two other boys in green and silver ties laughed.

What is it with wizards and talking about being someone’s “better”?

Harry sighed.

Don’t fight. Be creative, Ab said in his head.

“Okay,” Harry agreed, folding his arms across his chest.

“Huh?” One of Probably-a-Flint’s companions gaped.

Harry made a polite ‘get on with it,’ gesture. “I said, ‘okay,’ as in, I suppose you can go ahead and give it your best.” The three Slytherins sputtered. Probably-a-Flint looked like he wanted to start casting spells, but Harry’s attitude had confused him.

“What are you doing?” asked a Hufflepuff girl in shock. “They can really hurt you!”

Although his every instinct was screaming at him that it was a bad idea, he nonetheless turned away from the threat before him and smiled humorlessly at the girl. “Yes, they can. But I don’t think that they plan to kill me, which is what the rest of the wizarding world would do to me if I defend myself right now. So, between death and torture, I’ve got to go with torture.”

Several of the students looked confused, others scandalized, a few looked extremely guilty.

Harry turned back to Probably-a-Flint. “In any case, please do get on with it. Or not.” He shrugged. “Either way, let’s make a decision, as I have plans for the rest of my afternoon.”

The three boys looked angry but hesitant. This confrontation clearly hadn’t gone the way they had expected.

They aren’t going to do anything. They want to look big and tough, but they’re too confused to do it now.

“Hey – what are you snakes up to?” came a voice from behind Harry that made the hair on his neck rise.

“Looks like they’re thinking of messing with dear Squibbulus here, Prongs.”

Shit. Really, Sirius?

Harry wanted to bury his face in his hands as his dad and godfather suddenly stepped in front of him, wands brandished and pointed at the Slytherins, their shoulders raised and heads cocked in a most dramatic, most noble, pose. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lupin flank them, along with –he growled internally – a chubby little teenaged fucking Peter Pettigrew.

Don’t kill him. Don’t kill him. Figure all that out later. Don’t kill him. Don’t kill him.

“Well, in that case, Padfoot, I say we have to defend the poor bugger.” James smiled, his eyes flashing.

The fight was already over before it started, you dumb shits!

“I hardly think that necessary,” Harry observed, allowing his annoyance to bleed into his tone as amusement.

Sirius kept his wand and eyes on Probably-a-Flint, but addressed Harry over his shoulder. “Quiet, Squibbulus. Don’t get involved in things you don’t understand.”

“There’s a war on, kid,” James added in dread seriousness.

“So get out of the way and let us fight it,” Sirius finished.

“What do you say, Padfoot, we can nail them with some choice pranks later, but for now should we show everyone what little Flint has to offer under his pants? Levicorp"

Harry had learned much more about self-control in his time as a squib than he ever thought he would. But, he could admit to himself, he was still a bloody Gryffindor. And bloody Gryffindors aren’t known for their restraint.

He laughed. It was a mocking, derisive laugh, there was no hiding that, and it brought his father up short.

“Really? I, of all people, ‘don’t understand?’? ‘There’s a war on?’” he parodied. “Are you, seriously, are you stupid?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lupin plant his head in his palm. Harry didn’t wait for a response. “Why yes, I am aware of the current war, and I think I understand what it means better than either of you.”

The two Marauders forgot the Slytherins and rounded on Harry.

“Look,” he continued, before either could respond, “you two seem to think that war is like some fight at school. That you’ll curse at each other a few times until a teacher stops it and then reminisce over dinner about how you made your enemy puke slugs or show his pants or something stupid.”

Harry’s bitter amusement was morphing into a sharp, dangerous fury. He wasn’t sure if he was being unfair to his father and godfather, but he didn’t care.

You die when you’re twenty-one, Dad! Is this how you fought the war? Like a game? Like a fight against another House? Did you just not take it seriously enough?

Is this why you died?

Is this why I grew up alone?

“That’s not what this war is, you stupid fucks! You fight here at your school for, for what? Your reputations, to prove how cool you are. Out there, in the real world where there aren’t teachers or mummies and daddies to run to, you’re fighting for your fucking lives.” Macnair’s face grinned as he stabbed his shoulder. Crucio, Crucio, Crucio. Kill the spare. Cedric’s empty eyes. “Christ, only bullies and kids treat war like a fucking game. And I bet that they’re the first to die.”

He noticed that a few of the gathered students looked stricken but were nodding slowly, Remus Lupin among them.

“So puff yourselves up and strut around your school like war heroes all you want. Run home to your mummies or to your Heads of House if things don’t go your way and you get hit with an embarrassing spell. But don’t you dare try to tell me what war is.”

James and Sirius glared at Harry as if he were Voldemort himself, their wands pointed at his chest.

“I mean really, just look at you now,” he remarked, suddenly just so weary of it all. “Someone says something you don’t like, and it’s ‘wands out! Get the enemy!’” He shook his head bitterly. “Go back to your classrooms, and Great Halls, and parents. Please. Leave the real world for those of us who know how to live in it.”

With that, he walked directly between the two snarling, sputtering Gryffindors, past a shocked-looking trio of Slytherins, and out of the glade on the path to the gate. His back was in a rictus of anxiety, waiting to be hit by a spell sent from someone in either group, but nothing ever came.

Instead, Harry walked on unmolested and found Goat grazing just outside the gate. She nudged his hand for a head rub, then silently fell into step at his side.

Harry wasn’t sure how he felt as he walked back to the village. He was disappointed in the way James and Sirius acted, but as his temper cooled he knew that it probably wasn’t all that different from how he and Ron may have behaved with regard to Malfoy and his cohorts. It had probably been unfair to talk down to them as he had, but their condescension and bravado – and their stupid, bloody innocence – aggravated him to no end.

He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he could easily ignore the various glares and disapproving shakes of their heads that he earned from most of the villagers as he passed by. Indeed, he barely noticed anything other than his own musings and Goat’s presence until the realization hit him that he had walked past the turn that took him to the Hog’s Head a few blocks back.

And so maybe it was simply luck – or fate, or design, or coincidence –  that brought Harry to the point in the road that faced the side wall of the Hogsmeade Post Office. As he raised himself out of his turbulent thoughts, he could not miss the new addition to the normally-smooth gray stone in front of him.

Scrawled – wait, no, carved – into the stone in sharp, uneven letters at least a foot high each, was a single phrase.


Harry’s stomach dropped as the memory slammed into him.

Suddenly a voice sounded in the nothing. Though no louder than falling snow, it cut across the emptiness, so shocking in the endless silence that the words seemed to tattoo themselves in the not-air … A soul for a soul, little wizard …

He stared in horror at the graven words.

What the–?

No way.

Oh God.