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The Second String

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XVII. Examinations In Progress

17 November, 1977


So that’s that done, I guess.

A bemused Harry walked home after his final day of prescribed service to wizards at Hogwarts.

600 assigned hours. 20 hours a week. 30 weeks. Has it really been that long since the trial?

Given that he usually faced some sort of life or death situation every year before he could leave the school, he rather expected something dramatic to happen that week, especially since receiving the last communication from what he privately thought of as his “Dementor stalker.”

Yet nothing had happened, and the last few weeks had actually been quite … profitable. He’d spent them mostly with Hagrid, Slughorn, and Sprout, and had made sure to help himself liberally to the potions stores and the greenhouses. He’d figured at some point the mokeskin bag from Hagrid would finally become too stuffed for more stolen ingredients, but he’d never discovered that point.

Well, there are still chances in the future, he grinned.

On the previous Monday, he’d gotten permission from Ab to accept a one-morning per week job with Madame Pomfrey, who had extolled the virtues of his help to the headmaster. It wouldn’t pay much, but the matron was adamant that he continue to learn from her, and this would give them ample time together to practice. He was also tentatively set to watch the ‘squib-friendly’ greenhouses for Sprout again in the summer, so that would bring in some much-needed galleons and further opportunities for petty larceny.

His final meeting with Filch had been oddly bittersweet. He’d managed to reach the man’s office before him at the end of the day, and rummaged through his files until he found the Map, which he happily – if a bit guiltily – pocketed. Filch had walked in moments later, Mrs. Norris in tow.

With a terse grin and a final Chocolate Frog tossed his way, Filch admonished him not to be a stranger. Mrs. Norris curled around his leg one more time, and Harry realized with a pang that he’d rather miss being the one teenager in the school that Argus Filch and Mrs. Norris could stand.

Still, the prospect of having all his mornings but one back to himself was exciting. He had plenty to do right now with his Belgian O.W.L.s looming ever closer, but come spring he hoped to use the time for something more engaging than revising.

After a quick late lunch at the Head, he trundled off to the Forest to meet Ab for a Defense lesson, a now full-grown Colin lumbering at his side. Harry smiled as he watched him attempt to walk gracefully but failing miserably as he still hadn’t gotten accustomed to his increased height.

The thestral nearly walked into a tree. “Oh, Colin, watch where you’re go –”

And then Colin was in the air in a flash as the tree to Harry’s other side got hit with a curse and rained chunks of wood on the young wizard.

“Aigis Makra!” Harry sent up a shield designed to protect him both from spells and sharp debris as he dove for cover behind the tree into which Colin had nearly walked.

Shite, I don’t know where they are or how many there are.

Harry cast about frantically trying to think of a spell that could help him defend himself and get answers to those questions at the same time.

A transfiguration charm modification he had thought of some weeks back popped into his head. To his pride, he’d managed to perfect the bird-conjuring spell (though casting it non-verbally was still way beyond him). At the time, he’d thought that birds weren’t the most useful things to be able to cast, especially in battle, and had figured that the same wand movement with modified intent and incantation could perhaps produce something with a little more … sting to it.

What the hell, why not?

“Vespae Crabrones!” The sound of a gunshot echoed through the forest as plumes of smoke accompanied the small swarm of giant European hornets – a species known for their aggression and interest in bright lights – out of his wand.

At the same time, his opponent – or one of them – cast a Reducto at the tree he was using for cover. As Harry ducked out of the way just in time to avoid being injured, his hornets converged on the threat and zoomed to the underbrush ahead of him where his attacker seemed to be concealed.

A sharp half-scream followed by an angry “ever-living fuck!” sounded from the bushes before the hornets were engulfed in an Incendio.

Breathing heavily, Harry tried to hold back his grin as a sullen and disheveled Ab floundered out the bushes, a number of swelling red mounds popping out on his face. The flaming hornets slowly burned out and dropped around the older wizard.

“Hornets.” It wasn’t a question.

Harry grinned. “European hornets. They like to attack things. And most people are at least surprised when a swarm of two-inch-long hornets attacks them out of nowhere.”

Ab grimaced as he gingerly fingered one of the stings. “You really can be a mean little fucker, boy.” He pulled some salve out of his robes. “Figured I’d bring this ‘cause you’d need it. Hmpf. Well done, lad.”

“Should I ask why you were trying to take my head off without warning?”

“Wanted to see how you handled yourself in an ambush. Figured we could practice some dodging today as well.” Ab grunted. “Thanks for not sendin’ that bloody bread-slicing or carrot-peeling spell at me. Was a bit concerned about them comin’ my way, I ain’t too proud to admit.” Ab gently hunkered himself down on a stump and began applying the salve. “’Fore we get started, wanted to let you know I got your O.W.Ls all set up. You’re takin’ them in Leuven startin’ on December 12th and goin’ through the 23rd. Wanted to do ‘em in January, but they ain’t offerin’ them again until April.”

Harry’s breath caught in his throat. “So … so soon? That’s less than a month away!” His heart was beating entirely too fast and his palms were suddenly sweating. Is this what Hermione feels like all the time?

“Bah, you’ll be fine. Least on the tests that matter. I put you down for Defense, Charms, Transfiguration, Herbology, Potions, Creatures, History, Astronomy, and Muggle Studies. Figure you’ll probably fail Astronomy – no loss for you – but the rest you’re in good shape. Didn’t bother with Divination.”

Harry snorted. A single afternoon with Wigol ended with the wispy little man grinning and pronouncing him “totally rubbish” at the subject (at least that’s what Harry thought he said), so Divination was simply abandoned.

“Got your schedule for you back at the Head, but stop frettin’. You’re a fine enough wizard and you ain’t as stupid as you look.”

“Based on what I’ve seen, I’d have to agree. You are a fine young wizard, aren’t you Harry?”

Both men jumped at the high-pitched sound of the unexpected voice and whipped around, wands out.

Moaning Myrtle stepped out from behind a tree back down the path Harry had taken to the glade, slowly clapping her hands with a wicked smirk across her face.

“Well shit,” Ab muttered.

Myrtle gave her tinkling giggle. “Are you being a bad boy again, Harry?”

His mind wasn’t helping him think through the most logical response – it was too busy being stuck on a loop of profanity – so Harry just went with his first instinct. Deny, deny, deny.

“Myrtle! Oh! This, uh- isn’t what it looks like! I mean –”

Ab snorted into his hand.

The petite brunette’s grin got even wider. “Really Harry? Looks to me like the Head’s little squib is actually a wizard practicing spells with old Aberforth here in the Forbidden Forest and preparing to take his O.W.L.s next month in Belgium.” She clucked her tongue at their glares. “You boys should have been more careful. It was easy enough for a lady interested in where you two got off to so often to follow Aberforth, and walking through a forest with a great bumbling thestral isn’t so good for stealth, Harry dear.”

“Well shit,” Harry sighed. Though she followed Ab, so at least I’m off the hook for that one.

Ab’s face was like a block of granite. “Cramer, this ain’t a game. Don’t you –”

The smile dropped from Myrtle’s face as she cast a speculative glance at Harry. “Never said it was, old man. Harry could have come out as a wizard back in April and saved himself a whole heap of trouble. Instead, he kept his mouth shut and dared the old purebloods to give him the Kiss.” The woman looked faintly impressed. “Whatever is going here, it definitely isn’t a game, is it?”

“No, it really isn’t,” Harry admitted stiffly.

Myrtle nodded slowly, then gracefully plopped herself down on the stump that Ab had been sitting on. “Well then, let’s deal!” her voice suddenly bright and her eyes gleaming.

“Fuck’s sake, Cramer,” Ab began, “he’s a boy. Can’t you just keep your mouth shut and leave him be?”

“Course I could, Ab. But … I’m not going to just make a promise to keep my lips sealed about Harry’s little secret. Not without getting something in return.” Harry gaped as she turned and grinned at him. “Not to worry, dear. I promise it won’t be anything too strenuous,” the word curled around him like a cat wanting attention and he felt his face redden. “But you see, Harry, in my experience relying on others to keep your secrets out of the goodness of the hearts just leads to disappointment and regret. A person’s goodness of heart only seems to last as long as keeping that secret doesn’t hurt them.” She laughed without mirth. “No, I prefer to rely on something much more faithful than ethics. So, let’s deal!”

Harry glanced at Ab, who just shrugged, quirked an eyebrow, and made a ‘go on with it, then’ gesture. Merlin, is he testing me? Thanks a lot, Ab.

“Er, okay … so what do you want?”

“Fuck’s sake, lad.”

“Oh, Harry,” Myrtle said, shaking her head. “You never, ever start like that!”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Well, I don’t know how to do this!”

Myrtle brought a hand delicately to her temple. “And you never say something like that either.” She sighed. “Just this once, I’ll help you a little. First, when you’re dealing, you want to get as much out of the other person as you can, in addition to your main desire, and you want to give as little as possible. Now, you want me to keep my mouth shut. What else do you want?”

After a quick glance at Ab – who just closed his eyes in exasperation – Harry gave it a try. “Well, I want … I guess I want to make sure you don’t tell anyone. And I want – (I want to make sure I don’t have to tell you any more of my secrets) er, nevermind that one.”

The little woman sat back and idly played with a lock of brown and gray-streaked hair. “Don’t want to give away too much of what you want? Better. So how do you make sure I don’t tell anyone, keeping in mind there’s no way I’m taking any sort of secrecy oath?”

Harry frowned and thought hard. “Um … maybe if I knew something about you that you didn’t want me to tell?”

“Blackmail or extortion,” she grinned, “not a bad thought. And how would you get this material?”

What do I know about Myrtle Cramer? Harry racked his brain and recalled that Pel had once said that she was involved with a bunch of illegal activities … and when he’d asked at his unbirthday party, the woman had been evasive. “Maybe you could use my help a bit in your, um, business? That would be something I could give you, and I’d also probably learn some stuff that you may not want other people to know.”

Myrtle looked speculative. “Nicely reasoned, Harry!”

“Oh bloody hell,” Ab groaned. “You really can’t stay out of shit even for a day, can you, boy?”

The woman ignored him and smoothed the skin-tight leather of her trousers. “Not a bad idea, perhaps, but can you be useful to me? I know the old man won’t let me put you in danger, so putting you on the transport of … product is out.” She frowned. “Those wasps of yours were a pretty good on the fly spell. You any good at enchanting?”

“Um, no, I don’t think I’ve even really tried, Mrs. Cramer.”

“He ain’t complete bollocks at it,” Ab broke in. “An’ yeah, you have tried, lad. Don’t you remember those rocks round your neck?”

Harry’s eyes widened and his hand went to his mokeskin bag. Myrtle giggled, “Well, let’s see your little stones, Harry!”

Ignoring that bit of innuendo, Harry reached into his bag and withdrew a few of the rocks he’d programmed more than a year ago with Point-Me and banishing charms. Handing them to Myrtle, he quickly explained how he’d used them to hunt. By the time he was finished, she looked fairly interested.

“Definitely functional …” she murmured, “but juvenile in design …” Harry winced. “These, yes these show some promise, and you’re not incompetent for someone your age at inlaid charms.” She tapped her teeth with her fingers as rolled the stones in her palm. “Hmm … Just so happens I’m working on a project right now that could use someone who can handle simple inlaid magic.”

Harry stared at her. “Are you saying you’ll keep quiet if I what? Charm things for you?”

Myrtle hopped off the stump and gave him a quick lick on the nose. “Something like that, dear.” She laughed as he furiously wiped his face. “Yes, I think you’ll do nicely.”

“Well done, lad, well done,” Ab remarked dryly from his perch at the kitchen table later that afternoon. “I was lookin’ forward to havin’ you around more now that Hogwarts was done, but no, you had to go and get involved in Cramer’s little criminal empire.”

Harry huffed. “Sorry for your suffering. Seems you should have to give up more than just my extra help around the pub, seeing as you’re the one who led her to us.”

Ab gave the growling snort he reserved for moments when he was annoyed but couldn’t dispute a point.

“Besides,” Harry continued, “I won’t be gone more than a few half-days a week, I think, and it’s only until the New Year – thanks for adding the deadline, by the way. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it. A lifetime in the service of Moaning Myrtle …” He trailed off in horror.

Ab grunted again. “Just make sure you don’t do more than you agreed. You sure as shit don’t the sort of trouble Cramer and her little gang can bring on.”

The younger wizard nodded, though he couldn’t see how he’d be in much danger. The agreement they’d reached was relatively straightforward. Harry was to spend four to ten hours a week with Myrtle, charming something, he didn’t know what, to do something. Ab had even thought to prod him to demand a small fee for his services.

Harry suspected Aberforth grudgingly trusted Myrtle, since he didn’t raise too much of a fuss about the whole thing, and got her to guarantee that he wouldn’t be put in any dangerous situations. His only sanctioned excursion with the group was to be during his trip to Belgium for his exams. Apparently, a few families were hoping to escape to the continent, and Harry was to accompany them on a ship that would take them to Zeebruge.

The young wizard was convinced that he wasn’t really going to protect others so much as to have others protect him, given Ab’s satisfied expression when Myrtle agreed to have him on the ship.

“Well, you ain’t goin’ with that crazy little thing until Tuesday, so don’t be dwellin’ on it now. You got studyin’ to do and a weekend to get through, so just focus on that, yeah?”

Harry nodded again, thinking with some amusement that Hermione would probably never have expected him to get a job manufacturing illegally-enchanted whatevers on the day he “left” Hogwarts.

19 November, 1977

A few days later saw winter bluster into the village in time for a Hogsmeade weekend. Aberforth had turned the pub over to Harry for the morning and most of the afternoon, vaguely citing a meeting that the young man suspected had something to do with the group who had set up Platform 9 that summer. The howling winds, sleet, and snow seemed likely to prohibit even the feeblest Hogwarts business, especially since the students would have one more chance to visit the village before the holidays.

The white- and purple-haired old woman that Ab seemed to have a soft spot for, whose name Harry had learned was Hippia, sat in her usual back-corner table, and two men he recognized by sight but not name were ensconced in a booth by the window, drinking pints of Steaming Stout and having a murmured conversation. Harry was leaning back against the shelf by the till and leisurely reading the Prophet when he registered the sound of the door opening and someone taking a seat at the bar.

“What’ll it be –”  He cut himself off mid-question, as he looked into the anxious face of Lily Evans, her face flushed from the cold and her smart violet coat liberally dusted with sleet and snow. His mother sat at the bar, trying – and failing – to appear completely comfortable with her surroundings.

Why in the world would she be here? Sure, he’d seen her around during his service to wizards at Hogwarts, though he hadn’t spoken to her since his first day there in April. But now that he knew she wasn’t his actual mother, only her dimensional counterpart, he couldn’t resist the pull to interact with her, free from his earlier anxieties about the timeline.

Harry forced himself to keep his face neutrally polite. “What’ll it be for you, uh, This Year’s Head Girl?”

Lily gave a false, nervous little laugh. “Oh, I – I don’t … uh, tea?”

“Tea?” Harry swallowed his smile. “Sure, I can do tea. Want to make that a toddy though? Perfect for a day like today.” She looked hesitant. “I promise I won’t make it very strong.”

The girl gave him a helpless shrug but smiled. “Yeah, okay, why not. But, not too strong, right?”

Lily did not look enthused that he was leaving her alone in the pub while he went to the hob downstairs to grab the kettle, and her shoulders slumped in relief when he returned. They were silent as he steeped the tea, added honey, cloves, cinnamon, whiskey, and a bit of lemon, nutmeg, and vanilla. His mother kept her eyes on his hands the whole time, and Harry internally smiled in approval. It was a good idea for a young person to keep an eye on what they were going to drink, especially in a place like this.

Lily looked a bit suspicious as she took a tentative sip, but her face quickly brightened into a wide smile. “Wow! I’ve never had one of these … it’s really good.”

He answered with a pleased shrug. “Glad you like it.”

One of them might have said more, but Loch the werewolf and his new girlfriend entered, and Harry was busy for a bit preparing their lunch order.

Eventually returning to the bar, he found Lily fingering her empty glass and watching him with a strange look on her face. “Want another?”

“Yeah, actually I would,” Lily smiled, “but I better not. I’m not really used to drinking …”

“Well, can I get anything else for This Year’s Head Girl?”

The redhead frowned and then her eyes widened. “I – I never introduced myself to you, did I?” A blush crept up her neck and into her cheeks as Harry simply shook his head.

“I – I’m sorry. I should have.”

Harry just shrugged good-naturedly. “Don’t worry about it. I’m pretty used to it.”

She bit her lip and stuck out her hand. “Well, I’m still sorry. I’m Lily, Lily Evans.”

A bit amused, Harry shook her hand, barely keeping himself from raising an eyebrow at her surprisingly firm grip. “Harry. It’s nice to meet you, formally, that is.”

They stood in awkward silence for a few beats as Lily watched him and Harry floundered under her scrutiny. “So, Lily, can I get you anything else?”

Her eyes snapped to attention and a flush crept over her cheeks. “No – yes, actually – well, no…”

Well said, mum.

“You’re sending some pretty mixed signals,” Harry deadpanned.

Her blush deepened. “No, I mean, I don’t want anything else to eat or drink but, well, I wanted to talk to you. Um, please.” Harry blinked in surprise and motioned for her to continue. “I just, see, I –” She took a deep breath. “I really wanted to apologize to you. For what I said when I met you last year at Hogwarts. I was wrong to, to judge you like that.” Her brow furrowed in much the same way as Hermione’s did when she was upset, he noted absently. “And I wanted to say that last spring I – I didn’t know as much about what happened to you, but now I do, and I think it’s wrong that the Ministry would put you on trial and almost give you the Kiss just because you defended yourself against a Death Eater!” The words tumbled out in a rush, and then the girl looked around as if expecting the others in the pub to oppose her.

Perhaps surprised that no one had screamed something like “how dare you say such a thing!” Lily continued in a less strident voice. “Anyway. I just wish I hadn’t treated you like that. I want … I want to be better than those who, well do. Like that absolute shi – I mean, jerk Dorbel. That’s all. So I’m sorry.”

A soft, almost parental, feeling of pride welled up in Harry.

“Thanks … It’s actually really nice to hear that,” was all he said in the end. She beamed at him.

A wicked little smile crossed Harry’s face. “And as for Dorbel, don’t worry about him. That absolute shit is on borrowed time anyway.” At her puzzled look, he explained. “Haven’t you noticed you have a new Defense teacher just about every year? Most are sure the position’s cursed. We even have a bit of a flutter going on about how he takes his leave of the school.” He gestured towards the wall behind her and her eyes widened as she took in the now-hundreds of possible odds and bets.

“You’re gambling on him?” she exclaimed, aghast. “That’s – that’s … well, that’s actually kind of brilliant.” Her eyes scanned the bets. “Auto-erotic asphyxiation? Really?” Harry huffed a little laugh. “And the leading bet is that he’s taken out by an enraged teenaged squib?”

Harry pulled a scowl. “That one’s not mine. Can’t believe it’s still the top choice.”

Lily snickered as she pulled a galleon out of her purse. “Do you think you could put me down for the ‘house-elf revolutionary enslavement’ one?”

He’d been taking a sip of water and nearly spit it out his nose. “Promise you won’t tell?”

Confused, she nodded.

“That’s Professor McGonagall’s wager,” he revealed with relish. “It really is supposed to be anonymous, but…”

Lily’s loud laugh cut him off. “Well if the Professor is going for it, I definitely want in!”

Harry smiled as he took her galleon and promised to have Wig and Pel mark down her wager.

The redhead’s laughter subsided and she slowly adopted a more serious expression. “Um, Harry, I did come here to apologize to you, but I also came because I was kind of hoping to talk to the old man who runs this place about, well, about something.”

Ab? Mum wants to talk to Ab? Now that’s unexpected.

“Well, he’s out for the day. I can give him a message if you want.”

Lily worried her lip. “I don’t know. Maybe … See, I’m not even sure if he’s the right person to talk to. It’s just …”

Green eyes met green eyes as she gave him a long, searching look.

“See, I don’t know if you know it, but on Leaving Day last year, some Muggle-borns’ families were attacked. I think the Ministry chalked it up to Muggle-on-Muggle violence, but that’s just such lies. Well … there was this fifth year Gryffindor I was friendly with, and she wrote me a letter. She’s at Beauxbatons now, and she said that some people helped smuggle her and her family out of the country when she got off the train. She said, well, she said one of them looked like ‘the old man who ran the Hog’s Head.’”

Harry’s face had grown stiff and hard. People were not supposed to know the identities of the Platform Nine team. Ab’s glamour must have slipped at some point. Shite.

“Come with me. Now.”

Without waiting for an answer he firmly took her arm and nearly man-handled her down the stairs and into the stable.

She looked at him in shock, but he snapped, “Go on with what you were saying.”

Obviously apprehensive about Harry’s reaction, Lily continued much more nervously. “I … I don’t mean to … I mean, I was hoping if it was him who helped, that maybe I could convince him to take my parents out of the country. I can stay with my boyfriend (oh my God, is she with Dad now?) or my friend Marlene over the break and this summer, but my parents … they’re defenseless against magic and I can’t bear the thought of something happening to them!” She looked near tears. “Please, if you can help or you know someone who can … I’m just so scared.”

Shite. Harry swelled in sudden, furious worry for Ab and the others in the group.

“Dammit! Look, hypothetically speaking, people are not supposed to know about any of this. Your friend put a ton of people in real fucking danger writing you about it. That stupid, stupid girl!” He kicked at some hay and took a few deep breaths. “And I understand why you came here, but you cannot just start talking about it in public, do you understand?”

Lily nodded quickly and Harry sat down on his hay bed with a heavy sigh.

“Okay. Still speaking in hypotheticals, if I know contacts for this … group, I could get you in touch with them so you can see if they’re interested in helping.”

The girl let out a strangled sob of relief.

But.” Harry stared hard at his teenaged quasi-mother. “But, and I really, really mean this, if you work with them you cannot tell anyone. Not your boyfriend, not your friends, not the headmaster. In fact, given what your idiotic friend did, they might not be willing to help.”

“But the headma –”

“Fuck the headmaster.” Harry when shocked to realize he thoroughly meant what he said. “The headmaster is a great man, I know, but this just isn’t his business. Period. If you can’t handle that, I’ll knock you out right now and have Aberforth Obliviate you when he gets back.”

What the fuck am I saying? There’s no way I can do that, right? Christ, what I am doing?

Lily looked as if she’d been slapped. Harry let out a frustrated breath. “Lily, this is war. But it isn’t a war between side one and side two. There’s lots of other people involved, people risking everything. I’m guessing that if they believe they can trust you, they’ll risk their lives to help your family. But you can’t just ask for someone’s help and not be prepared to help protect them in turn.”

Lily nodded again, and this time met his eyes. “I understand. I’ll take vows if that’s what they want. I don’t like not telling James – he’s my boyfriend – or my friends, but I understand.” She tentatively placed her hand on top of his. (My mum is touching me. She’s touching me.) “Thank you, Harry.”

He gave a jerky shrug of his shoulders. “I’m not sure how contact will work. But if you get a letter or some sort of communication, it must include the phrase ‘Platform Nine.’ If it doesn’t, it’s not from us. If that happens, I dunno, just send me a note asking how I am or something. I’ll know what you mean.”

She smiled hesitantly, then started in surprise when Goat approached and unceremoniously took in a large mouthful of fiery red hair.

“Don’t mind her,” Harry shrugged. “She does that.”

That evening Harry received yet another visitor.

My social calendar is positively bustling, he thought wryly.

Auror Alice bounced into the pub heedless of the looks that some of the dodgier patrons cast at her.

Harry smiled tightly. He’d seen her a few times since pretending his mind was boggled, and his temper had cooled in the interim. We can be friendly, he had decided, as long as I don’t forget I’m not a priority for her.

“Hiya Harry!” she beamed. “I know, I know, it’s not the day for my official visit, but I figured we could do it now and then I could tell you my news!” Without waiting for an answer she got him to verify that he was still abiding by the terms of his parole (yes wizards are just absolutely brilliant and I’m so very lucky they tolerate my existence) and then thrust her left hand into his face so hard she nearly took out his eye.

“See? See?!”

“Er –”

She growled. “The ring, Harry. The ring!”

He looked at her hand. Yes, there is a ring there … “It’s … nice?”

The Auror hissed at him.

What? What did I do? I said it was nice!

“Merlin’s sake, it’s an engagement ring, you idiot! Frank proposed! I’m getting married!”

Pel, Dalcop, and some of the other patrons brightened. “Well, I’d say this calls for a round in congratulations, young lady!” Peloother grinned.

Alice looked taken aback, but nothing could stop her ebullience. “What the hell? Sure, a round for everyone!”

Harry got to work pouring shots of Firewhiskey for the bar and then couldn’t stop his grin as the entire Head toasted the upcoming nuptials of an Auror.

Seriously, how often does that happen?

Alice wasn’t smiling when he put out his hand for money. “Hey, you called the round, Auror Alice, it’s on you.”

“Aw, ruddy hell,” came the sudden voice of a returning Ab. “She ain’t half a bastard. This one’s on the house.”

Will wonders ever cease?

As the pub calmed down and the patrons returned to their own conversations, Alice informed Harry that the wedding would be in late June. She suddenly looked rather uncomfortable. “I’m, well, I’m really sorry, but I can’t invite you.”

Harry hadn’t even thought she would invite him.

“Don’t worry about it, Alice.”

“No, I really wanted to,” she rushed on headlong. “It’s just Frank’s mum is pretty superstitious and, well, you know they say it’s bad luck to have a squib at the wedding.”

Well of course they do.

“I said don’t worry about it. This gets me out of having to buy you a gift, right?”

She laughed and smacked the back of his head. “Don’t bet on it. I can’t wait to point to some ugly vase or teacup or whatnot and tell my future children that ‘Harry the crazy squib murderer’ got it for me.”

“I’ll make sure whatever I get you is appropriately horrendous, in that case.”

Ab wasn’t nearly as happy later that night when Harry summarized his conversation with Lily. “Ruddy stupid little bint” was about the nicest thing the man had to say about his quasi-mother’s loose-lipped friend. At first, the old man seemed ready to dismiss Lily’s plea and somehow memory-charm her so she couldn’t divulge his identity to anyone.

He stopped when he saw Harry’s face.

“I … I thought about that too, right from the off. But …”

“People are riskin’ their lives here, lad! We need to protect our own.”

Harry toed the floor awkwardly. “Yeah, yeah I know. It’s just that,” he chanced a glance at Ab, “well, that’s pretty much what the headmaster thought when he Obliviated me.” Harry really didn’t want to think about how much his own reactions mirrored Dumbledore’s.

Outrage clouded over the older man’s features, but Harry stared at him unapologetically.

“Besides that, she’s my mum, Ab. Or the closest I’ll ever get to my mum.”

Harry wasn’t sure what words he could use to make this work out.

“Please. Please help her.”

He hadn’t intended to speak with Ab about all this in the upstairs sitting room, but the expectant look on Ariana’s face definitely helped his cause. The old man cringed when she arched her brow.

“Fine! Fine. I’ll write to her. See if I can set somethin’ up. But she better not be as stupid as I expect her to be. Dating Potter!” he growled. “Can’t be all that bright a lass.”

Harry knew that growl. It was a growl that translated to “I’m really irritated but you are going to get your way, so shove off.”

“Thanks, Ab. I mean it. And make sure you mention Platform Nine – I told her it was a codeword.”

Ab raised his eyes heavenward. “’A ‘course you did, Merlin. Go study or somethin’ that ain’t ‘round me.”

22 November, 1977

Dabbling in the world of illicit magical manufacturing and distribution was not shaping up to be as exciting as Harry had expected.

He sighed and went back to the little pieces of metal he’d slowly grown to loathe over the last few hours.

This is going to take forever.

While he wouldn’t admit it to anyone else, he’d been almost bouncing with anticipation when Myrtle Cramer arrived at the pub that morning to take him to his first day as a member of the British magical criminal underworld. A very excited voice inside his head kept chanting ‘this is so cool, this is so cool, this is so cool!’

The voice continued burbling happily as Myrtle apparated him to a nondescript urban industrial neighborhood (though it paused for a moment as Harry fought not to vomit), as she led him into a large windowless warehouse that looked exactly like he would expect an illegal operation would use, and as she used her wand to flip on the low fluorescent lighting that illuminated shelf after shelf of boxes containing … well, Harry was sure it was interesting, whatever it was.

His excited inner voice had reached a crescendo after she had sat him down at a metal worktable next to a giant map that literally pulsed with magic. Sitting by the wicked map seemed a distinct sign that he was totally involved with the operation. He almost stopped himself from preening until he realized that there was no one else around to see him do so.

This is so cool, this is so cool, this is so cool!

“All right, Harry dear. This is your job. See these sets of dog tags?” She had held up two standard-issue metal dog tags.

“Well, we’re pairing them together magically and selling them to Muggle-borns and their families. A magical can give their Muggle relative the companion dog tag that has the number ‘9’ engraved on it. We’re charming the sets so that if a relative gets attacked, all they need to do is press their fingers to either side of the tag and say ‘help.’ The magical’s tag will get hot and let them know to get their arses to their family. Not the best alarm system, I know, but at least it’s something.”

Harry had been impressed, but deflated a little. Enchanting necklaces wasn’t exactly what he’d been picturing doing. “And this is illegal?”

Myrtle let out a tinkling laugh. “Of course. Though the Ministry likes to wax poetic about our duty to protect the Muggles from this war, they don’t actually do anything much and certainly don’t intend to relax their policies about Muggles and magical devices. It’s against a number of lovely little laws to enchant anything for Muggles to use, let alone sell them anything magic.”

She plopped down next to him. “At any rate, we need you to do the enchanting. It’s isn’t all that difficult, just four-layered charms embedded in a certain order into the metal.”

Grabbing a sheet of Muggle notebook paper and a biro, Myrtle walked him through the ‘not all that difficult’ series of charms. First he’d have to cast a Protean Charm on both dog tags in a set, then something called Vox Familiae, which he gathered was some sort of voice-touch activation charm that could link family members This was to be followed by Calescere, a warming charm that would make the metal heat up, and finally, a nifty little spell called Contego Incantatem which could mute the magic in the tags so as not to garner unnecessary Ministry attention.

By the time Myrtle had finished explaining the four new charms he’d have to master and the way to apply them to the metal, Harry was seriously considering just coming out as a wizard. Simple charming my arse! This – I don’t even understand half of this!

“Not to worry, dear. Today I’ll just have you practice until you can do them correctly!” Harry did not find Myrtle’s enthusiasm infectious.

After a few hours of accidentally melting, duplicating, exploding, and, in one memorable accident, somehow tattooing the dog tags onto his own skin – and thank Merlin that effect was temporary – Harry had finally produced a charmed tag that Myrtle happily deemed a “better failure.”

“You just have to work on your timing, Harry. Remember, you have to wait exactly four minutes and twenty-five seconds after casting the Vox Familiae to imbue the warming charm; if you don’t, well, boom!

“Yeah, I got that one. Thanks,” the teenager had grumbled as he patted down his smoldering hair. “Aren’t you going to help make them?”

“Nope,” she said, popping the ‘p.’ “God knows I don’t want to be stuck doing this grunt work. When we finally figured out how to do them, I knew that it’d take forever for each set.”

Harry glared as Myrtle smirked and ambled over to her own workstation. That’s why she was so eager to have a little helper. Goddammit.

And so here he sat, looking down at an even better failure than his previous set.

I’m never casting a warming charm again after this.

With bleary eyes and a languid hand he was about to move on to his next attempt when Myrtle headed over with two men in tow.

Harry cursed silently to himself and made to stow his wand.

“Oh, don’t worry about them, Harry dear.”

Harry was not reassured as he stared at her companions, a hulking man covered in tattoos and sporting a thick 1970s-style chevron mustache and a tall, thin redhead whom he recognized as being at the pub the day he met Myrtle. What was his name? … He couldn’t recall, but looking at the two, especially the big one, he rather hoped their names were something cliché, like Spike and Tiny, or Boris and Red Jimmy.

“Harry, these are my colleagues Dwight and Clark,” (Dwight and Clark?! Harry had to bite back his sudden disappointment), “don’t worry about them seeing you do magic. Dwight here,” the big tattooed man grunted, “is a Muggle and doesn’t give much of a shit about, well, anything, and Clark is a squib who’s signed a binding secrecy agreement with me. He literally can’t tell a soul about you.” The redhead gave him a cold nod and didn’t look him in the eye.

“Anyhow,” Myrtle continued, oblivious to the awkward reception, “Dwight’s here to help me with a little something, and Clark does our books. He’s going to set you up on payroll.”

As Clark pulled a ledger out of his battered leather case, Myrtle began speaking quietly with Dwight. Harry barely listened as the redhead quickly laid out his pay rates and asked if he preferred Muggle or magical currency. His eyes drooped and he just wanted to take a nap after all the enchanting.

They snapped open when he felt a shield suddenly cast around him.

“Don’t worry, Harry!” Myrtle called. “It’s perfectly safe, and this is for science, after all!”

And then Dwight pulled out a gun and fired in Harry and Clark’s general direction.

The shield glowed momentarily as a bullet hit it.

“What the ever-living-fuck!?” Harry screamed. What the fuck? What the fuck? They shot at me!

Myrtle barely glanced in his direction. “Just an experiment for another product, dear.” She cast a spell that seemed to illuminate the bullet’s trajectory and frowned. “Damn, still not good enough. Definitely needs tweaking.”

Dwight grunted and laid the pistol on a table.

“Huh?” Harry’s hands were shaking. Wizards don’t use guns! They’re pointless for us! He shook his head quickly. What the hell is she playing at?

Everyone else in the room seemed entirely unconcerned about the goings-on.

They’re bloody mental.

“If I could have your attention, please?” Clark asked in a peeved voice. He pushed his wire glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I was asking if you had questions regarding the amount or method of dispersal of your pay?”

“Huh? Uh, yeah, no. Sir.” Yep. Completely mental.

The redhead cocked an eyebrow at the respectful appellation. “Well, that is settled then. All monies earned working for this organization will, naturally, not be subjected to magical or Muggle taxes, so do be careful to avoid incurring an audit, as we will not supply any written records confirming or denying your pay.”

Harry thought about informing the man he didn’t even know how to pay taxes, but figured it might make him look even sillier. Instead, he pulled what he felt was a very adult expression and murmured “Of course,” while keeping a wary eye on the pistol across the room.

“Well, that concludes our business. If you do have questions pertinent to accounting, please inform Mrs. Cramer and she will contact me.” The man gave him a final cold look and stood.

I wonder if he hates me because I pretended to be a squib. Like I’ve insulted him or something … He considered apologizing or trying to explain, but the redhead, who every minute reminded him more of Percy Weasley in terms of both appearance and demeanor, didn’t seem to want to engage with him more than necessary.

Myrtle thankfully interrupted the uncomfortable moment. “Boys? Hello, Prewett? You done with Harry yet? I need to take his little bottom home soon or Ab’ll do his nut.”

A few minutes later and Harry had been apparated home. He stood in the scullery and winced at the mound of dishes Ab had left him from cooking the stew for that evening. Well, this might be better than enchanting dog tags and getting shot at with a Muggle gun. Maybe.

Sighing, Harry got to work, silently lamenting the hours of tediousness punctuated by moments of pure terror that apparently came hand in glove with entry-level positions in the exciting world of criminal enterprise.

10 December, 1977

The last few weeks had been a whirlwind of activity, and Harry couldn’t imagine having been able to get done all he needed to if his service to wizards at Hogwarts hadn’t ended. In addition to helping Ab and Quisby run the Head, he’d spent a few days a week enchanting dog tags after he finally managed to get the process down.

These had really better save some people’s lives, Harry would grumble to himself as he hunkered down for the exhausting and mind-numbingly boring task of mass-producing enchanted objects by hand.

The rest of his time had been taken up with ever-more frantic studying. For the first time in his life, someone else actually cared how he did academically – even if Ab said it didn’t much matter to him, Harry knew better – and he gingerly cherished the idea of making the old man proud, as well as Pel and Madame Pomfrey.

Indeed, the latter had been absolutely furious the week before when he informed her why he wouldn't be able to come in to work for the next two Mondays.

“You’re – you’re taking your O.W.L.s? Next week?” she had said, her tone going from a whisper to a near-shriek.

Harry cringed when her voice went up an octave. That had always been a bad sign with Hermione.

“Why the blazes didn’t you tell me, young man!?”

Oh no, she brought out the heavy curse words and the ‘young man.’ This will not end well.

He had stuttered some honest nonsense about how he hadn’t even thought of it, and that he had in fact been revising everything she had taught him.

“You – you – you!” She was nearly spitting. “I could have helped you! I could have helped you more, gone over how to approach the exams, how to formulate and structure written responses, how to time yourself appropriately, how to –”

Harry’s face fell. He hadn’t thought of things like timing himself. Is that something I need to do?

“Oh Merlin, Harry,” Pomfrey had moaned. “Well, there’s nothing for it now but to wish you good luck. However,” the hand on his shoulder suddenly clawed into him, “if you decide to ever take your NEWTs, you are going to tell me far in advance. Do you understand me?

He had nodded mutely, eyes wide, and vowed to himself that he would get her something nice while he was in Belgium.

And now he was on his way, he thought as he stood at a nearly-deserted dock in the city of Hull. The night wind was beating across the waves and freezing him to the bone as he looked up at the giant ship that was set to take him to his O.W.L.s.

It’s an actual bloody pirate ship.

The looming vessel reminded him sharply of the Durmstrang ship, though this one was smaller, less skeletal, and had black flags sporting the traditional Jolly Rogers that any Muggle child would immediately recognize as denoting a pirate vessel.

The flags were a bit much, Harry thought.

He had waited out of sight off the dock while the four Muggle-born families also traveling to Belgium were escorted onto the ship. Ab had been clear that they weren’t to see his face until after Captain Burke had cast a glamour on him. That Burke would be choosing the glamour left him more than a little nervous.

“You Harry?” a gruff voice asked.

Harry turned to find a tall man with dark eyes and a chiseled jaw covered with stubble peering at him. The man’s Muggle denims and thick nautical parka seemed distinctly unmagical, putting Harry on his guard.

“Who’s asking?”

Chiseled Jaw smiled. “Name’s Peadar, Peadar Burke. Captain of the Elizabeth here. I believe you’re acquainted with my little brother Caffrey, yeah?”

Harry stared. He wouldn’t have expected the younger Burke’s brother to be so … so normal. “Er, yeah, sorry Captain Burke. I had thought he’d be taking us, so you just surprised me, that’s all.”

The man gave him a grin that lacked any hint of sexual innuendo. “Sorry to disappoint you,” he quipped, then laughed at Harry’s obvious relief. “Caff can be such a dramatic little ponce, I know. I’ve always thought he needs to lose some teeth or an eye, learn some humility. Anyhow, I’m going to cast a glamour on you, and then we can get on board. You’re set to go to Belgium with this lot, yeah? But you’re supposed to take the Muggle ferry back in a few weeks?”

Harry nodded. “I know you and your brother won’t be around for my return, but thanks for helping me out. And the others.”

Burke laughed his easy laugh again. “No need to thank me, kid. I’m getting well paid for this little run.” He cast a weather eye on Harry. “Bit of an odd voyage you’re taking. Can you tell me about it?”

The younger wizard bristled. “Yeah. I could.”

Several silent beats later, Peadar grinned in approval. “Come on, let’s get you glamoured, get you on board, and I’ll show you around my girl.”

Twenty minutes later a blond, slightly older-looking Harry was being escorted by the elder Captain Burke around the ship’s holds as the crew of sea-bedraggled men and women readied the ship to depart from port.

“Now we just dropped off a haul of South American produce in London, so we’ll be looking in the next few days to find some Muggle transports to restock. For now, we’re just taking you and those other folks to the continent, and dropping off a small load of goodies for the Muggle-born there, and some others.”


The captain smirked. “Well, Mrs. Cramer mentioned you knew about the new tags?” Harry nodded. “Neat little things, they are. Got a few dozen sets ready to go for buyers on the continent.” He opened a case filled with the metal necklaces that were beginning to patrol Harry’s dreams.

“Then there’s these beauties.” He opened another case and Harry started.


Burke laughed. “Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. What good are bullets against wizards, right? But these are special, modified ones Cramer invented. They’ve got a series of charms in them that let them target enemies. So as long as a Muggle points in the general direction of a Death Eater, they’ll shoot true, even if the person has shit aim.”

Harry gaped. That’s – these – these are based on my rocks! Cramer stole my idea!

The other man misunderstood Harry’s open mouth as a reflection of his awe. “Now I know they sound amazing, but of course they’re as worthless as other bullets if the wizard raises a shield. Still, we’re thinking that most of the Death Eaters aren’t expecting much from Muggle targets, so hopefully they can get off a few good shots and maybe save their lives before the bastards wise up.” Burke smiled and fingered one of the bullets. “They work nicely with the dog tags. Call your relative for help, then shoot, and hope like hell that help comes before it’s too late.”

A curl of trepidation unfurled in Harry’s stomach. They’re using my idea to arm Muggles against wizards. He definitely wanted to help those who were helpless against magic, but the idea of creating weapons that could be mass-produced and used against wizards … This could become something really dangerous. Flashes of how much people like Uncle Vernon would love such power appeared in his mind, and he felt suddenly nauseated.

“Hey, don’t look like that!” Burke said, putting a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “If you’re worried about them being used against wizards in general, don’t be. Remember, all they do is make the shooter have great aim. They can’t tear through shields, so they’re no more dangerous to wizarding folk than a well-trained Muggle soldier.”

That’s true. Harry gave a jerky nod, though he intended to get Ab’s opinion on all this.

“Then there’s these, which go along quite well with the bullets,” Burke continued and opened a huge case filled with plastic Muggle bottles. They were all labeled with a loud, commercial-looking design proclaiming them Eazy-Klean! and filled with an acid green liquid.

Harry raised an eyebrow.

“Okay, say you’re a Muggle or a squib and you’ve just been attacked by a wizard. You managed to shoot him with one of the targeted bullets, and now he’d be just a bad memory if not for the fact that his body is currently gracing your parlor floor. What do you do? You can’t call the Muggle authorities and say you killed a man because he pulled a stick on you. If they found out, the DMLE or a continental equivalent would probably – well, I guess I don’t have to tell you how’d they react. Enter these totally innocuous-looking ‘cleaners.’ They’re actually filled with a standard Shrinking Solution. All you need do once you’ve dispatched your enemy is spray him with the potion. It’s designed to shrink the corpse down to the size of a small doll for a few hours, leaving you to easily convey it to the body disposal site of your choice.”

“Wicked,” Harry breathed. “And you’re just selling all this stuff to Muggle-born families who’re running from Voldemort?”

Burke nodded. “It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the essentials. What with all the recent attacks, they’re willing to pay top dollar.”

Harry’s eyes widened. “What attacks? I haven’t heard about them being up to anything.” He frowned. “I actually haven’t anything about them at all for a while now, come to think of it.”

“Well who cares about Muggles and Muggle-born in the muggle world being systematically murdered?” came a bitter, feminine voice. Harry turned around to see a youngish woman with strawberry blond hair and the beginnings of frown lines.

“Ah, Harry,” Burke intervened, “meet my first mate, Amber Satchmo. Satchmo, this is Harry. He works with Cramer.”

The woman nodded stiffly when Harry smiled at her. “Captain, we’ll be ready to leave British waters in about ten minutes.” She turned and left without another word.

“She’s angry about it, but she’s right, kid. Last few months there’s been dozens, maybe hundreds for all we know, of attacks on Muggle-born and their families in Britain, Ireland, and even in some places on the continent. Prophet doesn’t care enough to report on it, so most think we’ve reached a lull in the war.” He sighed. “We haven’t. Just the ‘right sort’ aren’t dying right now.”

The cupboard under the stairs, Harry thought, had been good training for sleeping on a pirate ship. He had his own cabin, though concluded that the word was being used euphemistically. The room was literally large enough for a half-width single bed and himself – if he stood on one leg, that was. On the other hand, the ceiling art definitely reminded him that he was indeed on a wizarding vessel. Some thoughtful soul had papered the area with photos of nubile young witches pulling poses and doing … things, things that Harry would have thought were physically impossible. He felt distinctly uncomfortable trying to fall asleep with that many naked women – even two-dimensional ones – leering down at him and trying ever more, ahem, creative ways of getting his attention.

Unexpected ceiling pornography notwithstanding, the voyage would only take about nine hours, four or five hours less than the Muggle ferry he’d be taking on this same route back. Captain Burke had observed that they could do the run in less than half that time if they fully submerged, but apparently no magic could really lift the biting chill of the North Atlantic in winter, and staying above the waves kept the ship warmer. Huddling deep into his tight little nest of blankets, Harry soon fell into a restless slumber, his instincts wanting him to awake with every creak of the ship’s timbers.

. . . . .


Harry bolted awake at the thunderous sound as a grey, icy dawn settled over the sea between Britain and mainland Europe.

What the hell?  He blinked in confusion as what he realized was Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” played on a loop at top volume from out of nowhere. Why in the world …?


Yawning and still not having found those sea legs Peadar Burke swore anyone could obtain, he stumbled above decks as Robert Plant once again informed everyone aboard that he and his men were driving their ship to new lands. A few pirates sang along as they busied themselves with sails and hawsers, but there were no other passengers up on the decks yet except for a slender blonde woman standing at a rail near the bow’s forecastle. Harry hadn’t planned on approaching her, but she turned, smiled, and waved him over.


The woman seemed to be in her late forties or early fifties, but her blue eyes sparkled like those of a much younger woman. “Good morning!” she called loudly over the sound of the waves’ salt spray and a screaming lead singer. “I asked about the music – they pipe it through the ship as an alarm clock!” She grinned. “Zeppelin’s a nice touch for pirates, I suppose, don’t you think?”

Harry smiled politely and nodded, not sure what to say to the woman.

“Another refugee, I presume?” Halfway through her shouted question the music abruptly cut off and he caught only a hint of bitterness in the woman’s otherwise friendly voice. She continued at a more normal volume. “Are you travelling alone? Do you have family meeting you in Europe?”

He scratched his eyebrow. “Not a refugee, ma’am, no. And yes, I’m alone. I have to go to Belgium for … things. I’m coming back in a few weeks.”

She leaned on the rail and peered at him. “So, you’re magical then? My youngest daughter’s a witch. She, well, she rather strenuously convinced us to leave our home because of all your world’s … whatever it is.”

Harry nodded slowly. “I – what I am is a little complicated, I guess. But it’s probably best that you’re leaving. I know it’s probably horrible to have to do, but if your daughter’s a known  Muggle-born, there’s every chance they would come after you.”

The blonde’s eyebrow quirked when he evaded her first question. “Man of mystery, I see,” she murmured. “Is it – is it really so bad? Really?”

He moved next to her at the railing. “Yeah. Yeah, it is. I think maybe dozens of Muggles and Muggle-borns, maybe even a lot more, have been killed so far, but the Muggle authorities probably don’t know about it, and honestly, the magical ones just don’t give enough of a damn to even report on their deaths.” He paused and eyed her seriously. “You’re doing the right thing, leaving. Yeah, you might never have been targeted, but better than safe than sorry.”

The older woman looked sad but seemed to accept his words. “My older daughter just got married last weekend and moved into a brand-new house. I really wanted to help her get settled, but Lily was so adamant …”

Harry nearly choked on his tongue. Merlin, bloody hell! Lily? Ab must have … She’s … This woman is my grandmother! Older daughter … She must be talking about Aunt Petunia!

“Oh!” he couldn’t help but exclaim much more loudly than he would have liked. The woman looked startled, so he rushed on. “Sorry, I just, um, are you talking about Lily Evans? She’s your daughter?”

The woman grinned. “You know her! Yes, she’s my younger girl. I’m June, June Evans. My husband Harold is still below trying to get some sleep.”

I’m named after my grandfather.

“Yeah, I mean, I don’t know her that well or anything, but we’ve met a few times.” He searched for something to say. “She’s nice. I – I’m glad you’re leaving Britain.”

Her smile turned wistful. “Yes … A whole new life, maybe, at least for a while. And we aren’t getting younger.” June clapped her hands. “Ah well, never thought I’d be moving to the continent on a pirate ship of all things to escape a magical war, so at least it’s exciting!” Harry laughed. “But, I’d best go see if I can roust my Harry out of bed. The crew said we’re due to land in less than an hour and I suspect as soon as the racket stopped he just rolled back over.”

She gave him a little wave and then disappeared under the decks.

She seemed … really nice, Harry thought with a small smile, and went back to looking out over the sea.

I have no idea when or how they died. Was it Death Eaters? An accident? No one ever told me, and I never asked … It had to have been before mum and dad though, or I wouldn’t have been left at Petunia’s.

The waves glittered in the pale morning sun.

What if … what if things are different here because of me? In my world, Lily wouldn’t have known how to get her family out of Britain … she wouldn’t have known me, wouldn’t have been contacted by Ab.

His stomach fluttered with a strange sort of hope and a sliver of pride.

Maybe they’ll live through the war this time.

As he continued staring out at the grey-blue expanse, a thought suddenly struck him, and he took off at a near-run for the ship’s cargo holds, eyes peeled for Captain Burke. He found the man just entering the storage bays.

“Captain, sir!” The elder Burke brother started at his sudden entrance in surprise. “I know you’re probably busy sir, but I would really like to purchase a set of dog tags. Please. But I, well, I don’t have nearly enough money with me, I’m sure … is there maybe any way I could pay you later or have Myrtle take it out of my pay and give it to you?”

The man arched an eyebrow but nodded.

With a grin of thanks, Harry grabbed a set and hightailed it above decks, slipping on the unmarked tag and keeping his eyes peeled for his grandmother.

About ten minutes before they pulled into Zeebruge he spied her and her husband, a thin man with short-cropped auburn hair, on the other side of the deck.

“Er, excuse me, Mrs. Evans? June?” Harry interrupted as the two watched the Belgian landscape they were swiftly approaching.

“Oh, yes dear? I’m afraid I didn’t ask your name.”

Harry paused. “Well, ma’am, I’m actually not supposed to say … safety and all. I’m even wearing a glamour.” At her puzzled look and his grandfather’s stern frown, Harry explained. “It’s a spell that alters my appearance so that people can’t recognize me if they see me later.”

His grandfather grunted in disapproval, his green eyes flashing. “All this cloak and bloody dagger! More than normal folks can take!”

Huh. I have my grandfather’s name and his eyes.

Harry mentally shook his head and plowed on. “I’m sorry to interrupt you,” he repeated, “but I wanted to give you something.” He held up the dog tag. “If one of you wears this, all you need to do if you get attacked is hold it with your fingers on either side like this,” he grasped the tag with the number nine etched on it, “and say ‘help.’ It’ll notify m – people willing to help that you’re in danger.”

June smiled. “That’s a kind thought. Thank you.”

The man was staring at Harry and stopped his wife from accepting the dog tag. “And how do we know we can trust you?”

Harry blinked and thought hard. That’s a really good question, actually. “Er, well, I kind of know your daughter. If you want, write to her and ask her about, um, the boy from Platform Nine. That bit’s important. And tell her that he asked you to say ‘hi to This Year’s Head Girl’ from him. Just like that – ‘This Year’s Head Girl.’ She’ll know it’s me and can vouch for me.”

June raised an eyebrow and his grandfather shook his head. “Never thought I’d be going to Belgium talking to wizard spies or whatever you are.” He sighed and grasped the dog tag. “I don’t want this enchanted thing, young man, but we’ll take it. Just in case.”

Harry smiled. “I’m glad sir. I hope you never have to use it.” On a whim, he put out his hand to shake that of his grandfather, who looked grudgingly amused at the gesture. “It was really nice to meet you sir, and you, June. I hope things are okay for you in Belgium, and that you can go home soon.”

“Thank you, dear,” June smiled.

Harry looked one last time at his mother’s parents and retreated to the far side of the boat.

23 December, 1977

Harry relaxed in a small café by the port in Zeebruge as he waited to board the Muggle ferry that would convey him back to Hull.

The last two weeks had been an exhausting, solitary slog and he was ready to get the hell home.

After bidding goodbye to the man he now thought of as “Normal Captain Burke,” he’d taken a train to Leuven, the center of wizarding Belgium. Rather than having a set of Alleys like London, Leuven featured an entire magical village hidden in the Muggle city. The Groot Begijnhof was a very old neighborhood from the twelfth century that the Muggles believed only included about a dozen narrow streets. In truth, the wizarding part of the Beginjhof spanned more than thirty additional cobbled lanes upon which were nestled homes, shops, and official buildings looking out over the River Djile.

Harry had stayed in a room at the Boeken en Bieren, a little inn and pub frequented by wizarding academics who studied in the secret magical departments of the Katholieke Universiteit. The bookish clientele was a far cry from what he was used to at the Head. Though the peace and quiet had been helpful at night while he was revising, a detached loneliness had settled over him like a strange sort of Invisibility cloak.

I’m not used to being alone and unknown anymore, he had mused one night as he sat in a quiet corner of the inn’s public room, surrounded by strangers. This feels like I’m in the Forest again.

On the twelfth of December, the day after his arrival, his O.W.L.s had commenced. History of Magic came first, and he had to smile when he saw the first question:

Describe the circumstances that led to the formation of the International Confederation of Wizards and explain why the warlocks of Liechtenstein refused to join.

Well, Pel did say the Belgians wouldn’t mind a truthful answer … He had grinned more broadly and started writing immediately.

All in all, he found the exams anticlimactic. Other than Astronomy, which he figured he’d never pass anyway, both the Transfiguration written and practical exams had been the most challenging by far. He’d taken them on his second day, and the practical in particular threw him off. Mostly this was because it was just so odd to be doing magic in front of people other than Ab, Pel, and Myrtle, though the strange expectations of his examiners also chafed at him.

His vanishing spell had been perfect, but they’d asked him to do several spells he’d never even heard of. At the last request for some unknown transfiguration, he had actually got into a bit of a tiff with one of his examiners when he failed to turn a rather nervous looking owl into a pair of opera glasses.

Harry had apologized for never having learned the spell, but noted that he couldn’t foresee many situations which would require him to know such a limited-use piece of magic, let alone to torture a poor owl by turning it into eyewear.

“Generally, don’t we typically have inanimate things on hand more than animate things?” One of the examiners nodded as the other questioner scowled. “So why don’t you ask about spells that can create animals that have multiple uses instead of one that’s for a situation that just won’t ever happen?”

Although the woman scoffed, the male examiner had seemed rather interested, so Harry gave it a shot. “I mean … say you’re in a forest and are attacked by someone.” He turned a wooden chair into a rather awkward large bush. “I could transfigure leaves from the bush into hornets that would both potentially block spells and would likely attack the target.” A few incantations later and a dummy from the other side of the room was suddenly set upon by leaves-turned-hornets. “So I can’t do the owl-to-opera glasses one, but I think I can do much more useful things, depending on the situation, ma’am.”

He could only shrug when the woman continued to glare daggers at him, though the male examiner had clapped his hands and said something, apparently positive, in Dutch.

Other than the Muggle Studies exam – which was so out of date Harry actually had some trouble with it – his other exams in Charms, Defense, Creatures, Herbology, and even Potions went fairly well and there were no real surprises. Now, as he prepared to return to Britain, he felt certain he’d performed well enough, and was desperately looking forward to getting home to the Head for Christmas, almost an officially qualified wizard.