Actions

Work Header

A wand for Skitter

Chapter Text

“It's almost too easy,” I heard a voice mutter.

I woke suddenly, but experience told me to keep quiet and pretend to still be unconscious. I tried to reach out and see through any insects nearby, but there was a horrible emptiness where those senses had been.

I struggled to remember what had happened; we were fighting Scion, and then the sounds of two shots and then nothingness.

“Killing muggleborns before they get their letters,” the voice continued. “Why didn't anybody else ever think of doing this?”

“Because Hogwarts keeps the book locked up tighter than a Gringotts bank vault. Even our man inside only got a look at a few names, or we'd be making a clean sweep this year.”

There was silence for a moment, and the sound of a shoe kicking soft flesh.

“Won't this alert the Dark Lord's enemies?”

“A few muggle deaths? Muggles die all the time; they murder each other, hit each other with cars... it's a wonder that they haven't all killed themselves off already.”

“Nobody is that lucky,” the other man muttered.

“Besides, we've got people in the muggle police department who will swear that this is the result of ordinary muggle crime.”

“Police?”

“Like aurors, but stupider.”

I could hear the sounds of the two men moving around.

“Well, we've got three more to take care of tonight, and then we'll call it for the evening. You want to go get a cruller in Hogsmeade?”

“Sounds good.”

A moment later there was a strange popping sound, one that repeated itself a moment later.

I knew better than to simply assume that they were gone; I waited five more minutes before I cautiously opened my eyes.

I was in a dingy alley that wouldn't have been out of place in Brockton Bay. There were two people lying on the ground less than ten feet from me; their faces had expression of pain and terror. I grimaced as I stood up. It wasn't until I pushed myself up that I realized that I had both of my arms.

Looking down, there wasn't the stump that I had expected. Instead there were thin, twig like arms that had none of the toned muscle I was used to; hard earned by my years first as a super villain and then as a super hero.

“What the hell?” I muttered.

My voice was high pitched and childish, and it didn't sound at all like my own. I walked over to the woman and dug through her purse. I found a compact soon enough and flipping it open, I grimaced.

I didn't recognize the face that stared back at me. I was still a brunette, but that was as far as it went. My new face was actually better looking than my old one, although whether that would survive puberty was anyone's guess.

Somehow I was in the body of a child.

The last thing I remembered was killing Scion and then the sound of two gunshots, followed by blinding pain to the back of my head.

I reached back, and there were no injuries, not in this body.

Was I actually a child who had fantasized a life as a super hero? I certainly couldn't feel any of the insects around me, and the one thing I'd learned in my former life was that there were always insects everywhere.

It didn't matter.

People had tried to kill me, and they claimed to have people in the police force, who would presumably be watching if they made any mistakes and missed anyone.

I dug through the woman's bag after rolling the man over with some difficulty and pulling out his wallet.

The couple was Nigel and Camilla Scrivner. They were the right age to be the parents of this body; younger than my Dad, and handsome and good looking respectively. I could even see a resemblance between them and the face I'd seen in the mirror.

Neither had a cell phone.

I rifled their wallets for money, and all I found were pound notes. A check of their addresses showed addresses in Great Britain.

A quick check and I found that they had four hundred pounds between the two of them. I pulled the rings off the woman's fingers and the earrings out of her ears. It was ghoulish, but without my powers I didn't have a lot in the way of assets to help me survive in this new world.

I was assuming this was a new world because the dates on the driver's licenses were wrong. These people were far too young to be born in the nineteen sixties, so either I'd gone back in time, or I was somewhere that hadn't quite caught up to the twenty tens.

Taking the man's keys, I cautiously made my way to the alleyway. It was nighttime, but there weren't many people around. There were only a couple of cars on the street, and checking showed me that the key fit into one of them.

It was a Volkswagon Rabbit, a tiny car, and the steering wheel was on the wrong side.

There weren't any cell phones in the car, but there was a map. Looking at the addresses on the people's driver's licenses, I checked the street signs and tried to figure out a route. If the map was right, we were in London, and it looked like we lived five miles away.

I could walk that; in training I'd done that all the time. However, that had been in my old body, with weapons, and with my powers. I had none of that, and a nine or ten year old child walking through the city in the middle of the night was a good way for me to get killed... again.

Grimacing, I slipped into the driver's seat, and I put the key in the ignition. The car turned over just fine, but my feet barely reached the pedals, and only if I scooted forward to the end of the seat. It was awkward as hell, and as I shifted the car into gear, I had to remind myself to drive on the wrong side of the street.

I was careful to avoid major highways, and yet by the time I reached the apparent location of our home, I was drenched with sweat.

We apparently lived in a first floor flat. The keys worked just fine, and I let myself in.

I ransacked the place. As much as I was tempted to stay here, it would only be a matter of time before the people who had attacked this bodies family would realized that only two bodies had been found. They'd come looking here first, and then they'd check child services.

Child services wasn't really meant to prevent assassinations.

This was going to be hellishly difficult.

In my old life, even at the beginning of my career I'd been fifteen. I'd been old enough that I could get an under the table job, and I'd been able to move around without raising a lot of questions.

Here, I wouldn't be able to rent a hotel room, use most services and if it was part of the school year, I'd have to watch out for truant officer. I wasn't sure how much four hundred pounds was, but I suspected that it wasn't that much.

In some ways it was worse that I was in London than in Brockton Bay. Brockton Bay had been full of abandoned warehouses, and other spots where it was easy to find places to sleep. London was a lot more financially successful, which meant fewer places to hide.

I needed to somehow find out who was coming after me, and what they wanted. Why were they murdering children, and what were muggles?

Was I in the past of my own world?

Newspapers piled up by the door suggested that either it was some time in August 1991 or these people were terrible housekeepers. I couldn't find anything in the house dated after that time, so my working theory was that I was some time in the past.

There were no references to parahumans in any of the newspapers either. There should have been; Scion had first been seen in 1982. Parahumans had been a major fixture of life since that time, and I couldn't remember ever seeing a newspaper that didn't have at least one story about them.

Here, even with a week of newspapers there was nothing.

So I loaded up the biggest backpack I could find; it was a hiking backpack apparently owned by the father. It had a sleeping bag, and other things that I thought I might need.

In some ways, this was going to be the hardest thing I'd ever done. No powers, no allies, only a little money and a few pieces of equipment. Of course, I'd faced the biggest monsters my world had to offer, and I'd come out on top.

I set out into the night.

Chapter Text

It had been a long night.

Finding a place to sleep and hole up had been my first priority, but it hadn't been easy. The girl's parents had lived in a strictly middle class area, and I'd had to drive around for a while before I found a neighborhood that had parks that were overgrown and not well maintained.

I'd have to ditch the car soon; while I had the credit cards from the wallets, I didn't know whatever pass codes they used, and it didn't look like very many gas stations let you pay at the pump.

I spent three hours searching the area before I found an abandoned storm drain. It looked as though the drain hadn't seen any water in a long time, and the back of it was blocked off. The grate in front of it was loose, and I managed to pry it off with my tools, enough to make my way inside so I could set up my camp and sleep.

This wouldn't be a good place to stay once the weather got cold; I'd have to find some place more secure by then. But it was the best I could do for the moment.

It was an uncomfortable night, and I had nightmares about the fight against Scion.

I woke to feel something crawling on my hand. It was a ladybug.

Staring at it, I couldn't feel a sense of loss at the thought that I would never be able to feel the swarm again. I'd been the master of insects, and now my mind felt empty.

I focused; it was a fantasy, but part of me hoped that I could somehow will my power back into being.

For two minutes I strained, but despite all my efforts, I couldn't feel anything. It was like trying to lift something with an arm I no longer had.

The ironic thing was that I would have rather kept my power and not had the arm. I felt a moment of crushing depression.

If I really was in another world, and in another body, the odds were that I would never see anyone I had ever known again. I wouldn't see Rachel or Lisa or Dinah or Brian again. I'd be forced to relive life from the time I was a child, and until I found out who had killed me, I wouldn't ever be able to rest of relax.

I let myself stare at the metal sides of the culvert blankly for ten minutes. However, my stomach growled, and I realized that ruminating over things I couldn't control wasn't going to help me.

Peeing behind a bush wasn't ideal; if I was going to do this for long, I needed to find a better solution. For the moment it was all I could think of.

Next was breakfast.

I couldn't risk cooking anything; people's senses of smell weren't good, but they could detect fire easily enough. Fortunately I'd brought food with me.

It had taken a couple of trips from the car to carry what I'd brought from the flat; it didn't amount to much. It was just canned foods that I could eat without heating. I'd brought a hand can opener too. Opening the can, I tipped the beans into my mouth and grimaced.

Bottled water wasn't all that good warm, but I had known better than to bring milk or anything that could spoil. Finishing the can, I gulped down half a bottle of water, and then I carefully slipped out of the storm drain.

I checked the outside carefully before I slipped out. The sun was high in the sky already. I moved underbrush behind me, and I slipped the grate back into position. From here no one could see any of my stuff.

Half my money I kept on my person, and the other half was hidden in the backpack. That way if I was mugged, or if the pack was found I wouldn't lose everything.

I was carrying a Swiss army knife. I'd have preferred a switchblade, but there hadn't been any that I could find in the dead people's flat. I hadn't found any mace or pepper spray either, and I wasn't even sure whether they'd been invented yet, or whether they were even legal on this side of the pond.

It was summertime, which meant I probably didn't have to worry much about truant officers. The one advantage I had was that this wasn't 2013. It was 1991, and if Dad was to be believed, parents had been more lenient about letting their children out to play alone.

In my day, no parent would have allowed their kids out until they were at least a teenager. Of course, given that the streets of Brockton bay were filled with murderous gangs that made a lot of sense. But in most places in the United States parents pulled their kids in and didn't let them out.

This was an earlier, more innocent time, and I could use that to my advantage.

I had no idea how to find the people who were trying to kill me. They'd used some unfamiliar terms, talking about muggles, aurors and Hogsmeade. I couldn't be certain whether these were Britishisms that I didn't know, or whether they were something more sinister.

My best bet would be to hit the library. There probably wasn't an Internet I could check, but if there was, maybe I could find something there.

I'd seen a hotel nearby, and a library. Their proximity had been part of the reason I'd settled here.

It was too late to get breakfast at the hotel, but tomorrow morning, I'd try to slip in and mingle with the groups of tourists getting the free continental breakfast, or whatever it was called over here. No one would expect a child to be homeless, and they wouldn't notice me slipping food into my pack for later. Even if it was just cereal it would help to extend my food.

It was farther to the library than I'd realized while I was driving. One of the first things I was going to have to do was figure out some method to transport myself around the city. Walking would take up all my time and it would expose me to more danger. Even something as small as a skateboard might help, but I really needed a bicycle.

I slipped inside the library, and to my relief there were other children there. I blended in quickly, and I quickly found the British dictionaries.

There were no mentions of mudbloods, or Hogwarts or Hogsmeade. The latter two sounded more like places than names.

“Miss,” I began, talking to a librarian.

“An American?” she asked.

Apparently my accent hadn't changed with my body. I don't know why I thought it might.

“My parents are visiting here from Boston,” I said. “And I heard somebody talking about a couple of towns...Hogsmeade and Hogwarts. Have you ever heard of them?”

She frowned. “No, I haven't.”

What followed was thirty minutes of frustration as we searched through maps and reference books. In the Internet age it was a search that could have been done with a few clicks of a keyboard. Ultimately we found nothing.

“I'm sorry dear. Someone must have been having you on, or maybe you misheard them.”

“That must be it,” I said. “I must have misheard them.”

Either I really had misheard, or these places were secrets. Where was I going to get more information? I didn't have anything to go on.

They had people in the police department, but I had no idea whether those people were coroners, beat cops, or the police chief... or maybe all three. I hadn't gotten a look at either of the two men, and they hadn't dropped any convenient clues.

I was at a dead end.

My next step would be survival. I'd need a way to make money; something that wouldn't seem out of place for a ten year old to do.

Transportation was next. I had vague recollection that London had a subway system...possibly called the Tube, and I knew they had those weird three story buses. Public transportation was supposedly better in Europe than in the states. I needed to learn my way around that system, and I needed something portable that I could use to travel in the spaces in between.

Finding free food would be a bonus too, but I could hardly ask a librarian. For one thing, she would likely call Child Services, and for another thing I would likely have to use this library again in the future. It had a real bathroom that I could use to do a sponge bath in, and it was nice to use the restroom without having to hide behind a bush.

It suddenly occurred to me that there might be one avenue of investigation. The men had planned on killing three other families. If I could watch the news for the next few days, I might be able to figure out some sort of common factor in the deaths.

I stole a newspaper from an old man on my way out, and I headed south. I'd seen a bulletin board for a car boot sale. When I'd asked the librarian about it, she'd told me that it was something like a flea market, an informal gathering of people in a field where they brought things in their cars that they wanted to sell.

It sounded ideal for me. I had two hundred pounds on me, and it might be enough to get me items I might need to survive.

There hadn't been any bicycles in the flat, or I'd have tried to take one. It was probably too much to hope that someone might have a good deal on one now, but it wasn't like I had much else to do.

It was a two hour trip.

I was already tired by the time I reached the place. I was going to have to take up jogging again; this body was in worse condition than my original one before I'd gained my powers. It was thinner, without the small pot belly, but it had a lot less muscle tone.

Without video games or computer screens, how had this girl gotten so flabby?

The flea market was larger than I would have thought from the librarian's description. It covered the space of maybe half an acre. It made me a little nostalgic for the Lord's Market back at home.

I wandered around, looking carefully for anything I could use. Back home at events like this there always seemed to be someone selling knives and swords. There was nothing like that here. Was it illegal, or was there some other reason?

There weren't any guns either, but I knew those were illegal.

Even back home I wouldn't have been able to buy either one as a ten year old.

A bicycle was at one stand; it was bright and pink, which wasn't ideal when you were trying to hide it, but it was cheap; just thirty pounds. As near as I could tell, a British pound in 1992 seemed to be worth anywhere between three or four dollars in 2013. I didn't like spending that much money, but while I could have stolen a bicycle from another kid, it would have possibly gotten police attention that I couldn't afford.

I was leaving the swap meet when I noticed a large, heavyset man following me.

Was he with the people who had attacked me, or was he another sort of predator. I couldn't be sure. The swap meet was on muddy, grassy ground, and I hadn't ridden a bicycle in a while. If I tried to ride on this kind of terrain I wasn't sure whether I would be any faster than he was.

I knew how to fight, but this body was weak, and I wasn't sure how well it would stand up to a man who was four times my current weight. Pepper spray would have been ideal, but there hadn't been any at the swap meet.

There were people around still, although many of them were beginning to pack up and move out. I could call out for help, but that would raise questions about where my parents were. I could lie and say that I lived nearby; that might be the wisest course.

The one advantage to being a ten year old girl was that people would look out for you. They would try to help. The only question was whether I wanted that sort of help.

In this situation, the bicycle was as much a hindrance as a help. It was an older bicycle, and heavy.

I saw an artist who was using spray paints on an old vanity.

“Hey, mister,” I said. “Could I pay you to help me?”

“What?”

“I just bought this bike, but I don't like the color. I'd be willing to pay you to help me.”

The woman smiled and we dickered for a little bit. I kept an eye on the man, who was pretending to look at some cheap art in the corner. She spent the next hour working on the bike, and I paid her ten pounds. She was happy to offer me something to drink, and we sat and chatted.

Apparently it would be another thirty minutes before the pain dried enough to touch, and one or two hours before it was dry enough to handle... and a full day before it was fully dry.

I simply needed it to not be a bright pink, and I needed an excuse for the man to go away.

The woman agreed to hold my bike for me for a couple of hours, and I slipped away. The man began following me again, and I ducked away.

I spent the next thirty minutes trying to lose him, but the swap meet wasn't that large, and I wasn't that hard to find. I was crouched behind a table staring at him as he walked by a trash bin.

There were bees flying around the bin; apparently one of the stands was selling lemonade, and people had been throwing the leftovers inside. The bees had been attracted by the smell of the sugar.

If I'd had my powers this would have been easy. I would have sent the bees directly at the man, and he wouldn't have even remembered that he was after me.

I could almost imagine the bees stinging him right in the eyes. That would keep him from following me.

A bee swooped in, and a moment later the man was screaming.

I stared, my mouth wide. Had I done that?

It hadn't felt like my usual swarm sense, but I'd felt... something. People were gathering around the man, and I quickly moved away. I returned to the woman, took possession of my bicycle, and I left.

She'd painted it in a camouflage pattern. With luck I'd be able to hide it in the grass and it wouldn't be noticed. If not I'd have to hide it in the bushes.

It took me a little time to get used to riding a bicycle again; I hadn't done it in years. But what had taken me two hours of walking was an easy thirty minutes of riding, and I knew that once I got used to it, things would probably go even faster. The bicycle had a basket on it, too, which meant that I might be able to carry things from the grocery store, assuming that I could find one.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the neighborhood.

Finding a Little Caesar's was a bonus; I'd heard they'd pulled out of Britain in my world. Here, either it hadn't happened yet, or it wasn't going to happen at all. I bought an entire medium pizza for the cost of a McDonald's meal, and I ate as much as I could before giving the other half to a homeless guy on a street corner. I had no way to preserve it, and there was no reason for it to go to waste.

I hid the bicycle under the bush, and as I went to sleep in the culvert that night, I stared at the beetle that had decided to take up residence with me.

After an hour of trying, I finally made it stand up, and begin to dance.

It was horribly clumsy; nothing like the refined elegance of the powers that I'd once had. I couldn't control more than a single bug at a time, and whatever feedback I was getting from the bug was even worse than it's limited senses would suggest.

It was like trying to use your arm when it was numb because you slept on it. It was clumsy and would barely follow your commands, but you could still do some things with it.

I felt much more optimistic.

I was up earlier the next morning, in time to reach the hotel and pretend to be one of the children of the guests. I ate a hot meal, and I looked over a newspaper that someone had left.

There were headlines screaming about three murdered families.

Part of me felt guilty; could I have helped them in some way? Most of me was more pragmatic; I knew better. In this body, with no powers and no weapons, I'd have just been murdered again.

I couldn't even have warned them.

There were addresses, and I'd bought a map at the Swap meet. I'd just have to check out the sites of the murders so I could find out if there were any clues to the people who had murdered me.

Chapter Text

I'd taken classes in lockpicking while I worked for the Protectorate, but I'd never thought I'd need them. It had always been so much easier to simply send a swarm up under the door to open it from the other side, or to use the bugs that were already in the room.

Because of that, I was more than rusty, and picking the lock in the back garden of the first house took me more than forty five minutes. Even this, the third house was taking me twenty minutes. It was frustrating; even though I could now control a single bug that wasn't nearly good enough to get through the door.

His vision and other senses weren't good enough for me to simply use him to remotely scout the place out either. In my former life I would have used thousands of bugs, my vision and other senses a composite of all of their senses. Bugs' vision wasn't particularly good anyway, and my new connection was tenuous.

Eventually I felt the lock click under my hand, the pieces of wire I'd found finally doing the job. I grimaced, and looking around I slipped into the house.

There wasn't any blood. That didn't surprise me. These people had supposedly died in a car accident along with their ten year old child. They hadn't even been on my radar, but I'd noticed the story about the accident and I'd drawn my own conclusions.

A single murder or even two could go under the radar; three would be a pattern.

The newspapers had thought it strange that two other young families had been dying of natural causes. What I was looking for was a reason why they were being targeted. If there was a common thread between the three of them, it would go a long way to helping me to determine where the others might strike next.

This was the third house, and the other two had been a bust. They'd all seemed like ordinary people; family pictures on the wall, toys and other things. If I'd slipped a few more valuables in my pack, who could blame me? It wasn't likely to do them much good, and even the food in their pantries was likely to go to waste by the time the police finished their investigations.

So I drank their milk and I ate the cheese in their refrigerators; luxuries that I wouldn't get in my little culvert. I checked bank books and passports, looked through records; everything I could to see any single clue that would give me the hook that I needed to lead me to the next step.

There had been clothes at one house that fit me. I hadn't taken as many with me as I should when I'd left my flat. I'd even risked a quick shower.

I slipped any jewelry or valuables I could into my pack; I still wasn't sure how I was going to pawn them, but I had a few ideas. The four hundred pounds I'd gotten from my parents wouldn't last forever, and it wasn't like I could get a job.

It was humiliating; I'd been a super hero and before that a crime lord. Now I was reduced to being a grave robber and a burglar.

I was checking their mail, when I heard the front door open. I froze, and then I carefully began to move. There was a large picture window leading out to the back garden, with floor length curtains, and I slipped behind those, careful that my feet didn't stick out. I slipped my pack behind the other side of the curtains.

It was helpful that I was small and thin.

“The muggles haven't checked here yet?” I heard one voice.

“They were busy with the other two; the muggles here just died in a car crash, so going through everything wasn't a top priority.”

“It seems suspicious, three sets of Hogwarts kids dead in one night, and another missing. Muggles die all the time, but I don't like it.”

“You think somebody is targeting them? The other side likes to pretend they don't know anything about muggle life, but they know enough to fake a death or two.”

“Well, they'd stick out, wouldn't they? Purebloods like to pretend that they don't understand muggles, so much that they intentionally dress like they've never seen one. There's been some complaints by the Obliviators about the problems it's causing.”

“It's not like half of them don't live right in the middle of the muggles; not everybody can live in Hogsmeade,” the second voice said. “They just don't want their pureblood friends to know that they've rubbed elbows with them.”

“Well, the older ones still remember how muggles used to dress, and they think none of it changes. It's not like muggle fashions don't change every twenty years or so.”

“I think it's more like every ten years they change,” the second voice said.

“Hell, you can get all kinds of things cheaper from the muggles; you know some of those rich bastards are tighter than a goblin on tax day. They've got to be getting some cheap muggle crap on the sly.”

“Well, it's a little over our pay grade. We're just here to make sure there isn't anything incriminating for the muggles to find. The last thing we need is for some muggle auror to find an acceptance letter.”

“I thought the boy hadn't gotten his letter yet.”

“That's the funny thing; all of these kids have birthdays in August. They're the last lot to get their letters, and it was the professors who alerted us about what to look for when they noticed the letters not being sent out.”

“Aren't these supposed to be hand delivered anyway?”

“They can't deliver to the dead.”

“So why bother here?”

“This one knew a half-blood. They aren't supposed to, but sometimes kids share toys, chocolate frogs, cards... the usual things. What do you think a muggle auror would do if he saw a chocolate frog jumping around?”

“Investigate?”

“He'd give the obliviators even more work. It's best to head these things off before they become problems.”

“You put the muggle repelling charms up, right?”

“What do I look like, an incompetent? Just get to searching.”

For the next several minutes I stood as still as I possibly could, worried that one of them would notice that the drapes were moving in a way they shouldn't. The time stretched out, although it couldn't have been more than thirty minutes.

Eventually, the two men met back at the bottom of the stairs.

“Find anything?”

“No. It looks like it's clean.”

I closed my eyes and tried to reach out to any bugs in the area. My senses still weren't that good but I finally locked into a housefly.

Houseflies were nearsighted and they couldn't focus, but I didn't dare even try to peek out from behind the curtains, and I wanted a look at these guys. I still regretted not getting even a peek at the men who had killed the Scriveners and the other.

Now, I'd never know who they were even if they walked up to me; not until I heard their voices.

I strained, and felt myself making the connection. It took a moment for me to force the fly to move, and then it took a moment for me to realize what I was seeing through the poor vision of the fly. Luckily I'd had years of experience in seeing through the eyes of insects and I was able to make a reasonable guess at what I was seeing.

It looked like two white men wearing long coats... most likely trench coats of some kind. When I'd been in control of the swarm, I'd been able to compensate by using different kinds of insects to compensate for each others visual weaknesses, but here I only had a single bug, and mostly everything was a blur.

I forced the fly to get closer to them. I might be able to identify his face, but it was like looking at someone's face without my glasses on and squinting. There were no guarantees that I would recognize him.

Part of me wanted to peek out from behind the curtain. Even a single glimpse might be enough to recognize both of them later. But if I was able to see them, they'd be able to see me, and the human eye was designed to see movement. I didn't dare move.

I kept my breathing slow and shallow, not wanting to alert either of them to the fact that I was here.

“Want to have a drink at the Leaky Cauldron? I hear that Tom's got some of the new stuff from France.”

“I've got to file a report, but I'll meet you later.”

“Fine.”

Then there was a sudden explosion, and it looked like the man further away simply vanished. A moment later, the one the fly was close to did as well, and the fly was pulled inevitably toward the place where the man had vanished, its body tumbling uncontrollably as the second crack sounded.

I flinched as I heard the sounds; they reminded me a little of twin pistol shots, which given that I'd been shot in the back of my head twice in my last life was understandable.

What... the... hell?

There weren't any parahumans in this world, not that were talked about. I'd been looking, both in the library and in the newspaper. It was possible that I had missed something without the Internet, but even if it was true, what were the odds of there being two teleporters in the same place?

By definition, parahuman abilities tended to be unique. The Entities that had granted them were interested in seeing what we would do with them, and they hadn't seemed to like to repeat themselves, not exactly. No two parahumans had exactly the same power, although some were very similar.

Worse, the way they were talking, there was an entire community, and some of them were engaged in working to keep the secret. I didn't know what obliviators, but it sounded like they had people who made problems and probably people disappear.

That there were at least two sides wasn't a comfort when it was possible that neither side was actually good people. Just because the Empire 88 weren't quite as bad as the Slaughterhouse Nine didn't make them heroes. They were still Nazis.

Would the other side want to kill me to cover up the murder of my family? Making me disappear would be a good way of keeping me from talking, especially as I had already disappeared myself.

Moving out of the country might be my only option, and even that depended on how large their organization was. It couldn't be that large; the more people you were trying to keep secret, the harder it got.

They'd used terms that I didn't understand. Muggle seemed to refer to the larger community... and it didn't seem complimentary. There was a certain casual racism about it that suggested that these people kept themselves separate from the rest of the world, even if the two men had said that almost all of them lived among us.

How that could have been accomplished I wasn't sure, but there had always been groups that had tried it...the Amish, certain Jewish groups... others. Usually it tended to be related to religion.

The last thing I needed was to deal with a cult of parahumans. On my world the Fallen had been some of the worst... Endbringer worshipers and fanatics. Religious fanatics couldn't be reasoned with; they did crazy things like suicide bombing and kamikaze attacks.

What was a chocolate frog anyway? Some kind of rare species that they were keeping hidden? Why would that arouse suspicion with the authorities? Police officers weren't zoologists. They'd look at a brown frog and think it was weird, but they'd move on pretty quickly.

They kept talking about pure-bloods and half bloods, and muggle borns. It almost sounded like powers were genetic here, passed down from generation to generation. Scion had only appeared in 1982, which was hardly enough time for bloodlines to have appeared.

So these people had powers that didn't come from Scion or his wife? What did that mean?

Were they mutants, like in my Dad's old comics from before real superheroes had put the publishers out of business?

There were too many unanswered questions, and while this had filled in a few blanks, it had created ten questions for every one it answered. It hadn't gotten me any closer to finding out the things I needed to know.

Who was trying to kill me, and why were they targeting children who were born to ordinary people? It sounded like an ethnic cleansing but for that to be true there had to be actual ethnicities involved.

They'd mentioned some places... The Leaky Cauldron was apparently a bar or a pub. Hogsmeade was a place where no normal people lived, which was probably why it wasn't on the map. How did you hide an entire city, though? I'd never heard of a Stranger power strong enough to cloak an entire village.

Maybe they used a different name around other people and simply didn't let “muggles” buy in? Even so, there would be ordinary people driving through all the time on the way to somewhere else. The way they were talking it didn't sound like one of those creepy religious compounds.

This was the second group that mentioned letters. Were these some kinds of Death Notes? Was killing people before they received their letters a form of cheating?

I had so many questions, and very few things that I could act on to get more information. The one thing I couldn't do was let the second group know I was around, or they'd send their obliviators to deal with me.

The one thing that might be useful was that they'd suggested that members of this group, whatever it was didn't fit in. There would be deliberate oddities in how they dressed, and that would be something I could watch out for. I couldn't depend on it, of course.

If some of them were in the police department, that meant that some of them were able to fit in reasonably well.

I waited ten minutes behind the curtain, my fly buzzing around the whole time. I had no guarantee after all that they had actually teleported. What if they'd simply gone invisible with a weird side effect? I'd seen weirder on my own world after all.

It probably wasn't a problem. This species of housefly had excellent hearing, and I could hear my own breathing just fine. Still, Stranger abilities were by definition strange. People who could become invisible might be able to become inaudible too.

Nightmare images of slipping around the curtains only to face a psychotic murderer on the other side went through my head. I carefully slipped my knife open before I slipped around the corner.

I really needed to find out what weapons were legal to carry in this country... not that it bothered me a lot to carry something that wasn't legal, but because the legal weapons would be easier to get a hold of. It would also let me know what to expect from the enemy.

Getting out of the house was easy; I didn't even steal any more food other than a jar of pickles on the way out. I'd parked my bicycle down the street, and as I slipped through the back gate, I kept an eye for any watchers.

I felt imaginary eyes on me on my way home; I tried using every trick I knew to lose a trail; doubling back, making quick course changes... none of it was very good on a girl's bicycle. There were no crowds for me to get lost in, and little I could do about my lack of speed.

Taking up jogging again would be useful for my endurance, but I was struggling to keep enough food as it was. In situations where food was scarce, calories count.

Still, I got home shortly after dark, and I spent the rest of the evening practicing my bug skills. I finally managed to control two of them at once, even if it was still like juggling instead of easy like it had once been.

If I'd used the bugs to fly around outside looking for people trying to sneak up on me, no one could blame me.

The only thing I could do now was to keep my eye out for people and things that didn't look right. These people deliberately set themselves apart from normal people, possibly so they could identify each other. I could use that.

That night my dreams were twisted and distorted.

I saw Scion destroying the entire world, all worlds once again, and this time I wasn't there to stop him. Instead I was being stalked by teleporting men in brown trench coats.

Chapter Text

The homeless man I'd shared pizza with two days before handed me the travel pass. I handed him back a five pound note.

“Any problems?” I asked.

He shook his head.

I looked at the pass. It was a season pass that would let me use the buses and the tube. The cost made me wince, but it would give me the kind of freedom that my bicycle alone wouldn't. I'd found a tube entrance in the opposite direction from the library. It wasn't far from my culvert.

London had the kind of public transportation system that Brockton Bay never had, even in it's glory days, and with it, the entire city was open to me. That meant more opportunities to seek out places to get free food, but also to find places for entertainment.

As it turned out, the hardest thing about being homeless was sheer boredom. There was only so much time you could spend in the library, especially since I couldn't check any books out. I couldn't even speak in front of anyone who was a police officer, because they'd probably ask for my passport.

I'd been trying to fake a British accent, but Nigel the homeless guy thought it sounded terrible.

Apparently I sounded like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

In my previous life I'd gained many skills. I'd learned how to fight, and to move silently. I'd learned how to intimidate people, although when you were backed by a swarm of millions of stinging insects, that wasn't all that hard.

I'd never had to use other accents, and I wasn't really sure how to go about it. My best bet was simply to listen to people, keep my mouth shut and try to talk like they did.

“You ready for the next part?”

It worried me, trusting Nigel even this much. I'd spun a story about how my poor mum was in the hospital and I was on the run from an abusive stepdad. I wasn't sure how much of it he believed. The only important thing was that he not go to the police, and that he help me.

He nodded.

I handed him a couple of pieces of jewelry that I had stolen, and together we walked to a pawn shop. Nigel had has ID, and I made sure only to give him pieces from my original family's jewelry box. Hopefully if we got caught I'd be able to argue that it was part of my inheritance, and within my rights to take it.

He came back out with two hundred pounds thirty minutes later. It was possible that the pieces might have been worth more, but I doubted it. The other Undersiders had fenced jewelry before, and you never got anything close to their value when you did.

He handed the money over without question though, and he seemed grateful to have it.

I slipped it into a fanny pack that I wore under my shirt. It was another thing I'd stolen from the second house I'd been in. It was wide enough that it could fit a book, but far too shallow. It was perfect to put money in, and since I didn't have a wallet and it fit in the front I was less likely to get pickpocketed.

My biggest risk was that someone would grab my backpack, which had some of the jewelry I'd stolen stuffed in it. I had it stuffed under some clothing and other crap, hoping that no one would notice.

“I might be able to get more later,” I said. “Well have to use another shop, though, so as not to arouse suspicion.”

“You are a strange little girl,” Nigel rumbled. He had a deep, rich voice and he was black with a beard that was speckled with gray. I wondered what had led him to be out on the streets, but I didn't ask.

We got another pizza and split it, and then Nigel showed me how to make a hobo stove. It was made using a tin can, or cans up to the size of a paint can, although he warned me not to use anything that had toxic chemicals in it.

We parted amicably, and I felt a lot better, especially once I'd retrieved my other goods from the half dozen hiding spots I'd put them in.

I quickly found that life was a lot easier with the Travel Pass. Buses and subways really did reach a lot of the city, and there were now places I could access that I never would have before.

There was a Sikh temple that offered free food to anyone. I didn't dare go there too often because they would likely call child services if they thought I didn't have anyone. It was nice to have a free meal though.

Museums were easy; they weren't part of my overall plan so much as they were a way to help fill the endless days.

I went to the market and would buy foods that were just about to expire; usually these were cheaper. The problem was that they usually were in batches larger than I could eat before the insects got to them.

For three days I explored the city, and then I started to notice them.

It started with a woman who was wearing her dress backwards. She looked as though she'd rather be anywhere than where she was, but she was buying things at a shop.

Then there was a man who looked like he belonged in the nineteen fifties. His clothes were outdated and he didn't even seem to be wearing them ironically.

I tried to follow these people, but they always vanished shortly after I did.

Once I became aware of it, I saw more and more people like that. There were a surprising number of them on the Tube. They all looked like they were tourists from the way they looked around and whispered to each other, but they all had British accents.

It felt very strange and discomfiting.

The funny thing was that the people around me didn't seem to notice a thing. Either these people were so common that no one noticed anymore, or there was something else going on.

My control over insects grew. After three days I was up to sixteen insects at a time. It was still a minuscule number, but it made tracking people a lot easier. I could follow two sets of them without looking as though I was following them.

I was in the West End looking through bookstores. While the proprietors kept giving me suspicious looks, no one stopped me as I leafed through books that no ten year old would have bothered with. I was hoping to find something... anything about the people who I was trying to follow. Surely with as many of them as there were someone would know something?

Had their obliviators murdered everyone? Even that would have been noticed; people went missing every day, but usually it was for understandable reasons. They were being followed by an abusive boyfriend, they had a drug habit, they were unstable.

I stepped out onto Charing Cross road, and I noticed another couple walking by' Their clothes were just as outlandish as the others I had seen, but again no one seemed to be taking notice. It was almost as though there was some kind of stranger effect, one that no one was able to see through but me.

Was it because I had powers?

I sent a small swarm of insects to follow them, while keeping a few to watch behind and around me. I followed them at the edge of my range, which was more than a block away.

They moved into a building, and I cautiously approached it, my heart skipping a beat as I saw it.

It was nestled between a bookstore and a record store. It looked old and strange compared to the more modern buildings around it, almost like it was something from another century. Considering that London itself was full of buildings like that, it wouldn't be a surprise, except that this one looked much, much older.

It was a tiny, dingy looking pub. There was something strange about the way people looked at it; their eyes slid away from it, as though they couldn't see it at all.

It didn't have a sign out front. I felt reluctant to step inside; I was a minor after all, and going into a bar would draw attention that I didn't need.

Yet this was the first lead I'd had in three days. I felt for my knife in my pocket.

It was definitely illegal to carry around in Britain. I'd found that out on my last visit to the library. They didn't allow mace or pepper sprays either. Not allowing people the tools they needed to defend themselves was hard to comprehend from an American viewpoint.

Taking a deep breath, I slipped inside the pub.

It was dark and shabby, but the moment I stepped inside I knew I was in the right place. The people here were all dressed in ways that were subtly wrong, with some actually wearing black robes. There were old women wearing outrageous hats, and men who were playing a kind of chess. It took me a moment to realize that the figurines on the chessboard were actually moving by themselves.

The man behind the bar looked at me. He was bald, with dark skin and he didn't have any teeth.

“Just got your letter, did you? There's still been a few stragglers.”

My face froze, and I clutched my knife in my pocket harder.

“Where's your parents?” he asked.

“They thought I could handle it myself,” I said, shrugging. While I wasn't much at acting, I'd learned how to bluff with the best of them.

He scowled. “That's not smart. The Alley is safe enough most times, but the big rush is over with and there aren't so many kids there now. You'll be fine as long as you stay out of Knockturn Alley. That's not for the likes of you.”

Gesturing, he stepped out from the back of the bar.

“You'll need help to get through until you get your wand, then you can do it on your own. If you've got muggle money, take it to Gringotts and they'll change it for you.”

At my expression, he looked around and leaned toward me.

“Having muggle money isn't something to be ashamed of. People don't like to talk about it much, but I'm guessing you're a half blood from the way you're dressed, and because you aren't with one of the tour groups the professors sponsor for the muggleborns.”

I nodded as though I knew what he was talking about.

He led me to the back of the bar, and I tensed. I had two bees hiding on the nape of my neck, ready to attack and at least try to sting his eyes out, but it might not be enough.

He paused, and then turned to me.

“This is important to remember; once you get your wand I don't want you to come back and keep asking. It's the third brick up, and the second across.”

The bricks were low enough that I could reach them. He tapped one three times and the wall opened out into another world. It didn't open in a mechanical way; the brick quivered as though it was alive, and then a hole appeared in it that grew larger and larger.

The large archway led out to a cobbled street that twisted and turned out of sight.

I forced myself to look unimpressed and stepped through, and the hole vanished behind me. There was a stack of large metal pots... cauldrons according to the sign in the nearest shop.

One shop had a sign advertising dragon livers, but I couldn't understand the prices. Another sold owls. Why owls instead of other kinds of birds I had no idea. There were shops selling broomsticks, and telescopes, bat wings and newt eyes.

It was all a little overwhelming. It was like Salem Massachusetts had taken witch mania to heart and had a shopping district entirely dedicated to stereotypical witches. It was a little tacky as far as I was concerned.

Yet the people here didn't look like they were humoring their children. They didn't look like they were shopping ironically. There were adults unaccompanied by children; most of them in fact, and they seemed deadly serious in the things they were buying.

Furthermore, there were signs that things weren't as they seemed. I could see a little boy gesturing at a toy broomstick that was floating behind him without any obvious strings. There were things in windows that were moving that should not have moved.

Everyone here had that distinctive look about them, and there were a lot of people wearing black robes. There was something about their expressions, though, that was worrying. Everyone seemed tense, as though they were looking over their shoulder. When I'd been a villain in Brockton Bay it wouldn't have registered with me at all. In a city ruled by gangs everybody looked like that.

But I'd been a hero in Chicago for two years, and I'd seen how people looked who didn't live in a war zone. These people were tense, and I wasn't sure why.

Eventually I reached a large white building with a guard standing out in front. In my world he would have been defined as a Case 53, a parahuman whose powers had warped his body into something inhuman. Here those supposedly didn't exist.

He was shorter than me, swarthy, and with inhumanly long hands and feet. He stared at me rudely as I looked at the inscription on the doors, warning against thieves.

“Is this Gringotts?” I ventured a guess.

I'd heard the aurors talking about goblins and money, and the bartender had told me to get money changed here.

He grunted and nodded.

With my bugs keeping a careful eye on him, I walked past him, slipping inside the building. It was taller and more magnificent than any of the other buildings, and the inside had a lot of marble. I'd seen places as nice in Chicago, but never in Brockton Bay, which had been on the decline for decades.

There were a huge number of tellers, possibly a hundred, all of whom seemed like they were hard at work. All of them were goblins, if that was what the guard outside was. That made it clearer that he wasn't just some kind of strange Case 53 anomaly. Like parahumans, no Case 53 had the same deformities.

Yet all of these people seemed to be formed from the same cloth. They were all small, they all had basically the same skin tone, and they all had hands that were outside of the human norm. Their feet were presumably the same, but I couldn't see them behind the counter.

I cleared my throat and spoke to the first goblin that didn't have a line.

“I'm here to change my money,” I said.

He sneered at me and pointed at the stall at the end. “Talk to Gorlok. Last goblin against the south wall.”

I saw goblins weighing out gemstones the size of glowing coals. The value of just one of those gems was mind boggling, and I wondered if they were real or some kind of replica. If they were real, then each gem was worth at least a million dollars, and that was if their quality was low. He had a stack of them that he was weighing, which probably represented enough money to get my dying city back on its feet.

How much money did these goblins control?

“I'm here to change muggle money,” I said. I didn't say into what, because I didn't know.

The goblin stared at me for a moment, then gestured for me to take a seat. Not knowing how much I would need, I slid two hundred pounds across the counter. Hopefully this wasn't a huge mistake.

He handed me back a stack of coins.

“Can you explain the exchange rate?” I asked.

He was obviously used to this question, even though his eyes narrowed at me. “Knuts are the smallest denomination,” he said. “Twenty nine knuts makes a sickle. Seventeen sickles make a galleon.”

“And how many galleons to a British pound?” I asked.

“Five pounds to the galleon currently,” he said. “The number changes sometimes.”

He'd given me thirty nine galleons, fifteen sickles and fifty eight knuts.

I hesitated. “Do you buy muggle jewelry?”

His eyes almost seemed to gleam, and he nodded. I felt uncomfortable, but I pulled my backpack around. I looked around.

“Is there somewhere else we can do this? I'd rather people not see what I've got.”

He grunted. “First witch with sense I've seen in a while.”

Flipping a sign up onto his post, he stepped down and around the bar they were all sitting at . He gestured for me to follow him, and he led me through one of the many doors.

“Witch has jewelry to sell,” he said to an older goblin. There were goblin guards in the room, and the goblin had a jewelers' glass on his eye. He looked up and glared at me.

“You saw the sign out front,” he said. “Trying to trick us is the same as trying to steal from us... and no one steals from Gringotts and lives.”

“It's possible that some of it might be costume jewelry,” I said. I looked at him. “But if I find out that you've cheated me... well, I've got a long memory too.”

He grunted.

At his gesture, I handed him my backpack. Half my jewelry was buried behind the bush near my culvert; leaving it inside the culvert had seemed foolish.

“I can give you a third of what a muggle jeweler would charge you,” he said. “Muggles like to overcharge, and they don;t like to buy back, but we've got some use for it.”

I nodded. It was nothing less than I'd expected. If he'd told me he was giving me full value, I'd know he was lying. The fact that he didn't ask where I'd gotten it was worrying. He didn't seem to care whether I'd stolen it or not.

“I'll give you six hundred galleons for the lot,” he said.

I stared at him for a moment, trying to do the math in my head. Six hundred galleons would be the same as three thousand pounds. That wasn't bad, all things considered.

“I'll take it,” I said.

I could always transfer the money back to British money if I didn't find things to buy, and I still had the other half buried.

Taking the money, I was now six hundred and forty galleons richer than I'd been earlier today, whatever that meant. I wouldn't know how rich that made me until I actually went out and shopped.

Chapter Text

“I'll take two.”

The old man stared at me as though he hadn't heard what I'd said.

He'd just led me through a whole involved process of trying out different wands, and I had to admit that there was a certain thrill when I felt... something moving through me with this one. I still didn't even know what these were for, but the bartender had said I'd need one to get back here, and so here I was.

The fact that every person on the street carried one suggested that it was more than just a key. At eight galleons it was cheap even if that was all it was. I certainly wasn't going to let a possible tool go to waste.

“The wand chooses the wielder,” he said again. “You can't simply...”

“Take two?” I asked. “Why not?”

“Wands develop an affinity for their owner. As you grow in your powers, the wand grows with you. Switching wands on a whim would stunt that growth.”

“And when mine gets broken?”

“Broken?”

“I'm a child. Things get broken. Even if it's not me doing the breaking...”

Memories of my mother's flute flashed though my mind. I'd been stupid, taking it to school when I was being bullied, but I'd never expected them to defile it the way they had.

Living out in the open the way I did, there were no guarantees. I could be mugged, attacked by dogs, or simply be unlucky and trip, and the wand would snap like the piece of wood that it was.

Ollivander looked shocked. “A witch does not break her wand.”

“I believe in being prepared,” I said. “So I'd like a spare. I won't use it unless something happens to my main wand.”

He looked at me darkly, then sighed. “Paranoid, I'd call you, but the way things are going for muggleborns these days perhaps you aren't being foolish.”

“Oh?” I asked him.

“I haven't seen as many muggleborns heading for Hogwarts this year as usual,” he said. “And it makes me question why. There are whispers that you-know-who is back.”

“Who?”

“I shouldn't say anything,” he said hurriedly. He looked toward the front of the shop, as though he expected someone there to be listening. I knew there wasn't, because I had bugs on the front and back entrances watching. I could hardly tell him that, of course.

“If it's dangerous, that's all the more reason you should tell me,” I said. “otherwise, how will I defend myself?”

He hesitated, then said,”There are ugly aspects to our society that people don't like to talk about. There are people who don't care for muggleborns, and ten years ago there was a war among our kind about just that issue.”

“Who won?” I asked.

“You wouldn't be allowed a wand if the other side had won,” he said. “But they never really went away. They simply went quiet.”

“And they aren't so quiet now?”

“There have been rumors,” he said. “No one really knows. But no one really wants to risk bringing the bad times back by asking.”

He must have seen that I understood from my expression, because he stepped back and hustled to get me another copy of my wand.

As he bustled around, I looked outside the window at people shopping. I still wasn't sure I should even be here, but the wands were cheap enough that it was worth it just for that.

“Blackthorn, ten inches with a dragon heartstring, very flexible. That will be twenty one galleons.”

“I thought that they were seven galleons apiece,” I said.

“The first one is subsidized by Hogwarts,” he said. “Fourteen is the true price.”

I'd heard the name Hogwarts bandied around a few times, but I still hadn't found out what it was. I hadn't dared to ask, because that might reveal that I wasn't supposed to be here.

“Fine,” I said. I handed over the money.

I slid one wand into my backpack, and the other into belt. It wouldn't fit into my pocket, and my arms were too short to hide it up my sleeves. Maybe some kind of holster?

Without saying anything else, I left Ollivanders. The old man had creeped me out, given his tendency to stare just a little too long and to make cryptic pronouncements. I wasn't sure what to make of his assertion that wands were semi-sentient. I hoped that it was just a marketing ploy, because if it wasn't, then was owning one a little like slavery?

Wandering around, I saw a lot of products that I couldn't ever see a need for. Why would I buy a cauldron, or the parts to dozens of disgusting animals?

I was heading for the nearest bookstore when I stopped.

Gambol and Japes seemed to be a joke store. While it was possible that I wouldn't find anything useful, it wasn't impossible that these people might be stupid enough to actually sell things that could be used as weapons.

Stepping inside, I looked around. One thing I'd noticed about these people was that it seemed like they had a lot of tinkers. On my world, parahumans with the power to build technology were considered some of the most dangerous capes around.

Here, there were products of whatever power these people used everywhere. There were floating broomsticks and moving chess pieces. There were a thousand different products, all scattered around without any seeming rhyme or reason.

I looked carefully through the products. A lot of it really did seem to be useless; what was I going to do with artificial poop that turned back into rubber with a command word? With a telescope that gave the user a black eye?

Some of the pranks seemed to be mean spirited, and all I could think was that my bullies would have loved a store like this back when I was in Winslow. They'd been forced to limit themselves to the usual pushes and shoves and spilled food... at least until they'd shoved me into a locker filled with two week old tampons and other medical waste.

I could see that sort of escalation in some of the pranks this place sold, and it didn't give me a good feeling about these people that the shop seemed to be very successful.

Who would buy something like this unless they were bullying people? It didn't say good things that business was so good with such a presumably small population.

After five minutes of browsing, I froze as I found one that seemed really interesting.

“Peruvian instant darkness powder?” I asked the proprietor. It looked like a black rock, not like a powder at all.

“Throw it, and it will shroud your target in darkness.”

“How dark?”

“Impenetrably dark,” the man said. He was younger than the wand maker, maybe my Dad's age. “He won't be able to see his hand in front of his face. I have to advise against using it at the top of stairs or in other dangerous places.”

It was almost as though he was telling me exactly how to murder someone. Was he an idiot, or was he actually promoting using his product for killing?

“How much is it?”

“Ten galleons,” he said.

At my look, he said, “We have to import it from Peru. It lasts a while too; depending on prevailing winds and the like up to fifteen minutes.”

“I'll take three,” I said. “And these marbles work to trip anyone, even on unlevel ground?”

“They're enchanted to seek out the person who steps on them and to make them flail around comically before falling down. We used to sell banana peels that did the same thing, but there were issues with quality control.”

“I'll take three sets of those, and some of these firecrackers. Are they legal to use in London?”

“Not for children, so you'll have to stay out of muggle areas when you use them.”

Carefully, I picked out the fireworks that looked like they were the most dangerous. They reminded me a little of my Dad's reminiscences of the good old days when fireworks were strong enough to blow people's hands off.

Hopefully these tinkertech fireworks would be just as dangerous. Even if they weren't, I could probably use them as a distraction. I had enough control over my insects that I could probably use them to light one while I was somewhere else.

I nodded, and I stuffed my purchases in my backpack.

The clerk looked uneasy as he handed me my receipt. “You aren't planning to do anything illegal are you?”

“I'm just a kid,” I said, smiling. It didn't reach my eyes.

He didn't looked convinced. If anything, he looked even more anxious. He staggered back as I moved around him toward the door.

“Watch your step,” I said as I left, waving.

As I passed through a number of other stores, I didn't see anything I would need. Robes might help me fit in here, but where would I keep them? Buying a cat or a snake or even an owl would be irresponsible when I was living out in the wild.

The bookstore was where I really needed to go, but I stopped into a shop called Barons.

It was here that I really found myself getting excited. It was a shop filled with chests and containers of all kinds. Some weren't enchanted at all, while others were larger on the inside. They sold wizarding tents too, some of which had indoor plumbing and showers.

I really, really wanted one of those, but there was no way I'd be able to set one up in the middle of London without someone noticing and coming to investigate. Even if I could, the cheapest tent would cost more than half of my original stash.

They had chests that expanded on the inside too, including some deluxe models that expanded on the inside to the size of a rather largish house. Unfortunately, they also came with a price tag that was as much as a house. Even if that wasn't true, I still didn't have a place to put it.

It occurred to me that what I really needed to do was to find a warehouse that I could break into. If I could do that, I could set up a Wizarding tent inside and no one would notice. There was no point in buying anything here until I could find a place for it though.

Still, the thought of plumbing and showers whenever I wanted was almost enough to make me pony up the money immediately.

The woman saw the look of disappointment on my face, and she looked down at the fanny pack at my waist. From the expression on people's faces I'd learned not to call it a fanny pack. I still wasn't sure what I should actually call it.

“I don't suppose you know of any stores that sells stuff like this secondhand?” I asked.

She frowned. “There's a couple of stores in Knockturn Alley... but it's not safe for someone like you to go there.”

Could everyone tell I was a muggleborn just by looking at me? Did I look like a tourist? I was going to have to work on my act.

“It's just... I really need something like this, but these prices are a little steeper than I can afford,” I said. I looked up at her. “I may have to risk it.”

“You shouldn't... you really shouldn't,” she said.

Her saying it made me want to visit it even more. It sounded like it was what the bad parts of every town were. The place where pawnshops and petty crooks were found. However, there was an undertone to her voice. If this was where the genocidal wizards were congregating, it might not be wise for me to go there, at least until I was able to increase the size of my swarm.

She must have seen something in my expression that she didn't like. The woman bit her lip, and then looked around. There was no one else in the store.

“I could enchant that for you,” she said. “I'm really not supposed to; the Ministry regulates these things, but there's a workaround that helps avoid breaking the Secrecy rules.”

“Oh?”

“Your bag will be able to hold up to six hundred pounds,” she said. “But to muggles it will appear to be empty. I can even throw in a charm so that whatever you ask for is always at the top of the pile.”

“How much will it weigh?” I asked. I struggled to keep the growing excitement off my face. This was something that would be a game changer for me, but if I let her know how badly I wanted it, she'd overcharge me.

Telling me that it was semi-illegal was most likely a marketing ploy to drive up the price. Still, if I could afford it, I was going to buy it. I couldn't afford not to.

“Nothing,” she said. “Not more than the bag itself anyway.”

“Should I have it done to my backpack instead?”

“That thing will be a lot more convenient than the bigger bag, and a lot less likely to get stolen, especially if you hide it under your shirt.”

“You won't be able to fit anything larger than the mouth of the pack inside, but you can always carry with with you. The things inside are protected from each other; they don't jumble together or break. You can even keep your wand inside.”

“Can living things survive inside?”

“As long as the air holds out,” she said. She looked at me curiously. “Are you planning to put a cat or Kneazel in there?”

I shook my head. “I was just curious.”

I'd never weighed any of my swarms, but I had a feeling that six hundred pounds of bugs would be a fearsome amount. If this worked out, I'd probably be back for a couple of more.

“How much?”

“Seventy galleons.”

At the rate I was going I was going to be out of money by the end of the day. It didn't matter, though. I still had the rest of it buried in the bush, and this would make my life so much easier. I'd be able to keep all the food inside, and all my other goods except for my backpack.

“How long would it take?”

“Three hours,” she said.

“Done.”

I handed over even more money, and I was out, feeling lighter than I had in a while It wasn't a Wizarding tent, but it would solve a lot of my problems, and if I could find a place to put it, I could get one of those too.

It would be like getting my life back. While I could stand living outdoors, I hated feeling unsafe. When winter came, I was going to be in trouble, and the Wizarding tents were climate controlled.

These people seemed to believe that they were wizards and witches. I couldn't argue that they seemed to have powers, but magic didn't exist. More likely these were just parahuman powers channeled through a set of backward beliefs.

It might even be that these people weren't powered by passengers like I had been, but were some kind of mutation. There were a lot of them, and they all seemed to have similar powers, so that seemed the most reasonable explanation.

They'd cloaked their powers with a lot of myth and legend, which suggested that these people had had them for a while. Hopefully, whatever I found at the bookstore would answer questions that I was having without my having to arouse suspicion.

Reaching the bookstore, I slipped inside.

“Looking for your Hogwarts books?” the teenage witch behind the counter asked. “We've still got a few stacks left. First year books are on the far end. We've got the whole set.”

I followed her directions to a table where the books were stacked up in groups.

Standard book of spells... I doubted that would do me much good, considering that I was a parahuman and not actually a witch. A history of magic sounded like exactly the book I wanted, though. Magical theory might be all right. The books on herbs and potions didn't sound like anything I'd ever use.

The books on fantastic beasts might be useful; I'd seen enough strange creatures to be curious about them. Had they been created by the wizards like the animated chess pieces and flying brooms? We'd had bio-tinkers at home, but they'd typically used their powers to create things far worse than dragons and unicorns.

Maybe the goblins were bio-tinkered by the wizard too. The history of magic might clear some of that up.

It was probably best to buy the whole set so as not to arouse suspicion. My fanny pack had a mouth large enough to slide the books into.

“I'm going to look around for a bit if you don't mind,” I said.

I stayed for several hours, but realized that I needed to get my pack before that store closed. I returned, and spent more money than I had to on books, shoving them into the fanny pack as fast as I could go. I them emptied out my backpack into the fanny pack, and shoved the backpack in there too.

By the end of the day I was exhausted. I barely caught the last bus home, and the walk back to my culvert seemed to take forever. I didn't have a tenth of the endurance I'd had in my adult body, and the thought of sleeping back in a hole when I'd seen Wizarding tents was dispiriting.

I froze as I turned around a corner and saw a tall man leaning down and staring into my culvert. He was thin, with sallow skin. He had shoulder length, greasy hair.

They'd found me!

I reached into my fanny pack, and began to pull out the things I was going to need.

Chapter Text

“Miss Hebert,” the man called out.

I stopped, my hand gripping the darkness powder in my pouch tightly. Running would have been a better option, but until I knew how they were tracking me it might be useless. The fact that he knew my real, original name which there was no way he should known was more than a little concerning.

No one should know me by that name; no one in this world. As far as I could tell, the girl whose body I was wearing was named Millie Scribner.

Had Cauldron sent someone for me?

That didn't seem likely. In the last minutes of the battle against Scion I had used up the Doormaker's powers, and Cauldron no longer had the ability to simply open doorways to other worlds. They didn't seem like the kind of people who would care much about me anyway; their leader had shot me twice in the back of the head.

This was a member of the Wizarding community, and he should not know my name.

All sixteen of the wasps and bees I had collected flew out from behind me and circled around. I needed to keep him talking for long enough to get them into position. They wouldn't do a lot of damage, unless I was luck and he had an allergy, but they'd distract him long enough for me to use the darkness powder and the tripping marbles.

It might be enough for me to get away. We were out in the open, but there were a dozen different escape routes I could use. I'd mapped them out in my head when I'd found this place. The last thing I'd wanted to do was to be trapped inside a culvert when the people who were trying to kill me came back.

“I'm not sure I know anybody by that name,” I said cautiously. “Why do you want to see her?”

He stood at stared at me. There was something about the look in his eye that I didn't like.

“I am the professor of an exclusive school, one which she has been invited to,” he said. “May I have your name?”

“My mother always told me not to talk to strangers,” I said.

“And yet here you are,” he said.

There was something about the way he spoke; it was very precise.

I'd read a little on the bus back; from what little I knew, wizards used their wands to create any number of powers. They were like mini-Eidolons, able to create and maintain any power at all. Unlike him, they weren't able to do just anything, only abilities that they had been trained to do.

The important thing that I'd gathered from it was that they needed their wands to do just about anything.

The man had a wand in his hand, and I had to treat it like it was a loaded weapon. There were two different options for me... stay as far away as possible so that it was harder for him to aim, or close in and try to get it from him.

I couldn't tell what kind of martial arts training he might have had; it was possible that he might not have had any. People tended to be lazy, and if they had a certain power they tended to rely on it overly much.

It was only people who had sub-par abilities like I'd once had who were forced to work harder. Bug control hadn't even ranked on the scale of super hero and villain abilities, but I'd made it terrifying.

My reputation alone had been enough to get me out of some scrapes. I no longer had that, and I was going to have to work with my wits.

We'd both been silent, staring at each other for a moment.

“You are an annoying child,” he said.

“I've been told that,” I admitted. “More than once. I'd be happy to give that letter to her.”

I stepped forward, my eyes never leaving the wand he had in his hand. If he lifted it I'd dodge to the right and lunge forward, depending on my bugs to distract him long enough for me to get the wand.

“So you do know where she is,” he said. He glanced back at the culvert. “It would seem that she has fallen on hard times.”

By the time he glanced back I had already closed half the distance between us.

“Her parents had an unfortunate accident,” I said. “Met with some dangerous people and didn't come out alive. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?”

He stared at me.

“It would seem unusual for a child to come out of a situation like that unharmed.”

“Some people are lucky, I guess,” I said. I was almost there.

I had the darkness powder in one hand, and I was easing the pocket knife open with my other. It wasn't easy; Swiss army knives were hard to open at the best of times, and one handed in the dark was even harder. However I finally felt it slide open just as I got within arms length of him.

A cut to his wrist and he'd drop the wand. I'd step inside his reach, and the knife would slice the femoral artery in his thigh. The shock and blood loss would most likely keep him from being a threat after that, but only if I could catch him by surprise. This new body was small and weak and didn't have the strength or reflexes my old body had.

“I am Severus Snape,” he said. He stared me in the eye for a moment, and I felt the beginnings of a headache. “And I am here to offer you admittance to Hogwarts.”

“What?” I asked. “So you aren't here to kill me?”

He glanced down, and he must have seen the glint of the knife.

Mister Snape stepped back and slowly put his wand away. “I am here to make an offer. There was some concern when it was found the some of the other prospective students had met with unfortunate accidents.”

“Accidents, right,” I said. I chuckled sarcastically. “Whatever makes you people feel better.”

We were alone; I was sending some of my insects out to the limits of my range, and they weren't detecting anyone else. He might have been arrogant enough to think that he'd be able to take a muggle child by himself, but I'd already survived one attack.

His eyes narrowed. “What do you know about what has been happening?”

“I overheard them planning to kill three more kids and their families,” I said. “Before they got their letters.”

“And you chose not to go to the police?”

He knew enough to call them police instead of whatever the hell word the others kept using. Despite that, he still chose to walk around in robes.

“They said they had people in the department.”

He straightened up. “If this is true, then Hogwarts is the safest place in Great Britain that you can be.”

Hogwarts.

“That's the school,” I said.

“Yes. You are a witch, and Hogwarts will teach you how to reach your potential.”

“Me. You are saying that I'm one of you people?”

He stared at me.

I wasn't sure why I hadn't made the connection before. All of the other dead had been members of this race... wizards or whatever they called themselves. It stood to reason this was why Millie Scrivener had been targeted.

It explained the feeling I'd gotten when I'd handled the wands. I'd been quick to explain that away as sales tactics, or as something inherent to the wand itself, especially since Ollivander had been so insistent that it was the wand that chose the wielder.

“You know who my people are,” he said. “And what they can do.”

“I've seen some of the things they can do,” I said grimly. “So why would your people be trying to kill me if I'm one of you?”

“Some people believe that this sort of power should be reserved for those who have enjoyed it for several generations. They fear that newcomers will prove to be corrupting influences on their way of life.”

“So they are racists,” I said. “How does that help me?”

“Hogwarts is the one place they will not dare to attack you,” he said. “Also, it is better than a hole in the ground.”

I stared at him. Did I believe him? I couldn't be sure.

My impression of the wizards was that they were arrogant enough to believe that a normal human child wouldn't be worth trying to fool. Normally, they'd be right too.

In my world, people gained powers when they triggered; it happened when they'd had the worst day of their lives. It wasn't unknown for it to happen to children, and so people were a little more guarded around children.

Here, apparently people my age were considered powerless, even by the Wizarding community.

“How did you find out my name?” I asked, challenging him.

“There is a magical quill,” he said. “Whenever a child's magic first manifests itself, the book writes their name in a book. For most children, that happens early, and letters are sent out to them on standardized dates, giving them plentiful time to prepare for their journey.”

He hesitated. “Some people are late bloomers. Their magic doesn't manifest until that last month. If it does not happen until September then they have to wait another year.”

“I don't have any magic,” I said.

“The quill does not make mistakes,” he said. “Have you not had unexplained things happen around you? Been able to push your will onto the world?”

My bugs.

I felt a sudden shock go through me. I'd been assuming that I'd been getting my powers back, slowly but surely. But it didn't make sense that the connection in the brain to the alien intelligences that gave us our powers would exist in an entirely new body, not in a world where the shards hadn't been giving people powers.

I wasn't getting my powers back. I was mimicking them with this “magical” power, whatever it was.

According to the book on magical history that I'd skimmed, records of wizards went back five thousand years, long before Scion had ever gotten close to this planet.

“Maybe,” I admitted reluctantly. “But I overheard some men saying that all of the children had birthdays in August.”

“Children with birthdays in September are not accepted until the next year even if they do have their magic,” Snape said. He paused. “You don't seem surprised at the existence of magic. Most muggles have more questions. Have you been exposed to the magical world before?”

It meant that someone had either seem the book or whatever list they'd copied from the book to keep the students organized. While I would have expected the students to have been kept in alphabetical order, it was possible that they'd been kept by birth month. I'd seen stranger organization schemes during my trip to Diagon Alley.

“I followed some strange looking people and found Diagon alley,” I said. I pulled out a wand. “Bought a few things.”

For once he seemed flabbergasted.

“You've been rather resourceful,” he said finally. “But we should get you to safety.”

My bugs were hearing distinctive cracking sounds in the distance. Had I been followed back here, or had he? There was a good chance that whoever assigned him to come get me had my name on a list somewhere.

That meant that my best bet to finding the people who'd done this was in Hogwarts itself.

He'd heard the sounds, and while he was trying to look cool and calm, I could see his fingers tightening on his wand, and a sudden stiffness to his posture. Whoever was coming he didn't want to meet, at least not with me in tow.

“All right,” I said.

He held out his hand, and a moment later I felt the world contract around me as though I was being squeezed by a tube.

Strider's teleportation ability was a lot more pleasant.

We were suddenly standing on a huge lawn that sloped upward. To my right was a dark forest, and I could feel that it was full of insects, even if I could still only control a few of them.

Up the slope there was a castle.

“There are anti-apparition spells that protect Hogwarts,” Snape said. “To prevent wizards from simply apparating inside.”

“No moat?” I asked.

Not being able to teleport inside was nice, but if I could walk up to the door and blow it off its hinges, it wasn't that good of a protection. Hopefully there were other things protecting the castle, or I'd have to rethink my decision in coming here.

I knew better than anyone that a school was not necessarily a safe place.

He glanced at me, but didn't deign to reply. We started walking up the slope.

“You know that you have a mole in the castle, right?” I asked. “I overheard the two men who killed my parents saying that they'd gotten the names off a list in Hogwarts.”

He stiffened, but didn't say anything.

“How'd they know I was staying in a culvert?” I asked. “No one followed me. Was there a master list that had all the names and the addresses on it?”

From his body language I could tell that there was.

He handed me my letter, and I scanned it. It was addressed to Taylor Hebert, North East Culvert... hmmm... I hadn't known the name of the park. That was really specific.

Apparently I was going to have to buy a whole lot of the crap that I'd turned my nose up at... cauldrons, robes and the whole bit. Luckily I'd already bought the wands and the books.

“I gather you're accepting the invitation even if you believe that the Dark Lord has agents inside the school?” he asked.

I was getting winded on my way up the slope. It had been a long day, and this body was dreadfully out of shape. I was going to have to restart my running and build up my endurance again.

“It would seem prudent, now that I know you can track me wherever I go and someone here is looking at the book that has my location,” I said. “I didn't get all of this...just the wands and the books.”

“Wands?”

“For breakage,” I said. At his look I shrugged. “I'm a child.”

“Most children who break things do not plan ahead,” he said. “Unless it is deliberately done, and often even then. They also tend to prefer to pretend that they are older than they really are, unless they see some sort of gain.”

“I don't trust people,” I said. “And if the wands are this important, isn't a spare a good idea?”

Buying a second wand had actually been an impulsive decision. I'd been in denial about the feelings I'd had when I'd finally found the right one, but there had been a kind of strange euphoria when I'd felt that power in my hand.

I was going to have to watch myself; in my old body I'd just barely been an adult. Now that I was in a preteen body, I also had a preteen brain. I'd still have an advantage over other children my age because I'd been through these experiences before.

Having to go through puberty a second time wasn't something I was looking forward to. The only thing that would be worse would be not going through it, because one of these genocidal wizards got to me.

I was going to have to watch my step at this school. In my old school, half the kids had been in gangs, but only a quarter of them had actually been carrying weapons at any particular time. If this really was a school for magic, then every child would have a weapon in his pocket, and all of them could try to kill me.

“I suspect that you will be a headache to whatever head of household who has to deal with you.”

“That's not my concern,” I said. “I've got people trying to murder me, and so I really don't care what anyone says.”

“You won't be allowed the knife in school,” he said.

I held up my wand. “No weapons allowed?”

“The Wizarding world frowns on its students being stabbed,” he said. “No matter how satisfying that might be. For that matter it's illegal to carry in Muggle Great Britain as well.”

“Well, things are a little more lenient where I come from. You defend yourself or you die.”

“I wasn't aware that the United States were so violent,” he said.

His United states probably wasn't. Mine was a post-apocalyptic hellhole... and that was before the apocalypse had actually started.

We reached the top of the rise, and I finally got my first good look at the castle. My breath caught in my throat. I'd seen other worlds and things no person should have to see but I'd also been raised on Disney just like every other little girl in America.

Because of that, castles had a special place in my heart, and this one did not disappoint. I couldn't help but stare at it.

“Welcome to Hogwarts,” Snape said.

Chapter Text

“She fully intended to stab me,” Snape's voice said.

I was sitting outside what was apparently the principal's office, although apparently he was called Headmaster here. Hopefully he was better than Blackwell had been, letting the popular kids get away with everything and punishing the other kids.

My bugs were listening in to the conversation; it wasn't that I didn't trust Snape, although of course I didn't. But if this was the place where people got the information to get their killing sprees started, I needed all the information I could get.

“I'm sure it wasn't that bad Severus,” an older man's voice said.

“She knew where to stab me to best incapacitate me. That's not normal for an eleven year old child. Her mind didn't even feel like that of a child... it was difficult to read anything other than surface thoughts, and I was only able to get bits and pieces.”

There was silence for a moment.

“If she was Tom, you wouldn't have been able to read anything at all. Did you learn anything else?”

“The deaths of her parents didn't bother her in anything other than an abstract way. It was as though she didn't care about them at all.”

He'd read my mind.

I felt a chill go down my spine. In my old world, mind reading had been thought to be impossible, and discovering that it wasn't was horrible. I'd been able to beat people in the past because I was smarter and a better planner. If they knew all my plans just by looking at me, then I wouldn't have any chance at all.

“I'm sure that she was just in shock. We saw a lot of that during the war,” the other man said. “It will come to her in time.”

“Giving people the benefit of the doubt will be the death of you,” Snape said. “Not everyone can be redeemed.”

“And if I'd felt that way about you?”

Snape was silent for a moment. “It's not normal for a child to be thinking about how to make me bleed to death.”

“I'd suspect that some of your students might disagree.”

There was a sound of expelled air, almost like Snape was trying to suppress a chuckle.

“More importantly, what if she is right?” Snape said. “It is a serious accusation that muggleborns are being targeted using information from this school.”

“It's possible that it could have been a member of the board,” the other man said. “If it had been a member of the staff, I would have expected there to be more deaths.”

“That would depend on how much access they had,” Snape said. “Given that only a few people had access, it should be easy to work out who was involved.”

“The fact that there have only been four attacks suggests that someone got a quick look at a list.”

“Are we sure that there have not been more attacks than the girl knows about... perhaps some who have already received their letter?”

“That would provoke the kind of response that Tom doesn't want. A few mugglesborns die before they get their letters, well, most wizards think muggles live short brutish lives anyway. But attacking Hogwarts students would risk turning the populace against him.”

Snape was silent. “It seems risky to depend on his political acumen given that childrens' lives are at stake.”

“Showing concern about the students? How unusual. Especially since none of them will be your direct responsibility.”

“They are all of our responsibility.”

Snape was silent for a moment. “Then we must find out who this leak is. If it was a member of the board, we can take action, but having a member of the staff be contributing to the deaths of students... that's unacceptable.”

“I'm sure it would surprise many of the students to hear that.”

“I spend far too much time and effort trying to keep the dunderheads alive to let all my work go to waste,” Snape snapped.

“Then finding out who was involved will be part of your task,” the older man said. “I will make other inquiries. We will discuss what we have found after the beginning of the school year.”

Snape grunted in acknolwedgement.

“Well, that leaves us with the problem of young Miss Hebert. What are we to do with her?” The older man sounded cheerful, despite the topic they'd just been discussing. Either he didn't really care, or he was good at hiding his emotions.

“Leaving her out in the muggle world for the next week will probably result in someone being killed,” Snape said.

“She seems quite resourceful,” the other man said. “Finding Diagon Alley based on the tiny number of clues available to her... astounding.”

“I wasn't talking about her,” Snape said dryly. “Although it is possible that the Death Eaters will track her down. All they have to do is send her a letter by owl and then follow the owl.”

“Regardless, I think you are right. Given the danger the muggleborns are in, and the likelihood that they will go after her, she should not return to the muggle world. I will make inquiries as to a Wizarding house that might be willing to take her.”

“Preferably one that does not have other children,” Snape said. He hesitated. “There is something seriously wrong with her.”

“There are children who have natural affinities for occlumency; you were one of those if I recall. Given the trauma she has been through, we should give her the benefit of the doubt.”

“It's not the occlumency that bothers me. It's the sociopathy.”

“Weren't you telling me just last week that children are natural sociopaths?” The other voice chuckled. “It takes time for their moral development to... er.. mature. I'm sure she will be fine.”

I was panicking by this point. If they knew what I was thinking, then they'd know that I didn't belong here. I'd hijacked the body of one of their children. While it was true that she wasn't using it at the time, would they consider that a crime? Would they try to exorcise me?

“Perhaps it is best if you stay out of her mind for the time being, Severus,” the other voice said. “It's not polite to look where you aren't invited.”

“Is that something you are planning to abide by yourself?” Snape asked. “Because you are a better legilmens than I, and you might be able to find out just what is wrong with her.”

“I see no reason to violate the privacy of a young girl's mind, not when we have bigger issues to deal with. We have three dead muggleborns with their families, and one missing. Justin Finch-Fletchley, Hannah Haywood, and Sarah Hamilton all need justice. Millie Scrivener is still missing.”

“We should have Miss Hebert speak to the aurors.”

“Tom always had sympathizers in the office; I have reason to believe that he has more now.”

“So we are to follow this investigation entirely on our own?” Snape sounded doubtful. “Surely there are members of the Order who can be trusted.”

“They are being watched,” Dumbledore said. “We must be discreet. Do you have any idea who Tom has spying here?”

“Half the children in my house I am sure,” Snape said. “Possibly some of the staff members.”

“Perhaps you can get information from Tom himself?”

“He has only spoken to some members of the inner circle,” Snape said. “I do not happen to be one of them. There are rumors about what he had to do to reconstitute himself.”

“Yet reconstitute himself he has,” Dumbledore said. “And his forces are gathering even as we speak. I need you to speak to as many of your old contacts as possible to find out about who is perpetrating these murders.”

“They may not be willing to talk,” Snape said.

“Do your best.” The other man's voice was firm and didn't seem like he expected an argument. I didn't hear one from Snape.

Snape was a double agent in Tom's organization?

If wizards could read minds, how did that even work? From what the other man had said, Snape was able to resist mind reading somehow, by what sounded like natural skill and training. Yet if I was a criminal mastermind, I wouldn't trust anyone who wouldn't let me read their mind. I'd insist on it, even if I had to force them at weapon point.

Or I'd just kill them.

Having someone you couldn't trust at your back was a recipe for disaster. Whoever Tom was, he was an idiot to trust someone who could hide what he was.

Still, if Snape and the other man weren't going to invade my privacy, that still left the matter of the other wizards. Could all of them do it?

If Wizards had to learn spells, then maybe only some of them could. It would have to be something I would learn as quickly as possible. It made sense that not all wizards could do all spells, or otherwise there wouldn't be such a thriving trade in places like Diagon Alley.

Certainly, almost everyone can cook, or at least make a sandwich, and yet restaurants still exist. But convenience wouldn't be much of a factor if everyone could simply make anything they wanted. Some wizards had to be better at some things than others, or there wouldn't even be an economy.

Every wizard would be able to provide everything they needed for themselves.

I heard the door beside me open, and Snape looked out at me. I was sitting on the floor, leaned up against a wall.

“So you haven't chosen to set fire to the entire building,” Snape said. “I am pleasantly surprised.”

Looking up at him, I said, “I'm just sitting here doing what you asked. You can ask any of those guys.”

I pointed at the moving pictures. Truthfully, they creeped me out. If I understood Snape's explanations, they were simple mental clones of people who had actually lived. How did that work exactly? Did the wizards make a copy of the mind and place it in the paint?

Wouldn't that make Wizarding paintings the perfect interrogation technique? As long as you could paint a picture without someone knowing, you could theoretically torture their painting for whatever information you wanted, and depending on how sentient they actually were, maybe even be somewhat more moral than ordinary torture?

Regardless, all they would have seen was me sitting on the floor, my back against the wall with my eyes closed. Unless they could see magic of course; there were a lot of things I didn't know, which meant that I was going to need a crash course in magic before any of this went any further.

“The Headmaster is ready to see you.”

I stood up and I stepped past the gargoyle. Was the gargoyle like the paintings, or was it somehow more sapient because it was three dimensional? It had stared at me suspiciously the whole time I was sitting there.

Stepping onto the moving stone staircase, I grimaced.

If this school was the safest place in the Wizarding world, then the other places had to be deathtraps. I'd already seen moving staircases, and if OSHA had any sway in Britain, or the Wizarding world, the whole place would have been shut down before it even started.

My father worked with the Dockworkers, and while they'd had their arguments with the Occupational and Safety administration, he had to admit that a lot of their rules made sense.

Stairs should have rails, and small children shouldn't be sent plummeting to their deaths. While having paintings watch over the children was creepy, it wasn't like they could do anything to save anyone.

As we reached the actual office, I stepped inside, and then looked around. It was a large circular room, with knick knacks and odd items everywhere. Dumbledore was apparently like a lot of old people I'd known; an avid collector of strange things and unwilling to let any of it go.

There were portraits of old men and women on the walls, most of the people in them were asleep.

There was a bird in the corner. It snapped at the air and ate one of my bugs. It turned to look at me, and then it coughed violently. It made a choking sound and then it suddenly caught on fire.

What...the...hell?

It fell over, and the fire was burning merrily. I stared at the corpse, which collapsed into ashes faster than should have been possible.

The sad thing was that I knew exactly how long it took a body to go from living to dead and then to ashes because of fire.

“Fawkes is a phoenix,” an old man said. He was sitting on a high backed chair. “His life cycle includes burning to death and then rising again. His species is essentially immortal.”

“I know how he feels,” I muttered.

The man looked like Gandalf. Was that deliberate? Did Lord of the Rings even exist in this universe?

“I understand that you have had quite the experience,” Dumbledore said. “And that you have been very
clever at surviving things that most grown wizards would not.”

“What else could I do?” I asked. “Lay down and die?”

“And yet you continued trying to look for your parents' murderers, despite the clear danger that would be involved.”

“They were after me,” I said. “I had to find them first.”

Even a wizard would die from a knife in the back, and they had to sleep sometimes.

He didn't flinch, which meant that either he wasn't reading my mind, or he was a better actor than I'd thought.

“Still, that was an amazing act of bravery from a girl who had no power but her own wits and her own determination.”

“What happens to me now?” I asked.

“You will stay at Hogwarts until the end of the week. You will then be taken to London, where you will board the train with the rest of your classmates.”

“Why would I do that if I am already here?”

“The train ride is an important opportunity to bond with your classmates. It helps to create friendships that may last for your entire lives.”

“I'm not that interested in making friends,” I said. “I'm here to find out who is targeting me, and I'm going to make them pay.”

“Revenge is never the way to achieve happiness,” Dumbledore said. “It only causes more pain.”

I stared at him. It was like he wasn't even listening to what I was saying.

Was stopping a mad dog revenge, or was it simply prudent? What made him think that these people were going to stop killing muggles and muggleborns? Unless someone stopped them, it was only going to get worse.

Snape got it; unless I was mistaken, he'd been a double agent in the other organization, which meant that he'd seen and probably done horrible things.

I knew what that was like. There were things that I'd done that I still had the occasional nightmare about. I'd done them for the best of reasons, for the greater good, but I'd never liked them.

“Fine. I'll give up on the whole thing and leave it to the adults, who I am sure know much better than I do.”

Dumbledore smiled at me, but I could see that Snape wasn't buying it.

“Excellent,” he said. “While you are here, you will have access to the approved sections of the library, and the dining hall. You will be staying in one of the Gryffindor rooms; perhaps those are rooms you will be spending a lot of time in over the next seven years.

I could hear Snape snorting next to me. What did that even mean?

“The paintings will keep watch over you. I would ask that you stay out of the Forbidden forest. Despite your... unusual survival skills, there are a number of creatures in the forest who are known Wizard killers.”

The library would be useful. It would give me a greater sense of this world that I'd stepped into, even more than the school books that I'd bought.

“I would like for Madam Pomprey, our Medi-witch to examine you, to see that your adventure in the muggle world didn't leave any continuing problems.”

Just what would a witch healer be able to determine about me? Was I really some kind of zombie, reanimated, but not really alive? Or was something else going on.

Maybe I really was Millie Scribner, and Taylor Hebert's memories had overwritten hers. Or maybe Taylor Hebert's soul had possessed her, although I wasn't sure if I really believed in the existence of a soul.

My stomach clenched. If they discovered that I really wasn't who they thought I was, what would they do with me?

Dumbledore must have seen my sudden look of anxiety.

“Many muggleborn students worry about visits to the healer. I can assure you that you will not be subjected to any injections or other intrusive tests such as the muggles tend to do. It will be entirely painless.”

Somehow I found that hard to believe.

Chapter Text

“She shows evidence of repeated exposure to the Cruciatis curse,” Madam Pomfrey said. “Enough that I am surprised that she is still sane. I have seen aurors who were never the same again after similar levels of exposure.”

“I'm not entirely sure she is sane,” Snape muttered.

Madam Pomfrey ignored him. “There are signs of dark magic exposure that I haven't seen before. It is similar to what we see in people killed with the Killing Curse, except that of course it must be a less efficient variant since she is clearly alive.”

“Is there any indication that she was abused otherwise, especially over the last few days?” Snape asked.

“None. She's a little dehydrated, and a little sun burned, which is surprising given our climate. Where did you find her?”

“Living in a hole in the ground in central London,” Snape said. “I would have expected her to be covered in insect bites at the very least.”

“I saw none,” Pomfrey said. “And nothing wrong with her that a little nutrition and sleep in a good bed won't fix. Her mind, however...I can't imagine what that kind of torture would do to an impressionable young girl.”

“Warped her,” Snape said darkly.

I was lying on a hospital bed. I would have liked to say that there weren't insects here for me to use to eavesdrop with, but there were. Apparently magical healing didn't require the same level of cleanliness that muggle healing did.

They were using something to muffle their conversation. It was creating a strange sensation; half my bugs were outside the circle and could hear nothing, while the other half were inside, and they could hear just fine.

I felt a sense of relief.

Madam Pomfrey's inspection really hadn't been invasive. It had mostly involved her running a wand up and down over my body, like a piece of equipment from Star Trek. The fact that I wasn't actually a zombie was a relief; for all I'd known, it was possible that I could have started rotting sooner or later, and then what would I have done?

This meant that I was clear to move on to the next part of my plan, which involved doing as much research as I could over the next week.

I needed to find out what the limits to legilimency were, and what an occlumens was. I needed to get a general idea of what the capabilities of most of the wizards I was likely to meet were. I'd fortunately bought the first through seventh year books, claiming that I was buying for a rather large family.

Even when I hadn't thought I had magical power, I'd bought the books just in case; learning what spells the wizards were studying would be an indicator of which spells they were likely to use. I'd been wrong to dismiss the books as useless outright, and I'd bought them for fear of missing something and because they were cheap.

“Just from speaking to her, I don't see any signs of mental trauma, but it's likely that some will crop up over the next few days. Seeing your parents murdered in front of you has to be terrifying for a young girl. The fact that she was able to survive and even thrive is remarkable.”

“Indeed,” Snape said.

“She doesn't have any other friends or family that she can turn to?” Pomfrey asked.

Snape shook his head. “She gives me the impression that her parents have only moved here recently, and that she had no close family back in the States. Otherwise we'd been dealing with the MACUSA about taking her to be educated in Ilvermorny.”

“I can't recall ever having an American at Hogwarts.”

“That won't be the problem,” Snape said. “I have a feeling that letting her attend here will be like setting a piranha on goldfish.”

“You must be exaggerating! She's just a little girl!”

“She looks innocent,” Snape said. “But don't be fooled.”

“She'll be a Gryffindor for sure, as brave as she was. Wandering around London on her own, surviving for several days. Without their wands I'd imagine a lot of fifth years would do worse.”

“Not all of the brave are in Gryffindor,” Snape said stiffly. He gestured and the strange silencing field he was using disappeared.

Snape strode over to my bed.

“I will take you to your room,” he said. “We will return to Diagon Alley tomorrow to complete your purchases.”

“What if I don't have any more money?” I asked.

“There is a fund provided for those without means. However, I suspect that you are not the type to have spent all of your money, despite being a child.”

I shrugged. “Maybe I don't want to spend my money on fancy pots and weird robes.”

Antagonizing him wasn't the best idea, but he was so stuffy that I couldn't help myself. Besides, when was the next time I actually got to be a child? Once school started I was going to have to get serious and work on finding out who wanted us all dead.

Tom seemed like a prime candidate, but I couldn't ask him about it without revealing that I had been listening in. I suspected that was an ability not shared by most wizards, and would be best kept under my hat, at least as well as I could in a school filled with mind readers.

“You will do as directed,” he said. He gritted his teeth.

I slipped out of bed, and back into my sneakers. I took a final look around, and we made our way out of the Hospital wing. It said something about the safety of this school that there were so many beds. The place looked like they were ready for a war, which suggested that having a school where one hundred percent of the students were armed might not be as safe as Snape and Dumbledore were trying to make it out to be.

The Hospital Wing was on the first floor, and we went through a long hall that led to stairs going up.

“Is there really a rule about having knives at school?” I asked.

I was interested in what he had to say. I'd turned the knife over in the interest of not causing problems, but I'd suspected he'd been lying the whole time.

He was silent for a moment, then admitted “No.”

“You just didn't want me to stab you.”

“You will learn far worse ways to hurt people than stabbing,” he said. “But it would be preferable if you did not start with that.”

“Will there likely be a lot of classmates that I will want to stab?”

His face turned dark. “Wizarding children are no better than muggle children; in some way they are worse, because they have more ways to express their natural tendencies.”

“Tendencies to bully?”

He glanced at me and didn't say anything.

“I won't stand for that,” I said. “I don't like bullies, whether they are students or teachers.”

“It's likely that you won't have much of a choice. Older students have skills that make them much more dangerous than a muggle of equivalent age.”

“There are ways to stop that...”

“Even the Wizarding world frowns on killing or maiming other children.,” Snape said quickly.

“If teachers would do their jobs it wouldn't be necessary for more extreme measures to be taken,” I said sweetly. “Besides, Madam Pomfrey said that she could completely regrow bones.”

“Should I be concerned that this is the first thing you asked her?”

“I was just curious,” I said. “What with all the moving staircases and all, I was a little worried about falling.”

“Given that many of the children at this school will have parents who were sympathizers of the last Dark Lord, I would suggest that you try to blend in and not cause too many problems,” Snape said. “The first response of many of the more privileged students would be to make complaints to their parents about the dangerous mudblood.”

“Mudblood?” I asked.

“It's an offensive term for the muggleborn,” Snape said. “Its use marks the user as someone who does not care for them.”

“If they don't come after me, I won't come after them,” I said. “I can tolerate words, but I won't let anyone bully me.”

I'd made that mistake in my first life. Three girls had made my life hell for more than a year; they'd been the cause of my getting powers. In my world, powers came from having the worst day of your life.

Letting them get away with bullying hadn't worked. Ignoring it hadn't worked. They'd just escalated until they had put me in the hospital.

Our conversation drifted off as we walked up floor after floor. By the fourth floor my energy was flagging. By the sixth I felt like I was going to drop dead. Had this girl whose body I was wearing never done any exercise in her life?

He led me to the Gryffindor dormitories, which were at the top of a tower on the seventh floor. There was a common room with a roaring fire, reached by climbing a mahogany staircase decorated in crimson and gold. There was a lion over the mantle of the fireplace, and it seemed very cozy.

It was one of the tallest towers in the castle, and I wondered if all of the students had to climb this much just to get to bed. If they did, physical education might not be as important.

“Will I be allowed to spend time on the grounds?” I asked.

“Why?” Snape asked.

“I want to start running; I'm terribly out of shape and I need to get stronger.”

“Wizards don't run,” he said.

“They should,” I said. “They'd live longer.”

Whether he caught the double meaning in what I'd said or not, he seemed to simply ignore the questions.

“You will required to stay away from the edge of the forest and out of the lake. There are creatures in the lake and some of them are not... entirely tame.”

If the people trying to kill me knew I was here, they'd be able to get me while I was out on the grounds. There were probably more protective spells than I knew about, but I couldn't depend on that. Yet trying to run around inside the castle, with its shifting stairs would be a recipe for disaster.

I'd need to stay close to the castle.

“It's probably best if you do not stray too far,” Snape said.

It was possible that working on my strength and endurance might not be helpful at all. Yet I suspected that being able to dodge would be important no matter what magic was like, and without physical endurance, slowing down would happen sooner than later.

Were spells like heat seeking missiles, or was it like guns, where the person who aimed better and missed less often was the winner? I didn't know, and not knowing was likely to get me killed.

 

“The stairs leading up to the girl's dorms are enchanted so that should boys attempt to climb them, they will turn into a slide. Male prefects may bypass this in emergencies.”

“Is it the same with the boy's stairs?”

Snape looked at me assessingly. It looked like he wanted to lie, but he knew that I'd test it out the moment he left, and so he simply shook his head.

“That'll be useful,” I said.

He showed me the bathrooms. Shockingly, there were no showers, but only baths. That seemed dangerous to me; it would be relatively easy to drown someone and make it look like an accident. Although actually showers had the risk of slipping on soap and breaking necks, so it might be a wash.

With four beds to a room, it looked like I was going to have roommates. I hadn't slept in the same room with anyone, outside of wartime since Emma. The fact that I'd be sharing a room with three other eleven year olds wasn't promising.

“Any other child, and I'd ask if you needed someone to check in on you. It can be frightening for some of the younger ones to be home for the first time.”

“So you don't think you need to check in on me?”

“I know I do,” he said. “But not because you are afraid. Compared to the hole I found you in, this must seem like a castle.”

“It is a castle.”

“Precisely.”

I stared at him, giving him a flat, unamused look. One should not encourage bad jokes; I'd learned my lesson with Clockblocker.

“Lights out is at 10 P.M.,” he said. “And you should not leave the dorms before 6 A.M. I am sure that you are planning to ignore these rules, but once the term starts, the halls will be patrolled.”

“And they aren't now? So anyone could break in and attack me? So how is this place any safer than where I was?”

“The professor has taken steps so that you can't be tracked here.”

I hadn't noticed him doing anything. Snape must have noticed my expression.

“As Headmaster, Professor Dumbledore has options that are not available to the rest of us. He can, for example lift the anti-apparition spells that cover the castle in the event of an emergency.

“So as long as nobody is in the castle who can call their buddies and let them know I'm here, I'll be fine.”

“At least here you aren't in a hole,” Snape said.

“I'll be the judge of that,” I said.

He was silent for a moment. “It's unusual for an American to be selected for Hogwarts. It means that you first found your magic in Britain. Your parents were visiting?”

I shrugged, keeping my eyes down. “You know how it is. I don't really know a lot about why they came here; they didn't exactly explain it to me.”

“I have a hard time believing you didn't eavesdrop,” he said.

I looked at him sharply. Did he know I'd been listening in on his conversation with Dumbledore? Had I given myself away, or had he peeked in my mind like he'd promised not to.

“My father and mother were some of the best people I ever knew,” I said. For once I could speak with sincerity. “She was a professor, and he worked as the head of hiring and spokesperson for a labor union.”

I didn't want to get too specific, because if he investigated my background he'd find out that the people I was talking about didn't exist. Or even worse, they actually did, but were still four years away from having their first and only child.

I'd seen Earths before where there were copies of people I'd known. The idea that Mom and Dad were just an ocean away was painful, because they wouldn't really be my Mom or Dad. It would be a constant reminder of what I'd lost, what I'd never have again.

“Get some sleep,” he said. “Breakfast is normally from 6:30 to 8:30 in the morning, but with just staff attending, it will not begin until eight. Lunch is at noon, and dinner normally ranges from six to eight. With only staff available it will be held at six.”

Ah, food. The one thing that an eleven year old would be concerned about.

“Do you need something now?” he asked.

I shook my head. I'd eaten at Diagon Alley.

After he left, I chose a bed, and began pulling the things I'd need out. I loved my fanny pack; it would hold an entire wardrobe and all the books, and once I got a chest, I'd be able to fill it with other things.

The first year spell books were written in an easy to read fashion. Some of it was because it was written for eleven year olds, but I remembered having read harder books when I was that age. Of course, you always wanted to make your instruction manuals easier to read than you had to. The military did it because no one wanted to be struggling over wording while bombs were flying around.

The spells they were planning to teach first years were useful as weapons.

Making fire was always going to be a favorite. Levitating things was a good way to drop things on enemies. You could sever a neck with a spell meant to sever clothes. The ability to give someone a cold didn't seem that useful, but I was going to reserve judgment.

It would make torture easier for one thing. Hold their mouth closed and then use the spell to fill their nose and lungs with mucus. There would be a certain degree of panic involved.

The locking and unlocking spells would be useful back in the real world, but if every first year student knew how to do them, then locks were either entirely useless or protected by stronger magics.

There was a spell to make an emergency flare, which might be useful in coordinating troops or for... actual emergencies. There was a spell to turn your wand into a flashlight. A smokescreen spell looked really useful.

I tried a few spells and wasn't able to get anything to work, but it was possibly because I was tired.

This body didn't have the endurance I was used to, and it was frustrating. I needed to get it into shape, and going to bed at 9 P.M. didn't figure into any of my plans.

It happened though.

My sleep was disturbed though, by dreams of strange alien creatures with spindly arms and legs and oversized heads and eyes. They had bat-like ears and all night they cleaned and cleaned and cleaned.

Chapter Text

Getting fitted for robes wasn't any more fun than it had been in my last life. It wasn't even all that different. The proprietor used a magical measuring tape, but Parian had all of her clothing move by themselves.

Still I stood and pretended that it wasn't terribly boring.

Despite what Snape had said, I hadn't gone down to the great room for breakfast. Instead I'd found a simple meal waiting beside my bed when I'd woke up. There had been more than I could eat, but a letter from Madam Pomprey told me to eat everything, because I was a little malnourished.

Apparently pizza and Sikh temple food hadn't been enough for me.

I closed my eyes and focused my senses on the bugs around me. I found Snape on the other side of the shop. He apparently had one of those silencing fields up, and he was talking to a white haired man. They had deliberately turned themselves so that no one would see their faces or lips. Was lip reading a skill known by wizards, or was Snape just being paranoid?

“He is back,” the other man was saying. He had a narrow, pointed face and hair so blonde that it looked white. He carried a walking stick with a snakes head.

I found myself wondering if I would be allowed a walking stick like that at Hogwarts. I'd carried a collapsible baton in my life as a super villain and super hero and using a stick was something I was skilled with.

“You've seen him yourself?” Snape asked.

“The Yaxleys and the Carrows have. They have been reaching out to the others and have been going out on hand picked missions for the Dark Lord.”

“Like eliminating mudbloods before they can get to Hogwarts?” Snape asked. “That seems foolish; it's likely to attract scrutiny before the people who need to be in place are back in power.”

“I don't know anything about that,” the other man said. “Although who cares if a few mudbloods go missing? The important thing is that it's only a matter of time before he calls us all back to service.”

“It doesn't sound like the Dark Lord's plan,” Snape said. “It's too petty for him, and he usually had his eye on the bigger picture.”

“There have been some rumors that he... isn't the same man he was before he vanished,” the other man looked troubled. “If his sanity is worse than it was before, it won't bode well for any of us. Bellatrix is bad enough, but she can't match him for power.”

“I wouldn't mention those fears to anyone else,” Snape said. “You know how he reacted to unpleasant news when he was himself.”

The white haired man shuddered. “Well, there's nothing that can be done about it now,” he said.

“It's best to take no action until you see which way the wind is blowing,” Snape agreed. “Lest you face the displeasure of the Dark Lord himself.”

It seemed strange to me that everyone was so afraid of someone named Tom. Tom the Dark Lord didn't seem to have much of a ring to it. Hopefully he had another name.

“I understand that your son will be attending this year,” Snape continued.

“Yes,” the other man said. “He will do the Malfoy family proud.”

Ah... Malfoy. Learning which of my classmates were the children of death eaters wasn't going to be easy, but I was going to have to make a list. I doubted I'd ever be able to fully trust any of them; anyone could be subverted, but the children had most likely been taught racial hatred from the time they were born.

It was difficult, but not impossible to overcome that kind of upbringing. Theo had been the son of Kaiser, and he'd heard white supremacist rhetoric his entire life. Of course, Theo admitted that his father had only given lip service to the ideology, which may have made it easier for him to escape the ideas. Still, in the end, Theo had been a hero.

It meant that I couldn't automatically count any of the children out, even if their families were members of the group that was trying to kill muggle-borns.

I had little doubt that those who bought into the ideology would make themselves known to me, especially since I was capable of listening in on them without them knowing about it.

Both men were silent for a moment.

“This is the year that Potter is supposed to attend,” Malfoy said.

“I do not want to talk about that,” Snape said. He sounded irritated.

“The Dark Lord will undoubtedly have plans for him, once he's gotten enough pieces in place. I understand that you have strong feelings about the boy...”

“I have no feelings about him,” Snape said. “But contempt.”

“The Dark Lord will be pleased. Are you here to get new robes?”

“I have a wayward student I have been required to sheppard... an orphan. Dumbledore has commanded it.”

“A mudblood?” Malfoy asked.

“Does it matter?” Snape asked. “As long as she is supposed to be under my protection, I will be held responsible. I will have to be seen to defend her, lest I be seen as incompetent, or worse.”

“Ah,” Malfoy said. He seemed to lose interest as the proprietress approached.

The silencing field around them vanished.

 

Snape headed back toward me while Malfoy completed his transaction with the woman. It surprised me that Malfoy would get robes from the same shop as a poor orphan like me. In the regular world, the rich hated rubbing elbows with those who were their lessers.

Maybe the Wizarding population was so small that there simply weren't that many shops to be had. I'd asked Snape on the way to Diagon Alley how many Wizards there were in Great Britain, and he'd told me that there were approximately ten thousand.

That would give a worldwide estimate of perhaps a million wizards, assuming the demographics were the same everywhere. In my world, there had been one parahuman per eight thousand people in urban areas, and one in twenty six thousand in rural areas.

There had been approximately seven hundred thousand parahumans in the entire world, and so wizards were somewhat more populous. The fact that they had been able to keep themselves secret was mind-boggling, and had to involve some sort of Stranger effect.

Parahumans had changed the entire history of our world, and because we knew of another world, Earth Aleph where there had been fewer of them, we had been able to see just how much of a difference they had made.

“Is she done?” Snape asked.

“She is.”

I'd been forced to buy three pair of plain work robes, a pointed hat, a pair of protective gloves, and a winter cloak. On Snape's advice, I'd paid a little more for the gloves to have them in dragonhide. He said that potions class often involved caustic chemicals and cheaper gloves often led to grief.

He'd also dragged me off to get Cauldrons, another item he insisted I pay more for than the basic set. According to him, some potions were caustic enough to burn through the bottom of them, and cheap cauldrons were likely to result in injury.

If that was true, then why did they even sell the cheap ones? Was that something that pureblood families told their children about, increasing the chances the muggleborns would get hurt?

As we left the shop, I slipped back into my hooded sweatshirt, and pulled the hoodie up. Snape looked down at me approvingly. While the hoodie would identify me as a muggleborn, it would also hide my face, which would be useful.

Whoever had killed my host body had apparently spent some time doing so, and they'd be likely to recognize my face. Personally I thought Snape and Dumbledore were foolish to bring me here. I'd already been here before and I could have just as easily given Snape my money.

All my being here did was tell prospective muggle murderers that a child was being ferried around by Snape. He was a double agent, so all they had to do was ask him about it, and he had to tell the truth, because there was at least one other agent in the school.

Was Dumbledore using me as bait? He hadn't seemed like the type when I met him, but the best schemers rarely seemed like schemers.

I didn't believe Dumbledore about it being a member of the board of governors. People like that wouldn't risk their position to kill two or three schoolchildren. They'd only do it for a large gain. Most likely it was a teacher, or someone no one would expect, like the janitor.

I'd gotten a bog standard school trunk; this was one item that Snape didn't seem to care whether I spent a lot of money or not. As I didn't have the money for any of the really fancy charms that I wanted, one trunk was basically like another.

He wouldn't let me step near the joke shop.

Although he made an effort to look confident, I could see that he was watching the crowds closely as we made our way toward the next store.

“I presume you won't be wanting an owl.”

“An owl?”

“A Wizarding owl can find anyone in the world; they are used to send messages. The school has it's own selection of owls; I assume that you don't have anyone you would want to contact.”

I shook my head. There was no one in the world that I needed to talk to. Besides, I suspected that it wouldn't be that hard to intercept a bird if I did.

In any case, I didn't have the time or the inclination to take care of an animal.

“Cats and toads are also on the allowed list of pets,” he said. “But I suppose you have no interest in them because you can't weaponize them.”

I glanced up at him. “You don't think? I can think of three different ways.”

I was lying, of course. I could only think of two.

He stared at me for a long moment.

“But I'm looking forward to a stress free next several years,” I said. “Since Dumbledore assured me that the adults were going to take care of all of the problems.”

“I can't take points until I discover which house you are in, but lying is not appreciated at Hogwarts,” he said.

“Good thing we're not there,” I said.

“The Headmaster thought that owning a pet might have a...calming influence on you, given the deaths of your parents.”

“So a cat is supposed to replace my parents?” I asked. “What kind of advice is that? You should probably offer me therapy.

“Wizards don't have therapists,” he said.

“Color me surprised,” I said. “Your culture would probably be a lot healthier if you did.”

He ignored what I'd just said. “I think we are done here.”

“Is there anything in Knockturn Alley that might be of interest to me?” I asked. “I still have money left.”

“Knockturn Alley isn't for the likes of you. The people who are after you are likely to be there.”

“That didn't exactly answer my question,” I said.

“I'm sure there would be a number of things there that you would be interested in. My duty as a professor at the school is to protect all of my students, and so I have to keep you from possessing them.”

“All right, then,” I said. “Lead on.”

We returned to Hogwarts, and I proceeded to spend the next few days in my rooms or at the library. Food mysteriously appeared in my room, and so I spent the time studying everything I could. I found a few references to legilemency and occlumency, enough to know that I should avoid people's eyes. The really interesting stuff was apparently in the restricted section, which neither Snape nor Dumbledore had reason to lend me access to.

I took up running early every morning, but I didn't see anyone else. I typically ran around the castle, although I stayed close enough that I could dart to the nearest door should someone come to try to abduct me.

The rest of the time I spent exploring the castle.

Given my ability to sense and control bugs, this was easier for me than it would have been for the average student. When you could sense the bugs in a secret passage behind the wall, you could use its senses to determine whether it was actually a secret passage, or just a walled off space.

Figuring out how to open those passages was a lot harder, especially since the portraits were always watching. I couldn't just go knocking on the walls. For one thing, if the staff knew where the secret passages were, they'd want to know how I knew about them.

So I had bugs looking for trigger mechanisms and the like, but unfortunately, the wizards tended to use magic for that as much as they did everything else. As often as not there wasn't much in the way of a trigger. I'd simply have to keep an eye on those locations and see if I could see how people got through those locations.

I made a simple map of the castle, noting all the secret passages that I could find, and I hid it in my fanny pack.

My control over bugs continued to increase, doubling one, then again, and then yet again. By the end of the week I could control over one hundred bugs at once. It was easier to control them as a group; the kind of multitasking I'd once been capable of gave me headaches, but even that was growing easier with time.

The rest of the time was spent trying out magic. A lot of it was trial and error; apparently wand movements were just as important as saying the words, and pronunciation was important too. I managed to get the cutting spell to work, and the levitation spell to work, and I practiced those as much as I could.

Either spell would be useful, and I suspected that older students would tend to take advantage of powerless firsties.

I'd tried turning the other cheek in my last like, and all it had gotten me was burned. That wasn't going to happen again.

Minor bullying probably wouldn't bother me that much; none of these children would have the emotional leverage to really hurt me, not the way Emma had. She'd known all my hopes and fears and she'd used it against me.

But I wouldn't put up with being physically attacked. These were people who had attacked and killed children. Most likely it hadn't been the kids at school, but that wasn't guaranteed. There had been kids at Winslow that I was almost certain had murdered someone, possibly as an initiation into one of the gangs.

Some of them were almost certainly the children of Death Eaters. I'd found that term in some of the histories, and I found it particularly uninspiring.

If I'd been creating a name for my minions, it would have been something more like Death Bringers, or Deadites or something. What did Death Eater even mean?

Also, nobody mentioned the Dark Lord Tom in any of the books. In fact they refused to use his name at all. Apparently there had been a Taboo on his name, a spell that informed his people whenever his name was said, and he'd sent his merry band of terrorists to make people pay.

Given the kind of power he'd had, I was surprised that he hadn't been more successful. He should have worked on getting more support from the populace before he attempted an uprising. The Wizarding world wasn't like the non-magical world.

My world was a lot more dangerous than this one, and even there not everyone had guns. Most people had been unarmed, and they'd be reasonably easy to round up and force to do what you wanted.

Wizards were all armed, almost by definition. If you didn't have popular support from them, you'd never be able to take them over. Tom should have worked to take over the press, and to have infiltrated the government.

He should have been like Coil, and worked from within the government, even as he controlled the terrorist organization outside of it. A couple of false flag operations, and he could have pushed himself into a position of power without anyone realizing that he was a dark lord at all.

A real Dark Lord would be like Palpatine in the later Star Wars movies, not that these people would have seen those yet. The man had become leader first, and then used his evil plans to consolidate total power afterwards.

Working as a terrorist the way Tom had... that was just being an amateur.

The week passed before I was ready, and on the last day I was forced to go all the way across the country just so I could ride on a train on the way back. While I'd never actually ridden on a train before, I doubted that it would impress me much. After all, I'd ridden in Dragon's Dragon-craft, and I'd been in assorted other vehicles.

Yet I felt my stomach tighten into a knot. I was about to be surrounded by children, some of them children of the people who wanted to kill me. At the very least they might be spying for their parents, and at the worst they might try to kill me.

Strangely enough, that wasn't the part that made me nervous.

It was the fact that they were children. How was I supposed to interact with them? I wouldn't have any interests in common with even the oldest of them, other than magic, and they'd expect me to act like a child of my apparent age.

I hadn't been all that great as an eleven year old the first time around. I'd been gawky and awkward and overly affectionate. Now that I'd seen a war for the survival of all the worlds, fought Scion and the Slaughterhouse 9 and the Slaughterhouse 9000...

Children were going to be as alien to me I was to them.

Chapter Text

“Why not apparate directly beside the train?” I asked. “Why risk being seen in muggle London?”

“It is risky to have multiple wizards trying to apparate to the same place at the same time,” Snape said. “Given that the platform itself is of limited size, the choice was either to create hundreds of portkeys keyed to different times, which was deemed overly complicated and expensive, or to simply have everyone show up in muggle London.”

That actually made sense.

What didn't make sense to me was requiring all wizards to show up in muggle London at all. Why not have Wizarding families teleport directly to the town near Hogwarts and just leave muggleborns on the train?

We were walking into King's Cross station. It was incredibly crowded, and very large.

I didn't see any Platform Nine and three quarters, but Snape had already told me the trick that was involved. I was unsure whether he was toying with me; forcing me to run into a wall at full speed seemed like a cruel joke, but if it was I'd find a way to make him pay.

In any event, I saw enough children dressed inappropriately carrying large trunks that I had to wonder how the normal population didn't notice anything year after year. Even if it only happened twice a year, that would be enough for conspiracy theories to arise.

How the Wizards were going to deal with secrecy once cell phones were invented I had no idea. Memory charms (and wasn't that a terrifying idea) weren't going to be enough once pictures were uploaded to the web.

Snape stayed with me as I grimaced and shoved my cart with the trunk on it through the wall. He stayed behind, because if he'd gone first that would have left me alone in muggle London, and would have been a good opportunity for me to be snatched.

Strangely enough, I would be safer alone on the other side of the tracks. Wizards wouldn't ignore magic the way that muggles did, and with so many parents around watching their children, attackers were unlikely to be able to get away with anything.

That was the explanation Snape had given me, and it seemed sound enough.

He didn't follow me; presumably he didn't want to highlight the fact that I was special to any of the Death Eaters on the other side.

I kept my hood up, and I stared at the steam engine on the other side. If I'd thought that people were dressed outlandishly on the muggle side, this side was even worse. The steam engine looked like something from the old west, and it was painted red.

There were cats and owls everywhere, the cats moving around the hundreds of feet. I was suddenly glad I hadn't got one; it would have been easy to lose in a crowd this size, and Snape would have accused me of deliberately killing it.

I managed to slip through the crowd and get my school trunk loaded onto the train. It helped that I actually didn't have anything in it; everything important was in my fanny pack. That way it would be easier to maneuver around, and once I got to school I could pull the extraneous things out like clothes and school books; things that people were unlikely to bother with destroying and that would make more space for whatever else I might want to stuff in there.

Even so, it was a struggle to get the trunk on board given my body's weakness, and no one seemed interested in helping me, including most of the adults. It didn't help that I didn't see many muggle parents on this side; apparently most of them stayed on the other side.

Snape had insisted that we arrive an hour early, but even so the first few compartments were already full by the time I'd managed to get my trunk on board. I found an empty compartment in the middle of the train, and I took it. Somehow I doubted that it was going to remain empty.

The door to my compartment slammed open as I was struggling to get my empty box up. I dropped it and turned to see a miniature version of Malfoy flanked by two other students.

He looked at me and then sniffed as though he smelled something bad. He started to turn away.

“Malfoy, I presume,” I said.

He stopped, and then turned back. “You've heard of me?”

“I've heard of your father,” I said.

“I wouldn't have expected a... one of you to know about my father.”

“Taylor Hebert,” I said. “Mudblood.”

He froze and stared at me.

“What?”

“I'm a mudblood. Have you ever met one before?”

He hadn't; I could tell from the expression on his face. It didn't bode well for the intelligence of his underlings that they seemed confused about the whole exchange.

“I'm not sure...”

“Oh, I know what it means,” I said. “And if anyone else calls me that, they'll likely regret it. But it doesn't bother me all that much. I know what I am, and I'm comfortable with it.”

He stared at me.

“It's never a good idea to judge people before you meet them,” I said. “A mudblood can kill you just as easily as a pureblood, and maybe even easier, because they'd think of things that no pureblood ever would.”

“Are you threatening me?” he asked incredulously?

I shook my head. “Absolutely not. If I was threatening you, I'd pull out my wand like this, and I'd mention that I knew the cutting charm.”

Casting the spell, I used it to slice the ropes holding my trunk together.

“It's not recommended to use the cutting charm on human flesh, but it works just fine,” I said, looking up at him.

His face drained of color.

Even his subordinates seemed to pick up what was happening, although he fat one still looked a little confused.

“You know what the smartest thing to do with dangerous people?” I asked.

“What's that?' he asked faintly.

“Make friends with them,” I said. “That way you don't wake up one night with them standing over your bed ready to do terrible things to you.”

“I'll keep that in mind,” he said carefully. He was backing out of the compartment.

“It was nice meeting you,” I said. I smiled but it didn't reach my eyes.

He was gone rather quickly, and apparently word spread, because it was a long while before anyone else slipped into my carriage. I'd resorted to using my trunk as a footstool since I couldn't get it into its space above me.

I closed my eyes and reached out to the insects around me. I always kept a few on my person that I kept on at all times, but I shifted the bugs around me otherwise on a rotating basis. It was easier than actually moving the bugs, since there were always bugs everywhere, and even controlling a hundred my abilities weren't as strong as I would have wished.

My wand was on my lap, and I kept a few bugs in my compartment alert, just in case someone should try something. I then began to listen in on conversations in the other cars.

Most of it was the usual inanities; people trying to catch up, people introducing themselves. I checked compartment after compartment and I didn't hear anyone plotting to murder their classmates. I wasn't sure whether I was pleased or disappointed. If I'd heard them plotting it would have made things easier, but maybe noone was actually plotting anything evil.

I could hear Malfoy warning people about the crazy mudblood in the fifth car. I could also hear a rather annoying girl asking people if she knew the location of her friend's toad.

The door to my compartment opened.

“The toad is in the boy's bathroom in the third car,” I said without opening my eyes.

I could see her gaping at me, and a moment later the compartment door slammed closed.

Five minutes later the door opened again, and the girl stepped into the compartment, followed by a rather portly boy. He was one of the few overweight Wizarding children I'd seen, other than Malfoy, and I wondered whether it was because Wizarding culture didn't include visits to Wizard McDonalds, or whether it was simply because I was an American, and from twenty years in the future when everyone was fatter.

“How did you know?” the girl asked. “I know you haven't been out of your compartment in the past twenty minutes, but the toad was exactly where you said it would be.”

“Magic?” I said.

Technically, it was even true. I was able to see better with insect sight than I'd ever been able to with my old powers, when I'd mostly had to make do with hearing and touch. Insects have crap for sight.

She stepped into the room. “My name is Hermione Granger. This is Neville Longbottom.”

“Thank you miss,” Neville said.

I'd heard her annoying people up and down the train, and for a moment I considered dismissing her. However, I was going to have to spend possibly the next seven years with her, and alienating her wouldn't get me any closer to my goals.

Considering that she seemed to be socially maladjusted, it probably wouldn't get me much closer to my goals either, but even having another set of eyes might be useful.

“Taylor Hebert.”

“Are you an American? I thought only British children went to Hogwarts... it says so In Hogwarts a History.”

“You can't always believe what you read,” I said. I opened my eyes and looked at her.

The girl had a rather unfortunate set of front teeth, and a large mane of frizzy hair. I suspected she might grow up to be good looking in a few years, with the help of an orthodontist, but I'd been wrong about things like that before.

Getting through the next few years was going to be a challenge if she kept acting the way she was. I'd had enough experience in pushing people away to know that she was likely to find the next few years to be rather stressful.

“I've never met an American before. Did your parents come here for work?”

That wasn't the kind of question I wanted to answer. If I told bits and pieces to enough people, it was possible that someone might collect them all together and work out that I wasn't who I was claiming to be.

“You're a muggleborn, aren't you?” I said.

“How could you tell?” she asked. “I'm so excited about magic. I've read all the books, and I've tried some of the spells at home.”

It suddenly struck me. I'd been struggling with my trunk, and I hadn't had to.

I grimaced, pulled my feet off the trunk, and then pointed my wand at it.

“Wingardium Leviosa,” I said.

The trunk obediently rose into the air, and I slid it into the overhead bin. I was going to have to be careful about being so focused on doing things the mundane way, or through my bugs that I forgot that I had other resources at my disposal.

Hermione was staring at me, and I shrugged. “I forgot that I could do that.”

“Are you a second year then?” she asked. “You look like you're our age.”

“No, this is going to be my first year at magic school,” I said. “The same as for both of you.”

“Then how did you already learn... that, and make it look so easy?” she asked. There was a hint of jealousy in her voice. Apparently she'd thought that was going to be the smartest girl in her class and discovering that she wasn't was going to be a huge letdown for her.

It was never a good idea to base your self esteem around a single thing; when that thing was knocked down, it was hard to get back up.

“Practice,” I said.

Although I had no way of knowing whether this girl was going to be a talented witch or not, I had an eighteen year old mind, which had to be some sort of an advantage. It wasn't fair, but fortunately playing fair was never something I had bothered with.

When you only have insects against people like Alexandria and Hookwolf the only way to survive was to cheat.

“We aren't supposed to be learning that for a little while,” Hermione said.

“It'll be one of the first spells they teach us, I think,” I said. “At least that's what I gathered from what I've read.”

“There's nothing about it in the books they assigned,' she said.

“You have to learn to read between the lines,” I said. “And know how teachers generally do things. They tend to start with the easiest subjects first, and then move on to the harder ones. Wingardium is one of the easier spells, so...”

“You made it look so easy,” she said. “And a whole trunk too.”

I didn't mention that the trunk was empty. Looking impressive was a lot easier if you didn't reveal all of your secrets.

“Are you a pureblood?” I asked the boy behind her.

The Longbottom boy was dressed in the slightly strange, off putting way I was coming to associate with the purebloods. I'd read about halfbloods, but I suspected that they found it easier to blend in with both sides.

The purebloods made a point to not blend in.

The boy nodded, but he kept his eyes down. Was he trying to avoid my reading his mind? To my great relief, what I'd read about legilemency seemed to indicate that it was a relatively rare skill. It was probably practiced more by the purebloods, though. I'd have to watch for any tells from body language.

“You're a muggleborn, aren't you?” Hermione interrupted.

The jacket and hoodie pretty much gave it away, so I couldn't give her a lot of credit for observational skills, but she seemed to be bright enough. She might even be useful, so I decided to be civil.

I nodded.

Both of them sat down, and I fought not to groan out loud. I'd hoped to be able to spend the rest of the train ride spying on the other children. Children were stupid, and if there was a plot, it was likely that at least some of them would be blabbing about it somewhere along the ride.

I knew children were stupid, because I'd once been one. I'd trusted Emma, and that had been the biggest mistake of my life. I'd made worse mistakes, but all of my other bad decisions came from that one.

Without Emma, I never would have been shoved in a locker. I wouldn't have had the worst day of my life, gained powers, and become a super villain.

I also wouldn't have become a super hero and saved all the Earths that ever were, but she had no way of knowing that when she betrayed me.

“Do you think people don't like us?” Hermione asked, lowering her voice.

“You?” I asked.

“No,” she said, flushing. “Muggleborns.”

I frowned, considering how much to tell her. Finally I decided that I couldn't leave her in the dark; people were trying to kill muggleborns, and letting her go in ignorant was as good as putting a knife to her throat.

“Some parts of the Wizarding world are prejudiced against muggleborns,” I said. “Mostly purebloods. There are factions who think that muggleborns don't deserve to learn magic at all.”

“What?”

“There is also a faction of wizard terrorists who have been targeting muggleborns and their families,” I said. “There have been four families killed already.”

The color drained from Hermione's face. “My parents...”

“I don't think they're in a lot of danger,” I said. “The terrorists were targeting muggleborns. As long as you are at Hogwarts, they are most likely safe.”

I had no way of knowing that, of course, but that was my suspicion. These people couldn't go after every mundane person in the country, and killing a muggleborn's family while they were at school would only ensure that they were better guarded next time.

If I were trying to kill the muggleborns off, I'd simply follow them home from Winter break, since they all ended up back in King's cross station. I might even introduce myself to some of the obvious parents waiting for their children to come back.

Once I had their names, it would be easy to use an owl to find out where they lived.

It would be relatively easy to slaughter many of the muggleborn families before Wizard law enforcement ever got wind of it. The impression I got of Wizard law enforcement was that it was a lot like the law back in Brockton Bay.

People in the rich areas got quick responses to police calls. People in poor areas... not so much.

“If you are worried about it you can send them an owl when you get to school,” I said. I closed my eyes again. Maybe Hermione would get the message and would give me a little time to spy.

“How do you know all of this?” she asked.

“I listen,” I said. “Talking is great, but you learn a lot more by being quiet and paying attention to the people around you.”

Hermione was silent for a moment.

“Which house do you think you are going to be in?” she asked. “I'm thinking about Gryffindor, because that's the house that Dumbledore was in, and he's the most powerful wizard of the age.”

I barely kept myself from grimacing. She hadn't gotten the hint. I had a feeling that it was going to be a long several hours.

Chapter Text

As the train pulled to a stop, I breathed a sigh of relief. I wouldn't have thought it was possible for someone to talk for eight hours straight, but Hermione Granger had proven me wrong.

I now knew more about her family than I had about the families of any of my Protectorate team members. I'd learned about her expectations for the future, her hopes, her dreams.... and even her tastes in music.

The horrifying thing was that she reminded me of myself at that age; a naive, socially maladjusted chatterbox who had only had one friend. The fact that she was bright wasn't going to help her either; she'd already been bullied in her grade school, and she was hoping to make a new start at the new one.

Most of the time I hadn't even said anything. I'd closed my eyes and pretended to nape while she and Neville had played some sort of Wizarding card game involving small explosions.

I'd need to find out how those cards were made; it might be possible to use a lot of them to deliver something more than a joke effect by either altering the spell, or simply rigging a lot of them to explode at once.

As I listened in to conversations all over the train, I also heard Neville starting to haltingly talk. He talked about Wizarding entertainments and some basic Wizarding news. He even brought out a Wizarding newspaper, which I did open my eyes for to look over.

There was nothing about the muggle murders; either the Ministry was concealing things or they hadn't made the connection yet. Neither prospect reflected favorably on them. People needed to know they were in danger, and one of my tasks was going to be to get the world out to muggleborn families.

The fact that the pictures moved was less of a surprise after a week at Hogwarts, but it was still a little creepy. I made a mental note of the appearances of some of the people whose pictures were inside; the Minister for Magic, Malfoy, some of the other governors of the school.

Gringotts was celebrating its five hundredth and seventeenth year without a single robbery. I probably needed to set up an account there, once I got more money. I had a few ideas about ways to make money during the summer. That repair spell seemed like a good start; I'd work extra hard on it.

“I overheard my grandmother talking about the Trace,” Neville was saying.

“The Trace?” I asked.

“It's a charm that lets the Ministry know if children under seventeen perform magic,” Hermione said. “It's forbidden to use magic when you aren't at school.”

“What?” I asked flatly.

“I heard her say that the Trace gets applied the first time a student gets on the train,” Neville said. “Before that, the Ministry has no idea of whether we do magic or not... or at least not any more than they do for adults. They've got a lot of people watching for violations of the Statute of Secrecy.”

My fists tightened against my pants and forced myself to stay calm. That was why Snape and Dumbledore had insisted that I come here and waste time riding all this way... and I'd completely bought it!

It took time for me to get my anger under control; apparently younger brain chemistry was different enough that it was a struggle.

Maybe it was because I'd thought I had a handle on Snape. He'd lied to me, and I hadn't known it. Of course, given that he was a double agent, lying had to be a particular skill of his, but still.

Mostly, the Trace was something I was going to have to find my way around. There hadn't been anything in the library that I'd seen about it, but they'd probably limited the information so that clever students couldn't find their way around it.

Even Legilimency and Occlumency had only had passing references. I hadn't found anything about how to actually do either of them, and only the bit about avoiding people's eyes had been remotely useful.

I suspected that censors had periodically purged the library of anything that the people in power considered to be dangerous; it was possible that they'd simply been moved to the restricted section, but I suspected that even that information had probably been purged.

To get the good stuff I was probably going to have to go to Knockturn Alley.

I stewed and fumed about it for much of the rest of the trip, especially when I learned that the Ministry didn't care about magic performed around other wizards; it was supposedly done in the interests of secrecy, but it effectively meant that muggleborns had a disadvantage at school.

Snape probably hadn't warned me because he'd figured I wouldn't have gotten on the train. He'd been right, of course. If I'd had to ride on the outside of the train to avoid the Trace I would have. I wouldn't have enjoyed eight hours in the wind, and it would have been dangerous, but it would have been worth it.

The problem with being a child was that other people always thought they had the right to make decisions for you.

By the time the train reached its destination I'd managed to calm down, although I still planned to let Snape know about my displeasure.

“We'd better change,” Hermione said. “We're supposed to be wearing our robes by the time we get to the station.”

I scowled.

Wearing robes really wasn't any worse than some of the outfits Glenn Chambers had tried to set me up with over the years, although truthfully I'd refused to wear most of those too. Still, there was no point in sticking out any more than I already had.

I started pulling my sweat jacket off, only to notice that Neville was blushing a bright red.

“What?”

“Maybe Neville should step out of the room,” Hermione said.

“It goes over our clothes,” I said incredulously. “Who cares?”

Despite my protestations, Neville insisted that we turn our backs when he changed. I kept some bug eyes on him of course, because getting stabbed in the back by an eleven year old would be embarrassing.

“How did you get your robes in that bum bag without wrinkling them?” Hermione asked.

Bum Bag... right.

“Magic,” I said. I stuffed my hoodie into the bag.

The look Hermione gave my bag was avaricious; she was probably wondering how many books she could stuff in one of them. The answer of course was about six hundred.

The train slowed to a stop, and I used a spell to lower my trunk. Neville and Hermione's trunks were in a forward compartment; apparently they'd been forced out by upper years but hadn't been forced to take their trunks with them.

Hermione's trunk was incredibly heavy. I suspected that she'd filled it with books, and while I could understand the urge, she hadn't seen the Hogwarts library yet. We were told to leave it, that our trunks would be taken care of. If my trunk wasn't empty I would have been suspicious and upset.

We emerged onto a tiny, dark platform. It was dark and cold. I still hadn't figured out where in England we were; like many Americans my sense of geography was limited to the western Hemisphere.

A bellowing voice called out for first years.

The man who was waiting for us was huge; in my home reality I'd have called him a Case 53. No ordinary person was over nine feet tall and as wide as he was, he had to weigh over a thousand pounds. He'd probably be slow simply because of all that mass, but just carrying that weight meant that he had to be incredibly strong. I'd have to treat him with all the caution that any Brute received.

“Mind yer step,” the man was saying. “Firs years! Follow me!”

We followed him down a dark trail; I could see the other students stumbling in the dark, but I could sense the area around us through my bugs. Hermione grabbed my hand, and I didn't pull away. Despite the fact that she was a chatterbox, she was bright, and might be useful over the next few years.

It was a steep, dark path, with trees on either side.

We came around the corner, and I could hear the other students gasping at the sight of Hogwarts. It did look pretty amazing in the moonlight, and part of me still wanted to squee in delight.

I crushed that part and threw it in a lockbox.

 

We were at the edge of the lake now. In the dark, its surface was black, the moonlight reflecting off its surface.

“I've heard that the giant squid likes to eat mu....muggleborns,” Malfoy said. He was talking to a redhead and a black haired kid in glasses. He glanced at me. “But I'm sure it would make an exception for blood traitors like you.”

They were on the other side of the group, and Malfoy probably thought I couldn't hear him.

“No more than four to a boat!” the man yelled, and dutifully, we began to fill the boats that were arrayed in front of us.

I ended up in a boat with Hermione and Neville, and one other kid I didn't know, another heavyset girl who looked miserable in her robes. I'd listened in on her compartment on the train, and apparently some of the pureblood girls had been making fun of her for the entire trip not for being fat or ugly, but because she was apparently a half-blood.

We reached a cliff and a curtain of ivy that I'd never seen before, and the large man told us to keep our heads down. We found ourselves in a tunnel, and moments later, the man was knocking on a large door.

“Don't forget your toad,” I told Neville absently as we stepped out of the boat. He'd left it in the boat, and he gathered it up gratefully.

We entered the entrance hall. I'd seen it before, of course; it was larger than the house I'd grown up in. However, it looked a lot more impressive by torchlight than it did during the light of day. We were led into a small, empty chamber across from the hall.

“The firs years, Professor McGonagall,” the man said.

Professor McGonagall looked us all over. Her eyes narrowed as she saw me, and I suspected that Snape had been telling tales.

She was a severe looking woman, and she launched into a speech about the four houses and how once we were sorted, it would be our family.

Wasn't that the spiel that every gang gave? That they were going to be your replacement family? I suppose that creating school sanctioned gangs probably cut down on unofficial, outside gangs like we'd had in Winslow, but it seemed like a good way to get people to fighting.

Maybe the British were just a little too genteel for that sort of thing, although that wasn't the impression I'd gotten from Snape.

She suggested that we clean ourselves up before the sorting, and then she left with one last glance at me. I smiled at her.

About twenty ghosts appeared and there were screams from some of the children. I watched them curiously. As far as I'd read, they weren't able to hurt us, but they'd make great spies and messengers with their ability to float through walls.

One ghost with a ruff turned toward us. They greeted us as a class, and made some sort of inane invitation to Hufflepuff.

I noticed several of the ghosts watching me closely as they left, and I wondered if they'd been watching me since I'd gotten here. It would be just like Snape to warn everybody against me.

“Were they staring at you?” Neville asked in a low voice.

I shrugged.

A moment later we were led out into the great hall. There were gasps as the other students looked up, and despite myself, I was impressed too. I hadn't seen the Hall during the evening, and seeing the night sky above us was particularly impressive, as was all the floating candles.

I'd have gone with Chinese Lanterns were it me, mostly because I always thought they were cool, but it was impressive enough. Seeing the hundreds of faces staring at us, I had to wonder if any of them were already part of their parents group. Had some of them already committed atrocities, and were they getting ready to do the same to me?

Or were they just genuinely bored and curious and distracted and all the other emotions I saw on their faces?

“It's bewitched to look like the sky outside,” Hermione said. “I read about it in Hogwarts a history.”

I saw several of the other children looking at her, visibly irritated by the tone in her voice. Had I been like that when I was younger? Oblivious to the effect that I was having on people?

Was I still like that?

“I know,” Neville whispered back. “My Nan came here and she told me all about it.”

That was another advantage that the purebloods had over the muggleborn; they knew what to expect when they got here. I did hear the redhead wonder where the troll we were supposed to fight was.

Professor McGonagall put an incredibly dirty wizard's hat on a stool. I'd worn cleaner clothes when I was homeless and literally living in a hole. The thing looked terrible.

When it started to sing, I had to fight to keep my face stoic. The thing was creeping me out... it it had a mouth on the front of the brim, were we putting our heads up its butt? Maybe just up its neck hole? I couldn't imagine any scenario where putting a dirty sentient hat on our heads was going to be a good thing.

“The hat's a thousand years old,” Neville whispered. “It's been worn by every student that ever went to Hogworts.”

Absently, I checked the hat for lice and other nasty critters. I didn't detect any, thankfully, although I wouldn't be able to detect birds or mice unless they too were infested.

 

Apparently Neville was right, and we had to put on the hat.

Malfoy looked like he was anticipating it, but a lot of the other students looked worried. I kept my face stoic. I didn't yet have a large enough of a swarm to push my emotional responses into the insects, but at the rate I was going it wouldn't be long.

The one thing I couldn't do was to show fear. Children were little monsters, and while Emma, Sophia and Madison had been outliers, I'd seen a lot of casual bullying in my days as well. There had been a lot of kids who had laughed when I'd been shoved in the locker, and a much larger group that had stood by and done nothing.

Kids tended to pile on when someone went down, and they were vicious. They hadn't yet developed the ability to empathize with people, and their idea of morality was “don't get caught.”

The fact that even most of the eleven year olds were a little larger than I was did not help anything. I found myself thinking of them as being older than they were simply because they were the same size as me. I still felt like I was the same size as I was before, when I'd been awkwardly tall and a full adult. It was simply that the rest of the world felt like it was outsized.

Kid after kid was called to the front and the hat was plopped on their heads. It was obvious that the hat made a decision quickly with most of them. With a few the hat took a little longer.

They were going in alphabetical order, which meant I would be in the middle of the pack. Occasionally I would see McGonagall reach a point in her list where she would hesitate, and then clear her throat awkwardly.

All the murdered children must have been scratched out; she had the grace to look somewhat upset about it, even if she didn't warn the children about the danger.

“GRANGER, HERMIONE,” McGonagall called out.

Hermione was staring at me as the hat was put on her head. The hat seemed to debate with her for a short time, and finally it called out, “RAVENCLAW!”

Hmm... she'd been talking about wanting to be in that other house. I hadn't bothered to do a lot of research on the houses, because really, who cared what bedroom I slept in?

I knew that Slytherin was the house where most of the racists stayed, and looking over at their table, I could see unfriendly looks directed in my direction.

Soon enough I found myself next on the list. I forced myself to look cool and confident, even if underneath I was feeling anxious.

A mind reading hat seemed like an awfully convenient thing to have around if you were a Dark Lord. Simply have everyone wear the hat, and then have the hat narc on anyone who was planning to stab you in the back.

Using it on eleven year olds was confusing. What could they possibly be thinking that was of interest to anyone?

Was the hat collecting blackmail information for the administration?

Using children to spy on their parents might not be the worst idea, especially if they didn't know they were doing it.

I'd simply have to let the hat know what would happen if it didn't keep my secrets to itself. Certain species of moths would lay a hundred eggs in clothes each, and each larvae would hungrily devour cloth. An entire swarm of them would make for an entirely different sorting ceremony next year.

“HERBERT, TAYLOR!” McGonagall called out.

“It's Hebert,” I said quietly as I reached the stool.

I took a deep breath, and then I climbed up on the stool, looking out at the sea of expectant faces. Then I set the hat on my head.

Chapter Text

“Reveal what I am and I will end you,” I muttered in my mind. I sent an image of bugs munching away at the felt of the hat, destroying it even as I was dragged away screaming. I wasn't about to let a piece of magical tinkertech force me into whatever Wizards used for a prison.

After all, I was essentially in the position of being the monster is every movie about a possessed child; was it possible for the Wizards to exorcise me, and if they did, what would happen to me?

“A vicious little thing, aren't you?” the hat said cheerfully. “If it makes you feel any better, I do not read memories; I only read personality and desires.”

“You're reading my mind right now!”

“Your surface thoughts only,” the hat assured me. “It was decided to limit me this way a long time ago, lest Wizards try to steal me to learn the secrets held in the minds of their enemies' children.”

“I... don't understand.”

“Children see things,” the hat said. “Often things their parents do not want known. Placing all of those secrets in the mind of a hat would create an incentive for blackmail. At the very least if would give the Headmaster power that he was never meant to have.”

“So you only read my personality,” I said. I wasn't sure I believed it, but I'd listen in on the Headmaster's office to see if it had been lying later. If it was, I'd follow through with my threat.

“I can tell that you are an adult in the body of a child,” the hat said. “Interesting... this is only the third such case that I've seen in over a thousand years.”

“There have been others?” I asked, suddenly interested. Knowing what had happened to them might give me a clue as to what might possibly happen to me.

“One I had arrested,” the hat said. “He was a predator attempting to harm the children of this school. One was Merlin himself, born again after being several hundred years old. The third I will not speak about.”

“How did it happen?” I asked. “Was it an accident, or was it something that was deliberately done?”

“We are here for your sorting,” the hat said. “There are people waiting. This is a discussion to be had at a later time. I can see that you are quite resourceful, so I am sure that you will eventually find me again.”

“You won't out me to the staff?”

“I sense no intention to harm any of the students, although you are quite pragmatic about what you are willing to do. I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

“So the sorting?”

“Hmmm....very difficult. Children are easier to sort than adults. Their minds are unfinished, and still developing. They think that they are sorted into the houses based on qualities that they have, but that's not the case at all.”

“Oh?”

“Children are sorted based on qualities they wish to have. Some children wish to be seen as brave... some as intelligent. Some wish to think of themselves as loyal, and some wish to believe that they are cunning and ambitious. The truth is that elements of all houses exist in everyone, although some have very little of some and rather a lot of others.”

“And me?”

“You are very bright,” the hat said. “And you'd do well in the house of the Ravens. Yet you don't value knowledge for itself, but as a means to an end. You don't care whether you are seen as intelligent or not.”

“People who are bright don't have to advertise,” I said. It was something my mother had told me when I was young.

“You are very loyal, yet you have betrayed your closest friends,” the hat said.

“I thought you couldn't read my memories.”

“It is close to the surface,” the hat said. “I see flashes here and there, because those are the memories you associate with loyalty. You don't give trust easily.”

“If you could see my memories you'd know why,” I said.

“You are brave, but you don't care about glory,” the hat said. “Being seen as brave means nothing to you.”

“Getting the job done is the important thing,” I said. “Brave or not brave, results are what matters. I'd rather supervise a group of smart cowards as brave idiots, as long as they were brave enough to do what had to be done.”

I'd given that speech to some of my recruits in the Wards. Bravery meant nothing if you were dead and you failed. Sometimes you might have to sacrifice yourself, but only if the reward was worth your life.

Things like destroying the Slaughterhouse or stopping Scion had been worth that, and so from a certain point of view I'd been brave. Other than my first night with Lung, and a few other missteps, I'd never been stupid.

“Strangely enough, the best fit for you is the house that you will fit in the very least. The house of the serpent is filled with people who are much like you.”

“Don't compare me to that group of blithering racists,” I snapped.

“Not all of them are,” the hat said. “Some just lack the cleverness to be in Ravenclaw, the bravery to be in Gryffindor, or the loyalty to be in Hufflepuff.”

 

“You said it was desire, not character that mattered,” I said.

“How they see themselves is what matters,” the hat said. “A child can be clever without seeing himself as being that way, or desiring to be seen that way. He can lie to himself, and wish to join a house he is ill suited for.”

“And what happens then?”

“I try to dissuade them,” the hat said. “But unless it is completely inappropriate I give in to their wishes.”

“All right,” I said. “Put me in Ravenclaw, or Hufflepuff.”

What little I knew suggested that the Gryffindors were essentially the jocks, and the Slytherins were the people who were trying to kill me. I could probably have the Hufflepuffs following around by the end of the first year, and the Ravenclaws might take a little longer, but I'd get them too.

“That, Miss Hebert is why I can't place you in either,” the hat said, in an admonishing tone. “I have a duty to this school. I am willing to allow you to remain as an adult because I can sense that you are not here by choice, and because you have nowhere else to go. I am not obligated to make it easy for you.”

“Now wait,” I said.

“You would have been a perfect fit for Hufflepuff when you were younger,” the hat said. “But life has forged you into something else entirely now.”

“I'm not ambitious,” I said.

“Aren't you?” the hat asked. “You rose to the top of your former profession.... whatever that was... in a remarkably short time.”

It sounded more and more like the hat was lying about the mind reading thing.

“I did what I had to do,' I muttered. “I just fell into being a villain, and then into being a hero. Aren't the Hufflepuffs supposed to be hard workers?”

I'd heard Neville blithering on about how he thought he'd end up as a Hufflepuff during the eight hours on the the train.

“Any house can have hard workers, but you will never just be one of the rest,” the hat said. “You will always stand out.”

“Slytherins are known for determination, for resourcefulness, and cleverness,” the hat said. “Can you really say that those are not defining characteristics of your personality?”

“I'll have to kill someone if you put me there,” I said. “You said you have to think about what's best for the student body.”

 

“I haven't sorted a muggleborn to this house in twenty years,” the hat said. “Because I suspected that none of them would survive. You, though are like a cockroach... you thrive in conditions where others would fail.”

I sent an image to the hat of thousands of cockroaches eating away at it. I could probably only manage a hundred, but they could probably do enough damage in eight hours that he wouldn't be usable any more by the next morning.

“I'm incapable of fear,” the hat said pleasantly. “I think it has to do with not having glands. I'm a thousand years old, and if it's my time to go, I'm perfectly willing.”

“A bribe, maybe?” I asked.

What might a hat want? Could it actually want anything?

“I'm a hat, Miss Hebert. I don't eat or drink or spend money. All I want is to perform my duty, have an occasional good conversation, and sleep.”

Was the hat suicidal? A thousand years of having to root through the minds of eleven year olds would have driven almost anyone crazy.

“I can't very well perform my duty if I am destroyed,” the hat said. “But I can say that I'm sending you to SLYTHERIN.”

Damn it.

It had said the last part out loud, and I could see hundreds of faces staring at me. McGonagall plucked the hat from my head and gave me a gentle push to get off the stool.

I stalked over toward the Slytherin table, sitting down next to Millicent Bulstrode. The hat knew I was bluffing when I talked about destroying it; I needed to know what it knew about the body jumpers in the past, and I could hardly destroy the only being old enough to remember what had happened.

There were strange looks coming from some of the older students; presumably they'd heard something of the nonsense Malfoy had been spouting.

Malfoy was sorted into Slytherin shortly later; I noticed that he very carefully sat as far away from him as possible, leaning over to whisper to the boy sitting next to him. I could have tried to listen to him, but I was trying to control my own anger.

The hat had figuratively dropped me into a nest of vipers.

The Potter kid was sorted into Gryffindor; I'd read some kind of nonsense about him killing the Dark Lord as a baby. He didn't look that dangerous; of course, Bonesaw hadn't looked particularly dangerous either.

Neville went Gryffindor. Apparently he still very much wanted to be brave.

 

I didn't really care about any of the rest of them. I caught Hermione looking over at me from the Ravenclaw table; apparently she'd been sure I was going to be sorted there, and she'd thought she'd have a ready made friend.

Thoughts of simply stealing the hat and leaving the school flashed through my mind, but it was still possible that I was in more danger outside than in.

Food appeared on the table; it was a feast like I hadn't seen in a while. The food I'd been served in my room had been simple, but filling. This was a smorgasbord; multiple types of meat, multiple types of potatoes, vegetables... if they fed these children like this every day, it was a wonder that all of them weren't fatter than they were tall.

The Slytherins at the table closest to me were staring.

“I don't think I'd heard the name Hebert,” one of the older students said. “Are you a half blood?”

“Mudblood,” I said, stuffing my face with a pork chop.

At the look of shock on her face, I said. “What? I'm a mudblood. Who gives a damn?”

Now all of them were looking at me. One of them said slowly. “Are you a Yank?”

That's what she was going with? I suppose I could have tried lying and claiming to be a half-blood from America, but Malfoy had a big mouth and would quickly set everyone straight.

“Red white and blue.”

The girl looked like she wanted to ask how I'd ended up being at Hogwarts, but her companion nudged her into silence. I spent the rest of the mean in silence.

The meal ended as quickly as it began.

Dumbledore was speaking suddenly.

“-the Forbidden forest is forbidden for a reason. I would also like to introduce our new Defense against the Dark arts professor, Professor Theodore Travers.”

A distinguished looking slender man stood up and gave us all a small nod.

“The third floor corridor is currently under reconstruction after the... unpleasantness last year. In related news, the Weasely twins are banned from Hogsmeade for the rest of the term.”

I heard loud groans from a couple of redheads on the Gryffindor table.

“And now the school song,” he said.

I quickly learned that Wizards had not mastered the art of carrying a tune.

“And now it's time for bed.”

“First years,” a dark haired witch called out. “To me.”

We gathered around her.

“My name is Gemma Farley. I am a prefect. Michael here is the boy's prefect. If you have a problem, you come to us. However, I think it's best you not have any problems. I will now take you down to your quarters.”

The other first years were staring at me as we made our way downstairs.

“The entrance is guarded and requires a password,' Gemma said. “It changes every two weeks. It will be posted on the notice board inside the common room. You will not allow anyone from another house inside, and you will not let them know the password.”

She turned to us.

“Our house does not have a good reputation, and there are members of the other houses who would love to hurt us. The entrance to the common room is our first line of defense, and you will not let that be breached, or the entire house will turn against you.”

“The password for this two weeks is Purity,” she said.

The Slytherin common room was done up in green, with greenish lamps and chairs. The decorative skulls probably wouldn't have done their reputation any good.

The window out to the bottom of the lake was spectacular though.

“There is one important rule in this house,” Michael said. “And that is that whatever you do, don't embarrass the house. Do what you have to do, but don't get caught. If you do get caught, we will not help you. Professor Snape realizes that there is bias against us by the other houses, so he prefers not to punish us in front of them. However, if you disappoint him, there will be consequences.”

He was looking at me with undisguised loathing.

“Girls, with me,” Gemma said.

I found myself in a room with two other girls. From the Gryffindor rooms I'd expected there to be more.

“Hi,” I said. “I'm Taylor Hebert.”

“The mudblood,” the girl I did not know said. “I remember. Tracey Davis.”

Millicent Bulstrode was staring at the both of us, looking like she wanted to cry. “They stuck all of us together.”

“What?”

“We're half-bloods,” she said. “And you're a mudblood. They didn't want to have to room with us. Didn't want to dirty themselves by having to stay in the same room with a halfblood.”

“The first years weren't given a choice,” I said. “It was a decision made by... whoever makes the decision. It's actually better for us; did you really want to have to sleep in a room with four other people?”

I'd prefer to sleep with no one else, but that would have been racism too blatant even for this place. I had a feeling the purebloods would prefer to have separate water fountains, if this place even had those.

I sighed and checked my bed. It was the one with the trunk, and it was the closest to the door. There weren't any obvious traps.

Sitting down on the bed, I closed my eyes.

“We've got to teach her a lesson,” Michael the prefect was saying. “I can get around the stairs, and with any luck, she'll be out of this school by tomorrow morning.”

I could hear mutters of agreement from two of the other boys.

I sighed, and I pulled a sock out of my fanny pack. I began filling it with galleons. The other two girls were staring at me.

“What are you doing?” Millicent asked.

“Nothing important,” I said. “Have you girls ever played a game called marbles? It's a muggle game they play in America.”

“Is is like exploding snap?” Millicent asked. “Because I don't like that.”

“No,” I said. “Come over here by the door.”

I quickly showed them how to play, although neither of them seemed very interested. I heard Gemma calling out that it was time for lights out.

“Aren't you going to clean those up?” Tracey asked.

“I'll take care of it in the morning,” I said.

The girls went to bed. I laid down, but I didn't take off my clothes. I sat in the dark and I waited.

Chapter Text

For the next hour I lay in the dark and listened to their whispered plans about what they wanted to do with me. There were three or four others who were egging them on, but who were not planning to join in. I took careful note of their names and faces.

To their credit, most of the other Slytherins didn't seem to know much about it; they went to bed and stayed there. I had to suppose that even if a moderately racist Slytherin was annoyed by having a mudblood in the house, first years weren't that important to most upperclassmen.

They were planning to catch me while I was asleep. Some of the things they planned to do to me were sickening, but they did not plan to kill me. They simply wanted to make my life in Hogwarts so terrible that I'd drop out on my own.

That meant that lethal measures were likely off the table, and that made my job a lot harder.

Hits to the head with a weapon could always kill; hit someone hard enough to knock them out, and you risked permanent brain damage or death.

Yet many of my ordinary strategies would have to be changed. Even without the threat posed by their wands, their sheer size was a huge problem. They had a major advantage in reach on me, and I simply didn't have the strength or mass to manage a leg sweep on them.

There wouldn't be any comparison at all between their level of strength and mine. They were each likely four times as strong as I was, and there were three of them.

Furthermore, although my improvised blackjack was going to be painful, I didn't have any idea how many hits I was going to make before the sock split and the whole thing broke down. I'd used six pairs of socks, one inside the other, hoping to get more use out of it before it broke, but I still wasn't certain. I would have used more, but six pair were all I owned.

I'd have to treat them like I was treating brutes, and I wouldn't be able to limit the damage I did as much as I would have liked because if I didn't do enough then they'd get hold of me. Surprise, skill and the environment were my only advantages.

If I'd had my extendable baton, I'd be less worried about this fight. As it was... well...

Sighing, I got out of bed. It was time.

“What's going on?” Millicent asked sleepily.

I'd have to watch out for that; apparently she was a light sleeper.

“Nothing,” I said. “Go back to sleep.”

Walking over the the door, I stood by the side of it. I already had bugs standing on top of the marbles; I'd experimented earlier and they were too small to trigger the tripping spells on the marbles. They were moving them into place.

I had bugs on the boys, especially on their arms. They'd be like gunmen, aiming a weapon except that they wouldn't have to use two hands.

I could hear the boys whispering now with my own ears. It was a sign that they weren't professionals; if they had been, I wouldn't have heard a thing until they were using the blankets of my bed to hold me down.

Carefully I pulled the Peruvian darkness powder out of my pocket and I prepared to throw it down with my left hand. I'd spent a lot of time working with a Cape whose power involved darkness, and so I was experienced in working in the dark. While I hadn't been with the Undersiders for years, I'd kept up my practice in fighting in the dark, or sometimes when simply surrounded by swarms of so many insects that no one could see anything.

This was my element.

The door opened, and my sap went down, smashing his wand.

The entire world went black as the powder hit the floor and billowed out. A moment later I had brought my blackjack around again, smashing him in the knee. He gave a muffled scream and went down, sliding backward as the first of the marbles went out from under his feet, pushed by my insects.

One body slid back against the far wall, struck by the first, and the third muttered something that sounded like Lumnos. It didn't help.

With bugs moving the marbles out of my way, I stepped out onto the landing. The bugs still weren't as precise as I would have liked, but all I needed was for the marbles to move in and out of a general area.

I ducked as a spell lashed out where I had been; apparently I wasn't as quiet as I had thought.

A hit to the wrist and I heard a crack; it sounded like the third boy's wrist was broken. I heard a scream, and then I leaped aside as the second boy grabbed for my foot. He was flailing around, shoving his friend off of him.

I brought my sap down on his elbow, and I heard something else snap. The sap was slower than I would like; after every attack I had to spend precious seconds trying to bring it around to get it into position to attack again.

I kicked the second boy in the head again and again. Normally I wouldn't have done that, but I was small and weak enough that it probably wouldn't do that much damage. Using the sap would have been lethal.

With wrists and elbows broken, I doubted that the boys could attack with their wands; it was possible that they could use their off hands, though, and so I already had insects carrying their wands back into the room.

“You bitch!” I heard the third one mutter. He was already getting to his feet.

“You can give up now and we'll end this,” I said. I moved as I did so, as all three boys lunged for where they heard my voice.

I'd already moved, skipping up the stairs as they slammed into each other. I brought my sap down again and again, hitting them in the shoulderblades, the clavicles and the knees.

Finally, I felt my socks give way, splitting and the galleons tinkling against the stone floor.

My bugs moved the marbles to where they needed to be, and I heard a scream as the boys went flying backwards and down the stairs. This was the most dangerous part, as it was possible that they could break their necks on the way down. As they were mostly prone, I doubted that they would suffer that much damage.

The remaining marbles moved out of my way, pushed by insects, and I stepped down the stairs and into the dim light of the common room.

All three boys were bloody and I saw Draco Malfoy standing at the foot of the boy's stairs staring at us with his mouth open. I had my wand drawn.

“Get Snape,” I said. “The boys here had an accident.”

He stood there motionless.

“NOW!” I snapped.

Malfoy was out the entrance in a flash, and I could hear him screaming bloody murder.

All three boys were trying to rise to their feet, and I snapped out a Diffindo spell, cutting the arm of Michael's robe. The hem fluttered to the floor and all three of them froze.

I pointed the wand out of them.

“I could have cut your throats,” I said. “It would have been easier, and less trouble for me really. This is me being merciful. I won't be again.”

I let that sink in. I could see color draining from their faces at the realization that I was telling the truth, although it might also be from their injuries.

Snape was suddenly in the room.

He hadn't changed out of his robes; he'd struck me as the kind to keep late hours, or maybe he'd expected something like this.

“Put the wand down, Miss Hebert,” He said. He had his wand out, but carefully not aimed at me. I had no doubt that he'd be able to snap it into place before I got a spell off. Unlike these two boys, he didn't strike me as an amateur.

Professor McGonagall was there a moment later, holding a squirming Draco.

“What's the meaning of this?” she asked.

“These three boys need medical attention,” I said coolly. “They were trying to get up the girls' stairs and suffered a fall.”

“And I am to assume that the marbles I see on the floor didn't have anything to do with it?” Snape asked dryly.

“I was playing marbles with my roommates by the door,” I admitted. “I was going to clean it up in the morning. I didn't leave them out in the stairwell.”

My bugs were already pushing them back into the room, so it wasn't even a lie.

“And the billowing clouds of darkness behind you?” Snape asked.

“I must have dropped my Peruvian Darkness powder when I got up to help them,” I said.

There was already a crowd of boys gathered by the stairs, staring out at us.

“Your wand, Miss Hebert,” Snape demanded. I handed it over, stepping carefully around the boys, although I doubted that they would do anything in front of two teachers. If they would, things were far worse here than I thought.

“Sevarus?” McGonegall asked.

“Priori incantato,” Snape muttered. “Hmm...cutting spell, wingardium, cutting, cutting, cutting, cutting, cutting....”

“I did not cut these boys,” I said. “You can check. I've just been...practicing.”

I said this as much for the benefit of my audience as for Snape. One of the most important things about becoming a warlord was developing a reputation. I couldn't afford to have any of the Slytherins watching to be able to lie to themselves and think it was an accident.

At the same time I couldn't simply admit that I had beaten the boys with a sock full of galleons.

Some of the boys peering out of the hallway were now staring at me, and I could almost see them connecting the dots in their minds.

“Why have you been practicing the cutting spell so diligently, Miss Hebert?” Snape asked.

“You wouldn't let me have a knife,” I said, shrugging. “How else was I going to cur... things.”

“She's an eleven year old girl,” McGonagall said, shocked. “How did they bypass the defense on the stairs?”

The fact that they were standing around discussing this instead of giving the boys immediate medical attention actually boded well for me. The looks McGonagall was giving the boys were not friendly at all.

“Mr. McCutchin was a prefect,” Snape said. The tone of his voice suggested that the past tense was intentional.

“I see,” McGonagall said disapprovingly. “We'd best get them to Poppy, and then we'll wake the Headmaster.”

I held my hand out, and Snape reluctantly handed me back my wand.

“I will need their wands as well, Miss Hebert,” Snape said. “For the investigation.”

I nodded, and as I made my way up the stairs in the blackness, I gathered up the galleons that had spilled out on the stairs. I was impressed that the Peruvian Darkness powder still hadn't dissipated; maybe I'd gotten my money's worth after all.

Two of the wands were still intact, and one was broken.

“Go back to bed,” Snape snapped at the waiting boys in the hall as I returned. He gestured, and Draco quickly ran to the stairs to join the staring crowd. “I will speak with all of you in the morning before breakfast... except for you, Miss Hebert. I will need you to come with me to speak with the Headmaster, and I suspect that we are going to have a long night.”

A moment later, all three of the boys were levitated into the air, and we were walking through the nighttime halls.

“I expected more discretion from you, Miss Hebert,” Snape said in a low voice. McGonagall was walking in front of us.

“What else could I do?” I asked. “You knew that something like this was going to happen or you wouldn't have been dressed and ready. Aren't you supposed to protect students?”

“It's generally best to let things...sort themselves out,” Snape said.

“How did that work out for you?” I asked.

Looking at him, with greasy hair and teeth the way they were, I could only imagine how it would have been for him when he was younger.

The look he gave me was cold, and I immediately lifted my hands.

“I'm just saying that if you stopped people from hurting each other you might do a better job of turning people into productive citizens.”

“The Wizarding world isn't like the muggle world,” Snape said. “There aren't as many... protections here as there are there. Those who don't learn to protect themselves will be in trouble.”

There was a stiffness in the way he held himself that said it might be personal for him. I probably wouldn't have noticed except that I suspected that I knew how he felt. An ordinary child probably wouldn't have noticed because they tended to barely see their teachers as human.

I remembered being shocked as a child the first time I'd seen a teacher at a grocery store. It had never occurred to me that they had personal lives outside of school. It was like I'd thought they were wheeled into a closet and plugged in to recharge.

Snape wasn't even that old; in his early or mid-thirties, he was younger than my Dad. He'd had a life before he'd gotten into the double agent business; most likely he'd gone to this school. He'd probably been bullied.

How he couldn't understand that bullying had to be stamped out I couldn't understand.

I'd done some research on the subject when I'd worked at the Protectorate, during my minuscule amounts of free time, and I'd been surprised to learn that bullying was worse in rural areas than in urban areas. In the cities, you could be anonymous. You could float from one neighborhood to another, and get away from the bullying that way.

You could change schools. It hadn't worked for me, but a lot of kids did.

In a rural environment, there often wasn't another school for a hundred miles, and everyone knew everyone else. You couldn't change schools and you were trapped. Your reputation as a victim or a bully followed you, and it was hard to change.

That was essentially the problem here. This was the only Wizarding School in Britain, and the nearest one spoke French, which I did not speak.

I could try to go to school in America, but I suspected that the authorities there would be a lot more diligent about tracking down my non-existent parents. They'd likely discover that I was a British child named Millie Scrivener, and they'd send me back.

Or they'd discover that I was possessing her dead body and they'd do something worse to me.

For better or worse I was stuck here, and while I could ignore certain kinds of abuse, I did not want to spend the next seven years dodging attacks around every corner. The only way to stop that was to slap down anyone who attacked me hard and with prejudice.

“It's only going to get worse,” I said. “If they keep attacking me. If you don't stop them I will.”

“Don't make threats, Miss Hebert,” Snape said. “I've given you more latitude than I would another student in light of your... unique circumstances.”

“I think you know that I don't make threats,” I said.

It was a lie, of course. I make threats all of the time. The difference was that I was perfectly willing to follow up on them.

“Have you heard about Azkaban?” he asked.

“Not much.”

“It's the prison our kind use to contain our criminals. We have no other prisons. It is guarded by creatures that drain every bit of joy from the prisoners, leaving nothing but agony and pain. Should they try to escape, the creatures devour their souls, denying them any hope of an afterlife.”

“They call that the Kiss, and it is the highest penalty Wizardkind has.”

Snape looked absolutely serious.

“I fear that you are on your way to sharing a cell with some of the Dark Lord's worst,” he said. “And prolonged exposure to the Dementors will, as their name suggests leave you mad.”

“What if you don't have any?” I asked.

“Any what?” Snape glanced at me.

“Any joy for them to devour?”

“Then they will dig deeper. They will steal memories of your father, of your mother. Happiness with friends, first loves, all of it will drain away leaving nothing behind but dust and bitterness.”

“Well... that would be bad,” I said.

Would I be better off not remembering Mom or Dad? Would it hurt less, and would I miss them less, or would the joy be gone but the pain remain? From the way Snape was talking, I suspected that it was the latter.

“Were you any other student, I'd demand that you tell the truth,” Snape said.

“What... you want me to say that I overheard what they were planning, so I waited in my room with a sock filled with galleons, Peruvian darkness powder, and marbles enspelled with a tripping jinx? Who would believe a story like that? I'm eleven years old.”

He stared at me.

“The story I'm going to tell is that they were trying to break into my room, they tripped over my marbles, and they hurt themselves on the way down the stairs. Nobody would believe that a girl my size would defeat three upperclassmen without any magic.”

“If you don't consider Peruvian Darkness powder and tripping marbles magic, what do you consider magic?”

“Being able to blast them in the face with fire,” I said. “Or turn them into frogs. You can do things with frogs.”

He stared at me, and then he didn't say anything else as we headed for the Headmaster's office.

Chapter Text

“The injuries were not caused by a fall,” Madam Pomfrey said. “These boys were repeatedly beaten with a heavy object before they fell. I have written out a list of all of the injuries.”

“Would a sock filled with galleons cause these kinds of injuries?” Snape asked.

Pomfrey frowned. “It would . I'd hardly think that an eleven year old girl would have had the skill to do this much damage. The damage that was done to the joints was carefully targeted to cause pain and incapacitation without being lethal. If the boys were stuck with muggle healers it is likely that they would be permanently damaged.”

“You did tell her that Wizards could regrow bones,” Snape said.

“Are you sure that she isn't protecting someone?” Madam Pomfrey asked. “Someone larger and stronger, perhaps?”

“A muggleborn in Slytherin?” Snape asked. “Who could she have possibly found that would be willing to go that far in protecting her? She hasn't had any contact with the Wizarding world as far as we can tell.”

I wasn't in the room; I was sitting against the wall outside the Headmaster's office back in my usual position, my eyes closed as I eavesdropped. They'd already called in my roommates for testimony and sent them back to their rooms. Millicent had essentially hidden under her covers, and Tracey had slept through the whole thing.

“Miss Hebert has proven herself to be quite resourceful,” Dumbledore said. “Apparently she as much as admitted to Severus what she had done before she told us the story she chose to tell.”

“Why would she lie?” McGonagall asked.

“Because the story she told is much more damaging,” Snape said. “First, it makes them all look like incompetent fools. Second is that she left their motives for entering her room suspect.”

“What?” McGonagall asked.

“Entering her room to teach a muggleborn who thought overly much of herself a lesson would make them a hero to the other Slytherins. But this way she has suggested that they were entering for other reasons. It casts doubt that will turn the entire female population against them.”

“She's eleven years old!” McGonagall said. “There's no way she should know enough to even suggest...”

“She's an American,” Snape said. “Some parts of their muggle culture are less protected than ours.”

I grimaced. Was he basically saying that Americans were sluts? My list of grievances against him was growing. I hadn't forgotten about the Trace.

“It will damage their reputation in a way that a simple hazing would not,” Snape continued. “And will almost be more painful to them than the beating they were given.”

“I thought you were exaggerating when you suggested that there might be trouble,” McGonagall said. “I didn't think it was going to be this bad.”

“I didn't think the fools would try to directly attack her this soon,” Snape admitted.”I expected them to insult her, and possibly for her to kick them in painful locations.”

He probably thought that because he'd taken my knife.

“If that was all you expected, I doubt you'd have asked me to be there,” McGonagall said.

“I've learned to expect the unexpected with Miss Hebert,” Snape admitted. “And your presence would quiet any complaints about favoritism toward the muggleborn.”

If some of the students were children of Death Eaters, they'd undoubtedly complain to their parents about me. Having McGonagall there would give him cover to be more fair than he otherwise would have been. He'd be able to blame her for giving out punishments.

“My question is how she was able to move around in the darkness that well?” McGonagall asked. “Even transformed into a cat, my vision isn't good enough to pierce that darkness.”

“It wouldn't surprise me if she forgot to mention that she'd somehow acquired a Hand of Glory,” Snape said.

“That's Dark magic,” McGonagall said. “Where could she have possibly found it?”

“She was able to find Diagon Alley without being told about it. It may be that she was able to shop in Knockturn Alley without being snatched up.”

“I think Miss Hebert should not be allowed to keep those marbles any longer,” Dumbledore said after a moments' silence. “Considering the potential for accidents in a school with as many stairs as we have.”

“And what penalty should we assign her?” Snape asked.

“For defending herself? If she was a Gryffindor I'd be giving her points,” McGonagall said.

“We'd all be better off if she transferred to Ilvermorny or Beauxbatons,” Snape said.

“As an American, I doubt she knows any other languages,” Dumbledore said. “Which would leave her ill prepared for Beauxbatons. And she has no one back home.”

“She has no one here,” Snape said.

“Perhaps having a close encounter with a driven, spirited muggleborn will do your charges some good,” Dumbledore said.

Snape didn't say anything. He just stared at Dumbledore.

“Sometimes I think that the house system has done more harm than good,” Dumbledore continued. “Because it is easy to think the worst of someone you have no contact with.”

He said this like it was a revelation. At least at Winslow the gangs had sprung up on their own. The school hadn't assigned people to gangs.

“So you are saying this girl is an experiment?” Snape asked. “You don't think that sooner or later this is going to happen again?”

I couldn't tell if Snape was trying to defend me, or to defend the other Slytherins from me. Maybe he was doing both. No matter what happened, my situation put him in an awkward position, and it jeopardized his work as a double agent.

There was a strange edge to his voice, along with what sounded like old anger. Had this happened before?

I'd been a double agent before, and I understood that it meant that he could not be seen as being sympathetic toward me.

“With Tom on the rise, I think it's important that the young people hear other voices. Otherwise, it will be all too easy for them to fall into the vices of their elders.”

I could almost feel Snape's frustration from where I was sitting.

“We have an opening for prefect that I will fill tomorrow,” Snape said finally, giving in. What else could he do when Dumbledore was the one in power.

I couldn't get a read on Dumbledore. He wasn't actively against me like Blackwell had been, but he certainly wasn't doing a lot to help me either.

“That might be wise,” Dumbledore said. “Limiting their access to her, at least at night might reduce problems overall. After what happened last year, the last thing we can afford is more strife.”

“I've been telling you for years that separating the Slytherins and Gryffindors would make for a more harmonious teaching experience.”

“And this year I finally agreed with you,” Dumbledore admitted. “We shall see how that experiment goes. I hope you choose your next prefect more wisely.”

“I will endeavor to choose someone who will be less...prone to temptation.”

Dumbledore said. “Perhaps a half-blood?”

“What shall we do with the boys?” McGonagall asked. “Expulsion shouldn't be out of the question.”

“I fear that their families would not be understanding,” Dumbledore said. “And might in fact attempt to charge Miss Hebert with assault. As traumatized as she undoubtedly is, I suspect she would not do well in Azkaban.”

“They wouldn't put an eleven year old in Azkaban,” McGonagall said, sounding shocked.

“I can think of three cases where it was done,” Dumbledore said. “Never for longer than three weeks, but that was all it took to ruin those children for life. Children are not meant to deal with that kind of torture.”

“Perhaps suspension for two weeks,” Snape said. “Which would give everyone time to regain their composure. Considering what I know of their child rearing practices, I suspect that their families will punish them much harder than we can during that time.”

“Making them hate her even more,” McGonagall said.

“That will happen regardless,” Dumbledore said. “If we expel them, they will simply join Voldemort's ranks all the sooner, which may lead to even more grief.”

Voldemort? Was that Tom's cape name?

“Suspension it will be, then,” Snape said. “Followed by enough detentions that I can make them understand the folly of their ways. Will you contact their parents?”

Dumbledore nodded.

“Then I shall take Miss Hebert back to her room. I dare say that going without sleep won't make her any easier to deal with.”

They all rose, and a moment later the door beside me was opening.

“Come along Miss Hebert.”

I rose to my feet and followed him. I noticed that he kept his hand on his wand, and he was careful to keep me beside him instead of behind him.

We walked for a couple of minutes before he said “I am surprised that you are not curious about the outcome of our meeting.”

“You'd tell me if I was in trouble,” I said. “And if they aren't I guess I'll know about it tomorrow.”

“Very practical.”

“Professor,” I said.

He stopped, and turned to face me.

“Could you fix my socks? I seem to have damaged them.”

Considering that I only owned six pair, it wasn't a terrible request to make.

He stared at me.

“Leave them out by the foot of your bed, and the house elves will repair them by morning,” he said.

“Do they have to inform staff if they find blood on clothes?” I asked. “After all, I'm sure that people have accidents when cutting ingredients from potions.”

“Then you will be sent to the infirmary,” Snape said. “I would consider it a favor if you tried to keep the blood to a minimum.”

“Keep them off of me and I won't bother anyone,” I said seriously. “But if they keep coming after me while I'm trying to sleep, I won't have any choice but to make sure that they won't want to.”

“You should not have any trouble tonight,” Snape said. “I will be placing additional charms on the entrance to the girl's stairwell so that should any of the male students attempt this again, I will be alerted.”

I nodded. “And the female students?”

“For the most part, I think you will find their methods to be less physical.”

He was saying that the girl Slytherins tended to be more like Emma and Madison than Sophia. I could work with that.

“So they'll be spreading rumors about me and trying to hurt my feelings.”

“Assuming that you have any they can hurt,” he said. “but we both know you are quite resilient.”

“They'll never love me,” I said. “But if they leave me alone, I'll be happy to simply focus on my studies.”

The only way I was going to be able to live in this world was if the Dark Lord and his followers were dead, or at least incarcerated. But without skills at magic, I wasn't going to be able to make that happen. Even with those skills, I wasn't going to be able to do it alone. I needed to make allies, and I couldn't afford to alienate anyone who wasn't already inclined to be against me.

“I will hold you to that,” he said. “You will have a difficult time in the coming days, but if anyone can survive it, I suspect that you can.”

I nodded.

By the time I got back to my room, the girls were all asleep.

It seemed as though my head had just hit the bed when I woke to the sounds of movement downstairs. Snape had summoned the entire class of Slytherins to a meeting, and I hadn't been invited.

“Last night, there was an incident,” Snape said. “I've heard you talking about it, and it is true. As of last night, three of your male classmates decided to invade the Girl's dorms, abusing a prefect's privileges to do so.”

“They were going for the mudblood's room,” I heard one of the boys mutter. He'd been one of those who'd been egging the others on.

“As of today, they are having bones regrown,” Snape said. “Miss Hebert had no injuries.”

The crowd was deathly silent.

“Sometimes I wonder what has happened to this house,” Snape said. “It was once the house of the ambitious, the cunning, and the clever.”

He stared down at the boy who had spoken. “How cunning was it to charge up to the room of a muggleborn less than an hour after she arrived? What would it have gained them if they had succeeded in somehow terrorizing an eleven year old girl? They acted like Gryffindors, and they paid the price for that.”

“The mudblood would be gone,” the boy muttered.

“And is she?” Snape asked. “She's sleeping in her room contentedly while three fifth years are in the infirmary with injuries that would have permanently debilitated a muggle.”

“She got lucky,” the boy said.

“Did she?” Snape asked. “How lucky would she have had to be to come out of encounter like that undamaged? Three boys with wands went up, and three broken bodies came down, and she did not use her wand.”

There was a sullen expression on the faces of several of the people in the crowd, but others looked more thoughtful.

Snape shook his head. “If they'd managed to beat her, then they would have accomplished nothing. Now, not only are they suspended, but everyone knows that they are incompetent fools. The stench of that will never wear off.”

“The Headmaster and Deputy Headmistress are both aware of this incident, and they will be keeping an eye on the situation. After the events of the last school year, they have sworn to be less tolerant of outright assaults. I think that this incident will make them more tolerant of whatever horrors she decides to perpetrate.”

“Because she's a mudblood?”

“And because they still think she's a child,” Snape said. “And regardless of the truth, they will believe that she is defending herself.”

I could hear angry muttering from the crowd.

“Fighting her is ultimately pointless,” Snape said. “Should you win, you will be painted as a bully who picked on an innocent child.... lose, and you will suffer whatever fate she decides to give you, while she will walk away quite free.”

“So we just have to accept her?”

“She will never be one of you,” Snape said. “And no one can force you to interact with her outside of class. Should you be stupid enough to try to harm her, I am sure that the situation will resolve itself without my intervention.”

“So you won't do anything?” A stupid looking boy asked.

I saw several people around him grimace at the question. Apparently they were quicker on the uptake than he was.

“I dislike attending funerals,” Snape said. “I won't come to yours.”

A moment later he was gone, and the murmuring in the room grew louder. I heard several people shouting at several other people.

“She told me that I'd wake up one night with her standing over my bed,” I heard Draco saying. “And there's no ward on the boy's stairs either.”

I got up from bed and prepared for my day while listening in the discussions and arguments that followed. I was starting to get an idea of just who fell into what camp; not all of the Slytherins were vocal blood purists, although some apparently were.

The ones who were quiet, who looked uncomfortable when others started spouting racists nonsense; those were the people that I might be able to reach, even though most of them likely would be never brave enough to support me openly.

Still, Snape had done what he promised, and at least tried to keep them from attacking me. If there were some who were too dumb to follow his instructions, then I'd have to do what I could to enlighten them.

Chapter Text

Because the girl's prefect was late getting my class schedule to me, I was one of the last people to slip into transfiguration class. I saw an empty seat at the front of the class, and I saw Hermione Granger waving enthusiastically for me to sit beside her.

There was another seat at the back of the room; it would have felt better to sit with my back to the ball, but I didn't want anyone thinking I was anxious or afraid about anything.

I slipped into the seat beside Hermione.

There was a cat sitting on the teacher's desk; I'd heard that McGonagall could turn into a cat, and the cat even seemed to have markings on her face like spectacles.

“How was your night?” she asked. “I've heard some disturbing rumors.”

“I'm fine,” I said. “Some other people aren't. Hopefully they'll learn their lesson. Has out professor always been a cat?”

“What?” she asked.

“That cat is clearly the professor,” I said.

Hermione stared at the professor, who chose that moment to step off the desk and become a human. It was the fastest, and smoothest transformation that I'd ever seen, and I'd seen a lot of Changers back in my homeworld.

The entire classroom gasped.

“Transfiguration is some of the most dangerous magic you will learn here in Hogwarts,” she said. “As such, anyone who chooses to engage in horseplay will be asked to leave and will not come back.”

How did that even work? Would the student have to make up the work on their own time, or would they simply have an entire branch of magic that they didn't learn by the time they were an adult. The reading I'd done seemed to indicate that transfiguration was one of the fundamental things required to be a wizard.

Presumably almost everything learned in the early years would be of use; it was a little like normal school; the basics learned in elementary school would be used by everyone, while classes learned in high school would be hit or miss. I knew people who hadn't done algebra in twenty years, and I knew people who used it all the time.

McGonagall turned and with a wave of her wand transformed her desk into a pig. It snorted and stared at us, and I found my mind racing. Had she actually given an inanimate object a form of sentience, even if only a low form?

Could the pig be eaten, or would it revert to normal, creating splinters in the stomach that would be fatal..or even splinters in the bloodstream?

Would that be a perfect form of assassination?

I knew better than to ask any of those questions. While I enjoyed prodding Snape, I couldn't afford to alienate McGonagall or any of the other teachers.

“Transfiguration is a branch of magic that focuses on the alteration of the form or appearance of an object, down to it's smallest fundamental parts,” McGonagall began once she'd reverted the desk. “You should pull out you paper and quills and begin to take notes.”

I grimaced. I'd tried writing with a quill in the past, and I had a tendency to blot the paper with ink. You had to re-dip the quill every three to six words, and I found myself balking at the inefficiency of it.

I watched Hermione, who seemed to somehow have already picked up the trick, and I tried to imitate her. I found that I'd been holding the quill too far upright, which made my lines too thick to make for legible words. She held hers at a forty five degree angle. How in the hell had she already learned to write with these things?

“Transfiguration is very hard work,” McGonagall continued. “And it requires a mind that is much more focused than some of the other branches of magic. Sloppiness results in failure. It is important to make firm and decisive wand movements; failure to do so will result in failure.”

“There are factors to be considered with transfiguration. First is weight; smaller objects are easier to transfigure than larger. The task grows more difficult the larger the object, until some objects are simply too big to transfigure.”

I wanted to ask what the upper limits were, but I figured I'd be able to find it somewhere in the library.

“Wand power is also a factor,” McGonagall continued. “Some wands are better suited to this kind of work than others. That does not mean that any of you have substandard wands; wands are simply a tool, and some tools are better for some tasks than others.”

“Concentration is the third factor. Allow your concentration to lapse, lose your hold on the mental image of what you are trying to achieve, and the transfiguration will either fail of be incomplete. For that reason, those who are better able to imagine the things they can create often have an easier time.”

“Viciousness is a factor with living transfigurations,” she continued. “A highly vicious creature is much more difficult to force out of his form, and also to create.”

“The fifth factor is more complicated,” she said. “And it requires some mastery of mathematics to understand.”

I glanced around at the people around me. They all seemed to be engrossed in the lesson, even Malfoy. It made sense. The Ravenclaws liked to be seen as intelligent, at least according to the hat, and the Slytherins liked to see themselves as being sly.

I did catch some of them glancing up at me from time to time, only to hastily drop their gaze when they caught me looking at them.

McGonagall spent the first half of the session laying out the theory behind transfiguration. I found it fascinating. I could see all kinds of possibilities to transfiguration, even given the limitations that had been laid out.

The fact that food couldn't be created from nothing wasn't a surprise. The fact that it could be successfully duplicated was. What was the difference? If I had one hamburger and I made a second one, hadn't that second one come from nothing?

Money couldn't be transfigured, but although McGonagall acted as though it was a law of nature, that didn't make much sense to me. What made more sense to me was that Wizarding money was enspelled not to be copiable. I'd have to try to see if muggle money could be copied, not that I had any intention of becoming a counterfeiter. Even if it was possible, it was undoubtedly against the law, as it would endanger the whole Secrecy the Wizarding world depended on.

It was apparently impossible to bring someone back from the dead. Even if you tried to transfigure a corpse into someone who was alive, the best you'd get was a zombie. No surprise there.

Curse wounds couldn't be healed, even by transfiguration.

The second half of the hour was to be dedicated to the practical portion of the course. Our first task was to change matchsticks into needle.

This wasn't something that I'd done before, and so I watched carefully as McGonagall went through the wand motions.

It was complex, and I could feel the frustration of the children around me as they struggled with the spell. It was the first real spell we were being taught, and apparently even the purebloods weren't doing a lot better.

I saw that Hermione's matchstick was shimmering, and I focused my attention on the match in front of me.

They'd started with matchsticks because they were close in form to the needle. The changes she was asking us to make weren't that difficult; we needed to change the matchstick from metal to wood, and we needed to make it sharp.

I found myself sweating as I forced myself to focus on what a needle was. Over and over I moved my wand; McGonagall corrected my wand movements a couple of times, and she moved around the room doing the same for the other students.

Finally I felt my needle beginning to change. I looked over, and Hermione was doing the same. She was looking at me with an expression of triumph, before looking disappointed when she saw my needle.

Her needle was silvery and somewhat pointed.

Mine was of a dull metal, but it was sharp; I drew blood when I touched the tip of it. I felt a sense of satisfaction. I wondered if I would be allowed to get a supply of matches from the Deputy Headmistress to continue practicing.

Not only would that let me get control over this ability, but there were things that could be done with a large supply of needles.

“Congratulations Ms. Hebert, Miss Granger,” McGonagall said. She took our needles from us, and held them up to the class.

“You can see the difference that concentration and focus and sometimes point of view can make in a transfiguration. Neither got the transfiguration completely right, and it is obvious that they focused on different things. Miss Granger focused on changing the metal, while Miss Hebert focused on the sharpness.”

I could see that it was true. My needle still had the pattern of the wood on it, while Hermione's was more purely metal. Her needle was blunt, but mine was more functional.

“It's impressive that you both managed to accomplish it on the first day. Five points to Ravenclaw and Slytherin.”

As far as I was concerned, Hermione was more impressive. She was actually eleven, and her mind hadn't matured yet, and she was keeping up with me, and she'd already figured out how to use a quill.

Hermione beamed, although she kept glancing at me.

As we rose to leave class, she followed me outside. “Is it true that a whole crowd of your classmates attacked you, and now two of them are dead?”

“Not that I know of,” I said. “Unless they died in the middle of the night. I'm sure Professor Snape would have said something.”

“So you were attacked,” she said, looking scandalized. “What did you do?”

I glanced around. Several of the other students were looking away, but they were obviously listening to our conversation.

“Who says I had to do anything?” I asked. “Aren't the girls stairs guarded in your dorms?”

“They are,” she said. “But I overheard Draco Malfoy saying that it was a prefect.”

I sighed, and I pulled Hermione into a bathroom. My bugs had already told me that no one was inside.

“As a hypothetical,” I said. “If a first year really did put three fifty year students in the hospital wing, would she admit to doing it?”

Hermione stared at me.

“You've been to public school before,” I said. She'd mentioned it once of twice during the interminable train ride on the way to school. “What would happen if popular kids with a lot of friends get hurt by a kid they were bullying? What would the school do? Would they pat the kid on the head and tell him it was a good job?”

“No?”

“They'd punish the kid and apologize to the parents of the bully, because their poor little babies got hurt,” I said. “A kid who fights back isn't a hero, he's a problem.”

“Is that what it was like in America?”

“Is it any different here?” I asked. “Or are schools more interested in protecting themselves than their students?”

She stared at me for a moment, then her gaze dropped to her feet. I figured that someone like her would have some experience with bullying; she would have been too annoying to her peers not to have been. As an adult, she was somewhat less annoying to me, but that was only because I had a different perspective.

“So when that kid says that someone had an accident, you don't question them,” I said.

She looked up at me.

“It's really that bad?” she asked

I nodded. “It's that bad. I'm handling it, but it could very easily go bad for me. I need for you to support me in this, and in return I'll help you.”

Doing this alone was probably more than I could handle. I needed allies, and even if Hermione was only eleven, she was another set of hands. Two wands could do a lot more than one, and if I could get her combat capable, maybe two could do a lot more than one.

Her lips tightened. “It's not right what they are doing. I've had some of the girls look down on me in Ravenclaw... I think because I'm a muggleborn, but they mostly ignore me.”

They probably looked down on her because of her personality, but I could work with this. It would increase her sense of solidarity with me, and it would make her more loyal.

“Better to be ignored,” I said. “Until you are ready to do something about it. Don't brag about how smart you are; them seeing it will be all the proof they need that their superiority complexes aren't real.”

“We've got Defense against the Dark Arts class next,” Hermione said. “I've got Herbology with the Gryffindors later.”

“Let's go,” I said.

We found the Defense classroom without issue, and found seats. Already the class was dividing itself up by house; the Slytherins sitting on one side and the Ravenclaws on the other. How much worse would it have been with Gryffindors, given the hatred I'd overheard from some of the Slytherins last night?

Professor Travers slipped into the room.

“I am Professor Travers,” he said when everyone had settled down. “And this is Defense against the Dark arts. Does anyone know what that is?”

The room was silent, with not even Hermione lifting her hands.

“In this class we will be teaching the magic you need to learn in order to not die,” he said. “That's what it breaks down to. There are all sorts of magics that can be used to kill you, and if I do my job right, they may not kill you as quickly as they otherwise might.”

Everyone was staring at him.

“I say that because there is no such thing as a perfect defense. Sometimes spells are designed that are superior to the ones commonly in use, but it's only a matter of time before someone designs a better offensive attack spell to get around that defense. Attack and defense are in a race, you see, and they challenge wizardly ingenuity.”

“That is why you can never simply depend on one defense to protect you from everything. There are general defenses that will be generally useful, but those can be overcome. To survive you have to be flexible, and able to roll with the punches.”

“Today,” he said. “We will begin with how to defend yourself against one of the most dangerous threats that face all wizards... muggles.”

“What?” I heard Hermione ask under her breath.

“Some of you may look at muggles as harmless. They have no magic, so how could they possibly hurt you?”

He shook his head. “It's surprising how many Wizards are killed every year by muggles. Their vehicles alone are a large cause of Wizarding deaths; a shield charm has proven ineffective against a car striking at high rates of speed. Worse, most adult wizards aren't even capable of casting a good shield charm.”

Hermione raised her hand.

“Yes, Miss...”

“Granger,” Hermione said. “How can you claim that muggles are the most dangerous threat to Wizards. Isn't that racist?”

Internally I sighed.

“Does anyone have an answer to that?” he asked.

Reluctantly I raised my hands.

“Yes, Miss...”

“Hebert,” I said. “It's a matter of numbers. Would you think a shark is more dangerous than a cow?”

Hermione stared at me, then nodded.

“But lots more people are killed every year by cows than sharks. The reason is that not very many people are around sharks, but a lot of people are around cows.”

The professor nodded approvingly. “Five points to Slytherin. It's much the same with Wizards. A dragon is much more dangerous than a muggle, but outside the preserves, how likely is a normal wizard to see one? You will always have to deal with muggles, though. Even purebloods are unable to completely isolate themselves, as much as they would like to pretend to. Sooner or later you will have to interact with them.”

He paused and looked around at us. “This class is not muggle studies. If you want to know about muggle culture, there is a class for that. What we are focused on today is how to defend yourself in the unlikely, but still possible event that you come face to face with a hostile muggle.”

He continued., “Not all muggles are dangerous. Most of them are completely harmless. The problem is that there are so many of them that inevitably some of them are. Often it's difficult to tell the difference, although there are some possible tells.”

“Today we will be going over those signs. Again, not all muggles who display these signs are bad. It's simply that the odds are increased when they show these signs. Once we discuss that we will discuss some counterstrategies that can be used.”

Hermione calmed down, although her face was still a little flushed.

We both began to take notes.

Chapter Text

Flying class was to be held out on the lawn, and I wondered what sort of safety precautions they were going to take. Back in the States, even in a hellhole like Winslow they were very cautious about the risk of injury from school activities for fear of lawsuits.

I wasn't worried for myself. Despite my body's weakness, I'd flown before, on the back of a giant beetle, and using a jetpack. I'd had some experience with this sort of things, but I was fairly sure that some of these kids wouldn't have.

All I saw was two lines of brooms, and a professor.

We lines up on one side, and the Gryffindors came a few minutes later. This was the first time that I'd had a chance to really get a close look at them outside of meals, and they were roughhousing with each other as they came out onto the lawn.

They were laughing and shouting at each other, and there was none of the quietness that I saw with the Slytherins. If they'd been in a restaurant, I'd have been tempted to put a fly in their soup.

I saw a dark haired boy in glasses staring at me, with a redhead whispering in his ear. They both stared at me unabashedly, not that their classmates weren't doing the same thing. The others, though at least pretended to look away when I looked at them.

It was three thirty in the afternoon, and the sky was cloudy and gray.

The Slytherins had wisely chosen the newer looking brooms. They'd tried to push me over to an old looking broom, but I'd made sure I got one of the better ones, and no one was willing to push me on the matter. I didn't like the look of some of the brooms the Gryffindors were using.

Neville waved at me and I nodded to him. One of the other Gryffindors whispered in his ear, but he shook his head and continued waving.

Good for him.

Madam Hooch barked at the Gryffindors to hurry up.

“Stick your right hand over the broomstick, and say UP,” she said.

Willpower seemed to be a component to these things, and so I willed the broom to come up to my hand. It snapped upwards into my hand. I noticed that the same thing had happened to the dark haired boy and a few of the others, but most of them were having trouble.

Madam Hooch had them repeat it until everyone had control of a broom, and then she showed us how to mount it.

There should be some sort of safety mechanism, otherwise riding on a broom was suicidal folly. What happened if you slipped off, if your hands got slippery or if you got a splinter?

Most likely there were protective charms on these things, because otherwise, no one who wasn't suicidal would get on one.

 

She blew her whistle, and Neville shot up into the air. He was out of control; it was obvious, and quick look at Madam Hooch showed that she didn't have it under control. Her face had turned white, and she didn't have her wand out.

I didn't have a lot of options. Even when I'd been at full power my bugs couldn't have carried someone of his weight, and if I were to try to fly up and catch him, I doubted that my body would be able to hold him. Most likely we would both slip off out brooms.

That left magic, and there was only one spell that I had that would be useful.

I let my broom drop, I pulled out my wand, and I shouted, “WINGARDIUM LEVIOSA.”

The levitation spell would not affect a human being, but it could affect clothes. Neville was at the upper limits of what I could probably lift with the spell, but if I could slow him down at least, then I might be able to save his life.

Grimacing, I saw him struggling as his clothes pulled tight, and his entire weight rested on them. The weight was distributed over his entire body, but I was still afraid that his clothes were going to rip, leaving him falling and nude. The broom dropped away from under him; it fell with a crash, shattering on the lawn below.

I let him drop, probably faster than I should have. I could hear a ripping sound from where I was. I dropped him heavily onto the lawn, and I saw him hyperventilating. It looked as though he was having a panic attack.

“That was well done, Miss Hebert,” Madam Hooch said faintly. “I wasn't aware that Mr. Flitwick was teaching that spell on the first day of term.”

“We haven't had his class yet,” I said, dropping my wand. “I studied ahead.”

“Ten points to Slytherin,” she said. “I think I'd best take Mr. Longbottom to the infirmary to get a calming potion.”

I noticed that she pointed her wand at him, and the bugs I had near him heard the sound of clothing repairing themselves.

She turned to the rest of us. “None of you will touch your brooms until I get back, on threat of expulsion.”

With that, she was gone.

“Did you see his face, the great lump?” Malfoy said.

I could see the Gryffindors bristling, and it looked like they were spoiling for a fight. The last thing I needed was to have to hurt someone because we got into a brawl out onto the lawn. The older kids knew what they were doing, and deserved whatever I could do to them, but these were just kids.

“I don't need a broom to make you fly,” I said testily.

His mouth snapped shut, and he paled.

The Gryffindors who had been about to say something stopped and stared at us with wide eyes. I noticed that the dark haired kid was staring at me more intently than the others. Was that a sign of intelligence, or did he need his glasses prescription changed?

Pansy Parkinson said, “You can't talk to him like that! Do you know who his father is?”

I turned and stared at her.

The color drained from her face, and she looked down at the ground. I nodded.

“After what just happened, anybody who even thinks about touching a broom is crazy. Forget about what the professor said. I don't know any healing spells yet, and it would be very easy to break your neck. I don't save idiots either.”

“Who are you calling idiots?” the red haired kid shouted.

“Anybody stupid enough to get on one of these death traps without supervision. Personally, I'd be writing to your parents about the poor quality of the brooms here,” I said. “Look at those things.”

I pointed at some of the worst looking brooms. “My guess is that the spells on those things aren't working right, which puts all of us in danger. Isn't that what Malfoy should be writing his father about, since he actually has some pull at this school?”

Malfoy stared at me, then nodded slowly.

“Yeah, Malfoy,” a boy whose name I didn't know said. “Isn't your Dad a bigwig here? Can't he do something about this?”

I could almost see Malfoy's chest swell at the attention. He nodded slowly, and then more enthusiastically.

“If you see something that should be changed, you go to people who can do something about it,” I said. “If they can't do anything about it, then you do something yourself.”

Malfoy picked something up off the ground. “He dropped this. What a stupid thing.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“A Rememberall. It tells you that you've forgotten something, but it doesn't tell you what you've forgotten.”

I frowned. “Well, I can see how that would be of limited usefulness. He probably didn't get it for himself, though. It sounds like the kind of thing parents force on us.”

“He's being raised by his aunt,” the redhead said defiantly. “Lost his parents in the war... hurt by you lot.”

“Well, certainly not me,” I said. “I'm from America, and even if I wasn't, I don't think anyone here was there during the last war.”

“Their families then!” he said.

“So because there were people in their families who made some bad decisions, they should pay for it?” I said. “So you should have to pay every time one of your brothers plays a prank?”

I'd heard people talking about the notorious Weasley brothers. I wasn't sure which one this one was, but the line between pranking and abuse was very thin. Emma and Sophia and Madison had used the just joking excuse more than once, and teachers had bought it.

I was going to reserve judgment until I saw examples of what they were doing. Was it in actual good sport, or were they using it to humiliate and hurt people who were less powerful than them?

I'd have to convince them that it was important to punch up instead of down.

“You think I don't?” he asked.

“You want to be judged as your own person, don't you?”

“Yes....?” he said, sounding a little less hostile.

“So why not give them a chance? If they turn out to be bad people, then you can treat them the way bad people ought to be treated. If they turn out to be good people, then you've made a friend.”

He scowled, and I heard mutters from all around me at the idea of being friends with Gryffindors or Slytherins.

It was barely at the end of the first day of school! How had they already brainwashed these kids into hating each other. It had to be the families who had gone here in the past; the muggleborns didn't know enough to know any different.

Undoubtedly they would learn, though, and then they'd pass it on to their own children.

“So you're saying we should all be friends?” the dark haired kid asked. Potter, the killer baby.

“Why not?” I said. “We'll have time to kill each other when we're older, but why should our parents' wars have anything to do with us?”

“Easy for you to say,” I heard Pansy Parkinson say. “You've got nothing to lose.”

“That's true, and if people want to bring war to my doorstep, I'll be happy to oblige them,” I said. “But I'd prefer not to have to kill anyone....yet.”

All of their eyes were on me now.

“There are going to be people who try to pressure you into one side or the other. Some of them may be in your own families. But if you don't make your own choices, then you aren't any better than a house elf... a slave.”

“What would a... muggleborn know about it?” Pansy asked. “You don't know anything about us!”

“Has anybody tried to tell me?” I asked.

The Gryffindors were looking at me like I'd grown two heads. House unity in Slytherin normally caused them to keep disagreements within house, leading the other houses to think that they all agreed with each other. I suspected that this was part of the reason that the other houses thought poorly of them.

Madam Hooch came rushing back to us, looking relieved that no one was up in the air. The rest of the lesson was rather tame after that. I caught the Potter boy looking rather disappointed. Presumably he'd wanted more acrobatics and horseplay, but as far as I was concerned, this class was already insanely dangerous for eleven year old children. Keeping it tame enough for a five year old seemed wise.

The day ended with a meal, and I headed for the library. I found Hermione there.

“I heard about how you saved Neville,” she said excitedly. “I didn't think that the Levitation spell was supposed to be strong enough to lift an entire person.”

“It almost wasn't. You need to talk him into losing some weight,” I said. “Or learn how to fly better.”

“They said you moved like lightning!” she said.

I shrugged. “I suspected something bad was going to happen, and so I was ready for it.”

She lifted her notebook, and underneath I saw an entire box of matches. At my look, she flushed. “I wanted to get better at it before the next class. Do you want some?”

I nodded, and I spent the next hour transforming matchsticks into better and better needles. I found myself in competition with Hermione, odd as it was. I found that by changing my image of the needle, I could change other things about it.

By the time we were done, I had a pile of needles in front of me, and Hermione had a pile in front of her. My needles had gotten to be better and better metal over time, until they were indistinguishable from real needles. Hermione's by contrast, had gotten sharper and sharper.

I sensed Draco Malfoy hiding behind a bookcase.

“Can I help you, Malfoy?” I asked.

He stepped out from behind the bookcase, and he gave an uncertain look at the pile of needles in front of me.

“I'm getting ready for Halloween,” I said pleasantly. I doubted that he got the joke.

“Can I talk to you?” he asked.

Glancing at Hermione, I said, “It looks like you are.”

“Alone,” he said.

I shrugged and rose to my feet. Turning to Hermione, I said, “If he goes missing, you didn't see anything.”

For once she was quick on her feet.

“See what?” she asked.

Stepping two bookcases over, Malfoy took a deep breath and faced me. “Why did you do that today?”

“Do what?”

“With the brooms,” he said. “Making me look good?”

“Did I do that?” I asked. I thought for a moment. “I've heard you bragging about your family in the common room. Do you really think anybody cares about that?”

He stared at me as though I was crazy. “My father is-”

“Not here,” I said. “Most of these kids have never met him, and hopefully they never will. They've met you though.”

“What do you mean?” he asked suspiciously.

“If I started bragging about what my muggle family accomplished, what would you think of me?”

“That you were an idiot,” he said. “Who cares what your muggle family did? It's different among our kind...”

“It's not, though,” I said. “People care about what you can do for them. That's it. They don't care how rich you are or how nice you are. They care whether you can make their life better.”

He stared at me. “Right?”

“So what have you done for them to brag about?” I asked. “It's just the first day, so the answer is nothing. So you've got power and influence... use it.”

“What?”

“If you get the school new brooms, then people will really believe that you have the kind of pull that you say you do.”

“I'm not sure...” he began.

“How much do school brooms cost?” I asked.

He shrugged.

“Enough that your father couldn't easily afford twenty of them?” I asked.

He shook his head angrily. “Of course not! The Malfoys are one of the oldest, richest...”

“So you talk your father into it. Talk about how dangerous the brooms are, and how grateful the students' parents will be if he donates them to the school,” I said. “It will solidify your position with people as the guy who can get things done.”

He looked thoughtful.

“Nobody cares who your family is,” I said. “But they care about what you can do for them.”

He was silent for a moment, and then he nodded. “This doesn't mean that I can afford to be seen around you.”

I shrugged. “Do I look like I give a damn?”

He glared at me, and a moment later he was gone.

Hermione stepped out from behind the stacks. I'd known she was there, of course, but it hadn't bothered me that she was listening.

“How could you say all that to him?” she asked indignantly. “About people only caring about what you can do for them?”

“It's true,” I said.

“People aren't all greedy and.... money grubbing...”

“It doesn't have to be money,” I said. “Maybe it's just that you make them smile. Maybe you make them feel good about themselves. Maybe you support them emotionally, or you are fun.”

“You didn't say that to him,” she said, mollified.

“He's not ready to hear it,” I said. “It fits enough with his beliefs that he'll actually listen, and maybe take it to heart. Even if he doesn't, if the school gets better brooms, then we're all better off.”

And maybe I wouldn't have to spend the next seven years hearing him brag about his family when he thought I wasn't listening.

“Why are you helping him anyway? He's a horrible person. He called me a mudblood on the train.”

“He's been told that muggleborn are terrible his whole life,” I said. “Do you think that meeting one is going to change that right away”

“Well... no... but...”

“It's going to take a while for him to change his mind,” I said. “And the only way it's going to happen is if he meets muggleborns who challenge his preconceptions.”

“It shouldn't be our job to teach him!” she hissed.

“That's true,” I said. “But if not us, then who? Wizard society is full of people like him, and the only way we're going to change it is one heart at a time.”

“You sound like my mom,” Hermione muttered. “Sometimes you sound like an old woman in a kid's body.”

I stiffened. Did she suspect something?

“But I guess maybe things are different in America?”

“Things were different back home, yes,” I said.

“Do you miss it?” she asked.

“My family,” I said. “But I try not to think about it much. I had friends back there too. Other than that...not really.”

It was true. Brockton Bay had been a hellhole, and I'd been too driven about my work in stopping the Slaughterhouse and saving the world to really enjoy Chicago.

Hermione frowned. “Are you just telling me things that I can accept, because you think that I can't handle more than that?”

I put my arm around her shoulder.

“Would you believe me if I said no?”

“No.”

“Good girl,” I said. If I was right about what was coming, she needed to learn how to discriminate between lies and the truth, sooner, rather than later.

Chapter Text

The next two days passed relatively peacefully. I wasn't attacked in my bed, and while no one attacked me in the halls, no one went out of their way to associate with me either.

Even my roommates seemed afraid of me; I didn't associate much with them, instead focusing on my studies. The next attack might not come for a while, but I couldn't depend on that; it was going to happen sooner or later, and I had to come up with strategies for that.

The Gryffindors tended to stare rudely at me. The Slytherins pretended that I didn't exist. The Ravenclaws seemed slightly less afraid of me than the others, and I caught a couple of them whispering about asking me about the Levitation spell, although they never did.

Herbology was pleasant enough, and I could see the use for it. The Hufflepuffs didn't seem as dumb as the Slytherins kept whispering, but they also all seemed to shy away from me more than those in the other houses, so maybe they were a little less brave.

Apparently Hogwarts greenhouses were separated by the danger level of the plants inside. I approved of this heartily. Eleven year old children shouldn't be dealing with man-eating plants. However, I found myself interested in what exactly was in those more dangerous greenhouses. I suspected that some of them might be useful.

Sprout seemed to be a down to earth teacher. I wouldn't have any particular advantages in her class, but I doubted that I would need any. It struck me as one of the easiest classes, and hopefully the skills we learned there would translate to potions or one of the more useful classes.

Astronomy though seemed like a waste of time. We had class during the day, with labs by night once a week. I couldn't understand why we were supposed to study it; all the other classes had practical applications for becoming a functional Wizard. Astronomy... not so much.

There wasn't any magic related to it, and wands weren't necessary. It was basically just a science class. If it had been me setting a curriculum I would have replaced it with a mathematics class, or something It was all about learning the names of the stars and planets, and was pretty simple. Still, I felt I could be using my time more productively doing anything else.

Looking through telescopes that night was mildly interesting, but it didn't feel like something I should be bothering with. The fact that this was a class they expected us to take for years bothered me.

History of magic, though, made Astronomy look positively brilliant. It was interesting being taught by a ghost, for the first five minutes, but it was soon clear that he was a terrible teacher. He essentially read from the book in a monotone voice, and the only one taking notes at all was Hermione.

The problem was that it should have been one of the more interesting classes; it should have been like learning about capes in Winslow; a temporary bright spot in the middle of the day. Instead it was a terrible slog to get through, and while I wasn't falling asleep like some of the other students, I did find my attention wandering.

I found myself listening to the second year Charms class being taught down the hall. It was a lot of theoretical work that I didn't really have the background for, but it was a lot more interesting than listening to a lot of racist claptrap about the goblins.

Not that I loved goblins, but Binns really didn't seem to like them, and I couldn't understand why. There had been several goblin rebellions apparently, but the reasons behind them, once you looked past the Wizard propaganda seemed fairly sound.

Wands were apparently forbidden to the goblins, something they resented and with good reason. They'd been marginalized, and many of their career options had been curtailed by Wizard bigotry. It wasn't surprising that they rebelled every few decades.

The only surprise was that some enterprising Dark Lord hadn't promised them equal rights in return for their backing. He probably would have gotten it. Most likely, all of them had feared that doing that would have united their enemies against them.

I was happy to get out of History of Magic, and after listening to Flitwick teaching second years, I was already predisposed to liking him. Not only did he seem competent, but his class was actually useful.. Presumably this class, Transfiguration and Potions were the three classes that were the real meat and bones of what it was to be a Wizard. The other classes seemed to be less useful.

Stepping into the class, I saw the professor's head snap up. He was very short; about three and a half feet tall, which meant that I was only a foot taller than he was. He would probably look a lot smaller once I got taller.

I'd heard some of the Slytherins whispering that he was half goblin, and that it was a shame that he'd been allowed to teach at the school, but he actually seemed like one of the better teachers.

“Miss Hebert!” he called out. His voice was squeaky. “I heard about your outstanding use of the Levitation spell yesterday! We aren't even supposed to be teaching that spell until October.”

“It seemed like one of the more useful spells,” I said. “There were some other spells that I tried that I couldn't get to work.”

“It's surprising that you got it to work at all,” he said. “It requires a precise set of wand movements.”

“I experimented with it,” I said. “It didn't work at all with some of the other spells. Once I got it down, I practiced it over and over until I was able to do it every time.”

“It will help once you learn the theory,” he said. “And once you understand the reason that some wand movements work with some spells and not with others, it will get easier to learn some of the spells. We will be going over the theory of wand movements this year.”

I nodded.

“If there's any books you can recommend to help me with self study, I'd be thrilled,” I said. Getting on the good side of this professor was important, and he was so friendly it was hard not to like him.

If part of me felt a little suspicious because of it, I couldn't help it. McGonagall was strict, and Snape was an ass, but the kind of ass I could actually understand. Sprout seemed so harmless that it was possible that she was dangerous, bit she wasn't exactly in a position of power.

“I'll get you a self study list after class,” he said. “I've already been asked for one by Miss Granger, so I've already got the list made up.”

Trying to get ahead of me... how ambitious of her. Having him as head of house was going to give her a leg up with it too. I'd have to work hard to keep ahead of her; while I had the benefit of greater age and experience, those benefits would vanish as we got older.

I'd never been as brilliant as she was when I was her age. I only looked that way now from the outside because of being an adult in a child's body.

He clapped his hands. “It's wonderful that we have so many ambitious students this year... and muggleborns too.”

“We've got to prove that the purebloods are wrong about us,” I said. “Which means we have to work three times as hard to get the same credit.”

He looked uncomfortable for a moment. “I'll be watching your progress closely.”

I nodded.

Hermione stepped into the room, and we found our place at the front of the class. If I didn't have my bugs to give me eyes in the back of my head, I never would have sat with my back to everyone. It would leave too many opportunities for people to attack me from behind.

However, sitting at the front had benefits. It told people that I was confident that I could deal with anything they'd throw at me, and it put me close to the Professor, where they were more likely to see if something was done to me. That fact alone might keep people from doing anything in the first place, which was better than my having to retaliate.

The one thing I couldn't afford was for every day here to become a running battle. My ingenuity and skill had limits, and sooner or later I would fail. A reputation for infallibility was important. Every person that was too afraid to attack me was one more day for me to get stronger.

Eventually I'd be strong enough to not worry about anything except sleeping, and I'd read that there were spells designed to protect the bedchamber. It was likely that I'd have to get a lot better at magic to use them, which is why I was going to pay a lot of attention to charms.

Flitwick spent the first half of the session on theory; he explained everything in a rather simplistic style so that even the slowest of my classmates could understand what he was saying. I'd heard his second year lecture, which was much more complex, and so I knew he was dumbing everything down for the newbies.

Even so, taking notes with a quill was unpleasant.

I found myself resenting it more and more, and Hermione made it look easy. She'd explained to me that the Ravenclaws thought that Wizards required quills to be used because they helped the hand get used to the same types of movements as wands. I thought that explanation to be a little fishy.

More likely it was simple prejudice about adopting muggle technologies. I was essentially living among the magical Amish. Even if strong centers of magical power stopped electronics, as Hermione insisted, I'd seen wristwatches working on some of the muggleborn students. If clockworks worked, it was likely that ordinary pens or pencils would work just as well.

Using the quill made my hand cramp, and that made me irritable.

Thus once lunch came, I was sitting by myself at the table. Fortunately, the Ravenclaws and Slytherins tables were next to each other, and so Hermione sat as close to me as she could, and she occasionally called things out to me.

I felt some of my bugs begin to die, and I looked up. Owls were flying into the room, and some of them were snapping up some of my bugs as they went to land on the tables.

Pansy Parkinson had ostentatiously left a seat between me and her, but as an owl landed on my table, she looked over at me curiously.

It lifted it's leg at me, and I saw that it was carrying a letter in its claw. Snape had talked about my getting an owl, and I'd decided against it. The school had its own owls, should I need to send correspondence out, and I hardly needed a pet for some bigot to kill just as I became fond of it.

I shook my head and kept on eating. There was no one in the world who knew me, so most likely the mail wasn't going to be something I wanted to read. It was probably a death threat, or some sort of racist diatribe.

“You've got mail,” Pansy said.

“So?”

“The owl comes, and you take your mail,” she said. “You muggleborn are so stupid. Don't they have mail where you come from?”

“It's probably a bill,” I said.

“What could you possibly owe?” she asked. “What, do you have a gambling habit?”

Did Wizards even have casinos? What could they possibly bet on that someone wouldn't use magic to cheat about? For that matter, were Wizards prohibited from winning at Muggle games? It might break Secrecy if every lottery winner was a Wizard, but access to a lot of muggle money would make even a Wizard's life better.

“Every day's a gamble,” I said. “I'm still not opening that letter.”

The bird hopped up and down and looked at me angrily. Finally it dropped the letter and flew off. The letter sat on the table, sitting in a pink envelope without any writing on the outside.

“When's the next time a muggle like you is likely to get a letter?” Pansy said. She scowled, “Fine, I'll open it.”

She reached over and grabbed the letter before I could say anything. She opened the letter, and then frowned. She dropped it, and began scratching at her hands.

Boils began to sprout up on her hands and she screamed.

Looking over her shoulder, I saw that the letter simply said in big block letters, “You aren't wanted here, Mudblood.”

I could see the professors rising to their feet, so I quickly stood up and away. If she was going to explode, I didn't want to be anywhere near her.

The other Slytherins seemed to be of the same mind, as those closest to us rose to their feet and quickly moved back.

Snape was the first to reach the table.

“Bubotuber Pus,” he muttered. He looked at me. “What happened here, Miss Hebert?”

Was that some sort of Wizard Curse?”

“Pansy opened my letter,” I said. “I wasn't going to.”

Snape pointed his wand at Pansy, and muttered some words I couldn't quite hear, even with my bugs. He seemed satisfied with whatever he saw, though.

He glanced at it, and scowled. He gestured to Gemma, and said, “Please take Miss Parkinson to the infirmary, and take care not to touch her hands.”

Her hands were swelling up to the size of sausages. She was crying and wailing like it was the end of everything. I'd seen civilians menaced by Leviathan who made less of a production about it. Of course, most of them had been frozen by fear.

Snape pointed his wand, and a moment later the letter levitated to be placed in a bag that he either conjured or pulled out from somewhere inside his robes. He was careful not to touch it.

“Have Madam Pomprey check Miss Parkinson for curses more thoroughly,” he told Gemma, who was helping Pansy to her feet. Pansy started wailing louder.

Hopefully she'd learn not to open other people's mail.

Learning to put curses on objects seemed like a really useful skill; maybe I could get Snape to show me what to study. I'd pretend that I was interested in learning about how to avoid cursed items, which of course I was.

I hadn't known items could be cursed. I had an uneasy feeling that it was an oversight like this that was going to end up causing me more trouble than anything I could anticipate or plan for.

“Curses are upper level subjects,” Snape said. “Fifth year and above. You will not be ready to use them for some time yet.”

Challenge accepted.

While Snape was seemingly refusing my obvious interest in curses, he was also giving me a clue as to who my attacker was. Essentially he was saying that it had to be a fifth year or above, possibly a gifted fourth year, or a professor.

While it was possible that the people who had killed my body had found out that I was here, I suspected that they'd have used something much more lethal. I would have expected that a professor would have been more lethal too; I couldn't see any reason for a professor to focus on me as a subject for attack.

Most likely it was an upper year Slytherin, and most likely a boy. The girls would have access to my room; if they'd wanted to trap something they could simply slip whatever they had used into my covers.

The boys, however were more limited... unless this was a statement, an attempt to show all the muggleborn what happens to mudbloods who thought too much of themselves.

Still, it was a risky play. It ran the risk of getting the professors involved, and while some of them might be sympathetic to the pureblood cause, the Headmaster certainly was not. The smarter thing to do would be to wait until I was alone and ambush me in a deserted hallway where no one could hear my screams.

Most children my age would be easily intimidated into keeping quiet, although surely not all. It had been one reason that I hadn't wanted an owl; owls could be easily killed or held for ransom.

Also, they ate bugs.

“Miss Hebert,” Snape said. “I will be escorting you to the Headmaster's office.”

I sighed and grabbed a chicken leg. I'd barely even gotten to eat.

“Pansy's going to be all right,” I asked. “She's not going to explode?”

“I did not see any curses that would immediately endanger her life,” He said. “I will, of course check on her once I have seen you safely to the Headmaster's office.”

I nodded.

“While there are lethal curses that can be transmitted by objects, they are forbidden at Hogwarts,” he said. He glanced at me, as though I was planning to immediately begin using them on the entire population of Slytherin.

As if...I was probably going to have to wait until at least next year before I got strong enough.

“And so they'd get in trouble if they'd used them?” I asked. “Not that it would bother me, since I'd be dead.”

“Perhaps you should endeavor to stand out less.”

“I'm like a mongoose in a nest of snakes,” I said. “I'll never fit in, and I'm going to have to keep moving if I just want to survive.”

Chapter Text

“Miss Hebert... where would you find a bezoar?” Snape asked.

“One of these?” I asked, pulling it out and holding it up. “In my pocket. If you are asking where they come from, it's the stomach of a goat.”

I'd been given one by Dumbledore, supposedly because they warded off poisons. Asking me this question was most likely intended to tell my classmates that I was warded against poisons, which might make them less likely to try.

It might also simply make them try poisons that bezoars couldn't handle. Still, sending them a message that I was ready for whatever they brought might be worth the danger.

“And what is it used for?”

“Poisons,” I said. “And keeping you alive.”

Snape stared at me for a second. He glanced around the room at my classmates, who were all watching the both of us intently. The Ravenclaws and Slytherins were all very interested in what had happened.

“What's the difference between Monkshood and Wolfsbane?”

“They're the same plant, and they are almost as poisonous to the rest of us as they are to werewolves.”

“And what would you use it for?” Snape asked.

“Some sort of stimulant potion,” I said. “And the Wolfsbane potion.”

“It is called the Wideye potion, Miss Hebert,” He said. He turned to the rest of the class and nodded as he saw that everyone was taking notes.

“I am glad to see that not every student at this school is as foolish as a Gryffindor,” he said. “However, you will find that my expectations are correspondingly higher in this class.”

The entire class stared at him, with no one saying a word. He had a certain elegance of speech that made him mesmerizing when he wanted to be, and this particular group of kids were eating it up.

“Today we will be working on a boil curing potion. Recent events will make it clear why this is a necessary first step.”

He turned and began writing the ingredients on the board.

I raised my hand.

“Yes Miss Hebert.”

“Are there any steps that we need to watch out for so that the potion won't explode on us?”

Hermione had said that Neville had been forced to go to the infirmary with boils, which seemed... interesting. Presumably he'd made some sort of elementary mistake that had changed the entire nature of the potion, from one that cured boils, to one that caused them.

That might mean that every potion was like that. It might not, but it was an intriguing avenue to explore.

“Do not put the nettles in until after you take it off from the fire,” he said. “Or you will regret it. A fool of a Gryffindor made that mistake yesterday.”

I'd heard vague rumors that Neville had been injured in class.

I made a quick note. I looked up and saw him looking at me suspiciously. Did he think I was planning to make boil making potion? Possibly as a way to get back at the people who had attacked me?

Boils wouldn't be enough. Attacking in kind wasn't enough to be a deterrent. Although... dropping several boil making potions in their bath might be doable.

How diluted would that potion have to be before it didn't cause boils any more? I wrote this down in the margins of my notes. It might be something I would have to experiment with, not in my own bathtub, of course. I'd also have to find out about how to clean the solutions effectively.

Snape was watching me again.

He set us to measuring out nettles and crushing snake fangs.

As he came around to me and Hermione, I asked, “Is there any residual poison in these fangs?”

“There is only one species of venomous snakes in the British Isles,” Snape said. “And we do not use their fangs for first year potions. Undoubtedly, half the class would nick themselves and end up in the infirmary. Crush the fangs more finely; you wish it to be the consistency of granulated sugar... something you should be familiar with as an American.”

“At least we don't boil everything,” I muttered under my breath.

He pretended not to hear me, and Hermione stared at me with wide eyes. I had a suspicion that she would consider talking back to a professor tantamount to throwing dynamite into the middle of class.

I was being unfair, of course. The food at Hogwarts was actually quite good, although I still couldn't understand how the students weren't all the size of actual whales. There wasn't any sort of physical education requirement, and every meal was a feast.

The students around me ate heartily too. It wasn't that they had some sort of supernatural restraint. Did magic require calories? Who would I ask?

Of maybe Hogwarts food was magicked to be non-fattening.

It seemed to work, whatever they were doing.

Snape seemed to have criticisms for everyone except Draco Malfoy, who seemed to preen. He looked at me triumphantly as his potion turned perfectly clear. My potion with Hermione was the second best out of the bunch, but it was still a little cloudy.

I suspected that there were some steps in the process that hadn't been adequately explained, and I could see that Hermione was frustrated, especially by the looks Draco was giving her. She was going to insist on getting every potion right.

I, on the other hand would be interested in getting them wrong. Unconventional potions, created through mistakes in the process would be devastating. This potion alone would be interesting, and it took almost no time to make.

The most difficult thing would be testing out the resulting potions. I might have been better off having class with the Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs if they were as stupid as Snape seemed to think; they'd probably have a lot of creative mistakes.

Of course, Snape seemed as prejudiced against the Gryffindors as the rest of the school was against the Slytherins.

I already knew who'd sent the letter. Bugs had senses of smell that were fairly acute; they used it to track down food. Different insects had different senses of smell, but bubotuber pus had a distinctive smell that all of them could identify.

Although the culprit had been careful not to touch any with his bare hands, he'd been around it enough that the scent had lingered on his robes. That was something my bugs could smell, although it wasn't something that I could take to Dumbledore.

I'd doubled my number of bugs I could control again; I could now control somewhere around two hundred and fifty. That would be enough to carry potion vials, although I wasn't sure that I wanted to risk revealing them to the world for something like this.

On the other hand, I might be able to get away with it if I was clever. Working on a distribution system might not be that difficult. I'd have to make sure that I was somewhere in public when it happened; if the people attacking me thought that I had co-conspirators, it would drive them crazy looking for them. They might tear themselves apart trying, which would keep them from focusing on me.

Was it worth the risk of my being discovered?

I suspected that Wizards probably had easy ways to deal with bugs if they knew about them. Once they knew that bugs were a large part of my arsenal, they'd get rid of them, probably using some kind of charm or shield I'd never heard about.

Still, hitting people with a sock full of galleons wasn't going to be enough to drive the people who wanted to hurt me off for long. I needed to send a message and I had to do it in a way that even the slowest of the Slytherins could understand.

Finally, I decided.

I needed the kind of uncertainty that this was going to create. I needed people to assume that I had someone protecting me, so that they'd spend more time trying to figure out who that was than attacking me.

“We should go talk to Neville,” I said to Hermione.

 

Her eyes lit up. “He's probably still in the hospital wing.”

I nodded. It was the right thing to do; it was the human thing to do. Also, I needed a better explanation of what had happened during his accident.

We went straight to the infirmary, where Neville was lying in bed. His face was still covered in boils, although they already were looking better than Pansy's hands had looked.

He looked up at us, and he smiled. “Hey.”

Neville grimaced as the skin of his cheek pulled tight. Hermione patted his unblemished hand.

Parts of him were covered in boils, and other parts were clear. I tried to imagine what sort of splatter pattern had done this; how far did it extend, and how far I needed to be when I replicated his mistake.

He thanked me for saving him from a broken arm; I waved it off. 

“What happened?” I asked.

“Professor Snape...” Neville said. “He's so scary. I guess I wasn't paying attention.”

“The potion exploded?” I asked.

“It melted my Cauldron,” Neville said. “Boiled out over everything. Professor Snape says I'm going to have to pay for a new one.”

“I'm sorry that happened to you,” I said. “Maybe Hermione can help tutor you in potions.”

Hermione glanced at me quickly, but Neville grabbed her hand. “Would you?”

“I'm sure both of us would be happy to,” Hermione said quickly, glaring at me.

At her angry look, I shrugged. Tutoring Neville would have kept her busy and out of my hair. Helping to tutor him might not be a bad idea. While it was possible that he was simply unlucky this first day, he seemed like the kind of person who might be clumsy in a class like potions, where small mistakes could cause big disasters.

Helping tutor him might actually give me special insights into exactly what mistakes he was making, and if there were useful ones, I'd be able to turn those to my advantage in ways that people might not expect.

The fact that his variation on the potion destroyed cauldrons was unfortunate. It meant that I needed to get multiple cauldrons, and I'd need to be careful about cleaning up as well.

I could steal some of the school's cauldrons, but I'd have to replace them eventually. It was possible that Wizards had magical versions of muggle forensics, so I'd have to be particularly careful. I'd use my spare wand for everything too. If it needed to be attuned anyway, I probably needed to practice with it.

We sat and talked with Neville until lunch. I did not receive any mail.

 

For the next two days, I went about my normal routine. I used my bugs to find out where the school cauldrons were, and I slipped in when no one was looking, and I clumsily picked the locks guarding them. Why anyone bothered I wasn't sure; there were magical ways to open locks available to anyone who wasn't me.

Stealing several cauldrons wasn't hard; levitating them through the hallways to an unused bathroom was considerably harder task given that the walls were covered in paintings. I had to give up a night's worth of sleep to pull that one off, which left me unreasonably cranky the next morning.

Apparently paintings slept when no one was around; whether that was an energy conservation method, or they simply slept because they thought they should, it didn't matter. What mattered was that I was able to levitate several pots within pots to the unused bathroom and hide them in the stalls.

I managed to brew the potions that very night, and if I hadn't been using bugs and levitation spells for the last part of it, I would have been in serious trouble. The explosion the first one made covered half the bathroom. It was a wonder that more of the students hadn't been injured.

In the end I managed to make six vials of my boil causing potion, and I spent the rest of the night trying to clean the bathroom. While it was unused in the middle of the night, getting rid of the smell and the burn marks on the floor was a lot harder than I'd thought it would be.

The cauldrons melted, and I managed to levitate them into buckets. Pouring them down a toilet proved to be a poor idea, and when I was done, the toilet was no longer working. However, I was able to keep the cause of the problem from being apparent.

I barely made it back in time not to get caught, and the entirety of the next day I was so exhausted that I could barely keep my eyes open. Having a teenager's body and stamina would have been much more convenient.

When I'd been a super hero, and then a super villain, I'd pulled all sorts of all-nighters. Now I found my self going to bed early, ignoring the whispers of my roommates.

Because I'd gone to bed so early, I was able to wake up early as well.

The boy who'd sent the pus had been one of the boys egging my attackers the first night. Geoffrey Avery was a pureblood, and he hadn't said anything about what he was going to do to any of his friends, at least not when I was close enough to listen.

It was simplicity itself for me to coat the insides of his bathtub with the potion. Experimentation with a less than friendly rat had showed that Neville's concoction was dangerous even when dry, and that if reconstituted it took time to work, but eventually would.

I went back to bed, and decided to sleep in. I was awakened to the sounds of screams.

Jerking awake, I saw that Millicent and Tracey were already up. They were staring at each other, wide eyes, and grabbing robes, they ran downstairs.

I took a little longer to get dressed. By the time I was done, Snape was already levitating a boy covered in a sheet down the boys stairs.

His hand and arm slipped out from under the sheet, and I saw that it was so covered in boils that it looked almost unrecognizable. Apparently six doses had been much too strong, even when dilute through an entire bathtub of water. Using three might have been enough, but I'd wanted to avoid underkill.

Snape looked at all of us.

“This stops now,” he said. He sounded genuinely angry. “I am taking Mr. Avery to the infirmary, and when I am done, I expect the entire House to be in the common room.”

With that, he was gone.

I saw several people openly staring at me, and I carefully kept my face neutral. Now that I thought about it, using an untested potion on a human being hadn't been the smartest thing I could have done. Why had I done it?

Was there something wrong with my brain? I hadn't been this impulsive since the last time I was eleven.

I fought to keep myself from scowling.

How could I make plans if I couldn't trust my own decision making? If my own brain was working against me, I wasn't sure what I could do.

Snape was back less than thirty minutes later.

“I thought we were done with this after last year,” he said. “Fighting with the Gryffindors was bad enough. Fighting among ourselves?”

He shook his head.

“The other houses think that we are the villains, that every Dark Lord comes from among our ranks, and that because of that we cannot be trusted.”

“Mr. Avery almost died tonight,” he said. “He has boils inside his mouth and down his throat that crippled his ability to breathe, and it was only through my quick intervention that he survived at all.”

Snape stared at me, but I kept my eyes straight ahead, my face expressionless. I kept my mind blank too, just in case.

“I would like to hear where everyone was when this all happened,” he said.

The next thirty minutes was composed of questioning. Snape kept looking at me, and I kept my mind as blank as possible.

Finally he shook his head.

 

“Should Mr. Avery die, the aurors will become involved. At that point, my ability to intervene will be null and void.”

The room was quiet. I saw some of the others looking at me, and it was clear that some of them wanted to throw out an accusation, but no one said anything.

“And Miss Hebert?” Snape said.

“Yes?”

“Detention,” he said.

“What? Why?” I asked. My acting must not have been very good, because I heard a muttering coming up from the crowd.

“We will discuss that during your detention, which will begin on Monday.”

I sighed and nodded.

In a way, he'd as much as outed me to the entire class, but given the way that Slytherins worked, it would only help my reputation. Maybe he wanted to quiz me on who my ally was, or maybe he didn't believe I had done it at all and simply wanted to throw whoever he thought the true culprit was off the scent.

I considered going back to bed for my first Saturday off, but my stomach told me that it was time to eat. For some reason, this iteration of me was much more concerned with food. If I wasn't careful I would get fat, especially because I hadn't worked out a way to keep running without becoming too visible.

The last thing I needed was for my enemies to be able to predict where I was going to be at any given time. Even my bugs couldn't watch everywhere, and I'd die just as quickly from a rock pushed off from one of the towers as anybody else.

Breakfast was my first priority, and then I was going to have to try more magic.

Chapter Text

“Professor Snape?” I asked.

Detention at Winslow had involved a bored teacher sitting at the front of the classroom while the students did their homework and tried to ignore the spitballs hitting the backs of their heads. I'd had detention on multiple occasions because of some scheme of Emma's.

This was the first time that I was going to a detention that I actually deserved, and I wasn't sure how it was supposed to go.

I'd spent the entire weekend poring over library books in my room, and practicing spells over and over again. My roommates had studiously avoided the room until bedtime, and then they'd been careful not to speak to me.

“Miss Hebert,” Snape said from behind me.

I'd known he was there, of course, but I wouldn't have had I been limited to human senses. He was very good at lurking and blending into the shadows.

“Close the door,” he said.

I did so, carefully, and then I turned to meet his eyes.

“What you did was inexcusable,” he said. “Mr. Avery almost died, and his parents are withdrawing him from school and making a complaint to the aurors. He is in St. Mungos now.”

I had no idea what St. Mungos was, and I didn't feel like asking.

“So why haven't they come for me?”

“There is evidence that he was the one who sent the infected letter to you,” Snape said. “And the Aurors have decided, with the Headmaster's prompting that he was attempting to brew a boil creating formula in his bathtub, one of monstrous proportions, and that he fell in.”

“They fell for that?” I asked incredulously.

“You will find that there are competing groups in the Wizarding worlds. Some strongly dislike the muggles. The other... does not particularly care for them either, but dislike the first group even more. Mr. Avery's family has been involved in some unsavory practices in the past, and this is the Aurors first chance to concoct an excuse to go after them.”

“On trumped up charges...” I said flatly.

The more I heard about Wizarding society, the less I liked it. It was possible that there were wonderful things about it, but the victim rarely appreciated the culture of the oppressor.

“Of which you are the beneficiary,” Snape said. “However, I doubt that something similar will happen again. Even the Headmaster's patience has its limits.”

“I... don't know what you are talking about,” I said. “Avery had enemies.”

“That is true,” Snape said. “Enemies that he has made peace with, or ones outside the house who would not be able to get to him in his own bathroom.”

“So you're saying that I'm a good enough potionmaker after what... one lesson to create a potion that you haven't taught us and that isn't in the book?”

I knew that much because I'd checked.

“It was a question that I asked myself as well,” Snape said. “But I did some tests on the bathwater. It was suffused with a very strong version of the very first potion that I teach first years.”

“The potion that's designed to repair boils,” I said.

“The potion that I specifically told you how to turn into something dangerous,” he said. “As exemplified by your friend, Mr. Longbottom.”

“It seems like a lot of circumstantial evidence,” I said. “Nothing that would hold up in court.”

“You haven't been in Wizard courts, Miss Hebert,” Snape said. “The standards of evidence are... considerably looser than in the Muggle world.”

“And they aren't asking to have me sent to Azkaban?” I asked.

“No,” Snape said. “They have declined to press charges... undoubtedly because they intend to kill you the moment that you step off the train at the end of the term.”

“I guess I'd better stay over for the holidays,” I said.

“This is not a laughing matter,” he said. “The Averys are adult wizards, not schoolboys, and they fully intend to kill you.”

“I already have death eaters wanting me dead,” I said. “Why is this any different?”

He stared at me.

“The only way I will survive is to be strong enough that no one will dare to come after me,” I said.

“No one is that powerful except the Dark Lord himself,” Snape said. “And the Headmaster. More importantly, neither of them is alone. They have allies. Were they alone, inevitably someone would try to kill them, and even Wizards have to sleep.”

“And I don't have any allies. Where would I find them?” I asked. “Upper years either despise me for being too confident, or ignore me as unimportant. First years don't have the power to be good allies.”

“That will not always be the case,” Snape said. “The allies you make now may be with you for your entire life.”

“You think I can afford to make long term investments?” I asked.

I realized now how preachy I must have sounded out on the lawn during flight class. I'd hoped that I wouldn't sound like some kind of clueless mom because they thought I was one of them, but listening to Snape now, I found myself feeling impatient, even though part of me knew that he was right.

“Can you afford not to?” Snape said.

I frowned.

Having someone other than a few bugs to watch my back would be nice, but I'd never been all that good at making friends. Emma had been my only close friend in my childhood, and once she betrayed me, I hadn't had any other friends until I'd been with the Undersiders.

As a hero, I'd had work associates. I had never been as close to any of them as I had been to a group of teenage supervillains. The thought that I would never see anyone that I cared about again created an ache in my...

Better not to think about it. Focus on the task at hand, and let the rest of it fall as it might.

“We will go over the potion that you made,” Snape said. “Including dosages, and why what you did was irresponsible and dangerous. I will explain at length just how dangerous what you did was, and then you will spend whatever time is left cleaning the pot.”

“So you'll help me understand what a safe dosage is?” I asked him. “Not that I'm admitting to anything, mind you. But I'd have thought that being diluted by that much bathwater would have made it almost harmless.”

“And how much did you put in the bathwater to compensate for that?” Snape asked.

“Well, if I'd done it, I might have put six batches in,” I said. “That's not that much, right, given how much bathwater there was.”

Snape put his hand to his eyes. “Each batch of boil remover consists of six doses,” Snape said. “Made in larger lots to conserve effort and energy.”

So instead of six doses, I'd dropped thirty six doses in.

“He inhaled the fumes,” Snape said. “Which at lower doses would be relatively harmless. At that dose it formed boils inside his lungs. He was apported to St. Mungos, and it is likely that it will be several months before he is returned to normal, even with Wizard healing.”

“I thought Wizards could grow back bones,” I said.

“They can't grow back lungs!” Snape said irritably. “I'm tempted to turn you over to the authorities myself, and hang what the Headmaster wants.”

“Why did he go to bat for me?” I asked.

“He believes that you can reform my wayward house,” Snape says. He chuckled darkly. “He believes that everyone can be reformed... even you, Miss Hebert.”

“And you?” I prodded.

He shook his head. “I know better. There are people in this world who will never be reformed.”

I wondered if he felt that he was himself a member of that group. He'd been a Death Eater, after all, and in some ways he still was. He was like any undercover cop; he had to sit by and watch as all sorts of crimes happened. If he tried to stop them, he'd be killed, and whatever good his role was doing would be undone entirely.

“I'll watch out,” I said. I looked up. “I don't suppose that the Headmaster has decided where to put me over the summer?”

“You've made the task considerably harder with this stunt,” Snape said. “There were several prospects, but none of them want a blood feud with the Averys.”

“So he isn't dropping me in a muggle orphanage?”

“You'd be dead in two days,” Snape said. “He is continuing to look. As you will be staying over for the holidays, there is no great hurry, is there?”

I shook my head. Given the way I understood the Trace worked, the more time I spent in areas where there were large numbers of Wizards, the better.

“So now we will go over what you did, step by step,” Snape said. “And I will explain to you exactly what you did.”

Doubtlessly he intended to be pedantic and if I'd been an ordinary eleven year old, being forced to listen to an extra lecture would have bored me to tears. But I'd heard the other Slytherins describing Snape as a potions master. If they'd done it in front of his face, I'd assume that they were exaggerating to get on his good side, but as he had been nowhere nearby, I had to assume that they'd been sincere.

But learning the theory behind dosing was something that I absolutely needed to know, and I suspected that he could be a good teacher if he was actually motivated.

As it turned out, he could. I didn't even mind having to clean out cauldrons.

This was my first Monday at Hogwarts classes; the previous Monday had been spent arriving by train.

Learning Wizarding combat was something I was very interested in learning. Unfortunately, right now the only combat spells I had were the cutting spell and possibly the levitation spell, and I could dodge with the best of them. However, I hadn't seen how fast Wizard spells traveled, which was going to make it hard to just how fast I needed to be.

After detention, I found Hermione waiting for me. We were supposed to go to the library together and study with Neville as we'd promised. I had some thoughts about asking the both of them to ask other members of their houses to join our study group. If I couldn't make friends in my own house, I'd have to reach out to others.

“Hello,” I heard from behind me. I'd seen them walking up, of course. “Who is this I see, brother? The impossible girl?”

“What?”

Two redheads were staring at me and Hermione.

“A muggleborn snake,” the second twin said. “It's like seeing a intelligent member of the Ministry.”

“Isn't your father a member of the Ministry?” Hermione asked waspishly.

She had aspirations to eventually be Minister for Magic. I didn't have the heart to tell her that the cards were stacked against her. The government seemed to be very much an old boy's network. Of course, I was mostly listening in to Slytherin conversations, and so my point of view might be biased.

I could reach bugs in any part of the castle, but I didn't dare take my attention off my immediate surroundings in case of more attacks. I did keep an absent ear on the conversations of the people closest to me at all times, and I'd even managed to pay attention to two conversations at once, although that too made my head ache.

“That is a point,” the first twin said. “And we never said that the fruit falls far from the tree.”

“After all,” the second twin said. “We're talking to the crazy muggle girl who has already put four fifth year boys in the hospital.”

“Allegedly,” I said.

“So you didn't?” they asked.

I shrugged. “I might have. I've never done anything to anyone who didn't deserve it, at this school at least.”

“So careful with her words,” the first boy said. “Like a true Slytherin. Are you planning to become a used broom salesperson when you grow up?”

“No,” I said.

I'd been watching them closely over the past few days. I didn't like some of the pranks they were doing, but it didn't seem that they were focusing on any one group, other than the Slytherins. Against most people, their pranks seemed to be harmless jokes. Against Slytherins, they seemed to be harsher, but as most of the people they targeted in Slytherin seemed to be the people who didn't like me the most, I was tempted to give them a pass on that.

“You know that Slytherin is... unhappy with me,” I said. “Not anything I've done, in particular, except maybe the beating and the boils, but just because of who I am.”

They nodded sagely.

 

“Part of the reason that I have to be lethal is because as a firstie, I only know a few spells, mostly the cutting spell. If anybody tries to attack me, I'm going to have to cut them, and maybe hurt them badly. If I only knew some less lethal spells, then life might be easier for everybody.”

“Is the little firstie asking us for a favor?” one twin asked.

“Asking us to tutor her in combat spells? The kind that would help her continue to do horrible horrible things to the Slytherins?”

“That should be part of the appeal, I would imagine,” I said. “Every time I beat a Slytherin, it hurts the rest of them right in the soul. It makes a mockery of everything they believe in.”

“We're very good at mockery,” the first twin said.

“But doing it for free seems a bit much,” the second twin said.

“What would it take for you to agree?” I asked. “I've got a bit of money.”

“Help,” the first twin said. “You've got to be a clever little firstie to have done what you've done. Help us with some of our more difficult stunts, and we would be happy to help you along your path to becoming Dark Lady.”

“She's not a Dark Lady!” Hermione said gallantly.

“Not yet,” the second twin said. “But she's already got friends in Griffindor and Ravenclaw. If she makes some in Slytherin, that means we're all doomed.”

“Doooomed.” the first twin said. He grinned at us.

I could tell that neither twin believed what they were saying. They reminded me a little of Uber and Leet, without being nerds. They had an interest they were focused on, and there was a sort of monomania involved, where they had trouble thinking about anything else.

“I've heard you boys sell joke supplies,” I said. “I'd be interested in seeing what you had... and I've got some money.”

“Blood money, that,” the second twin said. “But we can clean it off.”

“Make a list of what you've got and prices, and I'll let you know what I'm planning to buy,” I said. “With luck, I might be one of your best customers.”

“I suppose you want a list of our more...lethal jokes,” the first twin said.

“If you can think of a way to turn it into a weapon, it might make me more inclined to buy it,” I admitted. “I'm in the snake's den, and I could use any advantage I can get.”

The two looked at each other, frowning. “The professors are keeping a closer eye on us after last year, but with your help we might be able to carry out epic pranks.”

“I reserve the right to refuse to help on anything that is too mean,” I said. “I don't like bullies. But fun things, sure, I'm willing to help.”

“You aren't planning to hurt anyone, are you?” Hermione asked. “Or do anything that's going to get someone expelled.”

“We blew up an entire corridor last year, and we're still here,” both twins said at once.

Hermione frowned and seemed to hesitate. Finally it looked like she came to a decision. She took a deep breathe.

“I want in too,” Hermione said, with a quick look at me. “I can help, but I want the extra tutoring.”

“So we'd have access to three of the four houses,” the first twin said musingly. “This almost seems like a dream come true.”

“Almost too good to be true,” the second twin said. “If it was any other Slytherin we wouldn't be listening to this at all.”

“Taylor is loyal,” Hermione said stubbornly. “And she does what she says she's going to do.”

“That's true,” I said mildly. “Which includes when I make threats. I don't want any pranks directed at me, unless it's required to pull off a prank against the entire house, or the entire school,” I said.

“The entire school?” the first twin asked.

“Firstie has ambitions,” the second twin said. “What sort of prank would the firstie have us play on the entire school?”

“Oh, put something in everybody's shampoo to make their hair turn the color of their opposing house,” I said. “Everybody... and if you could have it be delayed a few hours that would be even better... it would keep late bathers from getting caught up in it.”

“Ambitious,” the first twin said. “But not impossible. But what about Hufflepuff?”

“Suborn a house elf,” I said. “They clean everything anyway. Convince one of them to do it, and you'd never have to be even remotely close to them.”

“It'd take some potions work,” the first twin said, looking at the other. “And we'd have to save it for something big, like the holidays. But it could be done.”

“So what do you think?” I asked.

“I think we can work together,” the boys said in unison.

They held out their hands, and I shook them.

I was one step closer.

Chapter Text

“Ready to give up, firstie?” George asked.

I grimaced, sweat running down my face. Not running was turning out to be worse than I'd thought.

Dodging spells wasn't that hard; I was quick, small and agile, and I had years of experience with my bugs help. What was hard was keeping it up; my endurance was terrible.

Worse, I was training without my bugs. I wasn't going to be able to depend on always having them, and training without them was the only way I was going to get better.

I'd finally learned to separate the two based on a difference in the freckles on their faces. To allow them their fun, I pretended that I neither knew nor cared about the difference.

“Expelliarmus,” I called out, but George pivoted, and managed to avoid the spell.

Aiming without my bugs was a lot harder too, especially since spells actually were slow enough to dodge. People often weren't where they were when I'd aimed the spell, which meant that I had to anticipate where they were supposed to be.

So far, the boys had taught me and Hermione three spells... Expelliarmus, Flipendo, and Petrifucus Totalis. In return, we'd already done some minor services for them; dropping small parcels in places, giving them some information about where people would be and the like.

Neville had joined us, and he was the one Hermione and I praced on the most. Hermione had learned the cushioning charm and had taught it to me, and so we were in an abandoned classroom with all the chairs stacked against the wall.

We'd been careful that people not know what we were doing; half our value to the Weasleys was that people didn't know about our connection.

“I never knew it would be so much fun to abuse a firstie,” George taunted.

I found myself flying through the air, hitting the pillows on the wall behind me. I grimaced as I fell to the pads on the floor. The boys had managed to transfigue some after I'd described what they were. What they'd come up with was something more like mattresses than athletic pads.

Moving on that kind of unstable surface was hard, but I preferred that to being injured over and over again. The unpleasantness of flying through the air was exactly the kind of thing that helped us get better.

Hermione insisted on staying just as long as I had, and to my surprise so had Neville, even though he was having a lot more trouble than I was physically. While I was slim and lithe, he was stocky and had more weight, which made him slower.

While that made him a perfect target for us to practice on, it meant that as often as not he was gasping for air by the end of the session and looking like he was going to have a heart attack.

The one thing that the twins seemed clear on was that it was better to know a few spells very well, instead of a large number of spells poorly. They'd apparently been involved in some sort of running battle with Slytherin the year before, and it had escalated, giving them more experience than they would have liked.

I'd managed another week without being attacked, even though it was just a matter of time. People were stupid, and the initial horror of what had happened to the Avery kid would fade, and the anger would still remain. People would start to rationalize and to assume that it was a one time thing, and sooner or later someone was going to try something.

Without looking weak, I'd tried to explain my position to the Weasley twins; that I did have a sense of humor, but that I couldn't be seen as weak.

They'd seemed to understand. There had already been several low level skirmishes between them and the Slytherins already this year, and I suspected that they were supporting me more as a slap in the face to the Slytherins as to actually help me.

The one thing they were doing that was really helpful was that they were giving me an idea of what fighting was like, at least at school. I had no doubt that Aurors and Death Eaters fought on an entirely different level, but I wasn't facing anyone like that.

I was dealing with school boys, although some of the upper years were getting closer to being actual Death Eaters themselves.

If I'd been Voldemort, I'd have already had some of the boys in my organization already. However, I suppose that the Dark Mark, whatever that was would be hard to hide in a place with people living as closely together as a boarding school.

I'd have created a sort of outer level, a bottom lair of members who didn't receive the mark if that was the problem. Having agents in the school itself would be helpful if I was keeping an eye on the Potter kid.

I'd heard some of the elder Slytherins speculating about the Dark Lord's interest in him. Apparently he was protected somehow during the summer, and so attacking him at school seemed to be likely.

An assassination attempt at the train station would be what I did; depending on the kind of protection he had, I'd have people attack him there or on the way home. If that didn't work, I'd station people outside his house, and then wait for him to come out. It was possible that his protection was only around his house, like the protections that I'd heard a lot of Wizarding houses had. In that case, the first time he went to a restaurant or a walk around the block, he was dead.

Wizards, it seemed tended not to go for group tactics. Battles, at least according to the Weasleys tended to be one on one duels, with larger skirmishes being rare and not involving much in the way of tactics. It was possible that they were wrong; but I hadn't managed to find anything in the library that contradicted them.

There were things I could do to take advantage of that; I could teach Wizards the advantage of attacking each other en masse, of taking cover, of tactics. But if I did, it wouldn't take the other side long to pick up on how useful those tactics were, and once they did, I'd have started an arms race that might not stop until their entire culture was in flames.

Most Wizards were relatively lazy, from what I'd heard from Neville and the Twins. They did the minimum to get by, and the powers they had ensured that they didn't have to do much. Most Wizards didn't have to pay rent, or get insurance, or even maintain a car.

They had to pay for some food, but most of their other expenses could be covered with magic. Like most people in the muggle world, they tended to specialize; one wizard might be good at making a certain thing, but no so good at another. He would trade with someone who had the opposite skills, or they'd both go through a broker.

No Wizard was good at everything, which was why the economy worked at all. There still had to be people to write the books and raise the food and animals and sell things in shops. If Wizards had been able to simply conjure everything they needed, there wouldn't have been much of a need for them to interact with each other at all.

Despite this, they were much less interdependent than muggles, and most of them didn't really have to work much.

From what I could see, they weren't required a lot of the education that Muggles received either. They didn't study government, or history. I had a vague idea that Arithmancy was something like mathematics, but otherwise I couldn't see any muggle subjects that were being taught.

That meant that most Wizards had the equivalent of a sixth grade education. What did that do to their critical thinking abilities? Did it make them more credulous and more easily led?

Was that why the education system was set up the way it was, to make ruling over the average Wizard that much easier?

It wouldn't surprise me to find that the people in power made sure that their children had private tutors and received a better education at home.

Limiting their education would also limit opportunities for muggleborns to simply slip back into the muggle world should they find the prejudice too great. Job opportunities without a high school diploma, or whatever the British equivalent was would be just as limited in the muggle world, and I had a nasty suspicion that was the point.

Still, before I stared suggesting ways to improve Wizard tactics, I'd best master theirs. It was possible that there were limitations on Wizardly warfare that weren't readily apparent.

Despite the cushioning charms, my body was covered in sweat, and I was aching. Hermione and Neville didn't look much better.

“As much fun as this is,” George said. “We've got to get back to working on our great Halloween project.”

I took a deep breath and rose to my feet.

I grabbed a towel and wiped my face. “I appreciate that you guys are actually following through with this.”

“We're getting better too,” George admitted. “There's some real twats over in Slytherin, and we've already had some run ins with them this year, even if the professors are keeping an eye on us.”

I'd already seen some low level skirmishes in the halls between the different houses. Slytherin and Gryffindor seemed to have the biggest rivalry, although no one seemed to be immune. The Hufflepuffs at least seemed to stick together, which was something that I needed to push for whoever I was going to be working with.

“Are you ready?” I asked Hermione. She was wincing as she rose to her feet from where she was working with Fred.

She'd questioned why we were starting so violently, but I'd explained to her that it was the very unpleasantness of the experience that made you learn faster. Without something at stake, even if it was just a little pain, no one would ever be motivated to learn to do better.... and that would be deadly when stronger spells came into play.

Hermione nodded, wiping sweat from her brow. “I think I'm getting better,” she said.

She was, and faster than I was. I'd started with an advantage from my years of fighting, but she was moving forward with a sort of focused intensity that was surprising. I would have been proud to have had a recruit as motivated back on my old Protectorate team.

“I'm going to need a bath,” I said.

I always checked my bathtub with insects these days; no need to have someone turn my own trick against me.

Hermione and I separated. Her house was in one of the towers, and mine was in the dungeons. As I made my way down the stairs, I stiffened as I heard a whispered conversation through my bugs.

“Are you a snake or a pig?” I heard a mocking voice say.

Millicent was alone, and two large Gryffindor boys were standing over her. She was staring at the floor.

“Do you think she even knows?” the second boy asked the first. “Must be confusing, trying to decide whether to crawl on your belly or stick your face in a trough.”

“I can see which one she's been choosing,” the first boy chortled.

I heard Mildred sniffle, although she was doing her utmost to pretend that nothing they were saying bothered her. I'd heard her and Tracey talking at night, when they thought I was asleep, and her own family had been making comments to her like this for her entire life.

“Is the little baby going to go cry to mama?” the second boy asked. “Because I doubt that the other snakes are going to care. You're part muggle.”

“Part muggle, part snake and part pig... what does that make her?”

“Stupid,” the second boy said. “Just look at her face. She shouldn't even be here.”

I hesitated.

I'd been working on getting the goodwill of the other houses; the last thing I needed was for Gryffindor to turn against me, especially as I valued the alliance with the Weasley twins. Getting involved in this would threaten everything I had been trying to put together, and it wasn't like Tracey or Millicent had ever done anything for me.

No one had seen me, and it would be easy for me to turn and walk the other way. No one would ever know, and no one would look down on me for something they didn't know I'd tried.

Millicent tried to push her way past them, and one of them shoved her back.

I closed my eyes.

How many times had I gone over my own bullying in my mind? It had lasted years, and while the locker had been traumatic, with bugs crawling all over me, and being trapped in a small, dark space, that hadn't been the worst part.

The part that had broken me was that there were dozens of onlookers, people who knew what was happening, and none of them had helped.

They'd cared so little about me, that it wouldn't have mattered if I'd died.

Objectively I'd known that most of them had probably been too scared to do anything; afraid that they'd end up a target of Emma and Sophia. Still, none of them had so much as put a quiet word in a teacher's ear.

Could I really turn myself into a member of that crowd? Could I make myself into exactly what I had hated?

No.

Sighing, I reached into my pocket for some darkness powder, then I hesitated. I needed to send a message, and attacking from behind would make me seem like just another crazy girl.

I could see some first year Hufflepuffs watching from behind the other corner as well. I had no doubt that they would quickly report whatever they saw to their friends.

Stepping around the corner, I said “Leave her alone.”

Both of them turned and stared at me.

“Well, if it isn't little Miss Crazy,” the first boy said. He didn't seem particularly worried.

“Facing us in the light,” the second one said. “Not too smart.”

I strode toward them. “Let her go, and I won't hurt you too badly.”

“Making threats,” the second boy said. “Like we're Slytherin cowards.”

“I warned you,” I said.

I spun to the side as a stunner flew where I had just been. I had bugs on the boys, but I missed having a defensive screen of bugs.

“Flipendo!” I shouted, and one boy went flying.

My left arm went numb as the other boys spell clipped me. I ignored it, and I continued walking toward him.

“You think the stories about me are overblown?” I asked. “Exaggerated?”

I lunged forward and grabbed his wand. He held onto it tightly, and with a twist of my wrist, I snapped it. I stuck my wand in his face and I said softly, “Diffendo.”

Hairs fell from his bangs. He grimaced and lunged forward, and I spun out of the way. He tripped and fell, and suddenly Millicent was on his back, pounding his face into the floor.

The other boy was rising to his feet, but I quickly petrified him.

Once I had both boys petrified, I levitated the first one by his clothes, and I moved him toward the head of the stairs.

“I've had some pretty good luck with stairs,” I said to Millicent. “Do you think anyone would know what happened if I dropped him off the side here?”

I could hear muffled groans coming from him. The Hufflepuffs had already left. I wasn't planning to do anything terrible to him, but I needed him to understand.

Floating him out over the side of the staircase, I flipped his body so that he was facing straight down.

“I hope you invested in good quality robes,” I said. “If those rip, it's lights out for you.”

“Or you could start leaving the lower years alone,” I said. “Most of them aren't Death Eaters yet, but it's almost like you want them to be.”

There were muffled cries from the two boys; the other boy was watching what was happening with wide open eyes, even as Millient was punching away at him. She was doing a good job.

I let him drop a little bit, and I could hear a muffled scream.

There was also a little ripping sound. I swung him around so that he was back up on the landing.

“You could try to take revenge on me,” I said. “But I can get to you even in your own room.”

Letting the boy drop to the floor, I leaned forward and whispered, “I even know the password to your common room...it's Mongoose.”

The boy muttered something about Neville.

“Oh, Neville didn't tell me. I know how to get in the Hufflepuff common room and the Ravenclaw too. Nobody is safe, and if you should happen to catch me by surprise... well, I'm not even angry with you now. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry, I don't think. The last person who made me angry was Mr. Avery, and where is he now?”

I stood up and kicked the boy in the face. I might have loosened some teeth and broken his nose, but I didn't do any permanent damage.

“Come on Millie,” I said. “They aren't worth it.”

Although I kept my face neutral, inside I was grimacing. This was going to cause problems with the Gryffindors; hopefully I'd be able to explain it to the Weasley twins in a way they could understand.

The last thing I needed was to have two houses against me.

I stiffened as I felt Millie grab my left arm. She was looking up at me with an expression that seemed strange on her face.

Her eyes were shining.

Chapter Text

“This is totally unacceptable,” McGonagall said.

I was sitting in the Headmaster's office facing Dumbledore, Snape, and McGonagall Millie was beside me, and so were the two bullys. They hadn't taken their eyes off me the entire time.

“I was protecting my roommate,” I said. “What more do you want me to say?”

“These boys deny that they did anything wrong; they say that you simply attacked them out of the blue.”

“And why would I do that?” I asked. “I've been here two weeks and I haven't attacked a single Gryffindor. I actually pushed for better school brooms that would help keep some of them safe.”

“There have been... incidents between the Slytherins and the Gryffindors,” she said.

“And since when have I cared about house politics?”

I found myself getting irritated despite myself. This was feeling a lot like one of my visits to Blackwell's office, where nothing I said made any difference if it didn't fit the party line.

“Even if what you say is true, you should have come for a teacher,” McGonagall said. “Not dangled a student at a height that would have almost certainly killed him, and broken his wand.”

“She kicked me in the face and broke my tooth too,” one of the boys said.

“And what would have happened if I'd gone to a teacher?” I asked. “They'd have lied and said they hadn't done anything; for all I know they'd have been the ones dangling her off the side of the stairs, and then they'd claim that she was lying, because of course Slytherins always lie.”

“You shouldn't have resorted to physical violence,” McGonagall insisted. “We have been making allowances for your... situation, but there have to be limits.”

“Because Gryffindors are always pure and good, and Slytherins are always evil?” I asked.

Considering that two of my judges had been Gryffindors, I doubted that this was a good avenue of attack, but I found myself getting irritated by the injustice of it all.

“Because a student could have died,” she said. “And this isn't the first time.”

There was that. Sooner or later I was going to find a student whose robes weren't up to snuff, and that would be that.

“There's no proof I was involved in that last thing,' I said quickly.

“But plenty of proof that you probably were,” she said. “These boys have accused Mr. Longbottom of giving you the password to the Gryffindor common room. Is that true?”

“He has never said anything about that to me,” I said. “And I haven't used him to get any information of that sort.”

“We shall see,” she said grimly. “You should know that it is an infraction for a student to be found in the common room of another house.”

“More serious than being accused of attempted murder?” I asked, with an eyebrow raised.

Snape was watching both of us quietly. I suspected that he had conflicting feelings about this situation. He genuinely seemed to dislike the Gryffindors; I had no idea why. Maybe it was the result of his having years of them acting out in school and causing explosions, maybe it was something from his own school days.

It didn't matter.

Despite his appearance of indifference, he seemed to empathize with, and want to support his snakes. The fact that I'd done so, even to a half blood like Millie had to push some buttons with him.

However, he'd told me time and time again that my violence was going to get me killed or imprisoned.

The way he was handling this so far was to stay quiet and to simply observe what was happening. Maybe he hoped it was going to resolve itself without his input.

There was a knock at the door.

Snape spoke for the first time. “When I first heard Miss Hebert's story, she mentioned that there might be some witnesses. She described them, and I sent a prefect to summon them.”

The door opened, and Gemma entered with the three Hufflepuffs that I had seen.

“I've brought them,” she said. “Hannah Abbott, Susan Bones, and Wayne Hopkins.”

The three looked tiny and they shrunk back as they saw everyone's eyes on them.

“Miss Abbott,” Snape said. “Please tell us what you saw occur an hour ago between these four students.”

She swallowed and then looked at all of us. “The big ones had backed the Slytherin girl against a wall. They were saying some... pretty mean things to her. They called her a pig and a snake, and said some other stuff. They started to push her, and the other one came around the corner, and warned them off.”

“She didn't attack first?”

“No,” Hannah said. “He did.”

“What happened then?”

“She got hit in the arm with a stunner, and she kept coming. She hit him with a spell sending him flying, and then we decided to go look for a teacher.”

Everyone was quiet for a moment.

McGonagall gave a cold, hard stare at the boys, who had the grace to look guilty.

“Do any of you have anything to add?” Snape asked.

The other two shook their heads.

“You are dismissed,” Snape said.

The Hufflepuffs left, but Gemma remained, standing quietly against the far wall. I wasn't sure why she was here for this; did prefects have something to do with discipline? In that case, shouldn't it be the Head Girl standing there?

Once they had left, McGonagall said, “You did not say that they attacked first.”

“Would it have made a difference?” I asked. “Either you believe me or you don't.”

McGonagall turned to the boys. “Return to your rooms. We will discuss your punishment in the morning.”

They got up to leave, glaring at me as they passed by. I ignored them.

Dumbledore had been silently sucking on a piece of candy. He seemed neither amused nor angry.

“It is possible that Miss Hebert went too far in protecting her classmate,” he said. “But she was the one who was attacked, and she defended herself. Yet threatening his life was unnecessary and dangerous, and isn't behavior we should encourage.”

“They each outweighed me by sixty pounds... I don't know how many stone it is, or whatever weight system you people use. If I had a lot of power, I could choose to be merciful. But because I don't, I have to fight back ten times as hard, and I have to make sure that anyone who does come after me regrets it.”

“The professors are here to protect you,” McGonagall said.

I chuckled bitterly. “And when you aren't there? Who's going to protect me or any of us in the dark hallways when no one is around?”

Millie spoke up.

“Nobody's ever stood up for me before,” she said. Her voice was almost imperceptible.

“What was that?”

“My own family thinks I'm ugly and stupid,” she said, more loudly this time. “And when those boys started saying all that... it's nothing I didn't hear at home. But she stood up for me, and that... I don't know.... it's important.”

“It's good that she wanted to protect someone,” McGonagall said. “But hurting people isn't the way that things are done here.You are dismissed Miss Bulstrode.”

As Millie got up to leave she gave me another look; I wasn't sure what it meant.”

I chuckled again, and McGonagall gave me a sharp look.

“Your situation is already precarious enough with your house, Miss Hebert. If I start taking points, it will not do you any favors.”

“Perhaps Detention,” Snape said. “One session with each head of the four houses, and one session with the groundskeeper. I have been unable to pierce that thick skull of hers, perhaps one of the other heads might have better luck.”

“I'm sure Pomona will be happy that you volunteered her,” McGonagall said dryly.

“I think Flitwick likes me,” I said brightly.

“These will be punishments, and not ways for you to learn yet more creative ways to cause destruction,' Snape said.

I stared at him, even though I didn't feel particularly betrayed. Five days of detention for essentially threatening to murder a student was probably lenient, considered that I'd almost murdered a different student a couple of weeks ago.

It might not even have happened at Winslow; the administration would back up whoever caused them less problems. However, I'd heard of schools where even taking weapons to school would get a student expelled, or even jailed.

A third of the students at Winslow had been armed at one time or another, so expelling them all simply hadn't been feasible. Everyone here was armed.

“I suppose that's fair,” I said. “Unless the Gryffindors just get a slap on the wrist.”

“They will be punished,” McGonagall said grimly. “But that is none of your concern. It is not your job to police the halls.”

“I think that's the problem,” I said. “When things that are wrong happen, everybody says that it's not their job to fix it. So what happens when everybody stands by and waits for the people in power to save them?”

“You are a child,” McGonagall said. “If you want to seek justice, become an auror when you are older. Perhaps by then you will have learned that every problem is not solved by hitting it.”

“The pure bloods solve their problems with money,” I said. “I just use mine differently.”

McGonagall gave me a long, cold stare. I suspected that she wanted to take house points, but she suspected correctly that something like that wouldn't bother me at all.

“Perhaps you should have Miss Farley to take Miss Hebert to her room,” Dumbledore said.

Snape nodded.

“Miss Farley?” Snape said. “Make sure that Miss Hebert reaches her rooms, and that she does not leave them until tomorrow morning.”

Gemma nodded.

She gestured, and I rose to my feet, following her.

We walked in silence for a couple of minutes. Finally, Gemma spoke to me in a low voice without looking at me.

“We're not all like that, you know,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“Not everybody in Slytherin is a muggle hater,” she said. “Not even all the pure bloods.”

“That's... surprising,” I said.

“Well, a lot of people don't really like them, but wanting to hurt them? That's something completely different.”

So low level racism instead of hard core. I could work with that. I was unlikely to change the opinions of the most die hard of them, but the rest, I might have a chance.

“There are those who do, though. The ones who are tend to come from powerful families,” she said in a low voice. “And there have been... disappearances from the families of people who tried to fight back. The rest of us have learned to keep our heads down.”

“You think that's an option for me?” I asked. “They are offended that I'm in Slytherin at all.”

Finally, she looked at me.

“You need to stop making waves,” she said. “Or you'll make everything harder for the rest of us.”

“And why should I care about that?”

“Because right now you've only got about a third of Slytherin and whatever Gryffindors you've offended against you. If you keep acting mental, it'll be all of us.”

“I've got to defend myself,” I said. “And watching people get bullied...I can't abide by that, Maybe if you prefects were doing your job...”

“We can't be everywhere,” Gemma said impatiently. “But if I'd known what they were trying to do that first night, I'd have stopped them.”

“You'd have tried.”

“I'd have succeeded,” Gemma said. “Ordinary people follow the rules, even when they are inconvenient. Gryffindors don't, but Slytherins learn to work with the rules.”

“Because Slytherins are the ones who make the rules,” I said dryly.

I thought she was being a little naive. Those boys had intended to hurt me, and I'd been researching the spells that Wizards used to maintain their secrecy. There were apparently memory charms that could make memories inaccessible; the aurors used them all the time on muggles.

She might have tried to stop them, but she might not even have remembered what happened next.
She shrugged. “If you don't like it, change it. You were chosen to be in this house, so there has to be more to you than just a low level thug. You've got a brain; use it. If you go around snapping people's wands and beating them, one day they'll be the ones dropping you off a set of stairs, and nobody will be sorry that you've gone.”

“I'll quit when they do,” I said. “If they leave me alone, I'd be happy to keep my head down and learn magic.”

If it weren't for the Death Eaters, I might actually be able to enjoy this world as a retirement. As a Wizard who knew the muggle world, I'd lack for nothing. I'd be able to supply almost all of my own needs and I'd probably be able to live in relative luxury.

“We're already in a low level war with Gryffindor,” Gemma said. She shook her head. “This is going to start things up again after last year. We can't afford this; if they start coming after us, we'll give you to them rather than starting the whole thing all over again.”

“And what happened last year?”

Gemma glanced at me. “Things got ugly. You-Know-Who is back, and there's a faction of pure bloods who think that means it's only a matter of time before things are returned to their rightful place.”

“Rightful place?” I asked. I suspected I knew, but I wanted her to spell it out for me.

“With Wizardly boots on muggle necks,” she said. “And the muggleborn out in the cold.”

“That's not going to happen,” I said. “There's six thousand muggles for every Wizard, and they'd got weapons that could chew through Wizards before a single muggle got within Wand range. Your whole species would be extinct in a year.”

“Our whole species,” Gemma said. “I'm not one of the pureblood supremacy idiots. I'm half-blooded myself, and I grew up around muggles. I knew how stupid the whole idea is, and so does the Ministry, otherwise they wouldn't put so much work into the whole Secrecy thing.”

We were walking down the final set of stairs heading for the dungeon.

“But there's a faction that believes that Wizards have been cheated of their rightful place. They like to pretend that Wizards were once the rulers of the world, when the truth is there were never enough of us to do that, even back in the old days. There are actually fewer Wizards and Witches now than in the past, due to the last war.”

“And it's starting over again.”

“People are scared,” Gemma said. “And when people are scared, they get angry. They tend to lash out at people who are the closest to them, and against whom they already have grudges.”

“Is that what happened last year?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I'm still not clear on what started it. I think a lot of people were picking up on stress from their parents, and they brought it here with them. That's why you need to calm down; this place is a powder keg waiting to explode, and you are a match.”

Her being a half-blood seemed likely if she was making that kind of analogy.

“So what do I do?” I asked.

“Stay out in public,” she said. “Never walk alone. Don't make people angry. I'm going to try to talk to the prefects of the other houses to see if we can defuse the situation, and maybe keep the Gryffindors off your back. I'll make sure that the prefects know what actually happened... I'm sure those boys are probably saying all kinds of things that aren't true.”

“It may not help,” I said.

“Then we'll deal with it the right way,” she said. “I've been watching you, and it's like the little remarks don't really bother you. That's good. If your feelings were easily hurt we'd have a lot bigger problem.”

“For the remark to hurt, I'd have to value whatever person was saying them,” I said. I looked at her coldly. “And frankly, I haven't talked to anybody here who seems worth getting upset about. You want to help me? Fine. Keep people off my back, and I'll make your job easier. But if they keep coming after me, then I'll hurt them until they learn to leave me alone.”

“I'd take points for you talking like that,” she said after a moment of silence. “But you really don't care, do you?”

“Why would I?” I asked. “If I had friends in Slytherin, I might care. If there were even people helping me instead of standing by, I might care. But people who stand by and do nothing when they know something is wrong... that's cowardice.”

Gemma stopped.

She turned to me. “I've got a little sister; she'll probably be in Hogwarts in a couple of years. I love her more than I love anything. If I act like I love mudbloods, there's a chance that I'll wake up one day and find out that my sister, or my Mom or my Dad has gone missing.”

“It's easy to talk about being courageous when you have nothing to lose. You're an orphan who barely has any friends... the only thing they can do to you is to kill you or hurt you. Me...they can kill my family. You don't get to look down on people who have nothing to gain and everything to lose from helping you.”

I stared at her coldly, and she finally shook her head and escorted me to my room.

Chapter Text

“I want to thank you,” I said. “Actually, we do.”

Millie was standing behind me, staring at the floor. We were in the library, and a lot of the other students were out watching tryouts for something called Quidditch. I had a vague notion about what it was, but I'd never been particularly into sports. I'd heard that they flew around and tried to hit each other with bats, which sounded ridiculously dangerous, even if I'd probably be good at it.

“Why?” Susan Bones asked. “For telling the truth?”

“There are people who wouldn't have said anything.”

“My aunt is the head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. She told me that justice would be done a lot more often if people were willing to speak up.”

“That takes courage,” Millie muttered from behind me.

“Well, I'm no Gryffindor,” Susan said, “But I know wrong when I see it. What those boys were doing was wrong.”

The girl next to her, Hannah Abbott said “We really were looking for a teacher, or at least a prefect. But we still get lost sometimes around here.”

“You're lucky to be in Hufflepuff. You've got people to watch your back,” I said.

Susan nodded slowly. “I don't suppose that you have that. It was pretty brave, what you did with those boys. I don't think I could have charged them like that.”

So they'd seen a little more than they'd admitted to. What they'd said had been enough, however.

I hesitated. “I'm starting a new study group. You probably know Hermione Granger and Neville Longbottom. Me and Millie here will make four.”

“A study group with all four houses?” Susan asked. “And what will you be studying?”

“Everything,” I said. “Anything one of us is weak in, the others who are stronger will help them.”

“That sounds a lot like what they tell us in Hufflepuff,” Hannah said. “I wouldn't have thought to hear that from a Slytherin.”

I leaned forward. “I'm not really a Slytherin, you know.”

“What?” she asked.

“I'm a Gryffindor undercover,” I said. “I used ventriloquism on the hat to make everybody think I'm a Slytherin.”

Hannah stared at me.

Susan giggled. “That sounds like exactly the kind of lie a Slytherin would tell a Hufflepuff.”

 

I grinned at her. “What's more likely? That I'm a Gryffindor in disguise, or that a muggleborn actually got into Slytherin?”

“Well, there's a lot of rumors going around about you,” Susan admitted. “People wondering about who you really are.”

“Oh?” I asked casually. “What are they saying about me?”

I probably knew, of course, but even with my bugs I couldn't be listening everywhere all the time at once.

“Some of them are saying that you've been planted here by the Americans to find you-know-who.”

“And what would I do if I found him?” I asked. “They'd have sent someone older.”

Not that I wouldn't try to kill him if I was strong enough. I had a lot of experience and cutting the head off the snake did tend to be an effective tactic.

But it was likely going to be a long time before that happened. After all, he was reputed to be the second strongest Wizard in all of Britain, behind only Dumbledore.

I'd never seen Dumbledore do a lot of magic, and I wished I had that chance, because it would give me a hint about what I was dealing with. Were the Weasely Twins any good at all, or were we just schoolkids playing without a hint of the speed or knowledge that real Wizards had.

“I guess that's true,” she said.”It's not like you really are some kind of monster in disguise.”

“Growl?” I said, then grinned at her. “Maybe I'm really the undead revenant of a murdered girl out to get the people who went after my family.”

Her face went blank. “You shouldn't joke about that.”

“Given the way things are, I'm pretty sure that me and the other muggleborns are pretty much the only ones who can joke about that kind of thing.”

“My entire family was murdered by You-Know-Who,” Susan said. “During the last war. I'm not the only one either. Don't think that just because we're pure bloods we're all on the same side.”

I raised my hands.

“I'm sorry,” I said. “I didn't know. Then you understand what it's like.”

She nodded slowly.

“Maybe you don't want to join our group,' I said. “I'm sure there are people who are going to pressure you into not joining.”

She gave me a look.

“I believe in doing the right thing,” she said. “If other people had I might still have a family.”

She hesitated. “When are you meeting?”

“Tomorrow night in the library after dinner,” I said. “I've got detention tonight.”

“At the rate you're going, that's where you'll be spending the rest of the year,” she said. She thought for a moment, then finally nodded. “I'll be there.”

“Me too,” Hannah said quietly. “I wish I'd been more brave when those boys were acting like that.”

“It's hard to be brave,” I said. “But getting better is easy. You just have to want it, and work for it.”

“That's what they say in Hufflepuff too,” Hannah said. “It's weird to hear it from a Slytherin.”

“I'm not a normal Slytherin,” I said. “And neither is Millie here. You should have seen her pounding that boy's face into the ground.”

Millie flushed and stared at the ground.

“We'll see you tomorrow evening,” Susan said.

I smiled at her, and for once I meant it. I wasn't going to be able to do this alone; I was going to need allies, and the close knit nature of the Hufflepuffs meant that they were more easily influenced by their members than people in other houses.

If I could convince Susan and Hannah that I was a good person to know, they'd convince their classmates for me, and my job would become exponentially easier.

Getting the Hufflepuffs on my side would be a decisive victory. Hermione was working on the Ravenclaws, but they tended to be standoffish, and the Gryffindors were giving Neville flack about his association with me.

Figuring out how to turn the tide of opinion in my favor wasn't going to be easy. It wasn't as simple as having good publicity, because I didn't have any of the usual Protectorate or Cauldron methods of manipulating opinions.

Still, I'd at least sat through some of Glen Chamber's classes on public relations, and I had a general idea of what I had to do, which was more than could be said of a genuine eleven year old in my position. My original self at this age would have been clueless.

“Come along Millie,” I said. “We still have things to do before dark.”

She followed behind me. It was disturbing how much her opinion of me had changed in the space of a day. She'd been cautious and avoided me before, watching me as though I was a Cobra about to strike.

She watched me just as much now, but it was clear that she had a very different opinion of me now. It actually felt a little uncomfortable.

We walked.

“Pansy,” I said.

She looked up at me. Her hands were still a little discolored from what had happened to me, although it was fading fast.

“What?” she snapped.

“I'm glad you're feeling better,” I said.

She stared at me. “And I should care what a mudblood thinks why?”

I leaned forward.

“Who do you think got revenge for what happened to you?”

She continued to stare at me; her gaze wasn't any friendlier. “I heard that he fell in the tub himself. That's what the aurors say.”

I shrugged. “That might be true.”

“Are you saying it's not?”

“I'm not saying anything,” I said. “But let's say hypothetically that you knew someone who was willing to do all kinds of crazy things to get back at the people who hurt her friends. Wouldn't it be a good idea to actually be friends with her, instead of being one of those people.”

“Those people?”

“People who don't have much of a survival instinct,” I said. “Idiots.”

She flushed. “Are you calling me an idiot?”

“Other than opening my mail, I haven't seen you do anything actually stupid,” I said. “And that wasn't really stupid, it was just naive.”

“You can't go your whole life not opening mail,” she said. “It's the mail.”

“In any case, I'm glad you weren't hurt worse.”

She made a gesture that I didn't understand. It looked like a reversed peace sign. The gasp from Millie behind me gave me a little context though.

“Or not,” I said.

I suspected that the Pansy might be a lost cause. She wasn't particularly bright as far as I could see, and she didn't have the flexibility of mind to look past her own prejudices.

Someone like Draco Malfoy, on the other hand was actually a better candidate for conversion. He was one of the brighter people in class, and his family was known to be opportunistic. They went where the power was, and that meant they were willing to bend.

When a Dark Lord arose, that meant they might be prone to falter, but it also meant that they respected power and those who had it.

He was already taking my advice and bragging less. He'd really enjoyed the attention he'd gotten when the new brooms were delivered to the class; I'd seen him sneaking looks art me, although I'd been careful to pretend not to notice.

While having people openly on my side was important, having people on my side that no one knew about might be even more useful.

Hermione was struggling to convert the Ravenclaws in part because they knew she was my friend, and so anything she said about me was suspect. Anything said by the Weasleys, or by Draco, should I manage to convince him would be given a lot more weight.

“You can't win everyone over,” I said to Millie as we walked away. “But it doesn't hurt to give them a chance.”

She nodded, as though everything I was saying was important. Maybe to her it was.

From what I'd overheard her talking about to Tracey, she hadn't just been ignored by her family for being a half blood; after all, her mother was a muggle. However, the final nail in the coffin had been the fact that she had never been considered pretty, not even as a child.

That meant that her value to the family was much less; it was going to be a lot harder for her to get married and have the children that the family seemed to value so much.

Now I was telling her that the important thing wasn't how you looked, but what you could accomplish. That had to be enormously attractive to her; a final option for her to make her place in the world when looks or status wouldn't do.

The fact that Pansy, who had both looks and status would reject me wasn't likely to deter Millie. She'd seen that kind of behavior her entire life. The fact that it didn't bother me though, that was probably new and refreshing.

She'd been following me around all day like a puppy. It would have irritated me, but Gemma was right; there was safety in numbers. While it was true that there were some bullies who wouldn't be deterred by multiple victims, most of them preferred to wait until their target was alone. It wasn't always because they were cowards either; sometimes it was just for plausible deniability. Without witnesses it would be my word against theirs.

The rest of the day went without incident.

My first detention was to be with the groundskeeper, the Case 53 I'd seen at the train station. Some of the Slytherins thought he was a half-giant, but I had a hard time imagining a normal human mating with something that was even larger than he was. Was cross species breeding even possible? People had said that Flitwick was part goblin, but it was possible that they were just an offshoot human species, maybe even Homo floresiensis. The effects of magic might have mutated them even further, and it was possible that Wizards had altered their genetics.

Were Wizards essentially bio-tinkers? How many of the magical species that existed the results of Wizardly tampering, and how many of them were natural species? The history books didn't even try to speculate, and I hadn't seen anybody who was even trying to theorize about the subject.

I was directed across the lawn, towards the groundskeeper's hut. It was massively oversized, which made sense.

A familiar head of white hair was in front of me. I blinked. Malfoy was serving detention?

I hurried to catch up to him.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“Same as you,” he said without looking at me. “I got into a fight with a Gryffindor”

As we approached the hut, I realized that I recognized several other people waiting outside. Terence Higgs was a third year, and team seeker. Miles Bletchly was the Keeper, and Hestia Carrow wasn't anything. All were third years.

Hagrid stepped out of the hut. He was even more massive close up than I had remembered; most of the time I'd seen him since the first he'd been sitting down at dinner.

“Listen up,” he said. “Yer all here fer fightin. I'd have thought after last year, you lot would have learned better. Normally the Gryffindors would be right here with you, but the Headmaster didn't think you could be trusted not to get into a scuffle so they're going to be here tomorrow night instead.”

Had there been that many incidents that I wasn't aware of? I'd thought I'd been doing a good job, but it was disturbing to think about just how many things I might be missing.

“Gather round,” Hagrid said. “Tonight we go into the Forbidden Forest.”

I frowned, looked around and found a stick on the ground. I transfigured it into a Bowie knife.

“What are you doing?” Malfoy asked. He looked a little pale.

“I've heard there are werewolves in the forest,” I said, teasing him. I'd heard him trying to scare some of the other first years with speculations about what might be in the forest. I held up the blade. “I hope silver plating is enough. Pure silver is too soft to make a good weapon.”

He moaned low in his throat, but he clearly didn't want to look like a coward in front of the older boys.

I leaned close to him. “If anything comes after us, all you have to do is be faster than them, and you'll be fine.”

“Why?”

“Most things stop and eat what they catch,” I said. “Which will give us plenty of time to run.”

He blinked at that and looked faintly nauseous.

I suppressed my urge to grin at him. The school wouldn't be sending us into danger, and it looked like Hagrid was big enough to handle anything that should come up. In any case, there were three other older students to help. We were going to be fine.

“What will we be doing?” Hestia Carrow asked. She had a twin sister, who curiously wasn't here. I found myself wondering which Griffendor she'd gotten into a fight with.

“There's a unicorn about to give birth in the forest. Yer gonna help me make sure that there's no problems. She's had problems birthing before, and she hasn't looked well recently. I got word from some of the Centaurs that she's already started. This will be a rare opportunity to see something that Wizards hardly ever see.”

“So we're going to be acting like farmers?” Bletchly asked, scowling.

Hagrid shrugged. “If you didn't wanna get yer hands dirty, you shouldn't have been fightin in the halls.”

His eye slid past them toward me.

“Yer a young one to be out here,” he said.

“She's the meanest one out of all of us,” Bletchly said. “Beat up two fourth year Gryffindors that were bullying a half-blood.”

There was a tone in his voice; almost one of satisfaction and pride. I'd never heard him say anything against the muggleborn, or even me in particular, but he seemed to dislike the Gryffindors quite a bit. It must have something to do with having some of them fly around trying to hit him with bats.

“Now, what we're gonna do tonight is dangerous,” Hagrid said. “So I'm gonna need you all to stay with me. Keep to the path and you'll be fine. Do you all know the spell to send up flares?”

We nodded. Flitwick had taught us last week, and we'd left scorch marks in the ceiling of the classroom. That had been an entertaining class.

“If you get separated from the rest of us, send up a flare and stay put, and we'll come for you.”

“We should stay in the middle of the group,” I said to Draco. “That way nothing comes up from behind us, and if anything is ahead, the others can take care of it.”

He nodded. He still looked a little pale, but his color was coming back.

“We're going to be fine,” I said. “Stick next to me, and I'll keep you safe.”

“I don't need a mu... muggleborn to keep me safe,” he said. I noticed, however that he didn't step away from me.

“All right then,” Hagrid said. “Let's go into the forest. With any luck, we'll be back before dawn.”

Chapter Text

Hogwarts castle was filled with bugs, but it was nothing to the explosion of life in the forest. I could almost feel the life all around me; the sheer weight of the bugs was something that I hadn't felt in a long time.

The trees were massive and old. We had old trees in Brockton Bay, but they tended to be isolated, surrounded by younger trees. Here, every tree was old, and most of them were massive and weather beaten. I could see many different kinds of trees; beech, oak, pine, sycamore, yew...it made me wonder if this was one of the places Wizards harvested their wand materials from. I didn't see any gouges on the trees, not in the limited light that was available.

The undergrowth was thick, seeming almost impassible off the path. There were thorns and knotgrass to both sides of us. I didn't like it; it funnelled us into a single line, and anything that could actually move through the underbrush would be able to ambush us with impunity.

I'd know beforehand, but if it was something really dangerous, it might not make a difference.

Everyone had their wands out, all of them lit and I kept a careful eye on the students behind me. I had bugs on every one of the others just in case one of them should turn and try to attack me. I doubted that they would, not with Hagrid right there, but it would also be useful if anyone got lost.

It would be very easy to get lost here; there were massive tree trunks, some of which interesected the path, and while you were watching your footing, you could easily lose sight of the trail. I walked assuredly, stepping over roots without even looking.

I heard Draco stumbling from behind me.

“You must have eyes like a cat,” he muttered.

I ignored him, and I checked ahead of us for any dangers. Even without my bug sense I would have been able to tell things were safe; there were sounds of insects everywhere. It was when things got quiet that you had to worry. If the birds and insects sensed something dangerous, they had the sense to hide.

It seemed as though we walked forever, although it was most likely just half an hour. I found myself tense, waiting for one of the Slytherins to turn and attack me even though I rationally knew that it was unlikely.

We passed through several splittings of the trail; getting separated from Hagrid would be disastrous, because I wasn't even sure that I'd be able to find my way out of here.

Moonlight shone through the canopy at times, and it gave the entire forest an eerie look, even though it was beautiful in its own way.

None of the Slytherins complained, most likely because none of them wanted to look weak in front of their peers. Or maybe they were afraid of Hagrid; I hadn't heard about him being dangerous, other than his size, but obviously I'd missed some things.

We reached a clearing in the forest, and I was the first to notice movement in the darkness. Even the bugs were having trouble seeing in parts of the undergrowth, although they compensated with other senses.

I saw a form imove n the darkness. Hagrid tensed.

It took me a moment to recognize it, even with my bug senses; it was a man with the body of a horse. A centuar; I'd heard there were some in the forest, but I'd never seen one.

“Hagrid,” the centaur said neutrally.

“Ronan,” Hagrid said. “Good ter see ya.”

“Pluto is in transition,” the Centaur said. “Change is coming.”

“Right,” Hagrid said. He didn't sound like he knew what the centaur was talking about; neither did I.

Glancing over at Draco, I noticed that he seemed trouble. Maybe he put greater store in this astrology stuff than I did? Maybe astronomy class gave some insight into the future; yet from what I'd heard the divination classes at Hogwarts used tea leaves instead of telescopes. It was very perplaxing.

“Have you seen the mare?” Hagrid asked.

“She's in the south glen, two clearings to the east,” the centaur said. “It is a difficult birth.”

“We'll hurry up then,” Hagrid said.

As we walked past the centaur, I thought I saw him staring at me specifically, although it was possible that it was a trick of the light.

We did indeed pick up the pace, and it wasn't long at all before I saw the silhouette of Hagrid hold up his hand.

“There's a whole herd of them up ahead,” he said. “And they can get a little tetchy when they are protecting a mother that's foaling. I want everybody to move slowly, and don't make any moves that could be interpreted as aggressive. I don' want to explain to yer parents why you died with a unicorn horn in your chest.”

I heard a gasp from Hestia Carrow up ahead, and then I stepped out into the clearing.

I'd been busy looking behind us and to the sides, so the sight of the unicorn herd in the moonlight took me by surprise. I found my breath catch in my chest as I saw them running around in the middle of the glade in the moonlight.

It was easy for me to forget, sometimes, the child that I'd once been. But I'd had the Unicorn Trapper Keepers that all the other girls had, and I'd had the posters on my walls. When I'd really been eleven, I'd dreamed of unicorns when I wasn't dreaming of Alexandria, and now that they were really here, something in my chest felt tight.

They were stunning.

The herd was poetry in motion, a river of white so beautiful that it made my heart ache. I couldn't catch my breath as I stared at them, and I found that I wanted to do nothing else but stand there forever.

It made the excitement I'd felt when I'd first seen Hogwarts castle pale in comparison. This was the kind of magic I'd always dreamed of... not just a tool, and not a weapon, but sheer wonder.

Draco shoved me a little from behind, and the spell was broken. I let myself breathe, and I steeped aside, and watched as he took sight of the Unicorns.

For a moment, I saw a look of wonder on his face as well, but he saw me watching, and his face tightened.

“Stupid horses,” he said, but it didn't sound like his heart was in it. If it had just been a single unicorn during the light of day, he probably could have dismissed it like it was just another animal, but this was a herd of thirty, and the moonlight gave them an unearthly beauty.

“If there's any blood, don't put it in yer mouth,” Hagrid said. “I wouldn't think I'd have to tell you that, but there's always one.... yer cursed for life if you do that. That means you wash yer hands and yer wand after ye get through with this, with good magic.”

“You make it sound like we're going to put our fist up inside the thing,” Terence Higgs said.

“If yer lucky, ye just might. It'll probably be one of the girls, though. They get nervous around the boys,” Hagrid said.

He gestured toward me and Hestia Carrow.

“We're gonna see if they'll accept ye,” he said. “If they do, ye'll help me with the foal. I've been workin with em for their entire lives, and they still sometimes take better to a young girl.”

Turning to the boys, he said, “I wouldn't get near to the herd. Stay here and call out if you see anything dangerous. If they think you're trying to hurt the mare they can get dangerous.”

“So we're just going to stand around?” Draco asked.

“Better than going in the middle of that,” Terence muttered. “They'd turn us into pincushions.”

I was going to get to actually touch one of them? They seemed too perfect to touch, ethereal, even incandescent. It was like a dream, and the moment I reached out my hand it would all be over.

Suddenly I felt a moment of horror. What if they really could read the content of a person's soul? I'd done terrible things in the past, from the time I was fifteen onwards. I'd killed a lot of people. I'd killed a baby. I'd stolen people's free will, and I hadn't even hesitated.

Sure, I'd done it to save humanity, but the kinds of things I'd done tended to stain the soul. Was I even still a good person, had I ever been? Most of the time I ignored questions like that; I escaped the pain by focusing on what was in front of me. But here? Now?

I felt Hagrid's hand on my shoulder.

“I'm gonna be with ye;” he said. “And if there's danger, get behind me. I'll protect ye.”

Physical danger wasn't what I was worried about. Being rejected by this, the culmination of my childhood dreams... I wasn't sure I could stand the crushing disappointment.

“She's afraid she's too evil,” Terence Higgs said, knowingly.

I blinked, and looked back at him. He smirked, but there was something in his expression that bothered me, a sort of sympathy that wasn't anything at all like I'd ever expected to see on a Slytherin face.

He'd had thoughts like that himself; that was the only way he'd be able to understand what I was feeling. Did that mean that he really thought he as evil, or did that mean that he wasn't because he was worried about it?

“Nonsense,” Hagrid said.

He pushed me forward.

The herd stopped, and they turnd to stare at us. I saw a sea of horns pointed in my direction, and I forced myself to stay loose. Animals could sense fear, and while I wasn't afraid of them, I was afraid of their judgement.

As I slowly stepped forward, the air felt leaden and still. My stomach was tied up in knots. As far as I knew, these were just stupid animals. Did it really mean anything if they rejected me and I had to stay back with the boys?

Somehow it did. It felt like I was being judged by a universe that didn't care about all the good I had done, only the bad.

I walked forward slowly, and I felt Hestia Carrow behind me. She put her hand on my shoulder, and her hand tightened reassuringly. I could see Hagrid putting his hand on hers shoulder through my bugs' vision.

The strange thing was that not a single bug was on any of the Unicorns. Not one mite, not one flea not a single fly. It was as though they were so pure that even the bugs knew that they were inviolate.

I could have probably forced a bug onto one of them, but I found that I didn't want to. It would have felt like a desecration.

Instead I continued to walk forward. The unicorns stared at me, and for a moment I thought they were going to lunge forward, to attack me like the monster I sometimes felt that I was.

One unicorn was larger than all the others; presumably he was the Stallion of the herd. He stepped forward and for a moment I thought he was going to try to spear me.

Instead he lowered his head, and I reached up and I touched his face. I felt a strange wetness on my eyes; I wasn't sure what it was, but I ignored it. I could have stood like that forever, but I heard Hagrid say, “The mare needs us, girl.”

 

I stepped around the stallion, and I saw that the herd had opened before us, leaving space to walk between them. As I walked past the unicorns, I reached up and touched their flanks. They were softer than anything I'd ever touched in my life.

There was a mare lying in the middle of the clearing. Her sides were heaving and she was lying on her side. Of all the unicorns she was the most beautiful, and I found my hands trembling as I dropped to my knees beside her. There was a silvery, luminescent blood staining her hindquarters, which probably wasn't a good sign.

I reached out cautiously, and I put my hand on her flank. She was warm, and I felt a jolt of something passing through me as I touched her.

Her side moved convulsively. If felt like she was having trouble breathing.

Carefully, I said, “I think she's having a contraction.”

“She had problems with the last foaling, which is why we've been keeping an eye on her,” Hagrid said.

This was something outside my experience. In Chicago as a Ward, I'd never had to assist in birthing a baby, although there had been other Wards who had. Generally, there had always been someone on the other end of the communicator who would be able to help you through it.

I'd had basic instruction in what to do, of course; it was part of our training as heroes. That had been training in what to do with a human childbirth, though. I had no idea what to do with a horse birth, much less in the birth of a magical creature.

“She's startin to push it out,” Hagrid said to Hestia, “But she's havin trouble. The hooves will come out first, but if ye see them bottom sides up, that means the foal is backwards or upside down and we'll have to turn her.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

He reached into his pocket, and pulled out something that looked like berries.

Hagrid handed them to me. “I want ye to try to feed these to her, and try to keep her calm. Watch her horn; this is going to hurt her, and she might get aggressive.”

“What is this?” I asked.

“Berries soaked in calming potion,” Hagrid said. “It won't hurt the foal, and it'll help her keep from panicking. Some will probably soak through your skin, but it won't hurt ye any.”

He could have told me that before he'd put it in my bare hand. I grimaced, but I didn't complain. There was too much going on right now.

He gestured toward Hestia.

“Now you get to get yer hands dirty. Remember what I said about washing em.”

The girl grimaced, but she kneeled down behind the Unicorn obediently.

“Watch her hooves,” Hagrid said. “She might kick.”

I found myself at the front of the unicorn, staring into her eyes. I carefully reached out, berries in hand. I kept my hand out flat and open so that she could lip the berries from my hand.

For the next thirty minutes, I simply stared into her eyes and ran my hand gently down her neck. I heard Hagrid barking instructions to Hestia, and there was worry in his voice.

Finally, I heard Hagrid say, “Hold her now; this is gonna be tricky.”

I nodded, and I tightened my grip on the Unicorn's head. She struggled a little, but it was a moment before I saw something moving on Hagrid's end.

It wasn't a pure white like the other Unicorns, or even silver like some of the foals. It was of the purest gold, and it had eyes that seemed as large as the universe.

I was the first thing it saw as it peered around the flanks of its mother, and it stared at me as though it loved me, as though I was the most wonderful thing that it had ever seen.

Of course, I was the only thing it had ever seen, but I couldn't find the energy to be cynical right now. All I could do is stare at it for the next several minutes.

It finally rose to its feet on staggering legs, and it took a couple of steps toward me.

Hagrid spoke for the first time in several minutes to Hestia.

“The foal is all right, but the mother isn't out of the woods. I need you kids to head back to the castle; have Madam Pomprey come back here; she'll be able to help us keep the old gal alive.”

I stared at him.

“Isn't there some magical way for you to summon her?” I asked.

“Don't have my wand,” he said. “And I never was much of a wizard anyway. One of the older boys will be able to find his way back. Now hurry. Hestia here is gonna stay and help me.”

I felt curiously empty as I slowly moved the Unicorn's head from my knee and set it on the soft loam of the forest floor. There was a look in her eye that I sisn't like; it almost seemed like one of hopeless resignation, as though she knew that she was going to die.

Would her foal even survive witrhout its mother?

Silently, I rose to my feet, and I headed back toward the others.

“I couldn't see anything,” Draco complained. “All we'vbe done is stand around all night and stare at a bunch of horses.”

“Hagrid says we need to go ang get Madam Pomprey,” I said. “The Mare isn't doing very well.”

“He wants us to go into the Forest by ourselves?” Draco asked. He looked like his eyes were about to bug out.

“Sooner we get out of here, the better,” Terence said. “Better if all of us go together instead of one or two of us... it'll be harder for something to pick us off.”

I nodded.

Apparently some Slytherins had some sense.

“All right, let's go,” I said.

Chapter Text

“Does anyone know how to get back?” I asked.

“Uh...right through there,” Terence said, pointing at an opening in the thick underbrush. “I think we took two lefts?”

That vaguely fit with what I remembered, and if we started to get lost, I could always send my bugs up above the canopy to check the location of the castle. With their poor vision, they likely wouldn't be able to see it very well, but they'd be able to see the lights well enough.

“Let's go,” I said. Without asking anyone I plunged into the underbrush, and I heard Miles Bletchley and Terence Higgs follow me without comment. I could see Draco with my bugs hesitating, but then he too followed behind us.

Plunging into the dark, I didn't even bother to light my wand. The light from the wands of the others behind me created a dim light, but I was mostly moving by feeling the insects under my feet.

Miles caught up to me from behind.

“So you really are a girl,” he said.

“What's that supposed to mean?” I asked. The bliss that I'd experienced from being with the Unicorns was wearing off, and in its place was anxiety at the thought that we wouldn't make it in time.

“Some people thought you were a Death Eater polyjuiced as a way to test us,” he said. “Weed out the ones who weren't really into the whole racial purity thing.”

“Then why would I beat up on those three idiots the first night?” I asked.

“I didn't say it was a good theory,” he said. “But you have to admit you aren't normal.”

I glanced back at him. “I don't know what you mean.”

“Just the way you move... it's creepy. You sit and stare past people like they aren't even there, but you see everything.”

I shrugged. “What do you want me do? Act weak and helpless?”

“Act like a human being,” he said. “It's like you're some kind of spider or something, just waiting to pounce on anybody that walks by.”

“All I want is to be left alone,” I said. “Then I can act like a human being and enjoy the unicorns.”

“There's always some people who can't leave enough alone,” he said. He glanced behind him; the others were further back along the trail. “Not all of us feel that way.”

“But nobody wants to do anything about it,” I said. “Yeah, I've heard.”

“Who says help has to be obvious?” he asked. “It's not like we're all Gryffindors, and won't do anything unless we have an audience to clap for us.”

I frowned.

“If you can't keep people off my back, what can you do?”

“Slip a word here and there,” he said. “About how it's not worth it to step on a mudblood when the Gryffindors are the real enemy. Oooor.... it would be easy to get the people who want to give it a shot even more reason to hate you.”

“So what do you want?” I asked.

“I want to beat the Gryffindors,” he said. “And that won't happen as long as our house is fighting itself. Sooner or later, you're going to end up seriously injuring a member of the Quidditch team, or they'll be suspended for killing you. Dumbledore doesn't like us all that much anyway, and he's probably looking for a chance to chuck us out on our ear.”

“So keep your people in line,” I said. “Convince them, and I'll remember who not to thank.”

He blinked for a moment, and then he nodded. “Right. Best not.”

“I remember my friends,” I said. “And the people who cross me. It doesn't mean that everybody has to fit in one category or the other.”

“None of this means I like you,” he said. “I think you're the worst thing that happened to this House since the Potter kid got sorted...not because you're a mudblood, but because you're a really violent person. If it had been one of us purebloods who did all the crap you've done, we'd have been out on our ear.”

“I was Sorted before Potter was,” I said, ignoring his comment about be being violent. It was actually somewhat true, even if I'd had my reasons.

“Yeah, but you didn't start beating people until afterwards,” he said. “Or dropping them in boil potion.”

“He fell in himself,” I said. “The aurors said so.”

“Right... only an idiot would actually believe that,” he said.

“As long as you make sure the idiots know that, I think we should be able to...” I stopped.

There was something moving in the underbrush. It was too dark for me to see well, even with the bugs, but it was massive.

We stepped out into a clearing, and I reached into my fanny pack for the knife. Contrary to what I'd told Draco, I hadn't actually managed to turn it silver, or even silver plated, even with two weeks of obsessive transfiguration practice. I had managed to make it shiny, but if there really were werewolves in the forest, I might regret not learning to make it silver.

With my other hand I pulled out my wand.

“There's something coming,” I said. “Something big.”

The others were bunching up behind me. That wasn't good tactically; something big enough would be able to plow through all of us at the same time, and we'd get in each other's way trying to fight back. Sticking together had worked in the days of melee weapons and shield walls, but none of us were particularly big or strong. Wizard tactics were likely close to riflemen tactics anyway.

A moment later the others heard the sound of something pushing its way through the undergrowth.

I smelled it before I saw it. It stank worse than any boy's locker room that I'd ever been in, not that I'd been in many. I'd smelled gas stop bathrooms that were easier on the nose.

As it broke through the undergrowth, I saw it; in the dark it looked taller than Hagrid, although it was possible that was an illusion. It had greenish, rubbery flesh, and it had straggly green hair.

I heard Draco give out a scream, and it grunted and began to come toward us.

Miles and Terence gamely stepped forward and began to launch stunners at the thing, but it didn't seem to have much of an effect.

I launched the flare spell at one of its eyes, and while it didn't seem to hurt it, it stopped and batted at the fire in its face.

Terence seemed to get the idea first; he launched his own flare spell at its face, and then Miles followed suit. Draco stopped screaming and did so as well.

The thing was roaring and swinging its club around, but it didn't look like it intended to run. It was putting one hand over its face and swinging its club blindly. Sooner or later it was going to hit one of us, and when it did, someone was going to die.

Slipping my wand into the fanny pack, I tensed, watching its movements. I couldn't afford to make a mistake here, or I was dead.

I watched the way its club was moving, and then I darted forward.

The way it had pushed through the underbrush told me that its skin had to be tough; it was obviously somewhat resistant to magic, and the way the tree cracked when it struck it with its club told me that it had massive amounts of strength.

The one saving grace was that it seemed to be slow, not just physically, but mentally.

I darted between its legs, and I slashed upward. I felt my knife connect, and then a putrid liquid splashed all over me. I wasn't sure what it was, but I doubted that I wanted to think about it too much. The thing roared and tried to dance back, stomping at me.

It dropped its own club on its foot and it screamed again.

I took the opportunity to slash at its thigh, where the femoral artery would be on a human. Its skin really was tough, but I managed to jam it in as hard as I could and drag my way down, putting my entire weight into it. My hands were slick, but I managed to catch hold of the knife.

A hand reached down to grab me, but I rolled aside. The thing roared in pain, and its claws caught at my robes. It started to lift me up, but I managed to slip out of them, leaving it to stare stupidly at my empty robes. The knife was still stuck in its thigh.

The boys were shooting flares at its face, but it was ignoring them now, concentrating on trying to find me. I grabbed the knife and yanked it out again, and then I ducked as a massive hand came down to where I had just been. I rolled to the side as a foot stomped at me, and I slashed at the back of it's leg, trying to hamstring it.

My knife didn't cut deep enough, and I grimaced as I slipped on what was becoming an increasingly slippery section of ground. The thing was bleeding heavily, but it was so large that it had to have a lot of blood.

I cut at it again and again, slashing at it with my knife. I felt it bite into the tendon, and then I hit it again in the other leg. It screamed again, and then I felt it starting to collapse.

Lunging to get out from under it, I was almost fast enough, but my feet slipped out from under me, and I landed on my arm just as the thing landed on me. I felt a sickening crunch, followed by a sensation of cold on the outside, and hot embers on the inside of my arm.

Worse, I was partially trapped under the thing, and from close up it smelled infinitely worse than it had when I'd fought it from a distance.

Without the light from their wands, everything was in shadows. I looked up and saw the three boys standing in the distance.

“Is it dead?” Draco asked. “Is she dead?”

“You couldn't be that lucky,” I called out.

Slowly, cautiously the three of them approached. I saw Miles standing over me, and he simply stood there, watching me. My wand was in my fanny pack, under a ton of whatever this thing was, and my knife was lost, probably stuck in the thing somewhere.

I was completely helpless, unable to move, and if he wanted to kill me, he could do it now, easily. He could even blame it on the monster, and no one would ask any questions. They'd think I was really stupid, and then they'd go back to their day to day lives.

He was silent for a moment, and I wondered what he was thinking. Finally he spoke.

“Can you move?” he asked.

“No,” I said, wondering if I was making a mistake.

“We won't be able to lift the whole thing,” he said, “But if the two of us use the levitation spell, Draco might be able to pull you out.”

“Fine,” I said.

A moment later they gave it their first try.

“You stink,” Draco muttered as he put his hands under my shoulder blades. I felt a jolt of intense pain in my arm as I slid out from under it.

The boys lifted with the spell, and Draco pulled while I pushed with my feet. It took us four tries before I was out.

Miles held his wand up, lit.

I could see the white of the bone sticking out of my arm.

“Either of you know any healing spells?” I asked.

“Not that'll heal that,” Miles said.

“Give me your robes,” I told Draco.

“What?” he asked.

“If I bleed out, I'll be dead before we get to the castle. Lend me your robes.”

My own robes were drying in a pool of monster blood.

He cursed under his breath, and then he pulled them over his head. A moment later I wrapped them around my arm, putting pressure on it. I pulled it tight, and I ignored the sudden burst of pain. When I was satisfied that I'd done the best I could I stood up.

“Doesn't that hurt?” he asked.

“Does it look like it hurts?” I asked testily. “We can stand around talking, or we can get back to the castle.”

We started walking faster. I was feeling a little faint; whether it was from blood loss or shock I wasn't sure, It wasn't a good sign. It didn't matter; leaving me alone in the forest wasn't an option, and getting help for myself and the Unicorn was a priority.

“What the hell was that?” I asked.

The others were no longer trailing far behind. They were all crowded up behind me, although whether it was because they thought I was going to protect them, or whether they thought they could protect me I didn't know. In my current condition I wasn't going to be able to protect anyone.

“That was a forest troll!” Draco said. “It's an XXXX creature! That's a wizard killer!”

“No... XXXXX creatures are wizard killers.” Miles said.

“We're wizards, it would have killed us...” Draco said. “I can't believe that you killed it with a knife. You stabbed it right in the stones!”

“What else was I going to do?” I asked. “Run away?”

“Yes...?” Draco asked. “Most people's response to a troll isn't to run up and stab it in the crotch.”

“Have you met her?” Miles muttered. He was staring at me like he'd never seen me before. Most likely he was re-evaluating how dangerous I was.

“It could move through the undergrowth faster than we could move through the trail,” I said. “And it would have caught one of us sooner or later.”

We broke through the undergrowth, and we were suddenly back on the lawn.

Making our way up the slope was hard, but I forced myself to do so. In the light I could see that I looked like Carrie after her prom; I probably smelled twice as bad. I was leaving blood on the grass as I walked, although it was rapidly drying.

It wasn't bedtime yet for the older students, and I heard gasps as I stepped into the hallway. I ignored them, and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. The last thing my reputation needed was for me to collapse right in the main hall.

The crowd parted in front of us, and everyone was silent as I walked past. No one said a word, but I felt the weight of dozens of eyes on me. Every step felt heavy, but I kept my head up and my face as neutral as I could.

Madam Pomprey was on her feet the moment she saw us. “What in the world?”

“I killed a troll,” I said. “I need you to stabilize me, and then go out to the forest to help Hagrid. One of the Unicorns is dying.”

“Students are my first priority,” she said. Her wand was out. “You must be in a lot of pain.”

“You should see the other guy,” I joked. “Just stop me from bleeding and get me to a bed, and then you can get to Hagrid.”

Snape stepped into the room.

“Is Miss Carrow still alive?” he asked after doing a mental head count.

“This is from a troll,” I said. “I just need the bleeding stopped, and then Madam Pomprey needs to get out to help Hagrid with a dying Unicorn.”

He stared at me for a long moment, then turned to Pomprey.

“Is Miss Hebert in any danger?”

“She needs treatment,” Pomprey said. “She's in tremendous pain.”

“My experience is that if a student says they can tolerate their pain, and they are not a Gryffindor, then they probably can. I will stabilize Miss Hebert.”

She looked at me for a moment, and I waved my good hand at her. “I'll be fine,” I said. “It only hurts when I laugh.”

“Are your ribs injured?” she asked, frowning. “I didn't see anything when I...?”

“I was joking,” I said. “I don't laugh.”

Her lips tightened, and she said,”If you are well enough to joke, then perhaps Professor Snape can help you. I'll go get my supplies.”

I sat on the edge of a bed, ignoring the mess I was making, and I watched as Snape began to make preparations to treat me. I hadn't had any experience with Wizardly healing, and it was going to be interesting seeing how different it was from Panacea.

“Drink this,” Snape said.

“Is that going to make me sleep?” I asked suspiciously. I'd already been dosed by calm inducing berries this evening without my consent; I wasn't going to drink anything without knowing what it did.

“It reduces pain,” Snape said.

“I'll do without it,” I said.

The last thing I needed was to be in the infirmary alone with people knowing I was hurt.

“Fine,” he said. He pulled out his wand and pointed his wand. “Brackium Emendo.”

Wizardly healing, as it turns out is much more painful than what Panacea had used. I managed to keep my face calm throughout however.

“Now you need to drink this,” Snape said. “It is a blood replenishing potion.”

I looked at him suspiciously.

“You have lost copious amounts of blood. You will be required to stay here overnight because of the possibility of infection. Trolls are filthy creatures.”

“Fine,” I said.

Chapter Text

I woke to a clicking sound.

It took me a moment to remember where I was; apparently the blood loss from the night before had affected me more than I'd been aware of. The fact that I'd survived far worse injuries in the past didn't change the fact that my new body wasn't nearly as durable as my last one.

Passing out in the middle of everything wasn't going to do my reputation much good.

It rook me a moment to recognize the source of the clicking sound. A familiar white haired man was entering the infirmary, tapping his cane on the ground as he went. Was this his way of warning me of his presence? He didn't seem to need the cane to walk.

I turned my head to focus on him, even as I fumbled for my wand in my fanny pack. I'd lost the knife somewhere in the fight last night, and I didn't have another stick to transfigure. Turning the stick into a knife had been a basic modification of the matchstick to needle spell; a matter of visualization. I wasn't sure, however, whether I could transfigure something not made of wood.

In a pinch, I could transfigure my second wand, but that seemed like a bad idea for a number of reasons.

I very carefully kept my wand on top of the covers, pointed in his direction. He ignored it, carefully sitting down beside me.

“Miss Hebert,” he said. He was staring down at me like I was an intriguing specimen of insect.

I stared at him silently. He worked for Voldemort, which meant he was possibly here to kill me, but his wand wasn't out. I doubted that he'd try to kill me in any other way, and I had a relatively amicable relationship with his son, although I couldn't be sure how much he had been told about that.

The fact that I couldn't tell where his wand was, despite the fact that he moved with the quiet assurance of someone who was armed worried me. I'd have to rely on his eyes to tell me when he was going to draw, and hope that it wasn't too late.

“You present me with an unusual problem,” he said. “Currently the winds of change are blowing against your kind, but you have rendered a service to my son not once, but twice.”

Apparently Draco had been keeping his father informed.

“The Malfoys do not forget,” he said. “Whether it is a service, or a slight. Yet to support you openly would be to put us at even greater disadvantage.”

Ah... he was trying to pretend not to be one of the people who was trying to kill me. There was no reason for me to let him know that I knew otherwise, and many reasons for me not to do so.

“So don't,” I said.

“Yet sooner or later you will face someone you cannot simply... dispose of,” he said. “Adult wizards who are fully aware of just how...dangerous you can be.”

“I'm harder to kill than most people think.”

His eyes darted toward the wand pointed at him.

“So it would seem,” he said. “One wonders how an eleven year old girl knew how to kill with such.... proficiency.”

“I lived in a tough neighborhood,” I said.

It had the virtue of even being somewhat true. Neither Brockton bay nor Chicago had exactly been walks in the park.

“I wasn't aware that the muggle world was so dangerous,” he said.

“You'd be surprised at the things you have to deal with in certain parts of that world,” I said. “Even if most of it seems drab and decidedly boring.”

“I've heard some foolish prattling that you intend to become a Dark Lord yourself,” he said. “That you were able to fool the unicorns through some sort of dark magic, and that you plan to take over all of Wizarding Britain.”

“I'd prefer to be left alone,” I said. “But if I am pushed, I'll do whatever I have to.”

“I can get you a transfer to Ilvermorny,” he said. “As an American, you should be there anyway, and you would be assured of being allowed to pursue your education uninterrupted by British politics.”

He called murder politics.

I frowned.

My reasons for staying hadn't changed. The authorities in America were almost certain to do a better search of my background than the ones here had; I'd looked it up, and they didn't have an equivalent to Hogwarts book and quill. They'd find out that I was actually Molly Scrivener, and then they'd try to find out why I was pretending to be an American.

I shook my head.

“I appreciate the offer, but I'm going to stay here. There's nothing left for me back at home.”

“I will not be able to protect you,” he said. “Should you stay, you are only likely to find death and suffering. In the coming years, this will not be a welcoming place for your kind.”

“Oh?” I asked. “Why is that?”

He stared at me, then grimaced. “You know why. My son says you seem to know more than you should; more than any child your age should, and I am inclined to believe him.”

“What could I possibly know that would be dangerous?” I asked. “The identities of the people who have... questionable affiliations maybe? Ones who have children here?”

“What are you saying?” he asked carefully.

“Just that they have more to lose than I do,” I said. “My family is dead, and there is no one in the world that I care about. That leaves me with a certain... freedom to act.”

His face tightened.

“You'd threaten children?”

“Not Draco,” I said. “Since he seems to be a little more sensible than the rest of them.”

“But the others?”

“I don't particularly like hurting people,” I said. “I'd much prefer to be left alone. If certain factions wish me dead, maybe it would be wiser to wait until the school year is over.”

He was silent for a long moment, his eyes searching my face. I wondered whether he was a legilimens; in case he was, I focused on my absolute sincerity and determination that I meant what I was saying.

“Those aren't the words of a normal child,” he said. “Don't you fear anything?”

I stared at him steadily. “If I were a Gryffindor, maybe I'd tell you.”

For the first time he smirked a little. “Perhaps you really do belong in this house,”

“I tried to get the Hat to place me elsewhere,” I said. “It seemed to think that Slytherin was the only place for me.”

He scowled. “In my day, the Hat always gave preference to the wishes of the student. Perhaps it is becoming senile.”

“It could use a cleaning,” I said.

“The Malfoys do not forget,” he said as he rose to his feet. “And neither will I.”

“I don't either,” I said. “I'm not a threat to anyone who isn't a threat to me. Get people to leave me alone, and I will feel myself amply repaid.”

He nodded slightly, and a moment later he was gone.

I closed my eyes again, and it seemed like no time at all before I heard a heavy footstep entering the Infirmary.

It was Hagrid; he looked stricken.

“Did the Unicorn make it?” I asked.

“She's gonna make it,” Hagrid said. “But I never shouldda left yeh out there.”

I shrugged. “I can handle myself.”

“Most of the trolls are in the north side of the forest right now,” Hagrid said. “It musta been a male shoved out of the pack, lookin for better huntin by himself.”

“What's going to happen to you?” I asked. “Mr. Malfoy looked pretty angry.”

“Suspended without pay for a month,” Hagrid said. “I'd be out on my ear if Dumbledore hadn't stood up for me.”

“I'd imagine that there's not a lot in the forest that's dangerous to you,” I said. “Even that troll last night.”

Hagrid shrugged. “We'd have batted each other round a bit, then go on our own ways. I'm sorry yeh had ter kill him.”

“I didn't have much choice,” I said. “Maybe if I'd been a fifth year, but I don't know a lot of magic yet.”

“I'm sorry yeh got hurt,” he said. He hesitated. “I wouldn't have thought such a little thing like you could kill somethin as big as that troll. It bled out almost right away.”

“It was built like a human,” I said. I shrugged. “It wasn't that hard.”

He looked unconvinced. “The others said you moved so fast they barely saw you.”

“It was dark,” I said. “And they were shooting flares instead of lighting the path. With the way the lumnos spell probably hurt their night vision, I'm surprised they saw anything.”

“I'll do better next time,” Hagrid said.

“Just remember that all first years aren't as tough as me,” I said. “You have to treat them like they are babys.”

He nodded, and a moment later he was gone.

For the first time I became aware of the fact that someone had changed my clothes and bathed me, or perhaps used magic to do it, as I didn't have any troll blood on my body.

I rose to my feet, and I felt a little woozy. Apparently blood replentishing potion wasn't nearly as effective as Panacea, something I was going to have to take into account as I went forward. I couldn't simply push my body to the extent that I had in the past, and not simply because I was out of shape.

In my old world, even after Panacea had become... unavailable, there had been other healers. I'd had a support team that was there should I get injured. Here I was on my own. Learning healing spells needed to be something that I learned sooner than later.

It wasn't just for myself; if one of the others had been injured last night, I wouldn't have been able to help them other than whatever first aid I could render using the materials at hand; and that wouldn't have been a lot.

I managed to reach the bathroom despite my dizziness, and after completing my ablutions, I returned to the infirmary, where I found Madam Pomfrey waiting for me.

“You should not be out of bed,” she said.

“I needed to use the bathroom,” I said. “And I figured that it would be less dangerous than a troll.”

“There is a strong possibility that you could faint and hit your head,” she said. “Which very well may be more dangerous to you than a troll.”

“You don't seem surprised.”

“I'm familiar with your capabilities,” she said. “After all, I'm the one who has been treating the people you have sent here.”

“They attacked me first,” I said.

“I'm sure that's a great comfort to their parents.”

I frowned at her; was she giving me shade? She wasn't even looking at me; instead she was mixing something in a bowl on a cart.

As I crawled back into the bed, I asked her, “Is there any chance that I could learn some basic healing magic from you?”

“You should ask Professor Flitwick,” she said. “Those spells are generally reserved for upper years.”

“I've got more need for them than most people,” I said.

“That seems to be true,” she said. “I would prefer that you stop sending me patients in the middle of the night.”

“I could start waiting until the middle of the day...?”

The look she gave me was not friendly. I closed my mouth and I accepted the liquid she gave me. It tasted like the blood replenishing potion Snape had given me the night before, with something else added.

“This will help you sleep more,” she said. “And when you wake, you will need to eat something to help the potion along. You will not feel like eating, but you need to push yourself to do so.”

“I'd rather not sleep,” I said. “Considering that people know I am here, and there are those who don't wish me well.”

Madam Pomprey stared at me and shook her head. “I will be here watching over you, and after last night, I doubt that most of the students would bother to come after you anyway.”

 

She didn't seem to be lying; I'd had some classes on detecting lies from suspects and she had none of the usual tells. Still, it'd be embarrassing to wake up dead.

“Without sleep, you will continue to be weak,” she said. “For quite some time. There is only so much magical healing can do. Your blood loss last night was severe enough that I am surprised that you were still standing. I certainly wouldn't have left if I had realized you were in that condition.”

I hadn't even been aware that I was in that kind of shape. I was going to have to test my new body more so that I could know what to expect; otherwise, I'd end up bleeding to death over some embarrassing accident without even being aware of it.

“Then it's a good thing you didn't know,” I said. “There aren't enough Unicorns in the world.”

“There's only one of you,” Pomprey said. “And the life of a wizard... or even a muggle is more important than the life of a Unicorn.”

Watching her, I wondered if she even realized that she'd just implied that Wizarding lives were more important than muggle lives. It was probably an attitude so deeply ingrained that she wasn't even aware that she had it.

Still, she seemed to mean well.

“Fine,” I said. I drank the concoction and grimaced. “I'm holding you to the protection thing. I won't be amused if I wake up and find that one of the Weasley twins has drawn a mustache and goatee on my face.”

They'd do it, too.

“I'll do my best to keep that from happening,” she said dryly. “Although they do have their ways.”

I was feeling sleepy again. The potion worked faster than any medications I'd had, and I was out again.

By the time I woke, the sun was shining brightly through the windows. Hermione was sitting on a chair next to my bed, and I forced myself to keep from grimacing. I'd been alert enough to wake up when Lucius Malfoy had entered, but I'd had no idea that Hermione had come in.

While she was known to be my friend, there were all sorts of situations where she might have turned against me, ones that Pomprey had no idea about. It would be best if I not accept sedating potions in the future, not while I was in a location like this where nothing was safe.

“Taylor!” Hermione said when she saw that I was awake.“I was so worried!”

“I'm fine,” I said.

“You're in the infirmary!” she said. “You're not fine! People are saying all kinds of crazy things... that you killed a troll with your bare hands, that you killed one of the Slytherin girls.... that Hagrid killed one of the girls and you killed him. But I knew that none of it could be true. What really happened?”

“I killed a troll,” I said. “With a knife, while the others distracted it with flares.”

She stared at me, seemingly speechless. The idea of a child of her age being faced by a real danger was foreign to her; the thought that a teacher would allow something like that was even more so. I'd been doing my best to subtly disabuse her of the notion that adults always knew best.

“H...how did you know how?”

“I lived in a bad place before,” I said.

“America?”

“Not all of it... but there are places that are dangerous, just as there are in Britain. Even Wizarding Britain has Knock turn Alley.”

“But to know how to use a... where did you even get a knife?”

“It's not that hard to turn a stick into a knife if you know how to turn a matchstick into a needle,” I said. “It's just differs in a matter of degree.”

She stared at me. “But you'd have to know what a knife is really like to visualize it that well.”

“I've carried one before,” I said. “We had a real gang problem where I grew up. I was taught how to use one by a good friend... to protect myself.”

“I can't imagine that,” she said. She looked down. “I must seem silly to you, prattling on about little things when you've had real things to worry about.”

If things grew worse for muggleborns, she had things to worry about too. Preparing her for that wasn't going to be easy.

“I saw unicorns last night,” I said. I let a little of the genuine wonder that I'd felt leak out onto my face. “It helped me realize that not everything is dark and evil, that there is some beauty still left in the world. I think it's good that I have normal kids around me... it reminds me that I don't have to be kind of person I was back then, that I can be better.”

It was even true, to a point.

Chapter Text

Stepping into the Great Hall, I was surprised to see that everyone became quiet as I entered the room. Heads snapped around to stare at me, and conversations petered off until you could hear a pin drop.

I could smell the bacon, and so I ignored the staring eyes to sit in my accustomed place. I'd debated trying to change seats so that I'd be less likely to be the victim of an attack, but everyone else tended to have their favorite spots, and I was already making enough waves by just being there.

As I sat, I began filling my plate.

Millie and Tracey were staring at me. “Did you really kill a troll last night?”

I shrugged; my mouth was full.

Apparently recovering a large amount of blood took its toll on the body's reserve; according to Pomprey, I was going to have to eat more for the next few days to make up for it. I didn't mind, really.

“Draco says that all of them helped,” Tracey said.

I was surprised that he hadn't claimed credit for himself. However, he hadn't screamed and run away like most children his age would have done, so he deserved whatever credit he could accrue.

Nodding slightly, I reached for a piece of toast.

“Apparently it was a rogue male,” I said, “The rest of the pack is on the other side of the forest. It was just one of those freak accidents.”

“I heard that the Dark Lord himself sent it to kill you,” Pansy said. “Because he thinks you plan to be the Muggle Dark Lord. That's so stupid though.”

“Oh?”

“Like a mudblood could ever be a Dark Lord... who would follow them?” she asked. “And it's crazy to think that the Dark Lord would even know you existed.... like you're that important.”

“How many times have the Goblins rebelled?” I asked.

“I don't know.... a lot?”

“And according to you, Wizards are better than goblins?”

“Of course.”

“Even mudbloods?”

“...yes....barely.”

“Then if goblins can rebel, why not muggleborns?” I asked.

“Because mudbloods don't have any power,” she said, as though I was stupid to even suggest it. “They aren't even all that good at magic.”

I used my wand to levitate a piece of ham and two pieces of toast from in front of her simultaneously. She didn't seem to notice.

“So why were you in the Infirmary?” Tracey asked. “I'd have thought that you'd have been either dead, or not harmed at all.”

“The troll fell on me when I killed it,” I said. I took another piece of bacon.

“What?”

Everyone was staring at me.

I shrugged.

“How did you let it get that close to you?”

“I killed it with a knife,” I said. “And that requires close up work.”

“With...a knife,” Pansy said. “Not a spell... you didn't even use magic to drop something heavy on it. You killed it with a knife. Is that even possible? Trolls are huge?”

“The skin of their scrotum and the back of their knees is thinner,” I said. “I probably should have transfigured a bigger knife, though. It would have died faster.”

Some of the first years around me looked puzzled, as though they didn't know what I was talking about. The older students nearby looked a little green.

“So you used magic to make something to kill with non-magically?” Pansy was staring at me incredulously, as though I'd grown a second head.

“It seemed like it was resistant to spells,” I said. “What else could I do?”

“Run away?” Pansy asked. “Scream for help?”

“Die you mean?” I asked. I shook my head. “I try not to do that any more than I absolutely have to.”

“How did you know how to kill a troll with a knife?” Tracey asked, as though she was afraid of what the answer would be.

“I grew up in a tough neighborhood,” I said.

“That's a muggle thing, isn't it?” Mildred asked.

I nodded.

That seemed to end their interest in the conversation, which suited me just fine. I'd said all I meant to say, and the last thing I needed was to seem as though I had secrets, even though I did.

I still caught several of my classmates staring at me when they thought I wasn't looking, and through my insect's vision, I could tell that other students where whispering all over the Great Hall behind my back.

At the end of the meal, Dumbledore stood up.

“Last night, you may have heard that there was an incident in the Forbidden Forest. Courage is what is usually attributed to Gryffindor, but last night several students in Slytherin showed great courage under a situation which would have cowed some adult wizards.”

“For courage under fire, Terence Higgs, Miles Bletchley and Draco Malfoy will each be awarded twenty five points. For courage beyond that expected of any child of her age, and for risking her life to defend her classmates, Taylor Hebert will be awarded seventy five points, for a total of one hundred and fifty points for Slytherin.”

There was a collective gasp from the entire room.

There were politics behind the decision, I suspected. Giving points to Malfoy would help ingratiate the school to his father, although truthfully he hadn't run, which actually was worth some kind of an award. I doubted that I would have been as brave at his age.

Giving me the largest proportion of points wasn't simply because I'd done most of the work. It was a way to emphasize my value to Slytherin, to make me more valuable to the group and to help push whatever agenda Dumbledore and the Sorting Hat had in subtly backing me.

I'd been thinking about Dumbledore lately, and it occurred to me that any overt support he gave me would be counterproductive with my House, because of his own unpopularity.

For a moment I wondered why they hadn't had Snape deliver the points, but it occurred to me that having Dumbledore do it prevented accusation that Snape was being biased and attempting to push his House to win the House Cup.

Personally, I didn't care about points at all; it seemed rather arbitrary and meaningless when the reward was a little bit of bragging rights at the end of the year. It seemed to work to keep the peace, though, and so I was willing to work within the system.

I glanced over at Draco, whose chest was swelled with pride. He glanced at me, and I gave him the slightest of smiles. He paled a little and seemed to deflate a bit, but that didn't keep those around him from clapping him on the back and congratulating him.

I didn't get any of that, but several of the older students did nod at me approvingly.

Dumbledore had done me a service, and I would remember that. What he expected from me wasn't clear; most likely his interests aligned with those of the Hat; turn Slytherin from a terrorist breeding ground into something that produced reasonable human beings.

The fact that this aligned with my own goals didn't mean that our goals would always be in synch. I suspected that he'd been delighted to have me in the House despite the fact that it was objectively the worst place for me.

He hadn't gotten where he was without being a master manipulator. He knew how to play the political game. Being a powerful wizard wasn't enough; there had been plenty of powerful Capes in the protectorate who had never risen to the top of their respective divisions. Usually it had been because of personality conflicts or an inability or lack of interest in playing the political game.

As the meal ended and the plates vanished, I stood up and I headed toward the exit. I felt three other people making a beeline for me.

“What do you want?” I asked.

Marcus Flint was standing behind me, flanked by Terence Higgs and Miles Bletchly.

“You saved the team, Hebert,” Flint said. “The boys told us what you did, and we'd have been a Keeper and a Seeker short.”

“Anybody can be replaced,” I said.

“You've obviously never played Quidditch,” Flint said. “I don't like your kind. I don't even particularly like you. But I respect you, and I never thought I'd say that about a first year. Most of you are snot nosed little nothings.”

Was he saying I was worthless as a mudblood, or as an annoying kid?

“But not you. You're mean as a snake, and dangerous as one too. If you have any problems with anybody on the team, let one of us know and we'll take care of it... preferably before you do. Hopefully nobody on the team will be that stupid. I have a feeling that someone might be able to hurt you, but you'd make them pay later.”

“The best way to get her is to drop a troll on her,” Terence said. He was smiling slightly as he said it though.

“Nobody would ever be able to get a troll in the school,” Flint said absently.

“I think if she drank a cheering charm, it would be like deadly poison to her,” Miles said. He was smiling slightly as he said it, though.

This... didn't feel like the jokes that Emma had made. Was this what friendly teasing actually felt like?

Miles and Terence had seen what I had done last night, but instead of making them afraid of me, it seemed to make them... admire me? A little?

I couldn't tell, and that bothered me more than I wanted to admit. The strange warm feeling in my chest was probably a side effect from the potions I'd been drinking.

“You should try out for beater next year,” Terence said.

“She probably weighs less than a bludger,” Flint said. “Beaters have to be strong.”

“She killed a troll with a knife the size of my forearm,” Terence said. “Which means she can probably beat the Weasley Twins half to death without too much trouble.”

Apparently my alliance with the twins was still a secret.

Good.

“She weighs half as much as a bludger,” Flint argued. “I don't care how vicious she is, there's laws of nature. You try to hit something that weighs more than you, you're the one who goes flying.”

“I think she could do it, and without cheating,” Miles said, glancing at me.

They hadn't even asked if I wanted to try out.

“It's too bad that first years can't try out,” Flint said, looking at me as though I would obviously want to try out for a sport I knew nothing about except that it sounded ridiculously dangerous.

I already thought that flying class needed more safety protocols; having kids flying around, beating each other with bats while a hundred a fifty pound ball of iron tried to slam into them sounded like a perfect receipt for a bunch of dead kids.

Yet somehow they made it work, which meant that there were aspects to it that I wasn't seeing.

I'd never been into sports, and I wasn't now. But letting them think I might try out next year was harmless, and if it kept the team's goodwill toward me for a few months while I grew stronger, I didn't have a problem with lying.

Terence and Flint argued, and I stiffened as I felt Miles hand on my shoulder.

In a low voice, he said, “Me and Terence.... we know what you did for us last night. You could have gotten away easy and left us to die, and nobody would have thought anything about it. But you put yourself at risk when you didn't have to, and we'll remember that.”

“You helped,” I said.

He chuckled bitterly. “Using a first year spell against a class XXXX creature? We'd have been dead sooner than later. The Defense teachers over the past few years haven't been good.”

“The one we have now isn't bad,” I said.

“He's the best one I've had,” Miles said. “Most of them aren't worth a crap. You'd think Dumbledore would at least try to put somebody in the most important class, but they say the Dark Lord put a curse on the position.”

“Oh?” I asked casually. “Is that something that can be done.”

He stared at me for a moment, then paled a little. He removed his hand.

“That's seventh year or maybe further stuff. Don't go trying to curse the whole class if you stub your toe or something.”

I smiled at him sweetly, then grinned as he paled some more.

“I remember my friends,” I said quietly. “Even if they can't be my friends publicly.”

He nodded and took a step back. Terence and Flint were still arguing about my potential skills as a beater, which Flint thinking that the physics of the task would defeat me, even if he didn't seem to know the word physics.

“I'll think about it,” I said more loudly, and then I stepped away from them.

As I headed for class, I saw people staring at me and whispering everywhere I went. I listened in as I could, but there were too many conversations all happening at the same time for me to get more than a few fragments of each of them.

“--she's not really a witch. She's a creature pretending to be a witch. How else could she have killed a troll like that without magic?”

That was actually close to the truth; if it became a common rumor I'd have to figure out a way to direct people's attention elsewhere.

“She's a vampire.”

That... didn't even make sense. It was already daylight, and I was clearly walking around in the sunlight right now, as they were staring at me.

“She obliviated them and made them think she killed it. Somebody else did it.”

“Doesn't that make her even more scary?” A second voice asked. “If she can already obliviate people?”

“....yeah.”

That was a rumor that I wasn't going to fight. Keeping people uncertain about what you could and could not do was basic Caping 101. Most Capes always held a little back, just in case. Having people uncertain might make them hesitate in attacking me.

It was going to make them less likely to overestimate me, though, which I did not like.

“I think she's kind of cute,” I heard a boyish voice say. It wasn't a voice I recognized, so it wasn't one of the Slytherins.

“She'll stab you, mate. Just let it go.”

I fought to keep myself from wincing. That was the kind of complication that I did not need. Just thinking about it made me a little nauseous. Kids that age shouldn't even be thinking about pairing up, and it was hard for me not to think about even seventh years as anything other than children, even though chronologically they weren't that far from my actual age.

Sometimes experience aged you.

Vista had always been a lot older than her age would suggest. She'd been through a lot of vicious, nasty fights, and it had made her into someone older than her age.

These kids were still kids. Their concerns were the concerns of children. They hadn't had to fight and die, and had to watch people they loved die in front of their eyes.

That was a good thing, although I doubted that all of them would stay that innocent by the time they graduated.

War was looming on the horizon, even if I was somewhat insulated from it here with the children. There were indications in the Wizarding Newspaper that some of the purebloods left lying around, if you were able to read between the lines.

Wizards were dying of accidents, and it was almost always a muggleborn wizard who had done well for himself. There weren't a lot, maybe one or two a week, but it was a pattern, especially as I'd been told that wizards tended to live twice as long as muggles on average, both due to wizard medicine and their own, innate magic.

It didn't make sense that there were this many accidents in this small of a population. The overall death rate per year in the United States (not counting Endbringer deaths or Golden Morning) had been less than one percent a year. That had included deaths from a lot of illnesses that Wizards could cure with a wave of a wand and car accidents, and most Wizards did not drive.

Old age should have been the main cause of Wizard deaths, and even if Wizards had simply died at half the rate of muggle deaths, there should have been less than fifty wizard deaths a year from all causes. Accidents simply should not happen as often to wizards.

You wouldn't climb on a ladder to get something and fall to your death. You'd just use your wand.

Poisoning?

Wizards didn't use caustic cleaning products like muggles did. Again, a simple swish of a wand meant there was no need.

There were spells to protect from being trapped in fires.

Of course, even Wizards could choke on a piece of food; I was surprised that some of the Gryffindor boys hadn't already died, given the speed with which they ate. Anyone could slip in the shower.

But when those things kept happening over and over to one class of people, it moved from being suspicious to being attempted genocide.

They were keeping it low key from now. I had nop doubt that aurors were investigating the deaths, and that sympathetic pureblooded politicians were obstructing those investigations. There was a battle being waged in the shadows, and for the moment at least, I was out of it.

 

Unfortunately, I knew that was a situation that wasn't going to last. Sooner or later I was going to be drawn into a war that was not my own, and then all this pettiness at school would seem like a distant memory.

Chapter Text

“That's not how you use a shield spell!” Fred exclaimed from the floor.

“Oh?” I asked casually.

Running toward him and smashing him with it had been fairly effective, but I suspected that it had only worked because he hadn't been ready for it. I'd felt feedback when I'd hit him, which meant that my size and weight were a limitation.

He rose to his feet.

“A wizard who has to get close to someone is a Wizard who's dead,” he said. “Everybody knows that. You'd know that too if you weren't a crazy troll killing muggle.”

I shrugged.

Working on shield charms was a major step forward in my evolution as a witch. I was still trying to work out creative ways to use shields, though. What if you could do more than just make a barrier in front of you?

Put a shield around someone's head, and not only could you suffocate them, you could prevent them from speaking spells. You could even fill the shield with something terrifying, like bees, and they wouldn't be able to get rid of them.

If you put shields around their hands, would they be able to gesture with wands?

I was still uncertain whether shields could be moved or shaped; I was still learning the basics. It was something I fully intended to find out, though.

“Can you reshape the shields?” I asked.

Asking a third year might not be the best option, but if something was common knowledge no point in doing a lot of research I didn't have to.

“What do you mean?” Fred asked.

“Change it from this basic shape to something else?”

He stared at me for a moment. We'd been working with each other for a few weeks now, and he likely knew that I never asked a question without having a reason behind it.

“Why would you want to?”

“Well, for one thing, have you heard of muggle tanks?”

The Weasley twins were purebloods, but their father was some government official who dealt with muggle artifacts. That meant they were a little more familiar with technology than some of the other students, although I was still astonished by their ignorance sometimes.

He frowned. “Those things that have water in them?”

“Yes, but there's another kind of tank... an armored vehicle, alike an automobile,” I said.

I knew their father had one of those. I'd overheard the youngest Weasley bragging about it, right before Draco had made fun of him for it.

“Armored?”

“Think of a turtle, except with a shell made out of thick metal,” I said.

He nodded slowly.

“Well, eventually they discovered that having armor straight up and down made it relatively easy to break through. But sloping the armor made it a lot tougher.”

“Why?”

“If something hits sloped armor at an angle, there's a chance that it might bounce off, or be deflected,” I said. “There's other reasons; you can get more armor for less weight or something, but it's kind of complicated.”

“Attacks already bounce off shields,” he said.

“But what if you could change the shape so that the spell bounces right back to the caster?” I asked.

He froze for a moment. “That would be a huge advantage... but there's no way to know what shape could do that. People are going to be attacking you from all kinds of angles, and in the heat of battle you aren't going to be able to figure out the exact shape that you need.”

“But if you could,” I said. “The shape could be changed?”

“Maybe...” he said. “I'd have to do some research.”

“What about putting a shield on someone else?” I asked. “Like if one of you wanted to protect Ron?”

He frowned. “Without being in front of him? That's something I'd have to look up too.”

“You could even use that for a prank,” I said. “If you could make the shield hard to see.”

“How?” he asked.

“Put a shield in front of someone's feet... a small one, and they'd trip.”

“There's already a tripping jinx.”

“But if they check you wand, what would they find?” I asked. I lowered my voice in a weird approximation of his.”Oh, no, Professor, I didn't cast a tripping jinx. You can check my wand.”

He looked thoughtful. “I can see how that might be useful. There's probably other things you could do with it.”

“Turn a shield into a sphere and fill it with water,” I said. “Or something funnier...I'm not really good at pranking people. Then dismiss the sphere when they walk under it.”

He stared at me searchingly. “Why do I get the impression that you don't want to know this for pranks?”

I shrugged. “Maybe I'm getting a sense of humor.”

He smirked. “I'll believe that when I see it.”

“What about a reverse bubbleheaded charm?” I asked. “One that would keep smalls in instead of out? That's make those stink bombs of yours a lot more effective.”

It would also be perfect for more dangerous gasses.... and it would be something that they'd be unlikely to dispel because they were gagging and their eyes watering.

“It sounds like a lot of work for me and George,” Fred said thoughtfully. “But you aren't wrong. I think people would rather have a specific spell for something because it usually works better, but for pranks, you might be right. Doing things people don't expect is key.”

“Like hitting someone with a shield charm?” I asked sweetly.

“That wouldn't have worked if I was ready for it,” he said irritably. He grabbed a towel and wiped his neck.

“I wouldn't have done it if you were.”

He was silent for a moment. “Are you going to the Halloween Feast?”

“A girl's gotta eat,” I said.

“Dumbledore is going all out this year,” he said. “There's supposed to be dancing skeletons. I heard that he was going to wait until next year, but he's changed his mind.”

He was probably trying to distract everyone. I'd overheard some of the students talking about letters from their parents. Everyone seemed worried, even the Slytherin parents, and many of the students had been told to keep their heads down and not make waves.

The older students seemed to be taking this reasonably well, but it was frightening the First and Second year students.

I wiped my own forehead with my towel. Wizarding combat involved a lot of running around, at least the way I did it. It wasn't as good as endurance running; I had considered asking Snape if I could have a treadmill delivered by owl, but I wasn't sure where I'd put it, and the last thing I ended was to have an object that I used all the time, a perfect target for curses.

In the past few weeks since the troll attack there hadn't been any more attacks on me. No one was particularly friendly with me either, other than my core group of acquaintances. The Quidditch team did seem to treat me with a modicum of respect, more than than they did the other first years anyway.

“This has been good for me and George,” Fred said. “We're getting faster, and it's good to practice with someone other than each other, even if it's just a group of firsties. It'll be good for the next time things get heated.”

The school had managed to quiet the open battles in the halls, but there was a simmering tension that hadn't gone away. People were afraid, and in my experience, that fear was easy to turn to anger.

I was having them practice with me, Hermione, Mildred and Neville, although I was having extra sessions the others didn't know about.

“I'm glad you decided to work with us,” I said. “And that you aren't just the jerks the Slytherins think you are.”

“All the Slytherins?” he asked.

I nodded solemnly.

He grinned and threw his towel at me. I dodged it. “That just means we're doing our jobs right. The Weaseleys are the bane of the Slytherins.”

“Draco certainly seems to think that about your brother,” I said.

Draco had been maturing nicely, although he still had times when bits of his former self showed through. This occurred most often around the youngest Weasley boy, although he seemed irritated occasionally by Harry Potter.

“We all think that about Ron,” Fred said. “But that's brothers for you. You can't live with them.”

I waited for the rest of the phrase and he just grinned at me.

“You should have some fun at the party,” he continued. “After all, you're half monster yourself.”

I bared my teeth at him, and he laughed.

He flicked his wand, and muttered and his towel went into his bag. “I'll see you on Wednesday.”

With that, he was gone. I waited in the room for several minutes after he left. While I could tell if there were people watching, portraits were harder, and they tended to gossip. The last thing that I needed was for rumors to spread about what I was doing with an older boy, especially a Gryffindor.

I'd chosen a hallway that didn't have any portraits, but there were always wandering ghosts, and Peeves would be delighted in spreading nasty rumors, especially since he thought there was nothing I could do to him.

With my luck, they'd think that I was drinking his blood. The rumors that I was a vampire hadn't gone away, and there were even some people claiming that I was Snape's illegitimate daughter.

The weird thing was that I couldn't absolutely rule that out, because I didn't know a lot about my host bodies' family life. I could say that there wasn't much of a physical resemblance between us.

Maybe it was because we were both considered intimidating. I'd noticed that Snape purposefully worked at being intimidating, although it had never worked on me.

After facing Jack Slash, the Siberian and Scion, very little was actually intimidating.

As I stepped out into the hallway, I heard the sounds of weeping coming from one of the bathrooms. It was the one that seemed never to be used by any of the girls, even though I'd used it a couple of times.

Stepping cautiously inside, I said, “Myrtle?”

I was at least passingly familiar with most of the ghosts in the school. I had been paranoid enough about them that I had needed that information. After all, they were harder to watch out for than people, who my bugs could sense easily, or portraits, who were limited to one place.

The sobbing noise from the bathroom stopped.

“Go away!” I heard a voice echo from within a stall.

“All right,” I said, shrugging. There was no point in going where I wasn't wanted, and I wasn't an expert in ghost psychology, especially as from everything I had read, they weren't actually the spirits of the dead, but instead were imprints, or copies of those spirits.

They were like magical portraits in a way; they couldn't experience physical pleasure, and their abilities to learn from new experiences were limited; that was part of what made Binns such a terrible teacher, although I suspected that he'd never been a particularly brilliant one.

The room was cold; even colder than the rest of the castle. I'd read that was something that tended to happen in the presence of ghosts, and it might be a way to detect them. My insects could sense cold, after all, even if a ghost was hiding.

The ability to see them at all was a Wizarding trait; muggles would have only felt a sense of discomfort, or coldness, or a shadow out of the corner of their eye. It was enough to make me wonder if there had been ghosts in my old world; most likely not because they were only generated from Wizards.

Some of the worst Pureblood bigots liked to speculate that this was because Muggles didn't have souls. Not all purebloods felt this way, but a few did.

“You don't want to know what's wrong?” she asked.

“You were murdered and are angry about it?” I asked.

I saw her head poke out of the bathroom stall and she glared at me. “That's just what I'd expect from a Slytherin... making assumptions about people.”

“Oh?” I asked. “So I'm wrong?”

“Yes!” she said. She didn't elucidate, though, staring at me as though she was waiting for some kind of response.

“Well, I've got to get going,” I said. “I hope you get over whatever is bothering you... and the dying of course.”

I didn't tell her that I'd been dead before, so I could sympathize. That was the kind of thing that could easily get me dead again, or maybe worse. I'd heard about the Dementors. It took a cruel kind of society to make the death penalty the kinder option.

Having your soul sucked out, and all hopes of an afterlife snuffed, that was truly disturbing; I hadn't even known there was proof there was an afterlife. That was a piece of information that would have set all of humanity back on its respective rumps and made them question everything.

The Wizards didn't seem to know what that afterlife was; like the ghosts, it wasn't a question I could answer either. Maybe this was my afterlife and if so, I had a feeling that I wasn't in the good place. Purgatory maybe?

“None of the ghosts want me to go to the party on Halloween,” she said.

“The party with the dancing skeletons?” I asked. “Isn't everyone going to that?”

“No! The afterparty... it's for ghosts and guests, a celebration of our collective Death's day. Halloween is supposed to be the day we're closest to being alive again, and we like to celebrate it.”

“Weren't you invited to last year's party?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said sulkily. “And that's why I'm not invited this year.”

She started to cry again.

I could see why even ghosts might be reluctant to have her around; her constant complaining and crying would get on anyone's nerves. However, I could remember crying in a bathroom myself because of what others were doing.

Could ghosts be bullied? Were they even truly sentient, or were they simply simulacra?

Did it matter?

Getting them on my side would increase my influence by a great deal. My biggest limitation currently, other than my size and lack of magical ability was the fact that I could only concentrate on one thing at a time. That meant that it was inevitable that sooner or later I was going to miss something.

“Well,” I said slowly. “You need to ask yourself what it would take for you to get invited. Or you need to crash the party.”

“Crash...?”

“Show up without being invited. If you are good, people might not say anything. If you are bad, they'll chuck you out, but at least you'll have tried.”

She frowned. “I couldn't do that... not by myself.”

“Are you asking me to go to the party with you?” I asked. “Uninvited to a ghost party as your plus one?”

“Plus one...?” she asked. Finally she nodded. “That would be great!”

“And it's after the regular party?” I asked.

“The Bloody Baron didn't want to miss the Dancing Skeletons,” she said. “He's invited them to the after party too, but nobody knows if they're going to show up.”

“I'll have to get permission from professor Snape,” I said. “Because it'll likely involve me being out after hours, but I'll go with you if I can.”

She smiled, and what had been a very plain girl was suddenly just a little less plain.

Her smile vanished almost as quickly as it had come, like a summer rain shower. She started sobbing again.

“What is it now?” I asked.

“I wouldn't have to be bothering with all of this if I hadn't been murdered.”

“Right,” I said. “I'll be going now.”

“You'll be there, won't you?” she asked, sounding suddenly insecure.

“I do what I promise,” I said. “Good or bad. Whether I'll come back next year depends on how badly you embarrass me and how angry you make the other ghosts.”

“Embarrass you?” she asked.

“We can talk about what happened last year, and how you can avoid offending the others tomorrow after dinner,” I said. “I've got something I have to do right now.”

She hesitated, then nodded.

I sighed and headed out of the bathroom. Turning this into a win was going to be difficult, especially if Myrtle made it harder for me with the other ghosts. Yet she was trapped here, and being trapped in school for all of eternity was my definition of hell.

I needed to go to the library to look something called Boggarts up; apparently Travers was going to have us face one tomorrow. We were going to be the first class that had seen one, and so I had no lead time from the rumors and conversations of the other classes.

Was that deliberate? Was there something about this monster that would give Travers some kind of an advantage?

I hadn't forgotten that one of my goals was to find out who was doing the killing of the muggleborn, and just as importantly, who it was in the school that had given out all the names.

It had to be a staff member because students had not been present at school when the letters were mailed out. However, I couldn't make the mistake of assuming that it had to be a human staff member.

The house elves pretended to be all nice and subservient, but sometimes I wondered if there was hatred in their eyes. After all, they were slaves, and of course slaves were going to pretend to love slavery. How they really felt might be a different matter.... or it might not. I wasn't discounting them though.

Even Mrs. Norris was a suspect; if McGonagall could turn into a cat, who was to say that some of the other pets in the castle weren't actually people too? She certainly liked to snoop around enough.

For some reason, I felt an underlying sense of dread about tomorrow.

Chapter Text

“Boggarts are not beings,” Travers said. “Does anyone know what that means?”

“It's a kind of spirit that created by human emotions,” Hermione said after raising her hand. “It was never alive.”

“That's important to remember,” Travers said. “They were never born, and they cannot be killed. What are some other examples of non-beings?”

“Dementors,” I said, even as Draco called out “Poltergeists.”

“One at a time, please, and all of you are correct. A point to all of your respective houses,” Travers said. He paused. “Being amortal, these creatures cannot be killed. That can pose a problem for certain kinds of wizards.”

Was he looking at me?

“They can only be dealt with,” he said. “And the means of dealing with them are different with each species. The one factor that all of the spells have in common is that they all deal with positive emotions. Because these creatures are created from powerful negative emotions, the way to drive them off is to use the emotions that are their opposite.”

The entire class was silent. Although Travers sometimes showed signs of being a mild bigot, that wasn't unusual in the Wizarding world. He did have a powerful way of speaking, though. He actually wasn't bad as a teacher.

“The way to deal with the Dementors is the Patronus charm, which is a spell that is rather difficult even for many adult wizards. Fortunately, the spell to deal with Boggarts is much easier.”

There was a wardrobe in the back of the room, and from inside there was the sounds of scratching. The silence of the class made that sound seem to echo. I saw fleeting moments of anxiety on the faces of many of my classmates, even the Slytherins, although they were better at hiding it.

“Boggarts are generated by fear,” Travers said. “And as such, they are driven away by laughter. What other limitations do they have?”

“The size of the room?” Tracey said.

Travers nodded. “A boggart will shapeshift into your greatest fear, but it will size itself to the room it is in. Nundus are huge, but in here, it would probably be the size of a horse.”

“It's weaker than the thing you are afraid of,” I said.

He nodded. “It's a pale reflection of the genuine thing, although the fact that it can copy powers does make it somewhat dangerous. It is less dangerous in a setting with multiple people; it will be trapped, unable to decide whose fears are most pertinent.”

“Some people think they are sentient; others think not. No one really knows, any more than any one knows what they really look like when there is no one to watch them. Ultimately, they feed on fear, and are strengthened by it. Most boggarts are not truly dangerous, but it is possible that given enough fear they could become so.”

Everyone was silent, and I could see the wardrobe shaking. People in the room were growing more tense.

“Knowing what you fear is the first step in overcoming that fear,” Travers said. “And that is what we are going to do today. I have shown you the wand motions for the Ridikulous spell. Given your young age, I do not expect that all of you shall be able to accomplish the spell at first, but I expect that all of you will be able to do it by the end of class.”

“Who will be first?” he said. “Line up. The first three will earn points for their house.”

Malfoy was the first to stand up. He stepped forward, his shoulders tight and a grim expression on his face. He glanced at me, as though he was wondering if I was his greatest fear.

I doubted it, and when Travers flicked his wand to open the wardrobe, I was proven correct.

A tall and skeletally thin man stepped out of the Wardrobe. He was wearing deep black robes, and he was bald. His face was waxy, and his eyes were a deep red. A hood covered his face.

Draco was pale and sweating.

“Remember the spell,” Travers said, leaning down close to his ear.

“Rikkikulous!” Malfoy said. It took him three tries before the figure began to slip and stumble before falling on his back.

Voldemort; it had to be. Was this a true representation of how he looked, or was this just the manefestation of Draco's fears?

Considering that his father had worked for the man, it was possible that Draco had a better idea than most about what he looked like, but it was just as possible that the elder Malfoy had protected him from seeing him.

Hermione was next. She stepped forward, and the creature shifted and changed shape before our eyes.

It's form settled, and I stared at what resulted in shock.

It was me.

My face was looking at her with a cold, dispassionate look. “I don't know why I bother with you. You'll never catch up with me, so why are you even bothering trying? You don't belong at this school anyway.”

“R...Ridikulous!” Hermione said, getting it right on the first try. Her face was red, and she would not look at me.

My figure began to tap dance, grinning in a way that didn't seem quite right. I saw some of the other students shudder.

 

Goyle was afraid of Voldemort too, although his version wasn't as well formed as Draco's. This Voldemort ended up dressed like a woman, in a pink sundress.

Crabbe, though, was afraid of me. I saw myself standing in my pajamas with a bloody sock in my hand. My head was cocked, and a creepy smile was on my face. There was a lot more blood on the sock than I recalled had actually been; had he been one of the students who had seen me, or was this what his mind had created from the stories told by the others?

“Ridikulous!”

My figure was suddenly dressed like a circus clown; somehow that only made me look more disturbing. My grin grew wider, and it soon was unnaturally wide.

“Perhaps at the end of class,” Travers said hurriedly. He stepped toward Crabbe, and the boggart twisted again. This version of Voldemort was much more detailed than Draco's had been.

Did Travers have personal experience of the man?

Half the Slytherins, as it turned out, were afraid of Voldemort. Four were afraid of me, as was one other Ravenclaw.

Pansy Parkinson's fear was a mirror that showed her as being ugly. Daphne Greengrass's fear was of herself in a hospital bed, looking deathly ill.

Blaise Zabini's was his mother offering him something to drink. Apparently not all fears had obvious meanings.

I'd thought of skipping this class; showing my fears to others ran the risk of outing me, or of weakening a position that I had worked very hard to achieve. Yet not showing up would also weaken my position. If people thought I was afraid of a boggart, or afraid to show what my fear was, they might think that I was safe to attack again.

So many students were afraid of Voldemort that I had to wonder what the point of the exercise was. If Travers was a Death Eater, it had to be difficult to watch his boss being humiliated over and over.

Or maybe he was like a House Elf and secretly wanted to see his boss fail.

His expression never altered throughout any of it, although he did take notes?

A quick look over his shoulder with several flies showed that he was noting our fears in a column next to our name. Why was he collecting that information? For his master? Of was it for some lesson further down the line?

I'd been working on a plan all night to deal with this. I'd push my emotions into my bugs, as much as I could. In the past, I'd only been able to push the expression of my emotions into my bugs, but I'd been working on doing it all night, and I'd thought I was able to manage it.

 

What was I afraid of, really?

Being discovered?

I had a plan to deal with that, beginning with my Peruvian Darkness powder and ending with the tunnel to Hogsmeade that the staff didn't think we knew about. There was a floo in Hogsmeade that I could use to get to Diagon Alley, and from there I'd make my way to America by slipping onto a ship.

Before I'd come to this school, I wouldn't have had the resources to have made it on my own, but things were different now. I had stolen several books from the library, books that I would return if this all went well. If it didn't, I'd use them to continue my studies on my own. I'd also looked up the location of America's version of Diagon alley, and I would be able to get supplies there to educate myself on my own.

Leaving Hermione and Neville behind would be painful, but they'd be relatively safe as long as they were at school. It wasn't like I would be able to protect them once they got home anyway.

I'd been storing non-perishable food in my fanny pack for a while now, preparing for the event that I was discovered. I'd heard preppers call it a bug out bag, which I found a little ironic.

In Earth Aleph, preppers were considered crazy cranks. In my world, Earth Bet, with Endbringers, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other dangers, they'd been considered just a little more prepared than the rest of us.

What else could I possibly fear? Most of the fears of my past were things that I had dealt with, which meant that they probably were no longer my greatest fear.

Some of the Ravenclaws were showing obvious fears; being told they were failures, giant spiders, snakes, floating, flaming skulls. Some of them were afraid of Voldemort too, but not as many as the Slytherins, which made sense. Voldemort had to feel closer to people who had death eaters in the family. In some cases, he might even be closer.

Was this an exercise to see who wasn't afraid of Voldemort?

“Miss Hebert?” Travers said.

Sighing, I stepped forward.

The entire class was watching. I casually reached into my fanny pack and pulled out the darkness powder in my left hand, ready to throw it.

Shifting, the creature settled into a familiar form.

It was Lisa, wearing the costume I'd last seen her in; the black bodysuit with purple lines and the domino mask. She was leaning toward me with a look of terror on her face.

“Wake up, boss!”

What?

She reached out as though she was going to shake me.

“You've been dreaming. It's not over! If you don't wake up he's going to destroy everything!”

I felt a chill of horror go down my spine. Had my victory over Scion not been real? Had it just been the feverish dream of a dying brain?

Was this?

Which was more likely... that I'd woken up in another body in a world with real magic, and that I'd ended up going to a school for magic, or that I was hallucinating?

Why hadn't it even occurred to me before?

I'd thought that I'd resolved my issues about school, about Emma and Sophia and Madison. I'd had more important things to worry about for a long time now. Yet here I was in a school again, dealing with bullies in a world where I was no longer helpless.

Was this my minds way of trying to work through that trauma?

“You need to wake up!” Tattletale said. “He's coming!”

She looked behind her and she screamed, and a moment later a blast of light came from another place, hitting her. She reached out to me, as though to beg for my help, but the flesh melted from her skull.

I shook my head. I'd sent the Undersiders away. Lisa wouldn't have been there to try to wake me up. If she was, everything would have been lost anyway. If I questioned my very existence, then what would anything I did here and now matter?

For a moment I closed my eyes and I tried to wake up. Nothing happened.

Sighing, I opened my eyes again, and I lifted my wand.

“Ridikulous,” I said firmly.

The form in front of me shuddered, and a moment later it shifted into another familiar form.

It was me... not the old me, but the new one. My own body looked incredibly small and vulnerable, weak now that I looked at it from the outside.

“I'm still here,” she said. She looked at me entreatingly. “Why won't you let me go?”

It took me a moment to realize the implications. Was this Millie Scrivener? Was she trapped in her own body, living in an unending hell as she watched a parasite take over the life she should have had? Unlike me, she was actually an eleven year old girl, and she'd seen her family murdered in front of her. She'd seen me do things that had to have horrified her.

I felt an old, familiar feeling; it felt like the walls were closing in around me. Was that what it was like for her? Trapped in unending darkness, with no one who cared what had happened to her?

I'd barely even thought about her or her family, yet it was possible that she had been right there beside me all along. Just because this was my boggart didn't mean that the fear itself wasn't real.

After all, for all the children who were afraid of Voldemort, he really was a threat to them and their families.

“Ridikulous!” I said more firmly.

Both of the things the monster was showing me couldn't be true, not simultaneously. That meant that at least one of them had to be a lie, and maybe both of them.

The shape shimmered again.

It was me again; but this time I was standing over a pile of bodies. There were faces I recognized, including people who were in this very room. Hermione, Draco, Crabbe, Goyle...Snape, Dumbledore. I was standing over them with a bloody scalpel. My entire body was drenched with blood.

On the walls behind me, several of the students were pinned up, their torsos cut open with a fine precision. Some of them were skill alive, staring at us with a look of sick horror on their faces, even as their lungs were still moving and their hearts were still beating.

Some of them had been flayed, and thanks to my experiences tracking down the Slaughterhouse Nine, I knew exactly what that looked like. Blood was pooling toward the pile of bodies in the middle of the floor.

I'd seen this before with Bonesaw... no...Riley now. She was better, and I would never....

It wasn't like I'd ever do something like this; take my enemies apart so that I could figure out how they worked; how magic worked. Even if Scion really wasn't gone, I wouldn't...

I was staring down at them all with a dispassionate look, and then I looked up.

“It's a start,” my voice said. It was cold and seemed to lack even the slightest hint of emotion. “But I'll have to do them all. It's for the best.”

“Ridikulous!” I heard Travers say beside me.

The shape flew backwards, and a moment later the Wardrobe closed and locked itself.

“That was... a little more interesting than I expected,” he said. He was staring at me like he'd never seen me before, and looking around, I saw that everyone in the class looked pale. Some of them looked like they were about to vomit, and I could hear a sobbing sound from the back of the class.

Hermione wouldn't look at me.

Was this because of what I'd seen earlier, or because of what she'd just seen? Did she really think that I was the same kind of maniac that I'd spent more than two years hunting down?

I was better than that. I'd done horrible things, but only to stop things that were even worse.

What else would have shown up if Travers hadn't banished the thing? A dead baby?

That would have done wonders for my reputation... knowing that I'd once killed a baby, even if it was only to save him from an unending torture. Boggarts didn't give context, and I certainly wasn't about to explain.

“Sometimes it is difficult to find a sense of humor about these things,” he said, and for once his voice almost sounded gentle. “I will expect results by the end of term, but I think it might be best if you face the boggart on your own. I'm not sure the rest of the class would be... comfortable facing your fears.”

It seemed that everyone in class was averting their eyes. I could still hear sobbing from the back of the class.

Maybe I would have been better to have skipped this class after all. It hadn't left me in a weaker position, but it had possibly damaged my reputation.

Worse, it had left me with some deep, disquieting fears.

Was this world real, or was it all a hallucination, the last gasp of a dying brain? Although I tried to push the thought away, it horrified me on a level that nothing else would have.

Even if this world was real, what about the other fears that had been revealed. Had I stepped into an empty body, or was I trapping a young girl in a hell from which she couldn't escape?

Last of all, was the thing I was most afraid of myself? I'd done a lot of terrible things in the name of the greater good; it got easier and easier to do them the more of them you did. At what point would I lose that last vestige of morality and become the thing I'd always been fighting against?

I'd seen what pragmatism had done to Alexandria, to Eidolon, to Contessa. Was I any better? Would I become even worse when I had much more power than I had now?

All in all, I found myself wishing that for just once I'd stayed in bed.

Chapter Text

“Riddikulous!” Severus shouted.

It was good that he was a talented occlumens; having Voldemort see what he had to do to dismiss his Boggart would likely have resulted in an extensive session with the Cruciatis curse.

Locking the boggart in the box, he turned the corner and glared at Travers, who was coming down the hall.

“You had to teach boggarts,” he snapped.

Travers had the grace to look ashamed. “It seemed important.”

Any other year, Severus would have applauded the effort; it was rare to have a competent teacher in Defense, and students would find a strong background in defense useful in the coming years.

“Then you should have excused Hebert. You were informed of her background.”

“I expected to see her parents dead, not.... what I saw.”

There was a certain cruelty to that, but Travers had always thought of the muggleborn as being a little less than human. It wasn't a sentiment shared by Severus, even though his own muggle father had barely been human. He'd been abusive enough that Severus had a fair idea of what his own Boggart would have been at eleven, and he knew that some of his charges would have similar boggarts.

Even without the present situation, had the man never considered privacy?

“You know how boggarts are created!” Sevarus snapped. “Which is why we're having to deal with... this.”

“I had no idea the girl was so disturbed. I did notice that the muggleborn seemed somewhat less bothered.”

“They've seen similar things on television and in movies,” Severus said. “At least some of them, even if not quite to the detail of her vision.”

The purebloods tended to live more protected lives, at least in some ways, although often what they most needed protection from was their own parents.Muggles did not generate Boggarts, any more than they generated ghosts... only Wizardkind did, and most often Wizarding children, because their fears tended to be more intense, and they had fewer emotional defenses.

There were now Voldemorts and versions of Taylor Hebert being seen all over the castle; along with Giant spiders and snakes. Travers had inadverdently spawned at least a half-dozen boggarts when he'd traumatized a class of first year by showing them exactly what was in Hebert's head.

Even the bits and pieces he'd managed to piece together from his glimspes inside her mind had shown him what a spectacularly bad idea that was. The girl was seriously disturbed; whether it was seeing the deaths of her parents, or brain damage from the Cruciatis curses she'd been exposed to, Sevarus sisn't know.

It was odd that she seemed to have a strange sort of affection for him; it was something that he could read in her body language as much as from her mind. She wasn't afraid of him at all, no matter how much he tried to distance himself from her.

If it had been any other child, he would have assumed it was because he had rescued her from that culvert and the life she had been living. He hadn't seen anything like that in her mind, however. Instead, she had a strange feeling of... kinship with him. It was as though she recognized something in him in herself.

The thought gave him chills. He couldn't even begin to imagine what they might have in common, and if they did, what it might imply about his own sanity.

“We've caught half of them,” Travers said.

They'd caught three. Half a dozen was only an estimation, and most of the ones they had caught had been in the form of Voldemort. The Taylor Heberts had been a great deal; more cunning and difficult to catch, which was concerning in many ways.

If they were a pale reflection of the real thing, but had some measure of whatever Seer ability she was using to seem to know a little bit about everything, they were going to be almost impossible to catch, other than by Taylor herself, and she was still having trouble with the counterspell.

Apparently not having much of a sense of humor was a crippling impediment at times. It made Severus wonder how Hebert would manage a patronus charm. He suspected that she'd have even more trouble with that spell than with Riddikulous. Did the girl even have any good memories?

Sevarus scowled. “They're getting better at hiding; we have no idea how many of them there really are.”

Were multiple sightings actually just the same boggart in different places, or were they different boggarts?

Even sending all of the students to their respective dorms wasn't enough to eliminate the danger. Boggarts were drawn to the taste of fear, and Travers hadn't had a chance to teach the rest of the classes the spell.

“And what will you be teaching them next? The Unforgivables? We'll end up with dead children in the hallways over schoolyard squabbles.”

“I'm not that stupid,” Travers said.

“I've seen your memories in the Pensieve... you should have shut it down sooner than you did. What were you trying to accomplish? The fears of the children in my House could be dangerous; if you had revealed that Mr. Malfoy was afraid of being beaten by his father for example and revealed it to all of his classmates, I suspect that your job would be the least of your worries.”

“I'll take that into account for the future lessons,” Travers said. He scowled. “Why do we even have that girl here? She beat three of her classmates with a sock, and then threatened to push others off the stairs. I don't understand why the pureblood parents aren't demanding her head.”

“Because they don't think a muggleborn is ever going to be a real danger,” Severus said. “After all, they're poor at magic, or haven't you heard.”

“It's not her magic I'm worried about,” Travers said. He grimaced. “I was hoping to get a clue as to what motivates her.”

“I know what motivates her,” Severus said. “I'm far more concerned about what she has experienced. That last memory was too... specific to be manufactured. I fear Ms. Hebert is damaged more than we first suspected.”

“So you will help get rid of her?”

“If I got rid of all the students who inconveienced me, I would be teaching an empty classroom. The Headmaster, in his... wisdom, has chosen to keep her in my House as an object lesson.”

“That muggles are dangerous?” Travers said. “I couldn't agree more.”

“That some of them are competent.”

Travers snorted. “I'm not even sure she's really a mudblood. She's a little too talented, and her first vision showed a spell I've never seen before.”

“There are strange magics in parts of the Americas,” Severus said. “As well as other countries.”

Something skittered at the edge of his vision, and Severus scowled.

“Deal with your mistake,” he snapped, and he headed down the hallway.

************

“Do you really think we're safe?” Tracey asked.

“We'll be fine,” Millicent said. “You know her. She was afraid that she might be terrible, but that means she's not, right? Do you think You-Know-Who would be afraid of what he might do?”

“The thing that scares me is... what if that wasn't what she was afraid of. What if that was the funny version, like putting a Death Eater in a dress or something?”

“The boggart didn't go away until the Professor sent it back,” Millicent said. “It was what she was afraid of.”

“And the rest of it? Worrying that the world isn't real? That's what people who are mental worry about.”

People who didn't think things were real could do anything. Nothing would stop them because there was no sense that there were consequences. Part of the reason some people were so cruel to muggles was that they didn't see them as human.

The thought of someone who didn't think of anyone as human was terrifying.

“Are you talking about me?” Taylor asked, coming around the corner. She was wearing her pajamas, and she looked like she'd just bruhed her teeth.

“No...no...” Tracey said. “We weren't. We were talking about... boys.”

The terror in her voice made her want to jump up and run, but there wasn't any place to go. The girl seemed to know everything even before anyone had said it, and Tracey suspected that she wouldn't be able to hide no matter where she went.

Taylor stared at them, her eyes unblinking. Her head tilted to one side. “You wouldn't lie to me, would you?”

Her voice had gone flat in a way that was terrifying. There had always been something strange about the way she moved, like she was a preying mantis instead of a human being, but when she was angry there was something....

“No...”

Tracey's voice quavered, and she fought to suppress a grimace. Her bowels felt tight, and she felt like throwing up.

“That sounds like a lie,” Taylor said. She took a step toward Tracey. “I don't like lies.”

Her movements became even stranger as she walked forward. She stared directly at Tracey, and there was a look of almost predatory anticipation.

“You know what I do to people who lie to me, don't you?” Taylor asked. She smiled, and her smile seemed to stretch across her entire face. “I make them disappear.”

She snapped her neck to one side, and there was an unnatural cracking sound. She began walking toward them, her limbs moving in an exxagerated, unnatural fashion.

“But before I do that, we're going to have a little.... discussion.”

Tracey screamed, and a moment later a second Taylor appeared at the door. It looked as though she'd been rushing to get to the room, even before Tracey had screamed. Behind her was the Prefect, Gemma.

“Riddikulous!” Gemma shouted.

The Tayor who was closer to them was suddenly wearing a pink tutu and was singing a weird little song. It rushed to jump into their wardrobe.

“I'm not sleeping with that in there,” Tracey said.

“I'm afraid of You-Know-Who!” Millicent said quickly to the real Taylor, who was staring at the both of them.

“I'll get the professors,” Gemma said. “I've got your wardrobe locked so it can't get out.”

She left, leaving them alone with the real Taylor.

“I'm not afraid of you,” Tracey said.

“You should be,” Taylor said. Her smile grew and grew, and her face turned into something inhuman, and almost insectisoid.

She started walking toward them, her arms and legs twisting unnaturally with a strange cracking sound. “I've got to start somewhere, don't I?”

Tracey gasped and woke up.

**********

“We've got more than a dozen traumatized students,” Madam Pomprey said. “And this Bevy of Boggarts is not making the situation any better. I ran out of calming potion three hours ago.”

“It was perhaps unwise for Mr. Travers to hold his lesson in public,” Dumbledore said. “Some of the students may have fears they would have rather kept private.”

“And her?” Madam Pomfrey asked. “She's showing signs of serious instability.”

“Is it any surprise?” Dumbledore asked. “What would you have me do? Expell her? She'd be dead within two weeks. You know what's happening out there, and she hasn't made any friends among the Pureblooded parents with the things she has done.”

“”I'm just concerned,” Madam Pomfrey said. “I'm almost as concerned about the first two visions as the last. Someone who believes that the world is not real... if the world is not real, why hold back?”

“I believe that her last fear means that she doesn't really believe that she is dreaming,” Dumbledore said. “As you say, why worry about killing everyone if they are just a phantasm? In a way, I am relieved to see the contents of her final fear.”

“Why?” Madam Pomfrey stared at him, horrified.

“Because it means that she is not lost,” he said. “That image is not one that Voldemort would have ever had, because he would not have believed that it mattered what he did to anyone other than himself. She is actively afraid of hurting other people.”

“She's rather good at it for someone who is afraid.”

“And that's why she is afraid,” Dumbledore said. “Precisely because she is good at it. She has skills that are... unusual for someone of her age. Those do concern me. Yet I have seen hints that ultimately she is a good person. She protects the innocent, and the helpless, and she is not dangerous if she is treated with even a modicum of respect.”

“This is a school full of children!” Madam Pomfrey said. “Most of them at an age where respect is the last thing they understand.”

“Then perhaps it is time they learn,” Dumbledore said. He expression tightened. “Being told that they are superior has given some of the purebloods ideas....ideas that make them vulnerable to certain outside influences.”

“Miss Hebert is not an object lesson. She could have killed any of those students.”

“But she didn't. She applied exactly the amount of force she intended to, and no more,” Dumbledore said. “She has shown a level of restraint that is surprising in someone her age.”

“If that is what you call restrait, I'm not sure I want to see what losing control would look like.”

“I think we already have,” Dumbledore said. “My greatest concern is the detail of her final fear. Had that been an image taken from muggle entertainment, there wouldn't have been the other elements.”

“Other elements?”

“You didn't notice the smells?” Dumbledore asked. “To my regret, I have seen a scene like that once, when I was in Africa, and I will never forget how it smelled. Those smells were absolutely authentic, and if the Death Eaters have escalated to that level of cruelty, then we have much more to be concerned about than we thought.”

“So you plan to speak to the girl?”

“I think I must,” Dumbledore said. “If only to find out more about the crimes that have been perpetrated against her. It is something I should have done at the beginning of term, but I suspected that she was too traumatized to deal with it. However, now I am reconsidering. Some boils should be lanced, after all.”

“Muggle quackery,” Madam Pomfrey sniffed.

“They do the best they can,” Dumbledore admonished mildly. “And their methods are much less barbaric than they were even when I was a child. Perhaps one day they will surpass us.”

Madam Pomfrey sniffed. “As though that will ever happen.”

“As soon as this situation with the Boggarts is resolved, Miss Hebert and I will have a chat,' Dumbledore said.

“Good. It's about time.”

***********

“You didn't see it,” Hermione said. “It's... I don't know what to think.”

“You can't hold somebody responsible for what they're afraid of,” Neville said, leaning close to her. “At least she's not afraid of Professor Snape.”

 

Hermione laughed mirthlessly. “The only thing she's afraid of is herself. That's what everybody is saying.”

“Well,” Neville said. “That's good, right? If she is worried about killing you, that means she cares about you.”

“She's afraid she's going to snap and kill everybody,” Hermione said. “Not just me, or you, but all wizards everywhere.”

“She couldn't do that, could she?” Neville asked, frowning. “It's silly to think that one wizard could do something like that.”

“You-know-who wants to kill all the muggles, and they outnumber us six thousand to one,” Hermione said. “I can think of a couple of ways to kill all of us, and if I can, I know she can think of ten times as many.”

“Wait... how?”

“I'm not going to tell anybody!” Hermione said, staring at him. “Those aren't the kind of ideas that you talk about.”

“Imagine that you had those kind of ideas all the time,” Neville said. “Because you'd had to have them to defend yourself. Wouldn't that worry you?”

Hermione was quiet for a moment. “It worries me that I can even think of the things that I've been thinking about.”

“How much worse must it be for Taylor? Even imitation Taylors are giving the Professors a run for their money, at least from what I hear.”

The students were being escorted to and from class by Prefects, and otherwise were being confined to quarters. The library was one of the few places where students from other houses could still talk to each other, and so it was more crowded than usual.

“You're mate is mental!” Hermione heard a redhead say loudly from one table over. Apparently he'd been listening to their conversation. She needed to learn the muffling charm, sooner rather than later.

Hermione fought the urge to make a rude gesture. The last thing she needed to do right now was to lose house points. She was already getting pressure from older members of her house about associating with Taylor. The general consensus seemed to be that she was a dangerous, unstable loner.

If it was this hard for Hermione, how much harder was it for Taylor? To have the whole school look at her and think she was mental, or worse, a killer?

Taylor had always seemed above it all, as though the words people used didn't bother her at all, but Hermione knew that couldn't be true. The fact was that the boggart had proven that she had emotions, that she could be hurt.

She felt her face flush.

“What must she think of me? She saw my boggart!”

Neville patted her on her back, but it did nothing to eliminate her shame.

Chapter Text

Over the past few weeks, I'd had my detentions with the various heads of houses spread out. I suspected that was partially because they hadn't wanted to deal with me. I'd ended up having a single detention a week.

Professor Sprout had been relaxing; we'd mostly worked with plants and I'd talked about my limited experience in gardening when I was a child with my mother. That hadn't amounted to much, but working with Sprout had been relaxing in a way I wasn't used to. She hadn't been judgmental, and she gave off the feeling that she would actually support you in whatever you did.

It actually made me a little jealous of Hufflepuff.

Snape was supportive in his own way, but it wasn't the same in Slytherin. There, even the first years had to be on guard with what they said to each other, lest it be used against them.

Professor Vector had me writing out star charts. I was still struggling to see the significance of her class, and so this was actually remedial work for me.

Homework didn't really influence final grades anyway; all that was important was the final exams. Homework was simply for keeping track of what students understood and where they needed help. I wasn't sure I liked the system; I really did believe that some students didn't test well, and it put a lot of importance on the result of a single test.

However, I didn't really care all that much.

My detention with Professor Flitwick had involved my teaching some of the remedial students some of the charms I had mastered. It had opened my eyes as to just how slow and recalcitrant some of the younger students could be. The fact that they'd been purebloods had been proof that the stereotype of muggleborn as not being good at magic wasn't true.

Detention with Snape had been the same as always; being forced to work with ingredients that most children found disgusting. For obvious reasons, cutting up flobberworms and dealing with insect parts didn't bother me at all, and I was careful enough in what I did that it didn't bother Snape all that much.

He'd done his best to ignore me during the detention, likely because he felt that my talking to him would make it less of a distraction. I'd spent much of the time mindlessly going through the motions while I was listening in to things happening in the Slytherin common room.

However, now I was supposed to go to detention with Professor McGonagall. I'd threatened her Gryffindors. She was better at hiding her bias against the Slytherins than Snape was in his bias against her house, but it still showed somehow.

Worse, now that the boggart issue had made things worse for everyone, I had a feeling that the professors were irritated with me. It was getting a little tiring having people pointing their wand at me and shouting Riddikulous all the time, even if I understood the reason.

The boggarts seemed to have an uncanny ability to sense what was around them, one that didn't have anything to do with bugs. It had taken me a little while to realize that their abilities had nothing to do with my own; what they had was the version of me that other people perceived.

It meant that they knew when people were coming, and it also seemed to mean that they could sense fear from a greater distance. They seemed to be feeding on that fear, and they stalked the halls because that seemed to be what people thought I did.

I was just glad that none of them seemed to be me in vampire form; apparently nobody had really believed that rumor in any kind of a real way.

The fact that they couldn't be trapped made it even worse. They had to be trapped and transported to a place where there was no fear to be had. Even muggle fear would be enough to sustain them, although it would be a pale imitation that would leave them sickly and weak.

It also wasn't something they could generate, since muggles couldn't really perceive them. To a muggle, a boggart only manifested as an uneasy feeling in the pit of their stomach when they saw an open dark closet at night, or heard a creak in the corner.

The boggarts would fade away eventually if they had no fear to sustain them. How long that would take seemed to vary from boggle to boggles, and wizards didn't seem to have any comprehension of a scientific study.

No one was even sure of just how many boggarts there were; I had a suspicion that there were more than the official count, because I could feel some of them at the edge of my senses with my bugs.

The boggart incident wasn't making me any friends, and it wasn't likely to make McGonagall happy with me.

Gemma was scowling.

“I'm not sure why I need to escort you to detention; clearly you aren't one the students who is scared of them.”

“I still can't get the Riddikulous spell right,” I said. “Apparently, I don't find my own fears very funny.”

“Well, at least if you see another one of you coming down the hall, you know it's not you,” she said. “I woke up in the middle of the night with one sitting on my chest. Do you know what that's like?”

“I heard the screaming.”

“I'm a prefect!” she said. She looked a little frazzled. Lacking sleep apparently wasn't good for her. “I'm supposed to be the one that comes and takes care of the little ones when they have nightmares. I'm not supposed to be the one who needs help.”

At least the one that had attacked Gemma hadn't been in my form. I'd taken note of the students who were most afraid of me, and just as importantly those who weren't.

“I'm sure I'd be just as startled,” I lied.

Apparently I wasn't as convincing as I'd thought, because she looked at me skeptically.

“We're here,” she said, with what sounded like relief.

“Miss Hebert,” Professor McGonagall said. Her voice was cold, and conveyed none of the warmth I occasionally heard from her when she talked to some of her own house.

“Professor,” I said, my voice as neutral as I could make it.

“After the things you did to my students, I was very concerned about your continued presence at this school,” she said. “Which is why I chose to have my detention be the last of your detentions. That would give me a chance to observe you and overcome my own... biases.”

“And what have you concluded?” I asked.

“Until recently, you have been an exemplary student. Your penmanship is beginning to improve, and you seem to have the writing skills and mind of an adult.”

I fought to keep myself from wincing. Did she know what I was, and was she fishing, or was she trying to offer me the sort of complement that any other eleven year old would have been flattered by.

“That is why I feel that I can be honest with you,” she said. “I am worried about you.”

“What?”

“I saw the pensieve memories of your boggart,” she said. “And those are not the fears of an ordinary, well adjusted girl.”

“What's a pensieve?” I asked.

“Wizards have ways of extracting memories and allowing others to view them,” she said. “To step into a memory and move around within them.”

I stared at her in horror.

“That's.... that's a violation,” I said.

“A certain degree of cooperation is required,” she said. “Else the memory will not be reliable.”

“So if someone goes to trial, they can just use this pensieve thing to prove they aren't guilty?”

She shook her head.

“It would be easy for a criminal to simply obliviate himself,” she said. “To wipe his own memory of the crimes. Already criminals sometimes obliviate their victims to make tracking them more difficult.”

There must have been something in my expression, because she grimaced.

“I did not begin this to give you ideas for further atrocities, Miss Hebert,” she said. “I am here to speak about my concerns for you.”

“Could a pensieve work on things that someone didn't sense?” I asked. “If their eyes were closed?”

“I'm not certain,” she said slowly. “It is true that the pensieve sometimes allows the study of things that the original user does not remember seeing. It is possible that they actually saw these things, but were not aware of them, though.”

“So if someone only had the memory of voices,” I said. “Say, of their parents' killers, there might be something that could be done with that?”

“Pensieves are rare,” she said. “Only the most powerful wizards have them.”

“Like the headmaster,” I said.

She stared at me.

“You said that you had viewed the memory; that means that the device is likely here, in the school. The most powerful wizard in all of Great Britain is the Headmaster. It's not a great leap of logic.”

“I'm not used to children of your age using logic much,” she said.

“Any wizards, really,” I said.

She looked vaguely offended.

“Muggles don't have the same advantages that wizards do,” I explained. “Which means that they have to think harder if they want to get anything done. Also they have the advantage of a greater talent pool.”

“Oh?”

“Imagine that there were only ten wizards in all of Britain instead of ten thousand. The law of averages suggests that at least half of them would be idiots. Most of the rest of them would be normal, and there might be one or two of them who is exceptional.”

She nodded cautiously.

“One person can't do that much by himself,” I said. “And a genius surrounded by idiots is limited. Every genius needs competent people around him, or he will be stunted in what he can do.”

She was silent, watching me closely.

“So ten thousand wizards will have five thousand idiots, and maybe one thousand competent people. That's barely enough to run a society. The muggles have more competent people because they outnumber witches and wizards by six thousand to one. There are a lot of stupid muggles, but there's also a lot of competent muggles out there, which wizardkind doesn't want to acknowledge.”

It was why large high schools tended to field better football teams than small ones. It wasn't that the players on small rural teams were terrible; occasionally there were some really good ones. It was because the available talent pool left coaches with more to pick from. In a class with twenty boys, putting together a football team pretty much involved including everyone who wasn't actually in a wheelchair.

Wizarding Britain had the population of a small town. Worldwide, the Wizarding population would have had a third the population of Jamaica.

“Whatever your thoughts are about the Wizarding world, you have to live in it, dear,” she said. “Perhaps if there are things you do not like, you will work to change them?”

“I will,” I said. “As soon as I have the power.”

“Preferably without murder and mayhem,” she said.

I was silent.

She stared at me and then she sighed.

“Severus tells me that you tend to see these sessions as additional tutoring. These are supposed to be punitive, and although you have been doing better, you still have to pay for your crimes. After thinking about it, I think I will have you muck out Thestral stalls.”

“The bone horses?” I asked, surprised.“Do they even defecate?”

She didn't look surprised that I could see them; supposedly only people who had seen death could see them, which made me wonder if I could see them better than anyone else. After all, I had seen more death than anyone in this entire world.

“Not as much as an ordinary horse, but they are living beings, dear. Hagrid has been reinstated as of yesterday, which means that the stalls haven't been mucked out in a month. I would like you to report to him at his hut and he will show you what to do.”

“I like horses,” I said. I smiled up at her slightly. “Thank you. You could have done something terrible, like having me dust the restricted section in the library.”

She stared at me for a moment, and then gave a startled laugh.

“You'll have to wait for a naive replacement of Mr. Travers before you get one of those. There's not a professor in this school who would be that foolish.”

I shrugged. “It was worth a try.”

I'd known she wouldn't go for it, but since she'd been this decent to me after I'd threatened to murder her students, I'd thought it would be worth a laugh.

“We aren't done speaking about this,” she said. “Knowing what you've gone through, I can only imagine how difficult it might be.”

“You can understand how I might not want to talk about it, either,” I said. “I appreciate the fact that the staff hasn't spread around what happened to my parents, leaving it up to me just how much I wanted to talk about it... or not.”

“I haven't heard that you talk about it at all,” she said.

“Even so,” I said.

“Sometimes it is good to talk about these things,” she said.

“I understand the point of therapy,” I said. “But there isn't anyone in Hogwarts, and maybe not anywhere in Wizarding Britain who is trained as a counselor, and a muggle therapist wouldn't be allowed to hear anything about this world.”

She frowned.

“Professor Snape told me on the day that I met him. I don't know why some Squib or minimally competent Wizard doesn't go to school to get a degree ; it looks like Wizards could use counseling.”

“More now than ever,” she murmured faintly.

Was that a comment about me, or about Voldemort? Maybe both? I couldn't really read her meaning.

“Off with you now,” she said. “Rubeus is expecting you sooner rather than later.”

“All right,” I said. Looking up, I asked her, “Is using a pensieve difficult?”

“They are difficult to make,” she said. “But not to use. However, some skill is required to extract the memories. I do not believe that you will be able to break into his office and use the headmaster's pensieve without his assistance.”

I looked up at her, startled.

“I have taught at this school for much longer than you have been alive,” she said. “Which means that I know how young people think. For all that you are a Slytherin, I think you have many qualities of my house, including bravery, but that also means you can sometimes make foolhardy decisions.”

Shrugging, I said,”My decisions seem perfectly logical to me.”

“I'm sure they do, dear,” she said. “The question is whether they will seem the same way in ten years.”

“Judging that would require me to still be here in ten years,” I said. “Which is what I'm trying to do. I'd love to just.... what do ordinary Wizards do, anyway?”

“They work for the Ministry,” she said. “Or open their own shop.”

“So government or the private sector,” I said I frowned. “Maybe I could open a private security company? Bodyguards, protecting assets, that sort of thing?”

“It sounds like you'd like to be an auror,” she said.

I shook my head. “They don't get paid enough and nobody likes them.”

“The only people who fear aurors are people who have done something wrong,” she said.

I smirked. “You still believe that. In the hands of a corrupt government, police become thugs and enforcers. In the worst cases, they become agents of terror, who make people disappear to be tortured and then killed. It's endemic in the muggle world, not just in past history, but right now.”

“That wouldn't happen here,” she said.

“Wouldn't it?” I asked. “Can you tell me that there weren't sham trials after the last war, where people who were rich were released because they claimed to be under some kind of curse, while the poor were killed or even worse, Kissed?”

She was silent, frowning.

“When the rich get to make the rules, people lose faith in the system,” I said. “Why follow the rules if you do not think they apply to the fellow down the road?”

“The poor are usually not the ones who revolt,” I continued. “But they usually follow those who are richer, and the problem is that if they win, they tend to become the rich ones, and then the cycle starts again.”

“So cynical for someone of your age,” she said.

“Family murder tends to do that,” I said. “I think Hagrid is expecting me?”

She nodded and I stood up.

“If I need anything, I will call you,” I said. “But I'm doing my best not to need anyone.”

As I left the room, my bugs overheard her murmuring, :That sounds like a lonely life.”

Shoveling thestral crap wasn't the worst detention I could have been assigned, and if I was lucky, I might even be able to find new kinds of bugs I had never seen before. Feces often had weird kinds of larvae in them, and magical feces might have magical larvae.

Or maybe it would just be crap. That was the story of my life, after all.

Chapter Text

“I'm not surprised yeh can see em,” Hagrid said. “But I'm kind of sorry that you can. I feel like it's my fault.”

“You think it was the troll?” I asked, surprised.

We were in his hut, having finished the long, sweaty job of cleaning the thestral stalls. I had no idea whether what they would have left behind would be invisible or not; I could see them just fine, so it stood to reason that I could see their manure just as easily.

“Wasn't it, though?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Death eaters killed my parents and tortured me,” I said. “I thought all the staff knew.”

He stared at me.

“Sometimes they don't share things with me... they think I can't hide a secret.”

I'd cleaned my hands and arms, but I still felt grimy and uncomfortable. Still, Hagrid had been the one to introduce me to the Unicorns, and he was my best bet at getting to see them again, so I needed to stay on his good side.

He shook his head. “That thing with the troll... it shouldn'ta happened. I just didn't think it would...”

“It wasn't,” I said. “I know how to handle myself.”

“Kids yer age always think they do,” he said. “But its not yer job to take care of yerself....not yet.”

“Who else, then?” I asked. “I don't have anybody left, and school is well and good, but the professors won't always be here. I've got to learn to defend myself, just like every witch and wizard.”

“Yeh think it's bad here,” he shook his head. “It's worse out there. There's a lot the papers don't talk about; the Ministry doesn't want people to panic. It's not just muggleborns disappearin.”

“Oh?” I asked casually.

“I shouldn't be tellin ye this, but aurors have gone missin too... and not just muggleborns.”

I nodded.

“And they just vanished, without any sign of where they went,” I said. “What do you think the odds are that it was just a series of unfortunate accidents.”

“That's what some people are sayin... that bein an auror is dangerous, and there's gonna be more losses some years than others. The Headmaster doesn't believe it, though.”

“He shouldn't,” I said. “Muggle wars tend to be about attrition. Whoever has more men and weapons to keep throwing at a problem tends to win. I think it's probably the same with Wizards... except that it's harder to replace a skilled Wizard than it is to build another gun. I'll bet he's getting rid of the most dedicated aurors too, leaving the ones who are more likely to fall into line for alter.”

Hagrid frowned.

“That means they have to have people inside the aurors organization who know everybody well enough to know who the hardliners are, and who will likely follow the new administration.”

“New administration?”

“Voldemort's planning to take over the Ministry, isn't he?” I asked. “Or replace it entirely, but it's probably easier to take it over first.”

Hagrid winced at my use of the name, then shook his head. “He always wanted to tear it down. That's why he kept attackin the muggles last time; the Ministry spent so much time trying to keep the secret that it came close to collapsing.”

“Well, either way, I bet a skilled auror takes a long time to replace,” I said.

It was why crossbows replaced longbows, and muskets replaced crossbows. They weren't really superior weapons, at least at first, but they were easier to use. A skilled longbowman took years to train, but musketmen could be replaced quickly.

Wizards were closer to skilled bowmen. They took years to become competent with magic, and once they were gone, they were hard to simply slot someone else in. Aurors had an even more specialized skill set.

“Have they been training aurors up over the last few years?” I asked. “Or are there fewer than there used to be.”

“The Ministry's been cuttin back on them,” Hagrid said. “No war, and things were quiet., so they didn't see the need.”

“Presumably his people pushed for that over the years,” I said. “They spent years weakening the Ministry from within, like termites eating away at a house. You can't see the rot on the outside, not until it's too late.”

I was starting to respect Tom Riddle a lot more.

He'd been killed, and yet his servants had been so convinced that he was going to return that they had continued to carry out his plan. Or maybe they hadn't believed he was coming back but a weakened Ministry had fit with their own goals. Either way, it had left him in a batter position once he'd returned.

“You seem to know a lot about wars for a little girl,” Hagrid said.

“You obviously haven't been a little girl,” I said, grinning. “It's a kind of war just getting through every day.”

I carefully set my hot chocolate down. I'd thought the trick with the rock cakes was to soak them in liquids until they were soft enough to be eaten by someone who wasn't at least partially inhuman. I'd been soaking mine for almost half an hour, and they still weren't edible.

“Have you ever seen a pensieve?” I asked.

“Headmaster's got one, I guess.”

“It sounds like a handy thing to have,” I said. “Being able to look over memories. You might be able to catch things you missed.”

“They don't work that good for me,” Hagrid said. “I'm tough against magic.”

“Well, that sounds handy too,” I said. “Which means that you should probably watch out.”

“What? Why?”

“The last war, a lot of people pretended like they were under mind control spells. My bet is that this time, there really will be... unless the Ministry has an easy way to detect those.”

Hagrid shook his head. “If it was easy, people wouldn't have been able to plead out.”

“I'm guessing the people who have gone missing are some of the people who'd be able to resist the spell?”

He nodded slowly.

“So you'd be tough to control?” I asked.

He frowned. “I've had stunners bounce offa me. Nobody ever tried to use the Imperius on me.”

That he remembered. The problem with Masters was that if they could make you forget that you'd been mastered, you'd never really be able to tell if your thoughts were your own. The Master-Stranger Protocols had been the best that the Protectorate could come up with.

I'd had the resistance training, but that was no guarantee that I'd be able to resist magical mind control. These people didn't have anything, as far as I could tell.

It had been bad enough in my world; one in eight thousand people had been parahumans in the more crowded towns, and of those, only a small proportion had been Masters. That meant that there were probably only a few Masters in any given town, and many of them were people like me who could control things that weren't humans.

But in this world, any adult wizard who chose to learn the right spells was potentially a Master. It was illegal, but that had rarely stopped anyone who was determined.

Someone who had a dedicated group of followers who weren't worried about the law could accomplish a lot if they were careful. It was a dangerous strategy; they had to make sure that every single attack went through, and not a single enemy escaped.

They had to keep the aurors from realizing that they had been attacked until it was too late, and they were probably doing this by putting their own people in positions of power, or by controlling the minds of the people who were in power.

If they'd already done everything they needed, there would be no need for secrecy, but for the moment they were likely getting into position.

It was a long term strategy that showed better planning than I'd expected. Everything I'd heard from my listening in to the conversations between the Slytherins in Hogwarts suggested that the Ministry and the Newspapers were the two main sources of power in the Wizarding world.

They didn't have armies, because they didn't have to. Every Wizard had his own weapon, and in an emergency, the women could be called up as easily as the men.

But if rumor was correct, Voldemort had put a curse on the Defense position, which would have crippled the training of years of Wizards. According to the Weasley Twins, a lot of adults couldn't even master a basic Shield spell. That had to be due to years of incompetent teachers.

After all, adults had no trouble with other sorts of magic, the kind taught by Flitwick and McGonagall. It was only in Defense that they were weak.

If that had been part of his plan, I had to appreciate his cunning. He'd essentially neutered the younger members of Wizarding society for ten years or more. Most likely the Pureblood children who were the children of his followers would receive extra, competent instruction in the summers.

“If you're hard to control, then you might end up a target,” I said. “Maybe not now, but eventually. They might try to use the Ministry to do it, too,” I said.

Hagrid scowled. “That happened to me when I was a boy.”

“So be careful,” I said. “I'd like to see the Unicorns again at least once before I die.”

“Get permission from the Headmaster or Mr. Snape, and I'd be happy to take you,” he said.

I nodded. “It's getting late, I'd better get going.”

It was dark as I left Hagrid's hut and started my way back up toward the castle. There was a cold breeze, and I shivered in the October wind. Brockton Bay was cold in the winter, but I didn't have the same kind of warm clothing here as I did there.

Additionally, I was smaller, with less body fat, and that meant that I felt the cold more intensely, especially in the dungeons. I kept meaning to learn the warming charm, but I'd been busy with half a dozen other projects, including learning defensive magic, keeping up with schoolwork and spying on my classmates.

I was making my way up the lawn when I heard a sound behind me. I froze; my bugs weren't seeing anything, but there was an unfamiliar smell.

Suddenly aware of how dark it was, I reached into my fanny pack and pulled out my Bowie knife. I'd heard that some Wizards could disillusion themselves, and it was possible that one was following me right now.

My ears strained to hear any other strange sounds, but the grass was soft, and it would have been very easy for someone to walk silently on it.

I hurried to get to the castle. I'd be safer there from an invisible opponent, if only because their shoes were likely to make noise on the hard floor. I'd also be closer to help if I kept to hallways that had portraits; while they couldn't do anything on their own, they could leave their portraits and get a professor, or the Headmaster.

Dealing with Strangers had always been unpleasant; Aisha had been annoying, but she was on my side.

Disillusionment wasn't taught at Hogwarts, which limited the people it could possibly be. It almost had to be an adult, or at least one of the older students who had picked the spell up somewhere else.

I began to gather a swarm of gnats; here in Scotland they were apparently called midges. It was hard for them to fly in this amount of wind, but I didn't need for them to attack someone. All I needed for was...

There.

One of my gnats impacted something that it couldn't see, and once it did, it vanished from the sight of the other midges around it. The invisible figure was behind me and to the right, and it was catching up to me rapidly.

I was tempted to attack him, but it was possible that it was only Snape or Dumbledore spying on me. I didn't think that was the case, and if it was an enemy wizard, I'd be in a lot of trouble.

I could use my bugs to create a distraction, but that was a last resort, as it would get rid of my greatest asset in staying alive.

There was one other choice, however.

Reaching into my fanny pack, I grabbed the Peruvian Darkness powder, and I threw it behind me, ducking as a spell flew over my head.

Not Dumbledore then.

I began to sprint for the castle doors even as the darkness spread out behind me. Fighting an adult wizard would be stupid; what I needed to do was to get to a place where there were a lot of people, and there weren't many places like that at this hour.

A spell flashed past me again, but it wasn't well aimed. They were still inside the darkness and were shooting blind. I had several gnats on him or her now, and as I reached the gate, I slipped inside.

He'd expect me to head straight for the doors, but at this hour there wouldn't be anyone in that part of the castle. Instead I sprinted to the left, heading for the greenhouses.

 

I managed to turn the corner as they moved through the gate.

They'd stopped when I'd dropped the Darkness Powder, probably because they'd assumed that I was going to go on the offense. In retrospect I probably should have, but if they were a decent wizard, I'd have ended up with an unforgivable to the face.

They were heading toward the doors now, slowly. Apparently they expected me to ambush them. That increased the chance that it was someone at the school who was doing it, or at least someone who was receiving letters and information from someone at the school.

My bugs saw a golden light surrounding the area I knew my invisible assailant to be in, and a moment later footprints began to appear on the grass; my footprints. How they knew they were my footprints as apposed to the hundreds of others that had passed through the area on a day to day basis I did not know.

Maybe they were able to demand that it only show the most recent set of footprints.

Cursing under my breath, I sprinted for the side door. It lead into a hallway filled with classrooms to my right. I reached the end of the hall and turned right, just as a spell flew over my head. I had midges on their wand now, so I could tell where they were aiming.

Halfway down the hallway, the entrance to the Headmaster's office presented itself.

“Chocolate cockroaches,” I said, hoping that the password hadn't changed.

The gargoyle let me in, and I quickly made my way up the stairs toward the Headmaster's office.

“Miss Hebert,” Dumbledore said. He was still in his daytime robes.

“I'm being chased by an invisible Wizard,” I gasped.

Not doing more endurance running was proving to be a problem. I doubted that I'd have been able to run much further, and that was terrible considering that this was only a fraction of the distance I;d been able to run in my own body.

He frowned and stood up, leaving the office.

I stared at his flaming bird, who stared back at me, then snapped at one of my bugs. I felt the invisible wizard moving rapidly away, and moments later he was outside of my range.

It was five minutes later when Dumbledore returned. The time seemed to stretch out, and I simply stood and stared at a painting as I kept track of what he was doing with my bugs. The genial, grandfatherly demeanor he affected for the students was gone when he thought that people weren't watching.

Instead he was coldly efficient in his investigations, and I saw glimpses of why he was considered the most dangerous Wizard in all of Britain. Whatever his motives, from his expression I gathered that he took the safety of his students quite seriously, despite the contradiction involved in all the usual dangers in things like flying class and Quidditch.

Finally, he returned, grandfatherly mask back in place.

“I found a set of tracks following yours,” he said. “Although the portraits didn't see anyone following you. They did see the discharge of a wand aimed at you.”

“Did the tracks leave Hogwarts, or did they double back?” I asked.

“I could not ascertain,” he said. “There are spells that can obscure tracks, and they used them.”

“So it wasn't a student,” I said.

If they were able to obscure themselves from Dumbledore, they weren't just a schoolboy. The fact they they'd known he was coming wasn't as indicative. Apparently almost every British Wizard had gone to Hogwarts; which meant that even the adults would know where the Headmaster's office was.

“I've been wanting to speak to you,” he said. “Would you like a lemon drop?”

I shook my head. I'd heard of Veritaserum, and there were probably other things that could be put in candies that would make it easier for him to interrogate someone. While he didn't seem like the type to drug a student, I couldn't simply assume he was as good as he pretended to be.

“Perhaps you'd like to take a seat.”

I frowned. I'd been wanting to ask him about the pensieve, but I had a feeling that he was intending to ask a lot of questions that I could not answer.

However, if adult Wizards had found me here at Hogwarts, I couldn't simply wait.

I sat down.

“My first question is how you knew there was an invisible person behind you in the first place,” he said.

Chapter Text

“I know things sometimes,” I said. “It's part of what kept me alive when I was on my own after my parents were killed.”

That was true in multiple ways.

I stared at my hands. Looking him in the eyes would be a mistake; Dumbledore was supposed to be the most powerful Wizard in Britain, possibly the entire world. It was possible that he could do things with mind reading that weren't in any of the three books I'd read.

None of the books had even had that much detail; I suspected that someone had censored the Hogwarts library, although it was possible that the books were in the Restricted Section.

Dumbledore frowned, staring at me as though I was an interesting puzzle. I could see him perfectly well despite looking at my hands through my bugs.

“Sometimes a young witches' accidental magic does what it has to to keep them alive,” he said. “It's rare for them to be able to use it consciously under the age of eleven, though.”

“I don't think it happened until after the murder,” I said. “If it had... I think things might have gone differently.”

I likely wouldn't have been here at all, and instead another child would be standing here in my place. That wasn't something that I was willing to share; it was possible that Dumbledore would insist on exorcising me to save Millie Scribner, even if she was really already dead.

“You certainly seem rather... competent in the things you do,” he said.

I laughed, and the sound seemed bitter even to my own ears.

“What other choice do I have? Lay down and die? Either I'm better than the people around me, or I'm dead. There's no ground in between.”

“Not even unicorns?” he asked.

I froze, then shook my head.

“Unicorns are a happy dream, but I can't enjoy them unless I'm alive. You know what's out there even better than I do. We don't live in a world where a muggleborn can afford to relax.”

“So let us get back to what happened. Your special sense alerted you that something was wrong,” he said.

“And then I heard a noise,” I said. “Maybe a rock, maybe the sound of a robe swishing. It was quiet at the moment that I heard it, and when there's a sound where there should not be a sound, you take action.”

“I saw the cloud of darkness outside,” he said. “Peruvian Darkness powder?”

I nodded.

“I threw it behind me. If I was wrong I was only out a little powder. I wasn't wrong.”

“I followed your trail,” he said. “You made for the greenhouses. Were you planning to come and see me?”

I shook my head. “I hoped to put him off, but I didn't know about that tracking spell. Once I saw him use it, I ran.”

He was silent for a moment, frowning in thought as though I was an interesting problem to be solved. He obviously wanted to ask me more questions, but he knew that pressing me was likely to make me clam up entirely. What exactly did he want to know from me?

“Most students would not have done nearly so well,” he said. “Nor many adults.”

“I'm not most students,” I said. “Do you have any idea who might have done this?”

“Other than Voldermort's followers, the family of Mr. Avery and the family of three Gryffindor students?” Dumbledore asked. He shook his head, even though I wasn't looking at him. “You've made a lot of enemies, Miss Hebert.”

“So what are you going to do about it?” I asked.

“What I should have done from the beginning,” he said. “I will place anti-intruder charms on the walls and the gates. It will not protect the grounds but it will keep intruders from coming within the walls.”

“You didn't have those already?” I asked in disbelief. “I thought Hogwarts was supposed to be one of the safest places in Wizarding Britain?”

“Part of the reason for that is that most British Wizards consider it sacred ground, Miss Hebert,” he said. “Even during the first war, Voldemort did not attack Hogwarts, and so far it has not been a target... now that it has, steps must be taken.”

“I suppose that means my Hogsmeade weekend is off the table,” I joked, smiling a little.

“It is perhaps fortunate that First years are not allowed to go. There would be a problem in any case as parents are required to sign a permission slip.”

Right. My parents were supposed to be dead.

“Has there been any progress in finding a family to keep me for the summer?” I asked. “I'm planning to stay over the winter for obvious reasons, and I'd be perfectly happy staying here over the summer too.”

“Unsupervised?” he asked. “No, that would not do. Most of the staff have lives outside of the school, and much of those lives are explored when school is not in session.”

I scowled and looked over his shoulder. There were so many books and small objects to look at that it was easy to excuse not looking at him in the eye. I wasn't sure which one was the pensieve. Did he even keep one in his office.

“There are still several candidates to take you,” Dumbledore said. “But I would prefer to keep the decision as to who until we are closer to the summer break. There have been unfortunate incidents involving information at this school.”

“You don't think I'd tell anyone?” I asked. “I understand how important secrecy is.”

“I'm sure you do,” he said. “But you can understand the need for secrets.”

“If I find that they are unsuitable, I'll likely end up in a culvert somewhere,” I warned him. “Although with what I know about the Wizarding world now, I'd probably do a lot better than I did the first time.”

“Magic performed around young wizards tend to be detected,” Dumbledore said.

“So remove the Trace from me,” I said, looking up at him. I stared at his beard. “It's the only way to be sure that I'm safe.”

“The Trace is inviolable,” Dumbledore said. “And not easily broken, even by me. Only time itself can break it.”

I grimaced, not sure that I believed him.

“There are places that are protected by magic,” Dumbledore said. “That can't be found. Perhaps you will be placed there.”

“And then my guardian is confounded, or mind controlled, and suddenly we're having Death Eaters over for dinner,” I said.

“Secrecy is the best guard against something like that,” he said.

“There doesn't seem to be many other options,” I admitted. “Maybe leaving the country for the summer might help... assuming I haven't angered anyone enough to have them send someone after me.”

He thought for a moment, then nodded.

“Perhaps a grand tour,” he said. “Europe is nice in the summer, and I know some people who are planning just such a trip.”

“Are they people I'd get along with?” I asked suspiciously.

“Does it matter?” he asked. “I think you see yourself as a pragmatist, Miss Hebert, and for the sake of your survival you would put up with even very disagreeable people knowing it was only for a few months.”

I nodded slowly.

“You don't seem as impulsive as other children your age,” he continued. “In many ways, you seem older than you really are.”

I frantically shoved my responses into the bugs in the walls. What did he know?

“But that often happens to children who have been through great trauma,” he said. “They feel that they must be adults, and in your case, that's not entirely untrue.”

I hid my relief just as I had my moment of panic.

“Still,” he said. “I would like to do more about finding the people who have killed your parents.”

“The pensieve?” I asked.

He stared at me, one eyebrow raised. “You have heard about them?”

“Professor McGonagall mentioned it,” I said. “I'd be perfectly happy to show those memories to you, but I have some concerns.”

“The pensieve requires the consent of the wizard,” Dumbledore said. “Resisting would degrade the images to the point of being incomprehensible. The wizard also chooses the memories that are revealed; should we proceed I will require that you focus on everything you remember from that night.”

“I don't remember being tortured,” I admitted. “I don't remember anything prior to waking up next to my parents' dead bodies and hearing them talking.”

“It's strange that they would have bothered to obliviate you,” he said.

“Maybe they didn't,” I said, “Maybe it was just the trauma of what happened that made me not want to remember.”

For all I knew, I really was Millie Scribner, and my accidental magic had simply summoned the memories of Taylor Hebert to replace my own. That was an explanation just as horrifying as the idea that I had taken over the body of a screaming child.

“Perhaps,” he said slowly. “Is this something you are ready to try?”

I nodded.

He pulled out his wand and came to stand next to my chair. “This will not hurt.”

“That means it will hurt,” I said. “When nurses say it won't hurt, it hurts, and when they say it will be a big stick, it doesn't hurt much at all.”

“Then I should tell you it will hurt tremendously,” he said. “And allow you to be disappointed. Instead you will feel a coldness at your temple, and the memory itself will fade somewhat, and become less intense.”

“So you could use it to help people with trauma then?” I asked.

“What?”

“If you can make memories less intense.... people who have been through horrible things are sometimes tormented by the memories,” I said. “If you can make them forget, even a little, wouldn't that help them get better?”

He looked startled, and then a moment later, thoughtful.

“Are you speaking about yourself, Miss Hebert?”

His expression didn't seem to be about me at all. Instead he seemed preoccupied and was making conversation just to make conversation.

I shook my head. “I don't remember any of it at all. That's probably why I'm so well adjusted.”

Sometimes a joke could deflect people's attention away from things you didn't want them to talk about. I'd had two years of court mandated therapy, but the Protectorate had continued to place me in stressful situation after stressful situation. Or maybe it had been me who had done that. It had felt like I was damaging myself as fast as the therapists had been healing me.

A small smirk appeared on his lips. “I'm sure that is true. Shall we begin?”

I nodded, and looked down at my hands again.

“I want you to remember the day of your parents' murder.... anything you can remember,” he said “Focus on that memory, as hard as you can.”

I thought back, and focusing, I felt something cold at my temple. My eyes were closed, but my bugs saw a sine of something silvery being pulled from my temple. Dumbledore frowned, and then he put the stuff into a vial.

A moment later it was done. The memory in my head felt.... faded somehow. It was still there, but it was a shadow of its former self. It was like several years had passed in an instant, and the memory seemed less important.

Someone who knew what they were doing could change someone's personality like this; remove traumas, make other things seem more important. There were people back on Earth bet who would have killed to be able to do this, and it was in the hands of an old man who used it to what, remember where he'd put his bathrobe?

I opened my eyes, and Dumbledore held the vial up to the light.

He did something, and a moment later a hidden cabinet in the wall sprang open. A podium slid out; it's top was a metal bowl filled with water.

Stepping toward it, Dumbledore added the silvery strand to the bowl. I found myself steeping toward it without consciously meaning to.

An image of my own face was swimming around inside the bowl; fortunately it was my new face, and not my old one.

“What do we do now?” I asked. My voice was hushed. This felt strangely momentous.

“We put our faces in the bowl,” Dumbledore said.

I stared at him, for a moment forgetting to avoid his eyes. Was he really expecting me to put my face in the same bowl that he had? Was the water cleaned, ever, or had it been used by the Headmaster and all of the Headmasters before him? Surely it would have evaporated at some point.

“It's the only way,” he said gently.

I sighed, and I waited a moment, and then I lowered my face into the bowl. I kept an eye on him with my bugs, and I had one hand on my wand. I saw that he was lowering his face into the bowl as well, and after a moment I relaxed, as the magic overtook me.

There was blackness surrounding me, but somehow I was able to see Dumbledore surrounding me.

“I think you enjoyed that a little too much,” I heard a voice say.

“A man who doesn't enjoy what he does isn't a man at all,” the second voice said. This voice was much deeper, and it was raspy. There was a deep rumble to his voice.

I frowned. I didn't remember them saying that, not at all. I listened intensely. The first man had a tenor voice, with a slightly different accent than what I was used to.

Dumbledore held up his hand, and everything stopped. He frowned.

“The first voice had a West Midlands accent,” he said. “The second has a Yorkshire accent.”

I looked at him in confusion.

“I suppose as an American you cannot tell the difference, but imagine that you heard two men talking, and one was from your South, and the other from New York. You'd be able to tell the difference.”

“Do you recognize either voice?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“I fear that I have seen hundreds of students in my time as headmaster, and even if I remembered all of their voices, adult voices change over time.”

He lifted his hand, and everything started up again.

“It's almost too easy,” I heard the first voice say again. “Killing muggleborns before they get their letters. Why didn't anybody else ever think of this?”

“Because Hogwarts keeps the Book locked up tighter than a Gringott's vault. Even our man inside only got a look at a few names, or we'd be making a clean sweep this year.”

The second man sounded regretful. Now that I knew what the terms meant, I could understand what they were saying better.

I listened as they made their way through the rest of the conversation. The sound at the end I now recognized as the sound of apparation. I hadn't heard it very often, but it was distinctive.

 

Suddenly the world around us exploded into full color, and we were back in the alley.

The alley was dingy, and Millie's parents were lying on the ground five feet away from me. I looked small from this angle, smaller than I thought of myself as really. It looked like we'd been dressed out for a night on the town.

They hadn't taken anything from her purse. That would have been a clear sign to police that this wasn't a robbery gone wrong.

I rose slowly to my feet and I looked down at them dispassionately. I was staring down at my own arms, and muttering “What the hell?”

I looked down at the people who were supposed to be my parents, and there was no emotion at all on my face. Instead, I walked over to the woman and rummaged around in her purse. I found a pocket mirror, and I opened it, staring at myself.

Running my hands up and down my body, I watched myself do a quick check of my own body, obviously looking for injuries. When I didn't find any, I dug through the woman's bag, and rolled the man over and took his wallet.

It was chilling how blank and lacking emotion my face was.

“Not the reaction of most girls your age to the deaths of their parents,” Dumbledore murmured from beside me.

“I was in shock,” I said.

We watched as I rifled through their wallets, looking at the money and pulling the rings off the womans fingers and the earrings out of her ears.

“I know this looks bad,” I said. “But I did what I had to in order to survive.”

Taking the man's keys, I headed for the street. I tried several cars before I found the right one, and I slipped into the seat, which was on the wrong side.

I pulled the seat up as far as it would go, and my feet barely reaching the pedals, I started the car and I drove off, somewhat unsteadily.

The vision ended, and suddenly I was pulling my face from the pool. My face was wet, and Dumbledore dried it with a wave of his hand.

I hadn't meant to show as much of that memory as I had. Was this going to cause him to look at me differently?

Chapter Text

“I loved my parents,” I said. It even had the benefit of being true. The fact that the people on the ground hadn't actually been my parents wasn't something that he needed to know. “I know what it looks like, but I was in shock.”

Dumbledore was watching me with a look I couldn't interpret.

How much had he already guessed, and how much had he gotten wrong? He didn't have all the pieces of the puzzle, but people had made intuitive leaps before, and he'd had a long time to learn how to judge people, especially if he was basically able to read minds.

“You seemed rather...focused,” Dumbledore said mildly.

“It's how I deal with problems,” I said. “Focus on solutions, and worry about crying later. What should I have done? Sit there and cried?”

“It's what many would have done,” he said.

“They said they had people in the police department,” I said. “That meant that the moment the police reached me, they'd realize I wasn't dead. I'd be dead shortly afterwards. I knew I had to get away.”

“I don't have a lot of experience with driving,” he said. “But I have not seen many children your age behind the wheels of cars.”

“It's more common in rural areas of America,” I said. “Where a child might have to drive a parent to the Hospital if he was bitten by a rattlesnake or suffering from a meth overdose.”

I didn't say that I'd been raised in such an area. If he chose to infer that, who was I to complain?

“And the fact that you didn't recognize the car?”

“It was a rental,” I said. “And my memory was still a little scrambled. Whatever happened to me had left me a little confused, and it wasn't until later that my mind cleared up.”

The best lies were those that had some truth to them. I was still confused about what had happened. Had some higher power placed me in a new body, or had it been Millie's accidental magic looking for someone to avenge her? The worst possibility was that I was in a coma somewhere, either during Golden Morning, or possibly just after the locker.

Maybe my whole career as a villain and hero had been a lie created by a mind that was desperate to have some kind of power, any kind of power over what happened to her.

Dumbledore was silent for a moment. He watched me intently, but I didn't raise my eyes. I watched him carefully through my bugs, though, looking for any sign in his body language about what he was thinking. I didn't get anything, which wasn't surprising. Not only was I not the best at reading body language, he'd had more than a century of learning to hide his.

“You haven't spoken much about your background, Miss Hebert,” he said finally. “You've said that there is no close family in the United States. Not even a grandmother, or a second uncle?”

 

“I'm the only member of my family that's left in this world,” I said. “There's no one else. You think I'd fight this hard if there was someone who would take care of me?”

I probably would, but he didn't need to know that.

“You have chosen not to share your family situation with your classmates,” Dumbledore said. “And I and the staff have chosen to respect your wishes. Yet is it perhaps unhealthy to bottle up feelings that to all reports you have not yet expressed?”

“I'll cry when I'm dead,” I said. I realized that this sounded a little harsh from the expression on his face, and so I rushed to explain.“I learned a long time ago that crying doesn't do anything but make you look weak, and in this world, looking weak is a good way to get dead. It doesn't mean I don't care

He was silent, so I continued.

“I'd have been perfectly happy as a Hufflepuff, but the Hat wouldn't let me,” I said. “Isn't it supposed to take student's wishes into account?”

I gave an irritated glare at the Hat, which was sitting on a shelf. It sat there like an inanimate piece of felt. I hadn't forgotten my anger at it; a lot of my problems were a direct result of the Hat's decision. Was it listening to us right now, or was it sleeping?

How much had it already told the Headmaster, and was he playing some kind of game with me? It might serve his interests to pursue the fiction that he didn't know what I was.

“I've never seen anyone who belonged in Slytherin more than you do,” Dumbledore said after a long moment. “Which, contrary to what my opponents may think is not a slur to your character. Slytherins are shrewd and cunning. They are ambitious, and they have highly developed senses of self preservation. What they do not have to be is evil.”

“I'm not evil,” I said. “I care about other people. I'm just not as emotional about it as some.”

“You've chosen to protect the innocent,” Dumbledore said. “Despite the risk to yourself and to your standing. That's a rare quality these days.”

“All that's needed for evil to win is for good men to stand by and do nothing.”

He smiled at me sadly. “If only more people felt that way, I doubt we'd be in the situation we're in at the moment. I would like to show this memory to some colleagues of mine... perhaps they might recognize the voices where I do not.”

“Don't show it to aurors,” I said. “I've heard they have people in the Ministry, and if aurors find out that I'm not dead, they'll redouble the attempts on my life.”

“Your existence is public record,” Dumbledore said. “And you have already made enough of a splash that every parents of a Hogwarts student undoubtedly knows about you, as well as the friends and family of those parents. I'd say that you are probably the most famous child of your age who is not involved in Quidditch, or of course Harry Potter.”

“I haven't put it out that my parents were murdered,” I said. “Which means that if the Death Eaters find out, then the person who is revealing the name must be one of the people here who told them.”

Dumbledore looked dubious. It seemed obvious to me.

“One would presume that they would know whom they had murdered,” he said. “Else they would not be murdering.”

“Would they really remember the names of those who they killed? Muggleborns aren't actually people to them.” I said. “What's another mudblood to them?”

He winced at the epithet, but nodded his head.

“My face might be a different matter,” I said. “Which is why I plan to stay out of the papers, or at least not to have my picture posted.”

“Perhaps that would be wise,” he murmured.

I was silent for a moment. “If they really have infiltrated the aurors, it would be easy for them to call me in for questioning, and then have an unfortunate “attack” on the way to the Ministry. I get killed, along with whatever Ministry stooge that is guarding me but not working for them, and they kill two birds with one stone.”

“You have a rather pessimistic view of the world,” Dumbledore said.

“I'd say I'm never disappointed,” I said. “Although I am occasionally pleasantly surprised.”

Dumbledore shook his head sadly. “I had hoped to be able to provide you with seven years of education that are to be some of the best years of your life. Hogwarts is meant to be a haven from the outside world.”

“That's not realistic,” I said. “The world outside moves on, and the things that affect students' families affect them as well. From what I understand the country is close to war again.... possibly an attempted coup, or possibly a civil war. Hogwarts isn't going to be able to stay neutral from that.”

He stared at me for a moment. “You seem well educated in politics.”

“My mother was a professor,” I said. “It certainly wasn't because of my school.”

She was an English professor, but she'd taught me how to read and think for myself. Also, the Wards had been forced to take classes in political science, because understanding the dynamics of how people worked together was helpful when dealing with the interplay between multiple gangs.

“And because you grew up in a place where the rule of law was weak, where children had to protect themselves and where authorities at school failed you, you believe that it is your responsibility to care for yourself.”

Apparently he'd been paying more attention to the tidbits I'd let slip to my classmates than I'd expected, or maybe he was extrapolating. Hopefully he wasn't as good at it as Lisa.

“Isn't it?” I asked. “Old people look back at childhood as being this wonderful time, but that's because all they remember is the high points. It's just as terrible as the rest of people's lives, just in different ways.”

“I'd say there was wonder in each stage of life,” Dumbledore said. “And I've experienced almost all of them.”

“I'd like to live to be as old as you,” I said. “Maybe even as old as the Flamels, assuming I could keep my health and my vitality. But the only way for that to happen is for the people who are trying to kill me to stop doing that, and that's not going to happen unless they are dead or in Azkaban.”

He looked as though he wanted to argue, but he didn't say anything.

“So if you would find out who is doing the murders, and who here is informing them, then maybe I could enjoy my childhood.”

Dumbledore sighed, and then said, “I will escort you back to your rooms, and then I will begin the additional security preparations to protect the school. I expect that I will have a long night tonight.”

“I stink,” I said. “So I'll probably need a bath first, but I'll be going to bed as soon as I can afterwards. I actually like thestrals. They're a little strange looking, but they seem gentle.”

Our trip through the hallways was quiet and he escorted me down to the dungeons.

“Back from detention, Miss Hebert?” Snape asked, stepping out of his office as we approached.

“Miss Hebert's detention was rather more exciting than any of us expected, through no fault of her own,” Dumbledore said. “Perhaps once Miss Hebert is safe in her rooms, we can discuss some things.”

“I got to see horses eat a dead cow,” I said brightly, smiling widely.

“Enjoying life's little pleasures, Miss Hebert?” Snape drawled. He waited until I turned around to Dumbledore to shudder.

They escorted me to my rooms, and I waited for them to leave and then I gathered my toiletries and prepared for my bath. The Headmaster's office was within my range from the bathroom, if only barely, and I wanted to hear what the both of them had to say.

As I ran my bath, I listened in to Snape and Dumbledore as they walked through the hallways heading for the office.

“Miss Hebert was attacked on her way back from her detention, by a disillusioned attacker on the grounds.”

“I presume the attacker is not dead?” Snape asked. “Given her usual methods I would have expected to see more blood.”

“For once, Miss Hebert decided to do the prudent thing, and she used Peruvian Darkness powder to escape.”

“Being ambushed by someone who is disillusioned isn't something most Witches would survive.”

Dumbledore said, “She says she sometimes just knows things, and that this sense gave her enough warning to act.”

“She does seem to have a preternatural ability to know things she shouldn't know,” Snape said. “Although it does not fit with the usual pattern of Seer's ability.”

“Perhaps given her unusual drive to survive, it is a form of accidental magic that she has chosen to develop into an unusual kind of skill.”

Snape just looked thoughtful.

“The intruder's tracks headed off the grounds, but its possible that they circled back. I've taken the liberty of wakening all the portraits, and I've got them watching for any disturbances that might indicate a disillusioned intruder, especially at the entrances to the House Dormitories. I've got the House Elves doing a head count now.”

When had he had a chance to do all that? He hadn't been outside of my range for very long. Maybe he'd done it while I was watching him.

I'd heard it was possible to do silent, wandless magic, but if it was true, then this was actually impressive. He'd sent messages without my being aware of it, which was concerning on a lot of levels.

“Miss Hebert also consented to give me pensieve memories of the night she woke after the attack on her and her parents. I have viewed that memory, and I'm inclined to think that I may have misjudged your opinion of her.”

“Oh?” Snape asked neutrally.

“Take a look at it, and tell me if you recognize the voices of the perpetrators,” Dumbledore said.

I luxuriated in my bath as I listened to them going through the motions of their investigations. Apparently all of the students were where they were supposed to be, except me. That was a relief; if meant that the perpetrator was someone outside the castle.

Snape and Dumbledore spent the better part of an hour casting spells on the walls and gates, and by that time I was in my bed and struggling not to fall asleep. I still struggled sometimes with my body's needs.

Figuring out a way to do endurance running was going to be a challenge. It would be years before I was able to transfigure a treadmill, and I doubted that the castle staff would let me put one in my room.

I needed a solution.

The stairs in Hogwarts might have kept my waistline relatively thin, but it hadn't done anything for my long distance running ability. Yet it sounded like the spells they were casting weren't able to cover the grounds, only the walls and the gates of the castle.

My other option would be to run up and down the stairs in the girl's quarters. It would be monotonous, but it might do the trick, at least until the girl's started complaining.

Finally I heard Snape and Dumbledore returning to the Headmaster's office.

I watched as they both placed their faces in the bowl, and I wondered what kind of defenses they had to protect themselves. If I'd wanted to assassinate them both, I could have done it easily, assuming I'd been a little closer. I actually wasn't sure how long it took to view a pensieve memory. Was it in real time. Or was it at the speed of thought?

It seemed to be in real time, which was dangerous as far as I was concerned. Maybe Dumbledore had some kind of protections set about for when he was vulnerable like this; I certainly would have, even in the sanctum of my own office.

After what seemed like a long time, but could have only been a couple of minutes, they both stood up, gasping.

“Avery and Selwyn,” Snape said grimly. “They wouldn't have done this on their own, but as far as I know, the Dark Lord hasn't put out a general call to arms.”

“Perhaps they have decided to show some initiative to win his favor,” Dumbledore said. “And climb in the ranks.”

“Maybe,” Snape said. “Or perhaps the Dark Lord is being careful in how he is issuing orders. If he keeps most of the organization from knowing what the rest is doing, then he can more easily ascertain who any moles are.”

“A troubling thought,” Dumbledore said. “One that we must consider at length. On the other hand, what do you think of Miss Hebert's behavior.”

“My opinion of her hasn't changed,” Snape said. “Despite the appearance of being an innocent eleven year old child, she is a dangerous person. Given sufficient time and training in magic, I suspect that she could rival Bellatrix, or perhaps even the Dark Lord in how dangerous she is.”

“Do you think she is lost?” Dumbledore asked, and for once there was no trace of grandfatherly kindness or anything in his voice. There was just cold calculation.

I had an uneasy feeling that Snape's response was very important. If the most powerful Wizard in Britain thought that I was going to be the next Voldemort, what would he do? It was like encountering Hitler as a toddler.

I'd read a story once about a man who'd let a German soldier go during World War One, a soldier who had been a young Hitler. The man had regretted it for his entire life.

Was that what Dumbledore was thinking about?

Snape was silent for a moment.

“I think her fears would not be what they are if she were,” he said. “I suspect that she wishes to be a good and kind child, but it is not in her nature. That doesn't mean that she plans to become a Dark Lord... I rather suspect that she'd rather not bother, and that she'd only attempt it if she felt she had no other choice.”

“And what would make her feel that way?”

“If she felt that the Dark Lord was becoming ascendant, or if she felt threatened. Otherwise, she would be content to remain where she is and bother no one as long as she is not attacked.”

“Very much your House's namesake, Severus?”

“Ironic, isn't it,' Snape said dryly. “The muggleborn snake ascendant. That would make the old guard have an apologetic fit.”

Chapter Text

“For reasons that I am sure many of you understand, it has beome necessary to make some changes that are effective immediately,” Dumbledore said at breakfast the next day.

“The outside doors and walls have been warded against intruders. Those who are Hogwarts students will still be able to get inside, but those who are not will require permission to enter. This includes parents, Ministry officials and aurors.”

The crowd around me burst into low murmurs at that. Dumbledore waited a moment until the murmurs died down.

“Students are not to be on the grounds after dark,” he called out. “First and second years are not to be out on the grounds at all without being accompanied by at least one older student.”

I understood the reasoning behind what he was saying, although I heard an angry murmur from the younger students. It didn't seem to bother the older students as much, although many of them seemed confused.

“An intruder attempted to attack a Hogwarts student last night on the grounds,” Dumbledore said. “He remains at large.”

I saw several of the Slytherins looking at me. I carefully kept my face neutral. It was well known that I had detention last night, and I was sure that several of them were going to ask questions of me the moment the meal was over, if not before.

“The news is not all bad, however,” Dumbledore continued. “Tonight is the night of the Halloween Feast, and I can confirm that the Dancing Skeletons will be in attendance.”

An excited murmur sprang up from all around me. Considering that ghosts were an everyday occurrence here, I couldn't understand why dancing skeletons would be considered such a big deal. I still suspected that Dumbledore had hired them in an effort to defuse tensions around the school. From what I was hearing around me, it might not have been the worst idea he ever had.

“Secondly, the ghosts are having an after party. Those students who wish to attend must receive the permission from their head of house, although I think that in this case they may be lenient.”

Dumbledore smiled genially at the crowd. “With any luck, this will be the best Halloween celebration since last year!”

He waved and sat down.

“Hebert,” Draco demanded. “What happened last night?”

He was on the other side of Pansy. He'd made sure to always keep at least one student between me and him at all times for the past few weeks. Whether this was because he thought it would give him more time to go for his wand, or to preserve the illusion that we didn't have anything to do with each other, I didn't know.

I shrugged.

“I haven't heard about anybody dead,” he said. “It was you that got attacked, right?”

“I didn't see anybody coming back from Detention last night,” I said, which was technically true, even if not true in principal.

He deflated.

“It's not like it'll make much of a difference,” I said. “It wasn't like you spent a lot of time by the lake anyway.”

“I see enough of it from the bottom,” he said dismissively. “Why would I want to sit outside?”

“So does anybody know what they are serving tonight?” I asked. “I've been smelling pumpkin all morning.”

“You wouldn't believe how many things they can make with pumpkins,” Millie said enthusiastically from her seat on the other side of me.

Draco made a face. Apparently he didn't like some of the offerings.

Pansy made an oinking sound, and I cast a stinging jinx at her. I had my wand in my lap.

She jerked upward, and turned to glare at me. “You shouldn't encourage her. She'll never find a husband if she keeps eating like that!”

“I'd ask what business it is of yours,” I said cool, “But what if she wants something more than being the wife of some pureblood?”

“Well, it's not like it's an option for you,” Pansy said. “Somebody would have to be crazy to get married to you. You'd end up with more husbands than Blaise's mom, dead because they forgot to pick up their socks.”

I noticed that she didn't say I was unmarriagable due to being a mudblood. From Pansy that was actually a sign of progress. Or maybe it had finally sunk in that I didn't punish when criticisms had truth to them.

Not that I expected to have a lot of husbands. The thought of dating right now was... unappealing for a lot of reasons. I couldn't date any of these children, even if I'd had my original body because even those who were almost the age that I had been once were still children in terms of life experience.

Anyone adult who would date me underage wasn't someone I would contemplate either.

Even when I got older, there were things about the Wizarding mindset that didn't seem like they would make for a good partner. I'd need an equal before I became interested, and there weren't many people in this world I felt like that about.

Any, really.

“I might go into government,” I said. “And take Millie with me.”

“Muggleborn never get anywhere,” Pansy said, authoritatively. “You've got to know the right people to get anywhere in the Ministry, and they.... don't.”

“You think that would stop me?” I asked.

“You'd have to murder half the Ministry, and then they'd put you in Azkaban,” she said. “The Headmaster wouldn't be able to protect you from that.”

“We'll see,” I said, more to get a rise out of Pansy than for any other reason.

I caught Draco giving concerned looks at me.

Ignoring him, I waited until the meal was over before rising and following Hermione, who was rushing out of the hall. She'd been doing that ever since the unveiling of my boggart, and she'd been making all kinds of excuses to keep from talking to me. She'd even started missing training sessions.

However, I knew exactly where she was going through my bugs, and I slipped after her in the crowd.

She was slipping out to the courtyard. I followed her, and managed to get ahead of her. I stepped out in front of her, and before she could say anything, I pulled her behind one of the pillars.

“You've been avoiding me,” I said.

“I haven't,” she said, but she was avoiding my eyes, as though she thought I was capable of legillimancy. Maybe she thought I could. She also looked as though she was ready to bolt any minute.

“You have,” I said. “Neville and Mildred are still showing up for training, but we haven't seen you for a while.”

“I've been busy with my studies,” she said.

It was an obvious excuse, and I could see color rising to her cheeks. She knew that I knew she was lying, and she couldn't come up with any better excuses?

“I wouldn't hurt you,” I said. “I know that seeing my Boggart was traumatic, but...”

It was what I'd been worried about. Seeing what I really was, had it frightened her to the point that she didn't want to be my friend any more?

She looked up hurriedly. “It's not that!”

Other than my Bogart, I couldn't see anything that I had done that would have driven her away. I hadn't heard of any hint of her being overtly bullied, even if she did tend to be ignored by her classmates. Would she have been bullied without her association with me? There was no way for me to know.

“Then why not come back?” I asked.

 

“Why would you want me to?” Hermione asked. She looked up. “After I was so disloyal?”

“You mean your Boggart?” I shook my head. “That didn't mean anything. We've all got weird little fears that we can't control.”

“It was a stupid thing for me to worry about,” she said. “And unexpected. I was expecting McGonagall telling me that I'd failed out of school or something, not that.”

“Travers was a jerk to make us show out boggarts in public.” I scowled. “What if someone had something really embarassing, or even damaging, like it turned out their father was a Death Eater or something?”

“I heard that all the other classes got to do their Boggarts behind a screen, with only him to see,” Hermione said. She sniffed. “I was afraid that you were disappointed in me, and I didn't want to face that.”

“If I didn't want you back, I wouldn't ask you,” I said. “You know me well enough for that.”

She nodded.

“So I'll see you at the ghost's party tonight?” I asked.

She hesitated, then nodded. “I find them really fascinating. Do you think that they are really just copies of the person they once were, or do you think there's something left of the original?”

“That's a question I ask myself every day,” I said. I smiled wryly even though I wasn't actually joking.

After all, what was I other than the ghost of a once living person. I'd heard a discussion about continuity of consciousness once, and since I'd woken in my new body, it was one that had haunted me.

It was the Star Trek Transporter problem; if you were disassembled and then reassembled somewhere else, were you still you?

Or had the original you been killed and a copy been created elsewhere? The copy would think it was you, and to the rest of the world it would be you, but the original would still be just as dead.

Was I just an imprint?

I patted Hermione on the shoulder and said, “And come back to training. How else are we going to keep ahead of all the idiots?”

She nodded, then frowned.

“That thing last night, with the intruder... did that happen to you?”

I shrugged. “I've made some enemies.”

“You were attacked by an adult wizard last night?” her voice rose, almost to a shriek, and I winced. Nobody had been listening in on our conversation according to the bugs, but I could see several heads snapping around now.

“They didn't manage to land a hand or a spell on me.”

“You were serious about the Death Eaters trying to kill muggleborns,” she said, looking at me with horrified eyes.

“Me more than most, but yeah,” I said. “You're probably OK here, but summertime might be a good time for your family to take a trip abroad. Things are likely to get nasty. That's why I want you to keep up with the lessons.”

“We can't use spells outside of school,” she said.

“In self defense it's OK...and even if it's not, the possibility of Azkaban is better than the surety of being dead.”

Staring at me for a moment, her lips tightened and she nodded.

“If someone comes for you, they're going to expect a first year... helpless and defenseless. You won't be able to beat an adult Wizard yet, but if you can get away, that will be good enough.”

I was going to have to work with her and Neville and Mildred on tactics, on using improvised weapons, on being me, essentially. Because eventually the people around me were going to learn their lesson. They'd learn that I wasn't easy meat, and they'd save their attack for whenever they thought they had overwhelming firepower.

“Classes are starting soon,” Hermione said.

I nodded.

We separated on better terms than we'd started, although I suspected that Hermione was still a little guarded around me.

The rest of the day was a normal school day, although I did hear that Ron Weasley had managed to make a girl in Hufflepuff cry. His brothers had vowed to make him regret it when I'd seen them at lunch.

The scent of pumpkin grew stronger throughout the day, and the sense of excitement grew as the end of the day got closer and closer.

Finally, it was time for the feast.

Jack-o-lanterns were everywhere, their surfaces carved into a variety of faces. I noticed that the faces at the Slytherin and Gryffindor tables tended to be a little more demonic, and the ones at the other two tables tended to be much friendlier.

These people made all kinds of assumptions based on house preference.

 

Clouds of bats flew overhead, swarming and making the lights glitter and sputter as they flew near to the pumpkins.

The bats were real; I could tell because they were eating my bugs, which made me a little uneasy. It limited my vision and was bringing me back to normal, at least within the hall. I'd have to be more on my guard that usual here.

I kept my face blank and showed no signs that I was on edge.

It really did look beautiful though. Everything was dark and made up in orange and black.

The food was as good as it always was, with an obvious pumpkin theme. There were pumpkin juice, pumpkin pasties, pumpkin pie and pumpkin scalloped potatoes. I hadn't tasted the last before, but I decided I liked them.

Millie seemed to love it, but Draco was making faces at everything. I suppose he wasn't a fan.

The good thing was that no one asked me about the intruder. They knew me well enough to know that I wasn't likely to say anything more about it.

Finally the plates were cleared away, and the Headmaster had us stand. He made the huge, heavy tables vanish with a flick of his wand, and he had us back away from the place where the Professors usually sat.

I heard a strange drumming in the distance. It was thunderous, and it seemed to resonate in my bones. It took me a moment to realize that the doors to the outside were opening, and skeletons were dancing their way inside.

Several of them had trumpets, and I had no idea how they were blowing them without lungs. Others were beating on their own rib cages with what looked like their own bones.

There were male and female skeletons; I'd seen enough bodies to know the difference. Some had flutes that were also made of bone and some had panpipes made of the same material. It should have made a godawful noise, but somehow they made it work in a harmonious whole.

The people around me were cheering and stomping their feet. I felt a little anxious in the crowd without my bugs to give me warning, so I forced my way to the front. Hermione was standing beside me, and she was grinning widely.

This was exactly the kind of thing she'd expected when she'd decided to come to a school of magic; I could see it on her face.

The skeletons were assembling something now; they were pulling bones from their fellows and making something that reminded me a little of a throne, except that the remaining skeletons began to bang their bones against it with a drumming rhythm, and whenever they hit it in different places it made different noises.

The crowd went wild around me, and I found myself grinning along with everyone else.

I'd never actually been to a concert before. I'd spent most of my waking hours over the past two years before my death training, tracking the Slaughterhouse Nine and preparing for the end of the world.

Excitement was contagious, and I found my foot tapping in spite of myself. The music was good, a strange combination of rock and something else that I hadn't heard before. I hadn't bothered to listen to a lot of music, though, not since Emma had betrayed me, and so this was a strange sensation for me.

I was the only one who wasn't dancing by now. Slytherins and Gryffindors were dancing side by side, and I could see Dumbledore beaming. This had been his plan all along; did these skeletons have some kind of magic that made their music so entrancing, or were they simply that good. Was it mass hysteria, or was everybody just having a good time.

Almost beyond my own volition, I found myself starting to dance along with everybody else. Dancing wasn't something I'd done since Emma either.

It was strange that I'd denied myself music and dance; I could have blamed Emma, but I'd been the one to abandon it.

There was a strange sensation in my chest; it was something that I'd almost forgotten, and it took me a little while to remember what it was.

Was I having fun?

When the universe was at stake fun had been the last thing on my mind. Before that, I'd been obsessed with Emma and Sophia and Madison.

The last time I'd really let loose and had fun was when I was the age my body was now, and I knew I wasn't really that good of a dancer. Hermione was doing better than I was, and she was terrible.

Neville actually wasn't doing too bad, and Draco looked like he'd been born to dance. I made sure to keep a distance from myself and others; without my swarm sense it would be easy to get stabbed in the crowd.

Despite that niggling worry, the rest of my mind was swept away, and for the first time in a long time, I let loose and actually enjoyed myself.

I'd been mourning for a long time without knowing it. I had mourned the loss of my innocence.

Maybe now was the time, even if only for a short while, to get a little of it back.

Chapter Text

“I'm not sure about this,” Myrtle muttered.

After two hours of the Dancing Skeletons, I was tired and I found myself wanting to head off to my room and rest. But I'd promised Myrtle, which meant that I had to at least make an appearance.

“You were the one who wanted to go,” I said. “Do you want to back out?”

Myrtle sniffed. “You just want to go back and spend time with all your living friends.”

“That's not true,” Hermione said. She'd somehow managed to drag Neville and Mildred along for the ride. “I'm very interested in seeing what ghosts do for a party.”

“I've heard,” Neville said. “Which is why I brought this.”

He held up a can of... something.

“What's that?” Mildred asked.

“Ghosts love to get the smelliest foods they possibly can for their parties... they think if it's strong enough they can almost smell it, and maybe taste it a little,” Neville said. “This is Surstromming; it's supposed to be the smelliest food in the world.”

“That's.... really thoughtful,” I said. I hadn't bothered to bring anything. “Did we bring anything, Mildred?”

“Uh.... it's Millicent,” Mildred said. “And no....I didn't think any of the ghosts could carry any presents.”

We were heading for one of the roomier dungeons, and through my bugs I could see that they'd gone all out in decorating it. There were black candles everywhere that were giving off a bluish glow, and there was a raised dais on which ghostly musicians were playing ghostly instruments. It was an eerie, yet somehow beautiful music.

The Dancing Skeletons were there, and ghosts swarmed around them, talking excitedly to them in little clumps around each of the Skeletons. There was a table covered in rotting food; ordinarily my insects would have been thrilled by this, but the cold was making them sluggish. Ghosts were passing through the food, as though they'd be able to regain their lost senses of taste, even if just for a moment.

There was a chandelier above that practically glowed with a thousand candles shining blue. There were hundreds of ghosts, most of whom were dancing a waltz.

I pulled out my wand, and immediately Hermione and the others were on guard.

“It's going to be cold,” I said. I cast a warming charm on myself and then on the others. Hermione had mastered the charm, but the others still weren't able to do it. It had already been handy on a couple of colder days in the Dungeons, although Snape didn't like it around certain potions; apparently the ambient temperature sometimes had an effect on the ingredients.

I was learning to exclude parts of my body from the warming charm as a result; it wasn't something that I'd figured out any other use for, but Hermione seemed to think that older students might even be willing to pay for the spell, although she recommended waiting until winter, when the price would be higher.

As we stepped into the Dungeon, I saw Nearly Headless Nick floating up to us. He was scowling at Myrtle.

“She's with me,” I said. “My plus one.”

He looked at me, and for a moment it looked as though he wanted to argue. Finally, he said, “As long as you keep her from causing trouble like she did last year.”

Turning to her, he said, “Keep your moaning to yourself. Nobody likes a Deathday downer.”

“It's someone's Deathday?” Neville asked. He seemed to know a great deal about the life and times of ghosts.

“Mine!” Nicholas said proudly. “We're just combining it with the Dancing Skeleton after-party. Such an honor.”

There were actually a few living students mixed up with the ghosts. Most of them were Ravenclaws, probably lured here for the same reason Hermione had come. They were mostly ignoring the ghosts and focusing on the Skeletons.

“So does anyone know what's up with the Skeletons?” I asked as Nicholas turned to leave. “Are they like ghosts, or are they enchanted artifacts, or what? They're great musicians, and if magic can do that... I'm really impressed.”

“I heard that it was due to a magical accident,” Hermione said. “Killed an entire dance troupe, but not all the way. They decided to make the best of it, and they've been more successful since they died than they ever were when they were alive.”

“Ghosts envy them,” Myrtle said, staring at the closest skeleton. “They get to actually touch things, and some people even say they can still smell things, even though they don't have noses.”

“That's an unsubstantiated rumor,” a nearby ghost said. “And they aren't talking.”

The Skeletons could talk, which made sense. If they could blow a trumpet, they could do most of the work involved in talking.

Neville held up his can. “Where do I put this?”

I pointed at the table. He walked over to the table, found an empty plate and he opened the can.

Those students closest to him started to gag and back away, although the ghosts began to gather round. Neville looked a little green at the gills.

My bugs were suddenly all wide awake and excited.

Considering that I could start to smell it from where I was at, I decided to stay on this side of the room for a while. I could hear Hermione gagging along with most of the others, and I purposefully kept my face neutral. Pushing my response into my bugs wasn't that hard.

“You should dance,” I said to Myrtle.

“What?” she asked. “Nobody would....”

“There's more male ghosts here than female,” I said. “Which means that your chances are pretty good.”

Here I was acting like an expert on dances. I'd never actually been to one. Before Emma I'd been too young. After my bullying I'd become a recluse. Once I'd become Skitter...well, there hadn't been time to dance, and that was even more true once I'd become Weaver.

Letting go on the dance floor had been strangely cathartic, and I could understand how people might enjoy it.

Approaching the nearest skeleton that wasn't surrounded by people, I said, “You guys are great!”

His head turned toward me; there was a dim glow deep in the back of his eye sockets, but his body language didn't seem hostile, at least insomuch of a body as he had.

“Thank you,” he said. His voice was strangely deep. “I am Billy Bones.”

“Bones...isn't that a little on the nose?” I asked.

“It is a stage name,” he said. “We have chosen to leave our old identities behind, and to reinvent ourselves. It is something you are familiar with, yes?”

I froze, a chill going down my spine.

“What do you mean?”

“You are the mystery American,” he said. “The one no one knows anything about. Troll slayer and the Demon Witch of Hogwarts.”

“People are calling me that?”

“Even we've heard of you,” he said. “And we're famous.”

I scowled.

While it made sense that the parents of the students would have gotten letters about me, it didn't make sense that I was that well known. Of course, Wizarding Britain was the equivalent of a small town, and people in small towns liked to gossip, but it was inconvenient nonetheless.

I already had at least one Death Eater after me. I suspected that it was Avery; the boy I'd dunked in the boil potion had been his nephew and there was likely some resentment there. For all I knew the younger Avery was already a Death Eater.

He leaned forward. “There's something in your eyes, though....I cannot tell what it is.”

I'd seen ghosts staring at me often enough that it had made me a little paranoid. I quickly dropped my eyes. I doubted that a skeleton was a legilimens, but it wasn't impossible. After all, he'd once been a Wizard. He didn't seem to be carrying a wand, but wandless magic was possible.

“We are envied and pitied at once, creatures of two worlds,” Billie Bones said. “Better than ghosts, but not really quite human. I'm sure you have felt the same, as a muggleborn in the house of the snakes.”

“I'm not envied,” I said. “Feared sometimes, but envied?”

“People envy power. They may not say that they do, but it is true. The Slytherins respect and envy power even more than the other houses do. I suspect that you have found them easier to deal with of late, yes?”

I nodded slowly.

“You were Slytherin?” I asked.

“Muggleborn, once,” he said, but he nodded. “It wasn't always the house it is now. There was a time when a muggleborn could join, and while there was always some stress, you could make your way as long as you proved yourself. That's not how it is now, I hear... except for you.”

“I was afraid I was going to have to make some new ghosts before they left me alone,” I admitted. “Which would make my next six years at school a trifle awkward.”

I didn't have anything in my arsenal to deal with ghosts, and from what I had seen, they tended to carry grudges for a very long time.

Was that a problem Voldemort had? Did the ghosts of his victims haunt him, or did Wizards have something like the ghost traps in Ghostbusters to get rid of annoying spirits from the astral plane?

“You won't have an easy time of it,” he said. “Not with what's coming. War is on the horizon and everybody knows it. This is our last gig in Britain; we will be taking an extended world tour until this is all over.”

“It's that bad?”

“You-know-who's people have even less liking for nonhumans than they do the muggleborn. They're perfectly willing to use those who seem useful, but the rest? If he wins, things are likely to become uncomfortable.”

“Why doesn't anyone do anything then?” I asked. “Voldemort may be the second most powerful Wizard in Britain, but his people aren't.”

“Who is better at fighting? A law abiding citizen, or a criminal? I'm sure you've seen that in the muggle world as well.”

I nodded.

“The Death Eaters fight often and they fight well, and most Wizards simply wish to be allowed to live their lives in peace. They depend on the aurors to protect than, and there are not enough aurors to do what must be done.”

I frowned.

It was the guerrilla warfare problem.

A society tended to be be large and to have fixed locations, places where the enemy could attack with every confidence that their target would be there.

Guerrilla soldiers tended to vanish into the mist, to attack and then disappear. It was worse if they received support from the local population, which was almost always the case in muggle conflicts.

Voldemort's people didn't need that kind of support. If they were smart, Wizards could supply almost everything they needed themselves, and what they couldn't supply, such as food, they could get from the muggles.

In a way they were like Cape villains. They did their crimes while disguised and then they melted into the general population.

The best way to address guerrilla warfare was to keep the populace happy so that it never arose in the first place. That ship had already sailed.

The purebloods felt threatened by the muggleborns, in part because they were trying to change things. They threatened the power of the old order, and people always became anxious and tended to lash out when they thought that their position in society had become precarious.

I couldn't see a solution to it, other than to simply burn the whole thing down and start again, and I wasn't exactly in a position to do that.

“It was nice speaking to you,” Billy Bones said, “But I have promised a young lady a dance.”

An older Ravenclaw approached, looking at me uncertainly before Billy took her hands and they joined the dancers out on the dance floor.

They weren't the only ones; I saw Mildred....er Millicent dancing with one of the skeletons. They made a weird looking pair.

Myrtle was dancing with an older ghost wearing what looked like medieval armor. I hadn't seen an expression of happiness on her face before, and she actually looked almost pretty.

Hermione sidled up to me.

“There are ghosts here that are over a thousand years old!” Hermione said. “I've spoken to some of them! They've got some amazing stories to tell, although none of them want to talk about how they died.”

“Would you?” I asked, looking at her. “It's probably best not to ask. It's like asking someone about being bullied, except even worse.”

She stared at me for a moment, and then nodded.

“This is what I thought coming to Hogwarts was going to be like,” she said, looking around. “Not...”

“Bullying and death threats?” I shook my head. “People are the same all over, whether they are Wizards, Witches or Muggles. They're petty and they fight among themselves. Give them a little power and its even worse.”

She glanced at me. “You're really cynical to be eleven.”

“Says the twelve year old,” I said. “It must be nice to have all that extra, worldly experience.”

Scowling, she shoved me a little. “Not everybody had to carry a knife to school.”

I shrugged. “Must have been nice to go to a school where there wasn't a constant threat of being stabbed.”

We were both quiet after that.

I didn't dance with anyone that evening; the ghosts were a little too spectral for my tastes, and the Skeletons were monopolized by the older students. I'd never really waltzed anyway.

Still, we stayed a couple of hours, and eventually the evening ended to everyone's satisfaction. I was exhausted by that point, a situation that seemed to happen more and more these days. Maybe it was the mental strain I was suffering from always having to be on my guard.

Mildred went straight to bed, but I felt sweaty and so I prepared for my bath. As I slipped into the warm water, I closed my eyes.

The Death Eaters were going to attack me over the summer; at the very least they'd be waiting at the Train Station. I was going to have to come up with a plan to deal with that. Most likely, I'd have to coordinate the plan with whoever Dumbledore chose to be my guardian.

What bothered me was that I could probably slip away before they caught me, but the train station would be the perfect place to stage an attack on the muggleborn. They would never have a better opportunity to get that many muggleborn in that small of a space at once.

The train station had aurors, but if they had people in the Ministry, they could use the Imperius spell on the aurors before they ever left for work.

If I was running Voldemort's organization, and I hated the muggleborn, that's what I would do. It would make the perfect starting place to set off the war, and it would make the Ministry's job of maintaining secrecy incredibly difficult.

The Ministry would probably arrange for it to be seen as a terrorist attack, but that would involve muggle investigators and would be harder to cover up.

Would the Ministry be able to continue maintaining secrecy in the future? Cell phones were already ubiquitous by my time, and they had kept getting better. How long was it before some muggle snapped a picture that the Ministry didn't catch before it hit the Internet.

Would they even be able to manage the Internet? That would require people with tech savvy, which was the opposite of the Wizarding community.

Were it me, I'd have arranged for muggleborn to have a conventional education on top of their magical one. I'd have them go to college, enter the military and tech sectors, and then I'd have people in every aspect of muggle life.

Ex-military muggleborn along with muggleborn in the police forces would be able to teach the aurors to be better at what they did, and that would make the Wizarding world safer, assuming that I was a benevolent Minister for magic.

I frowned.

My bugs weren't seeing anything or hearing anything, but there was a strange smell. They couldn't identify it, though.

I listened with my own ears and I heard nothing.

It didn't smell like poison being pumped through the vents, and none of my bugs were dying or even sedated. It was a chemical smell, though; it smelled almost like alcohol.

The door to the bathroom opened, and there wasn't anyone on the other side.

I lunged for my wand.

My bugs saw ripples in the water on the floor; it looked like footsteps even though I couldn't hear a thing.

Firing off a cutting spell, I saw red suddenly staining the floor. I lashed out again, but I suddenly felt hands around my throat, and I was struggling to breathe.

A massive force shoved me under the water, and the wand dropped out of my hand. I grabbed for the unseen, invisible hands, trying to bend the thumb and fingers back. It was useless; I didn't have the strength in my hands, and whoever it was was very strong.

Almost without my conscious volition, bugs began to swarm from the vents. They were coming from everywhere, and there were bugs that I didn't even realize that I'd had control of.

I kept struggling even as I felt the bugs stinging the person who was strangling me to death. They kept biting and stinging and for a moment I felt a measure of hope.

My lungs burned like hot lava and I clawed and punched. My feet scrabbled for purchase against the bottom of the tub, but they kept slipping.

Everything turned dark.

Chapter Text

I woke to find myself on the floor ten feet away from the tub, hacking and gagging water. There was a severed and dismembered arm that looked rather familiar. It was a child's arm, and it was female.

My hands were still shaking from adrenaline, so it couldn't have been that long since I had fallen unconscious.

There was a pool of blood spreading out on the floor by the bathtub. An ever growing swarm of insects was covering what should have been a body; however, in the few gaps that existed in the cover, there was nothing there.

What had happened? The last thing I remembered was being held under the water, needing desperately to get away.

Was it my accidental magic again? Or had someone saved me while I was out?

The insects couldn't tell me; I couldn't delve into their memories, only their senses right now. There were no footprints in the water that now covered the floor other than those of my attacker, and there was no evidence that I'd been dragged out of the water. It looked as though I'd been there, and then suddenly I was here, along with a good bit of the water in the tub and part of my attacker.

Was this apparation? I thought that didn't work in Hogawarts.

Maybe it was some other kind of movement, or maybe accidental magic wasn't covered by the wards. I'd heard that House elves could teleport here, presumably by using some kind of more primal magic.

As I staggered to my feet, I had my bugs check the body; it seemed to be growing cold, and there was no sign of a heartbeat or breathing. Along with the blood loss from being dismembered, there was all the poison flowing through her veins.

She was as small as me, at least in height, although her hands had been as strong as an adult man.

I staggered over to the mirror, and there was a line of bruises around my throat, bruises that were going to be hard to conceal without muggle makeup.

Glancing back at the body, I saw that it was shimmering. I called the insects back, and I stared at the remains in front of me.

Mildre....no....Millicent was lying on the floor, her eyes staring upward sightlessly.

I felt my stomach drop.

I'd saved her from bullies, and in return she'd been one of my supporters through all of this. This wasn't something she'd done on her own; whatever strange smell she was exusing was probably because of a potion of some sort.

Someone had turned my own min...serv....friend against me, and they'd done it deliberately. They'd wanted me to kill my own ally to send me a message; they could get to me at any time, and if they couldn't they'd be able to reach my friends.

A vein in my forehead throbbed, and my fists tightened. They'd tried to kill me for no other reason than because I was alive, and now they'd killed someone I valued. There had been a lot of times in the pat where I'd channeled fear into anger, at least according to Doctor Yamada, but this time felt justified.

They needed to die.

It had always been on the horizon, something that I'd tried not to think about, but ultimately I'd always known that eventually I was going to have to kill Voldemort and all the Death Eaters. It had never been a question of if, but of when.

That when had just gotten a lot shorter.

As my senses expanded, I noticed something strange.

My bug senses had expended by a factor of two again, and there were two people lying in bed in our bedroom. One of them was almost certainly Millie.

So who was this?

The form shimmered and grew longer, into a form that was almost as recognizable.

Filch, the janitor. His sightless dead eyes were staring up at me, accusingly, almost as though he'd expected some other outcome from his attempted murder.

He was a Squib, and he wouldn't have had any defense against mind control. He'd have had access to the lists, but probably not much more than a glance. He'd have been able to enter and leave the castle even after Dumbledore improved the defenses.

Why take the form of Millie?

The stairs....most likely Snape had limited access to the girl's stairs and he hadn't been on the list. Someone had put him under the invisibility and silence spells and then commanded him to drink the potion before coming up here to murder me.

Those potions weren't any joke to make; they took at least a month to brew and some part of the person to be turned into...usually hair. As janitor, Filch would have had access to stray hairs from all over the school; it might have been random chance that he'd gotten hairs from Millie.

Or it might have been deliberate. Whoever had done this may have wanted me to think that I'd been betrayed and that I was going to die alone.

A quick sniff showed that he still smelled of alcohol, along with the inevitable smells of death. I couldn't detect the other, strange smell, but my bugs could. Most likely it was something about the polyjuice potion itself that they were cluing in on.

Had Filch left for Hogsmeade last night to celebrate Halloween? It would explain the alcohol smell, and it would have given his master a chance to give him his orders.

There was only one suspect that made any sense for all of this.

Avery.

He was one of the Death Eaters who'd murdered my family, and he was the uncle of the boy I'd put in the hospital. I'd done it in the bathtub, and so killing me in the bathtub would not only be poetic justice, it would send a message to the non-purebloods in school that no one would get away with hurting a pureblood.

If it was done in a way that looked like an accident, then all the better. After all, I'd gotten away with dousing his nephew in the boil potion, so that would prove that even the aurors couldn't protect them. They'd probably spread word to the Slytherins in some kind of low key way.

The time to brew the potion was probably the only reason he'd waited this long. He might have been waiting for Filch on the grounds; when he saw me he'd taken his chance. Undoubtedly he'd been disillusioned already during the attack. He'd been too afraid of Dumbledore to enter the castle, at least for very long. It might not have been him on the grounds, but it had likely been someone sent by him.

It was possible that he'd gotten a look at me and recognized me as the girl who should be dead; that might have been the reason he'd attacked me impulsively on the grounds, and then once he couldn't get in, he'd have sent his lackey after me.

Filch had been a nasty character, but he'd deserved better than to be killed. As far as I was concerned Avery was responsible for his death, and that was one more on his talley.

Having him attack me was a win-win. Either I died, or I killed Filch or seriously injured him. If I survived, they could send the aurors after me. That was the last thing I needed; after all the manner of death would reveal that insects were involved. That would eliminate my main advantage against my enemies; once they knew what I could do, there were likely countermeasures they could take.

I might be able to get out of this, but likely there would be a trial, and the Death Eaters had people in the Ministry. I could easily be killed on the way to the trial, or they could pad the jury with their own people... assuming Wizards actually used juries. I hadn't studied their judicial system all that much.

I glanced back at Filch. His body already smelled, and the odds were that it was only going to get worse.

Using my bugs to eat the body would be the ideal solution, but it would take time, time that I simply didn't have. Filch had to weight a hundred and sixty or a hundred and eighty pounds, and it would take days for the bugs to eat him normally, maybe weeks. I could probably cut that time down to a tenth, but
even if I could do it my morning, there was no guarantee that one of the girls wouldn't get up to go to the bathroom and see the mess I'd made.

Still, I had to try.

The bugs surrounded Filch and began eating as rapidly as they could. I had them work in shifts; when one got full it was replaced by its mate.

In the meantime I began to clean the bathroom as well as I could. I tossed the dismembered and now hairy arm to land next to the rest of the body.

“Sorry Filch,” I said. “I'll avenge you.”

My next task was to clean up the blood and gore all over the floor. My clothes had fortunately been left on the counter, which meant they were clean. As such, I was going to have to do the cleaning in the nude.

“Wingardium Leviosa,” I murmured, focusing as much as I could on the bloody water on the floor. I managed to levitate a patch of it, which I put into the bathtub, after levitating the stopper and draining out the water.

Over and over again I had to do it, and when I was done, I wasn't sure that the floor was actually clean. I couldn't use my towels because having the house elves see bloody towels coming from a prepubescent girl's room was going to be a clear sign that something was wrong.

This was why I ended up on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor with toilet paper, wrapped around and around my hands. I could toss that in the toilet and wash the evidence away. I'd checked my hands, and there weren't any cuts on my skin, and there weren't any on my knees either.

In all, it took me over two hours to get every single piece of blood off the grout. I could have done it almost immediately with the cleaning spell, but I hadn't thought it to be worth the bother to learn, and I was now paying the price.

The only good thing was that if they checked my wand they'd see that I didn't get anything other than one severing charm off, and that one I could explain.

Grimacing, I looked at the body.

 

If I had caustic soda I'd be able to melt the body into a liquid that I could flush, but that would take heat and almost a full day.

Drain cleaner containing sodium hydroxide and a different drain cleaner containing sulfuric acid could be mixed together to melt the body too. It too would take time that I didn't have, and the smell would be a dead giveaway.

There was only one way that was going to work.

I pulled my secondary wand from my fanny pack, and I began to cast.

“Diffindo....Diffindo.....Diffindo....Diffindo.”

As I dismembered the body in clean cuts, more and more blood pooled on the tile. In retrospect, I should have waited on the cleaning until this part of it was done.

I had the largest spiders grab the parts and start carrying them up the wall toward the vent. I'd move them as far from my room as they could and then I'd set the bugs to devouring them as quickly as possible.

The increased food supply would probably increase their numbers exponentially, but that was all right.

Moving the whole body took more than another hour, and then cleaning what was left took even more time. By the time everything was said and done, I barely had time to slip into bed before the House Elves showed up and began to clean the bathroom that I had just vacated.

They seemed to notice some of the lingering smell, but they seemed to ignore it. From their muttered comments, apparently some of the Witches had cosmetic components that smelled foul to them, and they assumed this was just more of the same.

I fell into a dreamless sleep.

In the morning I was the last of the girls to get up, but I managed to pull myself to breakfast. The last thing I could afford was to stand out. I waited until the girls were in the bathroom to pull on the shirt that covered my neck as best I could.

There was a healing spell I could use to repair the bruises; I needed to learn it quickly, but I was a little leery of using it on myself without some practice. Miscast spells could cause all sorts of problems, such as a severed arm on the floor.

Although, in this one case it was less of a mistake than a feature.

Most of the day went by in a haze. My new body required a lot more sleep than my old one had, and I hadn't gotten enough even for an adult. My neck hurt, and it hurt to talk, and so I ended up looking sullen and taciturn all day.

I let Hermione chat away at me, and I didn't say much. When I did, she noticed my voice and tried to tell me to go to Madam Pomfrey.

As though that wouldn't raise some questions. Mr. Filch vanishes and the schools resident bad girl has unexplained bruises the next day.

I'd have aurors knocking on my door within three days.

My only option was to try the Episkey spell until I mastered it, and I'd have to start by practicing it on bugs.

I ended up spending my afternoon huddled in a secret passage, one of those that I had figured out the way to get inside. I reached out to my bug minions, and there were dozens or hundreds of them that were injured from skirmishes with each other, or with the rats in the walls.

I was glad I practiced; my first attempts ended up with scattered bugs. It was more than an hour before I wasn't killing the bugs, and two before I actually did them any good.

It was three before I got to the point where I was willing to try it on myself, and even then I was nervous. The neck had some pretty important arteries, and a mistake there could kill me just as easily as Filch.

As I was leaving the secret passage, I froze as I saw Mrs. Norris. She was staring up at me accusingly.

For a moment I considered killing her. It was possible that she could smell some of her master's blood on me, or that she had some sort of supernatural sense. Still, as far as I knew, Wizards couldn't talk to cats. Speaking to snakes was possible, but it was apparently a rare and lost art.

Guilt filled my mind. As disagreeable as Filch and Mrs. Norris had been to the students, they'd loved each other, and I'd taken that away from her. I hadn't become a hero.... or even a villain to hurt people. I wasn't sure that Mrs. Norris counted as people, but the last thing I needed to do was to make it even worse by killing her.

I left her alone. I hadn't meant to kill her master, and killing his cat would have been throwing insult after injury.

Doing the healing in my own bathroom was my only option to be safe. The girls tended to be heavy sleepers, but in the day, if I fell over, it was possible they might hear me.

Staring in the mirror, I unbuttoned the neck of my shirt and pulled it away from my neck. I pointed my wand at my neck, and then I said in a low voice, “Episky.”

I'd worried that pointing it at myself would change the wand movements to the point that it could;'t be used, but the moment I cast it, I felt a warmth on my neck, and suddenly some of the pain was gone. So was some of the bruising.

“Episky, Episky, Episky,” I said quickly.

I soon found that there were spots on the back of my neck that I could not reach. Twisting my arms back there made moving the wand in the right way impossible. It was going to have to do; I'd just have to make an excuse if someone noticed.

At least it no longer looked like a pair of identifiable hand prints.

Those parts of the weekend that weren't spent in training and learning the cleaning spell, I spent reading up on Wizarding Law. I suspected that I knew what was coming next, and I wanted to be prepared for it.

I made sure that no one paid attention to the books I was reading; I didn't check the law books out and only pulled them from the shelves when no one was looking. I carefully kept the books face up on the table so that no one would notice the book covers.

On Monday, the aurors showed up for Hogwarts.

Chapter Text

“I think we're on a wild nargle hunt,” Millner said. “Going after a missing squib when aurors are vanishing?”

“It's Filch,” Fawley said. “We know him.”

“Hated him, more like. He's pretty much made an enemy of every British Wizard that went to school in the last twenty years.”

“He's a squib...who would bother to off him once they got out of school?”

“Which is why the anonymous tip that it was a student at the school has to be taken seriously.”

Fawley shook his head. “We don't even know that something happened to him. You know he liked to drink... hell, if I was a squib and had to deal with a school full of obnoxious brats, I'd probably drink myself to death.”

“Maybe he did if we're lucky,” Millner said. “The last thing we need is to find out that You-Know-Who is targeting Hogwarts staff. The parents would go mental and that's the last thing anybody needs right now.”

“Well, we know that he went to Hogsmeade on Halloween night to celebrate away from the kids. He was drinking heavily according to several of the regulars, and he left late.”

“Maybe he died on the way back...got so drunk that he went off in the wrong direction?”

“Flying over the area on broomsticks didn't show anything, and the last thing I want to do is go combing through the underbrush if we don't have to.”

“Well, maybe we can find out something at the castle that'll give us something to go on,” Millner said.

As they landed outside the gate, Millner tried to open the door, and he found it locked. He frowned. “What the hell?”

A hulking monstrosity of the man came lumbering up to them from the grounds.

“I s'pose you lot are the aurors that're tryin to find Filch?” The man was puffing with the effort of moving quickly up the slope toward them.

“Yes...why can't we get into the castle?”

“Security precautions by Dumbledore himself. We had a student attacked on the grounds a week ago,” the man said. He reached out and touched the gate and it slid open easily. “Come on in. I'll take you to the headmaster.”

The man stayed behind them, Fawley noticed, and he had a hand on his umbrella. There was something cold about his expression that belied his friendly expression.

It was possible that Moody was rubbing off on him. The man was a paranoid crank, but sometimes he was right, which was the unfortunate thing. Especially given the disappearances, every auror had to look out for himself these days.

Looking around, Fawley felt a strong sense of deja vu. It was as though the last ten years hadn't happened, as though he was back in Hogwarts all over again. It was a strange, bittersweet feeling, and the halls looked somehow smaller than he had remembered them, even though everything was demonstrably the same.

Reaching the Headmaster's office, they were quickly admitted.

“Dumbledore,” Millner said.

“Mr. Millner, Mr. Fawley... how has adulthood treated you?”

“We're aurors now,” Fawley said. He forced himself to stand up straight and look stern. Dumbledore was the most powerful wizard in all of Britain, the man who'd bested Grindlewald in single combat. There was no question that he could kill Fawley and his partner in an instant if he so chose, and he had enough political influence that he could probably get away with it. That wasn't a comfortable feeling.

“We've come to investigate Filch's disappearance.”

“Poor Argus,” Dumbledore said. “He always was a tortured soul. I'm surprised that the aurors would send someone to investigate his disappearance. He's only been missing for three days.”

“There have been reports that one of your students might be responsible for his disappearance,” Millner said. “A muggleborn.”

“Miss Hebert,” Dumbledore said. He sighed. “She's made enemies, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of them have not made unfair accusations in an attempt to cause he problems.”

“She didn't have problems with Filch?” Fawley asked.

“Less than other students, actually. She always had a sixth sense about when he was around, and she was very careful not to offend him.”

“There have been rumors about her,” Millner began.

“Miss Hebert has a rather enthusiastic view of what self defense entails,” Dumbledore said. “And she is more than capable of defending herself.”

“There are rumors that she has hospitalized several boys,” Millner said. “Pureblood boys.”

“Boys who were bypassing the defenses on the girl's dormitory with the intention of abusing her,” Dumbledore said. “She has assured us that they were injured through their own incompetence.”

“And the boy who was doused in boil potion?”

“He was preparing it to use on her, and he had an unfortunate accident.”

Fawley glanced at his partner. Unfortunate accidents? Once, maybe, but multiple times indicated a pattern.

“And did she really kill a troupe of trolls with a knife?”

“She did dispatch one troll,” Dumbledore said. “Defending other students while they distracted it with spells. It was a heroic act, really.”

“So you have a muggleborn who has been involved in multiple incidents of violence, directed toward purebloods... why is she still here?” Millner demanded.

“Should I have expelled you after your incident in sixth year?” Dumbledore asked mildly.

Millner's face went red. Fawley couldn't help but wonder about the incident in question. Millner didn't like to talk about his time in school very much, and he was ten years older, so they hadn't shared any of the same classmates in common.

“We'd like to question the house elves and the portraits,” Fawley said. “And any students that might be able to shed some light on the situation.”

“Some of the students may be biased,” Dumbledore said. “Either for or against her.”

“We''re professionals,” Millner said confidently.

*************
“She's mental,” the Parkinson girl said. “I keep expecting her to stab me every morning at breakfast. Did you know she hexes me almost every day? And nobody does anything about it?”

“Did you ever see her interact with Mr. Filch?” Fawley asked.

“He kept trying to catch her at things, but he never could. They say that she's a Seer... she always seems to know a lot more than she should.”

“Tell me more,” Millner said.

“It's like she's got eyes in the back of her head. Nobody has ever been able to surprise her...not that anybody tries much anymore, since she's so mental that she'd probably beat you to a pulp.”

“Has she threatened other students?”

“She held a Gryffindor boy out over a balcony and threatened to drop him,” Parkinson said. “And she beat three Slytherins with a sock until it was bloody.”

“That was the boys who were trying to get in her room?”

“Oh, that's the story that Dumbledore likes to put out, but everybody knows that she really did it because she's jealous because they're purebloods.”

***********
“She saved out lives,” Bletchley said. “Moved like she'd been fighting all of her life.”

 

“Oh,” Millner asked. “She was good with a knife?”

“She killed a troll,” Bletchly said flatly. “If you'd seen how small she is, you'd know how impressive that is.”

“So you'd say she's good at killing?” Millner asked.

“I wouldn't want to go against her... but she's never really bothered anybody that didn't go after her first. She's tough, but after people stopped being idiots around her, things started getting back to normal.”

“Being idiots?”

“Trying to hurt her or her friends,” he said. “She's perfectly nice except when that happens, and really, can you blame her? I think it's every Wizard and Witches' right to protect themselves.”

“But not to kill someone,” Millner said.

The other interviews were much the same. Those who did not like her were absolutely sure that she'd killed Filch, and that furthermore she likely had all sorts of other skeletons in her closet. Those who were on her side defended her, and were convinced that she only did the things she did in self defense.

They spent more than an hour interviewing schoolchildren. Most of them seemed anxious when talking to them, which was as it should be. Even the Malfoy heir seemed nervous, and his family had the political clout to ignore most accusations.

The portraits hadn't seen anything, despite having been tasked to watch out for intruders, and the House elves were similarly unhelpful. There was not any convenient bloody clothes or anything in the laundry. The staff had already searched the school for Filch, and there had been no sign of him.

He'd apparently had a relationship once with the librarian, but everyone agreed that it had been over for years, without any evidence of ill will between the two of them. No one could recall anyone having more than the usual disagreements with Filch, which meant that he'd had a dozen conflicts with students on the day before his disappearance alone.

“We're not getting anywhere,” Millner said. “We might as well talk to the mudblood.”

Millner had a tendency to slip in how he talked about muggleborns when he was irritated.

Fawley didn't think he meant anything by it; Millner was just a member of the older generations, and old prejudices died hard. He at least tried to be civil, which was more than some members of the department did.

They summoned Taylor Hebert to meet with them in a classroom as far away from active classes as they could. They'd chosen a dungeon room with no windows and they'd moved everything out of the room except three chairs.

Then they'd put her in the room and they'd let her stew for a while. Most children her age had the attention span of gnats, and even adults started to crack if they were left alone long enough. That sense of isolation was often enough on its own to get suspects to talking.

As they entered the room, the first thing Fawley noticed was how tiny she was. She was smaller than the Parkinson girl, who had already been small. It was hard to believe that a girl this small and harmless looking could have killed a troll. There wasn't anything different about how she looked compared to a hundred other first years they'd seen in the halls.

However, as she looked up at them, Fawley felt a chill.

Every other student they'd talked to had been a little nervous; some more than others. They'd had to pull answers out of them to get them talking, to overcome their fear of just what the aurors represented. The ordinary witnesses hadn't even been made to wait.

Hebert didn't look nervous at all. She didn't even look bored. There was something unnatural and off putting about the way she sat, though, her neck turned at an unnatural angle and her arms and legs sprawled out like those of a praying mantis.

Instead, she looked as though she was interviewing someone for a job, as though they were the ones who were going to be questioned. That kind of confidence was unnatural in a child that small; Fawley had interrogated Death Eaters who looked more nervous.

“Hello,” she said.

She leaned backward in her chair against one of the desks; it took Fawley a moment to realize that she had her hand on her wand.

“You won't need that,” Millner said sternly.

“I've got Death Eaters who want to kill me,” she said. “And the aurors' office has been compromised. I think I'll make my own decisions about that.”

Fawley glanced at Millner, who shrugged. Fawley suspected that Millner didn't see the girl as a threat, because how could a first year witch be any kind of threat to two trained aurors, especially a muggleborn, who rumor said weren't all that good with magic anyway.

The fact that they weren't allowed to do magic during the summers while Purebloods and half-bloods were probably contributed to that perception, but Fawley wasn't likely to get anywhere arguing with Millner about it.

If it let the girl feel safe enough to talk, then it was all right. After all, Dumbledore himself assured them that she only attacked those who attacked her.

“What do you know about the aurors' office?” Fawley asked.

“It's obvious, isn't it?” she said. “Aurors go missing, it's because someone knew where they would be. Who else would know that except someone in the department?”

Fawley frowned. That was a conclusion that the higher ups had only recently come to, and they were taking steps to try to address it. He didn't know what those steps were, presumably because they weren't sure he wasn't a Death Eater.

“Did someone tell you that?”

She shook her head contemptuously. “I read the paper; I can read between the lines. Anybody with two brain cells to rub together would come to the same conclusion.”

Fawley winced; Millner wasn't going to like that from a mudblood.

“It's unusual to have a Yank in Hogwarts,” Fawley said carefully. It was important to establish a rapport with the criminal so that they would be more likely to slip up and incriminate themselves. However, he'd never really understood teenage girls and preteen girls were even worse.

“Is that what we're here to discuss?” the girl asked evenly. “How an orphan girl with no family ended up in a British school instead of an American one? I wasn't aware that was a crime.”

“So is there a crime you're involved in?” Millner asked.

Falkner barely stopped himself from grimacing. Apparently the girl had annoyed Millner enough that he was going to skip the entire introductions phase and get right to it.

He stepped forward quickly until he was looming over her. “We know you murdered Argus Filch. I just want to understand why.”

He used his intimidating voice, deep and angry. Millner was a large man, which shouldn't have mattered in the Wizarding world, but it still aroused a sort of primal fear in the average Wizard.

Hebert looked as though he'd asked her about the weather.

“I didn't,” Hebert said calmly. “And assuming he's actually dead, I don't know who did.”

“You're lying!” Millner shouted.

“Because I'm a mudblood?” Hebert asked. “I've heard about how the Wizarding justice system works. So if I was a rich pureblood who had a daddy with deep pockets, would we even be having this conversation?”

Millner's face flushed red and he looked like he wanted to slap the girl.

“Learn your place, girl! We've got evidence that you did it... do you think that the house elves aren't always watching? The paintings! This is Hogwarts...the walls have ears!”

“Maybe it was an accident,” Fawley said softly. “Self defense, even. An old man like that, a young girl like you....but we won't know unless we hear your side of the story.”

“Which night do you think he disappeared?” Hebert asked.

 

“Thursday,” Millner snapped.

“I went to class, then I went to the Halloween Feast. They had the Dancing Skeletons, which was fun. I went to the Ghost Afterparty, took a bath and then I went to bed. I didn't go anywhere else,” Hebert said. “The next day was pretty much the same thing without the parties.”

“I've heard about you,” Millner said. “You've put boys in the hospital. They say you killed a troll, although I'm not sure I believe that.”

He waited for a moment, as though waiting for her to brag, but she just shrugged as though it didn't matter what she believed.

“Let me see your wand,” he said.

She looked at him skeptically. “Two men I do not know put me in a room and demand that I disarm myself. They claim to come from an agency that I suspect is overrun with the exact kind of people who have been trying to kill me and other people like me. If it was you, what you you do?”

“We could just make you,” Millner growled.

“Could you?” she asked mildly.

“Millner,” Fawley said uneasily. When the older man turned toward him, Fawley gestured downward.

Her wand was pointed directly at Millner's crotch. Considering the way that she had supposedly killed the troll, the implication was clear.

He quickly stepped back and grabbed for his own wand. She was out of her seat so quickly that Fawley was reminded of Moody or some of the aurors who were known for being lightning fast.

“You can go to Azkaban for threatening an auror, girl!” Millner said.

“I'm not threatening you,” she said carefully. “I'm just being cautious. Two strange men in a room with a little girl doesn't look good. In muggle America children aren't interrogated without an adult advocate in the room.”

“Wait, what?”

“An auror attacks an eleven year old mudblood... you think the Ministry isn't going to start wondering if you're the one who's working with You-Know-Who? Even if you aren't, what's the implication going to do to your career?”

Fawley relaxed a little, although Millner looked like he was going to have an apoplectic fit. At least she wasn't threatening to cry rape.

“Or you can just call Professor Snape into the room, and then I'll happily hand my wand over to be checked.”

 

Fawley glanced at Millner, who looked as though she wanted to hex the girl to death. She was right, though; attacking a muggleborn right now would be political suicide, and they weren't even investigating a murder, just a missing person.

“Fine,” Millner said. “But you'll pay for this eventually.”

The girl smiled at him sweetly, and they both left the room, shuddering.

While they might not be able to prove it, there was something seriously wrong with the girl, and Fawley wondered if they were going to be the ones to investigate it, or if it needed to be kicked upstairs.

Chapter Text

“Cutting charms and healing... you've cast a lot of those recently,” Millner said.

He was staring at me with undisguised loathing. I probably shouldn't have threatened to emasculate him, but hearing some of the comments he'd made when he thought no one was listening had irritated me. There was a casual sort of racism in what he said that told me I would never have gotten a fair hearing from him anyway.

The thought that my irritability might have something to do with guilt over Filch's death occurred to me, but I put it out of my mind as quickly as I could.

“I'm a muggleborn in Slytherin,” I said. “Wouldn't it make sense that those would be the spells I would need the most on a day to day basis?”

Snape was sitting in the back of the room. He hadn't said anything; he'd just stared at all of us with an inscrutable look. He hadn't mentioned my second wand, though, which I took to be an encouraging sign.

“So you've been attacking purebloods, then,” Millner said.

“You'd have heard about it if I'd attacked anyone recently,” I said. I lifted my hands. “I'm an ordinary student trying to make my way through school without being attacked.”

He was still holding my wand in his hands. I carefully kept my hands away from my fanny pack, but I did begin to pull the most dangerous insects I could from the bowels of the castle. Some of them were surprisingly vicious for a school setting, although Winslow had had more of them.

There were bugs clinging to the inside of my robes, too, waiting to come out. Stingers to the eyes and the ears and the genitals would distract them enough for me to go for my wand. Cuts to the inside of their arms and wand waving would become difficult.

“You don't like being attacked, do you?” Millner said. “I've heard it makes you go all mental. Is that because something happened with you? Maybe your Da did something to you?”

He was trying to get under my skin.

I smiled sweetly. “Did yours?”

His face flushed, and he lunged forward.

“Five points from Slytherin,” Snape drawled. “You will speak to the aurors with respect.”

Millner stopped abruptly, as though he'd forgotten that Snape was in the room. Maybe he had. He was still flushed, though, and his breathing was rapid. He was an angry man, and angry men were easy to manipulate.

“Everyone knew Filch was a little creepy,” his partner said. “Maybe he came on to you?”

I'd been trained in basic police interrogation techniques, even though that really hadn't been my job. Fawley was pretending to be sympathetic; most people wanted to tell their story, to explain how it wasn't really their fault.

By the time they realized they'd incriminated themselves, they were on their way to jail.

There was an implication to his question, and I wasn't certain how to answer it. His question implied that I knew what he meant; in 2011 with the Internet there was a good chance that an eleven year old might have at least some idea. In 1991 though?

I hadn't heard any of my same age classmates talking about sex, but whether that was because they were genuinely innocent of the implications, or because it was a British thing not to talk about sensitive subjects I couldn't be sure.

Even the older children didn't talk that much about it, and when they did they tended to use euphemisms. Maybe it was the fact that there were portraits everywhere listening to what they said.

My best bet was to pretend that I didn't know what they were saying and to ignore the whole thing.

“I barely interacted with him,” I said, shrugging. “I can't say I even knew much about him, except that he had a cat and liked to harass the other kids.”

“So if he'd attacked you, what would you have done?” Fawley asked. He looked sympathetic, and my overall impression of him was that he was the more sympathetic of the two men. However, his job was to find the culprit, and since I was in fact guilty, I now had to lie.

“I'd have screamed and gotten some help,” I lied.

There was a small change in Snape's expression that showed that he knew I was lying; however, the others didn't notice as he was standing behind them and they were staring at me.

“You're capable of killing by all accounts,” Millner said. “Took down a full sized troll with a knife, or at least they say.”

“I had some help then,” I said. “And I try to be law abiding. If I started killing off staff, who would be left to teach me magic? No...I'd just get him fired.”

That touched a nerve with both of them. Had my threat from earlier spooked them? What were the politics in the Ministry right now? Losing so many aurors would make it harder to get rid of the ones they had left; yet it was possible that Voldemort's minions in the Ministry were putting the heat on the good aurors. Threatening to fire them would keep them anxious and on edge, and while that would make them more alert for a little while, long term it would exhaust them.

Some of them might quit on their own, given the right kind of pressure.

“Is there anyone who can confirm your whereabouts?” Fawley asked.

“Ever since I was attacked, the castle has been on an increased alert,” I said. “The portraits are sleeping in shifts, which means that they would have seen if I had left the Slytherin dorms once I went to bed.”

Unlike the Gryffindor dorms, the door to Slytherin wasn't guarded by a painting, which meant that no one had noticed the door opening when Filch had entered.

“A disillusionment charm,” Millner began.

“Do you think that Miss Hebert has mastered a disillusionment charm at her age?” Snape asked. “And as a muggleborn orphan she does not have the means to purchase an invisibility cloak... nor have there been any reports of any invisibility cloaks going missing in the school.”

“Are there any such cloaks in this school?” Millner asked Snape, staring at him challengingly.

“Not to my knowledge,” Snape said. “And I would confiscate any that I discovered. Allowing such items would allow children to circumscribe a number of rules as well as get into... mischief.”

“We know you aren't a bad person,” Fawley said. “But everyone can do things in the heat of the moment that they regret.”

“That's true,” I said. “If they don't think things through and plan ahead.”

“So you're saying that you planned to murder Filch,” Millner said. I could see that he was getting frustrated.

Real police investigations could take hours. Wearing a suspect down enough would get almost anyone to confess to almost anything. Some people would confess to murder just to get to go home.

Their initial approach hadn't been good either. They should have started with ordinary questions; questions about my life, about school. It would have helped them establish a baseline about what I looked like when I was telling the truth so they'd have something to compare it to when I lied.

Keeping them off balance had been part of the plan, though. I could tell from the moment they walked in that they weren't real professionals. The fact that they'd been assigned to a missing Squib case when actual aurors were going missing meant that they were likely the equivalent to rookie beat cops.

They probably spent their time investigating the Wizarding equivalent of noise complaints.

Something of my disdain must have slipped out in my expression, because Snape's lips quirked. My own might have followed suit, even though I wasn't sure whether they had or not.

“You think this is funny?” Millner snapped. “A man is missing and possibly dead, and you're smirking at us?”

“Mr. Filch was a known alcoholic,” I said. “People talked about smelling it on him sometimes. Are you sure that he didn't just wander off somewhere to die in a ditch? He didn't look at all well the last time I saw him.”

“Maybe you did it for the attention,” Millner said, ignoring what I'd just said. “You want to prove that a mudblood is just as good as any pureblood. People do keep saying that you aren't as good at magic.”

Snape shifted uneasily at the epithet. This entire interrogation was putting him in a difficult situation; if he advocated too hard for me, it would look like he was favoring the mudblood. That would put his position as a spy in jeopardy.

If he failed to protect me, it would damage his relationship with the Headmaster, and maybe with me. The use of the epithet was a borderline case.

“That would require that I actually care about what anyone thinks of me,” I said calmly. “Pureblood, mudblood... those are just made up words. Power is power, and results speak for themselves. If you and I point our wands at each other and I'm the one that walks away, then doesn't that make me the better Wizard?”

“Witch,” Fawley said. “And maybe you're just luckier.”

“Isn't that a power in it's own right?” I asked. “I understand that one of the most coveted potions in the Wizarding world grants luck.”

“There's something wrong with you,” Millner said. “Anybody can see it. All of your classmates can see it; they think you are creepy and dangerous. Maybe it finally got to you, and you took it out on the one person in the entire castle who couldn't fight back.”

I shrugged. “You can think what you want, but I've already told you what happened. I went to the party, I took a bath, and then I went to bed. What more do you want me to say?”

I probably should have tried to act like a distressed eleven year old, but I wasn't sure that my acting skills were up to it. Snape would be certain that I'd done it in that case, which would be a bigger problem for me in the long term than these two bozos.

Even as the interview went on, I was having my bugs move the pieces of Filch deeper and deeper into the bowels of the castle. They'd already finished with the flesh, but there wasn't a lot they could do with the splinters of bone I had left other than scatter them in parts of the castle where no one ever went.

There were animals that ate bones; tortoises, cattle, bears... but as there weren't any of those animals anywhere within my sensory radius, the best I could do was the equivalent of flushing the bone fragments down the toilet and hope that no one ever noticed in whatever cesspit the toilets washed out to.

“Even if I'd had a reason to kill Mr. Filch, which I didn't, how would I have done it in a way that no one would see anything? You've seen my wand, so it obviously wasn't magic, and I'm too small to carry someone of Filch's size, which means I'd have had to leave him wherever I killed him. The castle has been searched, and no one has found anything, and there is a lot of evidence that I was exactly where I said I was.”

For the first time I saw some uncertainty on Fawley's face, although Millner still had a stubborn set to his jaw.

“Isn't it more likely that Filch was taken before he even reached the castle?” I said. “Aurors are going missing every day. You think that maybe a squib that everybody hated might go missing the same way, maybe just because he irritated someone as a kid who is now dangerous?”

There was an implication to what I had just said. I could see the moment that Fawley got it, but Millner was oblivious. I grinned at Fawley, who looked distinctly uncomfortable.

Of course, it was the truth within a lie. I was already dangerous, but the more I learned the more dangerous I was going to get. I had a long memory too, although I had chosen to ignore past transgressions more than once.

I wasn't feeling particularly forgiving at the moment, though.

“You're trying to confuse us,” Millner spat.

“I'm an eleven year old girl, and you are professional aurors,” I said. “If I'm able to confuse you, what does that say about full grown criminals?”

Millner looked like he wanted to hit me, but he glanced back at Snape.

“If you really have any evidence that I did anything, you should charge me and take me in,” I continued. “But bringing me in without any evidence might be...unwise.”

“And why is that?” Miller asked, his face flushing a little.

“There are those who favor muggleborns over purebloods,” I said. “And some of them are highly placed. Put an eleven year old girl in Azkaban for a crime she didn't commit...probably couldn't commit would be seen as a terrible injustice. Even people who don't care about mudbloods get upset when people threaten children because they fear it might be their child next.”

“Miss Hebert,” Snape drawled. “Kindly refrain from using epithets or I will be forced to assign punishments.”

“It's our word,” I said. “I know what I am, and I don't care what anybody thinks about it.”

Fawley sighed.

“She's right,” he said. “We're not getting anywhere here.”

Millner scowled, but finally he nodded. “This isn't over. I know you did it, and I'll find out how.”

“The question you should be asking yourself is who tipped you off,” I said.”I've made plenty of enemies, but schoolchildren wouldn't have known that Filch wasn't just off on holiday. That means that whoever informed you knew he was missing, maybe even before the staff did. Now who would possibly know that a man had been kidnapped or murdered faster than the people who'd done the deed themselves?”

“Pointing the finger at someone else is a common tactic for criminals,” Millner said. “It doesn't change the facts.”

“The fact is that you don't have anything on me, and you won't, because I'm innocent,” I said.

That was apparently that. Both men rose, nodded toward Snape. Millner dropped my wand in Snape's hand and they both left the room.

“May I see your second wand, Miss Hebert?” Snape asked when they were far enough out of the room to be outside of hearing range.

I shrugged and pulled it from my fanny pack. Handing it to him, I waited as he checked the spells on it.

He eventually handed both of my wands back to me.

“You are unwise to antagonize them,” he said. “Aurors have more discretion in our world than they do in the muggle world... there are fewer rules and they have much more power to make trouble for those they have taken a dislike to.”

“Do you think I don't know that?” I asked. “But one of them was ready to throw me in the slammer and forget where he left the key.”

“I warned you that certain behaviors could lead to Azkaban,” he said. “Perhaps you will be more circumspect in the future.”

“I try to stay out of trouble,” I said. “But trouble keeps coming after me.”

“Did you kill Mr. Filch?” he asked after a long moment, as though he was afraid of whatever answer I was going to give him.

“Killing him would have just caused me a lot of problems,” I said. “And I had no reason to kill him. Do you think I would just randomly start murdering staff members?”

“I am not entirely certain what you would do,” he said. “But I do not believe you are randomly malicious. Everything you do serves a purpose.”

“So there you go,” I said. “Killing Filch would make my life worse, not better, so why would I do it?”

“And if we asked for a pensieve of the night in question?”

“Do you really want to see a boring memory of me taking a bath?” I asked, with one eyebrow raised. “Other than that, it was pretty much just the parties and the Feast like I said. There were people around me at all times throughout the night. What would be the point?”

“I will take you at your word,” he said after a moment. “But you should listen to mine. Adult wizards have decided that the world would benefit from your absence. They are capable of making that happen.”

“I'm learning as fast as I can,” I said. “Picking up every spell, learning to fight. In the end it might not be enough, but I plan to go down fighting. What else can I do?”

“Accept help from others,” he said. “Despite your unconventional methods, you are still a child, and as such are not expected to take on the entire world.”

“I'll take on the entire universe, if that's what it takes,” I said. “And how can I accept help when everyone seems like they want to either kill or imprison me?”

 

“Have you considered that it might be your personality?” Snape asked dryly.

I carefully resisted giving him the finger. I could see that he knew I wanted to, though, and there was a little smirk as he walked out of the room.

Chapter Text

For a week I thought I was in the clear. There was no further inquiries from the aurors, and I didn't receive any summons from the Ministry. Filch's bones were all in the sewer system now, with nothing left to incriminate me in the vents.

Overall, I'd gotten away with murder, but I didn't feel good about it. I'd told Snape I hadn't had anything against Filch and it was true. He'd been unpleasant, but he hadn't directed any special attention toward me; if anything, he'd been a little more nasty towards the Purebloods. Maybe it had been their obvious disdain toward him.

Rumors were all over school about what had happened to him. The prevailing theory was that he had been murdered by Voldemort, or possibly a student that he'd annoyed one too many times. People knew I'd been questioned about it, but they seemed to take the fact that I was styill at school as proof I hadn't done it.

It was a surprisingly progressive attitude, one that would have been more reassuring if I didn't suspect they'd have been just as sure that I had done it if I'd been hauled away. They seemed amazingly credulous, believing everything they read in the papers.

I had to keep reminding myself that they existed in a pre-Internet world. Content was regulated, and every other provider wasn't lying or attempting to manipulate them in some way. In some ways it was a more innocent time, and I suspect that even the muggles would be a little more gullible.

“Did you hear that they've given up on the search for Filch?” Hermione asked.

“Oh?” I asked, as casually as I could.

We were in the library again, and I was studying the human revealing spell. It was a more advanced version of the Revelio charm, which was considered hard for a second year. It was wickedly useful though; it would reveal secret passages, invisible things, secret messages and even to reveal the true appearance of someone who had changed their appearance by a spell.

There was a third spell that would reveal the presence of spells cast on objects or potions. All three spells were ones I desperately wanted, for obvious reasons. When I'd mastered them, I was going to be casting them every time I took a bath or was in the toilet.

“They've already hired his replacement. He should be coming to school today!”

Why she would be so peppy about a new school caretaker I couldn't be sure. I'd always thought of Filch as a janitor, but the House Elves had done most of the cleaning. Was he their supervisor, or was he just an extra set of eyes for the staff?

“What have you heard about him?” I asked.

“Some people are saying he's a criminal!” Hermione said. She sounded breathless. “That the only reason he's here as caretaker is because it was a choice between this and Azkaban!”

“What did he do?”

“They say he deals in stolen goods...” Hermione said. She stared at me. “Why are you looking so cheerful all of a sudden?”

“It's good to know people who have connections on the outside,” I said. “They're watching the owls now, so it's not like I could get anything good through Mail Order.”

“What could you possibly want to buy that you couldn't get here or through the twins?”

“Snape has a standing order that he is to be informed about anything that I bring into the school. He's got this weird idea that I'm going to blow up the school or something.”

More like he'd gotten even more cautious since Filch's disappearance, but I didn't mention that to Hermione. I was touched that she'd never even bothered asking me if I'd killed him or not. There had been other students who hadn't been as careful, although I'd simply told them that I didn't know what they were talking about; clearly the aurors had been asking witnesses at the school what had happened and I'd just been one more witness.

I coughed as I detected someone walking toward the gates. I'd been more cautious about watching what was going on outside since I'd been attacked. I'd also gotten a lot more messy in the bathroom. I made sure to splash water all over the floor and then to keep bugs watching for disturbances in the water.

I had them paying more attention to smell and hearing as well. I had an idea for detecting someone who was silenced by listening for the absence of sound in a particular spot. I hadn't quite managed it yet, partially because I needed a silenced target to practice with. That was one more spell I needed to work on.

“He's just arrived, I think,” I said to Hermione.

She stared at me, but didn't ask how I knew. I hated to lead her on and make her believe something that wasn't true, but telling anyone was a good way to get myself killed. In this world, every adult Cape was capable of being a Master, which meant that no one could be trusted with any secrets.

There were apparently high level spells that would keep them from spilling secrets, but it would be years before I was skilled enough to use them.

The man walking toward the gate had a familiar look to him; he looked shifty. He was short, with bowed legs and straggly red hair. He was unshaven, and his eyes were baggy and bloodshot. The bugs nearest to him smelled alcohol and tobacco.

Most of the most dangerous people I'd met had a way of looking at people in a way that was familiar. It was as though they were assessing everything around them for how threatening they were. They wouldn't dismiss anyone, not even a Kindergarten student, because inn our world, even that child could have strange and dangerous powers.

They might not even be a child at all; there were Strangers and Changers who could look like someone else after all.

This man scanned everything in a similar way, but what he was looking at was different. It was as though he was looking at everything and trying to assess how valuable it was, as though he was planning to drive a U-Haul up to the castle, use an expansion charm on it, and then steal the entire castle blind.

I understood people like him, even if I didn't always like them. It was possible that I might even be able to use him.

The man was led into the castle by Snape himself, who sneered. Snape waited until he was inside the Headmaster's office before he left, as though he didn't trust the man to be alone in the halls.

“Love what ye've done to the place,” the man said as he walked into the office.

“This isn't a social call, Mundungus,” Dumbledore said quietly. “Someone has done away with Argus Filch and there was an attack on one of the students.”

“Heard about that... it's the crazy one, right, the Yank?”

“Miss Hebert is a complicated person,” Dumbledore said. “Which does not please certain parties, who prefer to keep things simple.”

“Don't like her out-Slytherin their kids,” the man said. He grinned. “Sounds like it'll be good for the little snots.”

“More importanly, I need to know if these incidents are specifically directed toward her, or if they are the beginning of a slow assault on Hogwarts itself. I wouldn't have thought it of Tom, but he has been much more subtle lately than he has been in the past.”

“Killing the muggleborn kids isn't exactly his style,” the man said. “Some of the people workin for him, though...”

“Whether it is his decision, or simply acts carried out by those in his employ, I need to find out more. To that end, I need you to take over the role of caretaker.”

“Spy on the kiddies?” the man asked. “Sounds safer than being out there, right now. It's not just aurors that are going missing. There's been dealers in questionable items going missing too...”

“Why would he eliminate dealers in stolen goods?” Dumbledore asked.

“They were muggleborns,” the man said. “Making a tidy profit trading things with the muggles and selling them to purebloods who wouldn't be caught dead in a muggle shop. It's an underground market, because the Ministry wants us to keep our distance from the muggle world. It's not exactly illegal; but the aurors are likely to make their unhappiness known about it.”

I'd suspected that there had to be a certain amount of trade with the muggle world. At the very least food couldn't be created; the small population of wizards wouldn't need that much food in the scheme of things, but it was probably more cost effective to buy it from the non-magical world than to set up Wizarding farms.

The Ministry probably had official methods of making those deals, though, and they wouldn't look kindly on outsiders horning in on their turf. Governments tended to be very protective of their power.

“Anything to isolate us even further from the outside world,” Dumbledore said. “They refuse to believe that muggles have anything to teach.”

The man chuckled. “Some of the best fences I know are muggles. You don't have to talk me into thinking they've got brains.”

“Nevertheless, the job as caretaker here will not be entirely without danger,” Dumbledore said. “There has been some measure of suspicion in Mr. Filch's disappearance on Miss Hebert. Severus doesn't believe that she would act maliciously, but...”

“Somebody who can kill a troll isn't somebody to underestimate. I'm not stupid.”

“I wish I could say as much for half of Slytherin,” Dumbledore sighed. “I'd hoped that she would lead them to understand that their prejudices against the muggles and muggleborns were unfounded, but instead she seems to have convinced them that they are incredibly dangerous.”

“Might not be the worst message for them to get, if it makes them back off.”

“Fear and respect are two different things,” Dumbledore said. “Fear of what the muggleborn represent is what is fueling Voldemort's rise. Making it worse will only drive them to join him.”

I felt someone shaking my arm, and I looked at Hermione.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“I was just lost in thought,” I said. “How are you coming with the Revelio charm?”

“It's fascinating!” she said. “There are different versions for the different major species. There's one for humans, for goblins, for centaurs...”

“And they are better than the general charm why?”

“Because they are easier to cast,” Hermione said. “Quicker, even though they are more limited in scope. Some people can even cast them silently and wandlessly.”

“So we should probably focus on the human revealing charm, and maybe pick up the House elf charm later,” I said. “The Death Eaters wouldn't stoop to using Goblins or Centaurs.”

Hermione thought I was studying the spells because of the invisible attack on the school lawn. In a way she was right, even though the attack in the bathroom had been more immediate.

“You need to learn these things too,” I said. “Because even if you and your family go to Europe for your summer break, I doubt dentists can afford to spend three months away from their practice.”

Hermione scowled. “You know, when I start talking about what my parents do, the purebloods start looking at me like I'm...well, you?”

I considered that for a moment. Dentists pried people's mouths opened, then forced a drill inside. They sometimes yanked teeth forcibly out of someone's head. Just looking at dentist's tools was like looking at something out of a horror movie.

“Maybe you shouldn't bother,” I said. “Or just give them the abbreviated version. Just imagine what they'd think about a surgeon!”

Cutting people open with a knife, cracking their ribs to expose their still beating heart...it also sounded terrible in the right kind of light.

Her eyes rounded.

“And what about plastic surgeons?” Hermione said. “I saw a special about them on the telly once, and it looked barbaric even to me.”

Ripping people's faces off and then pulling it back behind their head so that it wasn't wrinkled any more, but leaving them looking like some kind of strange mummy?

“The Wizarding world is kind of innocent about some things,” I said. “And maybe we shouldn't be the ones to enlighten them.”

The purebloods were already afraid enough of the muggles, although I supposed that there might be some use to be made in those images. It wasn't like Wizarding medicine couldn't be used for torture.

There were spells that would vanish bones, that would grow teeth to the point that they would crack the skull and kill someone if allowed to continue long enough. A simple episky spell would allow mundane torture to continue long past the time that muggle torturers would have had to quit.

Transmute someone's head into that of a shark and leave them in the open air, and they'd begin to suffocate. It would make waterboarding look amateurish, although speaking might be a problem.

I sensed someone coming toward us at a high rate of speed. It was Neville, and he seemed to be agitated.

Looking up, I saw him walking rapidly toward me. My hand went for my wand, but I didn't lift it. Still I was startled as he lunged toward me and hugged me tightly.

“What's going on?” I asked slowly.

He held onto me tightly enough that I was having trouble breathing.

“You did it. You did it!”

“What did I do?” I asked, pushing him away from me.

I hadn't been hugged in... a long time. It had been years and I had largely forgotten what it felt like. The fact that it felt nice wasn't enough to keep me from feeling uncomfortable with it, especially as it kept my wand arm pinned.

“My mother is awake,” Neville said. He was crying.

It took us more than ten minutes to get the story from him. Apparently Neville's parents had been tortured under the Cruciatus for long enough that they'd basically been driven into a catatonic state. They'd been unable to respond to anyone, and Neville had never really gotten to know them.

Madam Pomfrey had used the scans she'd gotten of my own brain to help with their case. Apparently I had a similar pattern in my head, but I'd gotten better, which wasn't something that had ever happened before.

She'd told me that there was some evidence of brain damage, but since I seemed to be functioning perfectly fine not to worry about it.

Wizarding magic wasn't as advanced on the psychiatric front as in other areas, so this was considered groundbreaking.

Furthermore, Dumbledore had suggested using a pensieve... pulling the memories of the torture from their mind over and over. Obliviation didn't really destroy memories; it covered them up. Pensieve memories grew weaker and weaker each time the original was taken without replacing it, like a piece of paper being written on and erased overt and over again. Eventually the paper just grew thinner and thinner.

Dumbledore had been kind enough to give me the credit for that idea, probably as a way of promoting his muggleborn agenda.

“She's still not... normal,” Neville admitted. “I went to see her and she has to take calming potions and other stuff, and she still has lapses. But she was able to recognize me, and she talked to me!”

He seemed excited, so I didn't say anything to burst his bubble. I glanced at Hermione, and saw that she was thinking the same thing I was.

It was great that she was having moments of lucidity, but it was possible that where she was now was as good as she was ever going to get. It might even be that she would revert to her former state.

Or she might get all the way better. There was no way to know, but seeing the beaming look on Neville's face, I couldn't think of disabusing him of the hope that his family might one day be back together again.

“It didn't work on my Da,” he said, looking suddenly dejected. “Probably because they tortured him longer, or maybe because he's a male and male brains are different than female.”

“You could always turn him into a woman,” I joked weakly.

He stared at me. “Do you think that would work?”

“Probably....not?” I said. “You could always mention it to the mediwitches and see what they say, but I wouldn't get my hopes up.”

The last thing I needed was to be the one who broke Neville's heart. He'd been loyal to me when he hadn't had to, despite a lot of peer pressure to reject me. That was a sign of inner courage.

He reminded me a little of Theo sometimes. He hadn't been raised by Nazis, but he had turned against his own people's native prejudices to look for a better way.

I hesitated.

While puncturing Neville's enthusiasm might cause him pain now, it would save him pain later. If I was actually his friend, I'd need to be truthful with him.

“You know this might be as good as it gets, right?” I asked slowly.

He stopped and stared at me.

“She might keep getting better.... but she might not,” I said. “But either way, you should treasure the time you have with her. It's a little like she's risen from the dead...”

For a moment he looked offended, but that look was soon replaced by a thoughtful one.

“After my mother died, there were times that I'd give the whole world just for one more hour with her,” I said. “Now you've got that chance. If it doesn't get any better than this, then you should enjoy the time you have with her. If it does...then that's the icing on the cake.”

He nodded after a moment, and then he and Hermione started talking excitedly about the things he was going to tell his mother.

As I watched them, it felt nice that there was at least a little good news. I had a curious sense of foreboding, though.

The universe didn't seem to like letting me have nice things, not without taking twice as much away. Or maybe I was just as paranoid as people seemed to think I was.

I wasn't even sure which was worse.

Chapter Text

“They want what?” I asked.

“The Daily Prophet wants to interview you,” Dumbledore said. “The Cruciatus Cure is an amazing breakthrough, and the idea that an eleven year old girl was the one to inspire it has inflamed the imaginations of the readership.”

I stared at him. I understood what his motive was behind all of this; by reminding the world that a muggleborn had handed a cure to them, he hoped to change hearts and minds. However, the last place I needed to be was in the forefront of everyone's minds.

As far as I could tell, I was being targeted by a single Death Eater. Avery had reason to hate me, considering my blood status and the fact that I'd harmed his nephew. But the other Death Eaters didn't seem to be targeting me specifically; they were simply after all muggleborn and I'd been caught up in their net.

Putting myself out in the public eye might change that. Avery had presumably seen me when he'd attacked me invisibly, but it was possible that he'd just sent a proxy. Even if that was so, the proxy had to know what I looked like. Did he know that I was an imposer already, or would having a picture in front of him jog his memory?

His partner might see it too, and then they'd see that I was a liability. That might make the attacks on me more desperate, and more likely to succeed.

After all, how many resources had Avery really expended on me? He'd cast a few spells on a helpless squib, and he'd taken some potshots at me when the opportunity had presented itself. The polyjuice potion had presumably been to get him up the stairs, in case invisibility and Filch's status as caretaker wasn't enough. He'd whispered in some auror's ears.

Blank polyjuice potions were available for sale in Knockturn Alley. I'd heard some of the upperclassmen sniggering about it. Adding a person's hair at the end, and there was an instant change. As to why they were sold so casually, I couldn't be sure.

I chose not to think about the perversions of adult Wizards.

If the Protectorate had been running the Wizarding world, Polyjuice would have been illegal, or maybe restricted to aurors. Here it was taught to everyone as part of their core classes, essentially giving every Wizard a stranger rating.

It was grueling to make, but I suspected that I'd be able to make it in a couple of years. Most likely I'd buy some if I ever found a dealer; I wasn't sure how expensive it was. Knowing that would help me to understand how much Avery wanted me dead.

“Do you think that flaunting my presence is going to help my position any?” I asked. “It's going to be hard enough to escape once the summer comes without them all knowing what I look like. Also, the last thing I need is anything that will make the rest of the kids jealous of me.”

“You? Afraid of bullies?” Dumbledore asked, one eyebrow raised. “I'd have thought you cherished the challenge.”

“Not being afraid of them doesn't mean that I enjoy being taunted behind my back, when they know that I can hear them,” I said. “And I can tell that it bothers Hermione to hear them say things too.”

“And yet if no one does anything to change hearts and minds, it will always be like this,” he said gently. “The world is full of injustice, and most people learn to live with it. It's not until that first brave person steps forward that anything changes. Wasn't it only recently that a young woman refused to give up her seat on a bus in your nation simply because of the color of her skin?”

Even here in the past, it had been something like thirty six years since Rosa Parks had been thrown off the bus. Dumbledore considered that recent?

It was like the Wizarding World was a fly trapped in amber, stuck in time. Wizards tended to remember the parts of the muggle world that had existed the last time they'd interacted with it; for most that was when they had been in school. Given the fact that Wizards tended to live twice as long as muggles, and that meant that to someone like Dumbledore, horseless carriages were probably still astonishing.

“You aren't seriously comparing me to Rosa Parks,” I said. “Posing for some pictures isn't like starting a movement.”

“She likely didn't think she was starting a movement either,” he said. “She simply stood up for what is right. Despite your rather.... complicated history, I believe that you too have a strong sense of how the world should be.”

He didn't say I had a strong sense of right and wrong. Was that a subtle insult?

“It just seems like it's asking for trouble, just when things are starting to die down,” I said. “Why would I want to do this?”

“I could appeal toward your more mercenary side,” Dumbledore said. “There are people who this cure will help that will be grateful to you if you let them know who you are.”

“How many people could there possibly be that this happened to?” I asked. “Didn't the Death Eaters kill the people they tortured when they were done?”

Dumbledore shook his head. “They made examples of some people; it was part of their campaign to spread fear in the last war. Death is simple, but being forced to care for an ailing relative for the rest of your life; that is fearful. Given the way our community is so closely related, that means that almost everyone has a relative who is affected, however distant.”

“I haven't heard about a lot of families dealing with something like that,” I said slowly.

“How long did it take young Mr. Longbottom to share what had happened with you?” he asked. “Most families prefer to take care of their invalids in-house, hiding them away from the world as though it is shameful what they have become.”

Would it really earn me that much political goodwill? What Dumbledore wasn't saying was that if I ever had to go to trial, having people on my side might make the difference between freedom and Azkaban... or even being Kissed.

I couldn't keep coasting on my being a child forever; in just a few years I'd be old enough that I'd be just another adult, and if I didn't make friends with those in power I'd be screwed.

The thought of getting some political backing was attractive, but was it worth the risk of inflaming Avery and his partner?

Screw them. I couldn't keep living my life on the defensive. I needed to go on the attack, and this might be something constructive that I could do.

“Fine,” I said. “But I'd prefer not to have any pictures.”

“I am sure they will press for them,” Dumbledore said. “But we will try to keep your picture off the front page at least.”

“I don't like being manipulated,” I said, grimacing as I rose to my feet. “When is this going to happen?”

“Within the hour,' Dumbledore said.

“And if I'd said no?” I asked. He'd simply assumed that I'd agree, which was more than irritating. It was almost enough to put him on my to-do list.

The list was fairly short at the moment. Avery, the Death Eaters, Voldemort and the Hat.

I turned to glare at the hat, which simply sat there as though it was a simple piece of felt. I hadn't forgotten what it had done, but figuring out an appropriate response was difficult.

I could destroy the hat easily enough; there were more than enough cloth eating bugs in the castle that I could probably take care of it in a single night, assuming that it wasn't somehow magically protected.

But the hat served an important purpose in the school, and destroying the hat would probably make everyone who'd ever gone to school angry. I couldn't afford that, not right now.

Yet there wasn't any other leverage to deal with the hat. As far as I could tell it didn't have friends. It didn't eat, or drink, or do much of anything. It didn't have knees you could break, and the thought of torturing a hat was ludicrous.

Dropping it in the sewer might work, but would a hat even care about getting dirty? It didn't have human fears, which made judging what it would find unpleasant difficult. It didn't seem to want anything at all other than to shove kids into Houses. It was like trying to intimidate a laptop.

Getting it to speak about the others who had been reincarnated was on my list too. I didn't have anything to offer the hat.... maybe a cleaning?

“How do I know this isn't going to be an excuse to attack me?” I asked. “Physically or to my reputation?”

“I think it would be best if Miss Skeeter survived her encounter with you,” Dumbledore said.

I forced myself not to stiffen, and I carefully kept my eyes averted from him. I pushed my emotions into my bugs, and I hoped that no one would notice how agitated they were. Did he know what I had done? What did he plan to do about it?

“She is not a troll, although some people might disagree.”

“Fine,” I said. “Where do I meet her?”

 

“I've arranged for you to meet her in the charms classroom,” he said. “In light of previous difficulties, I think having a teacher present would be prudent.”

“Who are you trying to protect? Her or me?”

“The welfare of everyone on the premises is my responsibility,” he said smoothly. “Now perhaps you would like to freshen up.”

I scowled, then nodded. First impressions were important.

I'd had the classes with Glenn Chambers, even though I hadn't really bothered to pay that much attention. At the time I'd been worried about saving the universe; making a good impression with the press hadn't been high on my list.

Still, some of the pieces of advice had stuck with me. Being prepared was important. Thinking before you spoke was important; ums and uhs made you sound stupid. Avoiding jargon was important; you were speaking to the general public, not members of the Protectorate.

Keeping answers simple and succinct. The press tended to prefer sound bites anyway, and they were likely to cut what you said down into something the audience could understand anyway.

I found my best robe, and I made an effort to make my hair look presentable. Tracey had shown me a spell that made that easy, and I saw no reason not to use it, even though part of me wondered whether I was going to end up bald when I was older because of overusing it.

Finding my way to the classroom before the reporter wasn't that difficult. I was following her progress through the castle, after all.

She had blonde hair set in elaborate curls. Her spectacles were set with rhinestones. Her jaw was thick and her fingers were even thicker, and the long, red painted nails on them looked a little like claws. She had a handbag that looked like it was made of crocodile skin.

There was something about her that tickled at the back of my mind. Did I recognize her from somewhere? It made me a little uneasy, so I resolved to be on my guard.

She was being escorted by Professor Flitwick.

“She's been one of my best students,” he was saying in his squeaky voice. He was moving quickly to keep up with her. “Both of my best students this year are muggleborns.”

“That's unusual, isn't it?” she asked.

“The muggleborn lack some of the advantages pureblood children have,” he said. “Including the ability to practice magic during the summers.”

“You aren't criticizing that policy, are you?” she asked. Her head snapped toward him. “The Ministry thinks that children can't be trusted not to use magic around muggles, and that it would be a nightmare for the obliviators.”

“Ahh...no,” Flitwick said hurriedly. “I was just saying that the common refrain that muggleborn aren't good at magic isn't true at all in my experience.”

“A couple of magical prodigies isn't indicative of a trend,” she said reprovingly. “Perhaps if you had some proof, the Prophet might be interested in looking over your findings.”

Her tone suggested that she was just being polite, and that they weren't likely to print anything of the sort.

I waited calmly until they entered the room.

“Hello! You must be Taylor!”

Her voice was higher in pitch, the sound sweet and cloying. It was the kind of speech used to speak to a small child.

I nodded, and she reached out to shake my hand. I twisted my wrist slightly so that my hand was on top, and I squeezed tightly. It was a domination display, and I could see in her eyes that she knew it.

Without blinking I stared at her. It was also dominant body language, and I'd found that it unnerved people coming from a girl my age. Girls were socialized to be more submissive, even in Wizarding culture, especially in their body language. Going against that was sending a message.

She pulled her hand away.

“What do you want to know?” I asked.

“You don't mind if I use my magical quill,” she asked. She pulled it out of her bag and set it on one of the tables. I used my bugs to keep an eye on what it was writing.

I was standing with my legs slightly spread. I watched her quietly and didn't say anything. Often people would feel compelled to fill the silence and they'd say a lot more than they meant to.

Staring at me for a moment, she said, “How did you come up with the idea for the Cruciatus Cure?”

“It seemed obvious to me,” I said. “When I researched what pen sieves did, it seemed like it would be better at thinning memories that obliviation, which just covers them up. That's not the only part of the process; the rest was the result of efforts by a team of gifted and dedicated mediwizards, starting with Hogwarts own Madam Pomfrey.”

“They used the results of your own brain scans, didn't they?” she asked. “Which means that you've been through something unspeakable.”

“You can understand why I wouldn't want to talk about that,” I said. “And why I'm determined that something like that isn't going to happen to me again, or to anyone else.”

“Is that why you have a certain... reputation?”

 

“Reputation?” I asked. I knew what she was going for, but I was going to make her say it.

“For violence, dear,” she said. “It's said that you've murdered at least one troll, and that you have injured several of your classmates. There are people who are questioning why you are even allowed to continue at this school.”

“Surely you don't believe that,” I said. “Look at me; do I look like I could kill a troll?”

She faltered; it was as though she was seeing me for the first time.

“And besides, if you really believed that I was some kind of psychopath, someone who killed anyone who caused her pain, you doubtlessly wouldn't have your quill writing what's going on that paper over there.”

I hadn't even looked at it, but I could see what it was writing, and it wasn't flattering.

“What do you mean, dear?” she asked.

“You aren't afraid of me at all,” I said. “Which means you don't believe any of that claptrap you are writing. Is this supposed to be a piece about a new medical technique, or are you just trying to write another piece talking about how dangerous the muggleborn are?”

“It doesn't matter what I believe,” she said. “What matters is what the readers will believe.”

“I think it would be better if you wrote something a little more balanced,” I said. I took a small step toward her.

“Are you threatening me?” she asked, sounding almost delighted.

“Certainly not!” I said, making an effort to sound shocked. “I was just wondering if...certain people had sympathies with enemies of the Ministry. You know who I'm talking about, of course.”

For the first time, she looked actually startled.

“What are you talking about?”

“Everyone knows what his agenda is,” I said. “And there may come a point where people are going to have to choose sides. If you choose too soon, it might be something you regret.”

“I'm not on You-Know-Who's side,” she said quickly.

Strangely enough, I believed her.

“Didn't you just say that it didn't matter what the truth is?” I asked. “It's what people perceive it to be. If people think that you are on the side of Vold-”

“Don't say it!” she said.

 

“Of him, aren't you going to lose half your readers?”

“But people aren't really interested in this,” she said, gesturing around us. “They want to know the real scoop, about the dangerous muggleborn.”

“If I'm dangerous now, how much more dangerous am I going to be in the future?”

“I deal with dangerous people all the time,” she said dismissively. She stood up, seemingly regaining her composure. “So you don't want to talk about being Cruciated. What about the mystery of your background? No one seems to know anything about you?”

“I'm an orphan,” I said. “What else is there to know?”

“Oh, why there is no record of your parents being murdered,” she said. “And why there are no muggle records of a Hebert family emigrating to Britain over the past year. Where did you come from, and who are you, really? I'm going to publish something, so wouldn't it be better to give us your side of the story?”

I glanced back at Flitwick, and I felt like grimacing. The last thing I needed was for staff members to be asking those questions. If she put them in the papers, I was in deep trouble.

Chapter Text

“Miss Skeeter!” Flitwick said. “Miss Hebert has performed a service for the entire Wizarding community! Why would you start making spurious accusations?”

Rita wasn't sure herself.

She'd come expecting to do a puff piece. That was what her editor had expected, and that was what she'd promised Dumbledore. While she did not fear the man, exactly, his political power was enough that he could cause serious problems for her.

In the current environment, it wasn't a good idea to alienate either of the two major groups who were vying for control of Wizarding Britain. Officially, the Prophet was very much on the side of the Ministry, but unofficially her editor was wary of offending the Death Eaters and their followers.

That was a good way to end up disappearing, and her editor had a very strong sense of self-preservation. Rita despised his cowardice sometimes, though. It would be better to let people know what was really happening, instead of just being a Ministry mouthpiece.

Yet her adoring fans expected a certain level of...spice. Playing it safe was a sure route to the unemployment line, and Rita didn't know how to do anything else. Even if she had to make up some of the particulars to make things juicier, the bare bones of the truth would get through, and that was ultimately important. Her editor continued to stymie her at every turn, though.

If they continued the way they were, she was going to work in a shop like a plebian.

The Cruciatus cure was a once in a lifetime event, but it wasn't something that affected all that many people. Certainly, Rita's second cousin had been affected, and there was some evidence that she was getting better, but it wasn't exactly a complete cure, was it?

The people who were waking up were likely always going to be half-people, cripples. It would have been better for everyone had they died long ago, but Wizarding medicine was able to keep people alive long past their allotted time.

It was important, but not that important, and yet still, the plan had been to write a soft piece talking about how this young girl was a shining example of a young witch. It was what her editor and Dumbledore were expecting from her. It would be the easiest thing to write.

If the girl had been ordinary, that was the piece Rita would have written. However, the moment she'd stepped into the room, something about the girl had struck her as wrong. There was a strange sense of horror that had washed over her the moment she'd seen Taylor Hebert, and it wasn't going away.

She'd done her research on the girl, of course. Before printing lies, it was important to know the truth, espcially because the truth was sometimes much more juicy than any lies she could possibly come up with.

What she'd found in her research hadn't been pretty. The girl had obviously been tortured with the Cruciatus curse, probably before she'd even realized that magic existed. She claimed to be an orphan, and anyone reading between the lines would realize that she was one of the muggleborn who had families murdered before the school term had even begun.

Yet there was no record of her, and the aurors didn't know anything about the murders.

There were questions, and there was nothing that Rita loved more than answering questions. She had a nose for news, and this was news.

Still, writing a puff piece now, and an expose later wouldn't have gotten her in trouble. Yet from the moment that she had walked into the room, something about the girl had made her profoundly uneasy.

It felt as though the girl's face was tight against a skull that was vaguely wrong. The way she moved was like someone who was wearing someone else's skin, as though there was something just waiting to explode out of her skin to devour her.

It didn't just bother her human self, either. The beetle was always within Rita, and that part of her was screaming predator.

On the surface, the girl looked like any other child her age. She was wearing the same uniform, her hair didn't look that much different. Maybe it was the way that she stared without blinking, her expression unlike that of any other child Rita had ever seen.

Maybe it was the obvious attempts to be dominant, made ridiculous by the fact that the girl was tiny and a first year student.

“People have questions,” she said without looking at the diminutive professor. “And they deserve answers.”

Hebert took a deep breath. For a moment she looked as though she was going to say something acerbic; the girl had become increasingly aggressive throughout the interview, but suddenly a strange sense of calm came over her face.

“We were vacationing,” Hebert said quietly. “The jobs my parents had were no longer an issue, and it was the first time in a long time that we were going to get to be a family again. The attack came out of nowhere. I don't really remember what happened; they say the attack left me with some kinds of brain damage.”

Brain damage might explain some of her behavioral issues, and maybe even her strange body language. Still, there was something off about what the girl was saying. Where had this sudden, sad sincerity come from? Was it an act, or was the girl so damaged that it was like multiple people were living in the same body?

“How hard would it be for wizards to make muggle visitors just...disaapear?” Hebert asked. “Making records vanish, officials forget. It's only surprising that they didn't make it happen to everyone.”

She was talking about the muggle murders. Rita felt a sudden surge of excitement. She'd tried to report on them, but the Ministry had completely shut her down. Her editor had refused to even look at anything she wrote about it, to the point that she'd been tempted to write an anonymous article in the Quibbler just to get the ball rolling.

She leaned forward.

“And it left you all alone?” she asked.

Hebert nodded.

If Rita squinted really hard, she could almost see a tear in the corner of the girl's eye. She made sure the quill made a note of that. It could have been a trick of the light.

Maybe writing the piece she was expected to write wouldn't be a violation of her journalistic integrity. After all, what was more likely, that an eleven year old muggleborn girl would defeat the Book and the Quill and the Hat and all of the other pretections Hogwarts had, or that she really was thevictim she appeared to be?

Her magic had appeared late, presumably around the time that she was tortured. That accidental magic would explain how she survived when her parents had not.

A story about a plucky girl rising above tragedy to bring an amazing discovery would sell well. She could spin the behavioral problems as temporary side effects of the trauma of what had happened to her. She could probably write enough about what had happened to her that she could get some of the information about the murders out. She'd have to be careful and hint instead of state everything outright, but maybe this girl could be the lever she needed to split the story open outright.

“How does that make you feel?” she asked.

It was a hack question, but children were often rather stupid and weren't particularly good at expressing themselves. Sometimes you had to pull the information out of them, and being blunt was the best way to do that.

If it made them cry, all the better. After all, emotion sold papers more than bland facts. It was Rita's command of the emotion behind the story that made her the number one reporter for the newspaper.

Of course, there were only three reporters for the entire paper, and the other two were off on assignment. Dumbledore had requested either one of the others, which had miffed Rita, but she'd understood. He'd wanted a puff piece, and she wasn't exactly known for those.

He'd stared at her during the interview as though he could read her mind. Given his power, it was possible that he actually was a legilimens.

The girl grimaced at Rita's question.

“Write what you like,” she said. “Whatever I say wouldn't be a tiny fraction of what I really feel. Sad? That doesn't even begin to describe what it feels like when you lose your entire world. I had friends that I won't ever see again, family that I've lost forever. Do I feel angry? Rage is more like it; when I'm old enough I plan to find the people who did this to the people I care about, and I'm going to make them pay.”

Rita stared at her.

The girl was talking about going after Death Eaters as though it was a certainty. She didn't show any fear at the thought; instead there was a gleam of anticipation in her eyes.

The sense of being in the room with a predator grew even stronger, and to her surprise Rita felt herself starting to sweat.

“There are those who are whispering that you might become the next Dark Lady,” Rita said finally.

“Do you think I should?” the girl asked. Her curiously blank eyes turned toward Rita, and she didn't sound as though the answer to the question mattered much to her. The girl forced herself to smile, and it looked ghastly, as though a skeleton had skin draped over it.

“I'm just kidding. I'm a regular student at this school.”

That felt like the biggest lie Rita had heard since hearing that Cornelius Fudge was actually in favor of Muggleborns. He'd just used that as a campaign tactic to get in office; he was actually as prejudiced as any other pureblood.

Rita herself was a halfblood, and she hated being dismissed by purebloods because of her blood status. It had always given her a vindictive sense of pleasure to take arrogant purebloods down a peg or two. The question was, this girl was clearly not an ordinary student. At the very least she was traumatized and clearly not in her right mind.

At worst, she was like a muggle cuckoo bird. It would lay its eggs in the nest of another species, and then allow the other birds to raise its chicks. Those chicks would push the children of the other bird out of the nest, killing them.

Was this girl a savior, or a demon?

Usually Rita's gut would give her the answer, but here she couldn't be sure.

“An exceptional one,” Flitwick said from behind her. “She's one of my two best students.”

He'd said that before; was he saying it again for the girl's benefit? Girls at that age were emotionally vulnerable. Rita had been afraid that she'd have to hold this girl's hand throughout her interview.

How did they not see what a monster she was?

It should have been obvious to every teacher. They saw enough students on a day to day basis to have an unconscious ability to know what was normal, and this girl was not. It should have been obvious from the moment that she'd first come to class.

Still, if she tried to warn the world without some kind of proof, she'd be a laughingstock. The purebloods were convinced that the muggleborn weren't really Wizards. The way they comforted themselves was with the idea that muggleborn were barely better than squibs.

Telling them that a prominent muggleborn was a magical genius would make them question anything else she had to say, and she couldn't afford that at the moment. Sometimes truth had to be doled out in small installments in order for it to be accepted.

Worse, the families of the people the Cruciatus cure had given hope to wouldn't want to hear that the girl was a sociopath. They needed to believe that she was an angel of mercy, someone who was special.

No one would believe that an eleven year old was dangerous anyway. Most Wizards tended to be dismissive of anyone who wasn't able to do magic; first year Hogwarts students barely made the cut. The fact that the girl had killed a troll with a knife wouldn't be seen as realistic, even though Rita had heard it from multiple sources, including Dumbledore himself.

Uncertainty gnawed at her. She had every reason in the world to write a glowing piece about the girl, and writing against her would cause her all kinds of problems. Yet her readers expected more from her than just to rubber stamp what the Ministry wanted.

Her job was to warn the public.

The girl was staring at her, and after a moment, her harsh look softened.

“I'm not dangerous,” she said. “Not to anyone who leaves me alone. People just tend to be afraid of anything they don't understand... especially the muggleborn. I'm afraid that a lot of the rumors about me are overblown to say the least.”

The implication was that she was dangerous to those who decided to attack her. The girl could have delivered the statement in such a way as to threaten Rita herself; if she had, it would have made Rita's course clear. Nobody threatened the press, and she would have found a way to get the story to print, if she'd had to go to the Lovegoods.

But the statement was bland, and devoid of threat. It was a statement of fact.

“And how do you feel about purebloods?” Rita asked.

“Some of my best friends are purebloods,” Hebert said. “I'm not unaware of some of the cultural implications, but I don't think that blood status really means that much. I believe that people should be judged by their character, and possibly by the power of their magic.”

“By the power of their magic?” Rita asked. That surprised her.

“Nobody is born with magic that is stronger or weaker than anyone else,” she said. “Magical power is achieved in the Wizarding world through hard work, intelligence and practice. Those are all commendable qualities in and of themselves.”

“You don't think talent plays a role?” Rita asked.

“Some people have faster reflexes, which might make them better dualists, or think faster, but for day to day magic any wizard can do anything, assuming they are smart enough,” Hebert said. “There's always someone who learns faster, but if you work hard you'll get there eventually.”

“Would that all Wizards felt that way,” Rita murmured.

Most Wizards were lazy.

It amazed Rita that so many wizards could not competently cast a shield spell. She would be dead three times over if she hadn't kept up her skills, and in the world they were living in, there was no reason not to know basic self protection. Yet most wizards and witches would prefer to listen to the Ministry and pretend that everything was fine.

Rita reached her decision.

She'd write both stories; the puff piece Dumbledore had asked for, and the piece about the dangerous muggleborn. She'd hold the damaging piece until the girl proved that she was what Rita's gut told her she was.

In the meantime, she would try to write the piece she was assigned now with references to what was happening to the muggleborn. If she was clever enough about how she wrote it, it might just slip by her editor.

He'd be angry, of course, but once the story was out, it was possible that she'd be able to write more of the stories she really wanted to write. Leaving the Wizarding population helpless wasn't her job.

She'd covered the first war with less censorship, and she sometimes wondered if there were ulterior motives behind the quashing of certain stories. Were there members of the Ministry in league with Voldemort? Did they somehow have some sort of hold over her editor?

Rita forced herself to smile.

“I think we got off on the wrong foot,” she said. “Maybe we should start again. Tell me about your plans now that you have inspired a cure that has helped so many people?”

Her Quill was linked to her, so it detected her shift in mood and automatically adjusted the slant it was taking on the conversation.

The girl relaxed even though she wasn't looking at the paper. There had been rumors that the girl was a seert of some sort. It was hard to believe of a muggleborn, but maybe she really was.

Could the girl be a legilmens, or was she just somehow reading Rita's notes?

“I'd like to help everyone,” the girl said. “Not just a few unfortunate victims. First, I'd like to enjoy my years at Hogwarts in peace. If that happens, I'll likely end up as a magical researcher.”

Rita didn't ask what would happen in the event the girl wasn't left in peace. The part of her that was still screaming that the girl was dangerous didn't want to know.

Still, she'd be keeping her eye on the girl.

Chapter Text

“Page sixteen?” I said. “Dumbledore made me go through all of that just for a little blurb on page sixteen?”

Page sixteen was the health column, but I'd expected...more, from the way he'd built the whole thing up. Was anyone still reading by page sixteen? How much of a difference would a tiny little article actually make?

“It made you look good,” Hermione said. “It's not like she did a hatchet piece on you or anything.”

She'd hinted that I'd been tortured. It would explain the strange looks I'd been getting from the other students all day, a combination of sympathy and horror.

Hermione had been careful not to ask about it, but I'd seen the question in her eyes too. It irritated me; was the nebulous potential rewards in the future worth the loss of regard I'd suffer in everyone's eyes? I wasn't a victim. I'd given that up on the stay I'd been pulled screaming out of a locker years ago.

I was never going to be a victim again.

That didn't mean that horrible things weren't going to happen to me; my luck had never been particularly good. But even having my arm cut off hadn't made me a victim. Being a victim was a mindset as much as anything. At the worst, I was a survivor, which was an entirely different state of mind.

“How can anybody believe anything they see in the paper?” I asked irritably. “I never had tears in my eyes or talked about how my parents would have been proud of me.”

“Ummm....artistic license?” Hermione said. She looked distinctly uncomfortable.

Despite all of my training, she still sometimes tended to take things that she read as the gospel truth. Having the fact that sometimes lies were printed right in front of her had to be disconcerting.

“Don't believe anything the woman says,” I said.

I'd be more angry at Dumbledore, but I'd listened in as Flitwick had gone to him to protest. Apparently, upon learning that Skeeter would be conducting the interview, he'd gotten in contact with her editor. He'd gotten him to agree to let Dumbledore look over the article before it was published, and had given him the right to kill the story if he didn't like it.

It was a corrupt system, but Dumbledore knew how to work it. Skeeter hadn't known about this back room deal, and likely would have been furious if she'd known. I'd known journalists before, and even the worst of them tended to believe that the press should be an independent entity.

Hermione nodded soberly. “I hadn't realized that it was this bad. Journalistic standards in the Wizarding world are rather poor, aren't they?”

I glanced at her and wondered whether she really thought muggle newspapers were all that much better. Maybe they were, here. Back at home, the Protectorate had wielded an unusual amount of influence over the news outlets. In an ideal world, that would have been unacceptable, but it had happened nevertheless.

The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth, even if it had arguably worked out in my favor. Dumbledore had been pushing his muggleborn agenda, but it could have just as easily been Lucius Malfoy or one of the other Death Eaters pressuring the editor to push their own agenda.

How much of the war involved backroom deals like this?

Politics in general had always disgusted me. Politicians needed to compromise to get deals done, but the problem was that the more you compromised, the easier it became to continue doing so. You lost sight of the fact that there were occasionally points on which you should never compromise, and in the end you became something that you would not have recognized.

Political power was more corrupting than other types of power, because it required selling your soul.

“Well,” Hermione said slowly. “It's not like it's going to amount to much. It's just a page sixteen article.”

Right.

So why had Dumbledore insisted on it? Was he so desperate to change people's minds, even by a fraction of an inch that he'd take any opportunity? Were things that bad already?

I'd seen a lot of casual racism in the general population. It was there in the way that the students talked, in the implicit assumptions that they made, in the jokes they told when they thought no one was listening. Presumably they'd gotten that from their parents, but their parents were likely worse, because they weren't exposed to the muggleborn on a day to day basis.

Wizards were ab;e to live in little insulated enclaves where they never had to expose themselves to the kinds of people they didn't like. They didn't even have to listen to ideas they didn't like. It was likely part of the reason that the Daily Prophet had so much influence on them; they weren't getting their news from any other source.

The Quibbler, unfortunately didn't count. It seemed to be a strange fringe paper full of conspiracy theories. More people read it to laugh at it than to seriously believe in what it said.

Worse, Wizards tended to live twice as long as muggles, which meant that old, racist ideas that would have simply died out in the muggle world were continued, spread to great grandchildren and propagated.

There were people who were progressive for their day, but by today's standards would be considered horribly racist. In the Wizarding world, a lot of them were still around.

Well, there was nothing I could do about it now. The article was out, and whatever plans Dumbledore had were already in motion. I'd been foolish to agree to it in the first place, but maybe Dumbledore was right. There were people who were going to be helped by the cure, and if that included people in power I might be able to leverage that to my advantage somehow.

It wasn't much consolation when people kept looking at me strangely. I wanted to snap at them, but given the fact that there were still a few boggarts left in the school, that was a good way to get wands pointed at me.

Those same looks lasted for the next several weeks, even as everything else settled back into a routine. There were no more attacks on me, although I did receive letters from several people thanking me for what I had done.

Neville had managed to drag me to both of the Quidditch matches, and while I'd been horrified about how dangerous the whole thing was to schoolchildren, it had been kind of fun. In retrospect, asking Vista to face Lung had been even less safe, and least this was entertaining.

They were examined by Snape before I received them, of course. He'd done it because I refused to open my own mail for obvious reasons, and also because he probably worried that I was doing something nefarious through correspondence.

If I'd really been doing something like that, I'd have gone through the Weasley twins, Hermione, Neville, or Millie. Most likely I'd have gone through the twins since no one knew about our connection.

I watched and took note as the new caretaker stole several things around the castle. He didn't do it often, but I wrote all of it down. Having blackmail opportunities might come in handy later.

It wasn't something I planned to use casually. Fletcher was Dumbledore's man, and he'd wonder how I knew what I knew. If I wasn't lucky he'd go to Dumbledore, even if it meant revealing the things he'd done. He didn't strike me as the type to put the good of others over himself, but I'd been wrong before.

It was time for Winter Break almost before I knew it. Settling back into school had been easier than I would have thought, even if I was using the human detecting spell on a daily basis. I didn't just use it for fear of intruders; I also suspected that any of the professors could use the disillusionment spells.

On two occasions I'd found Mundungus Fletcher trying to follow me invisibly as I made my way to a practice session with the Weasley twins. I made sure that Hermione, Neville and Millicent knew the spell too, and that they used them religiously.

It was presumably good training for what I'd have to deal with once school was out in the summer.

There was snow piled up outside, and that meant that most of my bugs were dormant or dead. The interior of the castle was warm enough for them to survive, especially the magical ones, but I'd taken to filling my fanny back with as many emergency bugs as I could. It kept them warm and left them ready to attack with, but it reduced my ability to spy on the people around me drastically.

In the future, I planned to see if there was a way to extend warming charms to others. Most likely I wouldn't be able to extend them to every bug in my repertoire individually, but it might be something to look into nevertheless.

I had bugs nesting in inaccessible places around the pipes; the hot water was more than enough to keep them alive throughout the worst of the winter, but they were sluggish and difficult to use when they left to spy for me.

That had been making me a little paranoid.

Still, my reputation was apparently enough to stop further attacks, or maybe it was the idea that the staff and paintings were keeping a close eye on me. Rumors around school were that it was as much to protect them from me as vice versa.

“I would have been happy to have you come home with me for break,” Hermione said. There were tears in her yes, which made me feel a little uncomfortable.

“I wouldn't endanger all of you like that,” I said. “And I'm glad that you are taking your holiday in Europe this year.”

“I talked about it with my parents,” she said. “They wanted to withdraw me from school, but I convinced them that I was actually safer here than I would have been out there. They're safer when I'm here too.”

I nodded. At least her parents had been willing to listen. I was willing to bet that a lot of muggleborn parents were likely to underestimate the extent of the danger they were in, especially as they didn't get the Wizarding paper.

Not that Skeeter or the others had done any real reporting about what was happening. There were hints of what was going on in the papers that I stole from Neville from time to time, but nothing substantive. They were doing a disservice to the general population as far as I was concerned.

“I'll be looking forward to seeing you when you get back,” I said.

She nodded.

Her bags were packed, and she levitated a trunk behind her. It was funny that only a few months before she'd been amazed that I'd levitated an empty trunk, but now she was doing it casually, as though it wasn't anything.

The holiday was only two weeks long, and the vast majority of the students were going home. Within an hour of the castle being emptied, it felt as though the whole place echoed and was much larger than it was when it was full of students.

There was an eerie feeling to it. Normally it was a place that was filled with laughter, with the sounds of running feet. Now it felt abandoned.

In some ways I was safer than I had previously been. There were fewer people who wanted to shove me off the stairs, and watching my back was going to be easier when there was no background sound to mask the sound of approaching footsteps.

At the same time, there was no one around to hear me scream. Even part of the staff was leaving for the holidays, leaving them running on a skeleton staff (not literally, to the chagrin of some of the students.)

There would be no one to give me presents, and no one to give presents to; none of my friends had chosen to stay behind. Neville was spending the holidays with his grandmother, Millie with her family. The Weasleys were off doing whatever Weasleys did.

Even the younger Weasley left.

Still, it was an opportunity to redouble my studies. I found myself in the Dungeons beside the fire in the comfortable chair as often as not, surrounded by books of the darkest magic I could find that wasn't in the restricted section.

It was nice being able to doze by the fire; the heat there was enough that I could hide some of my bugs all around me to keep watch even as I dozed. I'd learned that my power worked even when I slept, and so I was actually able to relax.

The Great Hall was empty at meals, enough so that one day as I sat down for lunch, I felt an unfamiliar presence sitting down beside me.

The dark haired Gryffindor boy was staring at me.

“Potter, right?” I asked.

He nodded.

“You didn't have anybody to go home to?” he asked.

“I'm an orphan,” I said. “You?”

“Might as well be,” he said.

Ah...bad family. I'd seen a lot of that when I was in the Wards. Para human powers didn't go to well adjusted people who didn't have a lot of trauma. Most parahumans came from broken homes to say the least, unless their trauma was from some other source.

“Why are you sitting at the Slytherin table?” I asked.

“Ron isn't here, and I figure it'll piss Snape off,” he said. He grinned. “Malfoy too. School's kind of fantastic, isn't it.”

“It'd be better if I wasn't in Slytherin,” I said.

He glanced around. “The hat tried to put me in Slytherin, but I begged it not to.”

“It wouldn't listen to me,” I admitted. “I tried to get it to put me in Hufflepuff.”

He snorted.

When he saw that I wasn't joking, he laughed out loud. “You belong in Hufflepuff like you-know-who belongs there.”

“You aren't comparing me to the Dark Lord are you?” I asked stiffly.

“Everybody else does,” he said. “I don't see it myself...I haven't thought that since I saw you save Neville from falling. He speaks highly of you. Then when you saved his ma...”

 

“I didn't do anything there,” I said. “I just had an idea. Pomfrey and the others did all the work. I'm glad it was able to help him though. She recognizes him now at least.”

“They're taking her home,” Potter said. “It'll be his first Christmas with his mother, and it's all thanks to you.”

I shrugged uncomfortably.

“So did you really stab a troll in the bollocks?” he asked suddenly.

I stared at him for a moment, then sighed. While Potter seemed nice enough, he was still an eleven year old boy.

“Yes,” I said. “Several times. It was the best place to kill him since that's where the skin was thinner.”

“How did you know?” he asked, leaning forward.

“It was an educated guess,” I said. “I could have easily been wrong, in which case I likely would have just run away.”

He glanced down. “You weren't scared?”

“Everybody's scared,” I said. “Some people more than others, but it happens to everyone at least some of the time. The only thing that matters is what you do when you are scared. Do you run, or do you stand and fight.”

“It's easier to run sometimes,” he said.

“But you can't run from yourself,” I said. “And you'll always know that you were the one to run.”

He stared off into the distance. “Sometimes there's things you just can't fight.”

I frowned. Was he talking about the Death Eaters, or about his unhappy family life? The Wizarding World didn't have a lot in the way of social services. That was part of the reason that Dumbledore was having such a hard time placing me.

Mostly orphans were taken in by the friends of their parents, or by grandparents of other relatives. People were so interrelated in the Wizarding world that there was almost always someone willing to take them in. Only the muggleborn didn't have that option, and usually Ministry officials tried to place those with other muggleborn families.

In my case, doing that would doubtlessly result in the deaths of my and my foster family. I needed to be placed with a Wizarding family, and one with strong wards, or who had other strong defenses.

“I hear the Christmas Feast is going to be something special,” Potter said. “Hagrid is bringing in Christmas trees and everything. It's kind of boring without Ron here.”

“Big families tend to expect their family home for Christmas,” I said.

“Well, it's kind of your fault too,” Potter said with a rueful smile. “There's a Great Aunt that was a Cruciatus victim; she's better now, and Ron's mom insisted that they all come home for Christmas.”

Hmmm... the twins hadn't said anything about that.

“You want to play chess sometimes?” he asked. “Ron was teaching me. I'm not very good, but I'm sure I could teach you.”

“I can play chess,” I said. “My mother taught me.”

“So?”

“Maybe,” I said reluctantly. It would cut into my studying time, but Potter was possibly the only person the Death Eaters hated more than me. It was possible that he might know something, even though the glimpses I'd seen of him through my bugs were those of a happy, well adjusted kid who was having the kind of first year that I'd only wished I had.

His grades weren't even that bad, other than potions, and that was at least partially because Snape seemed to hate him.

I felt Snape coming long before Potter. Potter seemed startled when the man loomed over both of us.

“I wasn't aware that you had changed houses, Potter,” he said.

Potter looked up at him and grinned. “You think I should?”

Before Snape could assign points, Potter was already scrambling to his feet and heading back to his own table.

Snape stared at me for a moment inscrutably before heading back to the head table.

Chapter Text

On Christmas morning, I woke with a profound sense of loss.

The past few months had been fairly decent, despite the attacks and other problems that kept cropping up. After all, I was in a school and I was relatively safe. I was learning magic, and while that didn't give me the same sense of wonder that it gave Hermione, there was still a tiny part of me that was still excited every time I managed to do something new.

Keeping my mind off the things I'd lost had been my way of dealing with things for years. I'd tried not to think about Mom, about the Undersiders, about Dad...even about Emma, who had meant something to me once.

When I'd been trying to save the universe, it hadn't been that hard. I'd told myself that I'd worry about having a life once there was a life to have. Nothing mattered but saving humanity.

But now?

In all important respects I was retired. Nothing I would ever do would be as important as the fight against Scion, and I wouldn't want it to be. This fight against Voldemort was just a regional conflict, and even if he managed to take over the world, it was just one world among an effective infinity of worlds.

On a day like today, I couldn't help but think about my mother. Mom would have loved Hogwarts; she'd been a dreamer; she'd taught English literature in part because she'd loved fantasy.

While I'd been a child, she'd made sure that I'd been raised on fantasy. She'd read to me when I was little; Narnia had been my introduction to fantasy. Later she'd weaned me on Spenser's Fairie Queen, on Tolkien, on Peter Pan, Susan Cooper.

I'd stopped reading fantasy when she died. All of that wonder and magic had just blown away and left nothing but ashes and bitterness when she died.

Hogwarts.... she would have loved the ghosts, the house elves, the magical paintings. Doing real magic would have sent her over the moon. Even if she'd simply sent me here, it would have made her proud of me.

That was a thought that I never let myself entertain. Would she have been proud of me? Of the choices I'd had to make, of the choices I was still making?

I hurt people, and being overly bothered by it stopped being an issue a long time ago. There were reasons for that, of course, ones that I considered good ones, but not everyone would agree.

When I was in the Wards, life had been lonely, but at least I'd seen Dad for the holidays. It had made the pain a little easier to bear, knowing that I had someone.

This Christmas was different.

This was the first time I was completely alone. Before, even if I was on missions, I'd at least been able to call my father. Now I didn't even know if he was dead. I hadn't wanted to know, because this way I could at least assume he was alive out there.

Slowly I opened my eyes.

As I sat up, I felt a sudden chill go down my spine. At the base of my bed were a pile of boxes wrapped up in bright and cheerful paper.

How had someone gotten that close to me while I slept? Even with my bugs as sluggish as they had been lately, I shouldn't have been surprised like that. It could have been the house elves; they were stealthy enough that they were sometimes able to evade me even when I was awake unless I was paying attention.

How stupid did they think I was? This had to be a trap. There could be anything in those boxes; explosives, cursed items, anything at all.

The safest thing would be to burn them, but that wouldn't be smart in the dungeons. There were probably magical means of ventilation, but I couldn't take the risk. The last thing I needed was to get a reputation for having tried to burn down Hogwarts. I'd have to take them and put them in the fire somewhere higher up.

I slipped into my robes, keeping a cautious eye on the packages, and I pulled out my wand.

Levitating the entire mass wasn't a problem, and a moment later I made my way down the stairs, the packages in front of me.

Snape was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs.

“I see that you haven't opened your gifts,” he said. He didn't look surprised. Despite the early hour he was completely dressed and looked fresh as a daisy. Having an adult's need for sleep must be nice.

Why was he here, of all places on Christmas morning. Didn't he have somewhere else to be?

“Traps, you mean,” I muttered. “Maybe you can burn these for me.”

I let the gifts drop to the floor in front of him. He looked down at them for a moment, but he did not step back. I certainly would have.

“You aren't even interested in who might have deigned to send you gifts?” he asked.

I snorted. “Nobody would bother sending me anything. Not this year.”

“You might be surprised,” he said. “I have taken the liberty of checking every one of your gifts a minimum of three times using every spell I could find. Only one turned out to be cursed, and I have taken that to the aurors to be dealt with.”

I glanced down at the presents and frowned.

“Who would have?”

I checked the packages with my bugs. Hermione, Millie, Tracey....Neville. Strangely enough, I had a package from a woman named Molly Weasley. Since I knew every Weasley in the castle, I had to assume that she was a relative of some sort. There was even small packages from Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.

There was a package from Alice Longbottom, and at the bottom of the pile was a package from Snape himself.

“This one is from you?” I asked. For some reason I felt like it was hard to swallow.

He nodded.

With a gesture of my wand, I summoned it to me, and I sat down on the armchair closest to the fire. I carefully opened the package.

“A mirror?” I asked. It was a large mirror, the kind meant to be hung on the wall. It was plain and utilitarian.

I frowned as I looked into it and saw only shadowy shapes. There was a brown haired man in his early thirties. He was staring at me as though he wanted to kill me. Behind him stood a man with a face that was the color of bleached bone. He didn't have a nose and his eyes were red.

“It is a magical mirror,” he said. “It is called a Foe-Glass. It shows the enemies of the possessor. The closer they are to you, the more clear the image becomes.”

I stared at him.

“This is... too much...”

“It was my hope that you would realize that not everyone is your enemy,” he said. “Although if they are close enough that you can see the whites of their eyes, it is likely that they are right behind you.”

Snape wasn't in the mirror, but there was a large crowd of indistinct shapes that indicated that I had more enemies than I had thought. I'd assumed that most Wizards wouldn't really care that much about me. Maybe I was wrong.

“How does every Wizard in the world not have one of these?” I asked. “Are they expensive?”

“This one cost me nothing,” he said. “I managed to capture it in a raid during the last war. It is one of several.”

I looked down at the mirror, which I'd leaned against the chair. It obviously hadn't helped its previous owner that much, and I had to wonder what side of the war its owner had been on.

Still, it wasn't the kind of gift I could possibly afford to turn down.

“Thank you,” I said, and for once I meant it.

“It is not infallible,” he warned. “There are ways to fool it, and even if it tells you who your enemies are, it will not tell you from which direction they are coming.”

“I understand,” I said. “But.... there isn't anything you could have gotten me that would have been better than this. I.... I didn't get you anything.”

He shrugged.

“The best gift you can give me is to avoid creating so much mayhem over the next year. If this helps, then I will consider it money well spent.”

But he didn't spend any money....

He turned. “Finish up with your gifts. Breakfast will be an hour late this morning.”

It had been a long time since I'd been excited about a gift, but this was something I could actually use.

As soon as Snape left, I tore into my other gifts.

Hermione had gotten me a book, of course. She'd gotten me “Basic Hexes for the Busy and Vexed.” Flipping through the book, I found myself interested in spite of myself. There was a spell for scalping people, for turning their tongues into horns, for giving them fiery hot breath.

There might be things here I could use.

Millie had gotten me socks.

That made me snicker a little. I'd been struggling with a lack of socks all semester; scourgify apparently would get blood out, but tended to wear holes in socks and reparo only went so far.

These were warm socks too, of a nice quality. Maybe she was just tired of seeing my toes peeking out.

Tracey had gotten me underwear. None of them had Armsmaster, or any kind of designs on them, but these too were quality work and there were enough of them to get me through two weeks. They even had my name on them.

Molly Weasley had knitted me a sweater.. It was a beautiful color of emerald green, with the letter T embroidered on the front in silver. Those were Slytherin colors, and after a moment I slipped it on. It was marvelously warm and comfortable.

There was a letter accompanying it.

“Miss Hebert.... you have returned my aunt to me, and my family will always be grateful to you. Consider yourself one of us, and should you ever need anything, ask one of my boys.”

That was it.

Harry Potter had sent me some chocolate frogs.

Draco had sent me a wizarding chess set. Was this a gift from him, or actually from his father, and was he trying to tell me something by it?

Checking my Foe-glass I didn't see Malfoy on there, although that might have been because it was a small mirror, and from the look of it I had a lot of foes. It was possible that he was somewhere in the back.

Maybe it was a message if some kind. Was it a warning or an invitation? It was possible that I could go over and over the possibilities and never come up with an answer.

I set it aside for the moment, vowing to reflect on it more in the future.

That left only the packages from the Longbottoms. First was Neville.

Opening his package, I frowned.

“Another mirror?” I asked.

This one was much more ornate than the one that Snape had given me. That one had been a rather no-nonsense kind of mirror, bare bones as was appropriate for someone like Snape. This one was something else. It was gilded and looked like it was worth a fair bit. It was much smaller too; this one was the size of my palm.

I opened the mirror, and I blinked.

Hermione was staring back at me.

“It took you long enough to wake up!” I heard her voice say.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Neville got you a two way mirror!” she said. “He lent me the other one so you could see how it worked!”

A two way mirror... there were possibilities here.

The image on the mirror shifted suddenly. I was suddenly staring at a beautiful room with one wall that was made of glass. Outside there was a beautiful azure sea. It was a beautiful scene.

“We're not having a traditional white Christmas this year,” Hermione said. “But we're doing something different.”

The scene jostled and moved.

“This is my Mom and Dad,” Hermione said.

Her parents didn't look that much like her. Their hair was rather normal, and their teeth looked perfect. Yet there was a sense of intelligence in the way they held themselves, and in the way they they looked at me.

“Hello Taylor,” the woman said. “We understand that you've been good to our daughter.”

“Some of the things we've been hearing...” the man started.

“It's Christmas,” the woman interrupted, “And Taylor is all by herself. Hermione was worried about you, you know, She was worried that you'd burn all your presents and spend the whole holiday brooding like Batman.”

“She makes you sound like Batman,” her father muttered. “Are you sure your last name isn't Wayne?”

If my Dad wasn't such a nerd, I wouldn't have gotten the reference. The old style of comic books had gone out of style when real parahumans had come on the scene, but my Dad had made me see some of the old movies from Earth Aleph.

I was actually flattered.

“Well, dungeons are a little like caves,” I said. “And I like to fight the good fight. I don't have a utility belt, though.”

“Just a magic bum bag,” Hermione said. “Like you think I didn't notice. You pull more stuff out of there than can actually fit inside.”

“Sounds like Batman,” her dad said. “My mates always wondered if he had half his equipment shoved up his...”

“Dad!” Hermione said. Her face turned beet red.

He grinned. “I was going to say cape. What did you think I was going to say?”

“Annnyway,” Hermione said, “I knew you were going to be there all alone, and I thought you might like to see a little of our Christmas. We took your advice, and we're doing a Mediterranean trip.”

She spun the mirror again, and I could see that there was a tiny Christmas tree on a table in the corner, with a large stack of gifts underneath it.

“I'll give you your gift when you get back,” I said. “I really appreciate the book. It's really cool.”

“It's no two way mirror though,” Hermione said. “I'm kind of jealous. Magic for Christmas...what could be better?”

“Is it OK for you to be using this?” I asked. “Won't it violate the Trace or whatever?”

“I asked Neville's grandmother,” Hermione said. “And she said the Trace only detects new magic, not spells that are already in place. We still have to make sure that no muggle gets their hands on it; that really would get us in trouble.”

“I really appreciate this,” I said. For once, I actually meant it. “I....didn't expect anything this morning.”

“You've helped people, Taylor,” Hermione said. “And Wizards and Witches have long memories. You should enjoy it.”

I nodded.

“It's getting close to breakfast. I'll talk to you this evening after dinner.”

She smiled and it lit up her face. “We can talk about the gifts we got. I know about a lot of yours, of course, but there might be some I haven't heard about.”

“How did you all keep this from me?” I asked.

It worried me; was it because of my reduced range because of the cold; I didn't have nearly enough bugs to cover as much space as I would like. Or was it because I'd been so focused on my enemies that I hadn't been paying attention to my friends?

She shrugged. “We passed notes and didn't talk about it much.”

I forced myself to smile. “This means a lot. I was feeling a little down. Thanks for everything.”

A moment later the mirror went dark, and then it was a normal mirror again.

The only thing that was left was a small envelope with Alice Longbottom's name on it. I carefully opened it, and I noticed that all there was was a single piece of paper.

The words on the paper were written in a childish scrawl; it looked as though the writer had struggled to complete each and every letter. The words weren't childish at all, though.

“Thank you for my life,” was all it said.

There wasn't anything else in the envelope, but there didn't have to be.

It was funny that the thing that Mom would have been most proud of that I'd accomplished in this world had been the thing I'd put the least effort into. It had been a casual, off the cuff remark, and yet there were people benefiting from it that I would never meet.

As I gathered my gifts to put them in my room or my fanny pack, I found that my eyes burned. I must not have slept well the night before, probably because the House Elves had almost woken me.

My throat was tight too. I wondered if I might visit Pomfrey; it wouldn't be good to come down with something that Wizards could cure.

Still, as I headed for breakfast, that feeling of gloom that I'd woken up with had almost entirely dissipated, and I found myself actually looking forward to the day.

Chapter Text

“This isn't the kind of Christmas you're used to,” I asked Potter.

We were sitting on a ledge and staring out a window at the snow. There weren't enough students for a snowball fight, but a couple of students were making snowmen. I wondered if they were going to animate them.

Could I make a Frosty the snowman type hat eventually? Maybe having hats that could animate bodies would make the Sorting Hat jealous. It wouldn't even have to be snowmen; animating corpses would likely be more useful, and wouldn't have the whole heat and fire problem.

Of course, snowmen would be easier to make than corpses, at first at least, but they were crap during the summer, so likely not. Or maybe I could get them to animate trash, a little like Mush.

Harry Potter snorted.

“Yeah...this Christmas is fantastic. Only way it could be better was if Ron had stayed around. I actually got presents this year, and people are happy to have me around.”

“Must be nice,” I said. “You should be glad you didn't end up in Slytherin. Being a half-blood would be all right, but killing off old Moldy shorts would have probably ruffled a few feathers.”

“You aren't scared of him at all, are you?” he asked, looking at me strangely. “Everybody else, even the adults are terrified of him.”

“He's a small time symptom of a bigger problem,” I said. “Most Dark Wizards are, at least as far as I can see.”

“What do you mean?” he asked slowly.

“It's a problem with Wizarding society,” I said. “Actually, in parts of muggle society too. There are people who don't get a fair chance to have a say in what's going to happen to them... a Dark Wizard rises and tells them that he'll give them that chance, but the new government he creates ends up just as bad as the last one.”

“You act like Dark Wizards wins sometimes,” he said, looking surprised.

“Of course they do... I've read the history books. It's just that if they win they generally don't get called Dark Wizards. They're considered just and right. History is written by the winners, or at least the people who fawn over all of them.”

“You've got some pretty definite ideas about how things should be,” he said. “I thought Slytherins were more flexible than that.”

“You mean that they follow whoever has the power?” I asked. “That's probably true. But you have to have somebody who thinks they know better than everyone else, or nothing would ever get done/”

“What?”

“Well... you've heard of comic book superheroes, right?”

“Like Batman, or Bananaman,” he said.

Bananaman? Whatever.

“Right. Well, Superheroes think that things should be a certain way. Usually, that's the way things already are. Supervillains believe just as strongly that things should change. Because superheroes tend to side with the government, they get all the good press.”

“So supervillains aren't bad?”

“Some of them are very bad,” I said. “But not all of them are as bad as the others. They all get the same label though. It's the same thing with Dark Lords. Somebody who is a revolutionary gets that label when they are really just trying to change things for the better.”

“I thought you said they didn't make anything any better?”

“Usually they don't. Some of them mean to, but power is addicting, especially power over other people. Even if they don't fall victim to it, their followers might, or if not them, then their descendants.”

“So you-know-who isn't bad?”

“His people tortured people until they were insane,” I said. “And he tried to murder a baby, unsuccessfully. That's a combination of being evil and incompetent that's pretty dangerous.”

He stared at me, then laughed shortly. “Trust a Slytherin to make fun of the thing that ruined my life.”

I shrugged. “Terrible things happen to everybody. The question is whether you get up, dust yourself and do something about it, or if you decide to lay down and die. I don't believe in giving up.”

“Not everybody can be...you,” he said. “Sometimes you don't have any power to change things.”

He was right, of course. When I'd been abused by Emma, Sophia and Madison, there hadn't been much I could do. I could have tried to fight back, but that would have only led to more pain.

There were things that I hadn't been willing to do, but the consequences of those would have led to jail or worse.

“Then you watch and wait,” I said. “You won't always be powerless, and there will come a time when things change. That's when you make your move.”

“You can be pretty cold sometimes.”

“I'm a Slytherin,” I said, shrugging. “As much as I didn't want to be, the hat was probably right. Personally, I think that the people I'd want at my back would have the characteristics of all of the houses. I'd want people who were smart as a Ravenclaw, loyal as a Hufflepuff, brave as a Gryffindor, and as sly as a Slytherin. Give me twenty wizards like that, and I'd have control of Wizarding Britain in a year, and the world within ten.”

“Isn't that what you-konow-who tried?” Potter asked.

“He's an idiot,” I said. “Trying to rule through terror means that you always have to worry about someone stabbing you in the back. If you make people think they want you to rule them, it works much better.”

He looked at me strangely. “Aren't you doing that?”

“I'm not trying to rule anybody,” I said irritably. “I just want people to leave me alone. If they did that, I'd be fine.”

“Even if people were getting hurt?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Lets say they weren't targeting you.... maybe you're a pureblood, but they're still going after muggleborn. Would you do anything or wouldn't you?”

“I can't answer that,” I said. “Being a pureblood would mean that I would be a fundamentally different person. I'd like to think that I would, but there's no guarantee. The person I am now? I couldn't stand by and let people get hurt.”

“They're getting hurt now,” Potter said.

“I'm waiting for my moment,” I said. “As a first year, I'm not as powerful as some people would like to think.”

Not even me, really. It was frustrating, being this limited.

Magic had endless applications; parahumans typically only had one power, albeit often a power with multiple uses. Wizards could do almost anything, given enough time and creativity. I wanted to be able to do all of those things, but magic took hard work too, and spells were like math in a way.

In math, everything led to everything else. Without addition and subtraction, you couldn't do multiplication. Without multiplication, you couldn't do division. Without all of those skills, you couldn't even start the higher order skills.

It was the same with magic. I couldn't simply start wandlessly and silently casting spells like I was Merlin himself. Skills led to other skills, and while I had the advantage of determination and a good work ethic, I wasn't even as much of a magical genius as Hermione.

Reading ahead was only going to take me so far; some magic required practical demonstration, and the Weasley twins were only third years.

In magic, I was finding, it was better to be a master of a few spells rather than know a vast number of spells that you could barely cast.

Harry was silent for a moment. “My relatives hate me for being a Wizard.”

 

I stared at him. That wasn't the kind of revelation that you shared with a stranger unless it was something that you just had to say.

“Then it's not really about you, is it?”

He looked up at me, surprised.

“People hate what they don't understand, and I'm not sure I understand this thing that we do. It's got to be even scarier to be powerless. That's not so bad if nobody has power, but when somebody sees that other people do...they probably feel a little jealous.”

His face tightened.

“You don't know them. The way they treat me isn't right.”

“Are they abusing you?” I asked. “Because there are things the muggle authorities can do. The Wizards don't seem to have a lot, but being a half-blood means you have a foot in both worlds. Use what you have to in order to get out.”

“Nobody would believe me,” he said sullenly. “And I've had a talk with Dumbledore. He told me that there's magical protections on my house to keep me safe, which is why he keeps me there.”

“He can't find another place with magical protections?” I asked. “Did you tell him how bad it is at home?”

He shook his head.

“Maybe you should,” I said. “Wizards have ways of changing people's minds, and if he has to keep you with them, maybe he can make them be nicer to you. Maybe he can just terrify them into compliance, or maybe he can make them forget that they hate you. Either way, you win.”

“It won't be the same as if they really loved me,” he said.

“But at least the abuse will stop. I'm not aware of any magic that can make someone genuinely love you, although I've heard of love potions. From what I understand, those are bad ideas, though.”

He frowned and looked down at the floor. It looked like he was considering what I was saying, which was good.

I'd been lucky.

My parents had loved me. Even though my mother had died, she'd left me with the memory of that love, and that had been part of what had helped me get through the dark days ahead. Even in the darkest days of my father's depression I hadn't doubted that he loved me. He hadn't been able to show it, but I'd known.

What would it have been like to have been raised in a household without love, with people who actively despised you?

Potter didn't look like he was terribly abused, but then almost no one did. He was underweight, but he'd been filling out over the past few months.

He seemed to be gregarious, and seemed carefree and happy; was that a mask to cover his underlying pain?

I'd have liked to have helped him, but I wasn't in a position to do much. Going to his house and terrifying his adoptive parents would likely just make them turn their fear into anger, which they'd take out on him.

It would require an actual threat of retaliation from someone that they knew who could follow through, like Dumbledore to actually make a difference.

Calling the muggle authorities would just get him thrown out of the house, and then he'd be in the same situation as me over the summer break. The Death Eaters were on the rise, and leaving the protection of the house would be a good way to get him killed.

“You can't be loved,” I said. “Not at home. That doesn't mean you won't find other people who love you. Sometimes friends can be your second family.”

I felt a sudden wave of sadness. Sarah, Rachel, Brian...they'd been good to me despite being villains. I hadn't been as close to my team in the Wards, except maybe Golem, but they'd been decent as well.

He nodded.

“Ron was going to stay for Christmas, but there was something about an aunt coming home or something that interfered.”

“Oh?” I said casually.

“Ron wasn't that excited, because he'd never met her, but some of his oldest brothers remembered her.”

So essentially I'd cheated him out of Christmas with a his friend. I'd have felt bad about that, except that the cure had helped more people than it had hurt, and sometimes it was important to be pragmatic about things like that.

“It's almost time for dinner,” I said. “I've heard that it's going to be something special.”

“Yeah!” he said enthusiastically, seemingly forgetting his upset about his family and Ron. “Hagrid told me all about it. Since everybody is stuck here away from their families, they try to make the dinner something special.”

“So let's go,” I said.

He was right about the dinner.

There were turkeys, roasts and potatoes. There was a kind of sausage that was apparently called chipolatas. There were other foods too, although most of them were undeniably British.

There were Wizarding fireworks on the table too; some of the Gryffindors pulled them, and they went off with a blast that sounded like a cannon; it engulfed them in a cloud of blue smoke, and ejected an admiral's hat and several white mice.

Some of the other students also used them, and while the sound and the smoke seemed the same, the colors were different, and the things that emerged seemed almost random, like the old toys in the bottom of cereal cartons, from before people realized that kids would either swallow them or just tear the box up looking for them.

Whenever anyone wasn't looking, I began slipping as many of the fireworks as I could reach into my fanny pack. They were free, and you never know when you might need a distraction and a puff of smoke. I was reasonably sure that my bugs would be able to activate one too. I might even be able to activate several. It wouldn't give me much of an advantage, but sometimes there was a thin razor's edge between being dead, and being not dead.

I saw Snape frown several times as he looked toward me. I suspected that he was noticing the disappearing party favors, even though I was only slipping them into my pack when no one was looking. The best time to do so tended to be when one of the other students used their firework, because there was a human tendency to look at the source of a loud noise.

I smiled at Snape sweetly, and he looked vaguely disturbed.

I was either going to have to work on looking more sincere when I smiled, or I was going to have to work on my public persona.

Dumbledore was wearing some sort of flowered monstrosity instead of his usual hat. It looked a little girlish on his head, but from what I'd seen, Wizard fashions had diverted from muggle fashions a long time ago.

Scotsmen wore kilts, after all, and no one assumed that meant they were crossdressing. I was going to have to learn to check my assumptions when dealing with different cultures. After all, my experiences with different cultures was very limited.

I'd been in different countries during Endbringer attacks, but those had typically been frantic efforts to keep people alive, and the surroundings had barely registered with me. My only interaction with the locals had usually been to scream instructions to them,.or use my bugs to find survivors.

Other than that, I'd spent my entire life in the States. While there were certainly regional cultural variations, the States were really homogeneous compared to the rest of the world.

There was a silver sickle in my flaming pudding, which seemed like a health hazard frankly. I had to frown a moment; galleons were worth five pounds, and there were seventeen sickles in a galleon. It was irritating that they didn't use the decimal system for their money, because that made mental conversions a lot harder.

It wasn't a lot of money; I had a lot more than that hidden in my room. Neither Millie or Tracey had touched it, and none of the other girls had gone after it either. I suspected that my reputation as a seer and as someone likely to seek violent revenge had led to that.

The things that came out of the fireworks apparently didn't disappear, which meant that the kids who had shot them off left laden with all sorts of Christmas gifts.

For appearances sake, I did blast one off, and I found myself in possession of a grow your own warts kit.

It was the perfect gift for someone living in a dorm filled with girls who hated her. It would make for a subtle form of revenge if used at the right time.

All in all, I found myself satisfied as Christmas ended. I had stolen more than a dozen fireworks which were now in my pack, I had a belly filled with food that was even better than the usual excellent quality of their food.

Finally, I was planning on sneaking into the restricted section of the library. Now was the perfect time; everyone was going to be in a food coma, and a lot of the paintings were off partying with paintings in other castles. Some of them were still on duty, but I could send my bugs out short term to watch before going back into my fanny pack and the warmth of my robes.

Reading those books might give me some of the answers I had; among those answers were what was in the books that made them restricted.

It had nagged at me all semester. There was no better way to make someone want to do something than to tell them that they couldn't.

I wasn't even going to enter the restricted section myself. I was going to see if I could use magic to lift a book across the line, or if they had some sort of magical alarm system. I already had my escape route plotted just in case.

If this worked out, my magical skills might get much better in a much shorter period than I'd planned for.

This was going to be great.

Chapter Text

As we ran through the hallways, I wondered how it had all gone wrong.

Apparently the entry to the restricted section wasn't protected at all; instead each and every one of the books were individually charmed to sound an alarm when they were opened. That seemed a little like overkill, but maybe magic didn't have a terrible cost other than the time it took to ward each and every book.

The Wizard-hours that would have taken weren't something I was qualified to estimate. Apparently they thought it was important, which made it even more important that I get into the restricted section. What were they trying to hide? How useful were the books in the restricted section?

Obviously I wasn't going to be able to find out until I was able to deal with the protective spells on the books or until I could convince a teacher that I deserved a pass. That second option didn't seem like it was a thing that was going to happen.

Where in the hell did he get an invisibility cape? We were both running underneath the cape, but it wasn't exactly meant for running, and I was sure that our feet were showing sometimes. Worse, I kept worrying that one of us was going to trip over the thing.

He'd already been in the library when I'd gotten there, and I'd detected him first with my bugs and then with my spell. It hadn't given me his exact location, but it had been close enough for me to sneak up on him.

I'd figured that one of the teachers wouldn't have needed an excuse to be invisible; if they were it was because they were doing something underhanded. Yet stabbing Travers, or worse, Snape wouldn't do me any favors.

Putting exploratory bugs out on him had shown that not only was he too small to be a professor (and too large to be Flitwick.) I'd been about to tackle him when he'd opened one of the books.

That was when everything went to hell.

If Hogwarts wasn't under increased security precautions, it would have been relatively easy to get away. But that wasn't the case now. Dumbledore had put in more security precautions than I'd thought.

“He's here!” I heard one of the paintings scream.

We were running through the hall under the invisible cloak. That had the unfortunate effect of leaving our footsteps audible, even if they were less visible than I'd thought.

Grabbing Potter, I used my bugs to open a passage up ahead. This one was purposefully out of sight of any portraits. Pulling him inside, the door shut behind us, just as the animated suits of armor came moving quickly down the hallway.

We were both quiet, even though the dust in the hall made up both want to sneeze.

Grabbing Potter's sleeve, I pulled him into the darkness. If we were too close to the hallway, one of the professors would reveal us using the human revealing spell. I'd studied the spell extensively, and I knew just how far we had to go to be undetected.

Unfortunately, that didn't take us any closer to the dungeons or the Gryffindor tower. It took us into the bowels of the castle.

The castle had been built in a time when muggles still periodically liked to purge the Wizarding population, so these secret passages were part of the castles defenses. However, some of the secret passages had been forgotten in the thousand years since that time.

There had been several passages that I'd hoped to explore over the holidays, some of which I still hadn't figured out how to open. This one required moving a torch sconce, but I'd seen other passages that required a code word, and I suspected that those were lost to time. Figuring that out might take someone with Dumbledore levels of skill.

This was one of them. It had taken me forever to figure out how to open the door, and I hadn't gotten a chance to explore, because I especially was under close observation by the staff and by the other students. That was partially because I'd been the victim of an assassination attempt once already, and also, I suspected because they were afraid of what I was going to do.

Even now I was using bugs to create a commotion in the hallways. It was only a matter of time before they thought to do a head check, and then the jig would be up. I had bugs knocking over swords on those few suits of armor that weren't animated, and doing other things that would look as though invisible feet would be making their way further into the castle.

Pushing deeper and deeper into the passage, we finally got far enough that the spell wouldn't reveal up. We were far enough into the tunnel that it was pitch black.

The place was filled with spiders, and spider webs, which meant that I had a good picture of the area around us. It was obviously old from the growths of spiders, and it was possible that the spiders here might be good to start growing a swarm.

At home I'd been somewhat limited in what I could do with my spiders because some of them would eat each other whenever I left my range of control. Here, though I was hardly ever far enough away for that to be a problem. I'd have to figure out something to do with them during the summer; I'd already caused a Bevy of Boggarts to infest the school. Some of these spiders were poisonous.

“We need to get back to our rooms,” I said quietly. “And soon. I don't know where this goes.”

“I thought you were the girl who knows everything,” he muttered.

“Where'd you get the cape?” I asked. Having him reflect on my seer abilities was the last thing I needed. No one needed to know what my limitations were, because that would mean they'd figure out where my blind spots were. The fact that my friends had been able to surprise me for Christmas was horrifying enough.

“It was a gift,” he said.

“Out of the fireworks?” I asked. If that was the case, I was going to open mine as soon as I got back into my room. I suspected not, though. I'd been watching what people were getting, to see if anything was good enough for me to ignore the use of the things as a distraction.

It had mostly been cheap crap, although there had been some nice chess sets and other items. There hadn't been anything that I'd needed.

He shook his head. “I got a note.... said it belonged to my father. Don't know who sent it.”

“It was probably Dumbledore,” I said. “This is exactly the kind of thing he'd do...give a kid an invisibility cloak when I've been attacked by invisible people. That was always going to end well.”

“It worked out all right,” he said sullenly.

At least he'd had the sense not to try to follow me around, although it was possible that had been the next thing on his agenda. Boys at this age weren't the brightest of creatures, and he was a Gryffindor, which meant he was predisposed to jumping in before he looked.

“Why were you in the restricted book section?” I asked. “

“I'd gotten an invisibility cloak,” he said. “What else was I going to do with it? It wasn't like I could bother Ron or Neville with it, and the girls' stairs work even if you are invisible.”

“Tried that one out did you?” I asked dryly.

“Ron says the girls get better bathrooms than we do!” he protested. “With bubbles and...pink...and magic mirrors.”

I would have stared at him, but I couldn't see anything. I compensated by letting some of the bugs out of my fanny pack, spreading them out and letting some settle on Potter.

“Only some of that is true,” I said. “And you still shouldn't be trying.”

“Well, you shouldn't... “ he began, and then he stepped back. His foot slipped and he grabbed my shirt to try to right himself. The ground crumbled underneath us, and suddenly we were both sliding downward.

Potter screamed, but I managed to remain silent, although it wasn't for a lack of trying.

Was it a trap of some kind, or simply the result of a thousand years of neglect? I barely had time to think about it before I crashed into Potter's back.

I'd thought that the darkness before was bad, but this was a blackness the like of which I couldn't remember, darker than Grue's power....I couldn't see my own hands. I pushed myself away from Potter. It was shocking how scrawny he still was, even after all this time.

Reaching for my wand to cast a light spell, I froze as I felt the surface we had landed on. It was soft, yet careful examination showed that it felt like there were scales. It was some sort of a skin, which no longer had its original occupant.

There were only two kinds of things that shed their skins like this, and if it were one type, I'd have sensed and been able to control it.

It was then that I could feel something like a strange, hot wind blowing over us. It smelled rank, like rotting meat and rancid blood.

“There's something in here with us,” Potter said.

I felt it was rather stupid of him to say anything; whatever was in here with us had doubtlessly already heard the sound of us crashing though the roof. Why give away our position if he didn't have to?

There were hardly any bugs in the chamber we were in; it was almost as though all the bugs that had once been here had vacated out of self preservation, or they'd been killed.

From my fanny pack, bugs began to scatter throughout the chamber. It took a moment, but eventually I began to get a sense of the chamber we were in. It was massive, but the thing that we were hearing, feeling, was right in front of us. My bugs encountered scales.

Spreading out, they began to get a sense of the size of the thing. It was huge; about the length of a Semi trailer, maybe a little longer. It was taller than me, and as far as I could tell, it seemed like it was the shape of a giant snake.

I froze. Either the thing could see us, in which case it would be attracted by movement, or it could hear us. It was close enough that even given its size, I wasn't sure that I'd be able to duck out of the way in time, and Potter would be dead for sure.

Desperately, I sent my bugs further and further afield, looking for an exit. Until I knew where we were going to go, moving was just likely to attract the attention of the thing.

Still, staying here wasn't an option. Sooner or later, the thing was going to get curious, and a lot of animals explored by taking a nip out of things. At the size of it, a nip would cut either one of us in two, or worse, it would just swallow us whole.

Bugs who got near its fangs died almost instantly, in agony. I grimaced, glad there was no one to see. The thing was poisonous.

How to tell Potter that we needed to leave without alerting the creature? If it was one of the Undersiders, I might be able to use my bugs somehow, but Potter didn't know anything.

“I think we should get out of here,” I murmured in Potter's ear. I spoke almost inaudibly, but I heard the sound of movement nevertheless.

There was a monstrous sound of scales sliding on stone, and the breath on our faces got hotter.

I grabbed Potter's robes tightly and prepared to dodge to the side. Alone I probably could have done it; an animal that size probably wasn't all that fast unless it was enhanced by magic. However, given the closeness of the thing and the fact that I'd be pulling Potter along behind me, I was afraid that I wasn't going to be fast enough.

I heard a monstrous hissing sound. There was a hissing and rasping reply from beside me. It was Potter.

“He says he's hungry,” Potter said.

Potter spoke snake? That wasn't a talent I'd heard about, but I was just learning about magic. It was useful now, but only if Potter kept his wits about him. How could you bluff a snake?

“Tell it we aren't food. It's not time for it to wake up yet,” I said quietly. The last thing I wanted to do was to antagonize it. Obviously the snake could hear, because it was speaking to Potter, unless his speech was working on a magical level.

He hissed and spit beside me, and for the next minute, there was a conversation between them that I didn't understand. I didn't like it, and I considered my options.

My darkness powder likely wouldn't work on a snake; they were reputed to have the ability to sense things in the dark with their tongues. Also, it was already dark; we'd be more hindered than it would. The marbles wouldn't work on a thing with no legs.

The Christmas fireworks might, depending on how good its hearing was. Despite its ability to hear Potter, it was possible that it was deaf. I had a vague recollection that snakes couldn't hear. They didn't have visible ears anyway, so even if it could hear, the crackers might do nothing but antagonize it.

I sent my bugs out farther and father, seeing a way out. I found a sudden breeze to the east, and I tugged on Potter's shirt.

“If I make a light, is that going to set him off?” I asked.

“He says that if we look in his eyes it will kill us,” Potter said. He sounded fascinated instead of scared.

“Isn't that lovely,” I muttered. Trust Hogwarts to have a monster in the caverns underneath it with poison fangs and the ability to kill by sight. It would explain why there were no bugs, assuming that there was light down here sometimes. It was possible that enough sunlight got in from the entrance that I was sensing to make a difference.

Or maybe there were magical torches that lit when the thing wanted them to.

 

“I think it's lonely,” he said, after another conversation with it.

“It's poisonous,” I said. “And it can kill us by looking at it. That means that even if it's friendly it could kill us without meaning to. Also, it's fifty feet long, which means it could roll over on us.”

“How do you know that?” he asked.

“How do you think?” I asked. It wasn't really answering his question, but by letting him come up with his own answer, I wouldn't have to come up with my own. “I know the way out.”

“It wants us to come back,” Potter said.

“Tell it we will,” I said.

Lying to a fifty foot snake wasn't a problem. Dying because of one was. Ultimately, I was going to have Potter say whatever he had to in order to get both of us to safety.

He spoke, and a moment later said, “He'll let us leave.”

I felt a sudden sense of relief. I'd been afraid that I was going to end up getting Potter killed, and that was likely to end up bad for me. Getting out on my own would have been difficult but possible, but with Potter would have been almost impossible.

Now we had a chance. With luck, I might even be able to pin Filch's murder on the thing. Wizards didn't tend to question very well, and if there was an obvious explanation, they'd be likely to go for it.

“Good,” I said. I pulled him along as quickly as I could.

He stumbled along behind me, but I moved without a misstep. A carpet of bugs were moving before me, giving me a mental sketch of the room by feel.

“Do you hear that?” Potter asked. For the first time he sounded worried.

He was hearing the sounds of the bugs from my fanny pack moving in the darkness. He hadn't been scared around the snake, but now he was scared?

“It's nothing,” I said shortly. I kept pulling him behind me, and he stumbled along.

There was an opening up ahead. It felt like it was blocked by brambles.

“Don't look behind us,” I said.

The monster wasn't within sight; I had bugs behind us checking. However, the ones on the floor had already moved ahead through the brambles, exploring the forest outside.

“Lumos,” I said with my wand out.

Although I'd intentionally left the light dim, we both blinked and struggled to adjust our vision. The bramble in front of us was thick and impenetrable.

“Do you have your wand?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Make a light,” I said. He did so, and I began using my wand to cut away at the bottom left corner of the branches. It required several spells, and even so I didn't cut more than a small opening; the last thing we needed was to encourage the thing back behind us to go out and explore in the daylight.

The opening I'd made was small enough that the only reasons we could squeeze our way through was because we were both tiny and scrawny. Even so, I felt it rip away at my robes.

As we stepped out into the outside, I could see the moon up in the sky. We were in the middle of a forest, and the trees looked like trees I'd seen before.

We were in the middle of the Forbidden Forest.

Chapter Text

It was dark, but I was picking up more bugs all the time.

Insects tended to use three main strategies to survive the winter. The first was to avoid the cold. Some did that by migrating like birds. Butterflies were widely known for doing just that. Others would hide at the bottom of ponds, where temperatures were more stable than at the surface. Some would burrow into the earth, beneath the frost line.

Some survived the winter almost unchanged. Mites and snow fleas were in that group.

Some would simply freeze, going into a state of almost suspended animation, waking when the heat of the spring resumed.

The only bugs I had now were the middle group; the others either weren't around, or would die of the cold. There was still life all around, but it wasn't the explosion of life that had been there during the fall. Instead it was more subdued.

Casting a warming charm on both myself and Potter, I said, “We need to get back to the castle. I can't imagine that a head check won't be one of the first things that they do... and the both of us are the people they'll be looking for first.”

“Yeah,” he said grimly.

He'd managed to hold onto his invisibility cloak, so we weren't entirely done. There was still a chance to get inside the castle without being detected, even though we were probably going to be caught as being out of our rooms.

It hadn't been all that long; ten minutes maybe since the alarm had been set. However, the more time that passed, the more alarmed they were going to be and the more in trouble we were going to be in. If it was just me, I probably could have bluffed my way out of it; however, I didn't know Potter well enough to know whether he would blurt everything out all at once.

It was possible that for once that might be the best option. There was a death snake beneath the school. That seemed like something the administration should know.

I sent the bugs up, but it was late enough that the castle was not lit up. None of the bugs I had available had vision that was good enough to see the castle in the middle of the night.

The forest was to the east of the castle. I wasn't particularly good with directions; I'd always had my bugs and the city to follow. In a city, the bugs were always active, kept warm in human habitations. Checking locations had been easy.

In a forest it was going to be much harder.

“Which way?” Potter asked.

The best thing I could do was pick a direction. We had warming charms which meant we wouldn't freeze to death, and in the middle of winter, it was likely that the more dangerous monsters would have gone to ground.

 

Still, it was possible that there were more trolls out here. I was a lot better with magic than I'd been even a couple of months ago, but I had no idea how Potter stacked up in magic. Would he back me up, or would he run away screaming in terror. Just being a Gryffindor didn't necessarily mean that he was brave after all, it just meant that he wanted to be.

“Let's go this way,” I said.

I had no idea if it was the right way, but our only choices were to either keep moving or to hole up until morning when my bugs could find the direction of the castle. The last thing I wanted to do was to find out that the giant snake had changed its mind and felt like a midnight snack.

He nodded.

I'd felt drawn to something in the center of the forest before; I felt it again. It was something that I'd meant to explore, but this was hardly the time.

Knowing that it was in the center of the forest, and knowing how far we'd walked underground, I could guess that we were on the side of the forest closest to Hogwarts. That meant that I only needed to go away from whatever it was, and we'd get back to the castle sooner or later.

Suddenly, I grabbed Potter's robes and leaned into him.

“Keep quiet,” I said.

Easing us into the underbrush was difficult, but a quiet levitation spell managed to lift some of the branches high enough that we could both slip under it. I didn't like being confined to such a small area, but hiding was going to be the best thing I could do for us.

We were surrounded my multiple groups of men.

Potter was silent beside me as we waited in the darkness.

“I can't believe he's asking us to do this on Christmas,” the first of two men stepping into the clearing said.

“It's the best time.... their guard will be down, and we'll get a chance to feel out their defenses,” the second man said. “The Dark Lord's given us enough spells not to be detected, but he hasn't figured out how to get us inside.”

“Why's the boy so important anyhow?” the first man asked.

“He made the Dark Lord look like a fool as a baby,” the first one said. “And there's a prophecy, although nobody seems to know what the whole thing is.”

“Nobody tells me anything.”

“That's because you're an idiot who can't keep his mouth shut.”

“Yeah...but do you really believe that we'll find the boy or Avery's pet project out here on Christmas eve?”

“The seer the Dark Lord is using is one of the better ones,” the second man said. “Although he could be wrong. Prophecy is tricky. I never put a lot of stock in it.”

I marked their faces in my mind.

I'd have Dumbledore look at the pensieve later, or maybe Snape, and see if he could identify them.

“She was sure we'd find them, though?”

“Yeah,” the second man said. He was shorter and stout, but there was a harder look on his face. The first man was younger and didn't look particularly bright. “Said we ought to be careful though. The Terror is with him.”

“How dangerous can a firstie be?” the first man asked. “I can take care of a little girl all by myself.”

“She killed a troll,” the man said. “Avery checked. I doubt she's going to be much against full fledged wizards, though.”

“So we just have to find them,” the first man said. “And bring them to the Dark Lord?”

“Just the boy. He said we're to kill the girl.”

I could feel Potter stiffening beside me, but I squeezed his shoulder tightly in warning. If it was just these two wizards, I might have a chance. Darkness powder and a good solid knife might be enough, although it depended on how competent they were.

However, I could hear three other groups of two in the forest. They were searching in a grid pattern, and if I engaged with these, then the others would come running. There was no way that I could fight eight grown wizards at once.

It was possible that I might have trouble with just two.

The fact that my bug count was a lot smaller than normal also made this a dangerous encounter. I didn't have the option of revealing my secret and choking them to death.

The bad thing was that the others were moving in a pattern that was getting closer to us all the time. It made me wonder if they were honing in on something, using some kind of tracking spell that I hadn't heard about before.

We didn't have a lot of options. We could continue to try to hide, but it was looking like they'd caught our scent somehow. We could run, but a spell to the back might take us out even quicker. We could fight and die.

None of those were options that I wanted to think much about.

Our best option might be to go back to the entrance to the chamber underneath Hogwarts. It was possible that Potter might be able to turn the monster against the men who were chasing us, which would be delightfully ironic. With any luck they'd kill each other off and then our problems would be solved.

The problem was that the entrance was ten minutes away. I was closer to whatever it was in the forest that had been pulling at me now.

Closing my eyes, I reached out with my power. My power had always gotten stronger when I'd felt trapped... and while this wasn't the same power, it seemed to work much the same. Magic was an expression of my mind, after all, and I had vivid memories of how it worked.

I felt them suddenly; they were an alien presence at the edge of my vision. They were bugs, but bigger than any that I'd ever used with the exception of Atlas and his kin. It took me a moment to get control of them; they actually fought my control in a way that no other bugs ever had.

Getting control of their vision, I could see that they were spiders. It was hard to get a sense of perspective, but it looked like they were huge, at least the size of dogs, and maybe as large as horses. I desperately wanted to know what they were, but now was not the time.

Potter sneezed beside me, and suddenly the branches of the bush we were hiding under were pulled aside, and we were being dragged out at wandpoint.

One of the wizards whistled, and I felt the others moving in.

“It's Potter and his pet mudblood!” the first and dumber wizard said. He was pointing his wand at me, and he'd managed to get my wand while I was distracted.

“We're supposed to kill the mudblood,” the second wizard said.

“You think Avery would pay us to bring her to him?” the first one asked.

A nasty smile spread across the face of the second Wizard. “He's got some nasty plans for her. After all the shite she's pulled on pureblood kids, might be the best thing for her. Avery's been a right twat over this whole thing.”

That was the problem with having idiots working with you. They couldn't follow directions. Would I be better to stay silent, or to pretend to be afraid and to cry? That might actually encourage them to kill me.

“You'd better let us go!” Potter shouted beside me. They hadn't even bothered taking his wand, an expression of contempt that they might live to regret. I was close enough that I might be able to grab it and use it. However, the wands in our face suggested that would be a bad idea without some form of distraction.

One of the men waved his wand, and Potter fell to the ground screaming. It didn't last for very long, but it felt like it was much longer.

My bugs would show up on the white snow; however, I had them moving under my dress, scattering to the inside of my robes and ready to be deployed. Some of them were moving things out of my fanny pack, including the darkness powder, the crackers, and the other things that I thought I'd need.

The knife was heavy for the bugs I had on me, so I left it in the pack. I doubted I would be able to use it.

“Gibbon!” one of the men coming through the trees said. “You found them! This is a great day for the Dark Lord!”

The second man stared at me, and asked, “Why is the mudblood still alive?”

“We figured Avery might want some quality time with her,” Gibbon said, grinning. “Maybe it'll put him in a better mood.”

“Hmph,” the other man said. “Well, we'd better get moving. Dumbledore has the castle on full alert. He must have added some alarms that the Dark Lord doesn't know about.”

“The Dark Lord didn't say that we couldn't have fun with the boy,” Gibbon said. He pointed the wand again.

“He didn't say you could, either,” I said.

“What?”

“He told you to bring the boy to him unharmed, and you've already what, used the Cruciatis curse on him? You think he'll be happy about that?”

“What would you know about it, you little bitch?” he asked. He pointed his wand at me and a moment later my world was full of pain.

I laughed.

It hurt; on the scale I was used to it was an eight on a scale of ten. However, I'd experienced a twelve, and no pain I experienced would ever compare.

Staggering to my feet, I forced myself to smile.

“What?” the man said, his wand suddenly going limp.

“This isn't a chance I normally give people,” I said. “But I'm feeling generous. Run away and I will let you live, for today at least. If you don't, then I will kill you. I'll kill your friends, your families. I will destroy everything you've ever loved.”

“You won't be going anywhere,” the man sneered. “It's not worth bothering with you.”

He was going to try to kill me.

“I warned you,” I said.

The bugs dropped darkness powder into my hands, and I threw it to the ground, dodging to the side. Green light flashed to the spot where I had been, but the things I had summoned were already in the trees. They dropped down onto the men. There were flashes of green light in the darkness, with the screams of dying men. I lunged forward and I grabbed the wand the Death Eater in front of me was using.

His grip tightened, but I reached up and shoved a cracker in his mouth.

I felt his grip loosen, and the man began to fall. Apparently the Christmas Crackers weren't as safe as they'd been made out to be.

A moment later it was over. The spiders began to drag the men off into the forest.

I heard Potter rooting around; he'd finally revived himself enough from the pain to try to do something constructive.

By the time the darkness powder began to lift, there was only one man left on the ground. There wasn't anything left of his jaw, and he was unconscious.

“Episkey,” I said. “Episky.”

It wasn't enough to repair his jaw, but it did stop the bleeding.

“What are you doing?” Potter asked. “And where are the others?”

“I saw some giant spiders in the trees,” I said. “It looked like they were going to attack, so I dropped some darkness powder to help them.”

“And this?” he asked.

“It might be good for the aurors to have somebody to interrogate,” I said. “We just have to get him tied up and get him to the castle. Most likely they'll forget about giving us points if we bring them something else to distract them.”

He stared at me; his face looked drawn and worn.

I stripped him of his robes and used them to tie his hands behind him. After the death of Filch, I'd looked up the Levicorpus spell.

Casting it now, the men was levitated by one ankle.

“Let's go,” I said.

The man behind us had half his face destroyed, but I was sure that Wizarding medicine could repair him well enough that he could answer questions.

I had a feeling that this incident was going to improve my reputation with some people, but it was likely to move me up Voldemort's list. I'd been enjoying my time as being just Avery's pet project, but killing five death eaters and capturing one was going to be a setback for him.

Most people like him didn't like setbacks. They often took them personally. I was going to have to be even more careful now than I had been before.

The man was in front of us, floating. His face bashed into branch after branch. I didn't particularly care.

“What are we going to tell them about the snake?” Potter asked.

“The truth,” I said. “We were out exploring after hours, stumbled into a secret passage, and fell into a snake pit.”

“They'll kill it,” he said.

“They should,” I said. “If you didn't speak snake, it would have eaten you.”

He looked at me strangely.

“I'd have gotten away, but then everybody would have blamed me,” I said. “which probably means I'd have ended up in Azkaban.”

“She's a person,” he said. “All snakes are.”

“You've talked to snakes before?” I asked.

“Sure. Haven't you? I thought it was just a wizard thing, like jaunting.”

“Jaunting?”

“Like on the Tomorrow People,” he said. “Well, the reruns. I did it once when I was being chased.”

“Apparating, you mean?” I asked.

He shook his head. “It didn't feel the same when I did it. Apparating feels like you're being squeezed through a tube. This was something different.”

Accidental magic he was talking about. He's apparently been awake when it had happened to him. Interesting.

“Well, I can't speak snake,” I said. “it must be one of the rare talents, like being a seer, or a metamorph....uh...whatever.”

He frowned. “That means the other wizards won't think she's a person either.”

I certainly didn't. Of course, it was possible that I was wrong. I'd been around enough Case 53s to know that outward appearance didn't necessarily reflect on the inner life.

Was the snake a person? If it was, would sending wizards to kill it be the right thing to do?

“She's dangerous, and she's going to kill someone,” I said.

“I'll teach you to speak snake,” he said.

“She won't,” he said. “I'll even teach you to speak snake so that you can talk to her.”

“I'm not sure that's something that can be taught,” I said. “I think it's a magical power.”

“You could be wrong,” he said.

Frowning, I thought about it. The snake hadn't made any waves so far, but telling the authorities would be the smart thing to do.

“I reserve the right to change my mind,” I said.

He whooped.

“But this is what we're going to tell Dumbledore and the aurors,” I said. “And they're going to ask you to share memories with them. I'm going to tell you where to start them, and where to end them. Do that, and you'll keep the snake safe.”

With luck, it might keep me safe.

Chapter Text

“Acromantulas?” the girl said. “Is that what they were called?”

Moody scowled at the girl.

He'd been hearing earsful about her from a variety of people, and none of it was good. She was Slytherin, which was to be expected given the other things he'd heard about her. She was clever and violent and dangerous.

It was a perfect prescription for a Dark Lord in training. Nothing he had seen had convinced him of anything else. Other Wizards would look at her and they'd have seen an innocent seeming little girl. They'd remember the ridiculous rumor that muggleborn couldn't use magic as everyone else. They'd assume the was as harmless as she looked.

Moody had seen monsters hiding behind the eyes of children, and he had an uneasy feeling that he was looking at one now.

There was no guilt in her eyes, no fear. Any ordinary child would have been shaken by what had happened, even now, hours later. They'd given the boy a calming potion, but hadn't even bothered to offer the girl one. That was enough to tell him that Dumbledore and the staff of the school knew there was something seriously wrong with the girl.

“How did you know they were going to be there?” he demanded.

“I know things sometimes,” the girl said, shrugging. “I always just assumed that it was my accidental magic protecting me.”

“It stops being accidental at your age,” Moody said. “Especially if you do it all the time.”

The girl shrugged. “I get some glimpses usually relating to things that are going to harm me. It makes it easier to take... steps.”

Steps.

Moody had heard about some of the steps the girl liked to take, and he didn't like any of them. The school had covered up the boy with the boils, but Moody knew who the real suspect there was. How many other things had the girl done that hadn't even been made public?

“I've heard they were looking into you for the death of Argus Filch,” Moody said. “Sent a couple of duffers in.”

Making an accusation out of the blue sometimes helped; people who were disconcerted made mistakes, said things they hadn't meant to say.

“They didn't find anything because I didn't do it,” she said, shrugging.

She was too calm...too confident. A first year should have been quaking in her books at the sight of him. She looked at his scars dispassionately, and without any sign of revulsion. That wasn't ordinary for purebloods; it was even less ordinary for muggleborn. At the very least they tended to stare curiously.

She acted as though she'd seen worse in the past, although it was possible that she might just have an excellent poker face. She was a Slytherin after all.

Still, he'd looked over the files, and there wasn't a motive. It was likely that Filch had run afoul of a Death Eater with a grudge. Making enemies of the last twenty graduating years of Wizarding Britain really hadn't been very bright, not when you had no magic to protect you.

Interrogating her about this might be a lost cause. If she'd done it, she'd covered it up well enough that she was confident that they'd never find him. If she hadn't, interrogating her was just going to antagonize her, which would make her a worse witness about more important matters.

“So you and Potter got lost when you fell through a hole in a secret passage; you found yourself out in the Forbidden Forest. What happened then?”

“I had a flash that the Death Eaters were coming,” the girl said. “And another flash warning me about the Acromantulas. I decided to see if the two things coming to kill me would cancel each other out.”

The girl said it coldly, as though the deaths of five men and the mutilation of one more didn't bother her at all. Moody had been out to the crime scene, and he'd found the blood covered wands that confirmed her story.

Following the tracks had showed that two more of the Death Eaters had escaped; most likely they'd apparated. There was blood that showed they'd been injured; with any luck at least one of them had died before he could get treatment for the venom.

“So you decided to kill them all,” Moody said.

“They decided to kill themselves,” the girl said calmly. “I just chose not to save them.”

“Right... and then what happened?”

“I dropped some darkness powder when I saw that the Acromantulas were about to attack,” the girl said. “And shoved a Christmas Cracker in that guy's mouth. I'm amazed that you guys let kids have those. I got a nice hat out of it, though.”

She gestured toward the hat on her head. It was a jaunty sort of beret, colored in the Slytherin colors. Moody could see a bit of blood on the brim though. He wondered if she knew, but was choosing to wear it for the intimidation factor.

“The Acromantula killed the guys who were farther away, but didn't bother with us, probably because we were small and scrawny and they had a lot to eat. I healed up the guy I just killed, as much as I could, then I dragged him to the castle using that spell that lifts people up by one foot. I'm sure the Headmaster has told you the rest.”

She wasn't afraid of Dumbledore, but she also didn't have that hero worshiping expression that a lot of the younger kids had. As a muggleborn that wasn't unusual; they didn't have a sense of who and what Dumbledore was. Moody had a feeling, though, that this girl knew exactly what Dumbledore was and it didn't bother her.

“It matches up with what the Potter kid said,” Moody said, turning to Snape and Dumbledore. He'd questioned them separately, not that this would make much of a difference. They'd had at least twenty minutes to get their stories straight.

The Potter boy didn't seem like he'd be a very good liar, even though Moody knew that all kids lied. This girl, though, would lie without question.

“Send the girl outside,” Moody said. “While we look at the pensieve memories.”

He wouldn't trust the girl not to stab him while his face was in the pool. That was mostly true of anyone other than Dumbledore himself, but even more so of the girl.

He waited until they sent the girl out, and then he asked.

“Do you believe her?”

“I am not certain that I believe them about how they found themselves in the Forbidden Forest,” Dumbledore said. “But I do believe that they met Death eaters outside.”

“Oh, the man she brought back was definitely a Death Eater,” Moody said. “I've got a hand picked team questioning him right now, as well as they can given the state of his jaw.”

It was possible that this was the break that they'd needed. Moody was sure that there were agents in the Department, but if they could find out who, it might go a long way to restoring the balance of power. Even finding out how Voldemort was always a step ahead of them might help them find ways to ambush his people in return.

Success bred success, and the more Voldemort won, the more people flocked to his banner. Some losses would help to stem that tide, and maybe even get the higher ups in the Ministry to get up off their asses and do something.

“Let's look at the boy's first,” Moody said.

The other two men glanced at each other, then nodded.

The three men plunged their faces into the pool.

Potter's memories were muddled; he hadn't seen much, and he'd been distracted by the Cruciatis, which caused all of the memories to become jagged and unreliable.

The girl's memories were clear.

The first part of the confrontation played out just as the boy had remembered, but the memories were clearer.

“Stop,” Moody said. “Repeat that.”

They listened to the Death Eaters again; this was before they'd discovered the children.

“Voldemort has a Seer?” Moody said. “One specific enough to pinpoint the general area of the children? That's disturbing.”

“That's new,” Snape said, looking pensive.

Moody scowled and turned toward Dumbledore. “Most seers aren't worth spit, but a good one can be bad in the wrong hands. Your pet seer is still here, right?”

“Sybil is right where she has always been,' Dumbledore said, “And her skills, while real, tend to be somewhat overstated.”

“Look into it,” Moody shook his head. “The Death Eaters already have too many advantages. We need to keep them from getting any more.”

The scene continued.

It surprised Moody that the girl hadn't been more aggressive. From what he'd heard, he'd have expected her to roll into the bushes and grab the boy's wand, or to do something other than simply sit there.

Being trapped at wand point would have been enough for any other Wizard, but....

“She's waiting,” he said, pointing. “Delaying. She knows that they are coming.”

The girl had her eyes closed when they'd been discovered, Was that the point where she'd seen what was coming? It was an impressive ability if that was true.

Moody watched the girl while the boy was being crucioed. Most children her age would have been screaming if they'd seen their companion being tortured right beside them, especially knowing that they were going to be next.

She simply watched him dispassionately, with a slight tightening of her mouth the only sign of a reaction at all.

A moment later she was taunting them. Interrupting their plans to further torture the boy looked deliberate. He saw that realization on the faces of Dumbledore and Snape as well.

They stopped the memory again.

“She intended for them to turn on her instead of him,” Snape said.

Dumbledore frowned. “Because she thought he would break?”

Was it because she knew the Acromantulas weren't ready to arrive yet? A delaying tactic? Letting the boy be tortured would have worked just as well; better in some ways, because they would have moved on to torturing her afterwards, perhaps doubling the time they had before she was killed.

It was subtle, but heroic.

Did it mean that she wasn't as bad as everything else he'd seen so far indicated that she was? Moody couldn't be sure. Even Death Eaters occasionally showed mercy, all but those who were irredeemable.

“She didn't mention the torture in her story,” Moody said. “Not something that I would have expected.”

The boy hadn't either, but he was a Gryffindor. He probably would have hated anything that made him look weak, especially in front of a girl.

“Perhaps she didn't think it relevant,” Snape said. “She has suffered something similar before.”

There weren't any records of the girl's family's murder, which was disturbing. It was possible that there were other muggleborn murders that the aurors had never heard about. The only thing that indicated there weren't was the Book and the Quill. It was easy to match known names with the dead. Why was the girl's family simply disappeared, when the others were made to look like accidents?

“Resume,” Moody said.

The girl staggered a little when she was hit with the Crucio. All of her muscles were tense, but

There was no visible expression on her face, though. She didn't fall to the ground, screaming. Moody had known full grown aurors who would have been incapacitated.

Staring the man directly in the eye, the girl laughed.

It obviously wasn't a real laugh, but it was enough to disconcert her attacker, who let his wand drop. The man was obviously a fool.

“Stop,” Dumbledore said. “That was most peculiar. Did it look like he miscast the spell?”

“No,” Moody said grimly. “It affected her. She probably wouldn't have done as well against someone like Riddle or Bellatrix, but it shouldn't have mattered. She shouldn't have been able to push her way through the spell like that.”

“She has brain damage,” Snape said. He was staring at the girl, whose face was frozen mid-laugh. He looked seriously disturbed. “It was scans of her brain that allowed the Cruciatis cure to be developed.”

All three men stood, staring at the scene before them. Moody turned.

His magical eye didn't give him any advantages here; these were just memories after all. But years of experience had alerted him to small details. It was an ability that had kept him alive.

“Look,” he said. “In the trees.”

The acromantula were in the trees, hidden. Only their eyes were visible, with an occasional limb being placed to look like just another part of the tree. The Death Eaters were facing away from them.

“She's not looking at them,” Moody said; the girl's gaze was on the Death Eater, but there was something about her expression, a minute change. It was almost a look of anticipation.

It fit with what he'd heard about her; how she'd often know things without looking. The Death Eaters should have seen her expression and realized that something was happening. They were likely too astonished by her shrugging off the Cruciatis.

Laughing had to have been a calculated gesture. It had convinced the Death Eater to stop his attack, and it had gotten all eyes on her.

Dumbledore gestured, and it began again.

“This isn't a chance I normally give people,” the girl said. “But I'm feeling generous. Run away and I will let you live, for today at least. If you don't, then I will kill you. I'll kill your friends, your families. I will destroy everything you've ever loved.”

“You won't be going anywhere,” the Death Eater sneered. “It's not worth bothering with you.”

He still thought he had the upper hand. It made Moody feel a little better; if this was the quality of agent Voldemort was hiring then the Ministry still had a chance.

Not that there weren't a lot of aurors who were just as stupid.

The certainty the girl had.... was it all a bluff, or was she actually the type who would try something like that?

“I warned you,” The girl said.

The image froze. The girl was already in the process of dodging to the left. The powder was on its way to the ground.

“Darkness powder.... good stuff,” Moody grunted. He liked it in particular because his magical eye could see through it.

The acromantula were already dropping from the trees toward the unsuspecting backs of the Death Eaters.

It looked like the girl was telling the truth. It was amazing.

“She led them right into the trap,” Moody said. “Kept them talking long enough so that they were all in the right place, and then she executed it.”

Everything went black and they could hear screams and see dim flashes of green light. Moody had already explored the scene. He'd seen the tracks, and this memory and the locations of the flashes matched up with what he'd seen perfectly.

He could heard the sounds of two men apparating.

Watching the girl unflinchingly stopping the bleeding on a man whose face was half blown off was interesting. Seeing her lift him in the air with magic by one food and then drag him behind her like a muggle wagon was interesting as well.

“Did the girl just suggest that bringing him in might keep them from getting House points taken away?” Moody asked.

Snape nodded. He was staring at the scene in front of him, his face expressionless.

“I suspect that Miss Hebert does not care about House points at all,” Dumbledore said quietly. “Yet she chose to leave us with this memory.”

“Trying to distract us from something?” Moody asked. “Or maybe she was taunting us.”

“What will the Ministry's position be on this?” Dumbledore asked, staring at the scene frozen in front of them.

“Exactly what the girl wants, I suspect,” Moody said. “We're going to cover it up. It's Christmas so most of the students aren't around. Warn the boy not to talk about what happened. I doubt you'll have to tell the girl.”

“I think that would be best for the school,” Dumbledore said, nodding. “And the country. Were people to know that Tom was preparing for an attack on the school, there would be a widespread panic.”

“They were just scouting,” Moody said. “But I think that it would be best if you continue to upgrade the school's defenses. We need to think about what comes next.”

“I think Tom might attribute this to his men's incompetence,” Dumbledore said. “But I fear that this will have aroused his interest in the girl.”

“If they come in force against the school, what will you do?” Moody asked.

“I am not helpless,” Dumbledore said. “This school is safer than anywhere else in Britain for the students, and I will continue to make it so. Unfortunately, we live in a world where no place is truly safe. The students would be less safe at home.”

Moody nodded.

“I've got a Death Eater to interrogate,” he said. “I'm assuming that you'll take care of our two pint-sized heroes.”

“I am uncertain who is more at fault,” Snape admitted. “Miss Hebert is dangerous, but not foolhardy. The boy on the other hand...”

“He's a Gryffindor,” Moody said. He chuckled. “What do you expect... he's the spitting image of his father.”

Snape's expression turned sour.

“Both of them shall receive adequate punishments,” Dumbledore said. “I would like to accompany you to the interrogation. Perhaps we will finally be able to take steps to win this battle of attrition.”

Moody nodded shortly, and they both left Snape alone with his thoughts.

Chapter Text

“Twelve Death Eaters are in custody,” Hermione said. “And three safehouses destroyed.”

She'd barely gotten off the train, and all she wanted to talk about was the same thing everyone else was talking about. Nothing else had been making as much news over the past week. Rita Skeeter had apparently been run ragged along with her coworkers.

Apparently Moody was better at getting information that I'd thought. I suspected that the Ministry didn't actually know that there was a surviving Death Eater at all; otherwise his companions in the government would have been trying to spring him.

More likely the Death Eater was at some kind of black site, being drained of every last thing he knew through enhanced interrogation. I doubted that they were torturing him, not when they had access to truth potions and mind reading.

If Voldemort was smart, he was going to have to retreat for a while. He'd need to reorganize and use a cell structure for his organization, like other terrorist groups, instead of a top down plan. Agents couldn't reveal knowledge they had never had.

If I were him, I'd be obliviating my entire organization, starting from the bottom up, making sure that only the leaders knew who else was in the organization. Of course, that ran the risk that spies could infiltrate more easily, but there were costs to every strategy.

“That's great,” I said. It really was. “I really appreciated the gift you gave me. I'm sorry I didn't get you yours before you left.”

“You didn't have to,” she said.

“I really did,” I said. “It meant a lot to me.”

I handed her the package.

I'd had to ask McGonagall to transfigure wrapping paper for me during my detention with her. None of the professors had been overly critical during my detentions, even when Potter and I had claimed that we'd gotten lost and didn't remember where we'd slipped into the secret passage.

I suspected that Dumbledore knew better, but he didn't know that actual truth, because the Monster was still in the basement, alive, at least according to the bugs that I sent down there.

“It's not much,” I said. “They didn't let me out so I couldn't buy anything.”

She gasped as she pulled out the handkerchief I'd made.

Given that I'd only had a week, and I'd had to make things for several people, it wasn't a large handkerchief.

Some of the spiders in the castle made golden webs. They weren't Golden Orb Spiders; those were native to Madagascar and the climate was all wrong for them. These were more hardly and resilient than those.

There weren't as many of them as the others, and so I'd had to use the golden thread to weave Hermione's name in the otherwise white cloth.

It was a risk giving her spider silk; I certainly wasn't going to give one to Snape. However, I was reasonably certain that neither she nor Neville would reveal anything that I asked them not to.

It wasn't obvious that the handkerchiefs were anything other than ordinary cloth anyway. They were abnormally tough, but Hermione didn't seem like the kind to try to rip her handkerchief.

“You did these?” Hermione asked. “Did you use the spells in Maergaret's Homemaking guide?”

“I didn't use spells,” I said.

I carefully didn't say that I didn't use magic, because that would be a lie. As far as I knew, my insect control ability was magically based. Lying to other people was ok; even lying to Hermione if it was necessary. Lying about this would be wrong.

“You did this yourself?” she gasped, looking back at the Handkerchief. “How long did it take you? When did you do it? It must have taken ages!”

A moment later she was hugging me, while I stood awkwardly.

“I wasn't expecting anything from anyone,” I admitted. “Not this year. Getting something on Christmas Day was a total surprise.”

She grinned, letting go of me.

“So did you have a good Christmas?” she asked.

“It had its moments.”

My conversation with Moody had not been followed up on. I assumed it was because the story had never gotten out into the Ministry proper. Otherwise I would have been inundated with people making accusations about me luring the Boy-Who-Lived out into the woods to be killed, no matter how nonsensical that was.

Moody had presumably been smart, keeping it to a small group that he trusted implicitly.

Although I'd spent much of the rest of the week under close observation, I'd had my bugs working on the secret passages. I'd found a passage that led up to the abandoned girl's bathroom; I still hadn't figured out how to open it.

I didn't tell her about what had happened with the Death Eaters. Hermione was still a little high strung, and facing actual Death Eaters might have given her nightmares.

It had surprised me how well the Potter boy had taken it all, despite literally being tortured. It hadn't lasted long, but I'd seen adult men who'd had more obvious psychological effects. Maybe he was just resilient, or maybe, like me he had a past that didn't make it seem quite as bad.

That was the disturbing idea. The general perception was that the boy had lived a charmed life despite being an orphan, hidden away from Wizarding society.

Comments he'd made during our tutoring sessions had made me think otherwise.

As we were walking down the hallway, I lowered my voice.

“Have you ever heard about a creature like a giant snake that kills things by looking at it?”

“Why?” she asked suspiciously.

“I came across some legends about something like it, and I'm interested,” I said casually. “Maybe you could look into it and see what you can find out?”

“And what would you do with something like that if you found it?” she demanded.

I still hadn't decided, actually. The thing seemed to be sleeping in its chamber below the castle, which made sense given that it was winter. I wasn't sure whether it was cold blooded or not; its breath had been warm after all. But a lot of creatures hibernated in winter.

It was a good strategy for reducing caloric needs at a time when calories were scarce. The problem was figuring out just how many calories a thing like that would need. I'd once read that male African Elephants needed 70,000 calories a day. If they'd been carnivorous, that would translate into over a hundred pounds of meat a day.

When the thing awoke fully, would it need the equivalent of a full person a day to survive? Just how vicious was it? Those were questions that I needed answered before I decided whether to kill it, or use it as an ally.

“Get it some sunglasses and ride it into battle?” I said, grinning a little.

She stared at me, and then laughed.

“Where would you attach the sunglasses?” she asked. “Snakes don't have ears.”

“Magic,” I said knowingly.

It wasn't even a lie. If the snake could be an ally, we'd have to eventually see it in the light, and that meant that there had to be a way of neutralizing its gaze. Killing allies would make it worse than useless in the fight that was coming.

Our detentions were over with; the last thing Dumbledore needed was for people to ask what we'd done to get detentions over the Holidays. He'd given us a slap on the wrist, really. I suspected that he'd have preferred to have awarded us points, except that Moody and the few others in the know expected differently.

Should it get out that I'd endangered the Boy-Who-Lived, it wouldn't look good politically if people knew that I'd been rewarded instead of punished. The punishment had been almost pro-forms; I hadn't been bothered by it at all.

Potter had seemed to understand too. We'd endangered ourselves, after all, even if not intentionally.

“Harry Potter is joining our group,” I said casually.

“What?” Hermione asked. “Why?”

“I've spent some time with him over the holidays. I think he'd be a good fit,” I said. “And given the circumstances, he's the only Half-Blood that's at much at risk as us muggleborn. He's practically one himself; he was raised by Muggles and didn't know anything about the Wizarding world until shortly before he came here, the same as us.”

Hermione frowned.

“You'd have though the Ministry would have taken better care of him than that; after all, he's a national treasure.”

“He's a boy,” I said. “The same as any other. In some ways, he's had it worse than we have.”

“Worse than you?”

“I knew my parents,” I said. “And they loved me. That goes a long way to keep you from turning bad.”

“And you think he's at risk from that?” she asked.

“I think he's at risk of splatting like a bug on a windshield,” I said. It was a reference that a lot of purebloods wouldn't have got, but Hermione did.

She pursed her lips.

“Can he keep the meetings secret from everybody, even his friend Ron Weasley?” she asked.

She had a point. Gryffindors tended to be obsessed with looking brave and with fame. That made them more likely than people from other Houses to want to talk about things, especially if it involved their accomplishments.

The younger Weasley boy seemed fun loving, but he probably didn't have the motivation to join our group. Worse, he seemed prejudiced against Slytherin. While that was actually justified, I wasn't sure that he could look past my inclusion in the group.

“I already let him know what would happen if he did,” I said.

I left the implicit threat hanging; actually what I'd told him was that I'd tell Snape about the Monster in Hogwarts basement. He and Snape had never gotten along and he was certain that the man would cut the snake up into potion parts just to spite him.

No, Potter wouldn't be talking to the Weasley boy. Whether he'd be smart enough not to be followed was entirely a different matter. I had some plans to deal with that.

The longer we went on, the greater the chance that we were going to be discovered. It had been a miracle that we hadn't been discovered already. The smartest way to deal with that would be to go public with it, in a way that was socially acceptable.

“I'm thinking that if we should get discovered, we should claim to be starting an underground dueling club,” I said.

“Oh?”

“And maybe we should turn it into a legal one eventually,” I said. “Or maybe it would be better to start one in advance, and make sure nobody knows we're the ones who did it?”

After all, there might be some people who would boycott it just because it was related to me. If the idea seemingly came from a professor, things might go better.

“Won't that mean that everyone else will get better as fast as you?” Hermione asked.

I gave her a look, and she chuckled sheepishly.

The real enemies weren't the students in this school;; it was the Death Eaters. Getting better in relation to them was the important thing. Still, it showed that she was starting to think strategically. Apparently I was rubbing off on her.

“It's fine sparring with the Weasleys, but you learn better when you have a lot of different styles to fight against. Even for the people who are too good for us, we could learn by watching them fight.”

I felt myself getting enthusiastic.

“We could probably even get Travers or Snape to supervise,” I said.

“Professor Flitwick was a dueling champion,” Hermione said primly. “Just because he's small, you shouldn't forget him.”

She still had some house pride. Was that a good thing? I didn't know.

“Do you think people would go for it?” I asked hesitantly. I'd probably be able to convince the muggleborn, assuming I was able to convince them of the danger they and their families were in, but the rest of the students were a lot less likely to join.

“For the chance to fight you and not get stabbed to death?' Hermione shook her head. “Any wizard with an ounce of pride would jump at the chance to join. Of course, there's a lot of lazy duffers at this school.”

“Well, you'll never be able to get everyone,” I said.

There were always some people who refused to defend themselves, either out of fear or a belief that they weren't going to be the ones affected. Those people wouldn't be useful anyway. Troops who broke and ran left their comrades in a worse situation than if they'd simply never been there at all.

You could plan for a lack of numbers, but a lack of conviction was harder.

I had an ulterior motive for this as well. It was possible that this war against Voldemort might be a drawn out thing; if it was, having a populace who didn't know how to defend themselves was going to be a serious impediment.

Whether Voldemort or the Ministry won, it was possible that either side might turn against me, in which case I was going to need an army. I would need a group of people who were loyal to me, people who were used to listening to me no matter how young or girlish I looked.

Voldemort had sent people to my home in order to kill me and Harry Potter.

It was a violation of the rules that I'd mostly lived by since I was fifteen. The unwritten rules didn't really mean anything; they'd been a way to keep parahumans from killing each other before they could be thrown into the grist mill that was the endbringers.

Yet it bothered me in a fundamental way.

He'd come to my home and he'd tried to have me killed. That made it personal.

Before I'd been fighting one of his minions, in a fight that had been petty and impersonal. This had been ordered by the big man himself, which took him from a distant, impersonal project to something more immediate.

The fact that his bases were being overrun was probably going to make me a somewhat bigger priority,

I doubted that it would be soon, but sooner or later he would be coming for me. At the very least I needed to be training harder. Having people to watch my back would be even better.

“Who should we ask first?” I asked. “Snape, Travers, or Flitwick?”

“Start with Flitwick,” Hermione said. “He likes you.”

She was right; I suspect that Flitwick saw something of himself in me. He was a creature of two worlds, having to prove himself to a Wizarding population that looked down on him just for what he was. He'd probably become a dueling champion to rub their noses in the fact that their pureblood superiority was pure idiocy.

Also, Flitwick respected competence. In that way he was like Snape, although he was less harsh with people who weren't.

We'd managed to keep Neville's disasters to a minimum, and I suspected that Snape knew we were working with him; he'd backed off of him a little, and the boy had been doing better. It didn't make Snape warm or fuzzy by any means; he was still acerbic.

He was the opposite of Mr. Gladly in a way. Gladly had wanted to be liked by all the students, and he'd bent over backwards to make that happen.

Snape almost seemed to try to push the students away.

I wasn't sure whether this was because he genuinely disliked children, which I suspected was at least somewhat true, or whether it was because as a double agent he couldn't afford to get attached to anyone.

Voldemort presumably had spies among the student population, and anyone Snape favored would make a perfect hostage for his loyalty.

Make a mistake large enough to make Voldemort doubt him, but not enough to eliminate his usefullness as an agent? Use someone he loved as a whipping boy.

It was a lot like that threat I'd made to the Death Eaters. I'd been bluffing, of course. I wasn't going to go after innocent women or children, although it was possible that their families might be following the same path they were.

Voldemort, though, wouldn't hesitate.

“All right,” I said. “We'll talk to Flitwick.”

I still needed to give Snape my gift. It was a small carving of a Lily.

I'd thought about making a rose; giving him a gift with thorns seemed appropriate. But the romantic meaning behind something like that was a little creepy. I'd seen a book in his office about the meanings of flowers.

Lilies were about purity and innocence. I suspected that he would like the irony of me giving it to him.

I'd created it by taking a branch dropped from the Whomping Willow, and using the cutting spell to carve away at the wood a piece at a time. It had taken a lot of work, but given the gift he'd given me, I suspected that it was worth it.

Cheating a little by having my insects sit on the outside of a real lily wasn't something I felt bad about. It had been like I was sculpting from feel, and unlike a normal sculpture, when I make a mistake, I could use magic to repair it.

The final result had been something I was proud of. I had one more detention with him, and I planned to let him know that I'd cut the wood myself.

After that, I'd have my talk with Flitwick, and maybe we could get the ball rolling.

Chapter Text

“What is this?” Snape asked. He looked wary at the small, brightly colored box on his desk. McGonagall had taken an almost vicious delight in making the wrapping paper as bright and gaily colorful as possible.

“Your Christmas present,” I said. “I know it's a couple of weeks late, but it took me a while to make it.”

I'd already given my gift to Neville, another handkerchief like I'd given Hermione. Potter I'd given some Wizard cards. I hadn't seen Draco yet.

Staring at the box as though he thought it held a severed head, Snape looked back up at me. “I do not require gifts from students.”

“That Foe-glass you gave me was kind of a big deal. I like to pay people back.”

He was silent for a moment, and then he smirked.

I'd certainly paid Voldemort back; the fallout from that debacle was still being felt all through the Wizarding world. It was a sign of just how small the Wizard population was that the deaths of less than a platoon's worth of men had such an outsized impact.

I shrugged, and held the box out to him. Although I was pretending to not care about his opinion of the gift, I'd put a lot of work into it. Having him reject it was going to irritate me.

He opened the box cautiously, looking as though he wanted to use his wand to check it for traps. He didn't, though, for which I gave him props.

“What is this?” he asked.

He was staring at the wooden lily as though it was a rattlesnake in his hand, a combination of horror and apprehension on his face. His entire body was tense for some reason.

“I made it myself,” I said. “With a cutting spell.”

“What flower is this supposed to be?” he asked, and there was a strange edge to his voice. It was almost as though he was ascribing some meaning to the flower that I hadn't meant to give it. I'd looked through his flower book; had I made a mistake?

“A lily,” I said cautiously. “It's a symbol of purity.”

He was silent for a long moment, staring at the flower with a look that showed a sudden, old sorrow. For just a moment he looked as though he had aged ten years, but then he straightened up.

“I know what it is,” he said tersely. “Who told you?”

“Told me what?” I asked. For once my confusion was genuine.

He was silent for a moment. He studied my face, as though he was looking for any hint of deception. For once, I met his gaze unflinchingly.

“I find myself beginning to believe that you just know more than just about things that put you in danger,” he said finally.

I shrugged. I still wasn't sure what this was all about, but I'd apparently stumbled onto a sensitive subject. I'd noticed that the pages in his book talking about lilies were more worn than the other pages; I'd assumed that meant that they were a favorite of his. Perhaps I'd been wrong.

“This...must have taken time,” he said. He stared at it. “The cuts are very precise.”

“I'm getting good at cutting things,” I said brightly. “And it was good practice for later. And I wanted to do something nice for you.”

“It is not your place to be... nice,” he said. “And it could be dangerous for both of us for you to be seen giving me gifts. There are individuals who would see you dead, people who I am forced to interact. It would go poorly for both of us for this to be discovered.”

I rolled my eyes at him.

“I wouldn't give this to you in front of anyone else,” I said. “I'm not an idiot.”

“You are somewhat less of a dunderhead than your classmates,” he admitted reluctantly. “But you are not an adult. Children sometimes make foolish mistakes.”

“So do adults,” I said. “They join up with people they never should have and get involved with a bad crowd.”

“My tolerance for your impudence is not unlimited,” he said. “Some conjecture is not simply dangerous to you, but to me.”

“They sent six Death Eaters to kill me,” I said. “Here. You know that I'm not like other kids. I'm not going to lay down and die. If they kill me, I'm going to take as many of I can with them.”

The faintest ghost of a smile appeared on his lips. It was so faint that I could have been mistaken that it even existed. Was that approval, or was he enjoying the thought of what I might do to his Death Eater buddies?

“Please attempt not to drag others along with you,” he said. He was silent a moment. “Some enjoy living and do not have a Gryffindor-like tendency to throw themselves into danger.”

“I don't do that!” I protested. “Danger throws itself at me! It's like I'm a magnet for trouble.”

“On that we can both agree,” he said.

“I blame the hat.”

Staring at me for a moment, he nodded.

“The Sorting Hat is beholden to no one,” he said. “It is an artifact of a bygone age. It is as old as the oldest of the ghosts in Hogwarts, and is possibly one of the oldest minds in the world.”

I hadn't done a lot of research on ghosts; although their use as spies was obvious, I lived in a castle full of portraits that served the same purpose. They couldn't damage me physically, and they couldn't take over my mind, so I'd preferred to focus on more immediate concerns.

“I spoke with the hat,” he said. “Questioned its choice. It told me that its mandate was not just to do what was good for the individual student, but what was good for the school and for all of Wizarding Britain. It thought that you would be an agent of change.”

I shook my head.

“I don't want to be an agent for change. I'm tired of all of that; why can't I simply move on into obscurity.”

“I fear you would find obscurity to be rather boring,” he said. “You have chosen the only path that is in your nature.”

I looked at the lily. What did it mean to him, really?

“Your Dark Lord won't win,” I said. “He's too petty and short sighted. Someone like Grindlewald might have had a chance, but Tom is no Grindlewald.”

“You don't know what you are talking about,” he said stiffly.

He'd once fallen for Voldemort's line.

“He's got vision and determination,” I said. “Unwavering conviction. People mistake that for charisma. Everyone wants to be significant; most people channel that into work, or family, or achievement.”

“And you know this at eleven, because?”

I ignored him. “People who feel that they can't do that, it's easy to tell them that they deserve better, because of their race, or their gender, or their religion. People like that, all you have to do is tell them that an enemy is attacking their group, and they have to defend it. That gives them permission to use violence.”

I'd studied radicalization, especially in reference to the Fallen. They'd worshiped the Endbringers, and while they hadn't been anything nearly as dangerous as the Slaughterhouse Nine, they had been fanatics.

“Get a group of them together, and they will feed on each other. Violence begets violence.”

He was staring at me.

“You've researched how to become a Dark Lord,” he said. There was an incredulous note in his voice.

“I've read between the lines,” I said. “And if you win, then you aren't a dark lord. You're just Minister for Magic, or the Emperor or whatever.”

“No one would accept a muggleborn dark lord.”

“You never know until you try,” I said, grinning at him.

“You just have to find the right leverage. You win by taking existing prejudices and widening them. Tell them you know how the world really is. Make them think they can make a real change. Ultimately the only thing that changes is who's in charge. They'll tell you that you are better than everyone else. If something bad happens to you, it's not your fault; it's the others.”

His lips tightened. Had Voldemort used some of those tactics against him? Was I essentially calling him a fool a sap? I didn't mean it that way.

“I'm not planning to become a Dark Lady,” I said. “That's a whole lot of work I really don't want to be bothered with. Have you considered running for Dark Lord?”

“What?” he asked, startled.

I suppressed my urge to laugh at the look on his face. He looked like a deer caught in the headlights. Hadn't the thought of taking over ever occurred to him? He might not have Voldemort's sheer power, but he was at his side constantly.

Even Hitler had generals who had wanted him dead.

“You've got the look already,” I said. “All it would take was giving the right people a little... push. Make people believe that what you're offering is better than what the Death Eaters or the Ministry is offering.”

He regained his composure. “My position is precarious enough, as apparently you seem to know. I would prefer to keep my head, instead of having the entire Wizarding world after it.”

“Well, if you change your mind let me know. Enjoy the present,” I said.

Before he had a chance to either thank me or give me detention for some weird reason, I turned and left.

Marching up into the Slytherin dorms, I headed toward the boys stairs. There were no protections on those to prevent the girls from entering, which I thought rather stupid, really. Given the nature of teenagers, it was surprising that there wasn't an explosion of teen pregnancies every year.

Maybe there was a section in the syllabus where the boys and girls were separated and we were given a lecture on contraceptive magics. Likely it was in the restricted section. Maybe it wasn't, and I just hadn't bothered to look it up.

After all, it wasn't something I was going to have to worry about for a good, long while.

It didn't take long for me to find Malfoy. He'd just returned from the holidays with his family, and he was the only one in the common room.

“Malfoy,” I said. “We need to talk.”

The look of apprehension on his face was amusing. How much had he heard from his father, who was likely in contact with their master? In retrospect, I likely could have discovered whose parents were active Death Eaters simply by their reactions in the aftermath of my adventure in the Forbidden Forest.

Those who didn’t react differently were at the very least not being kept in the loop by their parents. Those who were probably were acting as spies for their parents anyway.
Deciding that I would watch everyone around me closely over the next few days, I pushed forward.

“I wanted to thank you for your gift,” I said.

The look of relief on his face was palpable.

“I brought you a gift as well,” I said, pulling the brightly colored box from behind my back.

The look of anxiety on his face was suddenly back.

What was it with these people? Why did they assume that if I was giving them a gift that it contained some sort of hidden trap? Didn’t they know that I tended to be more direct when I intended to move against someone?

He took the gift gingerly.

As I watched, he carefully opened the gift. As he opened the box, I watched his face carefully.

Snape wasn’t the only one I’d made a statuette for. I’d put effort into this one; it was a carving of an acromantula, made up as a pendant.
His face paled; I was right that he’d been informed about what had happened. I’d assumed that the chess set was a message from his father. In a way this was my message back to him.

It was a message that what had happened wasn’t a coincidence, that the deaths of the Death Eaters had been planned.

People like Malfoy respected strength. The question was whether or not he would share this message with his master, or whether he would keep it to himself.
That would give me a measure of his loyalty; it would tell me whether I actually had an opportunity to turn him toward me, or whether I was barking into the wind.
Voldemort ruled by fear.

How would he deal with this defeat? It made him look bad, but it was being concealed by the Moody.

The series of defeats they were suffering was more damaging than the initial loss, though. There had been other Death Eaters captured, although some of them had escaped already. Undoubtedly this was because some of them were released either by people who were sympathizers in the government, or by people who were controlled by magic.

“What is this? He asked.

“A gift,” I said. “And a reminder.”

He understood what I was saying immediately. He looked at it more closely.

“This wasn’t transfigured. How did you make it?”

“With the cutting charm,” I said. “It was good practice for the future.”

I didn’t smile when I said it, not like I had with Snape. He paled a little. There were more than one kind of message, and he was bright enough that he got it.
It likely boggled his mind that I would have expended this much effort just to make a point. In truth, it had been my proof of concept before I’d worked on Snape’s lily. I was very familiar with the shape of spiders, after all.

The spider was actually almost as good as the lily. I’d made fewer mistakes because I’d used actual spiders as models, and because my familiarity with it had made it relatively easy. I’d made some mistakes, but I’d repaired them. It was a nice piece of work overall.

The fact that it reinforced his idea of me as slightly crazy was only a bonus.

“I’ve decided to make this my symbol,” I said. “In honor of…well, I guess you might know.”

“Is it true?” he asked in a low voice, looking around.

There was no one around us, and there were no portraits in the Slytherin common room. This was by design, as Slytherins more than those in other houses did not like being overheard while they were making various plans.
My bugs confirmed that there were no invisible watchers, either, at least not any they could hear of smell.

Wizards using invisibility was common; controlling their sound was less common but not unheard of. I doubted that most of them would think about masking their smell. I had some bugs who had acute senses of small, and this was something I was habitually doing now.

I had no intention of being surprised by invisible attackers in the bath, not again.

“Are you asking if Potter and I decided to take a walk out in the forest?” I asked.

If anything, his face paled even further. That was impressive given that his complexion was already pale to begin with.

“I’m not confirming anything,” I said. “But if it was true, what would that mean for you?”

“How did you know?” he asked.

“I know a lot of things,” I said. “The question is what you intend to do about it.”

“What do you want me to do?” he asked.

“Use your head,” I said. “Keep your eyes open. Consider who it would be wise to be loyal to; someone that you may never meet, or someone who has the ability to make a real difference in your life.”

He looked conflicted.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “What being disloyal means. It’s not just what they do to you; it’s what they do to your family.”

“And you think I’m different?” I asked.

“I think you go after people who go after you,” he said. “But you aren’t cruel.”
He’d obviously been watching me carefully; more carefully than I’d thought. Obviously, I’d made a big impression on him.

“No one says that loyalties have to be obvious,” I said. “Sometimes it is good to keep your true loyalties to yourself.”

He frowned.

“No one says you have to openly ally yourself to a mudblood,” I said. “But there are little things people can do to help. There’s a difference between being obvious like a Gryffindor, and subtle like a Slytherin.”

His look turned considering.

“I’ve looked your family up,” I said.

After my encounter with Malfoy senior, I’d been interested in what I could learn, mostly about his history, but Wizards were very interested in family histories.

“They’ve become successful by knowing which way the wind blows and turning their sails in that direction. They started with nothing, and over time they became one of the richest houses in Wizarding Europe.”

“The third richest,” he said.

“It’s smart,” I said. “And that’s all I’m asking now. Be smart, watch which way the wind blows, and do what you have to do to keep yourself and your family safe.”
He frowned and after a moment he nodded.

I stepped back, and I smiled.

We shook hands.

Chapter Text

“A dueling club?” Flitwick looked surprised.

 

“I just thought that it was a waste,” Hermione said. “Hogwarts has a dueling champion as a professor, and we aren’t taking advantage of it? It’s an unused resource.”


I was letting Hermione make the pitch for multiple reasons. First, he was her Head of House.


Second, although her connection to me was well known, it was better that the request didn’t come from me. It would give us a measure of plausible deniability. Flitwick was sure to be questioned about who had originated the idea, and I wanted him to be able to be honest about it.


While the man had many sterling qualities, an ability to lie didn’t seem like one of them.


Of course, that might simply mean that he was a better liar than everyone else. The best liars cloaked their lies in truth, giving them a aura of respectability.


“I hadn’t thought…” Flitwick said. “Do you think that people would be interested?”
I’ve asked around,” Hermione said. “I thought there wouldn’t be a point in bringing it up to you if nobody was interested. There are a lot of Gryffindors who would like a chance to show off. The Ravenclaws think it’s an interesting idea. I’m sure we can get the Hufflepuffs to come around.”


She didn’t say anything about the Slytherins; we hadn’t canvassed them for multiple reasons.


For one thing, we weren’t sure that we wanted to empower people we might be facing later. Secondly, those who chose to join the dueling club on their own would be those who were probably more open minded.


After all, this was going to be a club in which mudbloods were going to be participating. The pureblood hardliners would likely refuse to participate, unless they saw it as an opportunity to hurt mudbloods with impunity. Those we’d find ways to weed out.


The ones who remained would be those who were willing to overlook their pureblood prejudice, which meant that they weren’t so firmly entrenched in Voldemort’s camp. That would give me an opportunity to know who I might eventually suborn.


The only way that things were going to change in the Wizarding world was if we could change hearts and minds. One of the problems with the Wizarding world was that people lived twice as long as ordinary muggles.


Even worse, they remained active for much longer than muggles. Dumbledore was over a hundred, and he was busier than any three people. There were wizards who were in their sixteenth decade who were still out and working.


It had the effect of concentrating power in the hands of those who were old, and this meant that ideas that had long since died off in the muggle world were deeply entrenched.


The best chance to change things was to change the minds of the children. New ideas spread in Hogwarts would propagate out, and they would last potentially for two centuries.
 
There would never be another opportunity to have as much of an impact as right here, and right now. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot in the way of political capital.
I’d been focused only on survival for months now, but if I was going to be successful, I needed to do more than that. I needed to be proactive, and work at changing the situation that was making my life so hard in the first place.

This was the world I was forced to live in, and so making it someplace that was pleasant to live was only going to make my life easier. Assuming that I wasn’t murdered in the meantime, there was a chance that I was going to have to spend the next two hundred years living here.


Spending that time living with a group of racist assholes was only going to make my life miserable.


Changing their minds wasn’t going to be easy, though. As I’d told Snape, Hitler had preyed on preexisting prejudices, riding them to create the world he’d wanted. Voldemort was doing the same thing.


That was the easy way.


Actually, changing what people believed was a lot harder. It was going against the grain, and it took a lot more groundwork. Furthermore, it wasn’t the sort of thing you could just throw in people’s faces.


People would fight back against that.

 

Accusing them of being racists simply made them stop listening to you. Once people had made up their minds, it was very difficult to get them to change it. People loved being right, and even more, they hated being wrong. When they were confronted with the idea that they were wrong, they tended to resist and double down on the original idea.


When people had anecdotal evidence that they were wrong, they often ignored it. There was a tendency to remember the things that confirmed what you believed and to deny the things that did not conform.


Sometimes people went through mental gymnastics to keep their beliefs.
Muggleborn weren’t good at magic but Taylor Hebert was?


Then that meant that something was unusual about Taylor Hebert. Maybe she was some sort of mutant, or maybe she wasn’t really a muggleborn at all. Wizards weren’t always discriminating in their entertainments with muggles after all.
The dueling club would help because it wouldn’t just be me.


Hermione would be decent; I’d made sure that she had a leg up with our study group. I suspected that there would be other muggleborns who were anxious to prove that they weren’t duffers.


We’d all heard the whispers after all, and I’d seen the looks on the faces of those muggleborns who’d heard them. We’d all heard the jokes that were whispered when people thought we weren’t listening. Sometimes the jokes were made deliberately in earshot; far enough that people could pretend to be appalled if we said anything.


It didn’t happen much around me, for obvious reasons, but it happened to the others. I suspected that this was creating an undercurrent of anger. It would eventually lead to problems further down the line. Right now, the muggleborn were too afraid to do anything, but people would eventually find ways to repay the constant insults they were being given.


I blinked as I realized Flitwick was speaking again.


I never realized you had such an interest in dueling Miss Granger,” Flitwick said. “This wouldn’t have more to do with your friend, Miss Hebert?”


The man was short, but that didn’t mean he was stupid.


“Would that be so wrong?” Hermione asked. “For a muggleborn to be interested in bettering themselves? I’m sure you’ve heard what has been happening to us. What’s wrong with making sure that we have at least a chance at defending ourselves?”


“So this would be a club just for the muggleborns?” Flitwick asked.


“I think we all need to learn to defend ourselves,” Hermione said. “Pureblood, halfblood, muggleborn, in the end we’re all going to have to stand up eventually. If not for this dark lord, then for the next one.”


“I’m surprised that you didn’t ask Mr. Travers,” Flitwick said.


  “You shouldn’t have to be worrying about such things at your age, Miss Granger.”
“Taylor talks all the time about wanting to be just an ordinary student,” Hermione said. “By the same token, I think we would all wish that these were ordinary times. They aren’t.”


“It’s a good idea,” Flitwick said. “I’ll speak to the Headmaster and to Mr. Travers and we’ll see what we can do. I expect that I’ll have an answer by this weekend.”
Hermione nodded.


I wasn’t anywhere in the room, of course. Being seen going in would be a tacit admission that I was behind the whole thing.


Hermione came out of Flitwick’s office.


“He went for it,” I said. “That means that we have a lot of planning to do.”
She didn’t even ask how I knew.


“Isn’t it going to be up to the professors?” she asked.


“You think they won’t kick it down to the people who suggested it?” I asked.

“Flitwick’s one of the better professors, but none of them like to take work that they don’t have to take. Offering to help will buy us points too; not house points, but it makes them think better of you.”


She nodded.


“Being a Slytherin is complicated,” she said.


I shrugged. “It’s mostly about thinking about what people want, and getting that for them. If you can do that, then you are more likely to get what you want.”
It was strange; listening to the Slytherins all these months had slowly changed my way of thinking.


I’d never been particularly socially adept; when I was young, I’d lived in my own little world. When I was older, I was focused, first on the bullying, and then on my career as a supervillain. Later I’d been focused on saving the world.


Emma had always been the one who’d been focused on being popular. She’d paid attention to what was in style, to who was interested in what. Being popular took as much work as being good at academics. It was just a different skill set, one I’d never been that interested in acquiring.


But listening in on their conversations, I’d begun to understand things I hadn’t before. Doubtlessly, the children weren’t anything as skilled as their parents in the art of social manipulations. But compared to me they were much better.


Ideally, I’d get the loyalty of someone who knew more about social manipulation than I did to act as my propaganda minister. None of the people in my inner circle currently were particularly skilled in that. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to trust someone like that with my plans either; it would be easy for them to turn out to be a mole. That assumed that anyone assumed that I would be important enough to make that kind of an effort.


So far the attacks against me had been blatant and open, but I couldn’t trust that this would always be the case.


Voldemort was likely busy right now with his current problems. If he thought of me at all, he’d likely have his Death Eaters send their children against me.


Most likely it wouldn’t be a blatant attack; instead they’d test my supposed seer’s ability. They’d try to see what its limits were, and they’d poke and prod until they found something they could give to the people who would make the actual attacks.
“What can we do?” Hermione asked.


“Look up dueling clubs and find out what the generally accepted rules are. Even if Flitwick doesn’t want any help, it might give us a leg up over the others. We’ll start practicing with the Weasleys so that we make a good showing when it actually starts.”


**************

As we went down the passage, I was glad that Potter and I had spent a couple of weeks figuring out how to enter from the girl’s bathroom. The solution turned out to be simple; parseltonque was useful as a code because it wasn’t spoken by hardly anyone.

It had turned out to be the solution to several of the other secret passages in the castle, some of which turned out to not have been entered in what looked like centuries. Some of them were dangerous and others were still well preserved.

According to Hermione, what we were facing was Slytherin’s monster. It was a basilisk. Given its size, it was very old; they grew throughout their lives, much like lobsters and they usually didn’t age.

The ways to kill it were relatively simple; it involved using a rooster. Like lobsters, this was part of the reason that there weren’t many that were very old. Otherwise this was considered a wizard killer.

“We shouldn’t be doing this,” I muttered.

“You want her to get hungry?” Potter asked. “She might come looking for something to eat, and that wouldn’t be good.”

I’d told him about the monster’s size and about what I’d discovered.

A monster like this would be useful, but only if it was unknown that we had it. Given preparations, wizards could deal with it fairly easily. We were wearing blindfolds now, even though the Chamber beneath us was pitch black. The possibility that someone might turn on the lights was too strong to be ignored.

It took more walking this time; apparently this entrance wasn’t directly over the chamber the way the hole we’d fallen into had been. I used bugs to keep from stumbling, although I could feel their instinctive fear of the monster within.

I could smell it now; without the distractions of the last time I could recognize the light scent of snake.

Snakes tended to have a stronger scent when they were stressed. The fact that the smell now was light was a good thing.

I could hear it now, rustling up ahead of us.

Practicing what I’d been taught, I hissed “Bringers… food, we.”

Gamp’s law was something that in the normal course of things we wouldn’t be learning in first year. However, it had been in Maegaret’s book of household spells. Apparently, wizards couldn’t simply create food out of thin air; it could be summoned from elsewhere, or replicated however.

Apparently, a template was needed for something as chemically complex as food. It didn’t matter if a wooden chair was off a little chemically; as long as it help most of the properties of wood that was good enough. Something that you put in your body was a lot more finicky, and small variations could lead to poisonous or otherwise disastrous results.

The books Hermione had found didn’t have a lot of information about the dietary habits of Basilisks, so we had to make some assumptions.

The snake said something I could not follow, with Potter responding.

“She asked if you were stupid,” Potter said. “I explained that you were just learning.”

I grimaced. Having a snake think I was an idiot wasn’t flattering. It had been difficult learning as much of parseltongue as I had, which was probably why most wizards didn’t bother. It was probably because Speakers were rare to begin with, and so it was hard to find anyone who could speak it.

Still, I’d get better.

Pulling out the package we’d brought from dinner, I set the roast beef from dinner on the floor. I cast the spell from Maergaret’s book over and over again.

A pound of roast beef became something else, a hundred, two hundred, four hundred pounds. It required multiple applications of the spell, but that didn’t bother me.

Ordinary snakes could go without eating for weeks at a time; hopefully this thing was the same. I assumed that was the case; otherwise we would have heard about people and animals going missing. It was possible that the exit we’d found to the Forbidden Forest wasn’t the only exit but I doubted it.

Hagrid was in contact with the centaurs in the forest; the holidays had offered several chances to talk to him, and he’d been open about the likely dangers in the forest. He’d had no inclinations about a giant snake, and presumably the intelligent denizens of the forest would have had at least some idea.

Eight hundred pounds, sixteen hundred.

The snake slithered forward, and we could hear the sounds of scales against stones. We both took a long step back, and we heard the wet sounds of food being devoured.

“Thank….” The thing said; I couldn’t understand much of what else it was saying.

“She says that it hasn’t eaten since the last speaker came to feed it, decades ago,” Potter said. “She’s not clear about how long because it’s not like she has clocks down here, or a calendar.”

“Can you ask her about the speaker?” I asked.

“A boy,” he said. “Smelled like parchment and ink, like both of us.”

“Another student?” I asked. I had an uneasy feeling that I knew who the last speaker had been.

My luck wasn’t good enough for it to have been a random student. It seemed almost inevitable that Tom was the one who had done it. He’d almost certainly gone to Hogwarts like everyone else, and decades ago would have been long enough for him to have been a child.

“She didn’t know his name; I don’t think snakes care about those as much as humans do,” Potter said.

“I have a bad feeling about that,” I said. “Ask her if she’s still loyal to him.”

There was an exchange that I could not quite follow.

“She was put here by Slytherin,” Potter said. “And she’s supposed to follow the orders of the heir, who was going to be a Speaker. She thought that was the boy, but now she’s not so sure.”

I was going to have to work hard to make sure that the thing switched allegiances to me and Potter then. That meant feeding it fairly regularly, although it was possible that the summer break might not be terrible. It had been down here for a thousand years after all, and presumably it had spent a lot of that time sleeping.

“You are the heir of Slytherin,” I said.

“What?” he asked.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s true of not. I’m betting that the boy was You-Know-Who, or at least somebody that worked for him. Do you really want them in control of a giant murder snake right beneath a school with a thousand helpless students?”

He was silent for a long moment. I couldn’t see his expression, of course, but I could imagine his confusion.

“I guess I am the Heir.”

“If you say something long enough, eventually it might come true,” I said. “We need her to work for us instead of him, and we need her loyalty.”

I considered.

“It might actually be true. How much do you know about your own geneology? I’m willing to bet that almost everyone in the Wizarding World is pretty much descended from one of the founders. There have been fifty generations between us and them, which means that everybody but the muggleborns is probably related to everybody else.”

It might even apply to the muggleborns.

I’d heard theories that muggleborns were actually the descendants of squibs who had interbred with the muggle population.

It made sense to me.; presumably the wizarding gene was either a mutation, or the result of interbreeding with almost human magical species. There had been legends that Merlin was the son of a human and a demon, and maybe that was just the origin of the Wizarding race.
In either case, it was possible that it had come from a single origin, either a mutant, or a fertile half-breed.

I didn’t bother telling this to Potter.

Just because the snake spoke Parseltongue didn’t mean it couldn’t understand English. That only occurred to me now, which was possibly a disastrous mistake.

“Parseltongue is pretty rare, though,” I said. “So the odds of you being the Heir are pretty high.”

He was silent for a moment.

“I’ve never been the Heir to anything, really.”

“Well, all hail to the king,” I said without irony.

Chapter Text

It was a couple of weeks before the dueling club was announced, and another week before the first session was to begin. In the meantime, we’d made several more trips down to visit the snake, feeding it, and practicing my Parseltongue.

I was apparently still terrible; according to Potter my accent was thick and I was barely intelligible. My vocabulary was limited to a few words. It didn’t roll off my tongue naturally the way it did Potter. It felt like I was talking with a mouth full of rocks.
Speaking snake wasn’t easy. It was almost like my mouth struggled not to speak it.
Was there other languages for all animal species?

Were there people who could speak to rats, or even worse to insects? I spent a couple of sleepless nights worrying about the possibility. An insect speaker would be able to learn things about me that I didn’t want them to know.

The only thing that comforted me was the fact that Parseltongues were supposed to be rare. Insect speakers would undoubtedly be even rarer. Only the insects near Hogwarts would know anything about me, and the odds that the one of the students was one seemed unlikely.

Still, I’d been looking up Acromantulas; apparently, they were sentient, even though they were perfectly willing to eat other sentients. I might be able to learn insect from them, which could be useful.

After all, once insects left my range I knew nothing about them. If I was able to speak their tongue, I’d be able to spy on anyone anywhere. Of course, it was possible that insects didn’t have enough of a mind to have a language; it surprised me that snakes did.

It wasn’t only magical snakes either; Potter said he’d spoken to regular snakes in the past. There had been one at a zoo, and he’d spoken to garden snakes in his own yard while he was gardening.

Was there something special about snakes, or did wizards somehow grant temporary sentience to snakes when they were around them?
The alternative was disturbing.

What if all animals were sentient? The billions and trillions of insects that I had callously sent to their deaths during my career as Skitter, had they had internal lives, a sense of self?

Eventually I had concluded that it was likely just a property of wizards, or maybe snakes. The alternative was unthinkable. Were we supposed to be like some Buddhists, avoiding walking anywhere for fear of accidentally killing an ant?

Insects, at least the non-magical ones were non-sentient. I’d felt the difference with the Acromantula, and I was betting that I’d feel the difference with other sentient insects too.

“I hope there’s a good turnout,” Hermione said. “If not many people show up, it’s likely they’ll shut it down before it really gets started.”

“I’ve got a good feeling about it,” I said.

I’d listened in on the discussions between Travers and Flitwick; they’d assumed that the club would be worth continuing with a minimum of ten participants.

I could sense at least fifty people waiting in the great hall now. More were filtering in. Undoubtedly, we’d lose at least a third of that number later on, as people realized that it was hard work, or less fun than they thought, or simply that they didn’t have time along with their other activities.

Still, there were a lot of familiar faces.

The Weasley twins, Potter, Neville, the younger Weasley, even Percy Weasley.
The muggleborns were overrepresented; I’d had Hermione and the others putting quiet words in ears about the situation in the greater word. They’d talked about the need to learn to defend yourself in a world that hated you.

At first they’d been awkward, but eventually they’d gotten smoother.

The thing that surprised me was just how aware of the situation the muggleborns turned out to be. Strangely, some of the pureblood and even halfblood members of Gryffindor, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff seemed much more ignorant.

It made sense; the muggleborns were the most affected and so they’d paid the most attention.

There seemed to be a good mix of the years, too. I saw everything from first years to seventh years. Some of it was undoubtedly Flitwick’s reputation as a duelist; a lot of people were wanting to see him in action.

As we stepped into the Great Hall, Hermione gasped at the numbers who had shown up. I tried not to look smug. Part of the reason so many people had shown up was because of our efforts at promoting it. I’d been afraid that some of the purebloods would have organized a boycott, but that hadn’t happened.

There were even a few Slytherins in the group; most of them were half-bloods. Had they come to spy on the proceedings for the others, or were they here for their own improvement?

I could see heads turning as I entered the room.

There were a lot of knowing looks on faces; at Winslow I would have been worried about another Locker, but here I figured it was something else. Everyone had to know that I would show up to something like this; it was almost inevitable.

I suspected that almost as many people were curious to see how I did as Flitwick.

“Welcome, everyone,” Flitwick said. “To the first meeting of the Inter-House Dueling club. We are open to other names, but for the moment the IDC is here to promote house unity as well as to improve the skills that every wizard should have, especially in these, dark days.”

I was surprised that he even mentioned the situation outside. A lot of the professors liked to pretend that Hogwarts was an isolated island, and that things which happened outside didn’t affect the students who were there. The fact that he was willing to admit it, even tangentially was an indicator of how bad things had gotten.

All of the students were quiet.

“We are supposed to teach the basics here,” Flitwick continued, “But there is a difference between having a basic mastery of spells and being able to use them in the heat of battle.”

Travers spoke up for the first time.

“Participation in this club will be considered extra credit for Defense against the Dark Arts,” he said. “I can think of no better way to prepare for danger than to actually face another wizard wand to wand.”

He’d proven to be a competent teacher over the past few months. He seemed to care that the children learned what they were supposed to learn, and he was good at getting the ideas across.

There were a lot of hints that he was prejudiced against muggleborns and muggles in general, but it didn’t seem to affect his grading and he seemed to be generally fair. As long as he was able to set his prejudices aside when it counted, I was willing to annoy the occasional digs that he made.

I wasn’t even sure he was always aware he was making them. It was as though he had a basic set of assumptions that he didn’t question.

Still, he was competent as a teacher, and that was important right now.

“We will organize this club by grade level. The best three in any particular grade level will be allowed to participate in the next grade up.”
I raised my hand.

“Yes Miss Hebert?” he asked.

“How far can we take that?” I asked. “Is it limited to a single grade level?”

He stared at me, considering, then said, ”If a student is able to fight above their weight class, they will be allowed to advance until they can no longer continue to advance.”
I nodded.

I saw looks from the people around me, but I ignored them. Asking the question had been risky; I suspected given my performance against the Weasleys that I might be able to score in the low third year level in a fight. There were aspects of luck to the whole thing, though, and it would be embarrassing if I found myself stuck in second year.

“We will begin with some basic combats to see where people rank,” Flitwick said. “This will help us determine each student’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Quickly, they separated us out by year. Notably, they didn’t separate us by house, something that I was pleased to see. The simmering anger between houses had lessened somewhat, but only because the professors had tamped down on incidents in the hallways hard.

Things like this that forced people to interact with each other might help to reduce that tension. It might even create an outlet for people who wanted to blast their enemies; if they were both in the club it would be a socially acceptable pressure valve.

I suspected that this was why the Headmaster and the others had decided that the club was a good idea. Keeping order in the school was very important to them, and if a little time investment here made their jobs easier elsewhere, then they would be all for it.

I watched as the first of the students lined up.

One of the reasons I’d wanted to start this club was to get a better grip on what the difference in skill levels were between different groups of wizards. Once I was able to compare my skills to others, I’d know just how much work I had to do.

“Non-lethal spells only,” Flitwick said. “These are not duels to the death. No one is to be permanently injured or maimed.”

He glanced at me and I frowned.

I hadn’t maimed anyone in months; why was he looking at me?

“Not much is expected of first years,” he said. “But that’s not a reason to slack off. Watch what the ones who go before you do, and learn from them. Wizarding combat is all about strategy. There is a muggle game called rock paper scissors; it is one that wizarding children play as well. Wizarding combat is much like that; some spells work better against some defenses than others.”

Travers spoke up.

“Wizarding combat is an unending arms race. A wizard will discover a new defense, one that is superior from whatever came before. Eventually, someone always comes up with a new attack to counter it. Some people think that is what has happened with the unforgivable; there is no defense against avadakedavra, but that does not mean there will never be.”

Technically he was wrong.

There were defenses against the killing spell; mostly they involved the same sort of defense that were used against guns; keeping something solid between you and it, and keeping cover. Talented wizards like Dumbledore would move the environment around him to use as a defense; the rest of us had to learn to dodge.

The performance of the first few First years was terrible. Most of them barely seemed to know what they were doing, even with the few vaguely useful combat spells we’d been taught.

I was pleased to see that Hermione was easily able to overcome her opponent. So was Neville.

Potter didn’t do quite as well, but he still easily outmatched his opponent. It was impressive because he hadn’t been training all semester like the rest of us.
Finally, it was my turn.

I was facing Seamus Finnegan. He was a Gryffindor and a halfblood. I didn’t know much about him except that he was always talking about quidditch.
There was a subtle look of apprehension on his face, one that he obviously tried to quell as he faced me. What did he think, that I was going to cut off his leg?

“Begin!” Flitwick shouted.

“Expelliarmus,” I said, almost casually.

The boy’s wand flew out of his hand before he could react. He scowled, but he didn’t
look too disappointed. In fact, he looked relieved.

I could hear the whispers around me about how fast I had reacted. I hadn’t even cheated using bugs. Expelliarmus wasn’t taught in our year either.

I’d had years of experience in fighting Capes. In those kinds of fights, being slow often meant being dead, unless you were lucky enough to be a brute. Even then, depending on your toughness would eventually get you in trouble. Eventually you would fight someone who was a lot stronger, or whose special attack sidestepped your defenses. If that didn’t happen, then you’d end up fighting Leviathan, and shortly after that you were dead.

The first lesson you learned as a cape was that you dodged or you were dead. It was as much a game of rock paper scissors as wizarding combat, unless you were facing a known combatant, and even then, every Cape tended to hold something back.
Sometimes it was a little used power. Sometimes it was a strategy, or a technique. Some would pretend to have limitations they didn’t actually have, all to lure an opponent into being off guard in an important moment.

So me being fast wasn’t unexpected, even without cheating. I’d been working on my speed with the Weasleys too.

Stepping aside quickly, I carefully kept my features impassive.

While I was hoping to get an accurate gauge of my classmate’s skills, I didn’t want
them to be accurate in fighting me.

We quickly went through the first rounds; that was followed by a second round in which the winners fought, and then a third.

I easily defeated my opponents.

Everyone in our group, Hermione, Millie, Tracey and Neville as well as Potter were the
only ones who were left.

Potter beat Millie. Hermione beat Neville. I easily beat Tracey.

That meant that the three of us were all moving on to fight the second years.
These fights were more interesting. The first year students hadn’t really had many spells that could be used for fighting, and so some of them had almost stood around like they didn’t know what to do.

Second year students, though, had access to two spells that were useful; expelliarmus and flipendo.

This had the virtue of being more visually interesting. Seeing wands fly through the air was fun, and occasionally seeing an entire student fly was even more fun.
Despite this, they were slow, painfully slow. I had a feeling that most of them had never faced another student in combat their entire lives, other than occasional scuffs in the hallways. Maybe even not then; most of these students were probably the ones who would have been bullied and probably had never lifted their wands in anger.
I and the other members of the study group on the other hand had been practicing for months. Even the Weasleys had gotten noticeably faster.

While the first round had been randomly assigned, likely because the professors didn’t have an accurate gauge of people’s skill levels, the second round students seemed to be more evenly matched.

Potter lost the second round, even though he gave it a good try. Unlike most of the others he at least managed to dodge, but he didn’t have the offensive spells yet to make a good show of it. He had the speed and natural reflexes though, and I guessed that he’d be very good as a duelist once he had the basic training.
Hermione won her first round.

I barely moved when I faced my opponent, stepping aside as they tried to use flipendo on me. My opponent was a pureblood, and I had assumed they would try the more humiliating option against me. It was a mistake, because that was a spell that they’d learned more recently, which meant he was slower with it.

Losing her wand in the second round, Hermione looked frustrated.

Travers had put her against a particularly strong opponent, though, one of the few second years who was known for fighting in the school halls. Even so, the fight wasn’t ended immediately, and I thought she had done rather well. It was just bad luck that the other fellow was a little faster.

My second round was against the strongest second year.

Against him, I actually had to dodge.

Still, I’d been habitually fighting against third years; I’d graduated from fighting against one of them to trying to fight against two. I hadn’t been doing well at that at all, not unless I cheated with my bugs, and I wasn’t willing to do that for multiple reasons.

Still, learning to fight multiple opponents was going to be necessary. Death Eaters weren’t going to fight you like opponents in martial arts movies where they lined up to fight one at a time.

I planned to teach my people to gang up on enemies too; basic tactics for groups in battles were something I planned to pound into their heads, at least once I could get them to respect my opinions.

Still, I was moving onto third year, and I suspected that moving past that was going to be difficult. Fourth years had access to spells that the Weasleys were only now trying to master. Still, I’d proven that I was able to fight well above my weight class.
The fights from now on would be much more interesting. It was only a matter of time before I lost, but I intended to do the best that I could.

Hopefully the fighting would help us all get better, which was going to be important in the days to come.

Although the fight against Voldemort was going fairly well, the reports of cells being found and destroyed were getting fewer and fewer. They were learning and adapting.
In a way, the battle between the Ministry and the Death Eaters was just as much of a game of rock paper scissors as individual battles were.

I was moving to the third round and I could hold my head high.

Chapter Text

Ron was worried.

He and Harry had been inseperable from the moment they'd met on the train. It had been a relationship that almost seemed destined to be.

It wasn't that Harry was famous, although that was what had made Ron introduce himself in the first place. Harry hated being famous, which was something Ron couldn't really understand. He'd lived his entire life in the shadow of his brothers, and the opportunity to stand out, to be known seemed like a gift far more than it was a burden.

It was true that a lot of people watched Harry like he was a dead man walking. Voldemort was on the rise, and the general consensus was that sooner or later he'd be coming for the Boy-Who-Lived.

That fear caused a lot of people to avoid Harry; they assumed that when Voldemort came for him he wasn't likely to be too disciminating about who he killed in the meantime.

All of that meant that Harry really didn't have anyone other than Ron. It was petty, but Ron really appreciated having someone, anyone all to himself. If that meant that eventually he'd have to face danger, well, he was a Gryffindor for a reason, wasn't he?

However, since returning from winter break, things had been different between them. Harry had been distant, and he'd been secretive. He kept sneaking off so that no one knew where to find him.

He had shown Ron his invisibility cloak, and so it was possible that he was simply sneaking around in it, but there had been a time where he would have done that with Ron too.

Ron found himself wondering if he'd done something to offend the other boy. When he was around Ron, Harry acted perfectly natural, but there was something about his expression that almost seemed haunted.

It couldn't have been the war, because for once, things seemed to actually be going right. Death Eater enclaves were falling right and left, and Ron's dad seemed to think that the war itself might be over by the end of summer.

The possibility that Harry might be seeing a girl worried Ron. He'd seen how some of his older brothers got when they were infatuated, and it was like their brains fell out of their head.

He'd never be that stupid. Girls were disgusting, and the only reason to bother with them at all was because you had to.

Everything had become clear though one day when Ron had managed to follow Harry. He'd seen him talking to the Hebert girl, and they'd been standing close together.

Was Harry an idiot?

Of all the girls in school, he had to fall for the one girl who was known to be completely mental. The fact that she was a Slytherin was enough not to date her; Slytherins were untrustworthy, and they lied a lot. They were cowardly, too, most of them. They'd attack from behind instead of head to head like any reasonable person.

Not this one, though.

She was as vicious as a Nundu, and by all reputes would happily maim someone just for looking at her wrong.

Even worse, people were saying that Voldemort wanted her dead almost as much as Harry. That doubled the size of the target on his back.

When Harry declared that he was joining the new Dueling club, Ron had understood. Harry was going to have to fight Death Eaters sooner or later, and getting better sooner might mean that he lived just a little longer.

So Ron, being Ron, had joined up too.

He hadn't lasted past the first round. It wasn't surprising, really. He'd been more concerned with playing Gobstones than paying attention to his homework. That didn't make him that much different than most of his classmates, except that the ones who joined the dueling club tended to be a little better than everyone else.

What was surprising was just how much better Harry had done even though he knew barely any spells that would help him.

The scary thing though was Hebert.

She was utterly relaxed, showing none of the tension any of the others showed, and she was fast. Harry was fast too, but his speed was undirected.

Hebert moved like she knew what she was doing. She made beating her opponents look easy, almost as though she was bored.

“She's fantastic,” Harry said, moving beside him.

“You said she was barmy before Christmas Break,” Ron said, staring at him.

Harry looked at him. “I spent some time talking to her over the break. She helped me with a few things. She's not nearly as bad as people say.”

“What things?” Ron demanded. “What could she have possibly helped you with that would change your mind this much?”

A cagey look came over Harry's face. “She's just a lot more open minded than I would have expected.”

“I don't even know what that means!” Ron said. “She beats people up, like all the time.”

“You can't tell me you wouldn't be beating people up if you had to live with the Slytherins,” Harry said. “Especially Malfoy.”

Malfoy surprisingly hadn't been as insufferable over the past few months as he had been in the past, but he was still a git. Ron had had to deal with him when he was younger and he'd been intolerable.

Now though he was just a constant irritant. He didn't brag as much about his father, but that didn't mean he didn't made snide comments whenever he thought he could get away with it.

“You know the best way not to have to live with the Slytherins?” Ron aaked. “Don't be a Slytherin!”

“The Hat didn't give her a choice,” Harry said defensively. “She says she asked for Hufflepuff.”

“Her?” Ron asked incredulously. “She'd have murdered them all in their sleep the first night. The Slytherins are the only thing keeping her from taking over the entire school!”

Harry shrugged. “Maybe... but she's fantastic at dueling.”

Harry was talking about dueling the way he usually talked about Quidditch. Ron had a sinking feeling that meant this wasn't going to be a one time thing.

Harry was probably going to be good at it, like he was good at everything else. He'd been pushing Ron to work harder, but Ron had been resisting. Why work harder than you had to; unless you were in a few, select professions, graduating with good grades didn't get you a better job than graduating with poor ones.

They weren't ever going to have an opportunity to enjoy themselves like this again. Once they were adults, they'd work in a dreary government job, or work in a shop. If they were barmy, they'd get jobs as an auror; that seemed likely the path that Harry would take. He'd already saved Wizarding Britain once, why wouldn't he keep doing it?

It was probably more interesting than the other limited options available, but the danger wasn't wortth it. Ron had seen Mad Eyed Moody once, talking with his father, and he'd seen what happened to aurors.

People like Granger and the Ravenclaws were mental; they worked hard for something that didn't mean anything in the end. Nobody cared about grades once school was over.

If Harry loved doing this, Ron would follow, and that meant a lot of work was up ahead.

“Where'd she learn that?” Harry asked.

Spells were bouncing off of an area in front of the witch, and everyone in the room was stepping back as the spells were reflected in every direction.

Flitwick stepped up beside them.

“She's doing really well, isn't she, boys?”

Ron looked at him. “Are we supposed to be learning that this year?”

“No,” Flitwick said. He sounded almost gleeful. “She's a little sloppy in her wandwork, but at this age, it's astounding. I'd almost think that she'd been doing this for months.”

 

As her opponant, a rather competent Ravenclaw girl went flying through the air, they all winced.

“I suspect Madam Pomfrey is going to have her hands full tonight,” Flitwick said. “Well, you can't have a duel without breaking a few eggs.”

Ron wondered if by eggs he meant someone's head. The man had once had a reputation as a vicious duelist.

“Now you, Mr. Potter have a natural talent for this,” Flitwick said. “And should you choose to pursue it, I suspect you may go far. You may be able to catch up with Miss Hebert sooner than later if you apply yourself.”

He slapped Harry on the back, and Harry looked stunned.

“Thank you, sir,” he said.

Ron felt something ugly deep within him. He'd never envied Harry his fame, not once he'd seen just what it had cost him. He had envied everything else.

School seemed to come easy for him; Ron had to work twice as hard for half the result. Girls liked him, although it mystified Ron as to why he would want them to.

Was this another thing that Ron would be overshadowed in?

No.

Ron had been in the shadow of other people all his life. He was sick and tired of it.

“I'm going to try too,” Ron spoke up suddenly.

“That's very good,” Flitwick said absently. He didn't appear to even be listening.

Anger burned in Ron's gut.

“The Winners of the third year combat are the Weasley Twins and Taylor Hebert,” Travers called out.

Even the twins were good at this; they'd demolished their opponents without even trying. Was everybody Ron knew an expert at this kind of stuff?

“For the fourth round,” Travers said. “I would like Taylor Hebert and George Weasley to stand up.”

So one of them would be forced to lose. Ron felt conflicted.

Hebert was untrustworthy, a Slytherin, someone who was trying to take his best friend away. He suspected that she didn't even care that much about Harry.

She never even looked at him, although the truth was that she hardly ever looked at anyone. It was part of what made her so creepy. She always seemed to know where everyone was without looking.

Yet the twins had tormented them throughout his childhood. He wouldn't want something bad to happen to one of them, but seeing them taken down a peg or two wouldn't bother him one bit.

It was probably best to treat it as a win no matter who won.

At that decision, Ron felt himself cheering considerably. It didn't matter who won, not really. Someone was going to be humiliated that wasn't him, and that was a win in his book.

“Begin!” Travers called out.

Both combatants bowed very low toward each other.

Ron suspected that Harry didn't understand the meaning of the bow; he hadn't grown up in the Wizarding world. The depth of the bow was an indicator of a wizard's respect for his opponent. A deep bow, like both were giving now was indicative of a great deal of respect. Opponents who hated each other would barely nod.

The crowd around them burst into murmurs.

They were acknowledging each other as equals? Ron would have expected a mocking flourish from George, something to indicate that the little firstie wasn't realy on his level.

Even stranger, Hebert had barely bowed at all for any of her previous opponents. Most people would have attributed that to her being a muggleborn and not knowing any better, but this indicated that maybe she did.

Had she had training somewhere?

While dueling wasn't Ron's favorite sport, he'd watched as much of it as any other pureblood. He knew the basics, at least.

“What?” Harry was asking him, pulling on his shirt. “Why's everybody talking?”

“It's the bow, mate,” Ron muttered.

Both of the combatants got into the accepted combat positions. Hebert was crouched low, lower than most duelists; presumably she thought that presented less of her to be a target. George was in a more classical pose.

Both combatants simply stared at each other for a long moment, and then they began throwing spells at each other. Both were using shields and spells were bouncing off right and left.

George was using stunners, which was a spell Ron thought wasn't supposed to be taught until fourth year. Hebert was responding, shouting out “Flipendo!” and “Expelliarmus!”

Both of them were running around, dodging despite having shields up. Ron supposed it was possible that having spells hit shields took energy of some kind; if not, why try to dodge spells? That would leave you out of breath and more vulnerable.

Everybody cursed as George threw a bunch of sand onto the floor and then used a spell to cause it to spray across the battlefield. Hebert ducked and rolled, and George followed up by throwing something onto the floor.

The floor began to melt and sink into some kind of swamp. Hebert immediately sank into the swamp and her movements slowed.

An angry expression appeared on her face, and she immediately dropped down into the swamp until only the top of her head was above the edge of the water. She continued to cast spells at George, but not her shield spell didn't have to cover much.

It was over eventually, although it took a lot longer than any six of the other duels. Hebert hit George with a tickling charm, and then used a summoning charm on his wand. As she strode out of the swamp, she kept hitting George with the tickling charm as he rolled on the floor laughing.

“Miss Hebert!” Flitwick called out sharply.

She turned toward him, her robes soaked and stinking. She looked angry.

“Mr. Weasley has forfeited his place by using an item in a duel. You have won. Perhaps you would like to return to your rooms and get cleaned up.”

She frowned, then nodded.

The professors spent the next thirty minutes trying to dispel the portable swamp, but nothing they did worked. The Twins didn't know how to reverse it either, and for once Ron believed them.

“She just dropped down inside it,” Harry said. “Used it as cover!”

“I thought girls were supposed to be all worried about how they looked,” Ron muttered.

Harry shook his head. “I don't think she cares, realy. Isn't duelling great?”

Harry only thought that because he'd never been around it before. Ron had known about it al his life, and so it seemed like old hat to him. Presumably the shine would wear off for Harry too, but probably not before Ron had been dragged to all sorts of events.

Eventually Flitwick transfigured a section of stone floor over the portable swamp. Once it had settled in the duels resumed.

The next duels went by in a flash. Ron couldn't help but watch Harry instead of the duels.

Harry's eyes were shining.

It wasn't Hebert that had him so excited. It was the duels. Ron had a feeling that Harry was going to admire anyone who was good at them, much as Ron would admire a great Quidditch player. It didn't matter that most Wizards never got into a fight in their entire life once school was over; what mattered was being able to beat your opponent in as flashy a manner as possible.

Potter was watching every duel with an intesity that Ron had never seen before, and he could almost see him learning from every one. Potter kept muttering to himself as one after the other students made mistakes.

“Watch your footing,” he muttered to himself as one girl stumbled, only to be hit by a stunner.

As another boy was surprised by a flash of light that left al of them blinded, he muttered something that Ron couldn't understand.

Looking across the room, Ron saw that the Hebert girl was watching with almost the same intensity. For once, she was using her eyes; she watched every fight like a hawk, and it was like she was assessing everyone who fought, one after the other.

Hermione, beside her was taking copious notes. Ron wondered if she was doing it at the request of the Slytherin, or because she was simply that obsessed with learning.

“Taylor Hebert, and Cassius Warrington,” Travers called out.

Warrington was one of the few pure blooded Slytherins who'd chosen to join; from the look in his eyes it was because he had a bone to pick with Hebert, and he was choosing to do it here, where he wouldn't wake up in the middle of the night with her standing over him with a bloody sock.

He'd been friends with Avery, from what Ron had heard, and he'd tried telling everyone in the school that Hebert should be expelled.

Ron felt himself leaning forward, even as Harry started pulling him back. The lackluster nature of a lot of the duels had been boring him; mostly they didn't last long, and then one person lost. A grudge match, though, that was likely to get nasty, and there was a high likelyhood that someone was going to try to cheat.

They were both Slytherins, after all.

“Bow,” Travers said.

The nods they gave each other were almost imperceptible. It was obvious that Hebert knew who the boy was. Despite that, she was standing loosely, as though she wasn't worried about him attacking.

It was a deliberate insult, and Ron could see the realization of that on Warrington's face. The boy scowled, and his expression turned ugly.

Beside him, Harry seemed oblivious to the byplay. He was watching their wands and their feet and didn't seem to notice anything else.

“Begin,” Travers said.

They did.

Chapter Text

Warrington.

I had very little respect for him. At least the Slytherins who had attacked me earlier in the semester has done so directly. They'd had the courage to at least risk getting into trouble, even if they were only attacking a little girl.

Theirs was a casual kind of cruelty; still cowardly, but at least they'd done something about it.

Warrington had been Avery's friend, but he hadn't done anything about it other than run his mouth all semester. I'd ignored it, because the only people he'd been talking to had been the people who already hated me.

Letting him talk had actually been useful; I'd listened to the responses of the people he'd been talking to. Some had been enthusiastic about feeding into his delusions. Others had been more reticent, and some had rejected him altogether.

I'd considered those last to be the people to watch the most, because they were likely the smartest of the group. The fact that he'd approached them in the first place meant that he'd thought they'd be receptive to what he had to say. He wasn't brave enough to try to change the minds of people who would actually resist him.

He'd preach to the choir, but standing in front of the congregation was too much for him.

If he'd been smarter, he'd have actively been trying to undermine my reputation. He could have spread rumors, made accusations, caused all kinds of trouble for me. Instead he'd just been petty and whiny, saying enough to make people think he was loyal to Avery without actually doing anything.

So he was stepping up now?

He looked angry, and his face was red, which didn't bode well for a professional, dispassionate match. I hadn't done anything recently to make him more angry, so I wasn't sure what had set him off.

Travers called out, and the match was started.

Warringron stared at me, then smirked. He pointed his wand at the floor and mumbled something that I couldn't hear over the sounds of the students talking.

Blue light exploded all around us even as symbols appeared on the floor.

“I've spent the last couple of weeks every night on my knees creating this,” he said. “It's based on the charms that protect Hogwarts in times of danger.”

I couldn't hear anything from outside the blue force field, not with my ears anyway, although my connection with my bugs told me that Flitwick and Travers were trying to bring the field down, without success.

“Some friends of my father showed me how to do this,” he continued. He smiled grimly. “All so that we could spend some quality time together.”

I ducked as Warrington pointed his wand at me and a ball of fire exploded from his wand. I quickly put up a shield, and I attempted to grab his wand magically.

The fire bounced off my shield and struck the inside of the blue wall separating us from everyone else. It bounced off that wall, and it fizzled out.

“Expelliarmus!” I called out.

I didn't expect it to actually do anything; he seemed to have some experience in fighting unlike my other opponents other than George. I was right, he stepped aside and launched another ball of fire at me. My shield this time defected it up toward the ceiling, and despite the scene of the open sky above, we felt plaster raining down.

Warrington then tried to hit my legs with a jelly legs jinx; undoubtedly he was hoping to keep me from moving to set me up for something much nastier.

I easily stepped aside.

“I'm not trapped in here with you,” I said. I stared at him. “You've trapped yourself in here with me.”

“You can't bluff your way out of this one, mudblood,” he said. “I don't know what trick you used to murder my father, but it won't work on me.”

“What's the matter?” I called out, as another gout of flame shot past me. I stepped to the side as it struck where my back would have been. “Can't hit a mudblood?”

He cast stunners at me; several of them bounced off the wall behind me, and I had to be careful not to be hit in the back by one. I kept my eyes firmly focused on him, and used my bugs to keep an eye on what was happening behind me.

His face was growing increasingly red and sullen, his expression determined. There was something ugly in his expression. I hadn't seen that on the face of another student since the early days of my schooling here.

I had no idea what he was talking about. I hadn't done anything to him since I'd put Avery in the hospital, certainly not enough to warrant this kind of anger.

“My father is dead,” he said. “And you are going to pay.” There were tears in his eyes, as well as a look of undiluted hatred. He launched something dark at me, something that I didn't recognize. I stepped out of the way, and then I dropped to the ground as it whipped around behind me and tried to attack me from behind.

He meant to kill me. I'd known that from the moment he'd lifted the barrier, but I hadn't known why. Had his father been one of the Death Eaters who had attacked us in the forest? The Wizarding world was so deeply inbred that it was almost certain that those men had relatives who went to school here.

I'd been stupid not to try to find out who they were; I'd need to be on guard against their children. While most people knew better than to try to fight against me, a grieving family member might not care about the consequences. They wouldn't care about being hurt or expelled, only that the person who had ruined their lives was eliminated.

If I let this continue, he was only going to escalate, and sooner or later he was going to hurt someone.

“Your father killed himself, you know,” I said.

“He did not! My father's friends told me what happened.”

“What, that he was out working for the Death Eaters, trying to murder a could of eleven year old children? That was brave.”

“Shut up!” he screamed. He screamed and more fire exploded out of his wand in my direction.

I lashed out with a cutting spell; it flew past him and bounced off the blue wall. It hit him low in the back and he screamed and stumbled.

He died like a little bitch,” I continued, “Crying and begging like the rest of you cowards.”

I wouldn't have said something like that in front of the crowd if they could hear what I was saying.

He screamed and lunged toward me, throwing fireball after fireball. I ducked and dodged, and I returned fire, slashing out at him with diffindo spells. I caught him on the calf, and he began bleeding heavily. Blood loss would slow him down eventually, the only question was whether or not he would get lucky before that happened.

I grinned at him, although I didn't let it reach my eyes.

“Can't even hit a mudblood,” I said. “Wouldn't daddy be proud?”

He cast several spells that left slices in the floor when I deflected them. It was only a matter of time before he tried a spell that I didn't know the counter for. I wouldn't put it past him to try the Killing Curse, and from what I'd heard those slid through shields like a knife through hot butter.

It was time to end this.

He was tiring and I took the opportunity to lash out. “Accio shoes.”

I'd just learned this spell, and I was happy for a chance to use it. As Warrington's shoes jerked toward me, he lost his footing, and he fell on his rear end. He started to slide toward me.

He dismissed the spell, and his face red, he cast another spell from the ground.

Two snakes appeared and came slithering toward me. While I couldn't assume that they were poisonous, I had to assume they were.

He was staring up at me closely, presumably to see if I was terrified. I couldn't imagine how he would possibly think that; hadn't he lived in the same dorm as me for the past few months? Did he really think that a couple of snakes would be what made me quiver in terror?

I considered my options. I could try to speak to the snakes, but I only knew a few words, and these things were conjured. Were they actually snakes at all, or were they simple projections? If they were projections, all my speaking would do was waste time and let them get within striking range.

It was better not to take the chance. I flicked my wand, and I said “Aqua Eructo!”

I focused my will, and a jet of water exploded from my wand, striking the snakes and driving them back. I stepped forward. The snakes kept trying to move around the jet of water, but every time it hit them it sent them flying.

Finally, they collided with the boy, and then I hit him with the water jet directly between the legs. I could see the snakes lashing out and biting him repeatedly as he frantically tried to dismiss them.

“Scourgify,” I said coldly.

I hit him in the face, and the spell began to scrub away at his skin. It had never been meant to be used on flesh, and it was painful to say the least. He screamed and tried to turn away, but this just left me scrubbing at the back of his head.

“Avis,” I said, as he was hiding his face with his arm.

I'd been interested in this spell because it was the closest thing to my normal method of operating that Wizards had; summoning creatures to use against your enemies.

“Avis, Avis, Avis,” I said.

He was trying to dispel the birds that were increasingly pecking at his body. As I cast the spell over and over again, a massive swarm of birds appeared. They pecked over and over at his body. Welts and blood began to appear on his body. He flailed around and screamed, and I easily pulled the wand from his hand with magic.

“Densaugeo,” I said.

His teeth began to grow, and I leaned down toward him, watching as they grew larger and larger. They were already inhumanly large, and as I focused my will they grew even larger than that. By now he looked like a caricature of himself, almost like a cartoon character.

I was barely aware of the sounds of the crowd reappearing as the blue wall surrounding us went down. Apparently whatever Flitwick and Travers had come up with had worked, finally. I was too focused on the boy in front of me to even notice, other than peripherally.

“This can kill, you know,” I said. “If I keep letting your teeth grow, eventually they will pierce the top of your skull and into your brain. You'll be aware of it every second, and it will be a painful way to die.”

It was only then that I realized that my voice had carried across the room. The students were so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.

“Miss Hebert!” I heard Flitwick say, sounding shocked. The next thing I knew I was being pulled off my feet and levitated into the air, my wand flying out of my hand.

My hand darted toward my fanny pack until I realized that it was Flitwick who was holding me up in the air with magic, and then I stopped.

“Miss Hebert and Mr. Warrington have both been disqualified,” he said firmly. “And both have forfeited their match.”

He dismissed my swarm of birds after letting me down.

“Are you all right, Miss Hebert?” he asked in a low voice.

I looked up at him. “Why wouldn't I be? I hadn't had someone try to kill me in a couple of weeks, so it was about time.”

“You lost control of yourself for a moment there.”

“I didn't,” I said. “I just needed to make a point. I knew that you or Professor Travers would stop me.”

I was lying out of my ass, but I needed Flitwick's approval. He didn't seem like the type who would be all right with making a schoolboy's teeth grow until they exploded through the top of his head.

“You could have been more gentle with him,” he said.

“No I couldn't,” I said.

“You understand why I had to disqualify you,” he said. “I did ask that you not maim anyone. I suspect that you could have stopped him without doing what you did.”

I saw that the youngest Weasley was staring at me. He leaned close to Potter and said “I told you mate.”

Fourth year was fine with me; they were or at least would be good enough that I'd have a workout, but not so good that they'd be regularly beating me. The kids in the higher grades were learning to cast spells non-verbally, which was going to be a nightmare for someone like me, who was just learning.

Finding a spot where I was at was a win as far as I was concerned.

“Do you think I should allow you to continue, Miss Hebert?” he asked, watching me closely. “If these matches arouse your bloodlust too much, perhaps it would be better if you watch from the sidelines.”

“No, no,” I said. “I don't mind an honest match. But if someone tries to kill me, I take a dim view of that.”

“Do you know why he tried to kill you?”

I leaned forward and spoke quietly in his ear. “He seems to think that killed his father.”

He frowned. “Why would he think that, Miss Hebert?”

I shrugged. “It might have something to do with the....incident over break.”

He stared at me for a moment, and then his lips tightened. He'd been one of the few who'd gotten the full story of what had happened. Most of my teachers had been told, if only because they were trusted and because they needed to know what to watch out for.

After all, if the Death Eaters had attacked once, it was possible that they might attack again.

Some of the teachers hadn't been told. The Divination teacher didn't know; whether that was because they thought she couldn't be trusted or because they thought she wouldn't be competent enough to protect us I didn't know.

What mattered was that Flitwick knew.

There were people nearby who were trying to listen in while not being obvious about it. The only ones who were close enough to possibly hear my voice were Potter and Weasley. Hopefully Potter could keep Weasley in check.

Flitwick took a deep breath and looked at the destruction around the Great Hall.

“We're going to have to clarify the rules,” he said. “And find better ways to protect those who are watching. We will take a thirty minute intermission while we deal with Mr. Warrington's injuries.”

He quickly assigned three seventh years, including a prefect to take Warrington to the Hospital Ward. His legs were already swelling up and turning black from the snake venom. Apparently whatever snake he had chosen to conjure was highly venomous.

Furthermore, his breath was whistling in his lungs. He was sweating and he was convulsing.

From the look on Flitwick's face, this wasn't the normal response to a bite from one of these snakes. Apparently Warrington had changed the spell somehow, and had made it much more dangerous and possibly lethal.

Flitwick insisted on having Travers accompany the boys floating the body to the Hospital Wing. Likely he would have liked to have done it himself, but with his short legs he would have slowed them down.

“This isn't an auspicious beginning,” he muttered.

“That's what he meant for me,” I said quietly.

“I have no issues with your performance,” he said. “You are brilliant at combat. I worry about the streak of cruelty. I only wish that it had not come to this.”

For a moment he looked as though he was reconsidering the very idea of the dueling club. Having the club end before it had even started wasn't my plan, not at all.

“This is exactly why we're here,” I said, and I realized that my voice was carrying further than I'd meant it to as the entire room had gone silent.

I looked around at everyone. I might as well continue.

“Sooner or later, all of us are going to be facing snakes coming at us in the night. It might not be this year, and it might not be in school, but it's coming. We aren't here because this is fun, although it is. We aren't here for the glory, although there is glory to be found. We're here because this is what is going to keep us alive.”

Everyone was staring at me, including Flitwick.

His lips tightened, and he nodded.

“Quite right, Miss Hebert,” he said. “We will move on to the final three years once Mr. Warrington is sorted out.”

Flitwick had a discussion with Travers once he returned, and it was decided to finish up the matches, since the students still seemed interested despite the danger.

From the looks on some of their faces, I suspected that the danger only made them more interested. This was no longer a club where people did even more classwork. It was more like watching NASCAR; most of the fun was in waiting to see if someone crashed and burned.

Hopefully that wouldn't be me.

Chapter Text

“Mr. Warrington is dead,” Snape said.

It had been a week since the disastrous first duelling club session, and Warrington had been transferred to Saint Mungos. I was now in the Headmaster's office, facing Dumbledore, Snape and the Auror Moody.

“I had nothing to do with it,” I said quickly. “He basically killed himself.”

“That's what you say about everyone who dies around you, isn't it?” Moody said. He stared at me with his human eye, while his mechanical eye whirled wildly.

I shrugged.

“You aren't bothered by his death?” Dumbledore asked.

“Should I be?” I asked. “In America, when people try to kill you defending yourself is allowed. I didn't do anything that would kill him, so why should I feel guilt?”

I frowned.

“How did he die?”

“The snakes were summoned from elsewhere,” Moody said. “They had curses inscribed on them that made their venom impervious to wizardly healing. The boy died in pain.”

“He meant that for me,” I said quietly. “The Death Eaters meant that for me.”

“It was perhaps a message,” Dumbledore said. “One intended to encourage you to become more circumspect in your dealings.”

“I AM circumspect!” I said. “I hadn't hurt anybody in months before Christmas.”

“I'm not sure you understand what circumspect means,” Moody said. “You take more risks than a Gryffindor.”

“Did the boy say anything to you?” Moody asked.

“He said his father's friends taught him to make the circle. I'm assuming they taught him some of the other spells as well. Considering that the Death Eaters are the only people I've killed recently, I'm assuming his father was a Death Eater.”

“Recently?” Moody asked, leaning toward me.

I rolled my eyes. “It's an expression. I'm eleven. How many people do you possibly think I could have killed?”

“I don't know,” Moody said. “Why don't you tell me?”

“Less than you,” I lied. “The important question is whether this was an escalation, or just them trying to save face given what's been happening recently.”

“I'd have thought the first question on your mind would be whether you are being charged or not.” Moody said.

“For defending myself in front of fifty witnesses?” I asked. I shook my head. “And if you were going to arrest me, I think you'd have brought more aurors.”

“You think I need help bringing in a pipsqueak like you?”

“I think you know I wouldn't go down without a fight,” I said. “And that I'd fight back even if Dumbledore here was trying to take me in.”

I likely wouldn't stand a chance, not with the three of them standing in front of me, but I might be able to escape if I revealed my only trump card, my insects. The weather was starting to warm up, and I'd been intentionally breeding as many of them as I could in the out of the way places in the castle.

The number of bugs I could control was growing toward my old levels, although my multitasking still wasn't what it had once been. Also, while there were a lot of bugs in Hogwarts, it wasn't nearly the number that could be found in a shithole like Brockton Bay.

He stared at me for a moment, then nodded.

“There's some people in the Ministry who want to press charges, but they're clearly biased toward the Pureblood faction. The liberals still have control of the Wizengamot, and so nothing is going to be done.”

That was probably going to irritate more than a few people, but it didn't bother me.

“I'm assuming that I'm still not a big priority for the Death Eaters,” I said. “Since they're still using these low cost low risk strategies against me.”

“Oh?” Snape asked.

“Getting an idiot kid to do their work for them isn't a strategy that is likely to work. But what did it cost them? Spend an hour teaching a kid a few spells.... if he fails, then he wasn't a member of the team anyway. Maybe he gets lucky and succeeds. Maybe the girl kills him and she ends up in prison... these are cheap attacks that remind people that the Death Eaters are still relevant, even though they are currently on the run.”

“You sound like you admire them,” Moody said.

“I admire good strategy,” I said.

“And what would you do, were you leading the Death Eaters?” Moody asked.

“I wouldn't attack anyone at all,” I said. “I'd have my people start using the Imperius on everyone who was anyone in the government. Do the same to the people running the papers. The Wizarding world seems to be fairly credulous, so whoever controls the Ministry and the papers pretty much controls the country.”

It was the nightmare the Protectorate had worried about incessantly. People who were under the control of Masters couldn't be trusted. There was a reason that Master-Stranger protocols had been invented.

“It wouldn't be as easy as that,” Moody growled.

I shrugged.

“You have contingency plans for when people fail to control someone,” I said. I almost said that there were ways to make people disappear, but I saw Moody watching me closely, and so I chose to stay quiet.

“Most aspiring dark lords end up in Azkaban or dead before they get very far,” Moody said. “It's not a profession to be envied.”

“Because your own minions are always jockeying for your position and you can't trust anyone not to stab you in the back?” I asked. “Or because you've set yourself against the entire Wizarding world?”

“Both,” he said.

I frowned.

“Well, I'm not planning to become a Dark Lady, so there is no reason to worry,” I said loftily.

For some reason not one of the three seemed convinced. I felt a moment of irritation.

It had been harder to keep my temper lately. I worried a little; was it my new brain and new hormones making it harder to regulate things, or was it simply a function of being eleven years old and having more trouble controlling myself.

Or was it something deeper?

I'd seen heroes who'd been in fights with the Slaughterhouse, and sometimes there were long term effects. Post traumatic stress wasn't a pretty thing, and sometimes it took effect as anger; soldiers felt fear as often as anyone else, but they learned to focus it as anger. However, sometimes that fear manifested long after the danger had passed.

Did I need some kind of psychological treatment? Possibly.

Unfortunately there was no way I could trust any counselor in this world, muggle or not. I had too many secrets, and in a world where every wizard could mind control people with a flick of their wand, no counselor would be safe.

Discovering what I was might well be enough to have be declared a non-human, and I wasn't sure what rights I might have at that point. I was fairly certain that I would no longer be allowed to carry a wand, which would be the end of me.

Worse, if my bug control was discovered, then any adult wizard, and half the students at Hogwarts would be able to work around my defenses. I'd be dead within a month.

I wouldn't be able to get psychological treatment until my enemies were dead.

“Are they likely to come after me again soon?” I asked. “Because the smart play would be to attack when nobody expects it.”

“I doubt that he really cared if you died or not,” Moody said. “This was just a way of keeping his people in the limelight. It's well known that the Death Eaters don't like you; you've put your head in the noose too many times for it not to be noticed. In the bigger scheme of things, though, he's got a lot more to worry about than you.”

“We'll stay vigilant just in case we are wrong, Miss Hebert,” Dumbledore said. “I will do everything in my power to keep you safe.”

“Have you found people for me to stay with over the summer then?” I asked. “Because it's only a couple of months away now.”

“I have,” Dumbledore said. “But I will keep it to myself. I trust my own occlumency, but leaving something that important to others would be foolish at this point.”

“You could tell me,” I said.

Knowing who I was to stay with would give me a chance to research them, and that would give me a chance to figure out how to work around them. It was frustrating being a child. In some ways Hogwarts was wonderful; in other ways it was like a prison.

“You have natural talent as an occlumens,” Dumbledore said. “But it is inconsistent. I'm sure you would prefer not to face death eaters the moment you step off the train.”

I stared at him.

“Why don't we do that?” I asked.

“What?”

“I've pissed enough people off that there will likely be at least a few people waiting on the platform when we leave school. Avery is likely to be one of them, and he's probably mid-rank in the organization. With luck, they'll be more people there waiting to murder Potter.”

“With Luck?” Moody asked.

“There are two ways to deal with an ambush,” I said. “Well, three actually. You can avoid it entirely. You can ambush the ambusher, or you can power through it. The train station is a place you know Death Eaters will be waiting.”

“Why are you so sure of that?” Dumbledore asked.

“Because Tom's organization is flailing right now,” I said. “I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't losing members.... not the core fanatics, but the people on the outside. No terrorist organization can survive without help from the population. That's probably somewhat less true in the Wizarding world, but I'll bet there's a lot of sympathizers among the regular wizard.”

The three of them glanced at each other.

“He needs a win,” I said. “Something big to convince his followers that he's still relevant. Where better to attack than the train station.”

“The place will be crawling with aurors,” Moody growled.

“What do you want to bet that half of them get mind controlled or mysteriously reassigned right before school lets out?” I asked. “If he manages to kill me or Potter, he doesn't even have to make a big scene. It'll send the message that even in one of the safest places in Wizarding Britain that the Death Eaters can reach anyone.”

“And there are wizards who will join up like sheep just because they are afraid,” Moody said.

“I won't allow it,” Dumbledore said.

“What?”

“You are talking about using yourself as bait,” he said. “I am not willing to take that risk, and for the moment I am your de facto guardian.”

“There may never be another chance to make as big a strike on his organization,” I said. “The raids on his safehouses are already tapering off, and he's only going to gain strength over the next year. He won't be nearly as desperate next year.”

Moody stared at me with an unfriendly look.

“This isn't how a child your age should think,” he said.

“I had a tough childhood,” I said. “And it hasn't really changed all that much since I came here. It's actually calmer here than back at home.”

“And America isn't a steaming pile of rubble,” Moody asked.

“Well, I didn't know magic then,” I said. “And there are limits to what a young girl can do.”

I frowned.

“Are there citizenchip limits to who can be Minister for Magic?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Moody asked.

“Well, in the states you have to be a natural born citizen to become president. Is it the same here?”

“No,” Dumbledore said. “That would be covered in third year History of Magic.”

“Never happened though,” Moody said. “Won't happen either. Nobody would elect a foreigner.”

“Why do you ask?' Snape asked suddenly.

“No reason,” I said. I smiled innocently.

I was needling them for my own amusement. I had no intention of becoming Minister for Magic, but the look on Snape's face made it all worth it.

“Perhaps it is time for you to go back to class,” Dumbledore said.

I nodded.

“Be careful,” Moody said. “No place is safe!”

“Constant vigilance!” I replied, grinning at him.

I'd heard him muttering that a time or two, and the look on his face was worth it too.

As I left, I heard him muttering to the others, “That girl isn't right.”

I listened to their discussion as I headed toward class. I kept an eye on my surroundings too; no point in getting murdered because I wasn't watching where I was going.

I saw Hermione running up.

“What did they want?” she asked.

“Warrington is dead,” I said. “The snake venom was cursed so it couldn't be healed.”

Her eyes went wide.

“Dead?”

I nodded.

“That doesn't upset you?”

“Considering that he meant for me to get bitten, it does,” I said. “His being dead bothers me less than you might think though. It was really the Death eaters who killed him.”

She frowned.

I continued. “They sent him after me unprepared. I think they meant for me to kill him, so that I'd get sent to Azkaban.”

Her eyes widened again.

“Are you?” she asked.

“I'd be moving a lot faster if I was,” I said. “It was a clear case of self defense, and the Death eaters don't have the votes yet to overrule that.”

“Yet?”

“They're using the Imperius Curse on the aurors,” I said. “It's only a matter of time before they go after the members of the Wizengamot. Having their own people declared innocent will get them a lot of power.”

Truthfully, the only way to stop the Death eaters was going to be to kill as many of them as possible, and then cut the head off the snake. Given their ability to control people, their organization now was a lot like a hydra; cut one head off and two heads appeared in their place.

Hermione still seemed dazed at the news that Warrington was dead.

It had probably all seemed like a game to her before now. She hadn't been around for most of the attacks on me. She'd heard about them, but not even all of those; nobody knew about Filch, and the only ones who knew about the Death Eater attacks were probably the Death Eater children.

She's watched the fight between me and Warrington though, and no a boy she'd known was dead.

“We're adding some new members to the study group,” I said.

Now that the dueling club was a thing, the Weasleys were enjoying their new status as the crack duelers of their year. They wanted to work even harder to stay ahead of everyone else.

“Who?' she asked.

“Potter,” I said. “And the youngest Weasley.”

“Him?' she asked disdainfully.

I shrugged. “Potter, George and Fred think they can keep him under control.”

“He's got a big mouth,” she said.

“It's not quite as important that we keep it secret as it was before,” I said. “That's not to say I want anybody blabbing. But if he does start bragging to people, we'll find ways to deal with it.”

“He won't like how you deal with it, will he?” she asked. Hermione sounded almost gleeful.

She had a mean streak buried deep down; possibly it was the reason that we got along as well as we did. For all that she liked to pretend to be a good girl, she had a ruthless nature that I sometimes felt a little guilty for exploiting.

In a better world, Hermione would have been allowed to get through school unmolested. She would have sunk or swam with her own charm. In all likelihood, she'd have kept her head down, made good grades, and then become successful in the Wizarding World. She might have been Minister for Magic.

However, this wasn't a world where she could afford to be a normal schoolgirl. She was going to have to fight in one fashion or another, sooner or later. Whether it was when Death eaters showed up at her door, or when they assaulted Hogwarts as the last stronghold in a Wizarding Britain that had otherwise been conquered, it was going to happen.

Helping her, and others like her learn to stay alive, that I couldn't regret. And if that took a certain degree of ruthlessness, then I'd foster that too.

There was all the time in the world to foster her gentler nature once Voldemort and his servants were dead and in the ground.

I'd put the idea in Dumbledore's head. While he was holding out based on morality, I suspected that Moody was a lot more pragmatic.

There would be complications, of course. Operational security was paramount. If the enemy learned that you planned to ambush their ambushers, they'd likely ambush you in return. That meant that operations would be limited to Moody and his team, and I had no idea how large that group was.

Moody probably kept them separate from everyone else; otherwise he was risking someone suffering from the Imperius.

Sooner or later they'd follow my plan, and maybe we'd finally be able to cut the head off the snake once and for all.

Chapter Text

“I think they were just being nice,” Hermione said anxiously.

I was staring at the two cards in front of me with consternation. Neville and Potter had both sent me Valentine's day cards.

“Neville sent me one too,” she said. She frowned. “Does that mean that he's fickle?”

“It means that he's a nice person,” I said. “Who thought I wasn't going to get any cards and that would upset me.”

“But... it doesn't?”

“I slipped these into Pansy Parkinson's stack and watched her open them,” I said. “I've seen ghosts that had more color than she did.”

She'd opened the first one without really looking at it, and only realized what she was holding with the second card. She'd screamed and thrown them away from her like she was holding a bomb.

“I think Neville sent one to Myrtle too,” Hermione said. “And she's acting all.... weird.”

She'd been fifteen at death, and Neville was still eleven. I'd have been creeped out myself; and I was a little creeped out now.

“He says she's been stalking him,” she said. “All morning.”

I frowned. “My guess is that she never received many of these when she was alive, and probably none in the last fifty or sixty years. Maybe she thinks he's in love with her?”

“When it's more of a friendly think?” Hermione asked. She looked relieved.

“We're too young to be worried about romance,” I said. “Potter probably thought he was being nice.”

“He got a huge stack,” Hermione said. She glanced over at the Gryffindor table where a group of boys were still gathered around Potter's stack.

“If he was smart he'd have gotten a Pansy.... I mean patsy to check his mail.”

Pansy gave me the finger from all the way across the table. She'd moved as far away from me as she could manage. She used the American gesture; apparently she'd gone to the trouble to learn that just for me. Apparently she'd been straining to listen in on our conversation as well.

Fortunately for her, the teachers had already left the room. We'd been given an hour to socialize.

“Tonight's the first study session,” I said. That was code for our little group. “We'll see how Weasley fits in.”

She made a face.

“He's been an ass every time I was around him.”

“He grew up with Fred and George,” I said. “You can't tell me that didn't warp him a little.”

She nodded.

“And only one girl in a family of however many of them there are? He may not know how to talk to us,” I continued.

“That's not an excuse,” she said, but the tenseness of her posture had relaxed a little.

It was important for allies to get long. Strife in the ranks was something the enemy could use to get a foothold in your organization.

Not that I had an organization, of course.

Yet.

Fred and George had people clamoring after them to help them with the dueling club. Hermione had even had some offers. That was likely part of the reason that she had a half dozen cards herself. The blush on her face told me that she considered them more than just friendly acknowledgments of each other; at this age that was all they should be.

“Well, we should be getting to class,” I said.

The day went quickly after that. It seemed like hardly any time at all before it was the evening, and time for our study group.

“George? Fred?” the Weasley boy almost shrieked. “What are you doing here?”

“We heard you were going to ask young Taylor here out for a date,” George said. “And we wanted to see you get disemboweled.”

The youngest Weasley's face turned a chalky white, almost as much as Pansy's had earlier.

George grinned.

Potter murmured something in the boy's ear, and he turned red.

“You've been teaching The Terror?” he squeaked. “She's a Slytherin!”

“She's not a real Slytherin,” Fred said., “She's actually a Gryffindor spy. Why do you think she gets into so many scrapes with them? A real Slytherin would have just kept her head down and kept quiet.”

The boy frowned. “That's not really a thing. You told me you had to wrestle a troll to pick your house too.”

“And Taylor did,” George said. “Or at least stabbed one in the googlies. That makes her an honorary Gryffindor.”

He didn't mention the fact that the others had chosen to fight too, even Draco. It was just that my heroism made for a better story. People always got that part wrong.

“What about all of these others?” he asked, staring at everyone suspiciously.

Millicent and Tracey were here, as was Hermione and Neville. So far, our group had five Gryffindors, one Ravenclaw, and three Slytherins. We still needed a Hufflepuff.

“There's more of us than of them, mate,” George said. “But we don't do houses here.”

I stood up and walked toward them.

“You know the real reason we're here, Ron?” I asked.

He stared at me and shook his head.

“Because we want to survive. Me and Hermione are Muggleborn.... the Death eaters are trying to kill us all. Millicent, Tracey and Harry are Half bloods. They'll be next.”

He frowned.

“But we're purebloods,” he said. He stared at me for a long moment. I could almost see the gears grinding away in his brain. “But our Dad is on the side of the Ministry.”

He wasn't as dumb as he sometimes liked to pretend then.

“And sooner or later they'll be coming for you, too,” I said. “That's how evil wins, when good men look away because it does not yet affect them.”

“We're first years,” he protested weakly. “Why does it have to be us that fights?”

The fact that he was asking the question told me that he was already halfway convinced. I just had to keep pushing.

“I've had the cruciatus curse cast on me twice this year,” I said. Technically one of those times hadn't been me, but that wasn't the point I was trying to make. “I'm not the only one.”

Ron's head snapped around.

“You?”

Potter shrugged, then nodded.

“We had a hard Christmas break,” I said. “I've chosen to reveal this to you, because right now the only people who know about it are the kids of the Death Eaters involved.”

“Warrington,” Ron said.

“Yeah,” I said. “His father died and he didn't like it that much.”

“You killed his father?”

“He killed himself,” I said. “When he came after me. The point is, he came after me and Harry here, at school. They didn't get in, but they could have.”

I'd already told the twins; they'd heard vague rumors being spread by some of the Death Eater kids. I doubted that it could be kept secret for much longer, not after people were questioning Warrington's death and why he'd chosen to attack me in the way he did.

“No place is safe,” I continued. “So we have to be ready.”

“We can't fight adults!” he said. “I barely know any magic!”

“I'll teach you non-magical things you can do to survive,” I said. “Which mostly means getting away.”

Potter was surprisingly good at evasion. He'd mumbled something about Harry Hunting when I'd asked him, but he'd refused to say anything else about it.

“The best thing you can do is surprise them and then hide,” I said. “And even that won't keep you alive if they know the human revealing spell. That means that you have to try to incapacitate them, and then you need to run until you are out of range of that spell. You have to keep running after that.”

The boy stared at me, his eyes wide. He was listening, though, and not attempting to argue, which I considered a good sign. I doubted Crabbe or Goyle would have even understood what I was trying to say.

“Hogwarts is fractured,” I said. “It's not enough to have the traits of one House. If you want to survive, you'll need to be as brave as a Gryffindor yes, but you'll also need to be as cunning as a Slytherin. You'll need to be as smart as a Ravenclaw.”

“And the Hufflepuffs?” he asked.

“As hard working,” I said. “And that's the kind of loyalty you'll need from your friends. People who have each other's backs have a greater chance of surviving. People who don't...”

He winced.

Good.

Potter had described him as bright in some ways but unfocused and undirected. He apparently had some social skills issues, but then so did most of the people in our group. I suspected that we'd self selected for that; the popular people were too busy being popular to even bother with a study group.

So we were a band of misfits. It was something I could work with.

“The fact that you are here means that you are a little smarter than the rest of them,” I said. It was a lie, of course. He was here because he was Potter's friend, and it bothered Potter to have to keep secrets. Still, boosting egos was good for morale.

The military broke people down and then rebuilt them the way they wanted them. I couldn't do that to the boy yet; he hadn't agreed to the process, and at the moment he'd go running to his parents.

He had a deep seated sense of insecurity according to his brothers; likely that was in part their own fault. It was also likely where many of his less desirable traits came from.

Yet according to them he was loyal enough that they'd thought he might be a Hufflepuff, and we were going to need that. I just had to win his loyalty, and that would take time.

He frowned, but he straightened up.

Being told that you were special was Cult making 101. Finding disaffected people who believed that they'd been cheated out of what life owed them, and telling them that you had a way to get them what was due, that was what every revolutionary group did.

“This will be hard,” I said. “But in the end we will survive.”

Some of us, likely. The last thing I wanted to do was start giving them Legend's speech about how many of us were likely to die. I doubted that schoolchildren would accept that.

Even Hermione was just coming to grips with the concept of death. She'd known it academically for most of the semester, but Warrington's death had driven it home. I'd caught her giving me concerned looks.

“We fight because we have to,” I said. “And when we don't have to anymore, we'll go back to playing exploding snap. Except me...”

Potter leaned over. “She figured out how to kill someone with ten decks of cards and some gum.”

He only thought he was joking. Also, gum wasn't involved.

“So how are we going to get better?” George asked. “You don't have the same kinds of spells we do, but you're fast enough to fight both of us.”

“One time out of three,” I said. “I figure that fighting two gifted third years might give me a chance against a fifth or sixth year, at least until they start doing that thing with the silent spells.”

That was going to be a bitch to work around. I'd seen it in some of the upper year duels. Although none of them had been particularly gifted, it was a huge advantage not to be shouting out the names of your attacks like one of Greg Vedar's anime heroines.

“Just fighting you has made us better,” George said. “Practice and all. But we need new blood, or all we'll be doing is getting used to each other.”

“That's why I've called someone else in,” I said.

I nodded, and Terence Higgs stepped into the room.

George and Fred stiffened, and they stepped forward.

“What?” they asked, almost in unison. While they were more open than most, Quittich rivalry went a long way in their world.

“I want to be part of your group,” Higgs said. He looked uncertain, even though he was the oldest student in the room by a year.

“Why?” Fred demanded suspiciously.

Higgs closed the door carefully behind him.

“My uncle was murdered by Death Eaters three days ago,” he said. “My family swore allegiance to them yesterday.”

I could hear almost everyone in the room freezing. Admitting that was a bombshell, one that could get every member of his family placed in Azkaban. The fact that he was admitting it to enemies was even more telling.

“They didn't want to,” he said. “But it was the only way to keep the other kids safe. Sooner or later I'm going to have to fight.”

“So we're going to teach you how to kill aurors?” George asked harshly. His tone wasn't as severe as it had been moments before.

Higgs shook his head. “I loved my uncle. He was the one person in my life who convinced me that it was all right to be a good person. If the Death Eaters killed him, then I'm going to fight them, with, or without your help.”

His eyes were moist as he stared at us, but his mouth was firm.

“Taylor came to me, and she offered me this,” he said. “And I'm ashamed that I didn't help more in the past.”

I'd been spying, looking for Death eater kids who were communicating with their parents. Most of them did so through letter; I'd read a few of them, and the contents had been eye opening. Most of the letters had been burned shortly after reading, so I'd had to read them using bug vision, which wasn't the best.

“How she knew...” he shook his head.

I turned to the others. “Are we going to accept him?”

George frowned, then stepped forward and held out his hand. He was followed by Fred, and then surprisingly by Potter, then Millie and Tracey. Ron was the last, and he seemed somewhat reluctant.

However, eventually he agreed to do so.

It took a little while to get everybody focused on what we were going to do.

“I'm going to teach you the Reductor curse,” Higgs said. “It blasts things into pieces.”

He looked at me uncertainly, and I wondered if he thought that I planned on using that spell to blast people into a fine mist. His mouth firmed, though and he nodded.

“You've already got the stunning spell, and the shield spell,” he said. “But I've been studying ahead. My parents got me a tutor over the summer break, and I'm a year ahead of where I should be. I'll teach you the Banishing charm, which is the opposite of the summoning charm, the fire making spell, the full body bind curse, and whatever else I think you'll need.”

He looked around at us.

“All of you have talent,” he said. “It was the lack of having the right spells that kept you from going farther. Except maybe for Taylor... in her case it was being meaner than the snakes that tried to bite her.”

Everyone laughed uneasily at that. It was still a little early to be making jokes about the death of a student.

Professor Travers had already been pulled off the dueling club as a result of it, and Snape had replaced him. The Board of Directors had tried to shut the dueling club down, but there were enough traditionalists who believed that the club represented core Wizarding values, whatever those were, that dropping the club wasn't going to happen soon, unless there was another incident.

I suspected that Travers wasn't going to be back next school year, which was a shame. According to the older students, he was the best student they'd had in a while, even if he was something of a blood purist.

Speaking up, I said, “This is more than just a study group, you know.”

Everyone turned to stare at me.

“We've got a purpose, we have each other's backs. I'd fight for any of you, and I hope you'd do the same for me. That makes us an organization.”

It made us a gang, really, but I wasn't sure that Hermione would approve of framing it that way.

“Organizations need names,” I said. “At least once other people know about them. Maybe we can think of some names that might represent what we aspire to be.”

“The Mongooses!” Ron said suddenly. “Because they kill snakes!”

I cleared my throat, as did all of the other Slytherins in the room.

“Sorry?” Ron asked tentatively.

I'd listened in on his conversations with Potter sometimes, and it still amazed me how sometimes he sounded like an idiot, while other times he was incredibly astute. I suspected that when he actually focused on something he was good at it, but that most of the time he just didn't care enough to bother.

With luck, he'd live long enough for me to beat that tendency out of him. With luck, all of us would.

Chapter Text

“I think that we should call ourselves Crucible,” I said quietly.

There had been several names passed around, but all of them had been as horrible as would be expected when it was pre-teens trying to come up with them. Hermione, despite her competence in other areas had proven terrible at naming things. She kept coming up with embarrassing acronyms.

Some of the names would have been good except for my own personal history. Calling ourselves the Protectorate, or Cauldron just brought up associations in my mind that were unpleasant.

“Why's that better than Cauldron?” Ron asked.

He'd proven to be a boy of his word over the last month, doing his best to catch up with everyone else. The fact that we met three times a week while the dueling club met once a month meant that all of us were rising in the ranks. It was simply a matter of doing more work.

Hermione kept notes for us when we watched the matches between the other students. Spells used, tactics, mistakes made; she took notes both from me and from Potter, who was proving to have a tactical mind.

We then tried to use what we'd learned in our practice sessions. Sometimes the study group did actual studying; the older students didn't help us with that, considering it to be cheating, but we helped each other in the things we were weak in.

Still, Ron tended to be opinionated.

“There are two meanings to Crucible,” I said. “First, it's a pot used to melt things at high heat. We are trying to meld all the houses into one cohesive whole. It can also mean a severe trial in which different things interact, creating something new. The American Marines cal their final test the Crucible.”

“Wasn't there an American play called that,” Hermione asked. “About burning witches?”

I frowned.

Well crap.

The naming had been going nowhere, but our skills were getting a lot better. I'd been fighting multiple opponents for the past month; without my bugs it usually didn't end well for me. I was getting better though, and in the meantime, they were learning group tactics.

Working together, I suspected that they might be able to take down even adult Wizards. Against someone like Flitwick or Dumbledore they'd have been meat, but that wasn't the stick they were being measured against.

Still, although the boys worked at transmuting various kinds of furniture and I'd been teaching them about the virtues of seeking cover, our biggest limitation was that we had to work in small spaces. An ideal situation would have been for us to stage war games all through the castle.

Teaching them how to hide, to snipe and then move, that was my ultimate goal, but I still hadn't found the ideal space for that. The Forbidden Forest would have been ideal, but that would have left us vulnerable to real sniping from actual Death Eaters.

The same thing could be said of the outer grounds. I wasn't about to trust whatever nebulous defenses the castle had; they seemed to be stronger in side the castle anyway.

I'd been trying to get the Weasley Twins to transmute me a treadmill, but they'd never seen one, and they thought it was some kind of weird muggle torture device. In a way they were right.

I still couldn't run around the castle, and yet I'd proven to them that endurance was important. Out fights were taking longer and longer as our defenses got better, and sometimes the difference between winning and losing was who flagged later.

It wasn't a matter of magical power; it was simply that as you tired your reaction speed tended to slow, and in Wizarding combat, speed and accuracy were everything.

“We'll figure something out,” I said. “They can't all be bad.”

“School's about to end,” Hermione said. “It may have to wait until next year. Has Dumbledore told you who you will be staying with yet?”

I shook my head.

“He still thinks someone will try reading my mind, and he's not ready to teach me occlumency yet.”

Personally I suspected that he was afraid that having my mind entirely blank to him and Snape would be a disaster.

“I've hit up Fletcher, though,” I said. “And he says he can get me a book on it before the end of the semester. He's tripling the price that he's paying in Knocturn Alley, though.”

“That's highway robbery!” Hermione gasped.

“That's the black market for you,” I said. “He's risking his position by moving contraband, so he deserves a profit for it. The Twins have been buying things from him too.”

Some of the things they'd been buying had been for me. I suspected that Fletcher was reporting everything I bought to either Snape or Dumbledore himself, and so anything that seemed more dangerous I had to get through intermediaries.

That meant that I owed the twins favors.

They'd long since given up on the idea that their training me was a favor; we'd moved past that. They were developing a reputation as duelists in the school, and apparently that had been getting them some attention from the girls. I wasn't sure they entirely knew what to do about that, but they seemed to be enjoying it, so I wasn't going to argue.

Neville was passing Snape's class, and Hermione was learning how to be a version of me. All of my associates were benefiting from our arrangement, which was a good thing.

Even Ron was doing better at dueling. He hadn't moved up in the ranks yet, but he was reaching the top of his grade. I suspected he'd have been proud of himself if he hadn't kept comparing himself to the rest of us.

Hermione was possibly the brightest witch in her year, despite all appearances. Harry seemed to be naturally gifted in combat. The twins were two years older and gifted at causing chaos. Riggs was older than any of us.

Only Neville, Millie and Tracey were on Ron's level, and he barely seemed to notice them. He only saw us, the people he compared himself to.

Other than Ron, I was the only one who was suffering socially. People had been talking about Warrington's death; I suspected that it had taken some students a while to really process it. Many of them had taken to isolating me even more than they had before. It didn't feel like bullying; it was more like they were afraid to be around me.

It didn't bother me, really. I'd been alone for much of my life, even when people were all around me. Even before Emma had turned on me, I'd been a chatterbox, but I hadn't had many close friends.

Now I had a few friends and everyone else left me alone, and that didn't bother me much. It gave me more time to study and prepare instead of spending all of my time watching my back.

I hoped to get the book on occlumency before the end of term. It was almost certain that Dumbledore was going to put me with a Wizarding family. Not only would placing me with muggles be an almost certain death sentence, but he probably wouldn't trust muggles to handle me.

If I was staying with Wizards, then I most likely would be able to use magic. The system was designed that way nominally due to the secrecy rules, but the fact that it gave pureblood kids a leg up didn't hurt any.

Studying occulmency over the summer would let me teach it to the others next year. I had a sneaking suspicion that some of the Pureblood parents were going to be teaching their children Legilimency over the summer, and we'd need to counter that.

A child spy who was able to look into the minds of other students would know what other students' parents were telling them. My spying on people's letters was a less efficient version of that. Having several agents like that in the school would be invaluable.

I'd tried to get Fletcher to get me a book on Legilimency, but he'd told me that had been specifically forbidden by Snape. It was frustrating, but I planned on trying to get some training as soon as I could.

Sometimes I wondered if there was some sort of penalty for trying too much too fast, but I hadn't heard of anything. I suspected that most kids didn't have the emotional maturity to handle the higher level spells, and they had to be taught the basic theory of magic before they tried various higher difficulty spells.

Seeing that the others were gathering in the room, I spoke up.

“Today I want to talk about the basic strategies for entering a room,” I said.

They all stared at me like I had grown a second head.

“Imagine that a Death Eater had been waiting in here, planning to kill all of you,” I said. “Just walking in would have gotten you killed. There are ways to make that less likely. Can anyone think of any?”

They all frowned and they were silent for almost a minute.

“A mirror?' Hermione asked finally.

I smiled and nodded.

“And if there are a group of you, moving from hallway to hallway checking for enemies, there are ways to have one person watching to help keep everyone safe as you move forward. I'm going to show these to you today.”

They'd questioned my tactical knowledge at first, but I'd managed to put them off until they'd finally learned to simply accept it.

“Let's get started,” I said.

***********

“I can't believe they are putting you and Harry on the train,” Hermione said.

The last month had been punctuated by increasingly vicious attacks on various Ministry officials, often in their own homes. The fact that most of these were known to be the most loyal and tenacious people in their departments hadn't been made public, but I'd learned about it from various stray comments made by Dumbledore and Snape.

Final exams had been easy for everyone. Even Ron was feeling confident, for all that he'd grumbled endlessly about having to study.

At least he'd kept up with his dueling. He'd finished as top of first year, and the rest of us had finished at the top of our respective years as well. Snape had insisted on keeping me with the fourth years, though.

“They're going to pull both of them off before the train stops, right?” Ron asked.

I was sitting in the compartment with Ron. Harry, Hermione and Neville, Millie and Tracey. Higgs and the twins were in another car, in part because there wouldn't have been room for them, and in part because the twins had their eye on a pretty pair of Ravenclaw girls. Higgs was sitting with the Slytherin Quidditch team.

I nodded.

Word had been spread that the Death Eaters had plans to kill me and Harry. The papers hadn't said anything about me at all, but they'd made a huge deal about Harry.

That had given Moody all the excuse he needed to triple the auror presence at King's crossing. Unfortunately, there was no way to find out how many of those aurors had been recruited to the other side. It was possible that this was going to end up as a bloodbath; if Voldemort had subverted two thirds of them and told them to kill the other third, this could get very ugly very quickly.

Moody had arranged for a gas explosion to seemingly happen in the station; with special charms on the exits designed to obliviate anyone who passed through them. Under the kind of heavy use they'd undoubtedly get they wouldn't last very long, but it would keep the obliviators from having to work themselves to death.

No one was yet sure whether Voldemort wanted to break the Statute of Secrecy and go to war with the muggles, or to simply rule them from the shadow. That would have seemed like a basic part of the platform to me, but it was possible that he was playing both groups off against each other.

“It still doesn't make any sense,” Hermione said. “They've got people who are going to polyjuice into you... into all of us, so why have us get on the train at all?”

I suspected that the train renewed the Trace every time that we rode it, but I wasn't going to mention that to Hermione. I could be wrong after all.

“Average polyjuice potions don't last long enough,” Harry said. “Or at least that's how Dumbledore explained it to me. He figures that there are kids on board who will be watching us, and telling the Death Eaters somehow.”

“Probably by mirror,” I said.

It wasn't like wizards were likely to be using cellular phones; I had a vague thought that they might exist in this time period, but that they were huge.

“It's an eight hour trip,” Hermione said after a moment. “I guess that makes sense. They'd want people to think that we're just in here, unguarded.”

“They'll apparate in once the train stops,” I said.

Apparently appareling onto a moving vehicle was more disorienting than onto a stable platform. It wasn't impossible, but if they were going into combat shortly afterwards, they'd want to be at their best.

Disillusioning themselves on the train would have been the smartest thing, except that the train was packed with students; it would have been almost impossible not to be detected by someone simply bumping into them.

The whole thing made me uneasy.

I'd urged them to ambush the ambushers, but now that it was public knowledge that they were after Potter, they had to know that the aurors would be waiting. The entire thing might be a ruse to gut the aurors; if I was Voldemort, I'd have put a bomb in the station set to explode before the children arrived.

My followers would have been encouraged to show up late.

One bomb would destroy a lot of Wizarding Britain; hundreds of Wizarding parents, all of whom were in the opposing parties, and the aurors, gone in a moment.

Then I'd deny responsibility; I'd blame muggle terrorists. I'd pass new laws requiring that the orphaned children be taken in and educated by proper Wizarding families, and if I was actually against the muggleborn, well, they could disappear very easily.

 

There were a thousand ways this could all go wrong; the problem was that the ball was always in the attackers court. They had the element of surprise, even in a situation like this, because while we knew where they would be and when, we didn't know how they planned to attack.

Was this actually an assassination attempt on Harry?

Killing him would deal a blow to the morale of Wizarding Britain. People had built up a mythology about the Boy-Who-Lived. He'd become almost a talisman against Voldemort and his crew.

Those who'd gone to school with him knew different, but most adult Wizards worshipped him. It made Harry distinctly uncomfortable, but there was going to come a time when we needed that fame.

The Wizarding World was a sleeping giant. Most Wizards could barely defend themselves; they'd let the skills they'd learned in school atrophy, except whatever they used in their jobs.

However, I was convinced that in the same amount of time that it took to train a soldier to shoot a gun, I could train every adult wizard to become an army. It wouldn't matter how powerful Voldemort was if he faced an army of ten thousand enraged Wizards.

That was why I was worrying that he was going to go for a total kill scenario at the train station. This was the sort of operation where he ran the risk of wakening that giant. If people knew he was threatening their children, many would run away, but there were a lot who would fight. The last thing he needed was to empower his enemies, to light a fire of anger in them, or to make them brave because they were protective parents.

There was something I was missing.

The smart thing to do would be to kill Potter without hurting anyone else. That way they'd ruin the morale of the common people, but they'd claim that they had been merciful to the other children.

But killing Potter on the train station would inevitably have casualties. People would die, and most likely children would die. That ran the risk of starting the kind of war that he didn't want to start.

An uneasy feeling in my stomach, I closed my eyes and I expanded my senses outwards. It was the beginning of summer in Scotland, and the numbers of bugs had increased to the point that I had large swarms available to me.

I expanded my senses out as far as I could, looking in every direction.

It took me almost a minute; at this speed bugs kept entering and slipping out of my grasp almost before I could use their senses.

However, I tensed as I saw shadows from above. The insects had a natural fear response; usually something like that was a predator bug, but these were moving too quickly to be birds.

I'd been a fool, assuming that he'd attack the train station.

The train station was well protected and so was Hogwarts. Terrorists rarely attacked hard targets; they preferred to go after soft, easily attacked targets.

The Hogwarts Express was worse than defenseless; there were a certain number of people already on the train who would be happy in taking it over, especially if their parents told them to.

“They're going to attack the train,” I said suddenly.

Chapter Text

“How many of us can you hide under your cloak?” I asked Harry.

Although the figures above were blurred, they were still casting shadows on the ground. Undoubtedly they thought they hadn't been detected.

“Three, maybe four in a pinch,” he said.

Looking around, I grimaced. There were too many of us here to protect that way.

“Ron,” I said. “Go up and stay with your brothers. They'll be focusing on muggleborns, so you'll probably be all right if you keep your head down and your mouth shut. Tell your brothers what's happening, but keep it quiet. We don't want to start a panic.”

He stared at me, his face white, but he nodded.

“They're in the second train car.”

We were at the back of the train. Moody had wanted that because it would make attacks from other students come from only one direction. I'd already planned on that anyway, of course.

He hesitated, glancing at Harry.

“I'm going to do everything I can to keep Harry alive,” I said. “But I can't do that if there are hostages all around me.”

He nodded, and he was gone a moment later.

Turning to Millie and Tracey, I said, “Go and stay with Flora and Hestia Carrow. They're fairly decent. If you are questioned, don't be afraid to call me a mudblood, or psychotic... anything to make them think that you are on their side. What you are going to tell them is that you hate me and that you were forced to be my roomates.... and only tell them that if you are asked. They aren't going to have a lot of time to do this, and that means they'll be in a hurry. I doubt they'll question you very hard.”

They nodded, and got up without questioning me.

“They're in the first car,” I said.

That left me with Harry, Hermione and Neville.

“They're going to be after the four of us. Me and Harry for obvious reasons, Hermione because it would hurt me to lose her, and Neville because his mother has taken the cure. We can't just go and hide among the crowds.”

We couldn't do it for the same reason Moody hadn't been able to keep disillusioned troops on board; the quarters were too cramped.

“We are going to have to get off the train,” I said.

There were six Death Eaters coming; presumably Voldemort had assumed that without a swarm of Acromantula to protect me, I'd be easy meat. Worse, because of my dueling performance, they weren't likely to underestimate me.

There were things I could do to kill them that I didn't dare to do; there were enough kids on the train that using explosions would kill some of them; that would set the entire Wizarding world against me.

The only option was to get on the train while seeming to be on the train.

Reaching into my fanny pack, I pulled out four packets of Darkness powder. I would have the bugs drop them in the back four train cars as I was leaving. Not only would that convince the Death Eaters that I was there, but it would focus them away from the cars in the front, where our friends were.

There was a knock at the door.

The trolley witch was at the door.

“Would anyone like something to eat?” she asked.

I stood up.

“Death Eaters are about to attack this train,” I said. “They are on brooms and are disillusioned. Could you please send a message to the aurors?”

She looked at me for a moment, and then her face tightened. Apparently she'd been informed of the upcoming attack, presumably for just such an attempt as this one.

She pulled out her wand, and murmured something.

Three silver cats appeared, and I felt a strange warmth just being in their presence. It reminded me a little of being around the unicorns. For just a moment I felt a surging warmth of hope, and then they were gone.

“We'll just have to see about slowing them down until help comes, won't we,” she said. She put her wand to her own throat.

“ALL STUDENTS ARE TO RETURN TO THEIR COMPARTMENTS,” she said. “AND PREPARE TO BE BOARDED.”

I'd never really looked at the trolley witch before; she'd always just been a part of the scenery. Now, though, there was something sinister about her expression.

“The train protects its own,” she said. “People forget that.”

A moment later she was gone.

I blinked. Somehow she'd gotten onto the roof of the train without my understanding how, and she stood there ignoring the wind. Her trolley was with her.

She looked upward, and then she pulled a pumpkin pasty from the trolley. She tossed it up in the air, and then there was a massive explosion.

I'd managed to get bugs onto the brooms of all six of the Death Eaters, and I could feel them dodging around the explosions.

The trolley witch began to throw more and more of the pasties, and they were getting closer and closer to the disguised Death Eaters.

Flashes of green light began to lash down toward the top of the train.

I could see the frightened faces of students at the window.

“We need to get out,” I said. “How many people can ride a broom?”

“At our size we might be able to get three on a broom,” Harry said. “But it would be slow. They'd catch up to us in no time.”

“Then we need to get two of their brooms,” I said. “They probably know that we're in the last car; I'm sure some of the seventh years have mirrors and would have told them. That means that we can't be here.”

“Doesn't Malfoy have one of those trunks that are expandible?” Neville asked. “I heard him bragging about it the other day. You can put people inside of there.”

“We can't hide in the luggage,” Potter said. “They'd be looking for something like that.”

“Higgs just taught us the shrinking charm, though,” I said. I'd heard that shrinking a human being was complicated and dangerous, but it might be possible that people in an expanded space weren't actually inside normal space at all. There had to be a reason why Moody couldn't see inside my fanny pack.

“You want us to get inside the trunk, and then shrink it,” Hermione said flatly.

I nodded.

“Would you rather face that?” I asked.

The trolley witch was incredibly fast. Somehow none of the green bolts managed to hit her. Likely it was because the spells themselves were slow, which meant that from a distance they were easy to anticipate and dodge. It was going to get harder for her the closer they got.

“Let's go, then,” Hermione said.

A moment later we were making our way up the train. Along the way, I dropped bits of darkness powder.

Five cars up, we reached Malfoy's compartment.

Opening the door, we saw a group of boys huddled up the window. Malfoy whirled as he saw us.

“Give us your trunk,” I said, in a voice that allowed for no argument. My wand was out and pointed at him, so that might have had something to do with his acceptance.

He pointed, and a moment later, we had the trunk down. Harry and Neville were pulling things out of the trunk, and then a moment later, Neville and Hermione were climbing into the trunk.

I closed my eyes and hoped that I wasn't about to crush one of my few friends in this world.

“Reducio,” I said.

Draco's face paled even more as he stared at the trunk, now small enough to slip inside my fanny pack. Before I could worry about the implications of putting an enlarged space inside of another enlarged space, I slipped it inside.

No matter how well this worked, there was only a limited amount of air inside that trunk. It was likely that we had less than thirty minutes before they started to suffocate.

We left before the boys had a chance to say anything.

“I'm the better flyer,” Harry said. “That means that you'll have to be the gunner.”

I nodded.

His being the better flyer wasn't in question; people were ready talking about how he'd likely make the team next year. He flew rings around everyone else, including me.

“Our weight is going to slow things down, though,” he said. “I hope you have a plan.”

“Yeah,” I said. “They're going to expect us to be huddled in the back. We aren't going to do that. We're going to head to the front of the train, and then we're going to attack them from behind. We only need to get a single broomstick, and then we need to keep them from knowing that we've left, for a while at least.”

“That's a lot,” he said.

“It can be done. Let's go.”

We made our way up through several more cars before I thought we were far enough.

The Death Eaters had landed on the roof of the train, presumably because trying to fire from a broom was too unstable to get a clear shot. They were still disillusioned, but I could see their shields dealing with the exploding pastries.

I had bugs on them, and on the roof of the train, it was loud. I was going to depend on that.

Opening the door as quietly as a could, I gestured for Potter to lift me up. He grimaced as I put my shoe on his shoulder, but a moment later I was on the roof of the train.

The one disadvantage to this was that I couldn't actually tell which direction they were looking. I had bugs in their clothes and on their wands, but I couldn't see their faces or their expressions.

It didn't matter.

Crouching low and moving as silently as I could, all I could hear was the whistling of the wind and the sounds of exploding pasties.

I scuttled forward, and I reached into my fanny pack, pulling out my best knife. I'd made several by now, and this was the pinnacle of my art.

The bugs on my opponent alerted me that he was already turning; presumably I'd made a noise that had alerted him. It was too late, though.

My knife lashed out, and I hit the subclavian artery in the front of the shoulder. This had the bonus of being his wand arm, which would make it harder for him to simply use the killing curse on me.

His disillusionment vanished, and now I could see the expressionless mask staring down at me. I shoved my knife into his armpit, then stabbed him in the side of the neck.

That did the trick; blood fountained everywhere, and he stumbled and fell, sliding off the side and falling off the train.

I grabbed his broom, and I could feel the Death Eaters behind me turning; they'd seen their compatriots body flying past them ou8t of the die of their eye.

I dodged as a barrage of green light flew past me.

A moment later, I was back in the space between cars. If they were smart they'd keep some people up top while sending some others down below to trap us.

As we slipped back into the car, I said, “Hold onto the back of my shirt.”

Potter complied, and as I saw the door opening all the way at the other end of the car, I send an explosion that rocked the car for a moment.

I threw darkness powder, and as soon as I did, I pulled Potter down. Green light flashed above us dimly, where our heads had been.

I scrambled forward and I opened the door to the compartment to the right. It had four Slytherin fourth years, but a quick set of stunners made short work of them. In the dark they were helpless anyway. I used some quick spellwork to lift their bodies and I arranged them to look like they were sleeping.

Pointing my wand at the window, I used a shrinking charm on it, and with a groan, the air inside the chamber was suddenly buffeted by the wind from outside. The window itself was still inside the frame, although tiny now, and likely the wind would pull it out any time.

From the way the men inside the hallway were moving, I suspected that they'd lit a Hand of Glory. My use of the Peruvian Darkness Powder was well known, and they'd have brought the counter to that. With luck it wouldn't matter.

“Up,” I said, and the broom in my hand was suddenly levitating.

Harry crawled on in front of me.

“Wrap us up in your cloak,” I said. “After I enlarge it.”

A quick spell later, and the cloak was more like a tarp than a cloak. We both struggled with it, trying to cover not just ourselves, but the broom as well. We put the front of the cloak so that the wind would help to drape it over us. It would leave our backsides uncovered, but there wasn't a lot that we could do about that.

A moment later we were outside.

I enlarged the window, which appeared back in its frame.

“Go low,” I said into Harry's ear. “Otherwise they'll be able to see us from underneath.”

It wasn't really from underneath that they could see us, but from behind, but he got my meaning. We dipped own low, and from above, there was only a shadow from behind as the cloth whipped and fluttered madly behind us.

We dipped until we were only a few feet from the ground.

They were checking the compartments one by one, convinced that sooner of later they'd find one of us. The ones up top were still distracted by the trolley witch, who'd somehow managed to transform her hands into blades and was using those to deflect spells. Who the hell was she?”

“Let's get the hell out of here,” I said. “Away from the tracks. Hopefully they won't know where they lost us, which will cost them time, and make us harder to find.”

We stopped and floated in mid-air, I grabbed one side of the cloak to keep it from slipping away, and Harry grabbed the other. We let the train pass by us as we sat, invisible.

As we passed the compartments behind, I used my bugs to drop darkness powder in them one by one.

We only had thirty minutes before I had to pull Harry and Neville out, and we only had a single broom. I didn't know the geography of Scotland; not only was I an American, which was notorious for its lack of interest in the rest of the world, I had been educated at Winslow, which had a particularly bad educational system.

Harry was from Surrey apparently, and I really had no idea where that was either.

As we flew so low over a passing lake that I could feel the spray of water on my legs, Harry said, “This is a Nimbus 2000. I've never gotten to fly one before, but they're the fastest brooms on the market.”

Apparently Voldemort hadn't wanted to spare any expense when he'd decided to murder us.

“It'll go a hundred miles an hour with one person,” he said. “And the two of us probably weigh about the same as one adult.”

That was likely true.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Don't you know?” he asked. “I thought you were the Seer.”

“There are limits,” I said irritably. “If I knew everything, I'd just murder the Death Eaters in their sleep.”

“That was pretty horrible, what you did back there,” he said quietly. “I never really believed the troll story until now. I thought it was just something that Draco made up.”

“It was him or us,” I said. “It's always been that way. Kill or be killed. You think I wanted to do that?”

We were silent for several long minutes. I was acutely aware of the fact that Hermione and Neville might be smothering inside Draco's box, but we had to get far enough away that the Death eaters couldn't find us.

With any luck, they'd waste ten to fifteen minutes searching for us on the train cars due to the darkness powder. That would put them ten to fifteen miles ahead of us, and given our broom's speed, it would make us as much as another twenty five miles away.

However, there were undoubtedly ways for them to track us.

“Find us a cave,” I said.

“Right,” he said.

We were above another mountain lake now.

We'd find a cave, I was sure. The only question was how long it would take them to think of writing a letter to us, and how long it would take the owl to reach us.

Would Dumbledore and company find us first, or would I have to murder a couple of more of them in a last stand?

If we survived this, I could only hope that my summer went better.

Chapter Text

“Did you see what she did to Nigel?” Thomas asked. He was sweating despite the wind whipping into his face.

It felt like a nightmare.

An easy job, they'd been told. Fly down to the train; the kids they were supposed to kill had been deliberately placed in the last car. Slip in, kill them, slip out. It should have been as easy as taking gold from a bowtruckle. Given that bowtruckles had no interest in gold...

Done while disillusioned, no one should have even known they were there until the Potter kid and the Terror had been found dead.

They'd have left a message for all of Wizarding Britain. The Boy-Who-Lived was a talisman, a symbol of hope to the masses. Kill him, and people would learn that there was no hope. There was only compliance or death.

Even more so, the Hogwarts Express was considered sacred ground. Having the deaths occur there would shock people. It would remind them that their own children were not safe, and if Hogwarts, the safest place in Wizarding Britain couldn't protect their children, then no one was safe, even in their own homes.

Of course, the better Wizards might be able to protect their homes with Fidelius charms, but those were very difficult, and it was rare for Wizards to be skilled enough to cast them. Furthermore, even if they did protect their homes, there was only so long they could hide there. They'd have to come out sooner or later for food.

Copying food was well and good, but it didn't preserve the original forever. Food got old and rotten, and food preservation magic was still in its infancy.

Killing two first year students should have been a task for a single Death Eater. Instead, the Dark Lord had sent six. He'd sent others to distract the aurors at the train station too six of them should have been overkill.

Instead, the Trolley Witch had been waiting for them, and she was a nightmare. They'd managed to escape mostly unharmed, due to good shields and quick reflexes, but the Terror had lived up to her name by murdering Nigel while their backs were turned.

The Killing Curse was kinder. It killed without pain, instantly and mercifully. Thomas had never held with using the Cruciatis curse like some of his peers. No matter what the muggleborn had done, it was better to put them down mercifully than to torture them.

The world would be better without them, but no one had ever said that it was necessary to be cruel.

“Shut up,” Jurgen said. “They're Wizarding kids. They'll screw up and use magic sooner or later, and then we'll have them.”

They had agents in the Trace department; as soon as the owl was sent complaining about the use of magic, they'd finally be able to put this whole mess behind them.

Fortunately, the aurors couldn't apparate into places they didn't have a good mental image of, so wherever they ended up killing the kids it would take a while before the enemy reached them. Unfortunately, that also meant they couldn't simply apparate to the terror and kill her for what she'd done to Nigel.

There had been so much blood. He'd slipped under the train as he fell, and he'd still been alive at the time.

The look in the Terror's eyes hadn't been human either. She'd stared at them as though she could see straight through their disillusionment, and there hadn't been the slightest bit of shock or horror at what she was doing. She'd killed a pureblood as easily as Thomas might have killed a bug. It hadn't bothered her at all.

It was almost as though she didn't realize that pureblood were the only actual humans.

“How in the hell did they get past us?” Gerald asked. “We had people watching. I went through that whole damn train, and we didn't see anything.”

“It doesn't matter. We'll get them, and then the Dark Lord will reward us, as well as Nigel's family,” Jurgen said. “And we'll make them pay.”

Thomas shivered. Jurgen was one of those who liked to play with his victims. His parents had come from Germany, and there were things he'd learned there that made Thomas afraid of him. It wasn't the killing; it was what came before that bothered Thomas.

Jurgen pulled out a mirror shard and he stared at it.

“The bird's been sent,” he said. “It should be passing by soon.”

Soon was a relative term when it came to owls. Some seemed to take their sweet time, while others seemed to appear at their location faster than should have been possible given their visible flight speed.

They spent the next thirty minutes hovering, stuck in their own thoughts. Thomas didn't dare say too much; free thought wasn't particularly valued in the Death Eaters, not unless you were a rich pureblood. Being a poorer relative meant that sometimes you had to bow and scrape.

Even though Jurgen wasn't a proper British Wizard, he'd proven himself to be cruel enough and good enough at what he did to be higher in the organization. He didn't have patience for fools.

None of the higher ups did. You never wanted to say anything that an enemy could bring up to the superiors. It was a cutthroat world, and the only benefit of joining the Death Eaters was that it meant being part of something bigger.

It meant a chance to change a world that had been going deeply, horribly wrong for most of his life.

Young wizards didn't have a chance in their world, unless they came from the best families. Older wizards had all the best jobs, and because they stayed hale and hearty until shortly before they died, that meant that they kept their jobs for decades... some for as long as a century or more.

Thomas had heard that muggles were so short lived that their whole careers were over in thirty or forty years. Young people would have a chance in a world like that, especially since muggles got sick and died all the time for practically no0 reason at all.

But in the world they lived in, it was hard to get a meaningful job, and even harder to advance, since the people above hardly ever left or died. There was a line of wizards waiting for every good job, and for every one that got it, a dozen would be forced to live like paupers, forced to scrabble by only on their magic.

It was hard enough being a poor pureblood. Now that the muggleborn thought they deserved their share of the good jobs, it was even harder. Even worse, the muggleborn were willing to work for wages that no pureblood would ever dream of accepting.

It drove wages down for everyone.

Worse, they were given benefits, like a full education at Hogwarts that most of them didn't even pay for. They lived off the backs of hard working, honest citizens, and they didn't give back.

Finding out that he wasn't the only one who had felt this way had been a relief. With the Death Eaters, he'd found a community of people who had understood the danger just as he had.

He hadn't been willing to kill people, not at first, but eventually he'd understood why it was necessary.

The muggleborn were a plague on the world, one that wouldn't stop until they'd eaten every last scrap and destroyed everything that was good and wholesome.

If the muggleborn were allowed to continue, they'd have every Wizard living in a tiny muggle house that looked exactly the same as every other muggle house. Muggles were slaves to something called a Tellyvision that hypnotized them and made them fat.

They ate crappy food and lived horrible lives, and if the muggleborn were to get their way, Wizard lives would be no better. They'd destroy everything that made the Wizarding world great.

He'd heard that some of them even lived halfway in the muggle world. A Wizard could live like a king there, if he wasn't worried about the Statute of Secrecy.

Using magic to copy things and then sell them to muggles, then use that to live high. They took money from honest, hard working Wizard shops, and gave it to stinking muggles, who by all reports didn't even have souls.

They didn't care that there were six or seven billion muggles who would love to murder every wizard man woman and child the moment they realized they still existed.

Only creatures with souls could do magic, and even among those there was a hierarchy.

Muggleborns weren't good at magic, and that was because they only had a sliver of a soul. He'd even heard rumors that they'd gotten their powers by stealing them from the children of Wizards. There had been more and more squibs born of late, which was all the proof he needed that it was true.

 

He wasn't entirely sure that creatures like House Elves and Goblins had full souls; if they did, why not allow them to use wands? Clearly it was because they were dangerous and could not be trusted.

They were doing God's work in stopping the muggleborn, and killing the Potter brat was part of that. Killing the Terror was just an added bonus.

Keeping something like that in a school with proper pureblooded kids wasn't just an affront to common decency, it was a constant danger. She'd started out by beating multiple boys, and now she'd killed the kid of someone Thomas knew.

Avery had offered a reward for whoever killed her, one that was half as large as the one on Potter's head.

Potter was the only thing standing between the Dark Lord and the return of Wizarding Britain to it's roots. It was a pity that he had to die. It wasn't even his fault; from all reports he was a fairly decent kid. He was a half blood, of course, which meant that he wasn't as good as a real person, but some half bloods weren't too bad.

It was the fault of Wizarding Britain, for making him a symbol and setting him against the Dark Lord. They should have known better.

The girl, though; her James wouldn't mind killing. She'd murdered Nigel, and there hadn't been a trace of a soul in her eyes, only hatred and anger.

“Here it is,” Jurgen called out.

The owl flew past them, ignoring them as it shot directly toward it's target. Thomas felt a rising sense of excitement as he fell into formation.

They ducked down, flying among the trees. The canopy here was open enough to fly easily, and there was no point in flying above the trees, because they'd never see where the owl went.

This was the thing that would finally get him out of the bottom ranks. He would be recognized and that meant good things for his future. Once the Dark Lord took over, he'd be the one strutting around with all of the power, not...

There was a sudden gout of blood from in front of him.

Jurgen's body was falling to the ground, his head falling separately. Blood was fountaining from his neck as his heart beat rapidly for a few moments before death.

Thomas pulled back on his broom, and he barely managed to avoid being decapitated himself. He stopped in mid air and he squinted as he saw the thing that had killed Jurgen. It looked like spiderweb, but it seemed to be made of razor sharp metal instead of being an actual web. In the dim light it had been almost invisible, but now that blood was dripping from it, he could see it clearly.

The others had pulled up before being struck by it, although for some of them it had been close.

 

Now they were down to four.

“What the hell?” Samuel screamed.

Thomas held his wand up and a moment later it shone as brightly as he could make it. For a moment he was blinded by his own light, and then he saw it. Now that they were looking, they could see that the entire forest around them was draped in spider webs. All of them glistened in the setting sun.

There was nothing back the way they had come, but it almost looked like the forest in front of them was covered in thin lines of web. There wasn't space to fly over it, not without going over the canopy, and below was filled with underbrush.

Was this some diabolical trap set by Moody? If that was the case, then they should apparate away right now. They'd lost two of their members, and losing any more would be...

A blast came from among the dense underbrush, and a moment later Samuel exploded into a gout of blood and flesh and gore.

Thomas immediately brought up shields. It wouldn't do anything against the Killing Curse though, and everyone knew that the girl had enough hatred within her to cast that, so he dove down. The other two death eaters did the same, but one of them, the younger guy that he didn't know very well backed up and got tangled in wires that hadn't even been there a moment before.

The boy dropped his wand, and his body dropped, his legs kicking for a moment even as his neck snapped. His body shook convulsively, even as his face turned purple with a lack of oxygen.

Thomas lashed out with a cutting spell, and the boys body fell, but Thomas knew it was too late. The fall itself was likely to have killed him; they were thirty feet up, and this wasn't a Quidditch pitch with softening charms on the floor of the forest.

It was only Thomas and Malcolm now. As a bolt flew over his head, Thomas lashed out with the killing curse at the place in the underbrush where the bolt had come from, but there was to much underbrush. While the killing curse sliced through shields like butter, places like this weren't where it performed the best.

Instead he cast a blasting curse into the underbrush. With any luck he should be able to kill her, and then he'd pick the Potter brat off easily.

Returning without killing one of them, in a fight where four of his teammates had been killed, that would mean hours of being tortured. The Dark Lord was already convinced that he had a mole in his ranks, and coming back empty handed wouldn't do him any good.

Thomas apparated to the forest floor even as he heard screams from up above. Gerald's body came falling heavily, and as it fell beside him, Thomas realized that something had happened to Gerald's eyes. It looked like it had been stung by thousands of insects, causing his eyes to practically implode.

What kind of curse had she used to do that?

Gerald's tongue was swollen, and it looked like he had already been choking on it when he'd fallen from his broom.

The girl wasn't a girl at all. She was like the Trolley Witch; an inhuman abomination. She was the trap that Moody had set, and even if he was punished for hours, it would be better than what the girl had planned for him.

Discretion was the better part of valor.

The girl could be hiding anywhere in the forest, and the attack would come from wherever he least expected it.

Grabbing his broom, Thomas grimaced. He'd be tortured, but going back to tell the Dark Lord was the better of his two choices.

This wasn't where he was meant to die, not to some prepubescent mudblood.

Thomas gathered his will.

He felt a pricking sensation on his wand hand. Looking down, he saw a bee land on it. He tried to shake it off and gather his will again, but he felt another prick and then another.

Looking down, he saw a massive swarm rising from below. It was dark and writing, and it looked like the sea. It was only a moment until it enveloped him, and he felt a moment of panic.

He should have apparated, but instead he flew straight up toward the canopy above. If he could get over the trees then the terror wouldn't be able to see him, and he'd be able to apparate home.

Something snagged at him, and pulled him off his broom.

He was falling suddenly, and a moment later he was in the middle of the bugs. The world around him turned chaotic and dark, and he couldn't see or hear. He felt stinging on his eyes and hands, and bugs entered his mouth.

Suffocating, he didn't have the ability to focus, not enough to apparate, and especially without his wand.

Where had his wand gone, and where....

As he hit the ground, everything turned dark for a moment. He lost consciousness, but then he woke in incredible pain.

He had broken bones; he'd had them before from Quidditch, but never so many, and now he couldn't feel his waist.

There was a shadow above him. It took him a moment to realize that it was the girl. She was using a blasting spell on the bodies, one after the other. She was destroying them, but why? Everyone would know what she had done. There would be no hiding it.

 

There wouldn't be enough of any of them to reconstruct.

As she approached him, he realized that she wasn't a child at all. She was a demon.

There were bugs crawling all over her, including her face. As she stared down at him, they covered every part of her face except her eyes, which glittered in the dim light.

She hardly seemed to realize that he was alive at all. He tried to call out as she lifted her wand.

It didn't matter. Everything went dark.

Chapter Text

“We didn't see anything,” Harry insisted. “Taylor made us hide in a cave while she went out to face them alone.”

What he wasn't saying was that I'd had them hiding under the expanded invisibility cloak, inside Draco's box turned on it's side. The inside had been large enough that they'd have cover, and they could blast away at anyone who found them.

It would have left them vulnerable to anyone who thought to just close the box, but if the Death eaters had gotten that far, I doubted that they would have had much of a chance of survival anyway.

“You're telling me that an eleven year old girl went out to face six Death Eaters by herself?” the auror asked him skeptically. I assumed that he'd been vetted by Moody himself, since he was allowed in the room alone with Harry.

All of us had been separated and were being questioned one after the other by the aurors.

“I don't know what happened,” Harry said. “There were some screams, and the sounds of explosions, and then nothing. It didn't last very long.”

I'd barely had time to transfigure the metal webs back into ordinary spiderwebs and have the spiders gather them up by the time the aurors had arrived.

“What did she do then?”

“Came back,” he said. “Told us the Death Eaters had vanished.”

“You didn't see the blood out in the forest?” the auror asked.

“She wouldn't let us out of the cave,” Harry admitted. “Not until she was sure the people coming were on our side.”

I'd been a little sloppy when I'd been doing cleanup, and I'd missed a man's decapitated head.

A fist slammed on the desk in front of me.

“What happened to the Death Eaters?” Moody was asking me. He stared at me with his artificial eye. It was probably supposed to intimidate me, but I'd known people in my old life who'd looked almost as bad as he did.

I shrugged.

“They're gone, and they aren't coming back. Isn't that good enough?”

We'd been having this discussion for what seemed like hours, and I could see that Hermione and Neville in the other rooms were flagging. Harry seemed to be filled with energy, though. It couldn't be adrenaline; I wasn't sure what was keeping him so chipper.

Maybe it was just because every minute that he was with the aurors was a minute he didn't have to go home.

“There's no way an eleven year old girl kills six Death Eaters on her own, without help,” he said.

“I never admitted to killing anyone,” I said coolly. We'd been over this multiple times. It was an old law enforcement technique; interrogate someone long enough, and eventually they'd break, and admit to anything just to get out of the room. “Except for one Death Eater on top of the train.”

That one had been witnessed by the Trolley Witch and Harry; lying about it would get me nowhere.

“I've seen Potter's pensieve memories of that,” he said. “You knew just where to cut him, didn't you?”

“Like I said, I came from a bad neighborhood.”

“Which neighborhood was that again?” Moody asked suddenly. This was something he hadn't asked before, and I for