Work Header


Chapter Text

"Witness the might of the Eternal Warlock!" Harry proclaimed to the front lawn of number four, Privet Drive. "Mwahahaha!"

"Harry, could you help me in the kitchen?" Aunt Petunia called through an ajar window.

He struck the ground with the butt of his staff. "You ask this of me, who possesses the ultimate power?"

"Put that power to good use and shell these peas," she said. "Make sure to wash your hands first."

"Yes, Aunt Petunia." Sighing, he hid the well-polished stick behind the flowerpots and traipsed inside.

Over the years, his guardians had become grudgingly tolerant of him and Dudley playing samurai or superheroes or whatever other wicked stuff they saw on the telly, but Petunia liked tidiness in her garden, and he didn't want to lose his Staff of Doom. After all, he'd spent a week drawing mystical runes on it using a felt-tip pen nicked from Dudley.

The reason for Vernon's and Petunia's aversion towards all things fantastic eluded him. Why, the first time he and Dudley had raced down the stairs pretending to shoot ki blasts at each other, Harry's aunt went white as a sheet and his uncle nearly had a conniption. The boys were forced to endure a stern talking-to, with Petunia asking her Duddykins whether Harry had done anything weird, before the adults allowed the play-acting to continue—after a careful explanation that none of that 'nonsense' was real, that is.

Vernon still grumbled about 'that foreign rubbish rotting their brains' whenever he spotted the cousins watching Dragon Ball, but Dudley was rarely denied anything, and it would have been hypocritical of his parents to permit only one of the boys to enjoy their favorite animated series.

A classmate Harry had confided in guessed that the Dursleys were ultra-religious. He said his cousin from the countryside was forbidden from watching TV and reading any comics or books not approved by his parents, for they were filled with the words of the devil. Harry just nodded in sympathy back then, thinking that his own situation was different. The Dursleys and the little Potter did go to church on Christmas and Easter, but God never came up in a day-to-day conversation in their household.

Most nine-year-olds wouldn't have dwelled on this mystery for long, but he figured that his guardians, perfectly normal people that they were, wouldn't be acting this odd without a reason. Furthermore, Harry himself vaguely recalled a couple of incidents from his early childhood when unexplainable stuff occurred around him.

That being said, he couldn't make anything weird happen no matter what occult invocations he spoke while brandishing his staff, nor how much he strained his muscles while pretending to power up, so perhaps it had just been his imagination. Either way, Harry knew better than to ask his family for clarification.

At least he could play whatever he wanted these days, with Aunt Petunia adopting a weary resignation towards his antics. Harry was still careful not to go too wild within eyeshot of his uncle, who could be downright scary when angered; he usually retreated to his room or the nearby park after Vernon came home from work.

"Oi, cuz, I got homework that needs doing," Dudley said, blocking the corridor with his meaty arm.

"Get on with it, then," Harry shot back.

"I'll give you my pocket money," Dudley offered, jingling the coins in his fist.

He stared at him with distrust. "Money first, or you'll just 'forget' again."

"Heh. Whatever, I'll just ask Mum for more."

Accepting the coins and Dudley's exercise book, Harry proceeded into his room. This was a frequent occurrence lately, and he suspected his 'help' was the only reason his cousin was maintaining his mediocre grades. Dudley had lost any motivation for schoolwork and spent all his time in the company of the school's most notorious bullies. He'd also grown to be nearly twice Harry's size—in width, if not height—which came in handy when extorting lunch money.

Owing to their familial relation, Harry was never a target of Dudley's gang, but the boys never talked in public anymore. Harry was told he was too lame to hang with the cool kids, and his cousin denounced ever having any interest in 'stupid Chinese cartoons'. That stuff was for specky geeks, after all.

As a result of them drifting apart, the last two years of primary school weren't very pleasant. Harry never made many friends, and without Dudley's imposing presence to deter them, his rowdier classmates were free to deride him for being too skinny, wearing dorky glasses, or loudly discussing an ongoing show during recess with a rare fellow soul. Perhaps he'd have renounced his favorite pastime, were it not for the anime club at the local library.

After pestering his aunt into allowing him to join, he never missed a meeting. The group would watch various series and movies, and squabble about whether subs or dubs were superior until they were blue in the face. While the senior members treated him like a snot-nosed brat, he could feel an undercurrent of camaraderie through their shared hobby. For Harry, it was the best time of the week.

Their de facto leader was Brandon, a chubby teenager who peppered his speech with Japanese words and butted heads with anyone who dared disagree with his opinions. The others considered him obnoxious, but Harry didn't mind him much, even though he did insist on calling Harry a kouhai and ridicule all of his childhood's favorite series. Brandon was always teaching him new words, and he also brought in the most interesting shows.

It was here in the library that Harry's life was forever changed.

"It's after hours, and you know what that means, gentlemen," Brandon said, glancing at his watch before rising from his chair. "We turn the kiddy garbage off and put on some quality entertainment. I got something amazing this time—the uncensored hot springs episode alone is a masterpiece."

"You guys are so gross," a female voice said from the back. "I'm out of here."

Chairs scraped the floor as the majority of the club filtered out of the room. Brandon locked the door and headed for the computer, peering at the handful of boys who stayed. His eyes lingered on Harry.

"Maybe you should go home for tonight. This stuff's not for kids."

"But I want to watch! Please, senpai!"

Brandon's pudgy face colored slightly. That was the first time Harry had used the word despite all his previous attempts to get the younger boy to call him that. "Fine, just don't tell anybody."

"You didn't bring porn, did you?" another teen asked.

"Pfft, it's nothing but wholesome fanservice!" Brandon scratched his pimply chin and began fiddling with the computer. "Don't fret, it aired on TV in Japan—although how they get away with showing this, I haven't the foggiest. Living there must be awesome... There we go."

Harry gazed at the projector screen with bated breath, caught up in the riveting story of an average teenager who discovered a hidden power, transferred to a special school, and inexplicably ended up living with a bunch of cute girls. Salacious shenanigans like the main character walking in on a girl getting changed or tripping and accidentally groping her chest had him blushing, and he was glad the lights in the room were off.

"Er, guys... what is this kind of show called?" Harry asked in what he hoped was a nonchalant tone.

As usual, Brandon was eager to flaunt his knowledge. "That, my friend, is a harem."

"A harem," he repeated wistfully, now watching the protagonist receive scrumptious lunchboxes from three different girls. Harry's own school lunches were bland and soggy, and Aunt Petunia's fad diets were even worse. "I think I'd like one of those."

Scattered laughter greeted his words.

"It's every man's dream," Brandon said solemnly. "Sadly, that's something that can only exist in the pure world of 2D."

Harry nodded thoughtfully. This anime was like nothing he'd ever seen before, and he had to have more. His aunt had promised to buy him his own computer if he continued getting good marks at school; if he was allowed to keep it in his room, perhaps he could look up those sorts of things with the Dursleys being none the wiser.

Joining the club aside, Harry's most life-altering event transpired during dinner with his family prior to his eleventh birthday. A sharp crack sounded somewhere in the street, causing Petunia to drop her fork with a clatter. She clasped it again and stilled, fingers whitening with tension, then relaxing as the silence outside stretched on.

Then the doorbell rang, and Petunia nearly jumped out of her chair. Oblivious to his wife's distress, Vernon raised his head from his meal and stood with a grunt. Harry followed his uncle with his eyes, curious about what visitor could be calling this late.

"Good evening, Mr. Dursley. My name is Minerva McGonagall, and I'm the deputy headmistress at—"

"Look here, we don't need whatever it is you're... selling..." His voice faltered.

"Vernon!" Petunia rushed to the door. "Vernon, she's one of them!"

"I can ruddy well see that!"

Harry glanced at Dudley, but his cousin obviously had no more idea of who 'they' were than he himself did. Taking care not to scrape his chair against the floor, he stood and tiptoed to the kitchen door. From that spot, McGonagall's crisp voice could be heard clearly.

"Mrs. Dursley, it's good to see you in such high spirits. May I come in? We have things to discuss."

There were heated whispers that Harry couldn't make out before the front door banged shut. Petunia hurried back into the kitchen, her face paler than he'd ever seen.

"Dudley, go play upstairs. Harry—living room, now."

It was a testament to how severe she looked that even his cousin obeyed without talking back. Harry gulped and followed her to the living room, where he was greeted by an unusual sight.

Minerva McGonagall turned out to be an elderly woman—a lady, he corrected himself—who wore a long black coat over a dress straight out of a historical drama. Sitting on the couch with her back ramrod straight, she held what appeared to be a pointy hat in her lap. Uncle Vernon occupied the armchair on the opposite side of the coffee table, his mustache quivering as he scowled in the guest's general direction.

Harry lingered at the threshold until his aunt ushered him in and sat him down on the second armchair. Petunia herself remained standing, as though hinting the unexpected visitor not to overstay her welcome.

The lady smiled at him gently. "Good evening, Mr. Potter. My name is Minerva McGonagall, and I'm a professor at Hogwarts. Do you know what that is?"

Harry clutched the armrests, uneasy at the attention. "No, madam."

"It's a good thing I decided to come in person, then," McGonagall continued with a slight frown. "Hogwarts is Europe's premier school of witchcraft and wizardry. You have a place there, just like your parents did before you."

Harry choked back his laughter at that ridiculous statement when he saw the pained expression on his aunt's face. He glanced at the hat the purported professor was holding.

"Are you saying I'm supposed to be a witch... er?" He imagined himself swinging a silver sword and slaying monsters.

"Women are witches, Mr. Potter—you, on the other hand, are very much a wizard."

He leaned forward eagerly. "You mean I'll be able to do magic? And wear a pointy hat and everything?"

McGonagall smiled, stroking the brim of her iconic headwear. "Why, certainly. The hat is a part of the Hogwarts uniform and is worn on formal occasions. As to your first question, that's what our school is for." She paused, glancing at the Dursleys. "Muggle parents often require a demonstration before they're convinced this is not a practical joke of some kind, but I'm not sure it is necessary in this case..."

Harry bounced in his seat. "Oh, please!" he uttered before his guardians could protest.

"Very well." McGonagall produced a thin stick—an actual wand, Harry thought with a thrill—and gave it an intricate twirl, pointing at the coffee table. The wooden construction shuddered and collapsed into itself, turning into a colorful garden gnome.

"Whoa..." Harry gaped at it, hardly believing his eyes. The woman was a real witch. She did magic. And, if she was to be believed, he could learn it too! He lifted his head, about to pelt the professor with a million questions, but they stuck in his throat when he saw the state of his family.

Vernon was crossing himself—he never did that—while Petunia whimpered, covering her mouth with trembling hands. Noticing their alarm, McGonagall sighed and raised her wand again.

"There's no need for dramatics," she said, disdain coloring her voice. An almost careless gesture returned the coffee table to its original state. "It was basic Transfiguration—you must've heard about it from your sister, Mrs. Dursley, seen it—"

"M-my sister," Petunia interrupted, finally finding her voice, "my sister, whom you took away from us and got killed!" Sobbing, she drew closer to Vernon, who squeezed her in a one-armed hug.

"I thought my parents died in a car crash," Harry said in a betrayed voice. Magic didn't seem so neat all of a sudden.

"Poppycock," McGonagall said firmly. "James and Lily Potter were murdered by a Dark wizard, one whose name we dare not speak to this day. He was the one who gave you that scar"—Harry's hand shot up to his forehead—"vanishing in his attempt on your life. Your story is famous in our world, Mr. Potter."

"Enough," Petunia demanded. "He's just a child!"

"You would deny him his heritage? The knowledge about the fate of his own parents?" The witch's voice became agitated for the first time that evening.

"If it protects him, yes." Petunia raised her chin. "I'm not going to let you take my nephew away like you did his mother."

McGonagall pursed her lips at the accusation, but her next words were conciliatory. "No one is going to force Mr. Potter to attend, of course—he can decide whether he wants to or not himself. I merely wish to make certain he is aware of his options."

Petunia sniffed. "Do you expect me to trust you people to keep him safe?"

"Harry, why don't you go to your room," Uncle Vernon interjected, patting his wife's hand gently. "We have a lot to discuss with the professor here."

Given how it was his future that was being decided, Harry was reluctant to leave, but Vernon's tone brooked no argument. He nodded and left, closing the door behind him and wincing when the voices of the three adults quickly rose in volume and pitch.

Knowing full well how much the Dursleys valued obedience, he didn't loiter outside the door but went up the stairs and began preparing for bed. Dudley's incessant questions were deflected on autopilot as his mind reeled with all he'd learned. He was a wizard—he was capable of doing magic—except it wasn't all fun and games. His parents, apparently a witch and wizard themselves, had been murdered.

Even when he lay down in bed, his thoughts kept him awake. He felt a pang of anger at his guardians for never telling him the truth, but then he remembered how scared Aunt Petunia had been at the prospect of McGonagall taking him away. He'd always had to work harder than Dudley to gain his family's approval—not that he would ever voice the complaint—thus his aunt acting so protective of him made him happy. Yet it was also worrying, for it meant the magical world was truly dangerous. Well, hopefully less dangerous now that the bad guy was gone.

"Magical world," Harry whispered, his eyes wide open yet seeing mysterious castles, wondrous creatures, and ancient forests rather than the familiar darkness of his bedroom. It wasn't much of a choice, was it? He'd been fascinated with fantasy worlds for most of his short life and was just told that one actually existed. There was simply no way he'd let this chance slip by! And if there were evil wizards lurking about, it was only smart to learn as much magic as possible so he could defend himself.

Emboldened by his decision, Harry got up, stepped into his slippers, and sneaked downstairs. He followed the sound of hushed conversation to the dimly lit kitchen, where he found Vernon and Petunia talking over a cup of tea.

Harry shifted his feet, the small noise causing his aunt to look up sharply. Her expression softened when she saw the boy and she beckoned him closer, ruffling his messy black hair.

"Has that McGonagall lady left?" he asked quietly.

Petunia pursed her lips. "Yes, and not a moment too soon."

"All those things she said—they were true, weren't they?"

"They were," she said with a sigh.

"I'm sorry," Harry blurted out after a short silence. "You know, for being a—a wizard."

Vernon and Petunia exchanged uncomfortable glances. "It's not your fault… son," Vernon said gruffly. "You can't help it, being born this way."

Petunia nodded and patted Harry on the head. "Do you even want to go to that madhouse of a school? The witch swore it was safe, but…" Her disgusted expression clearly showed what she thought of McGonagall's promises.

Harry nodded guardedly. "I do."

The Dursleys exchanged another long look, then Harry's uncle reached into his pocket and withdrew a thick, yellow envelope.

"Then I guess we'll have to make arrangements for your shopping trip."

Harry beamed, his genuine happiness lightening up even the somber expressions on the Dursleys' faces.

Harry eyed the shabby storefront with suspicion. It didn't look like much, but it was the only place to get a wand, Hagrid had said. He pushed the door open and stepped inside, the noises of the Diagon Alley fading as he crossed the threshold.

He gasped when his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. The shop was much larger than its exterior suggested, with rows upon rows of dusty shelves extending into infinity. Trying to figure out where they ended was making him dizzy.

"Wands. Lots of wands," he murmured.

"Very astute, Mr. Potter," a reedy voice said behind him. Harry whirled around to find a white-haired man watching him with startlingly pale eyes. "Good afternoon, and welcome. I was wondering when you'd show up."

"Er... hello, sir," Harry said, a little freaked out. The man had known who he was without even seeing the infamous scar. "I'd like to—"

"Buy your first wand, of course. How time flies! It seems only yesterday your parents were here to purchase theirs. Ten and a quarter inches, willow, for your mother; eleven inches, mahogany, for your father. Both well-suited to their particular talents—then again, no one leaves this place without a perfectly matched wand."

Harry considered the seemingly endless stock and gulped. The wandmaker led him towards the counter, then disappeared between the shelves as though swallowed by the darkness. He came back carrying a teetering stack of boxes in his arms.

"Shall we begin, Mr. Potter? Simply take the wand and give it a go," Ollivander explained, dumping the cases on the counter. "Here. Maple and unicorn hair, seven and a half inches, nice and springy."

Unsure what to expect, Harry picked the wand up and waved it around. The shopkeeper promptly snatched it back, muttering something under his breath, then thrust another one at him. "Ebony and phoenix feather—an unusual combination, but eminently effective in capable hands. Give it a try."

Harry pouted when his hands didn't appear to be capable, but Ollivander had another suggestion already. "Dogwood and unicorn hair, exactly ten inches—oh dear."

The wand made a loud ripping noise, and Harry let go in surprise. While embarrassed, he was still heartened to get a reaction; he'd been starting to think he had no talent for wizardry at all.

The next wand was pine and dragon heartstring, and for the first time, Harry felt a pleasant warmth emanate from the wood. When Ollivander extended his hand, he was reluctant to give it back, which didn't escape the wandmaker's notice.

"An affinity for pine? Hmm. A bit of a loner, are we?"

Harry ducked his head bashfully. When he raised it again, he saw that Ollivander was off to bring more boxes. Five pinewood wands were tried and rejected, Ollivander making thoughtful noises as they went through the stock. He then reached for a particularly dusty box at the bottom of the pile.

"Red pine, twelve inches, rather stiff. Dragon core, one of my... less popular variants."

Harry looked askance at Ollivander but picked it up. When his fingers gripped the smooth handle, an electrifying tingle shot up his arm, filling his body with heat. He gave the wand a broad sweep, shooting out multicolored sparks that lingered in the air.

"Mwahaha!" he laughed, feeling heady and energized. "Tremble before my power, mortals!"

"I am quaking in my boots," Ollivander said dryly, bringing him back to earth. "I knew this wand would find its master one day. Alas, not many wizards acquiesce to a core of a dragon's baculum."

"Baculum, sir?"

"Also known as the penile bone," Ollivander said. "I do not have a diagram on hand, but the name should be self-explanatory."

Harry scanned the wandmaker's face for signs of mockery but found none. "So inside this, there's a dragon's..."

"Penile bone, yes. A splinter of such, if you wish to be exact."

Harry chuckled nervously. "Mr. Ollivander, please—surely you're just poking fun at a clueless Muggle-raised wizard like myself?" He slowly lowered the wand to the counter, but couldn't bring himself to let go.

The man drew himself up. "Mr. Potter, I treat my craft with the respect it deserves. Along with its heart, the baculum is a dragon's most magical part. The only reason I seldom use it anymore is that customers ofttimes refuse to buy wands with these cores."

"I wonder why," Harry muttered.

"Nevertheless, these tend to have much the same characteristics as heartstring cores, which is to say they are powerful and temperamental," Ollivander continued a little indignantly. "Paired with pine, they make the most adaptive and quick-learning wands."

Harry looked at the wand longingly, then at its maker who was gazing at him with affront. He sighed. "Alright, I'll take it, but you have to keep this a secret. No telling anyone—not even my kids, if I ever have any."

Harry left Ollivander's and looked around, quickly locating his towering companion. Hagrid's enormous strides soon brought him to his charge and he beamed at the boy, looking immensely pleased with himself. His shovel-like hands cradled a round cage with a large white bird inside.

"Ain' she a beauty?" The half-giant proffered the cage, causing the bird to flutter its wings to regain balance. "My present to yeh, Harry. Happy birthday."

The creature stared at Harry unblinkingly with its yellow eyes. He shuddered. "Look, Mr. Hagrid, I appreciate the gesture—"

"It's jus' Hagrid. Told yeh that already, didn' I?" He patted Harry on the shoulder with his free hand.

He winced, knowing things were about to get awkward. "Right. Hagrid, thank you for the gift, but—how should I put this—I don't really want an owl."

"Don' want her?" Hagrid's jaw hung open. "Owls are dead useful, they are. How else are yeh goin' ter write yer friends over the summer?"

He shrugged. "I'll just text them or something."

Hagrid glanced at him, then at the cage. "But I thought every boy yer age wanted one!"

"Sorry," Harry said with a grimace. "A bird like that would stand out in the suburbs, and Aunt Petunia would never allow it."

"Well, is there any other animal yeh'd like instead?" Hagrid asked hopefully.

"Not really. I just don't fancy cleaning poop every day." Hagrid's face fell, and Harry felt a pang of guilt. He added quickly, "If it was something cool, like a pseudodragon, I'd make an exception."

"Ain' tha' the truth," Hagrid said. "Bin petitionin' the Ministry ter let me breed dragons fer years, but they haven' budged yet. Lemme return this beauty ter the Emporium, then—if yeh're sure?"

"I'm sure," he confirmed.

They walked side by side, Harry shooting the downcast Hagrid furtive looks as he struggled to keep up. He wished he knew a way to cheer him up.

After they left the noisy and smelly owl shop, Hagrid stopped and stared at the younger wizard, frowning and scratching his beard for a good minute before perking up.

"How abou' a nice trunk? Everybody needs one."

They went to a boutique down one of the side alleys, where Hagrid got him an exquisite leather trunk enchanted to open only when its owner gave the correct password. Harry had a hard time figuring out the wizarding currency, but judging by the shopkeeper's smarmy demeanor, this model was fairly expensive.

"If young sir would kindly place his thumb on the handle—"

Harry obliged, eager to leave the shop. He jerked his hand away a second later and stared at his bleeding thumb.

"Ow! Bloody thing pricked me," he said incredulously.

Hagrid boomed a laugh. "Blimey, Harry, didn' even have time ter warn yeh. Don' s'ppose the lad could get another try?"

"I'm afraid the spell is quite permanent," the shopkeeper said, still smiling. "Top notch security, you understand."

Harry popped the sore digit into his mouth. "Wha' are you on abou'?"

Chapter Text

"Show me your ticket, Harry."

Having heard that request four times already, he had it on hand. "Here, Aunt Petunia."

She scrutinized the piece of paper anew as if expecting something to have changed. "Platform Nine and Three-Quarters," she read. "Three-Quarters, that makes no sense!"

A step behind them, Uncle Vernon grunted in agreement. As he huffed and puffed from having circled Platform Nine several times, somebody crashed into his back, and he turned about as quickly as his girth allowed. "Watch where you're going!"

A little girl jumped backwards. "Eek!"

A middle-aged man—her father, judging from the matching hair colors—caught her by the shoulders and gave the Dursley patriarch a polite smile. "Sorry about my daughter, sir."

Vernon grunted again, paying the pair no more heed. Harry, however, trailed them with his eyes until the two rejoined their family. As the uniformly red-haired group was trooping away, he heard the mother scold her daughter for running ahead.

"It's not my fault, Mum! That Muggle was enormous..."

Harry's eyes widened at the term, and he glanced at his guardians. Vernon seemed oblivious, but Petunia had clearly noticed as well.

"I suppose I could go ask them," she whispered, looking positively terrified at the thought.

"What? Pet, you don't mean those people are also—that sort?" Vernon sent the family a belated glare.

She nodded, her lips pressed into a thin line. "I'm going," she declared in a tone that suggested she was about to do something life-threatening.

Before either of the males could say anything, Petunia squared her shoulders and strode towards the boisterous group. Harry watched her approach a plump woman and exchange a few words, then point back at him. The entire family eyed him for a moment, and he ducked his head. Both Vernon and he breathed easier when Petunia returned; Harry's uncle even hugged her in a rare show of affection.

"The woman's name is Weaselly. She said there was a m-magical barrier, and that she'd show you how to get through." Petunia took a steadying breath and gave Harry a hug. "Be good. Don't do anything dangerous."

Uncle Vernon clapped him on the shoulder, looking eager to put as much distance between himself and anything of 'that sort' as possible. "Good luck, nephew."

"Thanks," Harry said, taken aback by the hasty farewells. "Goodbye, Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon."

He watched Vernon usher his wife across the platform until he lost them in the mass of commuters. A little uneasily, Harry began dragging his trunk towards the wizarding family.

He hauled his trunk down the train, pressing against the wall whenever anyone passed by. Having escaped the rambunctious gingers, he instantly found himself in a new predicament.

Oh, the Weasleys had shown him how to get to the platform, all right. They also asked him a million questions after finding out he was 'the Harry Potter', half of which he couldn't make heads or tails of. He even got scolded by the mother for swearing, but who could blame him? It's not every day one saw a pair of gangly teenagers run head-first into a wall and vanish instead of cracking their skulls open. Incidentally, none of the Muggles had paid them any attention whatsoever.

He got away from the fussy matron by climbing onto the Hogwarts Express, an old-fashioned steam train, only to find that it was absolutely teeming with ebullient young witches and wizards. All of whom were taller than Harry, and all of whom knew one another—or so it appeared, at least. Nobody paid him much heed, but he still kept his head low to hide his scar.

Raucous conversations abounded around him. His luggage seemed to be growing heavier by the minute, and he was barely making progress. He wanted nothing more than to hole up somewhere quiet, but all the compartments thus far had been taken, and he dreaded having to introduce himself to a bunch of older kids. He was starting to feel dizzy.

Suddenly, his eyes landed on a floating trunk following its owner like an obedient dog. He gaped at the sight, then released a tremulous breath. These people were all magical—and so was Harry. He belonged here.

Heartened by the thought, he trudged on, and eventually stumbled upon an empty compartment. Dragging his luggage in, he abandoned the notion of lifting it up to the overhead rack as futile, and collapsed on the exceptionally comfortable bench.

"Can I sit here?"

Harry turned and nodded in resignation. The newcomer looked about his age and was slightly shorter for a change. He had straw-colored hair and wore jeans and a T-shirt, which was downright mundane compared to the outlandish outfits Harry had glimpsed on the platform.

The boy pointed at Harry's fancy trunk. "Need a hand with that?"

Their combined effort was just enough to hoist both of their trunks onto the luggage rack. Harry made a mental note to learn the floating spell to make this easier in the future.

"Phew." The kid extended his hand. "Name's Anthony Goldstein, but everyone calls me Tony."

"Harry Potter," he said cautiously, shaking the proffered hand.

Anthony raised his eyebrows. "Like, that famous Harry Potter? My mum says you're some sort of a hero."

Harry grimaced. "Not really."

"Ah, well—sorry." The blond rubbed the back of his neck. "Bet you get that a lot."

"Not really," he repeated. "I had no clue I was a wizard until a few months ago."

"Huh. Well, there's probably lots of Muggleborn joining, so no worries." Tony plopped down on the seats. "Me, I'm what they call a halfblood. My mum's a witch, but we live in a regular house and everything. She says purebloods don't even have electricity, can you imagine?"

Harry's eyes popped out. "Seriously? What do they do for light and heating? Don't they need dishwashers and vacuum cleaners and stuff?"

"Oh, they have spells for those things. Rather handy ones, too—Mum uses them around the kitchen, although she always makes me do things by hand."

Harry could relate, thinking that a spell for peeling potatoes would've made his childhood a lot more enjoyable.

"No, it's worse than not having dishwashers," Tony continued, seemingly on a roll now. "They don't have computers nor internet. No game consoles, no tellies, no smartphones... Mum says they have radio, but there's only one station and it plays lame wizard music."

Harry shook his head. "That's horrible. Why would anybody do that to themselves?"

"Most of them are centuries behind the times," the boy explained. "And too much magic is bad for electronics, or so I hear. It's why none of it works around Hogwarts."

"It's worth it though, isn't it? Magic." Harry grinned at the thought that all the incredible stuff he'd seen so far was only the beginning. "I still can't believe it's real. Three months ago I'd have said aliens or giant robots were more likely."

"Oh yeah, giant robots? What kind?"

"Er... you know." He shifted in his seat, unsure if he was about to be made fun of. "The kind you pilot."

Tony leaned forward. "Gundam or Macross?"

Harry's sincere grin threatened to split his cheeks.

The first-years milled about the chamber, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Their imminent Sorting was the subject of a heated debate; the majority expected a magical test of some kind, although the 'wrestling a troll' theory proposed by a familiar ginger had a number of ardent supporters.

Not everybody appeared skittish: a pale kid with slicked-back hair boasted knowing exactly what the ceremony entailed. Flanked by two other boys who rivaled Dudley in size, he kept shooting the people around him haughty looks and snorting at their wild speculations. This didn't pass unnoticed by the Weasley boy, whose face grew as red as his hair as he glared at the trio. Harry inched away from the brewing conflict and settled at the edge of the crowd.

McGonagall returned before things could get out of hand, and led the suddenly quiet children out of the chamber and into the Great Hall. The place was well-deserving of its name; Harry reckoned his entire home would have fit in here twice over. The presence of magic was evident in the countless floating candles and the high ceiling which reflected the night sky.

Harry caught himself gawking and ducked his head when he realized that there were hundreds of students seated at four huge tables, all staring at the first-years. Then a scruffy hat began singing, and his jaw dropped again. He barely processed the meaning behind the lyrics, when McGonagall began calling them forward to be Sorted.

"Wait," Harry hissed, "it's going to look inside my head?" He looked around frantically, then froze when he saw the deputy headmistress glaring at him.

He watched the others undergo the ritual with increasing nervousness, absently noting that his new acquaintance, Anthony, went to Ravenclaw. His turn came all too soon, and he stepped forward on shaky legs, cringing at the commotion which started after McGonagall read his name.

Eager to hide from the stares, Harry sat on the stool and covered his head with the wide-brimmed hat. Only then did he remember that his mind was about to be read. His hand twitched as he suppressed the impulse to pull the hat off.

"Stop fretting," a mellow voice said in his head. "Those urges are perfectly normal for a boy your age."

Harry perked up. "Really? Even... that?"

"Seen it before. Yep, that too. You're not that special," the Hat drawled. "Look, I'm not here to play your therapist. Relax and let me do my job."

Harry exhaled, calmed by the Hat's nonchalant attitude. Whatever the magical artifact did to look inside his head, he didn't feel a thing, and it was over in a few moments.

"An inquiring if not particularly studious mind. A desire to make friends tempered by a high degree of self-sufficiency. Hmm... quite an ambition, and not one I've encountered in an eleven-year-old's head before." The Hat sounded interested now. "I guess you are somewhat special."

Harry pouted, getting the impression that he was being mocked. "It's every man's dream."

"You have peculiar taste in role models, Mr. Potter," the Hat said dryly. "Now, where shall I put you?"

"You're asking me?"

"Your house will be your home for the next seven years. Of course you get a say."

He shifted on the stool to get more comfortable and furrowed his brows. All he knew of the Hogwarts houses was a couple of lines from the Hat's song. He'd just have to trust it to make the right choice.

"I want to do my own thing in peace," Harry said, recalling the hazing he was subjected to in primary school. "Maybe somewhere with fewer jocks."

"That matches my evaluation nicely, Mr. Potter. A house for freethinkers, one where you can pursue your interests without undue judgement. I daresay you will be welcome at Ravenclaw!"

He nearly fell off the stool when the Sorting Hat shouted the last word out loud. Taking it off, he made his way to the Ravenclaw table, ears ringing from the thunderous applause. He lost count of the handshakes and claps on the back he received from his new housemates before reaching an empty seat next to a grinning Tony. Harry smiled shakily in return.

After the remaining kids were Sorted, Dumbledore stood to make a nonsensical speech which ended about ten seconds later to another round of applause. An older student at their table jotted the ostensibly random words down on a napkin.

"That made about as much sense as Evangelion's ending," Harry said weakly. "Was it some kind of a code?"

Tony snorted. "That old man is high as a kite."

After the feast and a raucous, off-tune rendition of the school song (the highlight being an older Gryffindor's lousy attempt at rapping), they were bid goodnight by the headmaster and led to the Ravenclaw tower by two prefects. One was a lanky, fidgety boy named Robert Hilliard, and the other a standoffish girl who didn't introduce herself, looking like she'd rather be anywhere else. The trek up the tower wasn't exactly short, and many kids were out of breath by the time they reached their destination.

Hilliard pointed at an eagle-shaped knocker on the polished wooden door. "The entrance to the common room is protected by a password to make sure only house members can enter. Observe."

He knocked once, and a cool voice asked, "Password?"

"Two—Five—C—Hash—Seven—J—X—Zero," Hilliard recited.

"Password approved," the voice said, and the door swung inwards.

"Our house is awesome," Harry breathed.

The first-years exchanged unsure glances, and the one Harry recalled was named Michael Corner raised his hand. "Do we have to remember all that?"

"Yes, naturally—you there, don't write it down!" Robert jumped towards a girl who had a piece of paper out and seized it, causing her to squeak. "That would defeat the purpose!"

"Come off it, Hilliard," the female prefect said. "I told you to make the password simple, yet here you are with your ridiculous ideas again. We're changing it to 'raven's wit'."

Robert puffed up. "And I told you that passwords like that are vulnerable to dictionary attacks. It took Lysander and me less than an hour to break into the Hufflepuff common room using a Webster's Third we enchanted."

The girl rolled her eyes. "You dolts are the only ones in the castle who'd waste time on something like that. Come on—'raven's wit'."

Wilting under his partner's glare, the lanky boy nodded. The two prefects tapped the bronze knocker on each side with their wands and whispered something.

"Password changed," the voice announced.

"Get inside, I'll show you to your dorms," the female prefect ordered. "We've wasted enough time as it is."

"I thought your password was cool," Harry said as he walked past the dispirited Hilliard, who gave him a surprised grin.

The common room was tall and airy, with smooth stone walls rising up to a domed ceiling dotted with stars. An enormous fireplace cast a warm glow on the polished wood of the tables and armchairs arranged around the perimeter. The furniture was upholstered in blue and featured bronze accents, looking posh and formidable, like something one would find in a centuries-old mansion. The statue of a regal woman and the shelves brimming with ancient tomes only reinforced the image.

They didn't get to gawk for long. The grouchy prefect whose name Harry still didn't know separated them by gender and marched the girls through a large wooden door. Hilliard did the same with the boys, guiding the five towards an identical entrance on the opposite side of the tower. They found themselves on a narrow spiral staircase, climbing down and passing several doors until they arrived at one helpfully marked with the Roman numeral 'I'.

"Get some sleep and be in the common room by seven-thirty," Robert said, opening the door. "We're going to run an orientation."

Potions was starting in five minutes, and Harry had to double back to the dorms for the cauldron (pewter, size 2) he'd forgotten in his trunk.

"Hurry up!" Anthony groused.

"Er... mind giving me some privacy?" Harry asked, his face heating up.

Goldstein looked at him incredulously. "What do you have in there, pony plushies? Stop being a prat and get your stupid cauldron."

"Fine." Gripping the handle, he mumbled the password, yet his trunk stubbornly remained locked.

Tony shuffled his feet impatiently. "Get a move on!"

"Ow, bloody thing pricked me," Harry said in a monotone.

The trunk opened with a click, and he stooped to dig out his cauldron. He locked his belongings again and left the room, purposely not looking at his friend.

"I see you have one of those fancy two-factor security trunks," Tony said gleefully when he caught up.

Harry grunted, maintaining his brisk pace.

Anthony had the largest and most annoying smirk on his face. "Cool, cool. What you said earlier, that was your password, wasn't it?"

"Uh huh."

"Which you can't change, because the blood binding is permanent."

Harry sighed. "Evidently."

"That's priceless!" Bracing against the wall, Tony broke down in laughter. "So when it took a sample of your blood, you..."

Harry rolled his eyes. "It's not that funny. Let's go, we still have to find the classroom." They were running late as it was. He just hoped the professor was going to be sympathetic towards new students.

After they sprinted down the moving staircases and entered the dreary dungeons, Harry had to revise his initial assessment. They weren't just going to be late: at this rate, they were going to miss half the class. The place was a damned labyrinth, and wizards apparently disdained door signs.

Harry was getting desperate, so when he spied another student in the corridor ahead, he immediately raced after her.

"Wait—please," he gasped at the older girl.

"Yes?" She raised one eyebrow imperiously. Her tie was in Slytherin colors, and her black robes featured a shiny silver badge.

"We were hoping you could show us the way to the Potions classroom," Anthony said, sounding only a bit out of breath. Harry glanced at him enviously, gulping down air.

The girl smirked, her brown eyes glinting in the torchlight. "First-years, are you? You better hurry, Professor Snape despises tardiness. Follow this corridor"—she indicated the hallway behind her—"take the first right, then turn left at the stairs. The second door is the one you need."

"Thanks!" the boys shouted, and took off.

They followed the instructions to the letter, reaching the poorly lit hallway in a minute. Harry took a deep breath, knocked on the door, and entered.

"Sorry we're late..." he began, then blinked. The room was dark, dusty, and quite empty.

"That bitch," Anthony swore.

After a disastrous, if brief, Potions lesson which cost him and Tony at least fifty points apiece (he'd been too dazed to keep track of the deductions) Harry was eager to get as far away from the dungeons as possible. Thankfully, the next class, Charms, took place in an airy classroom on one of the upper floors.

He paused at the threshold to catch his breath. Stonework and high windows aside, the worn double desks wouldn't have looked out of place in an ordinary school. As he was one of the first to arrive, he could pick the spot he liked. Most of the window seats were free... except for the second-to-last one.

Harry groaned. After some deliberation, he walked up to the bored-looking ginger he recognized from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.

"Um, hey. I don't suppose you could give me this seat?"

The Weasley boy narrowed his eyes. "What? Why?"

"It's hard to explain," Harry said, "but my future depends on it."

"You barmy or something?"

"Look, it makes no difference to you, does it?" Harry stuck his hands into his pockets, then paused as he got a flash of inspiration. "I could pay you."

Weasley bristled. "Do I look like a charity case? Jog on."

"Shit, I didn't mean..." Harry raked his hand through his hair. How was he going to explain the laws of anime to a pureblood wizard?

Weasley gaped at Harry's forehead. "Hold on, aren't you Harry Potter?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Wicked! Wait till my brothers hear about it." The boy smiled goofily, his earlier ire forgotten. "I'm Ron, Ron Weasley."

Harry shook his hand. "Alright, Ron."

"You can have the window seat—if I can sit next to you?" He sounded unduly hopeful.

Harry grinned at having secured his main character status. "Sure, why not."

After conceding his seat, Ron proceeded to question him. He looked disappointed to learn that Harry hadn't been battling dragons nor training under master Aurors (whatever those were) before starting Hogwarts. It seemed that the legend of the Boy-Who-Lived was even more famous than McGonagall had hinted at, with his sheltered childhood being a popular gossip topic.

Ron was a fount of knowledge about the wizarding world, his family being one of those isolated traditionalists whose understanding of technology was at a Middle Age level. While his constant prattling distracted Harry from the lesson, he didn't mind too much, and neither did Professor Flitwick.

The Head of House Ravenclaw proved to be the exact opposite of Professor Snape in that he didn't demand silence in the classroom and was generous in awarding points. He only gave a short lecture before handing out feathers to levitate and jumping right to practice.

"That looks brand new," Ron said, eyeing Harry's wand. "What's it made of?"

"Pine and... dragon."

Ron raised his eyebrows. "Dragon what?"

"Just dragon," Harry said firmly.

Ron frowned but didn't pursue the topic. "Must be nice to have a matched one. Mine's a hand-me-down from my brother, Charlie. I don't think it has much life left in it." He demonstrated by making his feather wobble feebly.

Harry went through the swish-and-flick motion a couple times before taking a deep breath. "Wingardium Leviosa," he intoned, feeling a bit silly.

It took all he had not to whoop when the feather rose steadily, following his wand movements. There was no fanfare, no fancy light effects; it simply responded to his will.

"Splendid, Mr. Potter, just splendid! Five points to Ravenclaw," Professor Flitwick exclaimed, popping up next to their desk.

Harry grinned. The feather floated down at his lapse in concentration, but he knew he could do it again.

"On your first try, too." Ron sounded a tad bitter. "Oh well, you're the Boy-Who-Lived. It's a given."

"Maybe it is," he said with wonder. It would certainly be hero-like to have a natural gift for magic.

The rest of the lessons passed without notable incidents. He learned to turn matchsticks into needles, repot some sort of a magical parsley, recognize the three largest constellations of the night sky, and fly an actual broomstick. The last activity was surprisingly fun, and Harry resolved to buy his own broom next year.

The routine helped him accustom to the school. Sure, Hogwarts was a lot more exciting than the Muggle primary he used to attend, but there were also lessons, homework, and teachers who all had different opinions on how a classroom should be run. Some were amiable and supportive, while others demanded strict discipline.

The Potions professor was definitely the second type. That alone wouldn't have been so bad, but he also seemed to hold a grudge against Harry in particular, as he soon discovered.

After the ill-fated first lesson, he made sure to arrive early and follow the brewing instructions to the letter. That didn't prevent the professor from making snide remarks and docking points for things Harry couldn't have possibly known he was doing wrong. The latest lesson was no different, and he almost leapt towards the exit when it finally ended.

Tony caught up and clapped him on his back. "Does Snape know you from somewhere? I know we were late that one time, but damn."

Harry shook his head. "Haven't a clue what his problem is."

"You should talk to Flitwick," Tony suggested. "What he's doing can't be fair."

"I don't know... I still have at least five years with that git, and tattling on him might make it even worse."

"Well, you should do something," Terry Boot said from behind. "You've lost us a hundred points already."

Harry gritted his teeth and kept moving.

Potions aside, Harry was doing quite well, even compared to students who'd known about magic their whole lives. Sure, he might've been ignorant about things that were common knowledge in the wizarding world, but the lessons were designed to teach spellwork from scratch, so even the Muggleborn weren't at a huge disadvantage.

While the purebloods topped the rankings Flitwick put up as a way to motivate his Ravenclaws, Harry was often above average himself. Magic was still fresh to him, and he put his all into doing even those assignments others found tedious and dull.

The coursework wasn't too difficult, and he soon found himself with lots of free time on his hands. For a while, he practiced the Leviosa, annoying the older Ravenclaws by levitating everything in the common room that wasn't affixed to the floor, but the novelty eventually wore off. His limited repertoire of spells was a problem.

This led to Harry coming up with the notion of a study group. The more he thought of it, the better it seemed: not only could they help one another learn all sorts of awesome spells, but a bunch of pretty girls would inevitably join, and the rosy school life of his dreams would be within reach. He pondered how he could make it a reality before selling the idea to Tony, and the two started spreading the word.

"Bigger turnout than we expected," Tony remarked.

That was an understatement: it seemed like half the school had assembled in the library for their first meeting. There weren't enough chairs, and the students milled all over the place, only giving Madam Pince's desk a wide berth.

For a moment, Harry considered turning tail and running, but the people at the outskirts had already noticed his approach. Squaring his shoulders, he started squeezing through the throng, Tony following at a distance. Once he was in the middle of the packed library, he stood on his tiptoes and cleared his throat.

"Um, who's here for the study group?" He gulped at the unanimous show of hands. "Okay, we can make this work. Transfiguration homework's an essay, so we'll do that first—"

"Homework? I heard Harry Potter would be teaching magic," said an unfamiliar Gryffindor boy.

Harry blinked. "I am getting handy with Mending and Levitation Charms, I suppose..."

The boy scoffed. "First-year spells? Weren't you trained by the Unspeakables?"

"Blimey, you must be daft to believe that Quibbler shite," someone said, eliciting laughter from the crowd and making the Gryffindor blush.

"Quiet!" Madam Pince snapped.

Harry was cottoning on to the fact that he was in over his head. People were getting rowdy, and now that he took a closer look, many of them were clearly older than eleven. He rubbed his temples.

"Look, I only want to form a first-year club for helping each other with homework."

"What about third-years?" asked a spotty-faced Hufflepuff witch seated at one of the tables.

He threw his hands up in frustration. "What about them?"

"Wanker," the girl murmured.

This resulted in more peals of laughter, and Madam Pince finally had enough.

"That's it! If you're not going to behave, get out!" She raised her wand, producing a shrill whistle which made those closest to her desk cover their ears and flee.

"Wait," Harry said weakly, but it was too late. Crestfallen, he watched as the crowd streamed out of the library, nearly jumping when bony fingers squeezed his shoulder.

"Hold your meetings elsewhere in the future, Mr. Potter," the librarian said.

He wilted under her stern look. "Yes, Madam Pince."

Keeping his gaze on the floor, he headed for the exit. Most of the students had scattered, but a few still lingered in the corridor outside.

"Well, that was a waste of my time," a scrawny boy wearing a Hufflepuff tie said loudly.

Terry Boot nodded. "Hear, hear."

Harry winced and hurried past, not looking them in the eye.

After the fruitless first meeting of his study group—or perhaps gawk-at-Potter-and-make-noise group would be more accurate—Harry was understandably discouraged, yet he didn't drop the idea. Anime protagonists always started meeting cute girls after joining a club, so he just had to keep at it. Maybe aiming a bit lower was the key.

He decided to limit it to Ravenclaw, which would allow them to practice magic in the common room and not stretch his organizational skills too much. The house's private library, meager as it was, would be an added benefit. Thus, he built up his courage and approached his classmates one by one.

"I can read whenever I want, why do we need a club?"

"Who's going to teach us? You didn't invite any older students, did you?"

"Won't this flop like last time?"

Suffice to say, most of his housemates were skeptical, and Harry could hardly blame them once he realized he didn't have good answers to their questions. Yet with Tony's help, he somehow managed to rope two more people into joining: the pureblooded Terry Boot, and a pint-sized girl of Asian heritage named Su Li. They claimed a table under one of the tower's arched windows as their gathering place.

"Any suggestions on what we should work on first, Su?" Harry gallantly asked the sole female of their group.

The girl gave him an unreadable glance and shook her head.

"Er, well..." He floundered to the obvious amusement of the other two boys. "Let's go over our Transfiguration essays, then."

To Harry's pleasant surprise, his idea worked out fairly well. He learned many things that weren't taught in class, but every child growing up in a magical household knew and took for granted. He even contributed by demonstrating a few basic charms that the others had trouble with; the subject came easy for him, to Flitwick's endless delight.

Su rarely said a word outside academic subjects—and even then, her sentences were laconic to the point of being cryptic—but Harry was getting used to her quiet presence. From what he could gather, she was homeschooled by her wizard father, so to her first-year curriculum was more like revision. She single-handedly improved the group's grades by going over their essays and making corrections in the margins in her tidy script. Harry felt guilty every time this happened, and his later assignments tended to be better-researched and written in more comprehensible penmanship. Su didn't show any outward reaction to the change, but Harry was oddly pleased when she didn't spend as much time fixing his essays.

Tony was quickly becoming his best friend; he had a knack for explaining wizarding terms in plain language, and was one of Harry's few connections to the Muggle world. The two often compared real magic concepts to those found in Muggle media, marveling at the differences and similarities. Unfortunately, discussions of this nature peeved the fourth member of the group, so they tried to keep them to a minimum. Sometimes, they slipped up.

"This won't get you anywhere," Terry snapped as he watched Harry and Tony cross-reference magical plants with the effects of the potions they were used in. Harry had jokingly asked if Potions was anything like alchemy in The Elder Scrolls—a theory Tony was eager to check. "We ought to be memorizing formulas instead—you know, things which actually get us grades."

"But I want to know how it works!" Harry whinged.

"You're not going to discover the principles behind potion ingredient interactions on your own, Potter, and certainly not from some silly Muggle game." Terry shook his head. "Count me out of this."

Harry glumly watched the boy walk away. Terry was a bit uptight, but you couldn't deny his knowledge of magic.

The diminished group underwent another trial when Padma Patil approached them during one of their meetings. She appraised Harry and Tony sourly before addressing Su.

"Li, why are you always helping these two? Come and study with me and Liz. We can pull our own weight."

While irritated by the implication, Harry found himself turning towards the taciturn girl in curiosity. If he was being truthful, she didn't benefit from their association as much as he and Tony did.

There was a silence, just long enough for it to get awkward, before Su answered. "Anthony is fourth in our year at Transfiguration, and Harry second at Charms." Her gaze darted fleetingly to the boys in question. "They have interesting perspectives."

"Is that so," Padma said thoughtfully, and walked away.

The next evening, she came over and clumsily asked for help with her Charms essay. Harry was overjoyed, yet he had a hard time striking up conversation with their new member. Padma considered the two boys to be weirdos—and perhaps they were, from a pureblood's perspective—so he wanted to at least make her less wary around them. Unfortunately, no matter what he said, he ended up putting his foot in his mouth.

"Hey, Padma, I heard you had a sister in Gryffindor," he picked what he figured was a safe topic. "Praverti... Pavarotti... Perv—"

"Parvati," Padma enunciated, giving him a glare. Tony snickered, earning one for himself.

"Right, sorry," Harry said. "So, what's up with that? I thought siblings were usually Sorted into the same house."

"I'm nothing like my sister," she said vehemently.

Harry drew back in his seat. "Uh, sorry?"

"If we're not going to work, I'm leaving." Padma got up and stormed off.

Harry watched her retreating back, wondering what on earth he'd done wrong. Girls were difficult. How did harem protagonists manage it?

"I met Parvati on the train," Su said, startling him out of his woolgathering. "She wasn't very interested in studying."

Harry took some time to parse that statement. So Padma was the bookish type, while her sister was an airhead.

"I think I understand now," he said.

"P-P-Potter, a word?"

Harry sighed and turned, the other pupils stepping around him to leave. "Yes, professor?"

Professor Quirrel was one of his least favorite teachers. Not only was the man afraid of his own shadow, the smell of garlic pervading his classroom invariably gave Harry splitting headaches. He'd even gone to the school nurse to see if he had an allergy, but she seemed to think he was trying to skive off.

"I heard y-you started a st-study club." The turbaned professor gave him a wan smile. "Interested in learning n-new magic? I could t-teach you some Defense spells."

Harry's eyebrows rose. "Thanks, sir, but why me?"

Quirrel chuckled. "Many educators would k-kill to be able to say that they had a h-hand in mentoring t-the Boy-Who-Lived."

Harry inclined his head. "Alright."

Chapter Text

Quirrel's tutoring turned out to be unexpectedly worthwhile. During their first session, Harry was asked to demonstrate every jinx and hex he knew. As first-years weren't taught these Darker magics, his paltry arsenal consisted of spells like the Jelly-Legs Jinx he'd picked up from his housemates. A look of disappointment passed over Quirrel's face when he was done, leaving Harry humbled and determined to improve.

The subsequent lessons had them working on one spell at a time, with Harry being told to practice on his own once his performance was deemed acceptable. After a troll had somehow wandered into the school on Halloween, causing no damage but quite a commotion, he resolved to master the basic Defense skills, and never shirked training.

In addition to spell drills, Quirrel took to lecturing Harry on his subject. When he spoke of the Dark Arts, an odd transformation came over the man: his stuttering all but disappeared, and he talked of arcane magic with passion and intimate knowledge, teaching him of the underlying principles behind curses and their counters rather than textbook theory. It was only when their time was up that Quirrel would wake up from this bizarre trance, his stammer returning with a vengeance. If these lectures hadn't coincided with severe headaches, Harry would've enjoyed them even more.

Harry decided to stay at Hogwarts for Christmas, hoping his family would understand. The castle was filled with fragrant fir garlands, floating candles, and singing suits of armor, and he never wanted to leave.

He slept in on the Christmas morning, being the only one in his dorm who stayed for the holiday. When he finally got up at an hour that would've made Aunt Petunia berate him for laziness, he found a pile of presents at the foot of his bed.

He sorted through the bits and bobbles from his friends, pausing at a fat post-stamped envelope. Ripping it open, he discovered a greeting card and a Tarot deck. Harry was oddly moved; he knew it would've taken his aunt and uncle considerable effort to overcome their aversion, even if Tarot had more to do with the Muggles' perception of witches than actual witchcraft.

He munched on some funny-tasting candy as he finished opening up the parcels. The last one held a diaphanous silvery blanket along with a note proclaiming it to be his father's. He fingered the thin material curiously, then gasped when his digits vanished from view.

"This has potential," he said, a smile creasing his cheeks.

On the second day of Christmas, an owl brought him a scribbled invitation from Hagrid to drop by for tea. It was fortuitous, for Harry wanted to thank him for his gift—a carved eagle, made with detail one wouldn't expect knowing the size of Hagrid's hands.

"Don' mention it," Hagrid said gruffly when he brought it up. "Glad yeh liked it, Harry. Yeh must be as smart as yer mother was, gettin' inter Ravenclaw."

"Did you know her, Hagrid?" he asked.

"Oh, yes. Yeh couldn' have found a more brilliant an' kind witch anywhere." Hagrid produced a towel-sized handkerchief from his coat and dabbed at his eyes. "Poor Lily... Righ' shame what happened ter her an' James."

Harry looked away uncomfortably, casting his eyes around the cabin. The wooden building wasn't large but had a high ceiling. Smoked hams and bundles of dried herbs hung from the beams, and various tools lined the walls. A crossbow the size of a small ballista was propped in the corner.

He caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to find newspaper clippings with wizarding photographs tacked to the wall. A headline reporting a robbery at Gringotts attracted his attention.

"31st July? That's the day we went to Diagon Alley!" he exclaimed, squinting at the print.

Hagrid didn't share his enthusiasm. "Guess yeh're right. Nasty business, tha'." He rose and paced to the stove upon which stood a humongous kettle. "Tea, Harry?"

"Hagrid, I don't suppose..." He thought back to that day, trying to figure out what made the man so upset. "That parcel you took, was it from Vault 713?"

Hagrid's hand jerked and he nearly knocked the kettle over. "Couldn' say," he mumbled.

Harry was ready to drop the topic, but something else occurred to him. "Back then, you said it was Hogwarts business..."

Hagrid marched over to the wall, ripped off the offending article, and threw it into the fire. "Yeh shouldn' worry about tha'! The likes o' Dumbledore an' Flamel know what they're doing."

He mentally made a note to ask his older housemates about this 'Flamel' as soon as he returned. "Sure, Hagrid. How about that tea?"

Harry couldn't help but show off his invisibility cloak to Tony after the holidays. His friend was unabashedly envious of his new possession, but he became less vocal when Harry told him it was an heirloom from his father.

As the two were contemplating possible uses for the artifact in the common room, a thought occurred to Harry. "Do you think Dumbledore was serious about the forbidden corridor?"

"You mean the painful death and all that?" Tony scratched his head. "I reckon he was. Would certainly fit his reputation."

Harry nodded. "I just thought it odd that no one was all that surprised."

"You're awfully accepting yourself," Tony said. "I went to a Muggle school as well, you know. If someone pulled this kind of stuff there..."

He shrugged. "When in Rome, do as Romans do."

"That's how the Muggleborn should be," a loud voice said. "Adapting to our ways instead of trying to change them."

The boys turned to see Terry, his chin tilted up as if he'd said something profound.

"Get lost, Shoe," Tony said with a sigh.

Harry took to using his cloak every day. He'd slink around the common room, poking people and fighting not to laugh at their befuddled expressions. This lasted until a trigger-happy upper-year fired off a hex, missing Harry's invisible form by inches. He started venturing out into the castle after that, breathless with excitement at the way everybody passed by without seeing him.

It was during one of these strolls that he stumbled upon his least favorite teacher hobbling down the stairs from the forbidden third-floor corridor. Harry wouldn't have given it a second thought were it not for the conspicuous limp in Snape's step.

From then on, he checked up on the place whenever he went out under his cloak—especially on the days he had Potions, which always left him in a foul mood. In his fantasies, he'd be hailed a hero for foiling the break-in, while Snape would be dragged off by magical policemen.

His vigilance paid off when he came across Quirrel and Snape engaged in an argument one late evening. Their voices were low and tense, and Snape was holding the Defense professor by the lapel. Harry held his breath and approached.

"You've figured out how to get past the beast," Snape accused.

Quirrel swallowed. "I d-d-don't know what you're t-talking about, Severus."

"You know full well what I mean—and you're going to tell me!" Snape's wand was out in a flash, pointing straight at Quirrell's neck.

Harry inhaled sharply and scrambled for his own wand, not altogether sure what he was going to do. Snape whirled at the noise, his wand still under Quirrel's chin.

"Who's there?" he demanded.

Harry backtracked as quickly as he dared while Snape's black eyes roved the corridor. He ducked around the corner and stuck his head out.

Snape glared in his direction for a moment, then growled a threat at Quirrel and left. Straightening up, the Defense professor stared at the man's retreating back with an inscrutable expression.

Harry pulled off his cloak and stepped out from the corner, Quirrel's gaze darting to him as he approached.

"Potter!" The look of astonishment on his face was quickly replaced by a nervous smile. "What a r-remarkable cloak. I assume it w-was you who scared Professor Snape away. T-thank you."

"You're welcome, I guess." Harry caught a whiff of garlic and wrinkled his nose. "Why didn't you defend yourself, sir?"

Quirrel appeared terrified at the thought. "Professor Snape and I j-just had a minor m-misunderstanding! There was no n-need to get violent."

The corridor was silent while Harry deliberated on whether to voice his theory or not. His curiosity won out. "Is Snape after the Philosopher's Stone?" he probed, watching Quirrel intently.

The professor narrowed his eyes at him. "How do you know about that?"

Startled by his vehemence, Harry stepped back. "The older Ravenclaws—they've got this huge scroll where they write their guesses of what's inside the forbidden corridor."

"My former house," Quirrel said, "always poking their noses where they don't belong. Everyone knows, then?"

He shook his head. "The Stone's number seventy-eight on the list. I only made the connection when Hagrid let something slip." He winced at his own indiscretion. "Um, Hagrid's not going to get in trouble, is he?"

Quirrel exhaled, his shoulders sagging. "Dear old Hagrid. I'm sure he d-didn't mean any harm. Tell you what, P-Potter—I'll cover for him if you k-keep this a secret. Better not risk students snooping around and g-g-getting hurt, eh?"

Harry bobbed his head. "What about Snape?"

"Don't worry," Quirrel said with a glint in his eyes. "I'll watch out for him."

Quirrel's face was sunken and he had bags under his eyes, but his demeanor was unusually relaxed. "This is going to be our last lesson, isn't it?" he asked, twirling his wand idly.

"Yes, sir," Harry said. "Thanks, I've learned loads."

The professor grimaced. "A waste..."

"Sir?" He stopped short of putting his bag down. Something seemed different today.

"I'm saying these lessons were a waste of time, Potter. Do you know what you are? Average. Completely and utterly so."

Wincing at a sudden onset of headache, Harry edged backwards. Quirrel's wand twitched, and the door closed with a bang, making him jump.

"When he was your age, he could command magic through sheer willpower. Cast spells others could only dream of." Quirrel approached with slow, deliberate steps. "We thought there had to be something remarkable about the boy responsible for his downfall, and yet... what a disappointment."

Harry hefted his bag in front of him as if it were a shield. "W-who are you talking about?"

"You'll learn soon enough." Quirrel's wand rose, faster than he could react. "Imperio."

Total contentedness washed over Harry, and he forgot all his worries, the bag slipping from his hands as tension left his body. He didn't even blink when Quirrel bent down to look him in the eye.

Satisfied with the result, the Defense professor unlocked the door and left the room. Harry followed after a beat—it just seemed like a good idea.

They climbed the stairs to the third floor where the professor opened the forbidden door with a sweep of his wand. He produced a harp from his robes and put a monstrous three-headed dog to sleep, then disappeared down a trapdoor. Harry mimicked the action without quailing. Quirrel decelerated his fall with a silent spell, before collapsing the entry behind them.

They passed two rooms, one with keys fluttering in the air like butterflies, and another with a massive set of wizarding chess which the professor blasted apart. Harry's mind made note of everything, but there were no emotions attached to the events.

The third room had an array of bottles on a table, and a doorway blocked by a curtain of black fire. Here, he felt the first hint of unease when he saw Quirrell consult with his turban before he was given one of the potions to drink. Nevertheless, they advanced through the flame barrier without being any worse for the wear.

The pair found themselves in a vast, cold chamber lit by sparsely placed torches. Harry's eyes drifted towards its center, where a tall mirror stood upon a stone dais.

Quirrel was beside it in a blink of an eye, murmuring reverently as he caressed its ornate frame. He read the inscription, then stepped back to look into the mirror itself, staying motionless until a sharp hiss made him flinch and resume his examination. He began rapping the mirror with his wand, his movements becoming more frantic with each passing minute.

"Incompetent fool," said the same disembodied voice Harry had heard in the previous room. "Use the boy."

Quirrel spared him a glance, and Harry's feet carried him forward without conscious volition. The professor relinquished his place in front of the mirror, and Harry found himself staring at his own reflection. Then he blinked, and the image changed.

"Well, Potter? What do you see?" Quirrel asked impatiently.

"I get super rich and build myself a wizard's tower," he answered without thinking, "and I become immortal, and get a harem, and the girls make me delicious food, and..." He covered his face, still peeking through the gaps between his fingers. "Y-you aren't supposed to show this stuff to kids!"

"Tell me what you see!" Quirrel snapped.

"Don't make me say it! It's lewd, too lewd!"

"Your spell is already losing its hold," the voice from the turban said. "Do I have to do everything myself?"

"No! Please, master, give me more time—"

Harry tore his eyes away from the enchanted mirror to see Quirrel clutch his head as his turban unraveled on its own, revealing a disfigured face underneath. It appeared to be melting, burrowing deeper under Quirrel's bald scalp. Harry recoiled in horror.

"Cease your pointless resistance," the face hissed. "You have one last task to perform for Lord Voldemort."

The words shocked Harry into action and he bolted towards the exit, Quirrel's screams spurring him on. He came to a halt in front of the dark flames, steeling himself to jump through as their heat prickled his skin—until he was hauled backwards by an invisible force, landing on his back next to the dais. He reached for his wand, but ropes conjured from thin air wrapped around his body and trapped his arms.

"I won't have you dying just yet," Voldemort's sibilant voice spoke through Quirrel's mouth. One half of the man's face was contorted in pain, while the other held a crooked sneer, a single eye glowing red. Harry winced at the jab of pain in his scar.

The monster turned to the mirror, and the side that was Quirrel's went slack-jawed. Voldemort's half-sneer widened and he moved the professor's wand in a convoluted pattern, not quite touching the glass. At its end, he tapped the mirror once, creating ripples like on the surface of a puddle.

Mouth agape, Harry watched Voldemort plunge his arm inside the mirror, then withdraw it with a triumphant cry, holding a small red stone in his palm. He lifted his prize into the air and laughed.

Harry whimpered. The stereotypical evil laughter turned out to be terrifying when one was lying powerless at the villain's feet.

The left arm of Quirrel's body, lax at his side until now, twitched. Voldemort went quiet and looked down, both eyes burning crimson. Harry's breath caught in his throat.

"Harry Potter. My nemesis." Voldemort stepped off the dais, clutching the Stone in one hand and his wand in another. "It is a shame we don't have time to talk—but I know all about you already, do I not? Silly child, spilling your guts to the harmless, timid Professor Quirrel."

"Dumbledore," Harry gasped, "Dumbledore will stop you."

Voldemort's sneer faltered. "I sent that fool on a wild-goose chase. By the time he returns, I shall be long gone. And you, Potter..." He flicked his wand, sending Harry skidding across the flagstones. "You will serve as the means of my rebirth."

Even knowing it was useless, Harry struggled against the restraints. "What do you mean? You took over Quirrel's body, didn't you?"

"This is but a temporary vessel... one that is about to expire." Voldemort strode up to him and aimed the wand he'd seen in Quirrel's hand so many times downwards.

A scintillating purple ribbon shot from the tip, slicing open Harry's left forearm. Blood splattered on the ropes, the floor, everywhere. He screamed.

The shriek was cut short when Voldemort waved his wand again. "Do not fear the pain," he said, meeting Harry's eyes briefly. "It means you are still alive."

It felt like his arm was on fire. He yelled, wailed, begged, but no sound escaped his throat. Paying him no heed, Voldemort took three steps forward and lowered the Philosopher's Stone to the floor before returning his attention to Harry.

The boy flinched, but no more curses were fired his way. Rather, the blood that had been pooling underneath him flowed upwards into the air, forming a swirling crimson sphere.

"There is poetic justice in using your blood, don't you think?" Voldemort's eyes were aglow, his expression rapturous. "Watch closely. You will have the honor of witnessing my resurrection."

He turned his back to Harry and flourished his wand as though conducting an orchestra. Multiple streams shot out of the sphere and towards the Stone, circling it for a few seconds before splashing on the floor in a pattern that was anything but random.

Lifting his head as high as the ropes allowed, Harry saw an intricate design take shape. Five concentric circles appeared, then occult symbols were painted between their boundaries, glimmering with eerie sanguine light. The sphere gradually shrank to nothing, and the blood spurting out of his mutilated forearm with every heartbeat drained uselessly onto the floor.

For a time, Voldemort contemplated his handiwork in silence. Then he thrust his wand forward and began chanting in a guttural language that evoked images of something savage and primal.

Harry twisted and wriggled, then sank down to the floor panting for breath. His head was heavy; the pain in his arm no longer excruciating, reduced to a dull throb. He wondered if that meant he was about to die.

It was surreal. Even though he'd seen and experienced magic for himself, the wizarding world and its whimsical nature still occasionally felt like an elaborate joke. The thought that his life could end here seemed absurd—yet here he was, being used as fuel for a Dark ritual.

He gritted his teeth and rolled onto his stomach, the accompanying stab of pain clearing the fog in his mind. The magical circle glowed, pulsing in tune with Voldemort's chanting. The Philosopher's Stone floated in the middle, liquefied and shaped into a heart with blood vessels growing outwards. The sight was mesmerizing.

Harry squeezed his eyes shut and fought the bindings again. Was it only his imagination, or were they a little looser this time? There was no way Voldemort would make a mistake like that, and yet...

Gasping with pain, he strained mightily until the blood-soaked ropes slackened. He wrenched his unbroken hand free, then braced himself and liberated the injured one. Even this small effort left him dizzy.

He fumbled about for his wand, but it wasn't in his pockets. The ropes around his legs were still tight, and wiggling out of them sapped the last vestiges of his strength. He blinked to clear the tears in his eyes.

Oblivious to the struggle behind him, Voldemort continued his incantations. Perfectly formed lungs now surrounded the heart, like an illustration from a book on human anatomy, and the rest of the internal organs were beginning to develop.

Harry shivered, heart pounding in his ears. Voldemort was about to gain a body using his life as a sacrifice. He was helpless and beaten. He was going to die.

"No," he mouthed, terror clenching his gut, "not like this."

Screaming without a sound, he extended his arms forward and pushed with his legs. Slowly, he began crawling, leaving bloody palm prints on the cool stone. He had to fight for every inch, but his objective wasn't far. Harry didn't know what he was going to do once he reached Voldemort, but reach him he would.

Those few yards was the longest distance he'd surmounted in his life. By the time Voldemort was an arm's length away, black spots were swimming in Harry's vision, and the chanting was building up to a crescendo.

Growling, Harry lifted his trembling hand and grabbed the Dark Lord's ankle.

Voldemort's voice wavered, but he persisted with the spell even as he glared and tried to shake Harry off. Suddenly, the furious expression on his face was replaced with one of agony, and he shrieked and fell, smearing a part of the circle.

Harry gaped at his bloody palm, then at Voldemort who was frantically casting something on his charred leg. Acting on a hunch, he staggered forward and smacked the Dark Lord across the face.

They both screamed, terrible pain erupting in Harry's forehead as he held on. Voldemort tried to push him off, but his palms burned on contact with Harry's skin. He raised his wand, but Harry used his mangled arm to slap it out of his blistered fingers.

Whatever peculiar power Harry's touch held, it was potent and deadly. Quirrel's face shriveled and cracked, and his body went limp. Voldemort's scream continued for several seconds as a pitch-black shade emerged from the smoldering corpse and flew away.

Harry collapsed on his back, gulping down air. The damaged circle next to him pulsed irregularly, the half-formed construct in the middle melting like hot wax. Rather than fading, the symbols on the floor shone brighter and brighter, accompanied by a deep hum which resonated in his bones.

He had to get away, but his consciousness was fading and he couldn't move a muscle. Thus, Harry simply closed his eyes to block out the glow, which was becoming unbearable, and relaxed.

"I'm the... Eternal... Warlock," he wheezed. "I'll... live."

A blinding flash, and he knew no more.

Even though he was safe in his hospital bed, Harry's heart thumped as if he were still in that chamber. It was spine-chilling to think just how close he'd come to death.

"My aunt was right. You lied to me." His words were aimed at McGonagall, but he could see Dumbledore and Flitwick duck their heads as well.

"Mr. Potter... I'm truly sorry." McGonagall's face was pale and drawn. "There were suspicions, whispers—nothing more. We had no reason to believe He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named wasn't gone for good."

Harry glared at her until she shifted in her chair. "I'm not sure I want to come back next year. I mean, magic is amazing, but..."

McGonagall looked like she was about to object, but the headmaster stalled her with a gesture. "No one is going to force you to attend Hogwarts against your will," he said. "Dropping out is not a decision to be undertaken lightly, however. Your wand would be confiscated by the Ministry and you would be sent back to the Muggle world. Your home has protections that will ensure your safety, but only until you reach your majority."

"Once you're seventeen," Flitwick added, noticing his confusion.

Harry sighed. "I'd be untrained and powerless. Can't escape fate, I guess."

Dumbledore froze. "Fate, Harry?"

"It—it's nothing, sir." Confessing that he sometimes imagined himself to be the protagonist of a story wouldn't lead to anything good. "I just hope none of the professors have Voldemort growing out of their head next year."

McGonagall pursed her lips. "This is hardly an appropriate subject for a joke."

Dumbledore cleared his throat. "Now, now, Minerva. I am afraid the fault lies squarely with me. I never expected Voldemort"—the other professors shuddered—"to take over one of our teachers. The enemy has played us all like a fiddle... except for you, Harry. You have thwarted his plans magnificently."

"Is that what you call it? Thwarted?" Harry swallowed the lump in his throat. "I followed his orders like a puppet. He could've told me to stop breathing, and I'd have done it without a second thought."

Flitwick spoke up. "You're only eleven, Harry. There's no way you could have resisted the most powerful Dark wizard of our time."

He gritted his teeth. "It wasn't a question of resisting—it was like I wanted to follow him! How can you even fight something like that?"

Flitwick raised his hands in a placating gesture and shot Dumbledore a look. The older man nodded.

"There is an obscure discipline called Occlumency used to protect one's mind against external influences," the headmaster began. "While originally devised as a counterpart to Legilimency—the magic of thought-reading, if you will—it has a welcome side effect of helping defend against spells such as the Imperius you were exposed to."

"Teach me," Harry demanded. "I don't want to be controlled like that ever again."

Dumbledore sighed. "Therein lies the rub. True Occlumency can only be taught by practical means—namely, repeated Legilimency attacks which you are much too young to handle."

"Too young?" Harry's voice cracked. "But not too young to get cursed by a teacher you hired!"

"Do calm yourself, Mr. Potter," McGonagall said sternly. Harry's ire rose, but Dumbledore spoke before he could say something he'd regret.

"Subjecting a developing mind to such a brutal process is out of the question," he said with a note of finality. "There are nevertheless some basic mental exercises that are prerequisite to Occlumency. These are similar to Muggle meditation, and few children ever have the patience—"

"I'll do it," Harry said, vowing to practice religiously. Not being in control of his own body, his own mind, had been even scarier than bleeding half to death.

"I'll be happy to prepare the materials for you," Professor Flitwick said. "I was a bit of a duelist back in my youth, and Occlumency was a useful technique to know."

"Good," he murmured, slumping on his pillow. Arguing with three professors had been exhausting.

Dumbledore patted him on the shoulder. "You should rest, Harry. I shall come by tomorrow."

True to his word, the headmaster visited him the next day, shortly after breakfast which was delivered to Harry's bed. He was already itching to leave as there was nothing physically wrong with him, but Madam Pomfrey kept him 'for observation'.

Despite his restlessness, they ended up talking for nearly an hour. Dumbledore expounded his not-so-successful idea of hiding Flamel's Stone in the Mirror of Erised so it could only be withdrawn by someone with the purest intentions. Harry couldn't resist expressing his disbelief that a person who wouldn't want the riches and immortality even existed—not that it mattered anymore, with the Stone consumed in the explosion that followed the failed ritual.

The conversation then turned to his parents. By the time Dumbledore finished explaining why Harry's touch affected Voldemort the way that it did, the boy's vision was blurry with tears.

"The power of love... that's pretty lame," he said, sniffling.

Dumbledore smiled and scrutinized the package of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans on the bedside cabinet, giving him the opportunity to wipe his eyes with a sleeve. It was only after he'd bid him goodbye that Harry discovered that all the yellow beans had mysteriously vanished from the bag.

Madam Pomfrey came by after the headmaster's departure and performed one last check-up. Harry tamped down his impatience, figuring he owed the nurse his life.

"Thanks for patching me up," he said after she pronounced him fit to leave. "I don't know what happened after I passed out, but it must've been bad."

"I only cleaned you up, but you're welcome all the same," she replied kindly.

He frowned. "What about the cut? And the explosion?"

"I beg your pardon?" Madam Pomfrey looked a little miffed when Harry began rolling up his left sleeve. "You didn't have a single injury, Mr. Potter—it was the first thing I checked for. The blood, as I understand, belonged to poor Quirinus."

Harry examined his forearm, finding nothing but healthy, unblemished skin. "Huh... fancy that."

Chapter Text

Harry closed the door, took off his glasses to rub his eyes, then replaced them and opened it again. The creature was still there: the size of a small child, with bat-like ears and a pencil nose, and wearing what looked like a tattered pillowcase. Protuberant green eyes peered at him as it wrung its spindly hands.

He edged into the room, eyeing the wand on his bedside table. "What are you and what do you want?"

"Dobby is a house-elf, sir. Dobby has come to warn the great Harry Potter of a dreadful plot—"

"Now, hang on a tick." He shut the door and retrieved his wand as the freaky creature watched him without blinking. "You said you were an elf?"

Dobby nodded vigorously, causing his ears to flop around. "A house-elf, sir. Dobby is bound to serve a wizard family for life. Dobby cleans, and cooks, and tends the garden, and runs errands..."

Harry held up his hand. "Okay, okay, I get it. So if you're a house-elf, does that mean there are other kinds? Say, a wood elf, or a high elf?" He tried not to sound too hopeful.

"Dobby sometimes likes to climb high places," the so-called elf offered. "But house-elves never go into the woods, sir, unless the master orders us to."

Harry sighed. "Sit down, Dobby," he said, doing so himself and patting the bed next to him. "Let's talk."

"S-sit down?" The house-elf started tearing up. "Never before was Dobby offered a seat by a wizard! Dobby has heard of Harry Potter's greatness, but—"

"Sit down and shut the hell up," Harry ordered, giving Dobby what he hoped was a menacing look. It seemed to have worked, for the elf quieted down and meekly perched on the bed.

"Has your kind always looked this way? You weren't ever taller, or..." Harry bent forward to rummage in a drawer and withdrew a paper tube. Unfurling it, he revealed a poster of an elven ranger in a chainmail bikini. "More like that?"

Dobby's eyes bulged out even more than usual. "No, sir, house-elves always looked like Dobby—ever since we started tending the first masters' homes many many years ago."

"The wizarding world has left me in despair," Harry muttered, scrutinizing Dobby's pointy ears with dismay. "Whatever, go ahead and tell me about your stupid plot."

"...And that is why Harry Potter must not go back to Hogwarts," Dobby finished the haphazard explanation, gazing at him with imploring eyes.

"I appreciate the warning, Dobby." Harry took hold of the excitable house-elf's shoulder before he could start genuflecting again. "But I have a dream to work for, magic to learn—and I have friends."

Dobby looked at him slyly. "Friends who don't even write to Harry Potter?"

"Write? You mean, like, a letter?" He wrinkled his nose. "I just use Skype like a normal person."

Dobby's ears drooped. "Dobby is not knowing that magic. Dobby thought, if he blocked Harry Potter Padmy's letters, Harry Potter might not want to go back..."

Harry's eyes widened at the stack of envelopes the house-elf pulled out of the threadbare sack he was wearing. A girl had sent him letters. They might even smell of perfume, or have little hearts drawn on them. To think, he might've triggered Padma's flag, and this wretched creature was preventing him from going further down her route! He sprang to his feet.

"Dobby will give them back—if Harry Potter sir promises not to r-return to Hogwarts..." The house-elf retreated from Harry's approach until he was backed into a corner.

"Oh." Harry blinked, lowering the wand he didn't even remember drawing. "Sure, I promise."

Dobby wiped his brow with the back of his hand. "Sir is being honest?"

"I swear," Harry said solemnly, crossing his fingers behind his back. He was going to have to cajole his uncle into giving him a ride to the wizarding post office in Diagon Alley.

Uncle Vernon lifted Harry's fancy trunk out of the boot of the car and loaded it onto a trolley. They entered the King's Cross station and proceeded towards the magical platform. Harry kept shooting his uncle surreptitious looks, noticing how he became more and more apprehensive as the number of oddly dressed individuals in the crowd increased. By the time they stepped onto Platform Nine, Vernon was constantly swiveling his head and eyeing the passers-by with trepidation.

"Here's fine, Uncle Vernon," Harry said.

Looking relieved, the man shook his nephew's hand. "You have a good year, then."

"Thank you, uncle."

His job done, Vernon fled briskly, glowering at anybody who dared look anything other than perfectly ordinary. Harry shook his head. It was regretful that his family found magic so objectionable, but it was them who chose to reject his world; he would've welcomed Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and even Dudley had they given him the chance. As it was, he was just glad the summer was over—he was tired of tiptoeing around the fact that he was now a wizard-in-training.

He pushed his luggage, trying to build up speed before going through the barrier. Despite having done it last year, the experience was still unnerving, and he closed his eyes right before the seemingly solid brick wall.

The surrounding noise changed abruptly, and Harry opened his eyes to find himself among his people. He breathed in the smoky smell emanating from the Hogwarts Express and smiled. He'd missed this.

"What were the positions in this game again?" Harry asked as they were making their way down to the field.

Tony sighed. "Like I said: three Chasers, two Beaters, a Seeker, and a Keeper."

He snickered. "Beaters, like Kirito?"

His friend gave him a reproving look. "At least try to control your power level in public."

They continued on their way, and in spite of Harry dragging his feet, soon neared the gathering of black-robed wizards and witches at the edge of the Quidditch pitch.

"I'm not sure this is a good idea," Harry said, coming to a halt. "You know I never played in my life."

Tony clapped him on the back. "Buck up—Hooch said you were a natural during the flying lessons. Think of how popular you'll be if you get on the team!"

Imagining girls cheering him on from the stands made him start walking again. They joined the other Quidditch hopefuls and waited while an older boy—Roger Davies, Tony told him—pointed at people and shouted orders. Harry slouched in an attempt to make himself less noticeable, but the upper-year's eyes soon landed on him.

"What are you two midgets doing here?" he asked, looking them up and down critically. "No reach, no arm strength. Seekers, right?"

Tony bobbed his head. "Harry's really good."

"We'll see," Roger said. He waved at the rest of the group. "Seeker candidates, over here!"

Five people came up, all third-year and above. Harry got distracted by a pretty Asian girl who stood next to him clutching a polished broomstick, and missed most of the captain's speech. He forced himself to look away and listen.

"...So, all you have to do is catch this Golden Snitch," Roger finished, his gloved hand holding up a small gleaming ball with delicate wings. "You'll start as soon as the Chasers are done." He pocketed the Snitch and went back to watching the fliers.

"That's it?" Harry blurted out. He winced as everyone turned to stare. "I mean... seems easy, is all."

The pretty girl narrowed her eyes at him. "It's the most important position in the game!"

"Er, sorry." He took a step back and leaned in to whisper into Tony's ear. "Why is she so angry?"

"That's Cho Chang, the reserve Seeker," Tony said in a hushed voice. "The starter graduated, so she's a shoo-in for the position."

He glanced at Cho to find her still glaring and gulped.

Roger returned not a moment too soon, carrying a handful of shabby brooms. "Everybody ready?"

Harry coughed. "Uh, I think I'm going to sit this one out."

Cho snorted. "Chickening out? You said it was easy."

Clenching his jaw, he picked up a battered Shooting Star. "Changed my mind."

The others received identical broomsticks; Cho looked unhappy to part with her personal one but did so without complaint. Roger released the Snitch, which soared upwards until disappearing from sight, and started counting down from ten. Harry and the rest mounted their brooms.

"Go!" the captain yelled.

Harry kicked off, but his broom veered left and he struggled to control it, nearly smacking into Roger who hastened out of the way. He compensated by gently pulling to the opposite side and finally took off. A peal of laughter reached him from above, his competitors already much higher in the air, and a burning desire to show them up welled up inside him.

A smile curved his lips as he ascended. He'd missed this sensation, this freedom of leaving all his worries on the ground. He went even higher as his competitors circled the pitch below, and tried some dips and turns to get a feel for his broom. It did have a tendency to pull to the left, but it was nothing he wasn't used to, having learned to fly on these old Shooting Stars last year.

He returned his attention to the field, staying at roughly the maximum height the Snitch was known to reach. His competitors had differing strategies: Cho ran circles in the middle of the pitch, her ponytail billowing in the wind, while the others flew along the edges or hovered near the goalposts.

A boy near the stands picked up speed, leaning along his broomstick in an unmistakable posture of pursuit. Harry instinctively mimicked the pose, squinting at the field ahead and quickly locating the glimmer of gold. Cho, by virtue of being near the middle, joined the hunt as well; Harry could see others turning their way out of the corner of his eye, but they were much too far.

Soon Cho and the unknown Ravenclaw were chasing the Snitch side-by-side as Harry trailed overhead. He flattened himself along the handle and accelerated until he was right above the pair, waiting for an opportune moment.

The tiny ball darted upwards and he cried triumphantly, extending his hand. As if sensing danger, the Snitch reversed directions and plummeted, brushing the robes of the two would-be Seekers with its wings.

Harry reacted without conscious thought, going from horizontal flight into a head-first dive. He was dimly aware of Cho doing the same; the third flier fell back, unable to change course so quickly. The fluttering Snitch was keeping just out of his grasp as the ground drew ever closer.

His finger brushed the metal wings and he made to grab the ball, but something jostled him and it darted out of his reach. He glared at Cho and tried again. Their hands touched for an instant, then the girl drew back. Hardly believing his luck, Harry lunged forward and closed his fingers around the cool metal of the Snitch.

His eyes widened when he realized how close the surface of the pitch was. Releasing the golden ball, he tugged his broomstick up with both hands, the ancient Shooting Star creaking in protest as its braking charms struggled to stall the momentum. Its bristles skimmed the ground and the broom lurched violently sideways; he lost his grip and was thrown off, the impact knocking his breath out. He slid along the dewy grass for several feet until coming to a halt beside Roger Davies.

"Well, the broom's done for," Roger said as though that was an everyday occurrence. He extended his hand. "Can you stand?"

Clasping the proffered hand, Harry got up shakily. He was winded, but a smile was already spreading across his face. To think, he considered Quidditch just a silly sport until now!

Cho landed next to them and dismounted gracefully, followed by the rest of the candidates. All of them were looking rather disgruntled.

Roger clapped his hands once. "Good show, people! I think we all know who the winner is. Brilliant flying, Potter—welcome to the team. Chang, you're on reserve."

"Piece of cake," Harry mouthed to her, still high on his victory.

Cho glowered. "I would've caught it if I was flying my Nimbus!"

"Sorry, rules are rules. Everybody on a level playing field," Roger said.

The girl gave Harry a withering look and flounced off, but he didn't find it in himself to care.

"Told you it would work out," Tony said as they headed back to the tower.

Harry hummed. "I don't know... I still think you should've tried out for Seeker. I mean, the Snitch is made of gold."

Tony groaned. "Take another dig at me being Jewish, I'll tell everyone what you've been using your invisibility cloak for."

While Harry's schedule became busier with the addition of Quidditch, he took solace in not having to memorize all those play diagrams the captain sketched for the Chasers. No, he was a Seeker: the star who could make or break the game, an ideal position for the hero. There was little for him to do besides polishing his broom-handling skills.

That turned out to be a blessing when Gilderoy Lockhart started a Dueling Club, because there was no way Harry was going to pass on an opportunity to learn to defend himself. The near-fatal encounter with Voldemort was still fresh in his mind, and he never wanted to feel so helpless again.

The Dueling Club proved immensely popular, largely because of the growing disquiet among the student body after Colin Creevey was petrified by an unknown assailant. The first meeting was a fiasco owing to Lockhart's utter lack of forethought, but the Heads of the houses picked up the slack after that, dividing the members by year and running smaller gatherings every week.

A tournament ladder and a promise of an award were all that was necessary to get Harry fired up. He advanced through the brackets with ease, surprising himself with his natural ability and impressing the teachers with his enthusiasm. The second-year duels weren't very fun to spectate, he had to admit—after watching upper-year battles they seemed outright boring, with two kids repeatedly exchanging low-level spells—but participating in one always got his blood pumping.

"The second round of the semi-finals," Professor Flitwick announced in his squeaky voice, "Harry Potter and Terry Boot!"

He climbed up the podium with an excited grin and nodded. Boot responded with a ceremonious bow like Harry had seen some older students do, and he tensed up, guessing the boy had received formal training.

"Begin!" Flitwick said.

"Expelliarmus!" Harry yelled, stepping aside to dodge an identical charm from Terry. "Locomotor Mortis! Expelliarmus!"

The boys leapt and dived to evade the colorful jets of light, Terry with a look of fierce concentration, Harry with a joyful smile. He felt the most comfortable with the Disarming Charm and could cast it the fastest; though his aim was poor, Terry was still forced to duck lest he get hit by a lucky shot. In contrast, Terry used a variety of precisely cast jinxes, but his lower speed allowed Harry to interrupt him or get out of the way. A minute passed with neither getting the upper hand.

"Expelliarmus, Expelliarmus, Wingardium Leviosa!" Harry cast with alacrity, the uncommon combination of charms giving Terry pause.

"Petrificus Totalus!" Boot responded, the long incantation allowing Harry to prepare and avoid the spell.

The battle lulled as both Ravenclaws stared at each other, breathing heavily.

"Do you even know how annoying you are?" Terry ground out, surprising Harry with how frustrated he sounded. "Your form is atrocious, and your aim is even more so. All you do is jump around like a monkey!"

Harry gaped at his opponent. "What the fuck is your problem?"

"Mind your language, Mr. Potter," Flitwick rebuked him. "Don't make me disqualify you."

Harry waved his wand in a familiar pattern. "Expelliarmus!"

This time, Boot didn't even bother dodging, letting the spell sail past him harmlessly. "Immobulus! Petrificus Totalus!" he cried, launching two binding spells.

Harry dodged the Freezing Charm with ease, but the unexpectedly fast follow-up sent him tumbling to the floor. He scrabbled to get up, but had to roll to the side to avoid a nasty Everte Statum.

"Stop embarrassing our house and just forfeit already," Terry said, looking down at him in contempt. "Surely you can see who the better duelist is."

Harry chuckled as he rose to his feet. "You're good, I'll give you that. It's time for me to get serious."

Boot scowled at him. "What are you on about?"

"I'm not left-handed." Grinning savagely, he transferred his wand to his dominant hand.

"Oh, snap!" Tony's voice said from the rows of spectators.

Terry's eyes widened in understanding and he jumped left to avoid an Expelliarmus whizzing straight for his torso. He raised his wand to retaliate, but was too slow.

"Expelliarmus. Expelliarmus. Expelliarmus," Harry repeated with relish, unleashing attacks that were both more precise and rapid than before. Forgoing the fancier hexes, he decided to overwhelm his rival with volume.

Not capable of casting any shield spells, Boot frantically tried to dodge, but Harry's carpet-bombing tactic proved successful and he was clipped on the arm. Harry caught the boy's unusually short wand and inspected it curiously. Perhaps Terry was such an ass because he was feeling inadequate.

"Victory to Mr. Potter," Flitwick announced to perfunctory applause from the second-years.

"What are you playing at, Potter?" Terry growled, snatching back his wand. "That wasn't a wizard's duel, it was a farce!"

"No one likes a sore loser, Mr. Boot," the Ravenclaw Head of House chided. "Mr. Potter's strategy, however unorthodox, did not break any rules. Clear the platform for Mr. Malfoy, please."

Harry smirked at his try-hard dormmate and faced his last challenge that evening. Having watched a few of Draco Malfoy's duels, he didn't intend to mess around. The boy had mopped the floor with his previous opponents without losing that perpetually smug look on his face.

They bowed, and Harry opened with his habitual Disarming Charms, intending to overpower the Slytherin before he had a chance to counter-attack. Malfoy evaded the barrage with ease; where Harry and Terry had hopped side to side clumsily, he took small, efficient sidesteps, which were just enough to get out of the way. Impressed despite himself, Harry tried to emulate him.

"Tarantallegra!" Malfoy cast as soon as there was a sufficient gap between Harry's attacks. "Rictusempra, Immobulus!"

The spells left Draco's wand in a flurry, his gestures smoothly flowing one into another. Harry was never more thankful for all the dodgeball he'd had to play in primary school.

"Expelliarmus," he snapped off while moving, breaking Malfoy's flow. "Somnium!" It was a spell that was seldom employed offensively, given that it was possible to throw off through sheer force of will, and he was hoping it would surprise his opponent.

It didn't. Malfoy began attacking in earnest, putting Harry on the defensive. Still, he managed to duck every jet of light hurtling his way, until...

"Serpensortia!" Malfoy uttered gleefully, aiming at the platform halfway between himself and Harry. A bang resounded, and a glossy black snake appeared, hissing angrily.

Flitwick spoke up. "Mr. Malfoy, surely you remember the rules—"

"It's not venomous, sir," Malfoy assured. "Probably."

Venomous or not, it was big, fanged, and plenty scary. Tasting the air hungrily, it slithered towards Harry.

"Immobulus," he tried to freeze it, but his aim was off because of his shaking hands. "Immobulus!" Now within range, the creature raised its head to strike, and he panicked. "Everte Statum!"

The spell made contact and sent the snake into the mass of spectators, resulting in alarmed shouts. Abandoning the duel, Harry ran up to the edge of the platform and saw the enraged serpent round on a pale-faced Slytherin girl.

"Oh dear," muttered Flitwick, who was situated on the opposite side of the podium. "Make way, students!"

The snake reared its head, and without thinking, Harry ordered, "Stop."

Every head turned his way—including that of the serpent—and a stunned silence descended upon the Great Hall. Even the diminutive professor stopped trying to clamber up the platform and stared at him.

Harry's brain went into an overdrive as it processed what happened. He looked at the now-docile snake, then at its would-be victim. The aristocratic features, the green-and-silver tie, the badge on her robes—she was the prefect who'd tricked him and Tony last year.

"Wrap around her," he said spontaneously, hearing a hiss escape his mouth.

The snake slithered up the girl's legs, coiling around her stomach in several loops.

"P-Potter, please," she begged, barely moving her lips in fear of provoking the serpent.

"Climb higher," he commanded.

The snake wound around the whimpering witch until its head rested on her shoulder. Its coils stretched the fabric of her robes taut across her chest, outlining her breasts. Harry's lips twisted into a dopey grin.

"Now squeeze her—"

"Vipera Evanesca!" a high voice pronounced, and the serpent vanished in a puff of smoke. Professor Flitwick scuttled up to him, looking more furious than Harry had ever seen before. The students all stared at him in horror.

"Worth it," he muttered.

Harry was harangued by Professor Flitwick in his office for half an hour and assigned a month-worth of detention. The Ravenclaws eyed him cautiously upon his return, the story clearly having spread to the tower, but most were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The study club members stuck with him from the beginning—save for Padma, who kept her distance until Su's placid countenance convinced her that Harry wasn't about to start setting snakes on them.

"Why didn't you ever tell me you were a Parselmouth?" Tony demanded.

"Would you believe me if I told you it slipped my mind?" Harry asked. "I only spoke to a snake once, way before I knew I was a wizard."

"If I were you, I'd be speaking to snakes all the time," Tony said. "It's totally badass!"

"It's a Dark ability, and it's scary," Padma protested.

Tony shrugged. "Like I said—badass."

"There's nothing good about being Dark!"

"Harry's still the same person," Su said quietly.

Padma winced. "Sorry, Harry. I didn't mean to say you were... evil or anything. But did you really have to goad the snake into attacking that Slytherin?"

"Serves her right," Tony said vehemently. "Did you know she docked ten points from Ravenclaw after Malfoy's goons bumped into me in the corridors? Told me to bloody watch where I was going!"

"Next time, just hiss at her and watch her run," Harry suggested with a grin.

"Right on!"

The two high-fived while Padma shook her head in exasperation.

Several other students approached Harry to ask about Parseltongue, although they seemed disappointed after he explained that he'd just learned about the ability himself. When an older boy summoned another snake and requested a demonstration, he obliged by making it slither up his shoulders and then onto a few brave volunteers. The reactions were mixed, but overall positive: while a few girls left claiming it was 'creepy', the majority of Ravenclaws were curious, attempting to create an impromptu Parseltongue dictionary and vowing to do more research about it in the library.

Unfortunately, the rest of the school didn't share the same attitude. Hufflepuffs shunned him, Slytherins shot him calculating looks, and Gryffindors gripped their wands as if daring him to attack. Things became even more tense right before Christmas, when another student, Justin Finch-Fletchley, was found petrified. After getting hexed from behind, Harry took care not to leave Ravenclaw tower without backup.

"Hey, Harry, what are you up to?" Tony glanced around before sitting down at the table across from him.

"Just reading." He reclined in the armchair and yawned. "Where have you been?"

"The loo," Tony said quickly.

"Okay..." Harry trailed off. He'd seen him enter from outside the tower, but he wasn't about to ask for details.

"So, what do you think of Finch-Fletchley?" Tony blurted out.

"Nice bloke, but very gullible," he answered, remembering how Justin had run away from him in the hallways. "Shame about what happened. Hang on, didn't you speak to him in Herbology a few days ago?"

"Oh, er, yeah." Tony tittered, scratching his nose.

Harry had never seen his friend so nervous. There was just one explanation. "You fancy him, don't you?"

"W-what?" Anthony stared at him with a horrified expression.

"Justin. You have a crush on him. It's okay, it's okay"—Harry held up his hands placatingly—"I'm not going to judge. Blonde curls, posh accent... Not my thing, but I imagine people find that attractive."

"I'm not gay," Tony objected, his face red as a tomato.

He grinned. "I won't think any less of you—"

"For the last time, I'm not a poofter!" Tony roared, jumping up so hard his chair clattered to the floor. Thankfully, there was no one else in the common room to see his outburst.

Harry stared at him. "Merlin's bollocks, Tony, chill out."

"Um, I gotta go," the boy mumbled, turning to leave.

"Hold it." Harry seized his arm, an entirely different suspicion forming in his mind. "What is the wise wolf's favorite food?"

"Let go of me!"

"Answer my question first," Harry insisted, reaching into his pocket.

The boy's eyes darted around wildly. "Er... chicken?"

"Who the hell are you?" he asked coldly, pointing his wand at the fake's neck.

"Help! Help!" The impostor broke away and ran for the exit, screaming like a madman and nearly tripping over his own feet.

Harry took aim at his back. "Petrificus Totalus!"

He strode through the Hogwarts corridors seething with anger. The broom closet Weasley had said they hid Anthony in turned out to be empty, and he had no idea whether that was because Weasley had lied, or because his Body-Bind Curse was so weak that Tony eventually managed to throw it off.

Scouring the whole castle wasn't feasible, and Ronald had probably barricaded himself in the Gryffindor tower at this point so Harry couldn't grill him for answers again. That only left him with one source of information: Hermione Granger, who (as Weasley informed him) had stayed behind in the infamous haunted lavatory on the second floor. He had to hurry, or she would slip away as well.

As Harry rounded a corner, he ran face-first into the very reason the loo was haunted. Shuddering from a sudden chill washing over his body, he turned to stare at the ghost responsible. The ghost stared right back, her silvery face uncomfortably close.

"Have you come to laugh at her? Oh, it's so awful," she said gleefully. "Just wait till I tell everyone!"

He sighed in relief. "Granger's still there, then. Look—Myrtle, right? Could you keep this a secret?"

She crossed her arms and frowned. "What's in it for me?"

"Er... I could owe you a favor," Harry offered, taken aback by her capricious manner. From his experience, Hogwarts ghosts were generally affable and helpful.

"A favor?" Myrtle floated even closer, peered at him through her horn-rimmed glasses, and giggled. "You're kind of cute. Alright then, I'll keep quiet—but don't forget about our agreement!"

"I won't," he promised, already regretting making the offer. The ghost girl's mood swings were freaking him out. "I'll just... be going now."

"Come visit me any time." She winked at him and shot up through the ceiling, her shrill giggles echoing in the hallway.

Harry ran down the corridor, trying to put the whole encounter out of his mind. Having arrived at his goal, he looked around carefully before opening the door and stepping inside.

The bathroom was damp and looked like it hadn't been used—or cleaned—in years. He walked towards the row of stalls, weaving between the puddles on the floor.

"Granger? Hermione Granger?" Harry called out uncertainly, trying not to botch her quaint first name.

"W-who's there?" a muffled voice asked from one of the stalls.

"Harry Potter," he introduced himself as he stepped closer, grabbing his wand just in case. "Your pal Weasley told me everything. Come out and face the music."

There was a squeak inside the stall, followed by frantic rustling. Harry sighed. It might've been amusing at first, but he was getting tired of people reacting to him this way. "Look, I'm not going to hurt you. I only want to talk."

"What did you do to Ron?" Hermione asked from behind the door.

He rolled his eyes. "Sent him packing. Kid nearly peed his pants when I caught him impersonating Tony. What kind of a Gryffindor is he?" He waited for an answer, but none came. "Come on, are you going to hide in there forever?"

"I can't come out. I look ghastly."

"The potion should've worn off by now," Harry said, recalling Myrtle's words with some concern. "Did you botch it? I heard it was very advanced, but it worked fine on Weasley."

Granger sniffled pitifully. "It—well, I tried to get Marietta Edgecombe's hair, you see. She's staying for the holidays, and she's also a girl, so it wouldn't be all weird for me, and I know she's spending all her time in our common room with her Gryffindor friend, and I thought I could help Ron if something went wrong, but I, er, made a mistake. It was cat hair, and I have no idea how that happened, but Polyjuice isn't meant for animal transformations, so there was an adverse reaction, and it has now been seventy four minutes, and—and I'm still not changing back."

When Harry pieced together the facts from her rambling speech, his heart skipped a beat. It was a revelation on the level of finding out magic was real.

"Hermione," he said in as calm a voice as he could muster, "can I see?"


"Please. I just want to, uh, make sure you're alright."

"Promise not to laugh?"

"I promise," he said solemnly.

The door creaked open an inch, and Harry strained his eyes against the darkness, suppressing the urge to rip it open and gaze upon world's first genuine catgirl. He nodded encouragingly and backpedaled to give Granger some space. A shaky intake of breath could be heard from the stall before the door opened completely, and she stepped outside.

A wave of emotion washed over him—elation, delight, astonishment—and then his heart sank. True, Hermione had a pair of luxuriously fluffy cat ears, and a matching tail was poking up from under her skirt; yet her face and the hands she was shielding it with were covered in fur, and he could even see nascent whiskers on her cheeks.

He sighed. Hermione had gone full furry.

"Potter?" she called out through her palms.

"Don't worry," Harry said in a dead voice. "I'm sure Madam Pomfrey will be able to fix this. A cat is not fine too, whatever people say."

Hermione lowered her hands to peer at him with yellow feline eyes. "You think she'll be able to undo it?"

"Oh, certainly. It's just too bad about that wasted potential." He gazed at her wistfully.

"What do you mean?" She tensed and raised her hands again, acting as if the Ravenclaw boy was the one who'd become half-animal. Her nails were curved and pointed.

"Well," Harry drawled, circling her and inspecting the effects of the botched Polyjuice with an almost academic interest. "Your ears and this thing"—his hand grasped the fluffy tail that had been flicking side to side—"are amazing, but that fur on your face ruins everything."

"Eek! S-stop that," Hermione squeaked. Stumbling, she tried to swat Harry's hand away.

Harry let go of the furry appendage and turned to hide his heating cheeks. "I was just curious. Think of it as an experiment to determine if the extra parts are connected to your nervous system," he tried to justify himself.

Hermione covered her backside protectively, pressing her skirt downwards. "They are, so don't do that again. What did you mean by 'amazing', anyway? I look hideous."

All embarrassment forgotten, Harry jumped to the defense of catgirls. "You don't! If you figured out a way to keep the tail and the ears, you'd be the cutest girl in our year, no contest."

"Are you serious?" She reached up to caress her cat-like ears, a blush visible through the fine fur coating her skin. "What's so great about these?"

"What's so great about them?" he repeated incredulously. "You just don't understand, Granger! Catgirls give off the impression of someone cute, innocent, and vulnerable, someone who appeals to your protective instincts—yet because of their animalistic side, they're also playful and naughty! Catgirls are love... catgirls are life."

Hermione was backing up throughout his impassioned speech. "Potter, you're scaring me."

He stared at the trembling girl, then cursed himself inwardly. He should have known better than to confuse 2D with 3D. This was a frightened thirteen-year-old witch who had a magical accident, not his waifu.

"Sorry, Hermione. Let's cover you up and get you to the hospital wing."

"Why do you do this to me, oh gods of romantic comedy? Why do you tempt me with a divine possibility, yet pull it out of my grasp at the last moment?" Harry lamented as he climbed up the Ravenclaw tower. "Well, I won't give up. Not until these hands of mine pet soft catgirl ears!"

"What are you raving about?" asked a boy's voice from behind him.

Harry whirled around. "Tony! Wait—what is Trigger's best series?" He reached for his wand surreptitiously.

"Kill la Kill, I guess," the boy said.

Harry relaxed and grinned at his best mate. "Good to have you back. Oh, and it's Inferno Cop, you pleb."

While Harry's Parselmouth talents were on their way of becoming nothing more than a party trick in the Ravenclaw common room, the same couldn't be said for the rest of the school. After two weeks of glorious relaxation in the half-empty castle during the Christmas break, he wasn't pleased with having to be constantly on his guard again. But then the Weasley twins, Fred and George, approached him in a most amusing manner.

Harry was taken aback when they walked up to him and began supplicating and thanking him for sparing their foolish little brother, but he quickly found a common language with the two, and they soon could be seen walking in front of him between classes as his trusted minions. The little game proved to be an entertaining distraction.

"Make way for the Dark Lord Potter!" the Weasleys shouted, scattering the lower-years from the corridors and cackling madly at the chaos.

"Oi, I told you to call me the Eternal Warlock," Harry said.

"So sorry, Your Warlockness. Please don't turn me into a statue."

The other twin pointed at a boy wearing a green-and-silver tie. "Turn him instead!

Harry narrowed his eyes and hissed, and the kid darted away, eliciting gales of laughter from the Weasleys.

The good times lasted until two more students—Hermione Granger and Penelope Clearwater—were petrified, and rumors started about a possible closure of the school. The twins deemed the joke to be in poor taste even for them and dropped the act. Well, there was also the matter of McGonagall dragging them off by their ears and docking fifty points from Ravenclaw and Gryffindor both. Harry might've gotten away with it, had he not been carrying a snake around his shoulders at the time.

"Harry, you're alright in our book," Fred told him the next day, while George demonstratively wrote in a small orange volume. "A bit of a scrawny geek, but alright. We don't think you're evil."

"But even such excellent judges of character as ourselves can be wrong sometimes," George picked up, putting the book away. "So here's a friendly warning: don't hurt anyone, and everything will be fine."

"But step out of the line, and we'll have words. You don't want us as your enemies," finished Fred.

Harry gulped at their serious tone. He hated being threatened, but he supposed they were just looking out for their family.

"I'll be good," he promised.

As the twins nodded in unison and turned to leave, Harry called out, "Hey, wait! Were it the two of you pranking me lately?"

The Weasleys exchanged glances. "Like how?"

He frowned and started ticking off fingers. "Suits of armor keep falling on me, rugs try to trip me, and the stairs become all slippery. It's getting bloody annoying." It was as though somebody with an invisibility cloak like his own was stalking him.

"The mere implication!" Fred exclaimed. "We're artists, maestros, virtuosos of pranks—we wouldn't settle for something so trite."

George nodded. "You need to watch your back, old chum. There's no shortage of people who want to get you in the castle."

Chapter Text

Harry huddled under the invisibility cloak with Tony, having traced the serpent's voice to a corridor on the first floor.

"Look, I think that's the Heir," he breathed.

Tony lowered his hand mirror and squinted. "The Weasley girl—I don't believe it!"

Harry nudged him. "Come on, don't lose her."

They tiptoed down the hallway, keeping to the shadows. A rather disheveled Ginny plodded ahead, carrying a sloshing bucket in one hand, and clutching a thin black book to her chest with the other.

She stopped before the spot the last message about the Chamber had been found at and set the bucket down. Glancing around furtively, she dipped her fingers into the liquid and began smearing dark red letters on the wall.

Tony shifted next to him. "Ew. Whose blood do you reckon it is?"

"Mate, you have to go get Dumbledore. Right now," Harry whispered.

Tony bobbed his head and stepped backwards, but froze when Ginny suddenly turned to look in their direction. The boys held their breath while her wide brown eyes roved over their invisible forms. Finally, she looked away and went back to her task.

Harry hissed, "Quick, around the corner."

Moving as swiftly as they dared, the two backpedaled until they were out of Ginny's line of sight. Tony took off towards the main staircase, while Harry adjusted the cloak to make sure he was hidden before sticking his head around the corner.

The girl was gone.

He swore and advanced, warily at first, then breaking into a run when it became obvious that she was nowhere in sight. Glancing at the message on the wall, he skidded to a halt.

Her skeleton will lie in the Chamber forever.

This wasn't good. Ginny was clearly not acting under her own will, and Harry knew of only one individual capable of possessing people. He stood no chance against Voldemort, eleven-year-old host or not.

Steeling his nerves, he began moving again. His father's cloak had already proven to be effective, providing a measure of protection he hadn't had last year. All he had to do was track Ginny down and let the teachers handle the rest.

He started by checking the doors along one side of the hallway. The first led to a storeroom, its floor covered by a layer of undisturbed dust, and he closed it without investigating further. The second opened into a spacious classroom barren of furniture, which Harry circled for a couple of minutes failing to discover anything of note.

The third door was locked, which put him on his guard. Taking a calming breath, he cast an Alohomora. The door swung open, revealing a cramped, windowless room holding an assortment of battered broomsticks and stained cans of paint. He lowered his wand and sighed, but still went inside to poke around.

Dumbledore arrived as he was lifting up the corridor's tapestries in hopes of stumbling upon a secret entrance. The venerable wizard looked grim as he nodded to Harry and said, "I have asked Mr. Goldstein to alert Professor McGonagall and Madam Pomfrey. It is imperative that we find Miss Weasley as soon as possible."

Harry took his cloak off and stuffed it into his pocket despite the headmaster evidently having no issues seeing through. "I've lost her, sir. I don't know where she went," he said, ducking his head.

Dumbledore patted his shoulder as he looked around thoughtfully. "It is unfortunate that this part of the castle is devoid of portraits. Yet, as I recall, one of our ghosts dwells nearby."

Harry looked up in sudden realization. "The Moaning Myrtle!"

"Indeed. The poor girl tends to be reclusive, however; I could never get a word out of her unless she was in one of her exceedingly rare good moods."

"In that case, let me handle it," Harry said. He had no wish to meet the capricious ghost again, but she was their only hope at this point.

Dumbledore's eyebrows rose slightly, but he merely gestured Harry to lead the way.

He dashed down the hallway to the girls' loo and knocked. "Myrtle, may we come in?"

No answer came, so he pushed the door open and entered, Dumbledore following him without a word.

There was a muffled gasp in one of the stalls, and Myrtle floated out through its door, rubbing her eyes and beaming. "Harry, you came to visit me! And... you brought the headmaster," she added in a more restrained voice, and curtsied respectfully.

Harry smiled back at her. "Myrtle, this is very important—have you seen a red-haired girl around here recently?"

Her face lit up. "Yes, yes, I have! An ugly freckled thing—she hissed at the sinks and disappeared somewhere. I got scared so I hid in my stall."

Harry ran to the spot Myrtle was looking at and started inspecting the mirrors, turning the taps, and knocking on the walls. Dumbledore came up and wordlessly vanished the years-worth of grime off the porcelain and metal. A tiny snake etched on the now-gleaming copper faucet caught Harry's eye. He suddenly knew what to do; he just hoped this thing didn't need a password.

"Open," he hissed, then jumped back as the wall behind the sinks rumbled and split to reveal a wide, downwards-sloping pipe.

He beamed proudly at Dumbledore, then turned to the resident ghost.

"I guess we'll be going in. You've been a great help, Myrtle."

She clasped her hands in front of her chest. "If you die, we can share this bathroom, Harry."

He nodded solemnly. "Thank you. If I could touch you, I'd flip up your skirt and peek at your knickers."

"That's... why, that's the sweetest thing a boy has ever told me!" She blushed a deep silvery color and plunged head-first into a toilet with a happy squee.

Dumbledore stroked his beard. "I must admit, I do not recall Miss Warren ever being so cooperative... or so lively, as it were."

"We have an understanding of sorts," Harry said, not meeting the headmaster's eyes. He really didn't want to get into the details of what his 'favor' to the ghost girl had been.

"Bringing her out of her shell is quite an achievement. Now, Harry..." Dumbledore peered at him through half-moon glasses. "You appear eager to venture into the Chamber, and as much as it pains me to place you in such peril, I suspect your Parseltongue will prove indispensable down there. I ask that you follow my orders and put your own safety first. Can you promise me that?"

"Yes, sir," he said, nodding. "Before we go... I don't suppose you could magic up a rooster?"

"You have done your research," Dumbledore said, looking pleased. "Alas, so have I, and it leads me to believe that conjuring one now would do us little good. The magic of a rooster's crow, you see, lies not in the sound itself, but in the greeting of the coming dawn—in chasing away the darkness and the evils that lurk therein. No, we shall have to rely on the strength of our spells in this battle, I'm afraid."

"Oh." He took a bracing breath. The prospect was scary but exciting; he felt like he was about to undertake an honest-to-god quest. With Britain's most powerful wizard leading the way, he figured their odds were pretty good.

"Do not let this deter you from offering your input, Harry. What may seem obvious to you may not be so to an old man like myself." Dumbledore gave him a kind smile before his expression sobered. "Now, let us not tarry any longer. Any delay might cost Miss Weasley her life." With those words, he stepped forward and vanished down the passageway.

Harry crouched and peered into the darkness, wrinkling his nose at the stench. Realizing he was doing exactly what he'd been warned against, he took a deep breath through his mouth and dived in.

The slide carried him down at breakneck speed before spitting him out in a musty dungeon. He reckoned Slytherin had to have been nuts to come up with this mode of entrance. Getting up, he attempted to brush himself off, but the mud merely stuck to his robes.

Dumbledore stood several steps ahead, the glow of his wand revealing stone walls with rusted sconces holding rotting detritus. "Can you sense anything, Harry?"

He sniffed. "It's dank, and not in the good way."

The older wizard chuckled. "I was referring to your gift of Parseltongue, but thank you for that fascinating insight into the vernacular of today's youth."

They proceeded with Dumbledore leading the way and him trailing several steps behind. The feeble light of headmaster's Lumos only illuminated a few feet around them.

"Why the first-year spell, sir?" Harry asked.

"I find that it creates an atmosphere more appropriate for an adventure," Dumbledore said, making him wonder if all powerful wizards were insane. "The darkness is our ally here, for the basilisk's gaze will only kill if the victim catches a glimpse of its eyes. Look away if you notice any movement, Harry."

He nodded and followed in silence until Dumbledore came to a stop. As the headmaster showed no signs of unease, Harry raised his gaze. In front of them was a circular stone door decorated with six large snakes, jewels the size of his fist glinting in their eye sockets.

"An entrance into the chamber proper, I expect," Dumbledore said quietly. "Your cloak, Harry."

He pulled the bundle out of his pocket and draped the thin fabric over himself.

"A marvelous artifact," Dumbledore said, gazing at the spot where Harry stood. "I trust you have been putting it to good use?"

A memory of a time he tried to sneak into the girls' dorms and got spooked by a blaring alarm made him grin wryly. "I suppose."

"Your father would approve, I am sure." Ignoring Harry's startled look, Dumbledore raised his wand to light up the carved snakes. "In all likelihood, the beast lies in wait behind this door. Stay hidden and keep your eyes on my back, Harry. If I am overpowered, escape immediately and inform Professor McGonagall."

He gulped. "Alright. Shall I open it?"

"Please do." Dumbledore's lined face looked grimmer than Harry had ever seen it.

He focused on the carvings and hissed, "Open."

The snakes came alive, moving in elaborate patterns as the centuries-old locks clanked and came undone. Harry watched on tenterhooks as the door swung inwards to reveal an immense chamber bathed in dim light which seemed to be coming from all directions at once. Remembering Dumbledore's orders, he quickly ducked his head.

The headmaster extinguished his wand and stepped over the threshold. Harry kept his gaze on Dumbledore's purple shoes, eyes itching with the need to look around. The floor here had proper tiles: grimy but exquisitely made, unlike the rough stone in the antechamber they'd passed. The echo of their footsteps gave the impression of a vast, cavernous space.

Dumbledore stiffened before hurrying forward, Harry barely able to keep up. Then the man's feet slowed and his midnight-blue robes billowed as he raised his wand.

"Tom Riddle," Dumbledore said gravely. "I should have known."

It was a younger male voice that responded. "Come any closer, and she dies."

Harry startled, both because he hadn't expected to run into anyone but Ginny, and because the voice sounded vaguely familiar. He sidestepped and began looking up, inch by inch. There was a pale hand caked in grime and dried blood; a small, frail body in black robes; a lifeless face, eyes closed as if in sleep. He hoped Ginny was still alive, for she certainly didn't look the part.

Dumbledore strode forward in defiance of the warning. "What have you done, you foolish boy? How low have you fallen?"

Overtaken by his curiosity, Harry dared look further up. A scant few feet away from Ginny's body was a spectral figure, translucent, but with color and substance ghosts didn't possess. It was a teenage boy he'd never seen before, wearing uniform robes that were subtly different from his own.

"You have no idea what I am capable of," the specter said, eyes flashing red and making Harry's mouth go dry at the sight. "I didn't expect you to come so quickly, but it hardly matters. The girl's life is already entwined with mine. She will die and I shall live—there's nothing you can do, Dumbledore."

"Nevertheless, I must try," Dumbledore said. There was a bang and a powerful flash of light, which left Harry's eyes watering.

Tom was similarly afflicted, shielding his eyes with a blurred sleeve. "You won't get the chance," he spat. "Speak to me, Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts Four!"

Harry opened his mouth to shout a warning but clamped down. The headmaster had clearly recognized the Parseltongue, retreating from Ginny's unmoving form.

A loud grinding noise drew Harry's gaze to an enormous granite statue standing against the back of the Chamber. He cursed inwardly and ducked his head, and not a moment too late: scales rasped against stone as Slytherin's basilisk descended from the statue's gaping jaws.

"I smell humans, master!"

"Kill the old man," Tom hissed, still appearing dazed from Dumbledore's spell.

The rasping grew louder and Harry crouched down, trying to make himself as small as possible. He heard footsteps and surmised Dumbledore was luring the snake away. A snap of displaced air preceded a collision which reverberated across the Chamber.

"Fawkes!" Dumbledore roared.

An invigorating cry of a phoenix rang out, then an angry hiss came from the snake. Dumbledore yelled an incantation Harry didn't quite catch, and the floor shook with repetitive impacts, each of them feeling closer than the previous one. He whimpered and crawled towards Tom, figuring the Parselmouth wouldn't get crushed by his own basilisk.

"Get away! Get away from the girl!" Tom hissed.

"The flying one got my eyes—it hurts, master!"

"Leave the bird, the man is in front of you!"

Harry took heart and risked a look towards where the sounds of battle were coming from. His jaw dropped as he saw just how colossal the basilisk was. It was easily as thick as Harry was tall, and when it reared up to strike, it reached halfway to the distant ceiling.

Dumbledore, now wearing a grubby wizard's hat which seemed to wiggle of its own accord, showed no fear when facing this mighty foe. His famed Transfiguration skills were in full display as countless rodent skeletons scattered around the Chamber became spiky pillars surrounding the great snake's body. When one was broken, two more rose in its placeand what Dumbledore lacked in raw materials, he made up for with Conjuration, creating heavy iron chains out of thin air.

Harry stopped gawking and faced Tom, who already appeared more solid than before. They didn't have much time, and with Dumbledore distracting the minion, he figured he could go for the summoner.

Sticking out his wand, he carefully performed the requisite motion. "Incendio!"

A cone of crimson flames engulfed Tom, who only managed to turn with a shocked expression, yet the fire went straight through him and fizzled out. Face twisting in anger, he took a silent step forward. "Who's there? Show yourself!"

Harry pulled his cloak off. "Hello, Tom," he jeered. "Or should I call you Voldemort?"

Tom's eyes widened momentarily, but then a pleased expression came over his face. "Ah, the heroic Harry Potter. Ginevra has told me so much about you."

He kept his wand trained on the specter. "What are you? Why do you look like that?"

Tom considered his translucent hands. "I am merely a memory... But with the girl's unwitting help, I am going to be more. So much more."

Harry had had enough. "Incendio!" he tried again, "Diffindo, Immobulus, Expelliarmus!"

The spells went right through Tom's shade and he laughed, a high, cold sound which echoed throughout the Chamber. Harry watched forlornly as he seemed to become even more corporeal.

"Schoolboy hexes, Harry? Allow me to show you some real magic." Tom bent down to pick up Ginny's wand which lied next to her body, but his fingers passed through it. He frowned and straightened up. "It appears we're at an impasse—neither of us can harm each other. The time is on my side, however."

Harry clenched his fists. Tom was invulnerable while feeding upon Ginny's life force, and by the time he acquired enough substance to be affected by spells, she would be dead. It seemed unfair that such magic existed.

He looked at Dumbledore with hope, but the headmaster appeared to be struggling to finish his own opponent. Even though the basilisk was trapped in transfigured chains, any direct spells merely glanced off its scales. The king of serpents was another example of incredibly powerful magic... yet for all its strength and lethal gaze, it would fall to a rooster's crow at dawn.

"All magic has a weakness," Harry murmured. He took another look at Ginny, focusing on the small black volume she still clutched with her right hand. There had to be significance to her carrying it all the way here.

"What are you mumbling about, Potter?" Tom appeared as self-assured as ever.

"She hasn't given up her body, not the way Quirrel did," Harry said, almost to himself. "You can't remain invincible while draining her life, it—it doesn't work that way. You must be doing this through some sort of an object." He bent down and pried the leatherbound book out of Ginny's cold fingers.

Tom's eyes flashed. "What would you know of magic, boy? Are you willing to stake her life on your theory?"

Harry opened the book, frowning in confusion when all he saw were empty, yellowing pages. He struggled to rip it apart for a moment before chucking it away and taking aim with his wand.


Harry channeled his most powerful spell for several seconds, then blinked away the dazzling afterimage to see the book lie undamaged on the sooty floor. He moaned in despair.

Tom laughed again, and this time, he didn't stop for what felt like minutes.

"You were right, you know," he finally said. "That's my diary, which the silly girl spilled her heart into. I protected it using enchantments even wizards many times your age wouldn't be able to break."

Harry felt a surge of hope as he recalled the power granted to him by his mother's sacrifice. "Watch me, you fiend!"

He aimed his wand at his left hand and spoke the incantation for the Severing Charm, creating a shallow slash. Cupping his palm, he allowed the blood to pool before walking up to the diary and letting it drip with a victorious grin on his face.

Tom tilted his head. Harry glanced down to find the diary no worse for the wear, save for the reddish specks on its cover.

"In that case..." He dashed forward and thrust his palm out, launching droplets of sanguine fluid towards Tom. "Take that!"

The blood passed through the figure unimpeded, splashing on the Chamber floor.

"There are faster ways to kill yourself," Tom scoffed, looking as bewildered as Harry felt.

Harry's arms fell to his sides, blood trickling down his fingers. Why didn't it work? He couldn't possibly win without his special power. He needed help.

He turned his back to Ginny and Tom, and stepped towards Dumbledore. The headmaster had snared the basilisk in a prison of bones, all except its gargantuan head—yet his movements were less robust, and his new transfigurations were being crushed by the serpent before they fully formed.

Harry took a deep breath. "Oi, you overgrown grass snake! Your father was a warm-blooded toadfucker!"

The basilisk turned its blind, bleeding eyes towards him and unleashed a string of profanities so vile they would have made Harry blush up to his ears had the situation not been so dire. Dumbledore used the opportunity to conjure an iron chain ending in nails as thick as a man's arm around its head and drive it into the floor with a thunderous crash.

Fully immobilized at last, the basilisk opened its maw and hissed furiously. In an instant, Dumbledore launched a crackling azure spell into its vulnerable mouth. The great serpent thrashed in pain; some of the bone pillars broke at its violent struggle, and it appeared to be in danger of escaping.

Harry took another step closer, not even sure how he could help, but then Dumbledore stuck his wand up his sleeve and instead pulled a gleaming sword out of his worn hat. Harry watched, dumbfounded, as he raised his left arm and grabbed Fawkes' tail, the bird carrying its master upwards with effortless grace.

When Dumbledore was directly above the basilisk's head, he let go and plummeted, burying the sword to the hilt in its flesh. The beast gave one last mighty lurch, then stilled. Its vanquisher also remained motionless for a few seconds before slowly raising his hand to hitch another ride from the phoenix.

Harry doubled back for the diary, then ran towards the headmaster as fast as his legs would carry him, ignoring Tom's incoherent screams of rage.

"That was the most badass thing I've ever seen," he blurted out, nearly slipping on the damp stone as he came to a halt. "You were better than Gandalf!"

"Thank you, young man." Dumbledore's breathing was ragged as he leaned against the basilisk's carcass, but the expression on his face was triumphant. His hands were clasped over the pommel of the sword, its tip resting on the ground. "For the timely distraction, as well."

Harry nodded. "Could you lend me your sword real quick?"

Dumbledore obliged, pushing the handle towards Harry and watching him carefully. He appeared taken aback when the younger wizard hefted the weapon up.

Harry dropped the cursed diary to the ground and lifted the sword higher, adding a second hand on the hilt. Praying fervently that his hunch was correct, he stabbed down with all his strength. The tip of the blade pierced the thin volume with little resistance and scraped against the stone underneath, the impact jarring his wrists. Viscous ink spurted from the cut like blood from an arterial wound; Harry heard a pained scream and swiveled to see Tom's shade turn into black smoke and evaporate.

Dumbledore looked lost for words. He regarded the spot where Tom had disappeared, then the diary lying in a puddle of ink on the floor. Lastly, he leveled his penetrating gaze at the younger wizard.

"Well done, Harry," he said. "How did you know?"

Harry scratched the back of his neck, gathering his thoughts. His insight had been more intuitive than reasoned, and he wasn't certain how to put it into words.

"That Tom freak was like a ghost—except ghosts can't suck life out of people, right? They're intangible, but they can't touch you either. You... can't have it both ways." He glanced at Dumbledore, almost expecting to be corrected. "That's why I figured he had to be using something as a medium. Ginny was holding this book, so I tried to burn it, and then Riddle told me it was his diary that he'd enchanted himself, and... you've seen the rest."

"You are a credit to your house." Dumbledore's gaze flicked to the sword in Harry's hands. "And a true Gryffindor, to boot."


The corners of the headmaster's eyes crinkled. "Only descendants of Godric Gryffindor—in blood as well as spirit—are able to wield his sword."

He extended his hand and Harry passed the weapon back. Dumbledore scrutinized the blood smeared on the hilt, then Harry's likewise stained palm.

"Were you hurt, my boy?"

"Only a scratch." Harry flexed his left palm, grimacing at the stickiness, and pointed his wand to clean it off. "Tergeo. Yep, not bleeding anymore."

"Let us move on, then." Dumbledore tucked the sword under his belt and pushed off the carcass with a groan. He hobbled towards Ginny's unmoving body, Harry catching up easily and falling in stride.

"Are you alright, sir?"

"I am fine, Harry, although I must admit that was too much excitement for a man of my years."

As if to put him at ease, Dumbledore straightened his back and picked up the pace until they reached the comatose girl. He took the Sorting Hat—for that's what it was, now that Harry took a closer look—off his head and gently laid it on Ginny's.

A mouth-like rip opened above the hat's brim and it said, "The girl's mind is intact, Albus. She is merely unconscious."

The headmaster sighed in relief and bent down to gather her small body in his arms. He then turned to whistle at Fawkes, who was standing atop the basilisk's corpse and pecking at it with unmistakable pride. The phoenix swooped down and hovered in the air in front of them, beating his wings lightly.

"Please take hold of my robes as well as Fawkes' tail, Harry," Dumbledore said with a twinkle in his eyes.

Shrugging, he did as asked. When he touched the warm feathers, a strange lightness spread through him, and he felt like he'd float up at any moment. Then Fawkes pulled them forward, and Harry whooped in excitement as they flew through the Chamber, reaching the entrance in seconds and shooting up the pipe.

They landed in Myrtle's loo, and he felt a pang of disappointment as gravity took hold again. Fawkes trilled and circled them once, then vanished in a burst of flames.

"Ever the show-off," Dumbledore said fondly. He moved towards the door and Harry hastened to open it.

Stepping out into the corridor, Harry collided with somebody wearing glittering golden robes. He blinked and looked up to see Gilderoy Lockhart flash his award-winning smile at him.

"Albus, Harry! How good to see you two alive and well. I was about to go down there and look for you myself."

Tony stepped out from behind the opened door. "He wouldn't let me go get McGonagall—said it was too dangerous. Glad you're okay, mate." He punched Harry on the shoulder lightly.

"But of course!" Lockhart exclaimed. "As the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, I'm best equipped to deal with such threats. There's no safer place in this castle than at my side."

Dumbledore nodded graciously. "Your presence is reassuring, Gilderoy. Please escort us to the hospital wing as Miss Weasley is in need of medical attention."

Still appearing somewhat weary, the headmaster set off at an easy pace. Lockhart drew next to him as they walked and glanced at Ginny's ashen face.

"Young Ginevra is going to be all right, isn't she?" he asked in an uncharacteristically somber manner.

"She is," Dumbledore said. "Harry's sterling judgement and the ability to think on his feet saved her life."

"Thank god for that," Lockhart said, his smile returning. He wrapped his arm around Harry's shoulders. "Well then, young hero, tell me about your latest adventure!"

Wincing at the overpowering smell of perfume, Harry launched into a recounting of the events down in the Chamber. The professor and Tony proved an attentive audience, making awed noises and gasping at the right times, and he soon found he was enjoying himself.

After he described the way he'd stabbed the diary in a dramatic (and slightly embellished) manner, Lockhart finally stepped aside, allowing him to breathe easier.

"Marvelous, just marvelous," he said. "Fighting with a sword... not very wizardly, but certainly heroic. Baiting—no, battling the basilisk. I like the sound of that..."

Lockhart's voice dropped to a murmur as he fell behind. Harry exchanged glances with Tony and shrugged.

They entered the hallway which led to the hospital wing when fabric rustled behind them and Lockhart spoke again. "Oblivi—urk!"

Harry whirled around; the Defense professor was clutching his forearm which had a small knife sticking out of it. His wand clattered to the floor, and a pale Tony bent down to pick it up. Left weaponless, Lockhart retreated until his back pressed against the wall, eyes darting between the three wizards surrounding him.

"My word! Was it truly necessary to stab him, Mr. Goldstein?" Dumbledore asked.

"He tried to curse you, headmaster!" Tony said incredulously.

"Be that as it may, I cannot allow this to go unpunished. That will be one point from Ravenclaw and a detention in the kitchens. I hear the house-elves need someone to sample their new hot chocolate recipe."

Tony grinned. "Yes, sir."

"Harry, if you would do the honors?" Dumbledore asked calmly. "My hands are full at the moment."

"My pleasure," he growled, raising his wand. "Petrificus Totalus!"

Lockhart's body went rigid, only his eyes moving to glare at them. Harry turned his back to the man and ran up to Dumbledore, who had immediately resumed walking.

Tony glanced over his shoulder. "Will he be okay?

"The Body-Bind Curse has a little-known effect of stemming blood flow," Dumbledore said. "Professor Lockhart can stay there and reflect on his actions until Miss Weasley's and Harry's injuries are taken care of."

The headmaster's tone was light, but his posture was rigid and his face hard. Even knowing the anger wasn't directed at him, Harry unconsciously put some distance between them, falling in step with his friend.

"Where did you get the knife?" he asked quietly.

"I always carry it in my shoe. You never know when you're going to need a Potions knife."

Harry stopped walking. "Mate, that's just weird."

Tony glanced at Dumbledore before whispering, "Not as weird as this place. Tell me you wouldn't have liked to have one when Quirrel kidnapped you last year."

He nodded slowly. "Good point."

The next week passed in a blur. A pair of surly Hitwizards took Lockhart away, the petrified students were restored, and Harry was bestowed a Special Award for Services to the School. Saturday found him in Dumbledore's office, where the headmaster shared some speculation in regards to the diary and its nature but admitted to not having encountered magic of this sort before.

"Let us turn to brighter matters," Dumbledore said. "In the rush of the past few days, I have completely forgotten our trophy from the Chamber."

Fawkes lifted his head from under his wing and trilled sleepily.

"Trophy, sir?" Harry asked.

"The basilisk, naturally. I would like to donate its skeleton to the Museum of Magical Creatures—a specimen this size will be the centerpiece of the exhibition for years to come. Its flesh is too poisonous to be of any use, but the skin could be auctioned off to collectors. Our school's coffers could use the coin—perhaps Professor Sprout will get those additional greenhouses she has been petitioning for." Dumbledore smiled at him. "As you have contributed to the basilisk's demise, I wanted to get your approval, Harry. I know a noble young man like yourself does not care about rewards—"

"I'm not that noble." Harry furrowed his brows in thought. "Could I get a bit of its skin, maybe?"

The headmaster lifted his eyebrows. "May I ask what you plan on doing with it?"

"I want a souvenir," he said with a grin, "so I'm getting the basilisk made into a couch."

Dumbledore laughed heartily, clutching his belly. "That can be arranged. Come to think of it, I could use some new shoes myself."

"I also need somewhere to put it..." Harry trailed off as he came up with an idea. "Like a clubroom, perhaps."

Dumbledore nodded. "There are plenty of unused rooms in the castle. I am sure your Head of House would be happy to assist you on this matter."

Tony, Padma, and Su followed Harry outside the common room and to a narrow iron-banded door. He turned the handle and pushed.

The door led to a circular room with high windows coated in grime and cobwebs. Dusty wooden crates were scattered haphazardly on the floor.

"Ta-da!" Harry turned towards his friends with a grin, then sneezed and rubbed his nose.

"What am I looking at?" Padma asked, her arms crossed.

"Our new clubroom—Flitwick said we could use it to study and stuff." He glanced at Padma's unimpressed expression. "Er... if you want to, of course."

Padma stepped inside, waving the dust away from her face as she appraised the place with a critical eye. "I suppose I could use a little peace and quiet sometimes. At least until I learn to silence those giggly third-years."

Harry released a breath. "Great! Shall we get to cleaning?"

"Don't be daft, that's house-elf work." She cleared her throat and rattled off, "Tipsy, Winky, Floppy, Meeny, Petey, Ginny, Boopy, Pokey, Mopsy, Hokey, Gobry—"

An elf in a toga appeared before her with a soft pop. "Young miss calls Gobry?"

"We need this place cleaned up," Padma said without batting an eye. "Bring us a table and four comfortable chairs afterwards."

"It will be done in a trice, mistress," Gobry squeaked, bowing deeply.

He popped away, only to come back with reinforcements. The number of elves seemed to grow in geometric progression, creating a veritable vortex of dirt as they scrubbed every surface.

Padma stepped out of the room and shut the door. "There," she said smugly. "We should let them work."

Harry nodded, impressed. "I guess there are perks to thinking like a pureblood."

"Maybe we could convince them to deliver food and drinks," Tony said as they headed back to the common room. "No one would know."

"Brilliant," Harry said. "We should also ward the door so that only we can get in."

"And we need a name—something cool, like Arcane Tower or Forbidden Archive..."

Padma snorted. "Boys."

"The Roost," Su said. Everybody looked at her, and she ducked her head.

"Oh, because we're eagles." Tony nodded. "That was totally going to be my third choice."

"I like it," Harry said, giving Su a smile. She glanced at him before averting her gaze.

Padma rolled her eyes and shoved the common room door open. Harry trailed her absentmindedly until she stopped in front of the entrance to the girls' dorms and quirked an eyebrow.

"Was there something else?"

"Ah, right—I was thinking of inviting Hermione Granger to study with us," he said. "You know, to help her catch up."

A wily look passed over Padma's face. "Granger, you say. I've heard about her from my sister—she called her a stick-in-the-mud. Parvati would be so annoyed if I befriended her."

Su sidled up next to Padma. "Hermione is the top of our year," she said with a note of admiration.

Taking that as approval, Harry glanced at Tony for his input.

"We're talking about the girl who conked me out and had me impersonated using an illegal potion." Tony put his hand on his chin in consideration. "Yeah, I'd rather have someone like that on our side."

Harry ducked into the hospital wing where the recently unpetrified students were recuperating. Locating his target, he ambled towards her.

"Hey, Hermione." He sat down on the chair next to her bed without waiting for an invitation.

"Potter." Her eyes narrowed. "You aren't going to ask me to brew you Polyjuice again, are you?"

"No, I can take a hint." He grinned. "On a completely unrelated note, can I have one of your hairs?"

She gaped at him, then went for her wand, face reddening. "If you ever try something like that—"

Harry raised his hands. "Kidding, just kidding. I've actually come to invite you to our study group."

She blinked. "You are in a study group?"

He nodded, eyeing the pile of parchment on her bedside table. "You've been out for a while. I'm sure you can catch up on your own, but it's easier if you have help, right?"

"I do have help." Hermione put her wand down, still watching him apprehensively. "Neville gave me his notes. They're... adequate."

"Su takes the neatest notes for all classes, even History of Magic. It's up to you, though. I heard everyone who was petrified is exempt from the end-of-year exams, so it's not like you have anything to worry about." He also heard that Hermione took schoolwork very seriously, but she didn't need to know that. He stood and pretended to leave.

"Potter—wait." He turned around, trying not to look too smug. "Aren't you all Ravenclaws? I can't exactly waltz into your common room."

"We have our own place, a turret off the Ravenclaw tower. Come by after lessons tomorrow and I'll show you."

"Maybe I will," Hermione said carefully.

Harry whistled an approximation of the 'joined your party' jingle from Final Fantasy.

She frowned. "What are you doing?"

He coughed to cover his embarrassment. "N-nothing. See you tomorrow, then."

Harry swept his arm in a grand gesture. "What do you think?"

"A bit out of the way for me, but it's nice," Hermione said, looking around their spotless clubroom with a guarded expression.

"Great, everyone's here," Harry said, looking over her shoulder.

Padma, Su, and Tony filtered into the room, and he introduced them to a fidgeting Hermione. The three girls soon started talking about academic topics, while Tony made a beeline for their new couch.

"Look at that! When did it get here?" The boy brushed the rich green leather with his fingertips.

"The house-elves brought it in not ten minutes ago." Harry frowned as he recalled the way those jumpy critters kept apologizing for being seen. "Makes me sad, every time I see one of those creatures."

Hermione's head whipped towards him. "I thought I was the only one who felt this way," she exclaimed, abandoning her discussion with Padma. "I can't believe they exploit intelligent beings here at Hogwarts!"

Harry blinked. "What? No, it makes me sad because it reminds me that true elves don't actually exist."

Hermione furrowed her brows. "What are you talking about?"

"Elves—tall, beautiful creatures with pointy ears? Imagine my disappointment when I found out what passes for one in this world."

"You mean like in the Lord of the Rings?" Hermione sniffed. "Don't be silly, that's just fiction."

"So was magic two years ago," Harry muttered, slumping onto his couch.

Oblivious to the damage she'd caused to his fragile heart, Hermione peered at the piece of furniture. "That looks swanky."

Harry patted the leather, admiring the way it gleamed in the sunlight. "It better. Had it crafted from basilisk skin by order."

Hermione gasped. "The one Dumbledore defeated?"

"Dumbledore and yours truly, thank you very much." The entranced look on Hermione's face lifted his mood. "Want to hear about it?"

Hermione nodded, dragging her chair closer.

"Very well," Harry said, making himself more comfortable. "It all starts with me and Dumbledore at the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets, having discovered it after a grueling trial which tested our wits and endurance."

Tony groaned. "Here we go again."

"Shush," Hermione said, her eyes sparkling. "Go on, please!"

Padma sighed loudly, but Harry just grinned. "The door was made unbreakable by ancient magic. Only those who solved its clever riddle and spoke the language of the snakes could pass through..."

Harry wandered the Hogwarts Express, having lost Tony in the crowd outside. He kept peeking into the compartments until he spied Hermione, accompanied by that bloke who always tagged along her in classes.

He knocked and slid the door open. "Hey, can I sit with you guys?"

Hermione hurriedly put the book she'd been reading away. "I—well, yes. Come in, Harry."

He sat in front of the boy, who gave him a cagey glance before looking away.

"Harry Potter," he said, extending his hand.

The boy clasped it with a clammy palm and quickly let go. "Nevile Longbottom," he murmured, then looked at Hermione as if pleading for help.

"Harry's, um... a study partner," she said. "He's helping me catch up after what happened."

Neville nodded, pressing his lips together.

The train whistled and began moving, and Harry slouched in his seat with a sigh. An awkward silence filled the compartment, with the trio studiously avoiding one another's eyes. Beginning to regret joining the pair of Gryffindors, he looked around for something to talk about.

Neville's robes rustled and Harry's gaze was drawn to a fat toad struggling to escape the boy's pocket. He leaned forward.

"Wow, can I hold it?"

Neville's frown intensified, but he handed the pet over. "Okay... just be careful."

Harry put the corpulent amphibian on his palm and lifted it up to get a closer look. He poked it in the side, feeling its rough, dry skin.

"That's a rare one," he said reverently.

"Trevor belongs to a common species," Neville said, watching him like a hawk. "But, if you mean as a pet, not m-many people bring toads to Hogwarts, I g-guess."

Harry twitched as Neville's stutter made him remember Quirrel, and ended up prodding Trevor a little harder than intended. The amphibian puffed up, opened its mouth, and screeched.

Harry was stunned for a moment, then began laughing uncontrollably while Neville scrambled to retrieve his pet. Hermione decided that the best way to help was to yell and gesticulate, and the compartment descended into chaos.

"Sorry," Harry said, choking back laughter. He glanced at Trevor, now cradled protectively between Neville's palms, and chortled again. "I—I didn't mean to."

"I'm leaving," a red-faced Neville said. "You can s-stay with him if y-you want."

The boy slipped the toad into his pocket and did just that, slamming the compartment doors so hard the glass rattled in its frame. Hermione glared at Harry, then hurried after her housemate.

He stared at the door, then shrugged and sprawled out on the comfy bench.

Chapter Text

Harry walked across the marble-floored lobby of Gringotts, feeling out of place in his T-shirt and jeans. Many important-looking wizards and witches queued in front of the tellers or spoke with them in hushed tones. He was almost at the end of the hall when he saw a familiar goblin; perking up, he joined that line.

His turn came soon enough, and he approached the tall granite counter with a smile. "Hello, Griphook."

The goblin stared at him, then down at a nameplate on the counter.

Harry squinted at the gothic script and grimaced. "Sorry... Vishgez. You just look so alike—um, I'm not speciesist, I swear!"

The teller sighed. "Do you have any business to transact, or are you here to waste my time, sir?"

Harry bobbed his head. "You see, Mr. Vishgez, I recently learned that I might be related to Godric Gryffindor, and I heard you can verify that."

The goblin bent down to retrieve a piece of paper and slapped it on the counter. "Form P475Y. That'll be nine Galleons."

Harry's eyebrows rose at the price, but he reached into his pocket without comment. If he was right, this would be worth the cost.

Vishgez snatched the money and pushed an inkwell and a quill towards him. Harry leaned on the counter and filled in his name, date of birth, and for some reason shoe size while the goblin scrutinized each coin under the light.

When he was done, Vishgez called his colleague who led Harry into an office off the main hall and seated him at a table. The new goblin then produced a stick with a scrap of gauze tied to one end.

"Open wide," he said in a bored tone.

"E-excuse me?"

"You paid for the lineage test, did you not?" The goblin waved the stick. "I need a sample of your fluids, Mr. Potter."

Harry nearly choked. "That doesn't look sanitary at all."

The goblin revealed a mouthful of pointy teeth. "Am I to understand that you are declining the test? We do not offer refunds, in case you missed the fine print on the form you signed."

"Of course you don't," Harry said with a resigned sigh. "Get on with it, then. Ahh."

The goblin shoved the stick into his mouth and jiggled it about none-too-gently before withdrawing. He then fed the 'sample' to a rumbling contraption with more knobs and levers than the dashboard of Uncle Vernon's car, while Harry sputtered at the taste of old socks in his mouth.

The machine belched out a strip of parchment with unrecognizable writing, which the banker snatched and scanned. "Congratulations, Mr. Potter—you are a descendant of Godric Gryffindor."

Harry grinned, rubbing his hands. "Awesome, what do I get?"

"One moment." The goblin went to rummage in a file cabinet and came back with a document bearing the Gringotts crest. He took a quill and scribbled something into a blank space before handing the parchment over. "Here you go."

"This document certifies that one Harry Potter is descended from the celebrated..." Harry's smile faded. "That's great, but what else?"

The clerk was already moving towards the door. "You expected more?"

"Er, yeah." He rubbed his chin. "Like gemstones and ancient artifacts and stuff."

The goblin exhaled slowly. "Mr. Potter, there are no less than seventeen families with a confirmed relation to Godric Gryffindor, and probably twice as many illegitimate descendants. By most historical accounts, the man was an accomplished philanderer. His paltry inheritance would have been divided among his numerous sons centuries ago."

"You're telling me I paid nine gold and sucked on a sock for a piece of parchment." Harry waved the certificate. "Is it even good for anything?"

The goblin sneered. "Boasting about your ancestry. Is that not a favored pastime for your kind?"

"Can't deny that," he admitted. "There's really nothing else, then?"

The clerk shrugged. "I hear there is a club that meets at the Three Broomsticks for drinks once a year. You could join it when you are of age." He looked at the door pointedly. "Do you have any more inane questions?"

"I suppose not," Harry said, his shoulders drooping.

Harry knocked on the compartment's door before sliding it open. "Hello, Hermione. Mind if we join you? Tony's just getting goodbye cuddles from his mummy."

"Harry, come in!" Hermione's gaze switched to her ever-present follower, who was cradling his pet. "Honestly, Neville, he isn't going to hurt Trevor."

"Never mind the toad, what's with that ugly thing?" Harry asked, pointing at an orange furball snoozing on the seat next to Hermione. He hastily withdrew his finger when said furball opened its eyes and hissed. He thought Neville had snorted, but when he glanced at him, the chubby boy wore a sober expression and avoided Harry's eyes.

"Crookshanks isn't ugly, and he's not a thing!" Hermione said hotly. "He's a smart and handsome half-kneazle."

"Okay, okay." Harry raised his hands in a pacifying manner. He'd never taken the girl for such an animal lover.

The second whistle sounded, and the train lurched forward. Tony soon joined them, raising an eyebrow at the two Gryffindors. After he greeted everybody and sat down next to Harry, Terry Boot stuck his head in; his face soured when he saw his Ravenclaw housemates but lit up again when he spotted Hermione.

"Good morning," he said, strutting in and settling on the bench with the Gryffindors. Hermione inched towards Neville, who squashed himself against the wall to make space. "I've been looking for you, Hermione. Did you get my letter back in August?"

"I did, Terry—sorry I didn't send a reply. Your owl flew away, and you didn't leave me a phone number."

Terry furrowed his brows. "Why would I do that?"

"Because she doesn't own an owl, genius," Tony piped up.

"Now that is uncalled for," Terry said with a scowl. "My bad, I forgot you were Muggleborn. What did you think of my choices, though?"

"Your notes were... very extensive," Hermione said tactfully. "I'm taking both Ancient Runes and Arithmancy myself, as these are required if one wants to learn warding and spellcrafting in the future. I'm not sure if I'll make a career out of it, but it does sound fascinating."

"It's important to keep one's options open," Boot said with an approving nod. "We're going to be in the same classes, so I look forward to some intelligent conversation. I expect certain members of my own house went with a soft option like Muggle Studies." His eyes strayed towards Tony and Harry.

"There's nothing wrong with Muggle Studies," Hermione objected. "Wizards could learn a lot from a non-magical perspective of the world. I'd have taken the subject myself had Professor McGonagall allowed us more than three electives." A rueful look crossed her face.

"You're right, of course," Terry hastened to correct himself, "all I'm saying is that compared to something usable in the real world, like Runes..."

Harry snorted derisively and excused himself to the bathroom. When he came back, Terry and Tony were vying for Hermione's attention, the former talking about classes and the latter trying to make her laugh. Hermione's silent tag-along, Longbottom, was staring out of the window morosely. Oh, and the hideous orange cat now occupied Harry's spot.

He decided on an aggressive approach to establish his dominance. "Get off, fuzzball. Shoo!"

The part-kneazle stared at Harry then turned away as if in contempt. Tony chortled.

Losing his patience, Harry made to grab the little beast, but changed his mind when it raised its hackles and made a low growl. He went for his wand instead.

"Wingardium Leviosa!"

Ignoring its flailing and Hermione's protests, he levitated Crookshanks off the seat. As soon as the cat landed on the floor, it leapt on the opposite bench and climbed the upholstered wall to the overhead rack, disappearing amid the luggage.

"Yet another victory for the Boy-Who-Lived," Tony quipped, earning himself a punch on the shoulder.

Harry couldn't have asked for better travel companions than Tony and Hermione, but staying in a crowded compartment with Terry was trying his patience. He didn't know if the boy was interested in Hermione romantically or just impressed by her academic prowess (top of the class despite spending several months petrified—the club probably helped), but he just wouldn't shut up. Neville was much better in this regard, not speaking more than one or two sentences for the hours that it took them to reach Hogwarts.

When the train started slowing down, Harry couldn't help but exhale in relief. He grasped the handle of his trunk with both hands and yanked, lowering it to the floor with a grunt.

"The fuck?" he blurted out, noticing a large stain on the previously glossy leather. Looking up at the luggage rack, he found himself staring into the yellow eyes of Hermione's new pet, and put the two and two together with growing horror. "Hermione, your stupid cat peed on my trunk!"

"Crookshanks, you don't go potty anywhere but in the litter box," Hermione said, addressing her pet as though it were a child. "I'll put it up in the common room for you."

"That's it?" he asked incredulously. "Aren't you going to smack it or anything?"

"Cats don't understand physical punishment, Harry," Hermione said exasperatedly. "What do you want me to do? Honestly, you brought this upon yourself—you should've been more respectful."

"You told me it was smart!" He looked at the ruined trunk dejectedly, wondering if there were any spells for getting cat piss out of leather.

"That's what you get for insulting someone's prospective familiar, Potter," Terry said.

Harry glared at the self-satisfied cat perched on the luggage rack. That trunk was a present from Hagrid. One way or another, he was going to get even.

The start-of-term feast was a subdued affair, the murky sky on the enchanted ceiling reflecting the students' mood. Dumbledore had just announced that Dementors would be stationed around Hogwarts for the duration of the school year—for their own safety, he'd said in a resigned tone—and it felt like the Great Hall wasn't quite so cozy and warm anymore.

"I wonder what those things are supposed to protect us from," Harry said while munching on a roast potato.

Michael Corner gaped at him from the opposite side of the table. "You haven't heard? Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban!"

Harry's eyebrows drew together. "What's Asskaban?"

Michael gave him a dubious look. "It's the prison guarded by the Dementors."

"Okay," Harry said, putting his fork down and reaching for his goblet. "And Serious Black?"

Terry spoke up. "Don't you read the papers? They say he'd been muttering about Hogwarts in his cell for days. He's got to be coming here, considering what he did." His eyes lingered on Harry's scar.

"If Harry doesn't want to talk about it, we won't," Tony said firmly.

He shook his head in confusion. "Why wouldn't I?"

It was Tony's turn to stare in disbelief. "You really don't know, mate?" He coughed, not meeting Harry's eyes. "Black was the one who betrayed your parents to You-Know-Who."

Harry gaped at him. "Seriously? Bugger that guy with a hot poker." He took a long swig of his juice as he thought. "How come I'm only hearing about this now?"

Terry said, "There are entire books written about the war. If I were you, I'd strive to learn all I can about my history."

"I don't know, reading books about myself seems kind of narcissistic."

Tony snorted. "You're a walking definition of narcissistic."

Harry lurked at the entrance to the Gryffindor tower long after the last stragglers passed him by, unaware of his invisible presence. He didn't mind the wait, as he had lots to think about—Sirius Black being first and foremost on the list. What he learned at the Sorting Feast was troubling, but he wasn't going to abandon his more immediate revenge. One thing at a time, he told himself.

He glanced around the darkened hallway, then cleared his throat and said, "Fortuna Major."

The Fat Lady mumbled in her sleep as the portrait swung inwards, and he stepped into the Gryffindor common room with a triumphant grin. The Potter family heirloom was proving to be most useful once again.

It was long past curfew now, and the dimly lit room was deserted. He began exploring, eying the squashy armchairs, the haphazardly scattered tables, and the red-and-gold tapestries on the walls with interest.

He lingered at the bulletin board, where he skimmed the notices before withdrawing a wizarding felt-tip pen (exactly like a regular felt-tip pen, only more wizardly) and sketching a dick on the one announcing Quidditch tryouts. Snickering, he continued his search.

After passing the staircases to the dorms and circling most of the room, he finally noticed a lumpy shape on the floor near the fireplace. Sure enough, it turned out to be a cat's cot, and a muttered Lumos revealed oodles of orange hairs stuck to its fabric. The evil creature seemed to be out on a night prowl. It was time to enact his vengeance.

Harry parted his cloak and unzipped his fly.

Hermione waylaid him as he was walking to the Great Hall with Tony the next morning, her hands clenched into fists and her face scarlet. "Potter, you sick bastard! How dare you!"

"Good morning to you too," Harry said blearily. "What's got your knickers in a twist?"

"You—you urinated on poor Crookshank's bed!" she hissed, jabbing him in the chest with her finger.

"Somebody took a leak on that infernal cat's bed?" he asked slowly. "Maybe that'll teach it not to piss on other people's belongings. I don't see what it has to do with me, though."

"Stop playing dumb! No one else in this school would do something as asinine as that!"

"I didn't know you thought so little of me, Hermione." He attempted to sound wounded. "I was in the common room all night, wasn't I, Tony?"

"Er, sure," the boy agreed, "just don't drag me into this. I don't want anyone to pee on my bed."

Hermione snorted. "As if I'd believe that. You two are always together—you're probably a degenerate just like him."

"Look, there's an easy way to resolve this silly misunderstanding." Harry raised his wand and made sure he had her full attention before reciting, "I, Harry James Potter, do hereby swear on my magic that I never pissed on Crookshank's cot. So mote it be!" The tip of his wand lit up after he finished delivering his oath.

"B-but that's—I thought—I'm sorry?" Hermione spluttered.

Harry patted her arm. "It's okay," he said magnanimously, "we all make mistakes."

Tony began laughing as soon as they put some distance between themselves and the gobsmacked girl. "I didn't know you could cast nonverbally."

"Only the Lumos, and it comes out half as bright."

Tony glanced over his shoulder. "How long do you think it'll take her to figure out that Unbreakable Vows need a Binder?"

Harry shrugged. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

Harry dithered, unsure if he should step back from the rattling wardrobe or not. Before he knew it, the rest of the class arranged themselves in a line behind him, thus putting him at the front. Bugger.

"Take a point to Ravenclaw for your bravery, Harry," the professor said with a smile. "Remember the incantation? Get ready, I shall let the Boggart out in three—two—one..."

Harry's heart was hammering against his ribs, and he took a deep breath to try and calm down. What was he so afraid of—Dementors? Puh-lease, he'd read Junji Ito's works alone at night. Compared to that, wraith-like figures gliding outside the grounds barely qualified as spooky.

The cabinet's doors creaked open, and out stepped an inhumanly beautiful woman with almond-shaped eyes, pointy ears, and ethereal white hair that cascaded down her back like fresh snow. She was attired in a flowing dress that flaunted her cleavage and accentuated her breathtaking figure. There was a collective gasp from the boys in the classroom, and Harry himself gulped at the sight.

"Harry," the vision said in a sultry voice, bending forward and nearly spilling out of her dress, "I want you to listen to me very, very carefully."

"Uh huh," he said, completely forgetting where he was.

"I'm not real. I won't ever be real. Do you understand?"

He looked up at her soulless eyes in dismay. "No..."

"Your dream is juvenile and meaningless," she said, her hips swaying as she closed the distance between them. "There is no magic that will help you cross the barrier between 2D and 3D."

Those cruel words cut him to the heart, yet Harry couldn't shut his ears to her melodious voice. His eyes roved over her elfin features and well-endowed chest, not being able to look away from this flawless, unattainable vision.

Unattainable... yet standing an arm's reach away.

"You claim the barrier cannot be crossed," he said, the corners of his lips twitching upwards, "but you did just that, didn't you?"

He stepped forward and the woman shrank away, an alarmed expression flitting across her face.

"Your family will never accept you for who you are," she said, backtracking. "Everyone thinks you're weird. Y-your favorite anime is shit—"

"Elf boobies," Harry murmured, barely listening as he extended his hands towards the pointy-eared goddess. He would ascertain just how authentic the illusion was.

The Boggart was beginning to blur around the edges. As Harry drew close, it suddenly morphed into a bug-eyed alien wearing a red-and-green striped sweater, then a skinless humanoid, then a boar with worms crawling over its rotting skin, too quickly for him to get scared; lastly, it became a cloud of smoke which rushed into the cabinet, the double doors slamming shut on their own.

An absolute silence reigned in the room. Harry remained still, staring into the distance until the sound of Professor Lupin clearing his throat brought him back to reality.

"Er... you didn't use the spell I taught you, but well done nevertheless," Remus said. "Hermione, step forward whenever you're ready."

He nodded and got out of the way. The stares of his classmates didn't bother him in the least; he was pondering things deep and philosophical, well above their understanding.

A hand landed on his shoulder and Harry looked up to see Professor Lupin peer at him with an inscrutable expression.

"I've done the exercise with more than a hundred students at this point, yet I've never seen anyone's Boggart act the way yours did," he said in an undertone. "I don't mean to pry, but—"

A squeak drew their attention back to the middle of the classroom, where a trembling Hermione faced a fiendish caricature of Professor McGonagall holding a roll of parchment in her hands.

"Miss Granger, the results are in," the doppelganger said primly. "You've failed everything—even the subjects we weren't testing for."

Hermione's eyes widened, but she stood her ground. "You're not real!"

"Our scoring procedure is most rigorous. It is official: we haven't had a student fail so badly in the entire history of Hogwarts."

"S-shut up!" Hermione shrieked loud enough to make the bystanders wince. "Riddikulus!"

Fur sprouted on fake McGonagall's hands and face, and she released a startled meow, throwing the parchment into the air and stumbling back into the closet. Hermione laughed harshly while the rest of the class gaped at her in astonishment.

"What on earth is wrong with these kids," Lupin muttered, shaking his head.

There was a knock on the door, and Remus Lupin opened it with a wave of his wand. He'd announced open office hours earlier in the term, and many students previously deprived of proper education came to him for advice. It was tiring, but also fulfilling in a way none of his previous jobs had been.

Harry Potter, the son of his dear friends, stuck his head through the doorway. "Evening, professor. Do you have a minute?"

He gave the boy an encouraging smile. "Of course, Harry. What can I do for you?"

Harry entered the room and closed the door behind him before speaking. "I was hoping you could teach me to fight off Dementors."

Remus had a sinking feeling in his stomach. "Are you sure that's a good idea? Dementors shouldn't hurt you as long as you stay away. I don't want you learning to defend yourself only to go out and provoke them."

The boy stayed quiet for a second. "Ah... I take it you've heard, then?"

"How could I not? It was all the staff talked about last week." Remus slammed his palm on the desk in frustration. "You approached the Dementors on a dare, and kept going until you passed out! Do you even understand how foolish that was?"

"I knew it was a stupid idea, of course," Harry said, crossing his arms. "I'm not stupid."

Remus rubbed his temples. "Then why—"

"I didn't want the bloody Slytherins calling me a coward."

He gaped at the unrepentant boy, then sighed. "I suppose I better teach you before you get yourself killed."

Harry grinned. "Brilliant!"

"Now, don't get too far ahead of yourself," Remus said, raising a hand. "First off, how badly are you affected by their aura? There is a mental technique that staves off the despair for a time, but actually driving a Dementor away requires advanced magic I'm not sure any third-year is capable of."

"I can handle them at a distance, but if I get close..." Harry had a far-away look in his eyes. "I can't think straight, and I hear a female voice in my head, repeating the same sentence over and over."

"What... what does the voice say?" Remus held his breath. The boy's worst memory, his own personal hell had to be—

"Kyon-kun, denwa," Harry said hollowly. "I thought I was back in that endless summer. I don't want to hear it ever again."

Lupin closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. There was something very odd about this boy.

"Hiya, Hagrid," Harry said, pushing the heavy door open. He paused at the threshold as he took in the scene before him. A shaggy black dog was growling at the groundskeeper, while Hagrid's own Fang whimpered under the table. "Is now a bad time?"

"I jus' can' calm the tyke down!" Hagrid sounded upset rather than worried for his safety. "Dunno what's troublin' him—he's all skin an' bones but refuses to eat—"

A milk jug on the table rattled and the dog's bloodshot eyes darted towards it. The beast lunged forward, but crashed against Hagrid's legs and snarled, dribbling saliva onto the floor.

"Poor mutt might be rabid. It's a shame, but I should put him down lest he hurt a student." Hagrid reached for his massive crossbow.

The dog whined and scampered outside, nearly bowling Harry over. He yelped in alarm and drew his wand, but by that time it was already gone.

"I think it understood you, Hagrid," he said, ducking back inside. "Ran straight for the forest."

Hagrid stroked his beard. "I could'a sworn I've seen him around many years ago... Ah well, never mind the sorry beast now." He stuck two sausage-sized digits into the milk jug and pulled out a pitiful-looking rat. "Don' worry, little chap, I'll get yeh back to Ron soon enough."

Harry leaned in for a closer look. "This is Weasley's pet? He's been harassing Hermione about it for weeks."

"Yeh know Ron?" Hagrid perked up. "Say, could yeh do me a favor an' return Scabbers to him? Tha' boy's bin real worried."

He eyed the bald patches on the rat's fur and shuddered. "Do I have to? It looks like it has the plague or something."

Hagrid chuckled, sending Harry stumbling with a clap on the back. "Wizards don' catch the plague. Come on, I'll take yeh up to the castle."

Harry gingerly picked up the rat, which Hagrid had wrapped in a flag-sized handkerchief, and followed him outside. He felt like someone was watching them from the direction of the forest as they walked, but whenever he glanced over his shoulder, he didn't see anything but trees.

He bade goodbye to the groundskeeper at the entrance and headed for the Great Hall. Luckily, Weasley was at the Gryffindor table, busy devouring a mountain of mashed potatoes. Harry walked up behind him and cleared his throat.

Ron turned and scowled. "Wha' do you wan'?"

He extended the bundle of cloth, a tiny whiskered nose poking out. "This yours?"

"Scabbers!" Ron exclaimed, spraying mush from his mouth. He shot to his feet and seized the rat, looking it over. "Where did you find him?"

"Hagrid's. Unsightly little thing, isn't it?" Harry saw the rat's beady eyes center on him and curled his lips in distaste. "Why would you want that as a pet?"

"He's been in my family for twelve years. What's it to you?" Weasley said as he deposited Scabbers into his pocket.

Harry cocked his head. "Is it somehow magical?"

"Just your boring garden rat." Ron patted his pocket contently. "Aren't you, Scabbers?"

He shrugged and attributed the rat's longevity to living in a magical household. If a pureblood wizard thought it normal, then it probably was.

Meanwhile, Ron made a face and opened his mouth again. "Potter—thanks for bringing him back."

Harry waved at him dismissively. "Sure. Just lay off Hermione, alright?"

Ron's head shot up. "Crookshanks has it out for Scabbers, I just know it!"

"Well, it is a cat," Harry said slowly.

Ron glanced around, then leaned closer. "It's no normal cat—the thing's evil, I tell you."

He nodded, feeling a certain camaraderie with the boy. "Oh, you don't have to convince me about that. I've known since day one."

An abrupt silence came over the common room, soon broken by giggles. Harry lowered the book he'd been reading and looked around, not taking long to locate the cause of the disturbance.

Luna Lovegood tiptoed across the room, her pasty legs bare under her skirt. The cold stone floor must have stung her naked feet, but she wore her usual serene expression, silvery eyes wide and unfocused. Today, there were wilted vines woven into her golden hair.

"Forgot your shoes, Loony?" someone yelled. Shrill laughter rang out.

Harry turned his head sharply, recognizing the two giggling girls as Luna's dormmates. As though sensing his glare, one of them looked his way, and he hid behind his book again.

That had been Marietta's younger sister. Marietta and Cho were two of the most popular girls in the house, and they were also chummy with the female prefects. He... didn't want to get involved. Luna was weird, and it was easier to simply ignore the odd things that happened around her.

He vacillated for a time, telling himself that it wasn't any of his business, but still feeling that it should have been. What swayed him was a memory of the Sorting Hat's words. Ravenclaw was supposed to be a place where people like Luna felt at home.

Harry snapped his book shut and sought out the only prefect he was on speaking terms with, finding the seventh-year boy poring over a pile of parchment in his habitual spot. He approached before he could lose his nerve.

"Hilliard, a word?"

Chapter Text

The gang accosted him in a secluded corridor. Marietta was at the forefront, arms crossed over her chest. Harry fought back a grin. After all, he was a respectful guy—not someone who'd get excited at the idea of being abused by a group of older girls.

Marietta stepped forward. "No one likes a snitch, Potter. Do you fancy yourself some sort of a hero?"

Harry sighed. "If I was a one, I'd have done that a long time ago."

"So why tattle on my sister? You know how Loony is—they were only having a bit of harmless fun."

Because he was afraid. Because it was easier to turn a blind eye like everyone else did. "Because Luna is a cute mysterious waif, while you"—he ran his eyes over her—"don't even rate as a secondary character."

Edgecombe's pretty face reddened and she lowered her hand into her pocket. "Don't get too full of yourself."

He leaned forward and hissed in Parseltongue, "I like pie."

Marietta recoiled, bumping into the girls behind her, and Harry used this chance to perform a swift tactical retreat. It wasn't like he was running away or anything.

"Potter, you're in trouble now, you little shit!" Marietta shouted behind him.

He ducked around a corner, hoping it would be worth it.

The Roost was filled with sounds of scratching quills and rustling parchment. Padma, Su, Tony, and Harry had all picked Arithmancy and Runes as their electives, which was par for the course for their house. Hermione, who was becoming something of an adopted Ravenclaw herself, had Care for Magical Creatures on top of those. The five were rather busy as a result, especially with the introduction of end-of-year projects in most classes.

Harry put his quill down and stretched. He was an inch short on his assignment, but hoped Professor McGonagall would let that slide; she was a fair if strict teacher and wouldn't deduct points as long as he managed to include all the pertinent information. Adjusting his glasses absentmindedly, he picked the parchment up to proofread it.

Hermione raised her head from her own essay. "Can you please stop doing that?"

He schooled his face into a mask of innocence. "Doing what?" he asked, pushing up his glasses and making them glint as though with reflected sunlight.

"That," she said, blinking. "Wait, how did you..."

Now everyone at the table was watching him. He grinned, repeating his previous motion and causing his glasses to emit another flash, this one bright enough to make Padma shield her eyes.

"Oops," Harry said, not particularly repentant. "Guess they could use some fine-tuning."

Tony chuckled. "You spelled your glasses to twinkle? Making good use of your time, I see."

Hermione gaped at him. "But why?"

"Why not? It makes me look badass—"

Padma snorted. "If that's what you want to believe."

"—and they should fetch me a good mark in Runes. I spent weeks tinkering with these."

The group suddenly seemed more interested. Padma extended her hand. "May I?"

Harry handed his glasses over, squinting as everybody gathered around to inspect them.

"Your script is really shoddy," Padma said. "What is this one supposed to be?"

"That's got to be Sowilo, for sun," Hermione said. "Why are there three separate clusters?"

"They also have Minor Self-Cleaning and Minor Darksight enchantments," he explained.

"I see a pattern," Su said.

"The stronger version needs twice as many runes, so I'd have to make them even smaller to fit. It was enough of a pain already." Harry reached out for his glasses blindly and Padma handed them back. "The wizarding world needs to invent a printer."

"It's the act of drawing them by hand that imbues them with power," Hermione said.

Harry rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah. We're in the same class, remember?"

"Potter lurves Loony!"

"Sure I do, jealous?" Harry shot back.

The younger Edgecombe scoffed and looked away, and he rolled his eyes, continuing across the common room. Only the way he tightened his grip on his new broomstick betrayed his irritation.

He still wasn't sure if it was a good thing he'd done for Luna. No one was stealing her stuff anymore, but she was still shunned by her dormmates, perhaps even more than before. At least she now had Padma and Su to help with her schoolwork.

Harry descended the stairs to the entrance hall and headed outside. The weather was crisp and clear, ideal for Quidditch, and his spirits lifted at the thought of flying his Firebolt again. They had no clue who'd sent him the top-of-the-line broomstick, but Professor Flitwick had assured him it hadn't been tampered with.

He approached the locker shed where most of the team was already gathered, and raised a hand in a greeting. "Hey everyone, how's—"

"Potter," Roger interrupted, "we need to talk."

"Okay, shoot." Harry's eyes lingered on their reserve Seeker, Cho Chang, who was smirking at him.

"Is it true you threatened Marietta with Parseltongue?"

Harry snorted but schooled his expression when he saw the captain was not amused. "I didn't threaten her or anything. She was the one who went for her wand."

"You admit to using Parseltongue on her, then," Roger said.

"Using it on her? You remember last year—it's only noise, it's not like it did anything—"

Roger shook his head. "It's a Dark ability, and if you use it to intimidate your housemates, you have no place on the team."

"Are—are you serious?" Harry spluttered.

Roger crossed his arms and nodded. The rest of the team wore somber expressions and refused to meet his eyes, save for Cho. Harry gritted his teeth and turned away, feeling that he'd do something stupid if he looked at her self-satisfied mug for a moment longer.

"Fine," he spat, mounting his Firebolt. "Let's see you win without me, you wankers."

Harry was leaving the Great Hall after a hearty dinner when an orange missile rocketed past his legs, making him jerk back. The half-kneazle was carrying something small and grey in its jaws, and he squinted trying to make out what it was until he got shoved aside roughly.

"Watch it!" he yelled at the rapidly retreating Ronald Weasley.

The boy ignored him in favor of chasing the cat across the entrance hall and out the front doors. Harry shrugged and turned to leave, his eyebrows rising when he saw Hermione scramble down the staircase.

She ran up to him and doubled over. "Rat—Crookshanks—stop Ron..."

Harry's eyes flicked downward. Hermione's robes were unbuttoned, revealing a snug blouse covering her heaving chest. His lips curled into a leer.

"Pervert," she growled, pushing past him and breaking into a sluggish run.

Harry jogged after her, catching up without much effort. "Is your orange fluffball being a menace again?"

"Hunting instinct," Hermione said, panting. "He can't help it."

Getting out of the castle, they quickly located the ginger boy and the equally ginger cat he was pursuing across the grounds. Once she saw Crookshanks being threatened, Hermione seemed to get a second wind and sprinted towards them, Harry following suit and easily overtaking her.

The frenetic chase took them to the sole tree on the lawns of Hogwarts, where Crookshanks darted under the swaying branches of the Whomping Willow and disappeared below its roots. Harry came to a halt alongside Ron, just outside what he knew to be the kill zone. Daring one another to get as close as possible had been a popular game among the first- and second-years. Being a mature third-year, he was beyond such tomfoolery of course.

Hermione caught up to them a few seconds later. She bent over and clutched Ron's robes, trying to say something, but the boy scowled and pulled them out of her grasp. He stared at the spot where Crookshanks had vanished with a growing look of determination of his face.

Harry's eyes darted to the base of the tree and back at Ron. "Oi, Weasley, don't be daft."

"Scabbers, I'm coming!" Ron cried, and rushed forward.

The Whomping Willow creaked and struck once, twice, three times; whether it was due to sheer luck or the boy's speed, the attacks only hit the ground, throwing up clumps of dirt. Ron reached the gnarled roots and crouched to look underneath. Contorting in a way that no tree had a right to, the Willow smacked his backside, sending him down the same hole Crookshanks had gone into.

Harry snorted and looked at Hermione, but the girl didn't appear amused. Rather, she was eyeing the tree and worrying her lip.

"You can't possibly be thinking..." Harry trailed off as she also dashed forward.

He watched her run through the kill zone, wincing when a nasty swipe passed close enough to ruffle her bushy hair. She squealed and dropped to all fours, then disappeared the same way Ron had.

"Bloody Gryffindors!" he cursed.

The tree shook its branches angrily as muffled yells came from somewhere beneath it. Harry grimaced. He had to do something before those two murdered each other over their dumb pets.

He stooped and ran before his logical mind could talk him out of it. The tree creaked, and he jumped backwards to avoid a powerful blow. Ducking around the branches, he charged in again. As long as he kept close to the ground, the Willow had to bend its thick trunk to strike and would take time to recover after each attack.

The strategy worked until he was a few feet away from his goal. The Willow delivered a cunning attack, wrapping a thin branch around Harry's ankle and yanking him upwards. It gave him a forceful shake before letting go, and he plummeted down the dark hole under its roots.

He landed palms-first and rolled twice before coming to a stop. Patting himself down, he stood groggily. The soft ground had cushioned his fall and he wasn't hurt bar some minor scrapes.

Surrounding him were earthen walls of a tunnel, wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side. Ron and Hermione stood farther ahead, Hermione's wand alight with a Lumos which made their bodies cast long shadows on the ground. Noises of struggle were coming from deeper inside the passage.

Harry approached carefully and stood on his tiptoes to see over Ron's shoulders. The Gryffindors barely acknowledged him, their wands aimed at the two scruffy men wrestling on the ground ahead. One of them was pudgy and balding, the other tall and gaunt, and both were wearing rags even a house-elf wouldn't be caught in. Crookshanks was hissing at the pair from under Hermione's arm.

Harry opened his mouth to speak, but then the taller man cried out in triumph and wrapped his hands around his adversary's neck. Hermione's wand-light illuminated his emaciated face, and Harry froze in recognition.

"Sirius Black," he spat, boiling with rage unlike any he'd ever felt before.

Black must have heard him, for he lifted his head and his madness-filled eyes met Harry's for an instant. His jaw went slack and he gaped while the boy fumbled for his wand.

That moment of distraction was all the other man needed. He wrenched one of Black's hands away and bit down on it, causing him to howl in pain. As Black stumbled back, his opponent scuttered towards the students on all fours, squeezing past Ron and Hermione.

"H-he's mad!" The pudgy man cried, pointing a grubby finger at Black. "He's trying to kill me!"

"For a good reason, traitor!" Black roared. He lunged at them with surprising vigor, only to come to a halt by bracing against the walls when he was met with three wands.

His target whimpered, cowering behind Ron. "Curse him! Quick, before he kills us all!"

"You don't need to tell me," Harry murmured, his face hardening.

"Don't touch me," Ron snapped at the stranger. His eyes darted between the two men and his wand shook. "What were you playing at, pretending to be Scabbers all those years? Who the bloody hell are you?"

Harry stopped mid-incantation and regarded the man Black had called traitor. This was Weasley's rat? Well... there was some resemblance, if one took a closer look.

"That's Peter Pettigrew," Black said in a gravelly voice, grey eyes fixed on the trembling man. "The turncoat who ratted the Potters out to Voldemort."

"He's lying!" Peter cried. "He tried to kill me twelve years ago, and he's come to finish the job!"

Black grinned viciously. "You're not wrong about that." He took a step forward, the tip of Harry's wand almost touching his chest.

Peter whimpered again. "Curse him already, you gormless little—" He wrestled Ron's wand out of his hands and pushed him away.

Ron went down with a yelp, Hermione jumping out of the way as she clutched a flailing Crookshanks to her chest. She trained her wand on Peter, even as he brandished Ron's wand at Black. Harry stilled, and in that moment of indecision, he saw that Ron's wand was crooked, broken during the scuffle—but Pettigrew hadn't noticed in the semidarkness.

"Confringo!" Peter shouted. The wand in his hands emitted a shower of sparks, and a smell of burning hair permeated the tunnel before a wave of power shot out of the tip, heading upwards at the ceiling.

The ground shook and Harry's vision was blocked by falling soil. His legs moved on their own, carrying him in the direction of the exit by instinct. He ran until he bumped into something, and brushed the dirt off his head to find himself right below the roots of the Whomping Willow.

Hermione was beside him, illuminated by the sunlight streaming through the mouth of the tunnel. Gripping her wand with both hands, she was aiming it at the wall of falling earth. He had no clue what magic she was using, but it seemed to slow the collapse.

"Can't hold it," she gasped, her hands trembling. Crookshanks meowed mournfully and rubbed against her leg.

"Shit." Harry mentally ran through his arsenal of spells, but nothing helpful came to mind. He steeled himself, thinking he'd have to pull Weasley out with his bare hands—but there was a spray of dirt, and two figures emerged, Black shielding Weasley with his larger body.

"Ron!" Hermione cried, losing her concentration.

The earth crashed down, and Black gave a mighty shove, propelling Weasley to safety. The man himself was buried under an avalanche of soil.

The three of them huddled together, breathing easier when it became apparent that the cave-in had stopped. Harry lit his wand and lifted it up, surveying the destruction. Only a short portion of the tunnel remained intact, ending in a mound of dirt.

Crookshanks slunk forward and pawed at the edge of the mound. The earth shifted, and Harry jumped back with a yell as the grimy head of Sirius Black emerged. The man craned his neck backwards and wheezed in a breath, then squinted up at them.

"Now that's what I call being up to my neck in... soil." He spat out some dirt. "Mind giving me a hand?"

Life was weird sometimes, but what else was new? The psychotic Azkaban escapee turned out to be a loving godfather, whom Harry promised to visit on the condition he'd get fiber hooked up to his ancient house before Dumbledore put the place under the Fidelius. Ron's mangy rat was exposed as Peter Pettigrew, the real traitor to the Potters, before vanishing without a trace. But what Harry found the hardest to come to terms with was that it had been Hermione's infernal cat which had brought all that to light.

He crossed his arms, maintaining his glare. Crookshanks was curled up on Hermione's lap on the opposite side of the train compartment, staring back without blinking. Only an occasional twitch of his tail betrayed the half-kneazle's agitation.

The door slid open, and out of the corner of his vision Harry glimpsed Padma enter and seat herself between Hermione and Su.

"How long have they been at it?" she asked.

"Just about ten minutes now," Tony said next to him. "Don't get too close, you'll catch the stupid."

"I'll take Harry's brand of insanity over the inane prattle I was subjected to by Parvati and her Gryffindor friends," Padma said. "'If I angle this photo just right, it's like the Falcons' Seeker is staring straight into my eyes! Squee!'"

Hermione shuddered, causing Crookshanks to flick his ears. "Please stop. I already have to listen to that every time Lavender gets her Witch Weekly."

"Poor girl—it must be torture." Padma patted her hand.

Su lowered a book she'd been reading. "I agree. After all, it's their Keeper who is the real hottie." She pouted at the ensuing silence. "That was a joke."

Padma smiled at her. "It—it was funny, Su, I was just surprised. Right, Hermione?"

Hermione nodded quickly. "It was! Haha!"

Su buried her nose in the book again, and the other two girls sighed. There was no getting through to her when she was like this.

Harry's eyes were watering, and he had to battle an increasing urge to blink with every passing second. Finally, he sighed and looked away, taking off his glasses to wipe his face on a sleeve. He had to swallow his pride and do it.

"I-I'm sorry, Crookshanks. I said your name was stupid and called your entire existence pointless... That was wrong of me. For a ginger furball, you're pretty awesome."

Padma giggled at his pained expression, but Hermione was frowning. "What about ruining his cot?"

Harry tilted his head. "I never did that."

Hermione growled. "I swear, one day I'm going to get the truth out of you and..." She seemed to deflate. "At least you recognize how smart he is. Isn't that great, Crookshanks?"

Harry nodded. "Smarter than Weasley, at the very least. Hey, I should get him something as thanks. How about five cans of tuna?"

"Mrrow," said Crookshanks, raising his head.

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Then again, your efforts might be worth ten."

Crookshanks jumped out of Hermione's hands and strutted up to Harry, then leapt into his lap. Angling his head upwards, he let out a purr.

"I see a familiar's loyalty is cheap," he said with a grin.

"Turncoat," Hermione muttered. "Just shut up and pet him, Harry."

"Fine, but he better not give me fleas."

Crookshanks flicked his tail angrily, but was soon purring as he was scratched behind the ears. This wasn't so bad, although Harry wasn't looking forward to brushing the orange fur off his robes.

He glanced down at the cat, then at the girl opposite as something occurred to him. "Heh, I'm petting Hermione's hairy pussy."

An incredulous silence descended upon the compartment. Hermione looked speechless, her face reddening as she reached for her wand. Then there was a muffled snicker, and everybody turned to see Su hide behind her book, her small shoulders shaking with laughter.

The uncommon sight sent Harry over the edge, and he laughed uproariously, Crookshanks jumping off him with an annoyed meow. His laughter quickly changed into yelps of pain when Hermione started throwing stinging hexes. Tony merely scooted away and chortled at the spectacle like the traitor he was.

Sirius knocked on the door to the room he'd allotted to his godson. While he was glad Harry wanted to stay at Grimmauld Place, he had assumed they would be spending more time together. Was he out of touch with the younger generation?

"Come in," a muffled voice said.

He stepped inside and looked around curiously. Harry was in his customary position at the computer desk. The shelves were crammed with colorful figurines and picture books—light novels, his godson had called them. Sirius supposed that was better than Dark tomes. The newest addition was the posters lining the walls. His gaze lingered on a picture of a pointy-eared archer in what looked like a chainmail bikini.

"I see you did some redecorating," he said.

Harry nodded. "Thanks so much, Sirius! The Dursleys wouldn't even let me put the posters up, and I had to keep my figurines in the closet."

Sirius grinned at his enthusiasm. "Sure thing, kid. How about we hit Diagon Alley today? I got my hands on some Polyjuice."

Harry shrugged. "Nah, I'm good."

His face fell. "But all you've done for the past few days is watch your cartoons."

Harry groaned. "I've told you before, they're not cartoons! This is anime, and it is superior to that Western dreck in every conceivable way. There's character development, engaging dialogue, deep plot, thought-provoking themes..."

Sirius glanced at the computer screen, which showed a still frame of a boy sticking a toothbrush into a blushing girl's mouth. "I'll take your word for it."

Harry nodded smugly.

"Still, you're never going to achieve your dreams if you stay holed up in your room," he continued.

A look of dawning realization passed over Harry's face. He glanced at the screen longingly, then turned back to him. "Fine," he said with a sigh.

Sirius blinked. "That's what finally worked? You must be pretty serious about your dreams—let's hear them."

"The usual, I guess. Graduate with good grades, make lots of money..." The boy ducked his head and mumbled, "Get a harem."

Sirius guffawed and clapped his godson on the shoulder. Now that was something he could understand, generation gap or not. "Ah, youth. Take it from me, Harry: you're rich, famous, and"—he tilted his head in consideration—"not entirely ugly."

Harry slapped his hand away. "Oi!"

Sirius raised his palms to placate him. "Don't worry, kid, few are born with looks as great as mine. Point is, you can have a different girl on your arm every week when you're older."

"Cool," the boy said. "But I want, y'know, a proper harem where the girls are happy to share me."

Sirius knitted his brows. "That sounds like asking for trouble to me. Every girl wants to feel like she's special."

"No, look, it's all scientific," Harry said with a note of frustration. "The more people you add to the love polygon, the softer the corners become, and the less painful it is for everyone involved."

Sirius shook his head. "That's it, we're getting you outside right now."

"Thanks for inviting Anthony as well," Harry said. "Those Sky Box tickets can't have come cheap."

Sirius waved him off. "I'm loaded, and nothing would hack my family off more than their wayward son blowing their fortune on frivolous entertainment."

"Still..." Harry said as they approached a dilapidated house that appeared to be held up by magic alone. "Do we have to go with the Weasleys?"

"They're my best chance of blending in. Weasleys are old comrades from the war—you can trust them."

"That's not what I'm worried about," he muttered, but Sirius was already knocking on a flaking door which might've been white once upon a time. It was promptly opened by a stocky woman with Weasley-red hair.

"Hiya, Molly. I brought the kid."

"Hello, Sirius. You're looking better than last time," the woman said, giving him a critical once-over. She turned to Harry and her face creased into a smile. "So good to meet you, dear. Come in, we're about to have dinner."

The two of them were practically dragged into the kitchen, where the whole family was already gathered at the table. Harry mumbled a greeting, squirming under the curious stares, then did a double take. Two girls stood out in the sea of gingers: one was Ginny, now sporting jet-black hair, and the other the only Gryffindor witch he was on speaking terms with.

"Hermione? What are you doing here?"

"Ronald was kind enough to invite me." She smiled at the boy in question, making his ears redden.

"I didn't know you were interested in Quidditch," Harry said.

"Well... a game played on that level is bound to be educational."

"Not exactly the word I'd use, but I reckon you're right," Fred, or maybe George, said. "With Krum on the field, we're certain to see something spectacular."

Harry scratched his cheek. "Which one's Krum again?"

He was treated to incredulous stares before several people launched into detailed explanations of just how phenomenal the Bulgarian Seeker was. Luckily, Mrs. Weasley chose that moment to bring in the food, so Harry was spared from Ron's attempt to act out a Wronski Feint using a spoon.

The dinner was rowdier than any he'd ever had at the Dursleys, but the food was excellent. Sirius couldn't cook and his beastly house-elf was useless, so the two of them had subsisted on take-out all summer. That was still better than Aunt Petunia's latest diet of activated almonds and asparagus water, but it didn't hold a candle to Mrs. Weasley's home cooking.

Harry was rudely awakened from his dream by an unholy noise. He fumbled for his glasses and looked around the orange bedroom blearily.

Soft light of dawn filtered through the drawn curtains. Hermione stood next to his camp bed, a spoon and a pan in her hands. Seeing that he was awake, she turned to Ron and started banging the pan again.

"Get up," she said. "We'll be late for the Portkey!"

Ron groaned. "Bloody hell, woman! Ever heard of knocking?"

"I've been knocking for five minutes—come on!"

Harry dropped back onto the mattress and covered his head with a pillow. "Hermione, quit doing that, or I won't accept you into my harem."

"What?" The noise halted, then resumed with increased intensity. "I don't want to be in your stupid harem!"

He threw the pillow in Hermione's direction and rose from the bed.

Harry met up with Tony, who'd been Side-Alonged by his mother, and together they slogged up the endless stairs to the Sky Box. For all their ingenuity in building the gigantic stadium in several short months, the wizards hadn't thought of installing an elevator.

The Weasleys were already milling around the private suite. The place was roomy and cool, with massive glass panels and leather armchairs which looked like they belonged in a wealthy gentleman's study. Harry picked one at random and slumped into it with a contented sigh.

Ginny left her family and perched on the seat beside him, head lowered so the black mane of her hair covered her pink face. Harry winced and got up to switch to the chair at the edge of the row, motioning Tony to take the one next to him.

"Help me out here," Harry whispered at his questioning expression. "That Chamber stuff messed with her head."

Tony shot Ginny a wary look. "Did she go Dark or something?"

"Worse," Harry said grimly, "she became an emo. Last night, she cornered me in the kitchen and made me listen to her poetry."

Tony sat down, snickering. "You owe me one."

Upbeat music started playing outside, and everyone hurried to their seats. A tremendous screen on the opposite side of the stadium stopped flashing advertisements for Plowfield's Bikini & Broomcare Wax and displayed a tricolor of white, green, and red with seven player portraits underneath.

"You don't want to miss this, boys," Sirius said in a voice that wasn't his. The man looked like a Weasley, courtesy of Polyjuice Potion and a hair from some distant relative. "The Bulgarian cheerleaders are all veela!"

Harry scooted to the edge of his seat and looked down at the field, where dozens of women in skimpy uniforms were starting a lively dance. He found he couldn't look away; every single one of them was gorgeous, their platinum-blonde hair flowing in the air as they moved with supernatural grace.

"3DPD," Tony scoffed. Harry reckoned he still hadn't gotten over Sally-Anne publicly shooting him down last year. (In her defense, the Valentine dwarf had misread a scrawled 'blush' as 'bush', giving Tony's poem a rather bawdy meaning.)

"Yeah," Harry said distractedly, but he was leaning forward and stretching his neck. The dancers' skirts fluttered with every tantalizing swing of their lithe legs, and he regretted not buying the Omnioculars when he had the chance. At least he was better than Ron, who was halfway out of his chair, an exasperated Hermione trying to pull him back by his robes.

Bagpipes drowned out the previous track and Irish flag replaced the Bulgarian on the screen as a green comet flew into the stadium, circling the field and scattering golden baubles into the stands. A few clanged against the glass as the formation zoomed past the Sky Box, and Harry recognized the golden Galleons.

The cheerleaders below shook their fists as the coins rained down on their heads. The comet broke up into countless leprechauns who made rude gestures, enraging them further. One by one, the veela transformed, sprouting broad feathery wings from their shoulders while their nails elongated into cruel claws. A handful of wizards ran into the pitch to try and defuse the situation.

Harry slumped in his seat, feeling as if a spell had been broken. Ron recoiled, crashing into Hermione and landing in her lap. There were disappointed sighs from Sirius and Mr. Weasley.

Tony, who'd been watching the dancers with a sullen look, jumped out of his chair and banged on the glass. "Papi! Wait for me, Papi!"

Harry shot to his feet. "Look closely," he hissed, grabbing Tony's shoulder. "They're not harpies!"

Tony glanced at him, then back at the field, a growing look of horror on his face. He staggered back and plonked onto the seat, covering his face with his palms. "I... I hate myself for being more disappointed than embarrassed."

Harry nodded sagely. "I know how you feel. We'll talk about your taste in waifus later."

Chapter Text

Harry strolled down the carriage, looking into the compartments and nodding to an occasional acquaintance. The train was about to leave, and almost everyone was settled in already.

He passed through the gangway and into the next car. Only one person was still standing in the corridor: a dainty blonde wearing a green dress embroidered with flamboyant flowers.

"Hello, Luna", he called out, "have a good summer?"

She smiled beatifically. "Oh, yes. Daddy took time off work, and we hiked all over England's magical woods observing the nature."

"Sure beats mine," Harry murmured, recalling the attack on the Quidditch World Cup. "Are you waiting for someone?"

He followed Luna's pensive look to a closed compartment. A peek through the window told him it was occupied by their younger housemates.

"Want to sit with us?" he offered. "I was just looking for Tony."

Luna's smile became even brighter, and she gave him a cute little salute. "Lead on, captain."

Chuckling in response, he did just that. All the compartments in this carriage turned out to be full, but he finally spied Tony's straw-colored mop in the next. The boy was alone and had locked himself in, waving his wand to cancel the spell after Harry knocked on the door.

"Hey, mate," Tony said. "Brought a stray?"

"She was too adorable to leave behind," Harry replied, shaking hands before settling on the opposite bench.

Luna pirouetted into the compartment and perched next to him, swinging her tanned legs. "I'm no stray! I'm a damsel in distress, whom Harry saved like a noble knight of yore." She sighed dreamily and batted her lashes.

Tony snorted. "Noble, this guy? Careful, Luna—blokes like him tend to have ulterior motives. I'll teach you a good hex to defend yourself with in case he tries anything when you're alone."

Harry flipped him the bird. "Sod off, Goldstein."

Luna gasped dramatically. Harry was wondering whether he should apologize for his language when she asked, "Your surname is Goldstein?"

Tony looked nonplussed. "What of it?"

She leaned towards Harry and said in a stage whisper, "I think your friend is a Jew."

"I'm aware," he said, lips curving up.

"Jews control the media, Harry. They own the Daily Prophet, the Witch Weekly, and the wireless. Daddy's newspaper is the only exception." Luna sidled along the bench until her shoulder pressed against his. "Who knows what one of them might do to the daughter of the Quibbler's editor if given the chance."

Tony's face was carefully blank as he aimed his wand at the door. "Colloportus. She knows too much, Potter. I am afraid I cannot let her escape."

"Ah, I knew this day would come. Fear not, my fair maiden. The mightiest of magics are at my command." Harry flourished his twelve-inch wand, its tip lighting up.

Tony half-rose from the bench, adopting a theatrical duelist's pose with his wand drawn back like a rapier. "Fool! You are a hundred years too early to challenge me—"

The door to the compartment slid open, and Padma appeared at the entrance, tapping her wand against her palm. Su stood behind her, clutching a large book to her chest.

Padma stared at Tony's exaggerated stance, then at Harry who had Luna draped across his chest. "What are you doing?"

"N-nothing," Harry muttered, putting away his wand. Luna untangled herself from him with a pout.

The Beauxbatons delegation streamed into the Great Hall in a neat column, cool and collected under the gazes of the entire Hogwarts population. Harry's eyes passed over the first rows of the French representatives and their enormous headmistress. Then he saw her, and nothing else in the world mattered anymore.

Her alluring eyes were the color of the summer sky, and her mid-back length hair was like beams of moonlight, swaying as she sashayed through the hall. Her figure was perfection itself, statuesque and quintessentially feminine, making the Beauxbatons uniform look more elegant than the fanciest dress. She gave the slightest hint of a smile as her gaze wandered over the seated students, and Harry's heart skipped a beat. Small white teeth flashed between her sensuous lips—

"They brought a veela," Padma hissed. "Unbelievable."

Harry blinked, then wiped a trail of drool off his chin. He glanced at the French witch again, mindful of what was happening this time. His attention was being drawn to her, as though she was the sole source of light in the darkness. Even aware of the peculiar effect, he couldn't deny that the girl was more beautiful than a regular person had any right to be.

"That's... interesting," he said.

Tony just scoffed and turned his back on the arrivals.

The Goblet's flames turned red for the fourth time, and surprised cries drowned out Dumbledore's speech. The ancient artifact released a cloud of angry sparks before spitting out a piece of parchment, which the headmaster snatched from the air. A tense silence descended upon the Great Hall as everyone held their breath in anticipation.

"Harry Potter," Dumbledore said in a stony voice.

There was a commotion as everybody craned their necks trying to locate him. Harry stooped down, his stomach churning. He should have known this was coming as soon as the Goblet malfunctioned.

"Cheater," a loud voice declared from the Hufflepuff table, garnering approving nods from random students. Harry glared at the house of the loyal; he hadn't seen who said it, but he had a hunch it was that bellend Smith.

"Mr. Potter, if you please." Dumbledore indicated the door behind the staff table, his lined face betraying no emotion.

The words spurred Harry into action. With hundreds of eyes on him, he climbed onto the bench next to their house table.

"Listen up, you dimwits!" he shouted, his voice quavering a bit, "I swear I did not put my name into the Goblet of Fire. I swear it on my life and magic!"

He gestured with his wand, lighting it up with nary an effort. That had the effect of shutting everybody up—until another voice spoke, this time from the Gryffindor table.

"Magical vows don't work that way! You need a Binder and a proper ceremony!"

Dumbledore nodded in that direction. "Thank you for enlightening us, Miss Granger. Mr. Potter, you need to proceed into the chamber now."

Harry gave Hermione a glare and trudged up to the staff table, trying to keep his back straight. The headmaster clasped his elbow as he was passing by.

"Was what you said true, Harry?"

He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

Dumbledore let go. "Go on, then. We shall get to the bottom of this."

Harry rubbed his temples. All this shouting was giving him a migraine, and the stuffy air in the cramped room wasn't helping matters. "You said I had to compete? Why?"

Snape sneered and opened his mouth, but Dumbledore spoke first. "The Goblet of Fire would extract a penalty for breaking the contract. Such is the magic of oaths and pledges."

"Would it kill me?"

The others stilled at the question, and even Snape looked uneasy.

"It is possible," Dumbledore said. "However, I find that outcome exceedingly unlikely. The punishment could take any shape, from the weakening of your powers to a string of bad fortune. This only applies if you placed your name into the Goblet of your own volition, of course."

"Right," Harry said. "I didn't, so I'm out."

Moody shifted, his peg leg clanking on the floor. "Are you sure, lad? This is ancient magic we're talking about. There could be unforeseen ramifications."

"I'm sure," Harry said, amused by the astonished looks on the other champions' faces. "Now that that's settled..." He turned to leave, hoping that was the end of it.

"Halt," Crouch said. "You might not be bound by magic, but the same cannot be said for law. There are old regulations that came into effect along with the reinstatement of the Tournament, and they're not kind to oathbreakers. Leave now, and you'll be seeing the inside of an Azkaban cell before long."

Harry gawked at him, too stunned for words—and judging from the silence in the room, he wasn't the only one. Moody's glare was particularly fierce, and Harry could see the ex-Auror's gnarled fingers grip his wand. Crouch himself retained his stony mask, looking back at the surrounding wizards and witches stolidly.

"Why are you doing this, Barty?" Dumbledore asked quietly. "It should be obvious by now that Mr. Potter did not enter himself."

"We must uphold the law. It applies equally to everyone, Boy-Who-Lived or not," Crouch said.

Dumbledore bowed his head, and Harry's stomach knotted. His gaze darted around, only finding resigned or outright hostile expressions.

"Why don't you all go fuck yourselves!" he exploded, enjoying the outraged looks on the faces of the French witches. He pointed at the foreigners, Snape, and Crouch. "Fuck you, fuck you, and fuck you in particular. You two are cool, though," he added to Moody and Dumbledore.

Madam Maxime clutched at her chest. "Ça alors!"

"Thank you for that glowing endorsement, Harry," Dumbledore said. "Report to my office tomorrow at five to discuss your punishment for insulting our esteemed guests."

"Hey, Potter! How did you manage to enter?" some random kid shouted as he was walking down the staircase. Harry sighed. That was the third time that morning, and he hadn't even had breakfast yet.

"I tossed my name in from behind the Age Line," he said, quickening his steps.

"Why not say you didn't do it?" Tony asked when they were out of earshot.

"Meh. It's not like anyone's going to believe me," he said moodily.

A hush fell over the Great Hall at their entrance, then the students began pointing and whispering. Harry ignored the stares and went for his customary place at the Ravenclaw table, purposely keeping his head high.

The negative attention and the accusations didn't bother him much; he was surrounded by friends, he was supported by Sirius, and he was tempered by a similar experience during his second year. What he was worried about were the motives of whoever entered him into the potentially lethal competition.

Things weren't much different after breakfast.

"How did you do it, Potter?"

"I flew over the Goblet with my broomstick."

"Tell me how you got your name in!"

"I used the Imperius on one of Hagrid's goats."

"People here will believe anything," commented Padma, having overheard that last one. "Sometimes it feels like everyone outside Ravenclaw is a dunce."

Harry didn't have the heart to point out that Padma had also initially suspected him of entering by choice. It just seemed like something he would do, she had said.

"Oi, Potter, how did ya—"

"I summoned a snake and asked to drop it in for me," Harry said tiredly to yet another person he'd never spoken to in his life. He added in Parseltongue, "Like this, asshole."

"Oh, good one," Padma murmured when the overly curious Gryffindor scampered off.

"Potter! Wait up, you cheat!"

Harry ground his teeth but turned around, his hand inching towards his wand. Zacharias Smith and a gaggle of Hufflepuffs approached him, every one of them wearing badges which said 'Support Cedric Diggory—The Real Hogwarts Champion'.

"Watch this, Potter," Smith said. He tapped his badge with a finger, and the message changed to 'Potter Stinks'. The rest of the Hufflepuffs followed suit, snickering among themselves.

Harry watched the badges expecting a further, more offensive message, but that appeared to be it. He rolled his eyes at the inordinately pleased look on Smith's rattish face. "Yeah, that really hurt my feelings."

Being excused from the exams, Harry put his all into preparing for the Tournament, especially after Hagrid apprised him of what awaited him in the first task. His friends helped with researching potentially useful spells; Hermione in particular threw herself into the work with fervor. Harry guessed she felt guilty about blurting out that tidbit about magical oaths during the night the champions were chosen, even though she had apologized profusely afterwards. Still, there was only so much a bunch of kids could do, which is why he turned to his godfather for help.

"Dragons, huh?" Sirius's disembodied hand appeared in the Floo to scratch his stubble. "Not something a fourth-year can tussle with and live to tell the tale. Hell, there aren't many adults who could take one on. I bet the task will be about getting past it—a test of your stealth skills."

"We should plan for the worst," Harry said. "This is the perfect opportunity for whoever put my name in to strike. Enrage the dragon so it would stomp me, and get it written off as an accident."

Sirius looked even more concerned than before. "Have any ideas yet?"

"I don't suppose you could teach me to become a dragon Animagus?" he asked hopefully. "Maybe I could talk things out with it."

"There hasn't been a magical Animagus since Merlin," Sirius said absently, "but that's not a bad idea at all. Your dad and I managed to transform in our fifth year—we could at least begin your training over the holidays."

"Brilliant!" Harry grinned. If he couldn't become anything magical, then a jaguar or a wolf would be the next best thing.

The embers in the fireplace crackled and his godfather's form flickered for a second. "Still, what about the dragon? Eyes and underbellies are their only weak points, so the Conjunctivitis Curse should be effective..."

"I actually had something else in mind, but it's a little crazy and dangerous," Harry said. "Illegal, too, but after the bullshit the Ministry pulled, I don't feel obligated to play fair."

Sirius grinned. "I like the sound of it already."

Harry explained, watching his godfather's eyebrows rise higher and higher as he went on.

"You're wrong," Sirius breathed. "That's not a little crazy—that's downright insane!"

"Oh," he said, disappointed. "So you don't think it would work?"

"I don't know, but I sure as hell want to find out." Sirius's teeth reflected the green flames.

Harry found himself smiling in response. "Owl me that dewar and I'll get started."

"Are you certain there are no cameras inside?"

Sirius rolled his eyes. "Yes, just like I told you the first three times. I know what a camera looks like, thank you very much."

"You can never be too sure with you purebloods," Harry said, staring at the sciency facility across the road. He drummed his fingers on the metallic one-gallon container in his hands.

"Need I point out that I enchanted my motorcycle from scratch?" Sirius asked indignantly. "Not that I understand anything about this LN2 stuff. I hope you know what you're doing."

He nodded. "Don't worry, I read the Wikipedia article. I'm practically an expert now."

"In that case, let's get a move on."

Harry put on his invisibility cloak while Sirius Disillusioned himself, and the two sneaked up to the entrance where the latter, having scouted the place beforehand, entered the code for the electronic lock. They slipped inside, and Sirius led him down a long corridor to the storage room, ducking around an employee walking the other way.

"Give me a minute," Sirius whispered when they arrived at their destination. He murmured a few spells, locked the exits, then canceled his Disillusionment. "Muggle-Repeller is up—they won't even notice anything if we're quick."

"Alright," Harry said as he pulled the cloak off. "Let's get this done."

He placed the dewar on the ground and took off the cap, then donned the conveniently present insulated gloves and a face shield. Picking up a metallic transfer line, he stuck it into the container.

"Okay, so I just open the valve here, and then we wait," Harry muttered, turning the knob next to a label reading 'liquid'.

"Blimey!" Sirius stepped back from the burst of mist. "Is it supposed to do that?"

"Yeah, that's totally normal," Harry said. "I've seen it on Youtube."

They watched the escaping gas avidly at first, but it got old after a while. Harry kept glancing at the doors until Sirius reminded him that Muggle-Repelling Charms were pretty much foolproof. After about half an hour, the noise quieted down and the gauge at the top of the pressurized tank showed it to be empty. Harry took a kick at it, producing a ringing sound.

"How much do you think was in there?" Sirius wondered.

Harry shrugged. "Probably a few hundred gallons. I'd like to get more—those dragons were huge." He began fiddling with the transfer line, intending to connect it to an identical tank standing beside the one they just drained.

"Let me help you with that—oh." Sirius stared at his frozen fingers with surprise. "I'm stuck."

Harry waved his glove-clad hands at his godfather. "These aren't just for show, you know."

He wasn't too worried; in the wizarding world, non-lethal injuries could be fixed in seconds by anyone half-competent at healing. Sirius proved him right by freeing his hand and applying an overpowered Anti-Frostbite Charm. Harry meanwhile proceeded to connect the transfer line to the second tank.

Sirius flexed his hand tentatively. "How much can you fit in there, anyway?"

"I dunno, a fuckton. That seventh-year I got to enchant this was really handy with Extension Charms."

Sirius tapped his chin thoughtfully. "We're measuring volume here, not weight, so it should be a 'fuckgallon'."

"And you call me a nerd."

The two chatted about nothing in particular while Harry emptied the second tank and moved on to the last one. When that was gone as well, he put the cap back on his little dewar, which didn't show any sign of overflowing. Magic was awesome.

"Are we done here?" Sirius asked, dropping a wad of banknotes on a nearby desk.

Harry lifted the enchanted container, noting that it wasn't one bit heavier than before, then looked at what appeared to be a filling station on the other side of the room. He had no idea how to operate it, but they had time.

"Hang on, let me try something first," he said with a grin.

A wand weighing ceremony took place a week prior to the first task. Harry thought it somewhat pointless—he'd have to be suicidal to attempt to fight a dragon with anything less than a perfectly functioning wand—but it got him out of Potions so he couldn't complain.

Krum scowled at Harry's arrival and Fleur pointedly ignored him, but Cedric actually gave him a nod. Between the champions, the judges, and the reporters, the room was rather crowded. Everybody's attention was on the elderly wandmaker Harry had last seen more than four years ago.

Ollivander went through the champions one-by-one, commenting on the composition and the state of their wands. By the time it was Harry's turn, he was sweating. With the press here, surely the man wouldn't...

"Last, but certainly not least," Ollivander said, setting his pale eyes on him and extending a calloused hand. Harry handed over his wand with more than a smidgen of reluctance.

"Ah, I remember this one well," Ollivander murmured, running his finger along the shaft of wood. "Gave me some trouble until this wand finally chose you, didn't you, Mr. Potter? It's an older make of mine, quite an unusual combination of materials." Harry glared at the man chanting shut up, shut up in his head. "Pine and... dragonbone."

Harry let out a sigh of relief and wiped his palms on his robes, attracting some odd looks.

Ollivander waved the wand, creating a fountain of milk; several drops landed on Fleur's stylish robes, and she stepped away protesting loudly.

"My apologies, Miss Delacour. Mr. Potter's wand is rather large and unwieldy," the wandmaker explained, his silvery eyes glinting. "It appears to be in fine condition, nonetheless." He offered it back to Harry with a wink.

"Barmy old codger," Harry muttered, snatching the wand back.

A chipper Ludo Bagman ushered the champions into a tent, where he made them draw miniature figures of the dragons they were about to face. Harry surreptitiously placed the Disillusioned dewar containing an imperial fuckgallon of win in the corner while the others stuck their hands down Bagman's bag in turn. Fleur was the only one who bothered to feign shock. To his utter lack of surprise, Harry ended up drawing the largest and fiercest of the four, the Hungarian Horntail. He hoped he would get to keep the figurine afterwards, as it was rather well made.

He was tense, but not too worried—if everything went according to plan, he'd have the dragon iced. The bigger concern was whether whatever measures of safety were in place would be enough to protect the audience. Bagman proved useless in this regard, repeating assurances that they 'had it all under control' without answering any questions. Harry eventually convinced him to call the Ministry official in charge of the wards around the arena.

"It's an honor, Mr. Potter." The short, balding man shook his hand, squinting through bottle-bottom glasses. He had a toothbrush mustache which would have been considered politically incorrect in the Muggle world. "My daughter is a fan of yours—she'll be cheering for you from the stands."

Harry smiled. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about. I was wondering how well the spectators were protected from potential hazards—say, extreme cold?"

"Extreme cold?" The man chuckled. "Surely you're aware that dragons breathe fire, young man."

Harry's smile widened. "I will be the one using cold. Speaking of which, am I allowed to slay the beast?"

"Slay it?" The bureaucrat bristled. "Mr. Potter, I assure you that our protective charms—and the dragon—will handle anything a schoolboy could throw at them. You should be thinking about your own safety instead of entertaining these fantasies." The man stomped off, muttering about kids with inane questions wasting his time.

"Well, fuck you too," Harry mumbled to his retreating back—but not too loudly, for he didn't need any trouble right then. He fully intended to become the world's youngest Dragonslayer.

As expected from the most ferocious of the four dragons brought to Hogwarts, the Hungarian Horntail was colossal and awe-inspiring. The vertical pupils of its yellow eyes glared in Harry's direction, the black spikes on the creature's back gleaming in the sunlight. Its mighty legs were shackled with thick chains attached to pegs driven deep into the ground, yet the nest with the golden egg was well within its reach.

Harry clenched his fists and started taking slow, deliberate breaths. The beast was chained securely, he told himself, so he was quite safe at this distance. All he had to do was pull off the plan with all the flair he could muster, and keep his fingers crossed that Leidenfrost wouldn't ruin his show.

The starting whistle sounded, and he advanced, the hidden key to victory clutched under his armpit. The far-away audience gasped at his apparently suicidal march, and he grinned tightly. They would learn soon enough.

The dragon tracked him with its Quaffle-sized eyes, not making a move until Harry crossed some invisible line. Then it lunged as far as the chains allowed and spewed out a roaring torrent of white-hot flames. Having jumped backwards as soon as the dragon stirred, Harry ended up just outside its range and merely had the exposed parts of his skin singed by a blast of hot air.

"Phew," he muttered, wiping the sweat from his brow with his free hand. That had been too close for comfort.

It was time to enact the plan. After weeks of practice, the motions came easily. Place the container on the ground. Cast his best Warming and Bubble-Head Charms. Apply Sonorus to his throat, then throw a nonverbal Levitation Charm at the shimmering outline of the dewar. It had taken him hours to get this part down pat, but Wingardium Leviosa was a first-year spell.

Harry raised his hand steadily, levitating the none-too-heavy container farther and farther away. The metal sparkled in the sun through the imperfect concealing spell, helping him judge the distance. It was holding the magic that was the difficult part; he'd trained, sure, but Horntail's reach turned out to be greater than he'd expected. Already his hand was shaking, and the container along with it.

He gritted his teeth and grabbed his wand with both hands, steadying his wavering magic through sheer force of will. Squinting at the sky, he noted that the glint of metal was directly above the dragon, which was once again watching him without so much as a twitch of its claws. He allowed himself a quick smile and hoped his voice wouldn't crack.

"Empress of ice, wreathed in frost, heed the call of the Eternal Warlock!" Harry chanted, his amplified voice resounding through the field. "I invoke the ancient contract and summon you to the mortal plane. Descend upon this earth and freeze all the enemies in my path!" He took a deep breath, savoring the complete silence reigning in the arena. "Diamond Dust!"

Floating high over the dragon and more than a hundred feet away from Harry, the container reacted to the activation phrase, snapping open and expelling its contents. Gravity did the rest. It looked as if the sky had split and a hand of ice appeared above the Horntail, reaching towards it with immense speed.

The massive creature howled in shock and pain when the flow of liquid nitrogen hit its back. It reared its head reflexively, and the wide stream from the rapidly emptying container splashed over its snout and trickled down its throat. An enormous plume of steam escaped its jaws, and the maddened beast thrashed for a few moments before it was swallowed by the swiftly expanding fog.

Even with visibility reduced to zero, Harry stubbornly held the Levitation Charm, intent on creating the perfect dragon popsicle. When he couldn't take the biting cold anymore, he let the spell drop with a relieved sigh.

Canceling the Sonorus with trembling hands, he applied more Warming Charms to his clothes, the basic magic proving of limited use versus Muggle science. He pocketed his wand and pulled on the cryogenic gloves he'd ended up nicking to insulate his bare hands. At least the Bubble-Head Charm was functioning faultlessly, protecting his lungs from the cold and providing precious oxygen.

The sight was surreal. The world around him was blanketed in dense fog, and he couldn't hear anything but his own breathing inside the translucent sphere around his head. He began walking in the direction of the nest—or so he hoped—feeling the grass crunch underneath his shoes. Eventually, a shadowy pillar emerged from the haze, blocking his path. He looked up. And then up some more.

"Ventus!" Dumbledore's voice rang somewhere to his right, and Harry was nearly blown off his feet by a gale which swept most of the fog away. He turned towards the source of the spell.

The entire auditorium was enveloped in a glistening prismatic shield. He still couldn't hear a thing, but judging from the way people were gesticulating wildly, they were just fine. Standing on the ground below was Dumbledore, who stared at him with an unusual expression of wonderment on his face.

Harry gave him a cheeky wave before heading towards the nest. He tilted his head backwards as he walked past the dragon, seeing it up-close for the first time. The poor Horntail was frozen in a silent roar, rime painting shimmering patterns on its ebony scales. On a whim, he wrenched one off with a brittle crack and slid it into his pocket.

A glimmer of metal behind the dragon's leg caught his eye and he trotted closer, discovering a half of the discarded dewar. Another one was stuck atop a spike on the beast's fearsome tail. Thankful for the cover provided by the Horntail's flank, Harry freed his wand hand and Disillusioned both pieces anew, then used Depulso to banish them farther afield. He would've preferred to use a Vanishing Spell to cover his tracks entirely, but that was fifth-year curriculum, and he'd had a hard enough time mastering Disillusionment.

Having done all he could, he donned the second glove again and carefully picked up the golden egg. He emerged from behind his gargantuan kill and approached the stands, proudly hoisting his trophy. Dumbledore did some swishing and flicking before the shield covering the audience dissolved, and Harry was immediately hit by a wall of sound. It felt like everyone was shouting and clamoring for his attention.

"And here he is, ladies and gentlemen," Bagman roared, sending spittle everywhere, "the youngest champion—the triumphant Dragonslayer!"

"Aw, yeah," Harry crooned through his grin, raising the egg and causing the cheers to increase in volume. "I'm bloody amazing. Praise me, bitches."

He heard the Weasley twins chanting 'Dragonslayer, Dragonslayer!' over and over, and gave them a thumbs-up with a gloved hand. Scanning the crowd, he saw a red-faced Hermione screaming her head off, but her voice was too weak to reach him. The Ravenclaws were all dancing in the stands, forcing the spectators behind them to stand on their tiptoes to see what was going on. It was glorious.

Dumbledore let off a loud bang with his wand, and the crowd quieted down. Harry pumped his arm up and down and they began cheering again. He smirked at Dumbledore's chiding look and sauntered towards the judges' platform.

As evening approached, the common room filled up with exuberant Ravenclaws. The prefects circled the tower, doing a headcount before locking the main doors. A seventh-year boy Harry only knew by sight disappeared down the dorms and emerged carrying a case of bottles.

"Get your stashes out, lads," he said. "Tonight, we partake of a liquid repast!"

"No butterbeer for second-years and younger," a senior prefect called out, resulting in a few disappointed groans among the whoops and cheers. "Nor anything stronger, as goes without saying."

"Here you go, champ," the seventh-year said, thrusting a couple of brown bottles into Harry's hands.

"Thanks, er..." Harry furrowed his brows as he tried to recall the bloke's name, but the anonymous benefactor was already off sharing his wealth with the rest of the house. He saluted the bloke's back and sat on a couch next to his golden egg, handing one of the butterbeers to Tony when he plopped down beside him.

"Cheers, mate," his friend said. "What a day, huh? Can't believe you pulled it off."

"Shame they docked points from me for destroying—well, everything." He took a draft of butterbeer and sighed in contentment. "Not that I care overmuch."

"Your attempt was the most impressive by far, I'll give you that. Wicked, if a bit cringeworthy." Tony lowered his voice. "How did you manage to say all that shit with a straight face?"

Harry contemplated the question for a minute or two. Whether it was the booze or the euphoria after smashing through the first task, he was feeling philosophical. "Back when I was a kid, I watched shows about heroes and superpowers every day and thought it was the most awesome thing in the world. I wanted nothing more than become one of them."

"Who wouldn't?" Tony interjected.

He nodded. "But deep down, I still knew that it was all a fantasy, that I would eventually have to grow out of it. Except... I don't have to anymore, do I? The letter arrived, and I learned magic was real, and now I can actually make things fly and become invisible and do all kinds of things. It really gets to your head."

Tony burped. "Too deep for me. Let's get hammered."

Harry glanced down at his bottle. "You can't get drunk on butterbeer, can you?"

"Not with that attitude."

Harry chuckled and tipped his bottle back, relishing the creamy taste. As he reclined on the couch, his left hand cradled the golden egg, fingers brushing its cool surface. He hadn't let the thing out of his sight since that afternoon. More than the clue for the second task, he was interested in whether it was made from real gold, and if he would get to keep it.

Tony reached out and stroked the egg. "Figured out what's it do yet?"

Harry laughed, choking on his drink. "Mate, I know you have a hard time controlling yourself around gold, but I need this thing."

"Oh, very funny—give me that." Tony pulled the egg onto his lap and grappled with its handle until the thing split open, unleashing a screech that made everybody in the vicinity cover their ears. Nearly dropping the egg in surprise, Tony snapped it closed.

Harry eyed the egg warily. "Was it supposed to do that?"

"What?" Tony yelled, cupping a hand to his right ear.

"Don't open it again!" he shouted back, causing Tony to nod vigorously.

The brief silence in the common room was replaced by a buzz of excitement as people congregated around them, eyeing the golden egg and discussing various theories. One particular voice cut through the hubbub.

"Sick screamo, man! What's the name of the band?"

The throng parted to reveal a long-haired teenager with more studs in his face than Harry had on his belt. He glanced around. "What?"

"Richard..." Harry began.

"I told you to call me Raven, man!" He came closer, combat boots clomping on the floor. "Why do you think I asked the Hat to be put in this house?"

"Fine—Raven." Harry refrained from rolling his eyes. He normally steered clear of the older boy, but he clearly knew something about the egg's clue. "Do you know what that was?"

"Only some of the most insane screamo I've ever heard," Richard said. "Didn't catch much of the lyrics though."

Harry, along with most of his house, gaped at 'Raven' incredulously. "You mean to say that"—he rapped his knuckles against the egg—"was music?"

"Hey, not cool," Richard said seriously. "I don't judge your musical tastes."

Harry gulped nervously. "No, no—I'm just new to the genre, you see. I was hoping we could listen to this together and you'd write down the lyrics for me. They're a little hard to make out."

Raven grinned toothily. "You bet, man. I'll bring some Cannibal Corpse vinyls from my dorm, we can listen to those too!"

The crowd started thinning out quickly. Harry gave the metalhead a forced smile. "Sure, that sounds... terrific."

Chapter Text

Harry's breakfast plate of rashers and eggs was shoved away unceremoniously and a Muggle newspaper was slapped down in its place. He looked up.

"Do you mind, Hermione? I'm trying to eat here."

She tapped the paper with her finger. "I figured out how you did it. I knew you lied when you told everyone it was ancestral Dragon Slayer magic!"

Suppressing a snort, he picked up the newspaper and began reading. "'Baffling robbery at research lab... Burglars leave a stack of cash worth ten times the liquid nitrogen they stole.' Huh, I had no idea the stuff was so cheap."

Hermione pushed the paper down to glare at him. "You admit this was your doing, then?"

He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, whatever. Good job, girl detective. You're officially smarter than most of the wizarding world."

"Er, thanks." Hermione preened a little before catching herself. "Wait—you broke the law! Worse yet, you cheated!"

"Shush, not here." Harry looked around warily, but the Great Hall was nearly empty this early in the morning. "Tonight, at the Roost."

"Oh no, you're not getting away," she said, sliding onto the bench next to him. "We'll talk as soon as you're done eating."

Harry groaned but didn't object. He shoveled the food into his mouth while Hermione watched him like a hawk, practically bouncing in her seat. Sighing, he drained the remains of his tea and motioned her to follow.

They climbed one flight of stairs and slipped through a sort-of-secret passage that most upper-years used before Hermione's patience ran out and she pulled on the back of his robes, bringing him to a halt.

"Well?" she said. "You stole from the Muggles and killed a dragon. What do you have to say for yourself?"

Harry blew out his cheeks. "I don't know what you expect me to say. Someone put me into this tournament against my will, and the Ministry won't let me back out. I'm just doing whatever it takes to survive. As sorry as I am for the Horntail, I'd do it all over again."

"There were things you could've done without resorting to theft and slaughter," Hermione said, crossing her arms. "Like transfiguring a decoy, for one."

"Not exactly my top subject. Besides, that didn't work out too well for Diggory, did it?" He ran a hand through his hair. "I know you're a bit of a stickler for rules, but I thought you'd care about my well-being more."

Her eyes widened. "I'm glad you were fine, honestly! I guess I just... got caught up in trying to uncover what you did. Why didn't you tell me, Harry? We're friends, aren't we?"

"I told you the same thing I told Tony and the girls—that Sirius and I were handling it. The less people knew the details, the better. What if the Ministry decided to interrogate you, or whoever put my name in read your mind?" He sighed when she didn't appear mollified. "Why is this bothering you so much, Hermione?"

She ducked her head and mumbled, "It's stupid."

Her pout was so adorable that Harry's frustration evaporated. "No, tell me."

"It's just that..." She picked at her robes, not meeting his eyes. "I researched all those spells, but you went with your own thing, and it worked out much better than my ideas would have. Your godfather helped you acquire the materials, and you barely needed any help in learning the Disillusionment Charm. I just... feel a little useless."

"That's not true," he said softly. "You're better at research than anyone I know. I'm counting on your help for the second task."

She sniffled, lifting her gaze. "You're not just humoring me, are you?"

"'Course not. Come here." He opened his arms and waited. "Come on."

Hermione hesitantly wrapped her arms around him, then shivered and let out a sob. Harry patted her back gently while his other hand drifted lower.

She stiffened and stepped out of the hug. "D-did you just touch my butt?"

Harry flexed his fingers as he pondered. "Hmm. Reckon I came close, at least."

She shoved him away. "I can't believe you!"

"Hey, I wanted to cheer you up. You're not sad anymore, are you?"

"I'm angry." She glowered at him, her cheeks pink.

"There you go. A win-win situation, if I ever saw one," he said with a wide grin.

Her lips twitched. "That's not funny. Stop smirking!" She turned away with a huff. "I wish you'd quit doing things like that, Harry. I do care for you—"

He pumped his arm. "Yes!"

"Like for an annoying brother I never wanted," she hastened to add. "Nothing more."

"Wouldn't that make you my sister?" Harry rubbed his chin. "That's kinda hot, actually."

Hermione shook her head. "You're incorrigible."

"Gentlemen, may I have your attention?" Michael Corner asked solemnly after everyone gathered in the dorm for the night. "As you all know, a great trial is upon us: the Yule Ball is approaching, and we all need dates. I propose a pact to support one another during these onerous times." He held his hand out, palm down.

"Brilliant," Tony agreed, following suit. "We can wingman for each other and stuff."

Harry shrugged and joined them without a word. The trio looked at the other two boys expectantly.

"I don't know..." Kevin Entwhistle mumbled. His shyness around the fairer sex was notorious among the Ravenclaws.

"Don't worry, Kev, no man will be left behind," Michael promised. "We can always set you up with a nice third-year—most of them are dying to go."

"O-okay." Kevin laid his hand on top of theirs.

"Terry?" Michael said.

The pureblood sat on his four-poster bed, observing the proceedings out of the corner of his eye. "This is stupid."

Tony rolled his eyes. "Come on, Boot, I'll butter up Hermione for you—not literally, you perv. "

Terry blushed and sputtered, but ended up adding his hand to the stack. The boys cheered, then started discussing their plans in detail.

"Are you going to ask someone from your group, Harry?" Michael had a sly grin on his face. Few people knew about Harry's ambition, but everyone could see him spending a lot of time in the company of the three smartest witches in their year.

"I already asked Hermione and Padma, but they refused to go together," Harry said glumly. "It's either all three or nothing for me."

Michael whistled. "Mate, you're aiming way too high. Ask one of them and promise the others a dance or something."

"You know, it would probably work if it weren't those three," Tony mused. "What with your new fame as a champion and all."

"I don't want some brainless fangirls!" Harry shuddered as he was reminded of the hordes of giggling twelve-year-olds that had been stalking him through the corridors. He had enjoyed the attention at first, but his eardrums did not appreciate the constant squeeing. "I'd go stag, but Flitwick told me I needed a date."

"And you're going to get one," Michael promised. "You're an odd bloke, Harry, but we got your back."

The conversation devolved into banter afterwards, and Harry, still on a victory high, ended up accepting Tony's dare to ask out the hottest girl in the school. For his part, Tony was going to do the same with a Slytherin sixth-year who had a reputation of turning her nose up at anyone who wasn't a part of the Sacred Twenty-Eight. He honestly didn't know who got the worse deal.

The next morning found him shooting skittish looks towards the Gryffindor table, where the Beauxbatons contingent had relocated after Harry was declared champion. The whole thing amused Tony greatly.

"What's the matter, Dragonslayer—not so tough now? It's alright, I'll let you off the hook this time. Just say you're my bitch."

"I hate you so much," Harry muttered, pushing his food around the plate. "Oh, morning, Michael."

"Morning, gents," the long-haired boy said, sliding into the seat opposite. "Here, Harry—I got something for you."

He accepted the glass phial and squinted at the whitish liquid inside. "What's that?"

"Drink it and you'll see."

Harry gave him a calculating look. They weren't the best of friends, but he'd come to know the bloke after living in the same dorm for years; Michael wasn't one for mean jokes.

"Bottoms up." He downed the vial.

"I bet it was Hippogriff semen," Tony commented.

Michael appeared horrified. "Why would you even say that?"

Harry ran his tongue over his teeth. "Nah, don't think so. Tastes sort of potiony."

"Of course it wasn't! No wonder people think you two are weirdos." Michael shook his head. "Look, I figured you could use some courage, so I asked my older cousin if he had anything—he's in NEWT Potions, see. How do you feel?"

"Like I don't give a fuck," Harry said slowly, noticing how relaxed his body felt. "Michael—I love you, man. This is amazing."

"We did make a pact," Michael said proudly.

He stood up, abandoning his cold food. "Might as well get this over with. I can worry about getting a real date after she rejects me."

"That's the spirit!"

"That's cheating," Tony grumbled. "What's the point if you don't make an ass out of yourself?"

Harry sauntered towards the Gryffindor table, impervious to the increasing number of stares directed his way. Fleur was holding a cup of tea and talking quietly with her friends; there were several empty seats separating them from the Gryffindors as if the witches wanted to avoid associating with English peasants. Harry snorted. At least the French guys weren't above mingling with the Hogwarts populace.

Fleur's girlfriends noticed his approach and pointed him out to her, whispering among themselves. He nearly stumbled when she looked his way with those striking blue eyes, suddenly self-conscious again. He hadn't combed his hair that morning, his robes were rumpled, she was older and taller than him, and—ah, sod it, he couldn't back out now.

Harry puffed his chest out and strolled forward, keeping his eyes on target. "Good morning, Miss Delacour," he said, surprising himself with how even his voice sounded.

"Mr. Potter." She took a sip of her tea, somehow making that simple gesture mesmerizing, and gave him a curious glance.

Harry felt irritated; it looked like he'd come to supplicate to somebody greater than him, somebody who didn't even deign him worthy of a proper greeting. Well, it's not like he expected her to say yes, anyway.

Swallowing his annoyance, he gave Fleur what he hoped was a winning smile. "Would you care to accompany me to the Ball?" A tad stiff, but he wasn't confident enough to attempt any witticisms.

She arched a single eyebrow. "Why me? Surely the witches are lining up to go with the fourth champion. I have no doubt you can find someone more... appropriate for your age."

A smattering of giggles from the nearby girls followed her words, and Harry's eye twitched. He opened his mouth, then closed it and shook his head. "Truth is, I have no wish to go with a stuck-up Frenchie like you. I'm only asking because my mates dared me to."

An abrupt silence ensued, broken by gasps from Fleur's friends. Even the students at the surrounding tables quieted down, shooting Harry incredulous looks. Fleur herself gaped at him like a fish out of water, although she quickly schooled her expression. Only the way her knuckles whitened around the cup's handle betrayed her ire. Harry eyed it warily, wondering if the tea would end up on his face.

"You dare—" Fleur began.

"No, the dare was Tony's," he said with a cheeky grin. "It means a challenge."

Fleur's eyes narrowed. "I know that! You're only asking me because you made a bet with your friends?"

He shrugged. "Pretty much. I mean, you might be a looker, but you're also a snobby jerk." His eyes darted around, noting that most of the hall was watching them. "Go ahead and slap me—I want my rejection to be the most memorable."

Fleur looked at him for a moment, then set her cup down and laughed. Harry wasn't alone in staring at her with disbelief.

"I do not appreciate being used," she said, "but I am in need of a date, and you're one of the few who didn't gibber and drool." She sighed, looking him up and down. "Hogwarts doesn't have much to offer, does it?"

Harry frowned, feeling like he should defend the honor of his school, but the words died in his throat when Fleur gave him a slight nod.

"I accept your invitation, Mr. Potter," she said with a playful smile. "I hope you can dance."

The Beauxbatons students were still goggling at Fleur when the Gryffindors who'd been close enough to hear her words applauded. The Great Hall erupted in chatter, the people sitting farther away craning their necks at the commotion.

Harry gaped at his apparent date for the Ball, struggling to process the situation. That wasn't supposed to happen.

"Er... very nice. That is to say, we're going to dance. Yeah. See you later, Fleur."

Her eyes glinted with amusement. "Looking forward to it, Harry."

He returned to the Ravenclaw table in a daze, too stunned to pay any attention to the whispers that followed his path. He'd probably have been panicking if it wasn't for the potion. What was he going to do?

He plunked down on the bench, purposely turning his back to the Gryffindor table, and poured himself some juice to relieve his parched throat. His dormmates were all grinning at him, although Tony's smile was a little strained.

"What did she say? Did she call you human garbage? Did she do the Ojou-sama laugh?" Goldstein questioned. "I swear, if she had ringlet hair, she'd have the look down pat."

"Mate, the Gryffindors clapped for him," Michael said. "She must've said yes."

"I told you, that's impossible—"

"She said yes," Harry said distractedly.

"You're fucking with me." Tony's grin looked unhinged now. "There's no way Fleur bloody Delacour agreed to go with a scrawny git like you."

"Well, she did." There was a goofy smile on Harry's lips.

"Way to go, Harry!" Corner smacked him on the back. "What a champ!"

Tony goggled at him. "You're serious! How in the name of Nimue's soggy knickers did that happen?"

Harry buffed his nails on his robes. "I did defeat a dragon, you know. Looks like my youthful romantic comedy is becoming a reality." He turned to Michael. "Man, you have to get me more of that potion."

Few students elected to go home for the holidays because of the upcoming Yule Ball, and with the addition of two foreign delegations, the castle was livelier than ever during the break. Harry, however, decided to spend the week before Christmas with his godfather. He needed some advice, and Sirius was always happy to give it.

"It's good to see you!" Sirius grabbed him in a hug and thumped his back.

"You too, Sirius," Harry greeted him with a grin. "I hope you don't mind I came a day early. There's not much time left, and I still need dress robes."

"Leave it to me—we'll get you the snazziest robes money can buy!" Sirius promised, stepping backwards. "Will you tell me who you're going with now?"

"Well, she's older than me," Harry drawled.

His godfather whistled. "Go on."

"She's also French..."

"Damn—nice work, kid!"

"And, she's part-veela," he finished smugly.

Sirius's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. "The Delacour girl?"

"The very same."

Sirius stared at Harry in shock, then enveloped him in another powerful hug. "James would be so proud," he said tearfully. "Follow your dreams, Harry. I had my misgivings at first, but if anybody can pull it off, it's you."

He was rather touched. "Thanks, Sirius. I'll become a harem king, you'll see."

"Stupid master's godson is also an idiot," a raspy voice said from somewhere to their right. Harry aimed a kick in that direction; Sirius, still embracing him, had the same idea, and the two promptly lost their balance and fell arse over elbow to the floor.

The older wizard extricated himself from the tangle of limbs and looked Harry over. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Something broke my fall." He scrambled to get up, then froze in horror. "Merlin's balls—we killed Kreacher!"

"Merlin's balls, we did." Sirius nudged the house-elf's corpse with his foot and made a face. "Oh well, let me just grab my wand and get rid of this."

Harry tore his gaze away from Kreacher's glassy eyes. His heart still thudded, but Sirius's unperturbed attitude was doing wonders to calm him down. "You're... not upset?"

"Ha! I'd say this day couldn't get any better—well, unless you introduced me to some of your date's older relatives."

Harry lounged against the wall and tugged at the collar of his formal robes, watching the partygoers mill about the entrance hall. Fleur had excused herself and was now conversing with the other Beauxbaton girls in rapid-fire French. He tried to act nonchalant whenever they glanced at him and giggled.

A slight figure cut through the crowd, drawing more than a few stares, and Harry felt his eyebrows rise. With her hair sleeked and tamed into an updo, Hermione was barely recognizable. She wore a figure-hugging dress that looked quite daring compared to the classic robes favored by the more conservative witches.

"Hi, Harry," Hermione said breathlessly. Her cheeks were pink and she wasn't meeting his eyes. "Don't tell me you got ditched by your date already."

"Oh, har har." He sought Fleur out with his eyes. "I'm just tired of the Frenchies pinching my cheeks and calling me a minion."

Hermione giggled, covering her mouth. "It means 'cute'. You know, as in filet mignon."

"They likened me to steak?" He shrugged. "Eh, I'll take what I can get."

Hermione giggled again and Harry grinned, running his eyes over her. "Speaking of cute—you look great in that dress, Hermione. It's very, uh"—he gestured with his hand, trying to come up with something profound—"purple."

She beamed at him. "It's pale fuchsia, as a matter of fact, but thanks."

Harry blinked. "Fuch-what?"

"The color is named after this tropical plant..." Spotting someone in the crowd, she stood on her tiptoes and waved. "Oh, here comes my date!"

His eyes widened as he followed her gaze. "You're going with Krum?"

The normally surly Bulgarian was smiling as he approached Hermione and slipped a corsage on her left wrist. His large hands held her palm longer than was strictly necessary, and Harry clicked his tongue.

"Oi, you better not let your hands wander tonight, pal," he said.

Krum looked more confused than angry. "What is problem? Hermy-own-ninny says you are only friends."

He nodded. "For now, maybe—but she's also my future harem member."

"Harem?" Krum's thick eyebrows drew together. "I no understand."

"He's just being stupid—stop embarrassing me, Harry!" She scowled and dragged her flummoxed date away, Harry glaring at their retreating backs.

Harry had been nervous about the opening dance at first, but now he felt it couldn't come soon enough. Fleur had steered him to a table with four couples from Beauxbatons, and while they did have the decency to speak in English for his benefit, all the topics discussed thus far went over his head.

"I love your robes, Harry," said a girl with a name he couldn't hope to pronounce correctly. "Aren't they from the Gladrags autumn collection?"

He glanced down at the garment Sirius had picked out. "Haven't a clue, to be honest," he said with a forced smile.

"You don't know Gladrags?" The girl giggled and glanced at her friends for support, but quieted down under Fleur's glare.

There was an awkward silence around the table until an older boy cleared his throat. "That reminds me, I promised to tell you all what happened when I went Bicorn hunting with my father and the Minister last year." He glanced at Harry. "Have you ever been Bicorn hunting?"

He barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "No, Pierre, I haven't."

Harry's irritation must have been evident in his tone, for the boy sniffed and said, "In that case, I don't expect my story will be of much interest to you." He switched to French, gesticulating widely as the others hung on to his every word.

Harry scowled and went back to twiddling with the Sickle-sized dragon scale in his pocket. Fleur gave his arm a squeeze, and he shot her a grateful smile.

As though hearing his silent pleas, Dumbledore finally stood and announced the beginning of the dance. Harry scrambled out of his seat and wiped his palms on his robes before offering a hand to Fleur. She smiled and stood gracefully, linking her arm through his, and he led her to the dance floor where Krum and Cedric were already waiting with their dates. Lamenting the fact that he was the only one shorter than his partner, Harry tried to stand straighter as he placed his right hand on Fleur's back.

The Weird Sisters struck up a waltz, and he stepped forth with his left foot, repeating the motions he'd been learning for the past few weeks. His eyes kept darting down as he moved, and he was pretty sure his palm was going to leave a sweat stain on Fleur's silky dress.

"Relax, Harry", she said softly, "you're doing fine."

He met her blue eyes and was unable to look away. All his worries were swept aside as he lost himself in the moment. Before he knew it, the music stopped, and everybody was clapping.

Harry shook his head in an attempt to clear it as the other couples streamed onto the dance floor. The veela were scary.

The band started another waltz and he gazed at the tables longingly, but Fleur caught hold of him and suddenly they were dancing again. Harry found he was enjoying himself, although he had to maintain a certain focus in order not to be turned into a drooling idiot by her proximity.

As they spun on the dance floor, Harry bumped into someone else with his back and misstepped. Fleur lost her balance, leaning on him for support.

"Sorry," he said with a wince.

She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "Let's take a break."

"Sure. I'll get you a drink." He scanned the tables and grinned. "Come meet my friends."

He guided her to a table occupied by a frowning Ronald Weasley and an equally morose Padma, then ducked away to get the drinks. Returning, he handed Fleur a glass of fruit punch and offered one to the Ravenclaw witch as well.

"What's up?" he asked, sliding into a chair between the girls.

"Potter." Ron acknowledged him with a glance, then went back to scowling at the dance floor. "Can you believe Hermione? Fraternizing with the enemy like that."

Harry nodded. "It is very thoughtless of her. Krum hasn't been too grabby, has he?"

Fleur took a delicate sip of her drink. "Oh, please. If you wanted to go with this girl, you should've asked her yourself."

Ron glared at her but looked away after a moment, his face reddening. "You two are doing the same thing. She's your rival, Potter."

"Can you really blame me, though?" He leaned over the table and said in a stage whisper, "She's pretty damn hot."

Ron shot the Beauxbatons champion another glance and nodded begrudgingly.

"I'm right here, you know," Fleur said, sounding amused. "If you wish to compliment me, please find a less boorish way to do so."

Harry sketched a bow. "Apologies, my lady. Allow me to say, you look positively dazzling this evening. Absolutely pulche—er, pulchi—"

"Pulchritudinous," Padma supplied, rolling her eyes. "Can you please take your sorry attempts at flirting elsewhere?"

"Uh oh, I think someone's jealous," Harry said in a sing-song voice.

Padma folded her arms. "Not even close."

He picked up a menu from the table and leafed through. "What do you know, they serve raspberry jelly here. Should I order some for you, Padma? You look like a jelly kind of girl."

Padma got up and stamped her foot. "I—am not—jealous! Got it, Potter?"

"Okay, okay." He raised his hands in a placating gesture. "Don't get your panties in a bunch. Hehe, panties."

She slumped back into her chair. "Ugh, you're unbelievable."

"So, um..." Harry's eyes darted between Padma and Ron. "Would you like to dance? You don't mind, do you, Fleur?"

Padma perked up and glanced at Fleur hopefully.

Fleur smiled. "I'm going to rest my feet for a bit. Enjoy your dance, Harry."

"You too." Harry groaned and slapped his forehead as Fleur laughed. He reached into his pocket and drew out a vial, taking a small sip.

"What was that potion?" Padma asked as he led her away.

He shrugged. "Just a breath freshener."

She gave him an impish smile. "Don't tell me you're expecting something to happen with the veela. She's way out of your league."

Feeling bold once more, Harry pulled her in for a slow dance. "We'll see."

They swayed and turned on the spot, and Harry privately found the experience less stressful than a formal dance but just as enjoyable, what with the closeness of Padma's body and all. He was almost sorry when the song ended and it was time to return to Fleur. He found her talking to Krum and ended up wheedling a dance out of Hermione, who was in a much better mood at this point.

The band eventually switched gears and started playing something aggressive and loud, sending the students swarming towards the stage. Before he knew it, he was surrounded by an exuberant crowd screaming something about a Hippogriff. He bobbed his head to the beat, feeling out of his element, until Fleur popped up next to him with an infectious smile on her face. With her at his side, this type of dancing was suddenly very nice as well.

He whooped after each song along with the rest, although not as enthusiastically as some. A Hufflepuff witch he only knew by sight professed her undying love to Myron Wagtail and stormed the stage several times throughout the night. It was a mystery to him as to what made the lanky lead singer so attractive to witches.

As midnight neared, Fleur requested him to escort her back to the Beauxbatons carriage. They strolled through the winter garden outside, her admiring the ice statues, and him more intrigued by the way her silvery hair gleamed in the moonlight. He caught himself gawking and averted his eyes. How did he, of all people, end up with this gorgeous creature on his arm?

"Sorry about my friends," Fleur said, shaking him out of his reverie. "They were rather rude to you."

He waved her off. "It was quite fascinating. I've learned more about designer dresses in those two hours than in my entire life."

Fleur pulled herself closer to him. "I saw your face. You don't have to lie."

"Oh, in that case..." He took a deep breath. "Who the hell devotes so much time to gossiping about what others are wearing? Am I supposed to be impressed that you met some bigwig at a party last year? Is picking the right handbag shape for your body type that bloody important?"

Fleur laughed, slapping his shoulder. "Maybe you can lie a little. They're still my friends."

"Right, sorry. Are all French like that?"

She arched an eyebrow. "Like what?"

Pretentious and vain. "You know, rich. Sophisticated."

She giggled. "Don't be silly. My father is a politician and has many prominent associates. Every time there was a big Ministry function, they'd drop us kids off at someone's mansion. I've known Pierre and the others since I was a child."

Harry nodded thoughtfully, feeling like he got a glimpse into another world. Fleur's childhood and his couldn't have been more different. She probably grew up having her every whim catered to by an army of house-elves and a butler named Sebastian.

They passed the garden with its fluttering fairies and headed towards the Black Lake. Fleur gasped when it came into view; the water was smooth as glass, reflecting the cloudless night sky.

"It's beautiful," she said, extending her hand towards the sky. "I feel like I could touch the stars."

Harry stopped abruptly, causing her to stumble. "D-do you want to ride my broomstick?"

Fleur gasped. "Mr. Potter! I've never been propositioned to in such a vulgar manner." She shrank back and hugged herself as if fearing for her chastity.

His mouth fell open, but then he recognized the mischievous glint in her eyes and groaned. "Get your mind out of the gutter, woman." Turning towards the castle, he pointed his wand in the direction of the Ravenclaw tower. "Accio Firebolt."

There was a distant sound of breaking glass and he winced. It was the middle of winter—of course the windows in the dorms would be closed. He glanced at the giggling Fleur then reached out to pluck the broomstick out of the air.

Mounting it with practiced ease, Harry looked over his shoulder. "Coming?"

She considered her dress before perching side-saddle on the broom behind him. "You had the temerity to call Pierre a trust fund baby, yet you use a Firebolt for casual flights."

"A present from Britain's most wanted man," Harry said. "Hold on tight."

Fleur wrapped her hands around his chest. "Please go slooooow!" Her voice rose into a shriek as they blasted off.

He laughed as they zoomed inches above the lake, their passage creating ripples in the water. With the way Fleur's soft body pressed against his back, he barely resisted the temptation to kick the speed up another notch. His jumbo jet was most definitely flying cheerfully.

He slowed down when they reached the middle of the lake and began ascending. Fleur loosened her death grip and pummeled his back with a fist. "You—you hooligan!"

Harry laughed. "I take it you don't fly much?"

"Not dressed like this," she said testily, "and not on sports broomsticks."

He felt her relax and raise her head off this back, and they soared above the lake in silence, admiring the moon and the stars reflected in the mirror-like water below. Behind them was the snow-capped castle, its windows blazing with golden lights.

Harry felt like he could stay this way forever, but Fleur's shivering told him it was time to end their jaunt. Her dress certainly looked fancy enough to warrant the customary comfort enchantments, but perhaps there was a limit to what magic could do in this weather.

They landed next to the Beauxbatons carriage, and Fleur placed a hand on his shoulder for support as she dismounted. Her cheeks were pink with the cold, but she was smiling.

"Thank you, Harry—the night has been surprisingly adequate. Hogwarts does have its charms after all."

"Just adequate? Come on, a moonlight flight has to count for something," he said. "It took me many seconds to come up with the idea."

She stepped closer. "I suppose it was a little better than that. Allow me to... express my gratitude."

He stiffened up at her proximity, heart fluttering in his chest; then Fleur's soft lips brushed against his own, and any rational thought fled his mind.

"Good night, Harry," she whispered, drawing back.

"G-good night," he said with a dopey smile.

She climbed up the steps and gave him a wave before entering the carriage. He stared at the closed doors for a good minute after she was gone.

"Huh," he finally said, "I guess the suspension bridge effect does work."

Chapter Text

"Accio Firebolt," Harry intoned, visualizing the streamlined contours of his broom. He used the seconds he had until his ride arrived to observe his competitors.

Viktor Krum was the first into the water; the Durmstrang champion transfigured his close-cropped head into that of a shark with a vigorous wave of his wand and dived from the bridge. Harry hummed the Jaws theme absentmindedly.

Cedric and Fleur took a minute longer to prepare. The two cast warming and protective spells on their persons at a furious pace, finishing with basic Bubble-Head Charms. Harry's gaze lingered on Fleur, whose one-piece swimsuit hugged her shapely figure like a second skin.

So distracted he'd been with ogling the French champion, that his freshly arrived Firebolt bumped the back of his head and nearly sent him stumbling into the lake. Face burning under the audience's laughter, he cast a second Summoning Charm.

"Accio Harry's rock!"

A boulder marked with the letter 'H' freed itself from the muddy shore with a squelch and soared towards him unsteadily. Harry gritted his teeth and concentrated on maintaining the charm until it was a few feet away. Sighing in relief, he canceled the Accio, and the rock dropped onto the wooden platform, causing it to list to one side. Swinging his arms to regain balance, he mounted his broomstick and cast the spell which he hoped was going to bring him victory.


A pearly bubble emerged from the tip of his wand, ballooning until it was large enough to encase himself, his broom, and the boulder underneath. Harry poked the thin membrane and grinned when it snapped back into place. Typically used to trap enemies, a properly cast Ebublio Jinx was nearly invulnerable to physical damage. It would serve him well.

He put his wand away (one of the perks of his method for tackling the task was that he could wear regular clothes) and leaned over the shaft of the Firebolt. The broom wobbled as it inched forward, struggling to pull the ballast, but Harry didn't let up until he cleared the platform.

Even though prepared for it, he couldn't help but cry out when he immediately sank a good thirty or forty feet under water. The rate of descent slowed from there, but the weight still dragged him deeper. He didn't resist, watching the bubble shrink under pressure with mild alarm.

By the time he stopped sinking, Harry couldn't see farther than a couple of feet through the murky water. He could just about make out some plants if he squinted against the gloom, so he figured the bottom had to be near.

He reached for his wand with one hand. "Point Me."

The twelve inches of pine spun on his palm and settled pointing north. Harry turned east—towards the center of the lake, if he had his directions right. His broom responded more sluggishly than in air but still carried him onward.

It was dark and eerily quiet, and the semi-opaque barrier enclosing him wasn't helping matters, but his eyes were adjusting. Something small and green kept flitting just inside his range of visibility, but he couldn't tell whether that was some sort of an animal or merely the aquatic plants swaying in the currents.

His curiosity was satisfied a minute later, when a fierce-looking creature slammed into the bubble and barred its pointy teeth at him.

"Bloody hell," he blurted out, nearly slipping off his broom. "Did no one tell you jump scares were cheap?"

Taking a steadying breath, he inspected the Grindylow with macabre interest. Its pale-green body was around two feet tall, with a humanoid upper half and dozens of roiling tentacles at the bottom. A maw lined with hundreds of needle-like teeth made up most of its grotesque head. The creature nibbled on the magical bubble until deciding it wasn't palatable and shooting off.

Harry continued on his quest, a little shaken yet heartened that the membrane had withstood the attack. The lake was becoming deeper, and contrary to his expectations, brighter than before—not that there was anything to see other than a forest of lake weeds. He tugged his Firebolt upwards, hoping the visibility would be better from higher up.

Disentangling the Ebublio sphere from the pesky plants, he gasped at the wondrous sight ahead. The water teemed with floating wisps of light, their luminescence merging into a gentle, ubiquitous glow. The dense weeds he'd been toiling through gave way to rocky lakebed, which sloped downwards until it reached the first artificial structures. He had cast his eyes upon the merfolk village.

Houses built from mossy stone and decorated with iridescent mussel shells peppered the lake-bed. Round openings on their roofs served as doorways, and they had no equivalents of windows. There weren't any streets; the buildings piled against one another with no apparent order. Several multi-storey structures stood out from the rest, as did those built into the enormous jagged rocks jutting out from the bottom of the lake. It was difficult to estimate how large the settlement was given its inhuman architecture, but from the number of inhabitants darting around with enviable grace, Harry guessed the underwater valley could be as populous as Hogwarts.

He approached carefully, peering this way and that for any sign of the hostages. His advance didn't go unnoticed; a group of merpeople pointed at him and huddled together before scattering in the labyrinthine village. Only one remained, slowly swimming towards Harry. He pressed his face against the boundary, eager to glimpse the fabled merperson.

As the mermaid edged closer—and she was definitely a mermaid, Harry realized with a rising heat in his cheeks—he discerned more details of her physique. A muscular tail covered in gleaming scales gave way to a human-like upper half with pale blue skin and a halo of mauve hair. She wasn't wearing any clothes, and Harry's eyes inadvertently drifted to her breasts, smooth and perky, with small nipples a tad darker than her skin.

He shook off his reverie and raised his head to find himself under similar scrutiny. The mermaid's yellow eyes looked amused as she smiled at him, revealing elongated fangs reminiscent of a vampire's. He grinned uncertainly in response.

The mermaid somersaulted, then beckoned him to follow and shot off towards a nearby rock formation like a missile, her whole body flexing harmoniously to part the water. She halted some distance away, swung around, and waved to him again.

Harry shrugged and followed, pushing his Firebolt harder than before due to an urge to show off. He hadn't failed to notice the small, yet vicious-looking claws on her fingers, but he was more interested in other parts of her anatomy.

His guide stopped in front of a cave, the insides of which were illuminated by the ever-prevalent ghost lights. She circled Harry's bubble, almost rubbing against it as she glided along its circumference, then dived down to his face level and began gesticulating.

A beckoning motion, a gesture towards the cave, then a tap on the membrane. A fluttering of her eyelashes, her nose touching the barrier, her tongue darting out to lick her pale lips hungrily.

Harry's face felt hot. "I've a task to finish," he said, forgetting that she couldn't hear him, and probably wouldn't understand the language even if she did.

Pouting, the mermaid ran her hands down her sides and wiggled her tail. He gulped as he followed the motions with his eyes.

"Okay, here's the situation," he mused out loud, for his mind seemed to have lost its ability for rational thought. "On one hand, this is pretty much the chance of a lifetime. On the other, I have to rescue Tony, who is protected by Dumbledore's spells, and finish a task in a tournament I hardly give a damn about. Heh. When I put it that way..."

He pulled a sealed bag of Gillyweed out of his pocket, ripped it open, and stuffed the bundle of grey roots into his mouth. This had been his backup plan in case the bubble was damaged or he couldn't recover his hostage without breaking out. It was a risky maneuver, but Harry was a gentleman—and gentlemen didn't leave poor horny mermaids unattended.

He swallowed the slimy clump with a grimace, then pulled his wand out of his sleeve and waved it in a broad arc. "Finite Incantatem!"

The sphere around him collapsed, icy water rushing in to meet his transforming shape. He gasped, a stream of bubbles escaping his mouth, but his body was adapting already; the world gained sound and smell, and Harry suddenly felt less of an invader and more like someone who belonged a hundred feet underwater. He shrugged off his robes and kicked off his constricting shoes, sliding his wand into his trouser pocket.

The mermaid approached with wide eyes. She extended her hand to caress his newly acquired gills, which matched the ones adorning her own slender neck, and smiled broadly. Giving him a playful shove, she launched herself towards the cave, shooting a challenging glance over her shoulder. Harry gave chase.

Firebolt clutched in his right hand, he entered the narrow opening at breakneck speed, catching a glimmer of blue scales before his quarry disappeared around the corner. Harry powered forward, feeling the currents and eddies in the water with his skin, his body reacting instinctively to negotiate a sharp bend by a hair's breadth. It was as exhilarating as hurtling through the air on a broomstick, if not more so.

He raced through the winding cave, ignoring the occasional side tunnel in favor of pursuing the mermaid who remained a few body lengths ahead. His webbed feet were almost a match for her tail, Harry reckoned, and he only needed to push a little harder to catch up. Any thoughts of getting lost or hurt were washed away by a primal thrill. He grinned, his tongue tasting her scent in the water.

As he squeezed through another curve, the cave unexpectedly expanded into a sizable cavern. Harry stopped in his tracks, floating at the threshold as he took in the sight. The walls were unnaturally smooth, indicating merpeople activity, and the place was filled with soft green light emanating from fluorescent fungi.

She was in the middle of the room, gazing at him with a toothy smile as her chest heaved. Harry approached, never breaking eye contact. He could smell her; feel her movements through the tiny currents that they created. The sensation was potent and entirely inhuman, and he hesitated as a part of his mind screamed about how weird this was.

The mermaid grasped his wrists and pulled him towards herself. Peering at him through half-lidded eyes, she guided his palms to her breasts. As his webbed fingers cupped her soft mounds, Harry's breath caught in his gills.

"Whoever put my name in, thank you," he mumbled.

The mermaid leaned in and brushed his cheek with her lips, obscuring his field of vision with her magnificent mane of hair.

"Sorry," her raspy voice said in his ear.

"W-what?" He jerked away in shock, only to get clobbered on the back of his head.

Harry was brought to consciousness by a sharp pain in his foot and the tang of blood in the water. His eyes flew open. He was in the same cavern still, hands bound behind his back, head hurting, and his foot repeatedly jabbed by some fish-tailed asshole with a spear.

"Oi, stop that!" he protested, his own voice sounding strangely altered to his ears. He tried to pull his hands apart, but for ropes presumably made from underwater materials, they were surprisingly strong.

The merman sneered, revealing yellowing teeth tapered to points, and gave him one last poke. He screeched something at his two companions, who seemed to be in the middle of a quarrel. One of them was another merman—younger in appearance than the first, and holding a live fish as if it were a weapon—while the other was the familiar mauve-haired mermaid. Harry glared at her until she averted her eyes.

"You, wizard. Teach magic," the older merman said in barely recognizable English. He had Harry's wand in his clawed hand, holding the twelve inches of pine by the wrong end.

"You've got to be fucking kidding me." Harry's throat vibrated as he spoke, producing a voice of unusually low timbre which carried through the water.

"Teach magic," the merman repeated, brandishing his crude spear. "For kill enemy."

"I will if you let me go." His eyes darted around, noting that the sole exit was unguarded and his broomstick was floating nearby, evidently not interesting enough to warrant the muggers' attention. He straightened up, only to get the pointy end of a spear digging into his neck.

The merman leader growled.

Harry tilted his head back. "Alright, alright! Just point the wand at something you want dead, and say Avada Kedavra."

The merman lowered his weapon and lifted the wand, still holding it by the tip. He aimed at the wall, then glanced at Harry, who nodded in encouragement. If merpeople were actually capable of using magic, then maybe this jackass would manage to off himself.

"Arghar Ghedaghr!" the spear guy croaked.

"You almost got it," Harry said, edging towards his broomstick while the merpeople were absorbed in their 'spellcasting'. "It's Avada Kedavra—try again."

"Arghara Ghedahra! Arhada Khedarha!"

Harry bent his legs and flipped his tied-up hands to the front, then kicked mightily to propel himself towards the Firebolt. He met the mermaid's eyes briefly—she seemed more resigned than alarmed—and swam out of the room clutching his broomstick. There were enraged screeches behind him, but he resisted the impulse to look back and focused on navigating the treacherous tunnels.

As if guided by some sixth sense, he made the correct turns again and again, going as much by memory as by the taste of fresh water on his tongue. Soon, he saw the ghost lights through the narrow mouth of the cave and darted outside, hazarding a look over his shoulder.

The mermen were hot on his heels, brandishing their primitive weapons. Harry's head was still hurting and his heartbeat was rapid from exertion and distress. In his current condition, he didn't stand a chance of outracing a merperson in open water.

Fortunately, he still had his trusty Firebolt. He gripped the handle tighter, flattened himself against the shaft, and shot forward like a torpedo, laughing hysterically at the narrow escape. He ended up zooming across the whole merfolk village and beyond, leaving the illuminated area and diving back into the twilight. Only then did he slow down to get his bearings and decide on his next move.

The Gillyweed hadn't worn off yet, but he had no clue how much longer it would last. His options were limited: head back up, or use what time he had left to search for the hostages. He settled on the latter, hoping he would be able to free them without his wand. Should his gills disappear while still underwater, he was confident that his broomstick's speed would save him.

He circled the bright expanse of water surrounding the village, noting with satisfaction how the Firebolt's responsiveness improved now that he didn't need to drag the cumbersome bubble around. Putting his rudimentary Seeker skills to use, he tried to spot anything that stood out. Eventually, he noticed a dark shape looming a small distance from the village, and dashed in that direction.

A massive stone pillar emerged from the murky waters, straight as an arrow and inscribed with unfamiliar glyphs all over. Harry doubted the merfolk were that good at masonry, but he had no time to ponder the mystery of its origin, for he made out two human-shaped blobs floating at its base. Diving lower, he identified Tony and a little girl whose striking silvery hair suggested she was related to Fleur.

He considered the ropes tying the ankles of the hostages to immense boulders, then his own bound wrists. Something sharp. Scanning the lakebed, he lunged for an algae-covered pebble, only to discard it when it turned out to be too smooth to be of any use. The webbing between his fingers was shrinking before his eyes. He frantically checked his trouser pockets, already knowing he wouldn't find anything. If only he had brought a—wait.

He zipped towards Tony and rolled up the legs of his trousers, thankful that no one was around to see that. His fingers encountered the smooth handle of a Potions knife, and a trail of bubbles left his mouth as he sighed in relief. Flipping the knife around, he made short work of the braided rope tying his wrists; the bindings holding the two sleepers were more resilient, but still no match for the enchanted steel.

Harry gathered up the hostages in his arms and mounted the Firebolt, feeling markedly short of breath. He started ascending as fast as the broomstick would take him, making a conscious effort to only breathe through his gills. When those stopped working, he held his breath resolutely and stared upwards, pushing the sports broom to its limits. The water was growing brighter, but not quickly enough; there were black spots at the edges of his vision by the time they finally broke the surface. Harry greedily gulped down air, shivering in the frigid February wind.

Once he no longer felt like he was about to faint, he set course for the floating platforms the task had started from, the Firebolt wobbling under the weight of three drenched people. Preventing them from falling back into the water while steering the broomstick was no easy task, especially when his passengers stirred from their enchanted sleep.

"Fuck, it's freezing," his best mate muttered as he looked around. "Hey, what did you kidnap the brat for?"

"I'll explain later," Harry said through chattering teeth. "H-hold her still so I can drive this thing."

The girl was flailing about and babbling in French, which certainly didn't help Harry's efforts to fly the overloaded broom. To his relief, Tony's hurried reassurances calmed her down somewhat, and they managed to make it back to the starting point without tipping over.

Fleur, who had been pacing the edge of the platform, gathered the little blonde up in her arms as soon as they landed. Harry dismounted and stood on the raft with unsteady legs as people clustered around him and the spectators cheered from the stands far above. He received numerous claps on his back which nearly sent him tumbling back into the water.

"Welcome back, Mr. Potter, welcome back," said some Ministry official who looked like he was doing his best to appear important.

Sirius, currently borrowing the guise of a nondescript Weasley relation, steadied him by his arm. "Well done, kid. What took you so long?"

"All these p-people, and no one has the decency to cast a Drying Charm?" he groused in response. His godfather raised his wand sheepishly and did just that.

"Make way, make way!" Madam Pomfrey's brisk voice resounded. The throng parted to let the nurse through, and Harry gave her a grateful smile when she wrapped a blanket around him and thrust a vial of a steaming potion into his shaking hands.

"Ah, that's better." He burped up steam as the Pepper-Up did its job.

"You are the last champion to arrive, Harry," Dumbledore addressed him, towering over everyone but Madam Maxime. "After the screen stopped working, we did not know what to think. Before we make a judgment, could you tell us what happened and how you ended up saving Miss Delacour's hostage in addition to your own?"

"Screen?" Harry squawked, feeling a sudden urge to dive back into the lake. "You were watching me?"

"But of course, young man," Ludo Bagman butted in, sounding bemused. "We have to keep the audience entertained! Every champion was tagged with a charm that allowed us to follow their adventure under the lake. It's one of the latest innovations from the Committee on Experimental Charms."

Harry swiveled his head, gauging the reactions. "Er..."

"Still needs some work, though," Ludo added, oblivious to Harry's panic. "Why, we could scarcely see anything outside your splendid bubble jinx, and the screen went blank after you followed that merperson through the village. Such a shame, too—people were expecting something extraordinary again."

Harry plopped down on the planks as tension left him, disregarding to the exclamations of concern. That Finite had apparently saved his bacon.

"I was attacked," he said from his seated position, shutting everybody up. "The merpeople led me to a cave—I thought they were guiding me to the hostages, see—where they bashed me over the head and took my stuff. I managed to escape and reach the goal somehow, where I decided to save both Tony and that girl. Couldn't leave her there with the merfolk acting as they did." That was as close to the truth as he was willing to get; no way was he admitting to being seduced by a mermaid like the sailors of old.

Shocked silence greeted his words, then the platform shook as the Beauxbatons headmistress stomped towards the headmaster of the host school. "Dumbledore, you told us it was perfectly safe—that you had an accord with the merfolk!"

Dumbledore's countenance was pale and drawn, but he faced the half-giantess without backing away. "Indeed, Madam Maxime, I told you just that. We are going to get to the bottom of this matter as soon as I have a chance to speak with the merchieftainess. Why, I believe that is her entourage coming up now."

Everyone turned towards the lake, where several merfolk stuck their heads outside the water and approached the humans. Harry used this chance to sneak away, dragging his disguised godfather along. The ginger man looked at him quizzically.

"Padfoot, you recall how my wand looks, right?"

He rolled his eyes. "How could I forget. You were boasting about your 'superior length' the entire summer."

"Excellent," Harry replied. "Now be a dear and summon it for me, would you? I seem to have misplaced it at the bottom of the lake."

Sirius stared at him with alarm before walking up to the water and casting a vocalized Summoning Charm. Wands were important, especially matched ones which became almost a part of the wizard or witch themselves.

Harry observed the smooth waters, trying not to show his trepidation. He breathed easier when the surface finally broke half a minute later, releasing a foot-long wooden stick.

"Cheers," Harry said happily, snatching his wand out of the air before it reached his godfather. Aside from being wet, it was none the worse for the wear, warming his palm as it spouted multicolored sparks.

The discussion between the merfolk and Dumbledore was so lengthy and ear-piercing that the spectators started climbing down the long stairs and trudging back to the shore. Harry had plenty of time to summon himself a pair of shoes, retell his slightly modified story thrice, and get a great sloppy kiss from Fleur for saving her sister. The older veela was still wearing that skin-tight swimsuit under her own warming blanket, which definitely improved his mood.

Finally, Dumbledore nodded to the merpeople in farewell and straightened up, meeting the expectant eyes of the school heads, the champions and their families, and the Ministry personnel.

"I have spoken at length with the merchieftainess Murcus about the incident," he said hoarsely. "The attack on Mr. Potter was carried out by a band of renegades who conspired to steal a wand from one of the champions. While they have certain small magics of their own, some merpeople resent the Wand Ban and covet the power wielded by us wizards and witches. In this regard, they are no different from other Beings, most notably goblins, who also feel strongly about the Ministry decree prohibiting them from learning wandlore."

"Spare us the lecture, Dumbledore," Karkaroff barked. "How will you ensure these merpeople won't be a threat to my students?"

"Murcus tells me her people have already apprehended the three attackers. The ringleader is going to be executed so no one would dare defy her authority again," Dumbledore explained somberly.

"What about the other two?" Harry piped up.

The headmaster gave him a gentle smile. "I requested the chieftainess to show mercy, and she agreed to let both followers go unscathed as long as they swear fealty to her anew. I hope I wasn't too presumptuous in making this decision without consulting you. The merfolk view me as something of a human tribe leader, you see."

"That's fine, sir," Harry said. The scaly bitch did lure him into an ambush, but it wasn't like he wanted her to die. He'd have to scratch the idea of having a mermaid in his harem as they proved too devious—not to mention, the logistics problem the whole thing presented—but perhaps he could get a hold of some more Gillyweed and drop by for a visit. He grinned as he remembered the feeling of her breasts in his hands.

"Oi, mate!" Tony's voice woke him from his daydream. "They're about to announce the scores."

Indeed, the judges were conferring with Bagman a short distance away, the portly man bobbing his head and making notes on a piece of parchment. Before long, he pointed his wand at his throat and began speaking.

Krum ended up earning full points for retrieving his hostage well within the time limit. Karkaroff clasped his favorite student's shoulder and smiled proudly as the Durmstrang delegation unleashed a deafening ovation.

Cedric and Harry were tied for the second place. While the Ravenclaw arrived much later, the judges felt he deserved commendation for escaping the hostile merfolk and rescuing both remaining hostages. The Hogwarts champions shook hands before waving at the cheering audience.

To no one's surprise, Fleur was in the last place, scoring the bare minimum of points for making it back on her own power without her hostage. She ignored the courteous applause, still fussing over her sister who was beginning to look a little harried.

"I'm not the only one who thinks the Wand Ban is unjust," Hermione said. "Dumbledore himself said as much!"

Padma rolled her eyes. "The others aren't keen to share their magics with us either. Take goblins as a case in point—they protect their metalworking techniques with tooth and nail."

"All I'm saying is, if the merpeople had an equal opportunity..."

Harry reclined on his basilisk-leather sofa and tuned the two witches out, focusing on the runic treatise in his lap. He already regretted recounting what had happened under the lake to his friends, since it resulted in Padma and Hermione arguing about wizarding law for what felt like hours.

"As for you, Harry," Hermione spoke up, breaking his concentration, "none of this would've happened if it weren't for your weird... fixation."

He lifted his gaze from the book. "Excuse me?"

"She was a mermaid," Hermione said in an exasperated tone. "How could she have possibly enticed you? Unlike veela, they have no innate magic of that kind."

He'd expected something to this effect when he told them the unabridged story, of course. Snapping the book shut, he rose. "I was merely following my manly calling, Hermione."

She furrowed her brows. "You've lost me."

"It is in the wizards'—nay, all men's—nature to yearn for adventure, for excitement, for new frontiers to conquer—"

"With our dicks," Tony quipped, earning a cuff on the back of his head from Padma.

Harry cleared his throat. "To appreciate everything our vast world has to offer, and to seek beauty in all its forms. Hence, my attraction to other Beings is not only perfectly natural, but also a part of the pioneering spirit that drives the wizarding world forward!" He stood tall and proud, gazing towards a horizon only he could see.

Hermione sighed. "What you just said has no basis in reality."

"You want facts? I'll blow your mind with facts," Harry said, folding his arms. "Humans are the only ones who procreate with other species. You never see, say, goblin-veela hybrids, but half-humans are everywhere. There's even speculation that wizardkind's powers originate from our creature heritage—that we essentially obtained magic through hot, depraved cross-species intercourse!"

"That's a fringe theory," Su said. She ducked her head when everyone's eyes turned towards her. "It was in Illustrated Witchcraft."

"See? It's even making the big-time magazines." Harry grinned. "Think about it: maybe we can only cast spells thanks to a daring ancestor who got really drunk one day and boinked a dragon."

Hermione snorted. "I'm impressed at how far you're willing to go to justify your perversion, but there's no way you can convince me it's normal."

Harry raised a hand as he gathered his thoughts. "Flitwick is part-goblin. There are rumors that Sprout has dryad blood in her lineage. It's practically common knowledge that Hagrid is a half-giant. Do you hate these fine people, Hermione? Do you hate Hagrid?"

"Don't be ridiculous!"

"His parents, then? He's a product of a union between a man and a giantess." Harry tilted his head as he considered the mechanics of such a coupling.

"Of course not," Hermione said. "I mean, it should be impossible from a scientific perspective, considering the vastly different gestation periods, but—"

"Your cold equations are missing something crucial. Love. Science is powerless in its presence." His cheek twitched, but he refrained from laughing. "You wouldn't deny two Beings tragically separated by the barrier of species the right to love one another and make lots of cute monster babies, would you? Just imagine... the instant you lay eyes on each other, something stirs deep inside you, something you never felt before... and though you know that it's wrong, that no one would understand... you succumb to temptation, and when your sweaty bodies tangle together at last, all you can think about is how right it feels."

Su fanned herself with her hand.

"Goodness, that's..." Hermione shook her head so hard her hair whipped her pink cheeks. "Obscene! It's all good if there's love, but all you're doing is fetishizing non-humans!"

Harry adopted an affronted expression. "Fetishizing? I simply don't discriminate between something as superficial as species. Do try to be more broad-minded."

Hermione laughed shrilly. "I need to be more broad-minded? Me? I can't—I can't even—get bent, Potter!" She snatched her bag and stormed out the door.

The brief silence in the Roost was interrupted when Tony began clapping slowly. Padma joined in, looking impressed despite herself.

"And that," Harry said, sketching a bow, "is how you win an argument against Hermione Granger."

Over the next few days, a multitude of people approached Harry to ask him about his underwater adventure. He was terse with the guys, but every pretty girl got the full, albeit heavily altered, account.

When wandering the corridors between classes, he ran into the younger Delacour (Gabrielle, as he'd learned from Fleur) who thanked him for saving her from the merpeople—a task made difficult by her poor English. Harry was rather moved; Fleur was lucky to have such a wonderful little sister.

"Gabrielle, can you do something for me?" he asked, taking care to enunciate each syllable. The moppet stared at him with innocent blue eyes and nodded. "I want you to call me Onii-chan."

"Onii... chan?" she said, mangling the pronunciation yet somehow making it sound even more adorable.

Harry grinned blissfully. "Ah, there is something to it after all."

"Onii-chan, Onii-chan!" she repeated, giggling at his delighted expression.

"Well done, Gabby. Now say, 'I love you, Onii-chan'."

The girl jabbered something in French before echoing, "I love you, Onii-chan!"

"These words do have power," Harry said in the tone of a man who had an epiphany. His eyes glazed over before he shook himself out of his musings and turned his attention back to the youngest Delacour. There were other hypotheses that needed testing. He spoke, Gabrielle parroting the phrases obediently.

"Am I cute? Uguu~"

"I-it's not like I'm d-doing this for you or anything."

"My body is ready, Onii-chan."

Harry laughed, his mirth only increasing when Gabrielle joined in without understanding what was so funny. "Okay, how about..."

"Harry Potter!" Fleur Delacour's livid voice rang throughout the Great Hall.

Heads turned towards the entrance, Harry's among them. He took in Fleur's disheveled hair, flushed face, and narrowed eyes.

"Oh crap," he said, stooping down in hopes she'd miss him.

"There you are!" The part-veela stormed along the Ravenclaw table, wand out. "What vile things have you been teaching Gabby? I should've listened when your housemates warned me you were a deviant!"

Harry straightened up in his seat and looked around indignantly. "Who the hell has been saying that?"

Fleur brandished her wand, and he ducked under a sizzling jet of cyan light which blew up a bowl of mashed potatoes, splattering them over the nearby students.

"Calm down!" he yelped, wiping the gunk off his ear. "That was just—"

"Stay away from my sister!" Fleur shrieked, approaching with her wand trained on him. Up close, he could see that her features had become more angular, almost predatory, although she looked all the hotter for it.

The other Ravenclaws hurried to clear the area, leaving him feeling very vulnerable. Fleur fired off another spell, and he flattened himself against the bench, wincing at the sound of shattering glassware. He rolled underneath the table and started crawling so fast his knees and elbows smarted. It was dinner time, so the Great Hall was packed; he could probably make it to the end of the house table safely and then leg it towards the exit.

Fleur was still screaming something and he heard McGonagall's angry brogue, but he didn't pause to listen. To reach the literal light at the end of the tunnel, he first had to traverse the cramped passage amid tight rows of legs. Some of them were prone to moving, as he learned when a polished black shoe knocked his glasses askew. Harry murmured an expletive and raised his head to avoid any more collisions.

A pair of particularly nice legs in a skirt so short it obviously violated the Hogwarts dress code drew his attention. Harry couldn't resist taking a peek as he slunk by, eyes widening when he caught a glimpse of lacy fabric. It was purple, but not quite; he racked his brain for the word Hermione had used.

"Fuchsia!" he said triumphantly.

A moment of stillness followed as both Harry and the owner of the undergarment froze in surprise, before the leggy witch squealed and started kicking blindly. He scrambled away, wheezing in pain when the tip of her shoe connected with his stomach.

When he reached the end of the table he ran for the double doors, risking a glance over his shoulder. Fleur was in a spirited discussion with McGonagall and Flitwick; Harry's eyes met hers briefly and she lunged after him only to get restrained by the professors. He chuckled nervously and ducked around the corner.

His head impacted something solid and he staggered back with a wince. Looking up, he saw an older Beauxbatons boy glaring at him with contempt.

"Pierre? Can't chat about Bicorns right now," Harry said, attempting to move around him.

The French wizard sidestepped deftly, blocking his path. "I have cautioned Fleur against associating with a... péquenaud like yourself, and you've proven me right."

"A what now?" Harry tried to push past but was shoved in the chest. "Oi! You looking for a fight or something?"

"Caught on, have you?" Pierre said, rolling up his sleeves. "The headmistress warned us against hexing the rival champions, but I don't recall her saying anything about fists."

"Huh." Having not expected that, Harry suddenly felt uncertain, but he wasn't about to back down. "Well, bring it on, nancy boy!"

Hearing the doors to the hospital wing creak open, Harry grabbed his wand from the bedside cabinet, then relaxed when he recognized Tony. Madam Pomfrey had promised he would be safe in her domain, but it never hurt to make sure—at least figuratively speaking, for his bruised ribs certainly didn't appreciate the movement.

"Ouch, what the hell happened to you?" Tony said, spotting his black eye.

"Um, well..." Harry scratched his cheek sheepishly. "You know how in action shows, the skinny kid always defeats the larger, more muscular enemy?"

"Yeah," Tony said slowly. "You do realize that's a load of bollocks, right?"

Harry sighed. "I do now."

Chapter Text

"Isn't casting the Imperius Curse on a person illegal, professor?" Terry asked, sounding flabbergasted.

Moody clacked forward and leveled his gaze on the boy. "Got a special dispensation from Dumbledore, lad. You can learn how it feels in a controlled environment, or you can leave the classroom. Just don't say I didn't warn you when a Dark wizard forces you to murder your own family!"

Terry blanched and Moody stepped back with a grunt. "When I call your name, come to the front," he said, artificial eye spinning in the direction of the register. "Well, what do you know—Boot, Terry."

The boy gulped and left his desk, dragging his feet to delay the inevitable. The look on the professor's scarred face was disturbingly eager as he raised his wand and said, "Imperio!"

A relaxed expression came over Terry's face, and he broke into a passable rendition of Celestina Warbeck's 'A Cauldron Full of Hot, Strong Love'. Several people chuckled, Harry not among them.

"Think that's funny, do you?" Moody growled, ending the spell with a flick of his wand. Terry's voice died mid-verse and he rushed back to his seat, face burning. "Once the curse takes over, the victim can be made to stab their best friend in the back... strangle their lover... anything. The control is absolute."

Quirrel's glowing red eyes flashed in Harry's mind, and his hands shook. He reached into the inner pocket of his robes and fumbled for the vial. The small glass container slipped from his fingers and clattered onto the floor.

He grimaced and bent down to pick it up, clutching the precious potion between his sweating palms until the classmates who had turned at the noise looked away. Glancing around surreptitiously, he raised the vial to his lips and took a sip.

He could do this.

Hidden under his invisibility cloak, Harry stood in a corner of the Roost, his three Ravenclaw friends peering in his direction expectantly. His right hand clutched a lumpy, spherical smoke bomb that would detonate on impact. Taking a deep breath, he chucked it at the floor between his feet.

The noise the grenade made when it went off was modest, but the amount of smoke it spewed out was anything but; in an instant, he was swallowed up by a vivid blue plume. Blinking his stinging eyes, he threw off the cloak and stepped forward with his head held high, but the pungent fumes found their way into his lungs, and he broke out in a coughing fit. He staggered outside the cloud and doubled over, his performance ruined.

Padma's nose crinkled and she waved her hand in front of her face. Su quietly cast a Bubble-Head Charm on herself before opening a window with a wave of her wand. Tony was too busy laughing to do much else.

"You should've seen your face," he choked out even as his own eyes watered from the smoke.

Grimacing, Harry straightened up. "Guess a dramatic entrance is out. I'll just have to make up for it during the task itself."

The Acromantula was so huge that its spindly legs brushed the walls of the maze as it scuttled forward. Harry directed his blade towards its numerous eyes and charged with an inarticulate battle cry.

The gleaming sword plunged into the spider's head with little resistance, and the creature convulsed, its eight limbs curling up under its hairy body. Harry pulled the weapon out and thrust it into the soft ground to clean off the ichor.

Gingerly stepping around the Acromantula's carcass, he continued onward, holding the katana upright before him. He'd ditched the scabbard at the entrance since carrying it on his back made drawing the blade impossible, as Harry found out to his chagrin and the amusement of the onlookers. Still, the sword itself was awesome, and he just proved its effectiveness too.

"Dangerous and stupid, they said. Would lose my fingers, they said. Ha! I hope you're watching, girls. I'm a fucking badass!" He raised the katana in a salute to the unseen spectators.

Moving at a cautious pace, it took him several minutes to encounter the next obstacle. A straight stretch of the maze was blocked by a four-footed creature with a lion's hindquarters, the wings of an eagle, and a woman's head and torso. Eyeing her warily, he crept closer. Was she a sphinx? He had no idea they were quite so... majestic.

"You've done well coming this far, champion. Solve my riddle, and you may pass," the sphinx said in a rich, melodious voice. A smile graced her dignified face, although it wavered when Harry kept ogling her bare bosom. "Ahem. Eyes up here, wizardling."

"Huh? Oh, er..." Cheeks heating up, he covered his embarrassment by boldly stepping forward and brandishing his katana. "Let me through, or my demon sword Tsumayoji will taste your blood!" For a name he'd made up on the spot, it sounded rather potent and mysterious, he thought.

Her smile returned, brighter than before. "Fancy yourself a warrior, do you?"

He raised the katana over his shoulder. "I've just slain a vile Acromantula using this very blade. If you don't stand aside, you'll be next!"

The sphinx's throaty laughter echoed in the passage. Taken aback by her reaction, Harry lowered his weapon and shuffled his feet awkwardly until she was done.

"Ah, I apologize," she said, still snickering. "That was the most entertainment I've had in months. You may pass, brave champion." She gave him a half-bow, folded her wings, and stepped to the side.

Sensing that he was being mocked, Harry nevertheless proceeded ahead, pressing against the hedgerow with his back to give the sphinx a wide berth. She followed him with her hazel eyes but didn't make a move otherwise. Harry edged along until he reached a turn, breathing easier when he could no longer feel her amused gaze on his back.

"Phew. I sure am glad the spell doesn't transmit sound."

"I wish this spell relayed sound," Hermione said, eyes glued to the floating screen. "That was entirely too quick for a sphinx's riddle."

"That's 'cause he scared it away with his sword. The thing's just an oversized pussycat!"

"Honestly, Anthony, that's a class XXXX creature you're talking about. It wouldn't be intimidated by a sharpened strip of metal."

"Strip of metal? Herms, that's an authentic Japanese katana, that is," Tony said heatedly. "Their smiths fold the steel, like, a thousand times. It can cut through bullets!"

Hermione growled at the butchering of her name, and Padma snorted. "Need I remind you that you were the one who called Harry a 'category-five weeaboo' when he insisted on using that thing?"

"Meh, can't let him get too big of an ego."

"He's being attacked," Su said, her voice barely audible above the din of the crowd.

The group focused on the screen, which showed Harry facing one of Hagrid's Blast-Ended Skrewts: a massive arthropod that had grown to be at least six feet long and was fully covered in grey armor. Its serrated pincers snapped eagerly at the air as it barreled forward.

Harry raised his sword high above his head, tip down, and made to skewer the charging beast, but the blade glanced off its carapace, and he was knocked down. The audience around them gasped.

"Looks like he nicked his leg," Tony said conversationally. "What a pillock."

"I told him, I told him it was too dangerous," Hermione wailed, wringing her hands.

"It's probably not that bad," Padma tried to reassure her. She saw Su bite her lip, and gave her hand a squeeze. "He learned that Episkey spell, didn't he?"

Harry was getting up now, leaning on his sword for support. The Skrewt's reckless assault had taken the creature some distance behind him, but instead of turning around and charging anew, it was raising its rear in a manner that was unmistakable to anyone who heard the rumors about Hagrid's classes.

Harry withdrew his wand and launched a powerful surge of water right before the unholy hybrid let one rip. Steam burst out, and the whole scene was hidden from view.

Tony groaned. "Not again."

"At least they put the viewing charm on the maze itself this time," Padma said. "Harry won't disappear on us no matter what he does."

Harry limped forward, nose wrinkled at the lingering stench from the Skrewt's fart-explosion. He didn't come out of the scuffle unscathed, as evidenced by the inexpertly bandaged puncture wound on his calf, but that by itself wasn't so bad considering the perilous nature of the Tournament. No, the worst part was that the injury was self-inflicted; he could already imagine Hermione's and Padma's smug I-told-you-sos. Perhaps he'd ask Dumbledore for sword-fighting tips when things calmed down.

He had discarded the damaged weapon, deciding that facing an armored beast with a katana hadn't been one of his brightest ideas, and defeated the Skrewt with a handy combination of Flipendo and a couple of Stunners to its unprotected belly. If anyone asked, he was going to claim that he purposely gave himself a handicap in attempting to tackle the task armed with a sword alone—the reporters would surely eat that up.

He trudged through the maze for a few minutes, not encountering any more monsters nor traps, until he arrived in a clearing. In its middle stood a pedestal, upon which rested the Triwizard Cup, tempting him with its golden sheen. He grinned and hobbled towards it at a pace that didn't hurt his leg too badly.

The hedges on the opposite side of the glade rustled, and Cedric Diggory emerged from one of the passages. Harry paused, and they stared at each other without a word.

"Accio," Harry said, jabbing his wand at the cup. The trophy didn't so much as budge. "Fuck."

They broke into a run at the same time, but while he was a lot closer, Cedric's uninjured legs carried him faster. Harry gritted his teeth and sprinted, keeping his eyes on the goal and doing his best to endure the sharp twinge that made itself known every time his left foot struck the ground. A thousand Galleons and epic bragging rights were worth a little suffering.

His fingers grasped the handle of the trophy at the same time Cedric seized the one opposite. He was about to complain, to shout that he was first, but there was a jerk behind his navel, and he was pulled skyward at a dizzying speed. Wind howled in his ears and indistinct flashes of color filled his eyes before the Portkey spat them out on the ground.

Letting go of the handle, he tried to stand, groaning in pain when his injured leg protested the abuse. To his credit, Cedric helped him up after only a moment's hesitation.

Harry looked around, fingers tightening on his wand. They were surrounded by mossy, overgrown tombstones which cast long shadows on the weedy ground. A crumbling chapel stood nearby, and he caught sight of a dilapidated country house behind a hill. There were no people around as far as he could see.

"Did you know the cup was a Portkey?" Cedric asked, regarding the abandoned graveyard with suspicion.

"I don't think it was supposed to be." Harry scanned their surroundings again, expecting to be assaulted at any second. "Diggory, remember when you asked me how I got my name in, and I told you I used a fishing pole?"

Cedric spared him a glance. "Yeah?"

"I lied. Somebody, probably a follower of Voldemort, put my name in to—well, kidnap me, apparently. You just stumbled into their trap along with me."

"We're in deep trouble," Cedric summed up the situation. "What now? I can't get us out, Apparition's blocked."

"You know the Disillusionment Charm?" Harry asked, lifting his wand above his head. "I figure we try to sneak away and—argh!" The blinding pain in his scar sent him to his knees.

"Potter!" He felt Cedric's arm on his shoulder. "You alright?"

"Run," Harry said through clenched teeth. "Diggory, it's him—hide yourself!"

He saw a robed figure approach with labored, uneven steps; tears blurred his vision, but he was able to distinguish a bundle of cloth in its arms. The pain increased, and Harry clutched his head, feeling as if it was being split in two.

"Kill the spare," a cold, harsh voice said.

"Avada Kedavra!" the figure snarled, and Harry's eyes widened, for he'd heard the same voice pronounce that incantation in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom scarcely a month ago.

The jet of green light rushed towards Cedric who dived to the ground, the deadly spell colliding with a gravestone and shattering it into pieces. Harry exhaled in relief, then glared at the attacker, who was indeed no one else but Professor Moody.

The grizzled wizard didn't waste breath on words, hobbling forward as he unleashed one spell after another at Cedric. The boy kept himself low, taking cover behind unbroken tombstones which were rapidly dwindling in number.

Harry scrambled for the wand he'd dropped earlier. His headache receded; it was as though the attention of the presence was elsewhere for the moment.

"Stupefy," he whispered, hand shaking as he went through the familiar motions. The spell came out dim, weakened by his imprecision, but another one was already on his lips.

Moody's electric-blue eye rotated towards him and he reacted with swiftness Harry could only envy, swatting the attacks away with two flicks of his wrist. Face twisted in anger, the man retaliated with a Blasting Curse which Harry managed to duck under, yet he was sent sprawling when the gravestone behind him exploded.

Ears ringing, he got on all fours and shook his head. He lifted his gaze to see Moody point his wand at him and dropped to the ground again as all strength left his body. With his muscles paralyzed, he could only gasp in pain when he was trussed up by thick iron chains.

A cerulean hex hurtled towards Moody, who didn't act in time. The spell hit a metallic flask hanging from the man's belt and it burst open, showering him with greyish gunk. He roared in fury and began firing in the direction the hex had come from, the ensuing blasts so powerful they reverberated in Harry's skull.

He couldn't even turn his head—his muscles outright refused to obey—but he could see an occasional counterattack from Cedric out of the corner of his eye. The true Hogwarts champion darted in and out of cover, firing back whenever there was a lull in Moody's spellcasting.

Harry saw Cedric crouch behind a weathered obelisk and point his wand at the ground. The soil surged upwards and shaped itself into a small dog, which raced towards Moody at its creator's silent command. The transfigured beast leapt forward and bit down on the wooden leg with a growl.

Moody swore and aimed his wand downwards. His fake eye, however, was peering in a different direction.

"He can see you!" Harry yelled, his own voice sounding muted to his deafened ears.

Cedric, who stood up to attack the moment Moody appeared to be distracted, stumbled backwards at the warning. Not bothering to face his opponent, Moody brought up his wand and unleashed a crackling white spell which arced like lightning, connecting the tip of his wand with the ground in front of his target. Cedric was blown off his feet, wand soaring from his hand; its direction changed mid-flight to end up between Moody's gnarled fingers.

Harry frantically tried to bend his neck and succeeded in moving a fraction of an inch. He saw Cedric crawl, then get up and run, ducking behind the windowless chapel as spells whizzed past his head.

"Shall I pursue, Master?" Moody asked, looking down at the bundle in his arms.

"No," Voldemort rasped. "He's bleeding, wandless, and our wards extend for miles."

"And the disguise..."

"Perhaps it's for the best... we cannot risk any interference with the ceremony. Make the preparations." The cloth shifted as if the creature inside was squirming. "No more blunders, Crouch."

Moody bowed and started walking towards Harry, whose headache intensified with each ungainly step the man took. His body was still unresponsive, fingers barely twitching despite his utmost effort. Gritting his teeth and straining so hard it felt like his eyes were going to pop out, he struggled to push his wand out through the chains.

Moody, or rather Crouch, flicked his wand at him and Harry rose into the air; the chains clanked and shifted, and his own wand slid out through a gap and fell softly onto the grass. His captor didn't notice, the artificial eye spinning to survey their surroundings.

The memory of the ritual would haunt Harry in his nightmares for years to come. Bound to a stone statue, he could only watch helplessly as Voldemort's servant toiled to resurrect his master.

No longer wearing the appearance of a hardened Auror, Crouch had resumed his true form of a scraggy young man with a fanatical gleam in his eyes. He lit a fire under an enormous rune-etched cauldron before filling it with conjured water and potions he'd retrieved from inside his robes. Harry's eyes narrowed as he recalled Snape's incessant complaints about ingredients missing from his stores.

He was startled out of his thoughts when Crouch unwrapped the bundle of cloth and gently lowered Voldemort's feeble body into the liquid, the Dark Lord's malevolent eyes meeting Harry's for one painful instant. The graveyard seemed to darken even as the concoction in the cauldron grew brighter. Acrid smell of ozone tickled Harry's nostrils, and he could practically feel the gathering magic with his skin.

Crouch wore an ecstatic expression as he raised his arms. "Bone of the father, unknowingly given, you will renew your son!" Earth trembled and a puff of dust rose from a nearby grave, swooping into the cauldron.

The Death Eater pulled out a curved obsidian dagger, and Harry whimpered. He'd had time to think about his role in the proceedings, and sacrifice was the obvious conclusion.

Crouch didn't even acknowledge him as he spoke the next line. "Flesh of the servant, willingly sacrificed, you will revive your master!"

The demented smile on the man's gaunt face never wavered as he extended his arm over the cauldron and sliced off his hand in one smooth stroke. The limb fell into the potion with a splash, and Crouch sank to his knees with a strangled scream.

"Fucking hell," Harry breathed. Crouch turned his burning gaze at him and his fear spiked. "S-sorry—didn't mean to interrupt."

Crouch rose with a snarl and stepped towards him, paying no heed to the blood soaking the sleeve of his robes. Harry struggled in vain against the statue's stony embrace.

"I admit, you got the virgin part right," he gasped, "but isn't it customary to use maidens for this kind of thing?"

Crouch didn't so much as blink, raising the black dagger in his remaining hand. Its tip hovered an inch from Harry's shoulder.

Harry stilled, his eyes widening. The air behind Crouch was distorted, and a large rock floated above the man's head.

"Hey," he said, licking his cracked lips, "behind you."

Crouch just sneered at him and opened his mouth. "Blood of the enemy—"

The rock smashed into his skull with a dull thud, and he collapsed in a heap.

Harry barked a laugh. "Told you."

The shimmering outline in the air wavered and Cedric emerged from his imperfect Disillusionment. He muttered a Stupefy at Crouch's unmoving form, then frowned in concentration as he forced the statue to release its hold on Harry.

He staggered away and flexed his numb fingers. "Took you long enough."

"I was waiting for an opportune moment," Cedric said. "Right after this lunatic chopped his hand off seemed good." Face pale and robes bedraggled, he was nevertheless grinning as he handed Harry his wand.

"Cheers." The wand hummed in his hand, spurting out consecutive sprays of sparks. "Oh yeah, that's the stuff."

Cedric stooped down to rifle through Crouch's pockets. "It barely worked for me. What core is it?"


"That's odd, I nearly settled on heartstring myself back at Ollivander's."

"Mine needs a gentle but firm touch." Harry jabbed it at the inanimate Death Eater and added a second Stupefy.

While Cedric was busy retrieving and reuniting with his own wand, Harry slunk towards the cauldron and craned his neck to peek over its edge. The silvery glow made it impossible to see the bottom, but his worsening headache indicated that Voldemort was still inside.

"Is—is it really You-Know-Who in there?" Cedric asked, keeping his distance.

Harry kicked the stone vessel. "Yep. Bastard's stuck in the middle of a ritual... I'm thinking of a way to disrupt it."

Cedric clasped his shoulder and tried to pull him back. "Are you mad? This isn't the sort of magic we can deal with! Let's get out of here and call for help."

Harry shrugged his hand off. "Sorry, Cedric, I'm not wasting this chance. Not when he's vulnerable."

Diggory retreated a few steps. "You are the Boy-Who-Lived," he said quietly. "I hope you know what you're doing."

"Yeah, I got this. You might want to stand back a bit more." Harry unzipped his fly and reached for his other wand. "Piss of the enemy, readily excreted, you will drown your foe... Ahh."

"What the actual..." Cedric trailed off.

The mixture started frothing, and Harry hastily shook himself off and zipped up before stepping back. Yellowish steam spewed from the concoction, and its light went out as Voldemort's body floated up. A black shade erupted from the malformed homunculus with an angry wail, soaring upward before lunging at Cedric.

The boy yelped and ducked, but the spirit passed him by. It darted towards the prone Death Eater, the smoky blackness seeping up his nose, mouth, and ears. The unconscious body shuddered and its eyes shot open, glowing red in the darkness.

Harry was already midway through the motion for a Stunner. "Stupefy! Stop him!"

Voldemort contorted the possessed body in a fashion that shouldn't have been humanly possible and evaded the spell, then blew a stream of flames launched by Cedric away with a contemptuous snap of his fingers. He reached into his servant's pocket and drew a wand halfway out before his eyes widened and he leapt backwards to avoid Harry's wild haymaker.

Abandoning any pretense of finesse, Harry simply charged with his hands extended. The Dark Lord gave him one last, hateful glare before Disapparating with an earsplitting crack. Momentum carrying him ahead, Harry tumbled to the ground. He was rather getting used to the taste of good old British grass.

Cedric walked up and helped him to his feet, wand outstretched in his right hand. "Merlin's beard—did You-Know-Who just run away from you?"

"What a little bitch, huh?" Harry chuckled nervously as his eyes darted around the darkness. "We should get out of here—any ideas?"

Cedric furrowed his brows in concentration before his face lit up. "The wards are down! Here, grab my arm."

He did as asked, and Cedric screwed up his eyes and spun on the spot, dragging him along. He felt like he was being pulled through an other-dimensional garden hose before getting ejected in front of the Hogwarts gates.

"Avery, Nott, Crabbe, Goyle, Macnair," Harry listed off. "Oh, and that Luscious chap as well."

"Lucius Malfoy?" Dumbledore asked. The headmaster's face was grim and tired, which wasn't surprising considering it was three hours past midnight.

"Yeah, the one with the hair." Harry winced and rubbed his scar. It had tormented him the entire night until the pain culminated in a vision of Voldemort resurrecting himself with the help of Peter Pettigrew and blood stolen from the real Alastor Moody.

Dumbledore leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. "Get some rest, Harry. I shall make the calls in the morning."

"Will Fudge listen this time?" he asked morosely.

The headmaster shook his head. "The Death Eaters you mentioned are regarded as upstanding citizens in our society. No, I shall be contacting my dear friends and comrades from the First War."

Harry blinked. "The first war, sir?"

"Indeed," Dumbledore said. "I believe tonight marks the beginning of the second."

Harry paced in front of the locked hospital wing. He received word that Cedric was back from St. Mungo's, where he'd been whisked off to after Madam Pomfrey detected nerve damage in his arm. The treatment required specialized potions that the mediwitch didn't have on hand, and the boy's father insisted he be moved to the nation's best hospital. Now that Cedric was discharged, Harry reckoned the ever-fastidious Madam Pomfrey wanted to give him a checkup of her own before letting him go.

The doors opened at last, releasing Cedric in his casual robes. He saw Harry and stiffened up.

"Hey, mate," Harry said with a grin. "How's it hanging?"

"Hello, Potter." The other boy nodded and began walking.

"Back to 'Potter', huh? Fair enough." Harry caught up and fell in step. "How was the hospital? Did you speak to any Ministry people?"

"Minister Fudge delivered my half of the winnings in person," Cedric said, not meeting his eyes.

He held his breath. "And?"

"I told him how the Portkey dumped us in the countryside, naturally. The Minister promised to find the prankster responsible."

Harry frowned. "What about the Death Eater guzzling Moody juice?"

Cedric came to a halt, considering him with a guarded expression. "They warned me you'd try something like that. Look, Potter, I don't know what your game is, but I want no part of it. Sharing the first place in the Triwizard Tournament should be enough fame for anyone."

Harry gaped at his fellow champion. "What are you even talking about? Cedric? Cedric, wait up!"

The boy stuck his hands into his pockets and quickened his pace. "Leave me alone, you maniac!"

"You bashed Crouch over the head with a rock!" Harry yelled at his retreating back. "I pissed in Voldemort's cauldron!"

Cedric broke into a run, leaving a baffled Harry behind.

Chapter Text

Harry spent a few weeks at home to recharge the protections, but with the return of Voldemort, he wanted to be with someone who understood. Sirius, still confined to his Fidelius-warded house, was only too glad to have him over. With no pressing matters and considering that Harry's life would be fraught with danger from now on, his godfather brought up the topic of the Animagus transformation.

"There are two ways of becoming an Animagus: the slow and safe, or the fast and easy one. Your father and I used the latter, as goes without saying. The first method takes years of study, so it is only suited for you Ravenclaw bookworms." Sirius grinned at the dirty look Harry sent him. "If you go down that route, you have to choose an animal you identify with the most, and learn everything there is to know about it: anatomy, diet, habits, you name it. Then you gradually build a model in your mind, until you can call on it and transform."

"I get to pick what I'll turn into? Brilliant!" Harry was already deliberating on which of the big cats was the most badass.

Sirius nodded. "It sure is, but your model has to be impeccable—and that takes getting into the animal's mindset, learning to see the world from its perspective. I once knew a bloke who wanted to become a lion, so he spent a year living in the African savanna."

"Did he make it?"

"Nah, poor sod got bitten in the arse by a Runespoor and died."

Harry shook his head ruefully. "What a way to go. I guess that explains why there are so few Animagi."

"Oh, I wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot more than the Ministry records say." Sirius smirked. "I mean, us Marauders were geniuses, but we can't be the only ones to have invented a shortcut."

Harry waited for him to continue, but his godfather just sat there with a faraway look on his face. "A shortcut?" he prompted.

"A hallucinogenic brew of, shall we say, questionable legality. Animagus Express, James used to call it. Take a good swig, go on a spirit journey to discover your animal, and voilà." Sirius smacked his palm on the table for emphasis. "Then you just meditate in your own time until you embrace it as a part of yourself. Shouldn't take more than a couple weeks, given how eager you are."

Harry rubbed his chin. "What's the catch?"

"No conscious control over what animal you get, first and foremost. Also, your instincts take over the first few times you transform, so you can't change back by yourself. No worries, though—I could cast the reversal spell with my eyes closed."

A more than acceptable trade-off for not having to spend a year outdoors. "You're positive I'll have a form, then?"

"Of course, Harry." Sirius's face darkened. "Even that pile of Hippogriff dung Pettigrew had one, so you certainly will."

He searched for something to get his godfather's mind off the traitor. "Can I invite some friends from school?"

"As long as you trust them," Sirius said, nodding. "I was thinking of letting the Weasley twins in on this myself. They've been pestering me to teach them something good ever since they learned I was Padfoot, and this way you can help each other out once you're back at Hogwarts."

Harry grinned. "I'll write everyone and see who can make it."

The five of them sat on the pillow-covered floor of the Grimmauld Place's basement, arranged in a circle around a cauldron of turbid liquid which looked more like a decoction than a proper potion. Everybody was wearing pajamas or sweats, prepared to crash when the magic kicked in.

Hermione looked around uneasily. "Couldn't I get my own room, Mr. Black?"

This prompted a round of teasing from the twins, who quieted down after Sirius glared at them from the antique rocker he was reclining on.

"It's just Sirius—and I'd rather keep you all in one place so I can see if something goes wrong."

Hermione looked up in alarm. "Wrong how?"

"Well, I'm not a certified Potions Master, and this isn't exactly legal. Don't worry, though—back in the day, we tried this brew several times until we perfected the recipe, and we were fine. Nothing a bezoar and a Vanishing Charm couldn't fix." He gave the pale girl a reassuring smile and patted his pocket, rattling the stones inside.

The Weasleys looked at each other and shrugged.

"Worked for the Marauders, didn't it?" Fred asked rhetorically. He grasped the ladle and took several huge gulps, then backed away. "Hmm... tastes a bit like Mr. Lovegood's herbal tea."

"I call next!" George edged closer to the cauldron and repeated Fred's actions. The two amused their rapt audience by making faces at each other until their eyes suddenly rolled up and they collapsed on the pillows in a heap.

Sirius whistled. "Looks like it's a tad strong. You lightweights don't take more than two mouthfuls."

Tony was next, releasing a mighty burp after downing the foul liquid. Wrinkling his nose, Harry imbibed his share before scooting away and lying down. He watched Hermione rotate the ladle to drink from a spot the others' lips hadn't touched until he was overtaken by dizziness and drifted off.

He was in a giant room, a humongous fuzzy shape looming ahead. There was something very wrong with him: he had no arms, but instead possessed new body parts he couldn't even name due to sheer confusion. He attempted to move and his too-many legs carried him forward, beating an unfamiliar rhythm against the floor.

The shape resolved into a massive square, which lit up with cold blue light at his approach. A disembodied male voice began speaking. "This creature is remarkably resilient and adaptive, and is found in most parts of the world. It can eat just about anything, but will survive for an entire month without food."

That... that sounded like one of those nature documentaries he'd sometimes watch at the Dursleys. Was he back in the living room of number four, Privet Drive?

His head swam as he tried to look around. Despite having trouble bending his neck, he could somehow see in front, above, and even behind himself in a baffling, mosaic-like view. The image from the enormous TV was too blurred to discern, but he discovered that his own body was flat and sleek, and he had two flexible feelers swaying above his head.

"With the ability to squeeze through gaps a quarter of its body height and withstand forces more than nine hundred times its weight, it has a well-deserved reputation of being one of the hardiest insects on the planet," the narrator continued. "I am talking, of course, of the much-maligned cockroach."

Harry screamed, but no sound left his mouth.

He sat up with a gasp, and Sirius dropped a magazine he'd been reading to hasten towards him. The sun was already down, and the gas lamps filled the basement with their warm, cozy glow. Harry's partners in crime were still tossing and turning in their enchanted sleep.

"Alright, Harry?" Sirius asked, helping him up. "How did it go?"

"I..." He licked his parched lips and coughed. His clothes clung to his sweaty skin, giving him a plausible excuse. "I need a shower."

His godfather grinned. "Stoking the suspense, huh? Go on, then."

He climbed the stairs to the ground floor on unsteady legs and shut the door behind him before slumping against it. His form sucked. No, a bloody guinea pig would have sucked—his was utter shite! The facts about the insect's resilience the dream had pulled from his memories were almost impressive, but no matter the potential utility, there was no way he was transforming into that.

Shivering from a chill, he headed to the bathroom where he would be free to freak out in privacy.

The prospective Animagi gathered in the kitchen for hot tea and snacks, looking worn out yet elated. The last to join them was Tony, whom Sirius had to help to his chair. The boy appeared pallid and sickly, but one glance at his satisfied expression told Harry enough. He looked away, staring sullenly at the wall as he gnawed on a Pumpkin Pasty. The palpable merriment in the air was making him even more wretched.

Sirius sat down at the head of the table and rubbed his hands. "About time we started—what did everyone get?"

As if on cue, the twins smiled simultaneously. "Our forms are identical!"

Tony chuckled. "There's a surprise."

"What kind of animal?" Sirius asked eagerly.

"Not sure what it is, but it's great," Fred enthused. "Small, swift, nimble—I could climb everywhere. Not the best eyesight, though."

"I caught my reflection in a pond—the little rascal had a brown coat, with a bandit mask across the eyes," George added. "I'd have preferred something larger, but this is still brilliant."

"Sounds like a polecat to me," Harry said, remembering an eventful trip to the zoo.

Hermione nodded. "Mustelidae, or the weasel family. How fitting."

Sirius and Tony laughed, drowning out the twins' indignant cries, and even Harry cracked a smile.

"Magic loves symbolism," the oldest Animagus explained. "Your form could be related to your disposition, lifestyle, or something else that makes you unique. It's not always immediately obvious." His smile disappeared and his eyes grew distant.

Harry sighed. Was his form what it was because of his knack for survival? If so, he'd have preferred a tardigrade—at least he would be too small for anyone to see.

Sirius clapped his hands. "Who's next?"

After some deliberation, Hermione revealed that she was an otter. Harry thought the semi-aquatic form utterly impractical, but the girl seemed pleased, saying that she enjoyed swimming a lot. She had to endure some ribbing from the others when they realized that otters belonged to the weasel family as well.

They were in for quite a surprise when a fidgeting Tony divulged that his animal was a gorilla. It was the most powerful form yet, and the bewildered group had a hard time reconciling the image of the skinny Ravenclaw with that of the freakishly strong beast. They searched for a connection for a couple of minutes before giving up.

Tony wagged his eyebrows. "Maybe it's because I'm naturally gifted, if you know what I mean."

"A gorilla's penis is about four centimeters long," Hermione said flatly.

"How do you even know that?" Tony demanded over roaring laughter.

"Teenagers," Sirius said in a tone that implied he was a mature adult. "What about you, Harry? I've been looking forward to this for months. Following in your father's footsteps—he'd be so proud."

Harry gulped when everybody's attention focused on him. "Um... I'm not really sure."

"Come on," Sirius said. "Whatever it is, it can't be worse than a rat!"

He grimaced, trying to put his thoughts in order. How could he tell them? "The thing is... I don't remember seeing much of anything. Only some odd geometric patterns and stuff."

Sirius gaped. "Blimey, really? I've heard it was possible to not be compatible with any animal, but that's supposed to be very rare."

"Could he have forgotten what he dreamed of?" Hermione asked curiously.

The host shook his head. "You don't forget your animal—it quite literally becomes a part of you. Tough luck there, Harry, but don't worry. It's just not your thing, I guess."

Harry hated hearing the disappointment in his godfather's voice.

"Yeah, don't brood over it, mate," Tony added cheerfully and clapped him on the back. "Not everyone can be as awesome as me."

"Gorilla dick," Harry said under his breath.

"What brings you to my office so early in the year?" Flitwick asked from behind a desk sized for his diminutive stature.

The glint in the professor's eyes told him he knew the reason already, but Harry nevertheless held up a silver badge. "I found this in my mail, and I think there's been a mistake."

Flitwick steepled his fingers. "Why do you think that?"

He frowned. "Going by grades, Terry would be the obvious choice—not to mention, I haven't exactly been a model student, have I?"

"Your grades are more than sufficient, I assure you." The Head of House leaned forward and fixed him with a stare. "Tell me the real reason, Harry. You just think it's too much of a hassle, don't you?"

He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "Right in one, sir."

Flitwick's mustache twitched in amusement. "Only putting effort into pursuits that engross you is a very Ravenclaw trait. Alas, how I wish my students had a titch more Hufflepuff in them." He reclined on his chair and stretched. "Very well. You're interested in dueling, are you not? I'm willing to give you some pointers over the next few months. Not to toot my own horn, but I've won my fair share of championships back in the day."

Harry nodded slowly. Professor Flitwick's exploits were the stuff of legend among his housemates. "Sounds great, professor, but why go this far? Others would jump at the chance to make prefect."

"I've had my eye on you since you stood up for Miss Lovegood in your third year. She seems a lot happier since you took her under your wing." He smiled at Harry's obvious discomfort. "There are other reasons too. With the Ministry's propaganda following the Tournament, the headmaster and I wanted to send a message that Hogwarts stands with you."

Nothing like that had even occurred to Harry. "I suppose I'll take it, then. Thanks, sir." He pinned the badge on the lapel of his robes. "Come to think of it, don't prefects get to tinker with the tower's guardian?"

Flitwick raised his eyebrows. "They can change the password, yes."

He grinned. "I had bigger modifications in mind. Maybe this won't be so bad after all."

Harry changed his mind a scant two hours later, after the Sorting Feast ended and it was time to herd the new students into their dormitories. The sprogs were all prattling among themselves and not paying him any attention however many times he cleared his throat. He could swear he hadn't been so disrespectful back in his first year.

"Er," he tried again, "first years, over here!"

The kids closer to him stood expectantly, but a gaggle of girls farther down the table were still deep in conversation. He sighed and stepped forward, but was stopped by his fellow prefect placing her hand on his arm.

"First-year Ravenclaws, line up in pairs," Su said in a voice that was barely louder than her usual.

Everyone shot to their feet and scrambled to pair up with someone they knew, leaving the slower children glancing at each other bashfully. The noise quickly died down under Su's gaze, and she nodded in satisfaction.

"Follow me."

Harry goggled as the orderly line went past, the kids scarcely giving him a second glance. He rushed to catch up with his partner.

"Su, wait up! How did you do that?"

Over the next few weeks, Harry grew used to the privileges and responsibilities of his new status. Once this year's batch of students no longer required handholding to find their classes (recalling his own first year, he was almost sympathetic), he diverted his attention to a pet project that he'd acquired Flitwick's approval for.

"Are you finally going to explain why you dragged me here?" Hermione grouched as he ushered her towards the entrance to the Ravenclaw common room.

Stopping a few paces away, Harry gestured at the elaborate wooden door. "I made major security improvements, but I need somebody from outside the house to test them. Somebody really smart, like you." He tried to keep a straight face.

She gave him a suspicious glance but stepped forward. The eagle-shaped door knocker came alive, asking, "The more you have of it, the less you see. What is it?"

"A riddle, huh?" Hermione furrowed her brows before smiling and exclaiming, "Darkness!"

"Wrong," the knocker replied.

She worried her lip. "Nothing else comes to mind... What's the answer?"

"Did you really think I would tell you, darling?" the guardian said snidely. "Not very bright, are you?"

One look at Hermione's indignant expression, and Harry couldn't hold in his laughter. She slapped him on the shoulder.

"You tell me, then!"

Harry stepped up. "The answer is 'cataracts'."

"Correct." The door swung open.

Hermione gaped at him. "That's just stupid."

"It's rather ingenious, actually. Su and I keyed in every Ravenclaw as they were leaving for class, so the door will open for them automagically, as it will for the staff." Harry pulled the door shut. "Only outsiders and mixed groups will be challenged. Umbridge too, for that matter—it slipped our minds to key her in."

"Does that mean anybody who solves the riddle can get inside?" Hermione asked. "That doesn't seem secure at all."

"Oh no, that's the beauty of it. No one outside Ravenclaw should be able to solve it if we got the spellwork right." Harry smirked and stepped aside. "Care to give it another go?"

He expected that someone who prided herself on her intellect wouldn't be able to resist the challenge, and sure enough, Hermione proved him right by marching up to the door again.

The eyes of the bronze eagle shifted towards her. "I am lighter than a feather, but even the strongest man cannot hold me for long. What am I?"

Hermione took her time, pacing in front of the entrance as she pondered the question. "Breath," she said after a while. "I'm pretty certain of it."

"Not even close, sweetheart," the tower guardian said.

"Ugh, does it have to be so patronizing?" Hermione whirled on Harry. "I bet you can't answer this one either!"

Harry contemplated the riddle. Truth be told, it didn't matter what his guess was since the knocker would accept almost any answer as long as it came from a Ravenclaw. "Snow... a snowflake. It would melt in your palm."

"Well reasoned." The door creaked open.

"This thing is rigged!" Hermione said, incensed.

He grinned. "That's the idea."

Harry surveyed the row of students all in various stages of producing the Patronus Charm. He'd been worried when they were forced to seal the Roost after Umbridge rejected their club's application, but the new location—the nigh-miraculous Room of Requirement—proved to be a boon, providing ample space for spell practice at a moment's request. The only issue was Hermione roping him into tutoring their fellow fifth-years.

"Watch your wand movement," he said as he walked past a nameless Gryffindor. The boy grunted and resumed waving his wand like Aunt Marge would the nearest piece of cutlery during one of her tirades. Harry shook his head and moved on. "Looks like you're almost there, Michael—maybe try a different memory?"

A Hufflepuff girl who constantly chewed gum raised her hand. "Can you, like, show me the spell one more time? I dunno if I'm doing it right."

He resisted the urge to sigh. "Sure, Megan."

She gave him a toothy grin. "Call me Meg."

Harry's spirits lifted slightly. It was almost worth demonstrating the Patronus for the fourth time in twenty minutes. How did their professors deal with this every day without going insane?

Taking a deep breath, he found his happy place and said, "Expecto Patronum!"

A great silvery octopus burst from his wand and glided through the air as people paused to stare in admiration—and, in case of the witches, apprehension. Then it promptly sailed towards Padma and started pawing at her hair with its appendages.

"Ugh," she said, her hands passing through the translucent shape as she tried fruitlessly to push it away. "Get your creepy tentacle thing off me!"

"Not again," Harry muttered.

He jabbed his wand at the amorous octopus and pulled it off Padma, but as soon as he relinquished his control, it floated towards its next target. Su stoically endured her hair being ruffled, and Harry decided to leave the Patronus alone until it faded. There was no counter-charm, after all.

"It can't be a coincidence that thing only goes for us girls," Padma said, crossing her arms.

"I can't help it!" he whined. "It does that on its own."

"A likely story," she scoffed.

Harry threw his arms up in frustration and stormed off. He spent a couple more minutes correcting the most obvious mistakes before clapping his hands.

"Great job, everybody," he said loudly. "Practice calling up a happy memory on command. Next meeting is on Friday, same time."

There were a few disappointed groans as people started filtering out of the Room, some pausing to shake Harry's hand. When it was only the usual suspects left, he sighed in relief.

Tony clapped him on the back. "That wasn't so bad."

"You aren't the one who has to teach a bunch of..." He caught himself before he could say 'dunderheads'; god forbid he started empathizing with Snape. "People from houses where intelligence is considered an afterthought."

"Well, I think what you're doing is admirable," Hermione said. Her smile faded when Harry scowled at her.

"We have time until curfew," Padma said. "How about showing us what Flitwick's been teaching you?"

Those words captured everyone's attention. There were no Ravenclaws who didn't know about the Charms professor's prowess on the dueling platform, whereas Hermione was just happy to get her mitts on any knowledge she could.

"I don't know," he drawled, fighting back a smile. "Seems like a lot of work."

Padma batted her eyelashes at him. "Please, Harry? I'm sorry I said your eldritch monstrosity was creepy."

He snorted. "That's the most of an apology I've ever gotten from you. Didn't know you cared for dueling that much."

"I don't, really," she said. "But after what happened last year... it won't hurt to be prepared."

That had the effect of sobering them up. The Room remained quiet until Harry cleared his throat.

"Right, then. The first thing I learned is so simple I was surprised they don't teach it in class... Although, given the Crabbes and Goyles of the world, I really shouldn't be." He held up his wand. "Does everyone remember the Incarcerous gesture?"

"A circle and a jab," Hermione supplied.

The tip of his wand traced the shape in a slow, exaggerated manner, then did it again, this time reducing the circle by half. "The trick is to make the circular part smaller in diameter, which lets you cast faster and telegraph less to your opponents. Flitwick used Incarcerous because it's perfect for a demonstration, but this should work on other spells with a somatic component just as well."

Tony scratched his head with his wand. "That's it?"

He nodded. "It's more difficult than you might think. The jab has to go precisely through the center, and the circle itself has to be smooth. When your gestures are so compact..." He slid the butt of his wand towards his fingertips for better control and went through the motion as fast as he could. "Incarcerous!"

There was a whistling noise and a whiff of hot wax, but no ropes appeared.

"There's less room for error," Hermione said thoughtfully. "The spell will fizzle out if your hand so much as twitches."

"Exactly," Harry said, pleased with how quickly she caught on. "Shall we practice for a bit?"

Su and Hermione were already attempting to cast the spell on an alarmed-looking Tony, so Harry paired up with Padma. Her circle came out lopsided on her first try, and the conjured cords smacked into Harry's chest and fell to the ground. She frowned and tried again, this time trapping him successfully.

"You're getting the hang of it," he said after she freed him, "but you can make the motion much smaller, look—Incarcerous!"

Black ropes shot out of his wand and flew towards Padma, enveloping her torso in a turtle-shell pattern and tying her hands behind her back. Harry goggled, slowly lowering his wand.

She looked down, squirming a little. "That's an odd way of tying someone up. Feels very secure, though."

Harry glanced at his wand, then back at the tightly bound girl. The loose Hogwarts robes were stretched taut on her figure, accentuating her curves, and her long skirt was bunched up by the rope wedged between her thighs. He gulped. "I—I didn't mean to!"

Padma frowned. "What are you talking about?"

It was too much to hope that the spectacle would go unnoticed. Hermione and Tony were content to gawk from the sidelines, but Su approached, looking Padma over curiously.

"Shibari," she said. "It's a type of erotic bondage."

"What?" Padma fixed Harry with a murderous glare, her face growing redder by the second. "I swear to Nimue, Potter, if you don't let me go right now..."

He made a pacifying gesture. "I will, I will—just don't start throwing curses, alright? It was an accident!"

Su tugged on a rope. "It's too masterful to be that. Padma couldn't escape whatever lecherous things you did to her." Her tone was deadpan, but the corners of her lips twitched upwards.

Padma squeaked, her tan skin flushed. "D-don't pull on it! And you, Potter—stop gawking and free me already!"

"Er, right." Harry wiped the goofy grin off his face and raised his wand. "Finite Incantatem."

Padma went for her own wand as soon as she was unbound, and Harry jumped back, lifting his hands defensively.

"I told you it wasn't on purpose!"

"As if I'd believe that! Your Patronus and now this—all just a fluke!"

"Do me," Su said quietly. She averted her eyes, a faint blush coloring her cheeks. "As an experiment."

Harry didn't need to be asked twice. "Incarcerous!"

Su let out a soft eep but remained still as conjured ropes tied up her petite form in the same hexagonal pattern. Harry burned the image of her restrained body into his mind until Padma ended his fun by canceling the spell.

"How are you doing this?" she asked, tapping her foot. "Such a spell variant doesn't even exist!"

"It sort of... happens by itself?" he offered.

Padma furrowed her brows, pacing and muttering under her breath. Halting, she glanced first at Su, then at Tony.

Hermione gasped. "Of course—we should check all the variables."

"Oh no," Tony said, looking green around the gills. "Absolutely not."

"Get him, and I might forgive you," Padma said with a sinister smile.

Shrugging, Harry targeted his best mate and pronounced, "Incarcerous!"

Tony tried to dodge at the last moment, but Harry's aim was true. Both breathed a sigh of relief when he was trussed up around the waist in a wholly mundane manner.

Padma massaged her temples. "I don't understand. It's like your magic itself is perverted."

"What a mystery," Harry said with a poker face. It seemed his wand's core affected his spells more than he'd expected.

Harry just about stuffed a whole fist into his mouth in an attempt to suppress laughter at Tony's joke, but that wasn't enough to escape Snape's notice.

"I suppose expecting the clown duo to stay quiet during lessons is too much," the Potions professor drawled, walking up to their desk and tapping it with a yellowing fingernail. "Potter, switch with Zabini. Do not drag your new partner down."

Harry glanced towards where the Slytherins were seated and repressed a wince. Zabini's partner was Crabbe, the worst brewer in the class, who was only good at tasks involving crushing and grinding.

Snape lingered for a moment as though expecting him to object, but Harry knew better than that. He gathered up his belongings and rose.

"Good luck," Zabini whispered as they met halfway.

Harry snorted. He set down his bag and seated himself at the desk next to Crabbe, who sneered at him in a typical Slytherin welcome.

"Let's do our best, Mr. Crabbe," Harry said with a nod.

The boy scowled and looked away, and he grinned. Snape's attempts to get him to lose his cool had been growing more inventive lately. Little did the professor know that Harry had a secret weapon. He patted his pocket where several glass vials jingled merrily, and his smile grew wider.

He left the classroom whistling a tune. Their potion turned out nearly textbook-perfect, and even Snape found little to criticize. Crabbe had actually looked at him with something akin to awe towards the end of the brewing process—not that it took much to impress that bloke.

Leaving the throng of students behind, he ducked into an unused corridor and looked around before reaching into his pocket. Still humming a tune, he pulled out a handful of vials and took a measured gulp of a milky liquid, followed by two of an aquamarine one.

Immediately, his head cleared and his mind acquired a laser-sharp focus. He carefully pocketed the potions and looked up, momentarily mesmerized by the stone wall. He could trace every grain, pinpoint every imperfection, and could even tell which blocks were hewn from the same rock...

"Are you still taking that stuff?"

Harry whirled around, then relaxed when he recognized his best friend. "Don't scare me like that—and yeah, I am." He stepped back into the corridor which would take them to their next lesson. "In fact, I'm taking better stuff."

Tony frowned. "Better how?"

"Michael's cousin's potion did work, but it made me too impulsive. I added something to counteract that to the stack, as well as a memory booster, and it's been brilliant. My grades have never been higher, and nothing Snape says even fazes me anymore." Tony still looked unconvinced, and Harry was getting impatient. "Mate, it's like living with cheat codes on!"

"I hope you know what you're doing," Tony said.

He rolled his eyes. "Stop worrying so much. This stuff works on pure magic, so it's not like I can get addicted or anything."

He'd checked, of course—he wasn't stupid. While the potions were rather pricey and banned during exams, they worked so well he had to wonder why everyone wasn't using them.

Two polecats cavorted in the vast empty space created by the Room of Requirement. The Weasley twins had taken to their new ability like ducks to water, and while Tony and Hermione were still unable to transform, Harry had no doubt they'd get there eventually.

Hermione in particular took issue with the twins accomplishing the feat before her and was diligently attempting to make the breakthrough herself. She sat cross-legged a small distance away, her eyes shut in concentration.

Harry was only there to cast the reversal spell should things go awry, but it looked like even that would be unnecessary. He leaned back against the wall and sighed. Become an Animagus, Harry. It will be awesome, Harry. Why did he have to listen to his godfather?

He was startled out of his despondency by Hermione banging on the padded floor with her fists. "This is so frustrating! I don't know what I'm doing wrong."

"You'll figure it out," he said mechanically.

The Weasleys bounded up to her and popped back into human forms, their change swift and fluent.

"You have to embrace your inner animal, Hermione," one said.

"Rawr!" the other added. They both transformed again, circled the giggling girl, and ran off.

"I never thought about it before, but how come the clothes transform along with one's body?" Harry asked, idly twirling his Horntail scale pendant. His mind weighed seeing Hermione in the nude against getting an eyeful of two naked gingers and decided it was probably for the best if everybody stayed dressed.

"It has to do with familiarity. Your wand and clothes are items you feel a certain attachment to—they're almost a part of your identity." Hermione glanced down at her robes, then back at him. "Just so you know, I wear these every day, so don't expect me to leave them behind."

Harry snorted at how easily she'd read him. "Lamentable, to be sure. But where does this stuff go?"

Hermione perked up. "Oh, that's such a fascinating topic! I've read just about every book in the library that discusses the transformation, and it's only recently that the wizards took the effort to really research it. The leading theory is that we Animagi possess a personal dimensional pocket of sorts. We're both human and animal at the same time, and the extra form gets sort of... stored away."

Harry gaped at her. "You mean your animal is already there, waiting to be called upon?"

Hermione nodded energetically. "Isn't it amazing? They tried to measure the size of the pocket dimension depending on the mass of one's forms, but the arithmantic calculations were above NEWT-level."

Harry groaned, slouching against the wall. The idea that his 'animal' was an indelible part of him soured his mood even further. Hermione kept jabbering, but he wasn't listening anymore.

The twins ran up to him and popped back into their human shapes, out of breath but pleased as punch. "Think we figured it out," said the one he guessed was Fred. "Won't need you watching over us anymore, Harry."

"Yeah. Smashing work, lads," he said without much feeling.

The twins exchanged a glance. "Chin up, Harrykins," probably-George said. "Come with us, we have something that'll raise your spirits."

Scandalized students crowded around a defaced wall in the entrance hall. The crime appeared to be fairly recent, if the wet paint was anything to go by.

Professor McGonagall left the Great Hall and did a double take at the sight, her face paling. She turned and disappeared behind the doors again, coming back a minute later with the headmaster in tow.

Dumbledore parted the mob with his sheer presence. A haunted look crossed his face as he read the graffiti proclaiming that 'Grindelwald did nothing wrong'.

"Who is responsible for this vile act of vandalism?" he asked gravely.

No one dared say a word, cowed by his unusually serious tone. For a few seconds, an uneasy silence reigned. Then...

"Hee hee hee," hysterical laughter echoed from the direction of the dungeons, followed by the slapping of bare feet on stone.

All eyes turned towards the dimly lit corridor from which the noise originated. The footsteps were getting closer, and the onlookers waited with bated breath.

A stark-naked Harry Potter emerged from the hallway and looked around wildly. His eyes were glazed over behind his spectacles, and he seemed entirely unconcerned about the people ogling his body.

"Fuck the police!" he declared, flipping the crowd his paint-smudged middle finger before sprinting in the direction of the main staircase. Moments later, two red-haired pursuers stomped up from the dungeons and ran after him.

"Stop him!" Fred shouted, sounding rather out of breath.

The gathered gaped at the scene incredulously, not offering any help. A few witches giggled as they eyed Harry's retreating backside.

"That's something you don't see every day," Seamus commented.

"Quite so, Mr. Finnigan." Dumbledore came out of his stupor and turned to address his deputy. "Minerva, please inform Argus that his services are required here, then head for the hospital wing. I am going to capture Mr. Potter and get him some medical attention as soon as possible."

Displaying remarkable spryness for a man his age, Dumbledore caught up with the twins on the sixth floor. Together, they pursued their quarry up to the seventh, where the headmaster finally stopped him with a well-placed Impedimenta.

The trio approached guardedly, the twins spreading out to cover the escape routes. Dumbledore stopped several feet away from Harry, taking in his unfocused eyes and flushed face.

"Are you all right, my boy?" the headmaster called out.

Harry whirled on him. "Get away! If you don't, I won't be able to guarantee the continued existence of this country."

Dumbledore raised his palms, wand held loosely between his fingers. "Harry, please calm down. We only want to help."

Harry took a deep breath and chanted, "Sentinels of the ethereal boundary, scions of the primeval dawn, attend to me. By my mandate, rend asunder the barrier between realms, and grant passage to the One Shrouded in Flames."

The twins exchanged a glance, then took a step back. Dumbledore could hardly blame them; Harry's performance in the first task of the Triwizard Tournament was not something one would forget. Were they about to get an encore?

Harry struck a pose which might have looked impressive had he been clothed. "My desire is destruction without equal, my resolution is imperishable, my oblation is the souls of my foes. The Eternal Warlock compels you, come forth from the abyss, and return all of creation to cinders!"

Dumbledore was torn between letting things play out and stopping the boy before he could hurt someone, yet when Harry adjusted his glasses and they shone with a sinister arcane light, caution won out over curiosity.

He flicked his wand forward. "Stupefy."

Chapter Text

While Madam Pomfrey worked on an unconscious Harry, the uncharacteristically agitated Weasley twins tripped over themselves to recount the incident to the headmaster.

"One sip, and Harry went all batty on us. He grabbed a roll of parchment and started filling inch after inch with these nonsensical scribbles. We called his name, but the bloke looked too bloody scary to interrupt. Could almost see the steam coming out his ears—although that might've been the Firewhisky, come to think of it."

"Then he dropped everything and laughed—gave me the creeps," George cut in, shuddering. "He glanced at us and began ranting about 'normies', whatever that is, and waving his wand like a madman—had to wrestle it away for his own safety. We tried to hold him down, but he slipped out of his robes and legged it."

"Must've broken a school record getting down from the dorms so fast, it's a small miracle he didn't break any bones," Fred picked up their frantic explanation. "We went after him as quickly as we could, and... you saw the rest, professor."

There wasn't a trace of warmth in Dumbledore's eyes as he stared the two troublemakers down from his impressive height. "I am disappointed in you, boys. Getting an underage student drunk on Firewhisky goes far beyond a harmless prank."

George ducked his head and had the decency to look contrite, but Fred protested, "How were we supposed to know he was such a lightweight?"

The headmaster opened his mouth for a rebuke but was interrupted by Madam Pomfrey.

"Albus, I can't handle this alone—please call for Severus."

Dumbledore frowned as he picked up on the tension in the mediwitch's voice. "What is ailing him, Poppy?"

"Mr. Potter is dosed up with a multitude of potions, many of which must not be taken together, never mind mixed with alcohol. Only an expert could make sense of all the possible interactions."

"I'll fetch Severus directly." Dumbledore fixed the twins with a stony stare. "You gentlemen stay right here while I am gone."

"I detected traces of eight different potions in Mr. Potter's blood, two of them restricted by the Ministry," the nurse reported. "He isn't going to suffer any lasting effects only thanks to our timely intervention."

"Of all the—Mr. Potter!" McGonagall's face was flushed with anger as she addressed the bedridden student. "What do you have to say for yourself?"

"Er... I was under a lot of stress lately, and the Draught of Peace helps me keep a level head... especially in Snape's class." He couldn't resist taking that shot.

"That's Professor Snape to you, young man! And what about..." The deputy headmistress looked at Madam Pomfrey inquiringly.

"Baruffio's Brain Elixir," the nurse said, ticking off a finger. "Invigoration Draught. Dreamless Sleep. Memory, Oculus, and Wit-Sharpening Potions. Frankly, I don't even know what the last one is—Severus seemed to have an academic interest in it and took the sample from the vial to his lab."

McGonagall's lips became progressively thinner with each substance listed. "Foolish boy, do you have any idea how dangerous this is? You're lucky your brain isn't leaking through your ears!"

"I'm sorry, professor." Harry blinked the tears out of his eyes. It wasn't that he was particularly remorseful—his recent memories were too hazy to feel much guilt—but the sun shining through the tall windows of the hospital wing was too damn bright.

McGonagall stared at him for a long time before sighing. "I shall discuss your punishment with your Head of House, Potter—have to make certain Filius doesn't go too easy on one of his favorites." Harry groaned at that. "Now, I believe your friends are eager to tell you just how stupid you've been. Good day."

The doors to the hospital wing flew open, and Harry groaned again.

After getting chewed out by Tony, followed by Flitwick, followed by Hermione, Padma, Luna, and Su (who shocked him by raising her voice), he decided that there was a bit of a downside to building social links.

His haremettes were terrible at pampering, preferring to tell Harry how dumb he'd been instead of showering him with loving care. His suggestion of them showing up in hot nurse outfits was rejected with varying degrees of embarrassment and affront—except for Luna, who seemed to consider the proposal until Hermione talked her out of it.

At least he didn't have to vegetate in bed for long. Pomfrey pronounced him healthy the next day, and he left for Flitwick's office with mounting apprehension.

His Head of House looked regretful when he took his silver badge. "I thought you were doing so well, Harry. I wish you talked to me if you had difficulties."

Harry ducked his head. He didn't care much for his prefect status, but disappointing his favorite professor filled him with shame.

"Professor Umbridge, or Inquisitor as she prefers to be called now, has been doing all she can to get you expelled. At the moment, that power lies in the hands of the headmaster alone, but with the way things are going..." Flitwick tapped the badge against his desk. "Best keep your head down for a while."

And he was free to go.

The twins caught up with him as he was slinking to the Ravenclaw tower, and shoved a scroll into his hands. Harry unrolled it to discover a foot's worth of messy, incomprehensible script interspersed with drawings which looked like they were doodled by a four-year-old on a sugar high.

He scowled, not in the mood for jokes. "What is this crap?"

"It's what you'd been writing before you went bonkers on us," Fred explained. "We figured you might want it back, for laughs."

"Er, thanks," Harry said. On a second look, those drawings weren't that bad. They were rather... energetic and distinctive.

"Any idea what's it all about?" George asked curiously.

"Nope," Harry answered, rolling up the scroll. Giving the two a halfhearted wave, he tucked the parchment into his pocket and turned to leave.

"I still wonder what he meant by a reverse unicursal hexagram," one Weasley addressed the other behind his back.

Harry froze momentarily as the phrase seemed to remind him of something, but the half-formed thought slipped his mind like water through a sieve.

"Load of codswallop," he mumbled before walking away.

Umbridge followed up her failed attempt to expel Harry with something arguably even worse: leaking the details of his breakdown to the press. A slew of articles appeared on most publications, gleefully proclaiming him to be unstable and dangerous. Worst of all, he could hardly deny the claims; half the school had seen him streaking through the corridors, after all.

Hushed snickers accompanied him as he hiked back to the common room after dinner. He gritted his teeth and kept his gaze fixed forward until his eyes watered. His hand dipped into his pocket, now empty, and he made a fist. If only he had some Calming Draught—not much, just to take the edge away...

Shit. He was addicted.

Harry abruptly changed course, ducking into a corridor which would take longer to get him to the tower, but hopefully have fewer gawkers milling about. For a few minutes, he walked in blissful solitude and was starting to relax when he rounded a corner and ran into the last people he wanted to see.

"Chang. Edgecombe." He nodded, stepped around the two girls, and continued on his way, back itching as he imagined their stares.

"Psycho Potter," Cho hollered as Marietta giggled. "Enjoying the attention? You must be chuffed, being on the first page of the Prophet again."

He whirled, face set in a scowl. "Are you the 'concerned housemate' whom Skeeter quoted but conveniently left the name out? Saying I've been threatening people?"

Cho flicked her hair back. "So what if I am? I only told her the truth."

Harry glowered at her, heart thumping in his chest. She was the first one to avert her eyes.

Marietta gave him a nervous glance, then took Cho by the arm. "Let's go before he does something crazy."

"Right you are, Marie. God forbid he starts undressing again—I might need to be Obliviated."

The two turned to leave, laughing. Harry balled his fists.

"Hey, Cho?" he called.

"Yeah?" she shot over her shoulder.

"Watch out for snakes in your panty drawer," he said with a shit-eating grin. "Hiss, hiss."

In retrospect, this was exactly the sort of thing that would get him into more trouble, but the aghast expression on Chang's face made it all worth it. Perhaps it was time to bring the shoulder snakes back, too.

Hate mail followed the articles in the newspapers, adding to his accumulating stress. Harry took a Saturday to blow off some steam, ensconcing himself in the corner of the common room with nine Copy Quills and ten pieces of enchanted parchment. His housemates gave him a wide berth, which suited him just fine.

He heard approaching footsteps and looked up, waving at Padma with ink-stained fingers before returning to his work. Scribbling furiously, he put the finishing touches on his masterpiece and set down his quill, the magically linked Copy Quills following suit.

Padma plucked one of the red parchments from the table. "What the ahem did you just say about me, you little squib," she read aloud. "Top of my Defense class... two confirmed kills..." She lowered the letter and gave him a disapproving stare. "This is a bad idea, Harry."

He could hardly argue with that, but he had to fight back somehow. "What could go wrong? Sending Howlers to strangers is perfectly legal in the wizarding world. I know because I received three today." He stuck a finger into his ear and wiggled, but it didn't stop the constant buzzing that had been tormenting him for the past hour.

He must have looked truly miserable, for Padma leaned in and patted his hand awkwardly. "Don't beat yourself up over what some morons think. It's going to be fine."

Harry frowned. "How so? I've ruined any chance I might've had at convincing people about Voldemort."

She winced at the name but didn't comment. "Not everyone thinks you're crazy. Many Ravenclaws believe you—like Lovegood, and that weirdo Richard... Come on, I'm trying to console you, so have the decency to look more cheerful!"

Harry snorted. "Yeah, Richard's alright, although I wish he stopped trying to get me to listen to Goat's Ass Trumpet."

Padma shook her head. "I don't even want to know."

Without the potions, even the mildest situations were enough to make Harry tetchy. Worse yet, he couldn't focus on anything for longer than a few minutes, which wrecked his grades. Madam Pomfrey had assured him there would be no long-term consequences, but she did say that it might take a few weeks for his brain to return to normal. He wasn't sure he'd survive.

That was when he turned to the half-forgotten books Flitwick had given him as a precursor to learning Occlumency. Being able to enter a state free of anxiety at will, to hide his weakness behind a facade of aplomb, was an attractive proposition to say the least.

The methods described in the texts weren't true Occlumency, being more along the lines of Muggle meditation, but they were the best he had. Mantras, visualizations, breathing exercises; Harry tried them all like a drowning man clutching at straws. The effects were nowhere near as perceptible as the instant tranquility a potion provided, but he didn't let himself get discouraged.

It looked like he was going to need every bit of control over his emotions he could muster, too. When he came down to breakfast several days after taking his petty revenge, the whispers and pointing that had died down somewhat returned with a vengeance.

"You better see this," Padma said, sliding into a seat next to him and handing over a copy of the Daily Prophet.

All Harry had to do was skim the headlines. "'Potter Sends Out Death Threats'—great, just bloody great. Wish I could crush Skeeter like the bug she is." He raised his head sharply.

Padma jerked back a little. "What is it?"

"I feel like that should mean something to me... but I'm drawing a blank." He furrowed his brows, trying to force the foggy memory to the fore, but his brain refused to cooperate. Sighing, he gave up and went back to his food.

He finished quickly, eager to get out of the crowded Great Hall. As he was walking down the aisle between Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff tables, he spied something out of the corner of his eye that made him freeze.

Luna Lovegood had her nose buried in an upside-down Quibbler, which was in no way unusual. It was the eerily familiar symbols on the pages of the magazine that caught his attention. He frowned, trying to make sense of them, and something in his mind finally slotted into place.

"They're runes!" he blurted out.

Luna tilted her head all the way back and beamed at him. "Why, yes, the runic puzzle is my favorite part. Would you like to give it a try?"

"Maybe later—thanks, Luna!"

He hoofed it out of the Great Hall, breaking into a run at the staircases. Ignoring the wary glances from the people he barreled past, he reached the dorm in no time, and panting for breath, dragged his worn trunk from under the bed.

"Ow, bloody thing pricked me," he recited.

The lock clicked open, and Harry rummaged through the mess until he located the crumpled parchment he'd thrown in there a week ago. Now that he knew what to look for, he wondered how he'd missed it in the first place. Many of the individual runes were illegible, but the overall picture was clear.

"It's a ritual schematic," he said softly.

The arcane schematic consumed most of his waking thoughts over the next weeks, and deciphering it proved a marvelous distraction. While he was familiar with the script itself, his chicken scratch took time and effort to make sense of. Things were further complicated by some parts being written in shorthand that depicted common runic arrays with a single symbol.

The foot-long parchment, when unscrambled, filled ten sheets of paper, and Harry was still no closer to figuring out what the ritual would actually do. Best he could tell, it would change his repugnant Animagus form—into what, he had no clue. Not because the runes themselves were obscure, but because they were combined into a convoluted, multilayered system, its underlying meaning beyond his ken. If Harry hadn't known the schematics came from his own fevered mind, he'd have said that whoever created them was a bloody genius.

There was no one at Hogwarts he could turn to for help, either. The runes, as the students were taught, were to be used for warding and enchanting, never personal rituals. The distinction was largely arbitrary, defined by the Ministry in the past century as it gained more influence over what magic was considered acceptable.

Fortunately for Harry, the Ministry wasn't capable of enforcing many of those laws; Sirius had said that getting fined for being an unregistered Animagus was unheard of, and the government similarly turned a blind eye to the older families' dabbling in rituals. As far as legal repercussions were concerned, he figured he was safe.

That left the danger inherent in the magic itself. While browsing the Blacks' family library, Harry had seen horrifying depictions of disfigured wizards and witches who failed in their attempts to obtain superhuman strength or fire-resistant skin, and knew that performing an untested ritual would be considered madness.

Unless, of course, the circumstances were so dire there was no other choice. It was the only way he would ever be rid of his other form, after all.

It looked like he had some shopping to do.

After finishing his errands, Harry linked up with his friends at the Three Broomsticks and headed back to the school. He felt a rush of gratitude when Tony and the girls positioned themselves at his sides to shield him from potential hecklers.

"You sure like those formal hats," Padma said, eyeing his headwear.

"I'm a magician. That's a given, right?" Harry tugged the brim to better cover his forehead. The degree of anonymity the pointy hat provided was a godsend.

As they neared Hogwarts, he made out a disorderly queue in front of the iron-wrought gates. One by one, the students headed inside to be patted down by the haggard-looking caretaker.

He slowed his steps. "What the hell is Filch doing?"

Tony shaded his eyes from the sun. "Searching for contraband, looks like."

"If that rod is what I think it is, they're taking this seriously," Padma said.

"A Dark Detector," Su answered Harry's unspoken question.

Stopping in his tracks, he reached for the string-tied packet inside his robes. The brushes he'd bought at Scrivenshaft's would pass, but he wasn't so sure about the paraphernalia procured through the twins' contact—and those things had cost a fortune.

Padma raised her eyebrows at his abrupt halt. "Harry, you aren't trying to sneak in more potions, are you?"

He shook his head emphatically. "I'm still getting checked up by Pomfrey every few days, and nothing gets past her. No, this is something for a side-project I've been working on to keep myself occupied. Problem is, it might still land me in trouble."

He stared at the queue in consternation until Su tugged on his sleeve and extended her hand.

"You—you're offering to smuggle it in for me?" he asked, hardly believing his own words. "Can you even do that?"

She nodded, her eyes glinting with mischief.

Harry hesitated for a moment but handed the package over. "This stuff might trigger the detector. Aren't you worried I'm, dunno, turning Dark or something?"

Su covered her mouth and giggled.

"I'd be more concerned about you turning into an even bigger dork," Padma said.

Tony guffawed. "The fearsome Dark Lord Potter. No one would take you seriously, mate."

"Would too," Harry said grumpily. If he ever went round the bend, these three would be the first to suffer his terrible wrath.

Su pocketed the goods, then beckoned Padma closer and started whispering into her ear. Harry hoped she knew what she was doing; the lump under her robes was quite conspicuous.

"You want me to say what?" Padma hissed. She worried her lip, glancing at the queue then back at Su, who stared back impassively. "Merlin, that's mortifying—you better appreciate this, Harry!"

Cheeks slightly flushed, she joined the line of students, Su trailing behind. Shrugging at Tony's quizzical look, Harry followed suit. As the girls' turn approached, he tensed up, fingers wrapping around the wand in his pocket.

"Next," Filch called gruffly.

Padma stepped forth, and the caretaker swung the detector over her head as if expecting to find Dark artifacts behind her ears. When he moved down, Padma suddenly leaned forward, and the metal rod brushed against her chest.

"Where are you touching, you pervert?" she exclaimed, causing heads to turn her way.

"'Twas an accident, Miss," Filch said, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. He raised the rod again. "Stay still, I need to finish checking for banned items."

Padma put her hands on her hips. "'Accident', that's what they all say. Don't think I'll just stay quiet and let you poke me with that blatantly phallic thing."

"Pha-phallic?" Filch spluttered, nearly dropping the detector. He looked around as though seeking support, but all he got were glares, particularly from the females. Blanching, he waved Padma through the gates, where she stopped a small distance away and buried her face in her palms.

Su was next, walking up to the gates but keeping Filch at an arm's length. As soon as he made a move towards her, she stepped back and hugged herself, eyes wide and lips trembling.

Filch sighed in resignation. "Bah, go on through—but don't think Madam Umbridge won't hear about this!"

Su passed through the gates and flashed a V-sign behind the caretaker's back, looking like the cat that ate the canary. Harry grinned. Filch caught that and kept jabbing at him for good five minutes, but he was too relieved to care.

Having double- and triple-checked the layout, Harry took a breather and admired the fruits of his labor. Ensconced in a vacant storeroom warded to high heaven (the Room of Requirement was getting too much traffic these days) he had painstakingly replicated the blueprint from his notes onto the floor. At its center was an encircled hexagram, from the points of which secondary formations extended outwards.

Not being a dab hand with a brush, he had to make the runes larger out of necessity. Thankfully, he'd purchased enough of the viscous, paste-like ink that was ideal for channeling one-off rituals. Containing ground-up dragon bones and ashes of wand-quality wood, it was a restricted substance, and he would have been royally screwed had anyone found it in his possession.

He stretched and groaned, his joints popping. Now that he was no longer occupied with drawing, he was starting to feel apprehensive. This was magic unlike any he had attempted before. Whereas casting a spell was using a tried-and-true formula, crafting a ritual was describing the desired goal through age-old symbols whose meaning depended on context, placement, orientation, caster's intent, planetary positions, and a myriad of other factors—and if you bollocksed it up, you rarely got a second chance.

Steeling his resolve, Harry located the outermost Laguz rune and gently touched his wand to the damp ink, allowing power to flow into the array. Segment by segment, it lit up with a soft, eerie glow.

He lifted his wand and wiped it with a napkin. That was it—he had ten, maybe fifteen minutes to execute the ceremony before the magic would dissipate and render the entire thing useless.

He took a small cardboard box he'd set aside beforehand, grimacing at its contents. As it turned out, Hogwarts didn't have any cockroaches, so he actually had to owl Dudley to procure this crucial component.

He shook the disgusting critter out into the center of the hexagram and tossed the box away. The cockroach ran until it bumped against an invisible barrier surrounding the innermost part of the magical circle.

"If it really takes an idiot to do something cool, this should work," he muttered, and stepped inside himself.

Lowering his eyes to the cockroach, which was scuttling around frantically as if sensing its doom, he lifted his foot and trampled it with the sole of his shoe.

The runes blazed with white fire, and a pungent odor filled the room. Harry curled up as he was beset by vertigo. His vision—no, all of his senses doubled. He squatted on the floor watching the array pulsate, each flare dimmer than the last. He was being crushed by an unfathomable weight, unable to move, surrounded by impenetrable blackness.

He bent forward and vomited, squeezing his eyes shut as he clutched his head. With both of him seeing nothing but darkness, the dual awareness was marginally easier to handle.

The additional set of senses faded gradually, and Harry cracked open one eye. He straightened up, making a face at the foul taste in his mouth, and staggered outside the scorched circle.

Frowning, he tilted his head. Even though he was back in his body, and his body alone, something was still off. His mind was working overtime, yet having little success in tackling the bizarre sensation he had no words to describe.

Another bout of dizziness made him lurch forward, and he barely caught himself on a rickety chair he'd pushed to the storeroom's wall along with the rest of the junk. He leaned on it heavily, hands grasping the wood as he took deep, steadying breaths.

Then the chair disappeared, and the floor came up to meet his face.

Harry came to in the hospital wing, recognizing the off-white ceiling he'd had the misfortune of familiarizing himself with. He turned his head, breathing a sigh of relief at the empty beds. With any luck, he'd get to keep this a secret from the other students. The staff already knew; only they had the motive and the skills to dismantle his wards.

As he took stock of the situation, the chair that did the vanishing act on him back in the storeroom came into view. Harry looked around, frowning. The decrepit piece of furniture wasn't anywhere in the hospital wing, yet he could somehow see it clear as day, peeling paint and all. He shook his head, willing the eyesore to disappear.

The chair materialized on his bed, tilted over the side, and clattered to the floor. He gaped at it before turning at the sound of a door creaking open.

Madam Pomfrey came out of her office and strode towards her solitary patient. "Awake so soon, Mr. Potter? That bodes well for your recovery, at least." Her gaze landed on the chair lying next to his bed, and she righted it with a flick of her wand. "Hmph, who brought that old thing?"

"Madam Pomfrey? What happened to me?" Harry asked, pushing up until his back rested on the headboard.

"Don't play games with me, young man," she said with a severe expression. "Mucking about with rituals—you should thank your lucky stars you came out all right! How are you feeling?"

"Fine, I guess," Harry said slowly.

He wasn't seeing things anymore, but that perplexing sensation still niggled at the back of his mind. It was as though he'd acquired a new sense in addition to the five humans possessed, and his brain had a hard time figuring it out. Had something gone wrong? There should have been nothing in the ritual that would affect his original body!

The nurse proceeded to poke him with her wand, muttering about irresponsible teenagers as she went about her work. "I can find nothing wrong with you, Mr. Potter," she said after shining a light into his eyes. "You had a nasty bump on your head when the headmaster brought you in, but you heal remarkably quickly. A blessing, given your propensity for injury, I daresay."

He smiled in relief at her assessment. "Professor Dumbledore was the one who found me, then?"

"Indeed. A ripple in the school's wards alerted the headmaster that something untoward was going on." Madam Pomfrey fixed him with a glare. "At least you had the sense not to trifle with the Dark Arts. Had we detected any residue of blood magic, we would've had no choice but to involve the Aurors. As it is, the senior faculty will decide your punishment in a disciplinary hearing."

Harry could hardly believe his luck. "Am I free to go, then?"

The nurse pursed her lips. "I'd like to run some of the more complex tests, but I need to know what to look for. What was the purpose of your ritual, exactly?"

He averted his eyes. "Uh, I'd rather not say."

She gave him a suspicious look. "Was it one of those 'male enhancement' rituals they sell down in Knockturn Alley?"

"What? No!" Harry mulled it over. "Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not lacking in that department... but, speaking hypothetically... do those really work?"

"St. Mungo's healers spent several hours reattaching the penis of the last person to attempt one. Nothing hypothetical about that, I assure you," Madam Pomfrey said without a hint of humor.

Even though he dreaded the answer, Harry's morbid curiosity got the better of him. "Why did it take them so long?"

"It was in five pieces," she said flatly.

Harry winced. "Wish I could unhear that," he said under his breath. Dangling his legs over the edge, he gave the nurse a pleading look. "Can I please go already?"

"There's no sense in keeping someone perfectly healthy here," Madam Pomfrey said grudgingly. "Very well, you may leave. Don't forget that the headmaster expects you at his office tomorrow at three."

"Alright, spill," Padma demanded as soon as the doors of the Room of Requirement closed behind the group. "We heard from Flitwick that you were in the hospital wing, but then you just up and vanished! What happened, Harry?"

Harry looked them in the eye, one after another. Tony, Padma, and Su were loyal friends who could keep a secret. Above all, he felt like he had to share his accomplishment with someone, or he would burst.

He paced in front of them as he gathered his thoughts. "Okay. The thing is... I sort of went ahead and did a very minor ritual with my Animagus form as the sacrifice."

"You what?" Padma shrieked, while Su gasped quietly.

Tony frowned at him. "I thought you didn't have one."

"I lied," Harry admitted, scratching the back of his head. "It was too shitty for words. Don't worry, though, everything went fine—better than fine. I didn't understand the whole design at first, but after spending a few hours up here, I finally figured it out."

Padma pinched the bridge of her nose. "You performed a ritual without even knowing its effects?"

"That's... unwise," Su said.

"You mean downright foolhardy," Padma corrected. "What were you thinking?"

"Sorry, I can't hear you over the sound of how awesome I am. Do you even realize the power I now have at my fingertips? Behold." Harry held out his hand, palm down, and concentrated until a chair appeared out of thin air, thudding to the floor.

Tony nudged it with his foot, then gave him a skeptical look. "The legendary power to summon furniture?"

"Chairmancy," Su said, sounding unduly impressed.

Harry snorted. "That was my first thought, but no. Simply put, I can use the extra-dimensional space my two forms would normally reside in as I please." Come to think of it, he had Hermione to thank for the idea. She was going to be appalled he'd used the knowledge for something illegal.

While the other two stared at him uncomprehendingly, Su produced a powder-blue handkerchief from her robes. "Show me."

Harry grinned and tapped the handkerchief with a finger; it vanished from Su's palm, reappearing in his mind's eye along with the other stuff he'd stored away during his experiments. He bowed, extended his other hand, and materialized the handkerchief again.

Tony whistled. "So it's like an inventory?"

"Yep," Harry said, still smiling.

"What are the limits?"

"I can take in around my own weight in total." Perhaps he'd ask his cousin for advice on bulking up and see if that would increase it.

"Okay, that is bloody awesome," Tony said. "A real-life malletspace."

"Malletspace," Harry repeated, rolling the word around his mouth. "I like it."

Padma's face steadily darkened as she watched the boys exchange words. "Would you kindly explain in terms that us mortals can understand?"

Harry chuckled and took mercy on the pureblood, starting his story from the time he woke up after the ritual. How he was incredibly disoriented until he learned to control his new ability. How he realized he could store and retrieve anything with a touch. How a simple experiment with a watch revealed that time inside his personal dimension stood still.

When he finished recounting the whole affair, all three of his friends' faces held looks of awe, which Harry basked in. He finally felt like he was becoming worthy of his self-proclaimed title—and all it took was nearly melting his brain with bootleg potions.

"Screw Animagus—you have to let me in on this, mate," Tony pleaded.

"Sure," Harry said, "all you have to do is enter a magical circle with a live representation of your animal form, and kill it with your bare hands."

Tony's shoulders sagged. "I'll pass. What was your form, anyway? Something small and weak, I gather."

Harry crossed his arms. "Not like it matters at this point."

Sensing a weakness, Tony grinned smugly. "Come on, tell us. Was it along the lines of... a goldfish? Dung beetle? Slug? Worm? Mosquito?"

"Sea cucumber?" Su interjected.

"Toad? Shrimp? Cockroach?"

Harry couldn't help the twitch in his eye. He cursed inwardly at forgetting to run through his Occlumency exercises.

"...Gerbil? Wait, a cockroach? It was a bloody roach, wasn't it?" Tony's grin was even wider now.

"Shut it, Four Centimeters," Harry snapped. "All you can do is sprout fur and erase eight million years of evolution."

"Don't mock him, Anthony," Padma said, a smile playing across her lips. "Harry was so distraught about his form that he risked his life to get rid of it. This must be a very sensitive topic for him."

Su stood on her tiptoes and patted his head. "There, there."

Harry glared at the girls. "Keep making fun of me, and I'll introduce you two to a technique called 'Dress Break'."

Chapter Text

Seated behind his enormous clawfoot desk, Dumbledore regarded Harry with piercing blue eyes, his expression unreadable. McGonagall stood to the headmaster's right, back ramrod straight and lips pursed. Harry ducked his head. Was he going to be expelled? Carted off to Azkaban?

After making him sweat for a minute or two, Dumbledore finally spoke. "As you are no doubt aware, Mr. Potter, the punishments for lesser misdeeds are left to the professors' discretion. When it comes to more serious transgressions, however—like the one you committed—we have to consult the Hogwarts Charter."

He gulped at the authoritative name. "The Charter, sir?"

"A book of regulations that has gone mostly unchanged throughout the ages. It is not often that it sees the light of day, which I hope impresses the gravity of the situation upon you." Dumbledore pulled out a drawer and rummaged inside, shoving his arms deeper and deeper until only his pointy hat remained visible behind the desk. "Oh my," he exclaimed in a slightly muffled voice, "I found the lucky rubber duck I misplaced last year!"

McGonagall harrumphed. "Perhaps cataloging your numerous possessions can wait until later, Albus."

The tip of the hat twitched upwards. "Right you are, Minerva. Now, where was it—ah."

The headmaster emerged holding a gilded tome inscribed with gothic lettering and placed it reverently on the desk. Minerva scooted closer and observed with interest as Dumbledore cracked the book open and leafed through. It didn't take him long to locate the relevant chapter, for which Harry was grateful as his heart was about to explode from the tension.

"Article XII, Section I," Dumbledore cited, "carrying out an unauthorized ritual on Hogwarts grounds. Taking some liberties in translating the archaic language, Mr. Potter, your punishment is a choice between eleven cows, to be handed off to the Keeper of the Grounds; a fine of seven golden Galleons; or, wearing the Mask of Shame for the duration of one month."

Harry gaped as Dumbledore dived back into his bottomless drawer and surfaced with a rusty metallic contraption that looked like a medieval torture device. Were these old farts playing a joke on him?

"Only seven Galleons?" he asked weakly. It was costly, sure, but nothing he couldn't pay without even having to visit Gringotts.

"Inflation, Mr. Potter," McGonagall said. "Six centuries back, that would have been enough to purchase a small house."

"I'll pay the fine," he said in a firmer voice, eyeing the mask and wondering if the spiky bits were just for decoration.

Dumbledore looked mildly disappointed as he removed the contraption from his desk. "Quite understandable. Why, Willy Felterbush did the same back in the seventies. Do you recall the case, Minerva?"

"How could I forget," she said dryly. "The one with five virgin sacrifices."

"That bloke sacrificed five people?" Harry asked incredulously.

Dumbledore chuckled. "No, nothing of the sort. Young Mr. Felterbush and the four witches who accompanied him sacrificed their virginities. Contrary to his claim that it was old family magic, I do not believe there was any purpose to that ritual beyond the obvious."

"Lucky bastard," Harry grumbled. "That definitely sounds more fun than what I came up with."

McGonagall looked up sharply. "Am I to understand that the rite you attempted was of your own creation, Mr. Potter?"

Dumbledore leaned forward, also appearing interested in the answer. Harry rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. It hadn't occurred to him that the professors would be under the assumption he'd followed instructions from some book.

"To be honest, I don't rem—" He coughed. Admitting to performing magic he had contrived while delirious wasn't the best idea, especially given how the professors specifically warned the older students against spellcasting while under the influence. "What can I say, I studied ahead. Top pupil of Arithmancy and Runes, you know."

McGonagall pinched the bridge of her nose. "Mr. Potter, while we don't want students mucking about with any rituals, there's a difference between established magic and something entirely unproven. I'll say this again, you are lucky to have come out in one piece! What were you even trying to accomplish?"

"I am rather curious myself, but that matter can wait," Dumbledore said. "We have guests."

"Who would—" McGonagall began, but was interrupted by the doors to the office slamming open. Harry turned to see Umbridge barge in, accompanied by two Aurors and gripping a thick sheaf of parchment in her hand. She met Harry's gaze, and her mouth stretched into a nasty sneer.

"What brings you here on this fine day, Dolores?" Dumbledore asked with a serene smile.

She marched forward and slammed the parchments on his desk. "This farce ends now, Dumbledore! The latest Educational Decree puts all disciplinary matters at Hogwarts under my authority." She glanced down at the ancient tome and sniffed. "Your obsolete Charter is no longer legitimate. It's about time we brought the school up to par with modern Ministry regulations."

"Can she do that, Albus?" McGonagall asked quietly.

Dumbledore scanned the topmost parchment before skimming the rest. "I am afraid so. This is concerning, if not entirely unexpected. Just how far is Cornelius willing to go?"

"As far as is necessary to bring law and order to this place of learning," Umbridge said, puffing up. "And the laws will apply to everyone equally from now on, Dumbledore! I won't allow you to cover up the boy's crimes anymore. You've let him run wild for far too long, and the students' safety is at stake."

Harry had a sinking feeling he knew exactly why the Aurors were here. The older one, a broad-shouldered man, wore a neutral expression, whereas the younger woman peered at Harry with open curiosity. He edged away, trying not to make it too obvious.

"Potter is under suspicion of dabbling in forbidden magic, and as such, will be tried by the Wizengamot," Umbridge continued, pointing a pudgy finger at him. "Furthermore, he's to be suspended from Hogwarts and confined to his home until the date of the court hearing. Aurors, snap his wand!"

There was a palpable tension in the air as Dumbledore half-rose behind his desk, his imposing height already putting him above Umbridge. The Aurors stiffened and glanced at each other uncomfortably before the male one cleared his throat.

"This isn't in accordance with the procedure, Madam Undersecretary. Mr. Potter's expulsion hasn't been decided yet."

Umbridge appeared put out, but quickly hid it with a smile. "Dear me, did I really say 'snap'?" she simpered. "I meant seize, of course. Hand over your wand, Mr. Potter—the Ministry will keep it safe until the hearing."

Harry winked at Dumbledore, who looked ready to intervene on his behalf, and slowly reached into the pocket where his wand was. As soon as his fingers wrapped around the handle, he concentrated and vanished it into his malletspace. His hand came out empty.

He drew his brows together and made a show of patting himself down, checking every single pocket, then moving on to inspect his sleeves, socks, and behind his ears. He was debating whether sticking a hand down his pants would be going a tad too far when Umbridge interrupted.

"Wasting our time won't do you any good, Mr. Potter." Her voice retained its sickly sweet quality, but she was tapping her fingers against her arm impatiently.

"Sorry," Harry said, "I seem to have misplaced my wand."

Dumbledore slumped back in his seat, and the Aurors who had been eyeing the headmaster anxiously breathed a sigh of relief. Umbridge didn't seem to notice, instead narrowing her beady eyes at Harry.

"Tut-tut, Mr. Potter, lying again," she said, shaking her head. "Let's see if we can add spoliation of evidence to the list of your charges."

"I really don't have it, madam. Your people are welcome to frisk me—as thoroughly as necessary." He grinned at the female Auror expectantly.

"We're not Muggles, young man," the witch in question said with a roll of her eyes. Getting a nod from her colleague, she whispered an incantation and waved her wand over Harry much like Filch had done with his detector. "The only magical item on Mr. Potter's person is his spectacles, and even that enchantment is so weak it barely registers."

"Everyone's a critic," Harry said petulantly.

Umbridge turned red in the face. "You're a wizard, Mr. Potter! How did you manage to misplace your wand?"

"We don't use wands much these days," he said, "as you well know."

Umbridge's face darkened and her hand darted into her pocket—with what intention, Harry had a good guess. The senior Auror stepped in between them smoothly.

"Undersecretary, please," he said. "We have to fetch Mr. Potter's belongings in any case, so we'll search the dorms along the way. If it's not there, we can make a sweep of the castle afterwards."

"Very well. You may proceed," Umbridge said, glaring daggers at Harry.

"Please take good care of my wand if you find it," he said cordially.

After the Aurors escorted him outside the castle, trunk and all, McGonagall popped him over to number twelve, Grimmauld Place and told him to stay put until they could devise a counter-plan. Sirius welcomed him with open arms.

"Guess we're both fugitives now, huh?" he asked, grinning like a madman.

"Hey, Sirius." They shared a brief hug. "I'll only become one if I don't show up for my hearing in a couple of weeks."

"You're not leaving this house, Harry, not while Fudge is in power. With him presiding over the case, there's no chance of a fair trial, and he'll go to great lengths to silence you." Sirius sighed. "I hope we can get this fixed soon. Hiding out here is no way to live for someone your age. Unlike me, you still have your whole life to look forward to."

"Don't be like that," Harry said, "you'll get your name cleared too."

"So Dumbledore tells me, but there's not much he can do with his reputation in tatters. Malfoy has the ear of the Minister now, and we both know whose side that bastard is on." Sirius shook his head and took Harry by the shoulders, leading him into the kitchen. "Enough of that shite—tell me what you've been up to. Your dad and I weren't big on rules, but even we didn't do anything bad enough to get suspended!"

He chuckled at how Sirius appeared to be more impressed than angry. "This'll knock your socks off, but you have to promise to keep it a secret."

Harry soon learned that Sirius had been playing host to Dumbledore's ragtag vigilante group, the Order of the Phoenix, since the beginning of the year. His godfather appeared to both look forward to and dread these meetings: the former because they gave him company and something to do, and the latter because Snape never missed the chance to taunt him.

Another gathering of the Order took place a week after Harry's arrival. As the Daily Prophet was effectively useless, he burned with the need to know what Voldemort was doing and asked to be allowed to sit in on the meeting. Unfortunately, his request was denied, and even Sirius couldn't convince Dumbledore to change his mind.

Frustrated, Harry marched up to his room and locked himself in. When he saw his treasure cove, his frown slowly turned into a smile. There was nothing like catching up on his favorite shows to cheer him up.

He lost track of time, not even noticing when the sky outside turned dark. At some point, there was a noise behind him and Harry glanced over his shoulder to find Sirius standing in the doorway, wand in hand. He slid his headphones down to his neck.

"Everything alright, Harry?" Sirius asked. "You didn't come down for dinner. Molly said she knocked on your door, but no one answered."

"Guess I didn't hear it." He turned back to the screen and winced when he saw the time, suddenly aware that he was famished. He was going to get something to eat... right after he finished enlightening an online stranger as to why their taste was shit. One had to have priorities in life.

"Everyone's left already, but I saved you some food. Can I come in?"

"Yeah, sure," Harry said distractedly. His fingers danced over the keyboard with zeal seldom applied to school essays, his entire focus devoted to the pressing task of correcting someone being wrong on the internet.

Sirius took a few steps before making a funny choking noise. "What the dickens is that monstrosity on your bed?"

Harry gave the coiled seven-meter body pillow a fond look. "She's a lamia. I take it they don't actually exist? Damn, and here I thought my Parseltongue would finally come in useful."

"What do you do with it?" Sirius asked, looking like he dreaded the answer. "Scratch that—where did you get it?"

"She helps me sleep, and I ordered her online and had her delivered to the neighbor's house. Best seven hundred quid I ever spent." He swiveled on his ergonomic chair, turning back to the computer.

"You're using the money your parents left you for this? Oh, James, where did I go wrong?" Sirius moaned.

"Stop being such a drama queen," Harry said, his eyes glued to the screen. "Owning a hug pillow or two is completely normal in this day and age. Besides, I used my own cash. That dragon figurine they gave me during Triwizard fetched a decent sum, and I haven't yet gone through my winnings either."

"Well, I can't tell you how to spend your own money," Sirius muttered. He walked across the room. "This figurine looks new too. Who's she supposed to be?"

"The heroine of a game I've been playing." Harry pointed at a plastic case on his shelf.

Sirius picked it up, chuckling. "These pictures look pretty suggestive. Do you get to undress her in this game of yours or something?"

"Oh, you sweet summer child..." Harry spun on his chair, meeting Sirius's eyes with his own bloodshot ones. "You don't just undress her, you screw her!"

His godfather nearly dropped the case in his haste to put it back. "Uh... good talk, buddy. I'll see you later." He turned and left, muttering about needing a drink.

Harry shook his head and went back to his task. Explaining things to normies was so tiresome.

When he came down to the kitchen, Sirius was well into a bottle of Firewhisky. He followed Harry with a morose gaze as the teenager circled the worn table and drew himself a chair.

"Do you do this often?" Harry asked, eyeing a row of bottles in a cabinet which had been carelessly left ajar.

"Not much else to do around here, is there?" Sirius said, downing what was left in his glass and grimacing as steam gushed from his ears. Immediately, he set to pouring himself more of the amber liquor.

Harry winced, now feeling guilty at having blown off several of his godfather's offers to spend time together in favor of staying up in his room. He resolved to look into acquiring some Polyjuice so Sirius could get out of the house for a bit. Alas, obtaining the controlled substance was no easy task, and the Order's own supply had long since dried up, with Snape claiming he lacked the time to devote to 'such frivolities'.

"Want some?" Sirius asked, indicating the bottle with a tip of his head.

Harry hesitated for a moment, then nodded. He just had to be careful so there wouldn't be any more misadventures.

Sirius half-rose out of his seat, then changed his mind and pulled out his wand instead. The cabinet's door opened fully and a glass wobbled its way through the air and onto the table. He filled it with a finger's worth of Firewhisky and nudged it towards his godson.

Harry picked the glass up and turned it in his hands, feeling very grown-up. Sirius watched him with half a smile.

"That reminds me of the first time James and I tried Firewhisky. Filched a bottle from your granddad's cabinet—boy, was the old man furious when he discovered his thirty-year-old Ogden's Finest was missing."

"It's not my first time, strictly speaking," Harry said, sniffing the drink cautiously. "Only I don't remember much of what happened back then."

Sirius barked a laugh. "I know that feeling."

"If you say so," Harry said with a wry grin. He took a sip and hissed, eyes watering as the beverage burned its way down to his stomach and filled his body with warmth. "A-anyway, you said you lived with my dad's family for a while. What were they like?"

A pensive look came over Sirius's eyes. "Those were simpler times... better times. The Potters took me in and made sure I never needed for anything. Despite being practically disowned by my own parents, my biggest concern was getting Rosie Cattermole into a broom closet."

Words continued to spill out of his mouth, and Harry listened, occasionally asking a question. The level of Firewhisky in the bottle dropped gradually as evening turned into night (he didn't ask for more, and his godfather didn't offer) and Sirius's speech became more jumbled, but Harry was still transfixed by the picture it painted. At times, he had to surreptitiously wipe a tear, but he smiled and laughed more often.

He had already heard plenty about his parents, of course, but he now suspected he had been given a sanitized version. With alcohol loosening his tongue, his godfather spared no sordid details about James's and Lily's lives before the two settled down. Harry's father, it seemed, had been a playboy to rival Sirius himself during his Hogwarts years, and possessed quite a one-track mind (it took a special person to come up with that kind of use for the Unlocking Charm). It was difficult to reconcile the concept of James Potter, the notorious lady-killer, with someone who sacrificed his life in defense of his family a scant few years later.

His mother, on the other hand... suffice to say that Sirius's earlier remarks about her 'fiery temper' had been understatements.

"When Lily found out about our prank, she went spare," Sirius reminisced, chortling at the decade-old memory. "It was all 'Sirius Orion Black' and 'James Charlus Potter' and threatening to neuter us both. Screamed herself hoarse before she finally calmed down."

Harry pictured his aunt during one of her fits of anger and imagined a younger and red-haired version screeching in the same shrill voice.

"What the hell, Mum," he exclaimed, feeling the idealized image of his mother he'd built up over the years begin to crumble.

"Hormones," his godfather said wisely. "Some women get that way during... you know. That time of the month."

"I'm never getting married," Harry declared.

Sirius raised his glass. "Words to live by, godson."

While he wasn't allowed into their meetings, he did encounter some Order members every so often. Dedalus Diggle, a tiny, jovial chap, never missed the opportunity to shake his hand, acting like Harry had made his day each time. Nymphadora Tonks, a bubbly Auror renowned for her antipathy of her first name, enjoyed cracking jokes at his expense. Then there was Mundungus Fletcher, a not-so-lovable rogue, whom Sirius had warned Harry to watch his pockets around.

"Psst. Over here," Harry heard as he was walking to the library to do some reading. Turning, he saw Fletcher beckoning him from a darkened alcove which used to hold a cursed effigy until Mrs. Weasley got rid of it. He eyed the man suspiciously.

"Got a little something for you, Harry," Mundungus said, flashing his crooked teeth at him as he patted the front of his robes.

He approached warily. "What is it?"

"Bein' cooped up in 'ere, I figured you were lackin' in the area of gentlemanly entertainment, if you catch my drift." With a flourish, he produced a black-and-white magazine from his robes. "So ol' Dung thought to hisself, what better than the latest Saucy Sorceress to brighten up a lad's day? Three Sickles and it's all yours."

Face lighting up, Harry accepted the magazine and flipped through, finding it full of moving photos much like those in wizarding newspapers. Smiling impishly, a blond witch hiked her robes above her knees, revealing her white-stockinged legs, before the photo looped. He turned the page. A curvy brunette in a frumpy maid uniform dusted a bookshelf, her pleated skirt swinging side to side as she wiggled her bottom. He lifted his head and gave Mundungus a dubious look.

"A proper fit bird, ain't she?" Dung crooned, his eyes glued to the pages.

"Er, sure," Harry said diplomatically.

He took a step back so he wouldn't have to smell the cheap alcohol on the man's breath, and contemplated the periodical in his hands. The price was steep and the contents less than explicit, but it had value as a culture study, if nothing else. He pretended to reach into his inner pocket, instead retrieving the requisite sum from his malletspace, and handed Mundungus three silver coins.

"Pleasure doin' business, mate," the rogue crowed, pocketing the money. "If you need anythin' else, don't think twice 'bout askin', eh?"

Harry hummed thoughtfully. "Do you have anything with, like, sirens and veela and stuff?"

It was Dung's turn to recoil in disgust. "Gallopin' gargoyles, the papers were right 'bout you bein' touched in the head! No self-respectin' magazine prints anythin' to do with halfbreeds."

"The Quibbler does," Harry pointed out, recalling an interview with a centaur he'd read some time ago.

"I said self-respectin'!" Mundungus shot over his shoulder as he skulked away.

Shrugging, Harry tucked the magazine under his armpit and headed upstairs.

Chapter Text

It happened during a late dinner at Grimmauld Place. One moment Harry was picking at his takeaway; the next, his scar exploded in pain, and he fell face-first into the bowl of greasy stir-fry.

He awoke on the floor, with Sirius's worried face looming above him.

"We have to go to the Ministry," Harry said, blowing a noodle out of his left nostril. "Voldemort's got my friends!"

"Tell me everything," Sirius commanded.

Harry spoke of a black-walled circular room, a place packed with clocks of every description (and some that defied it), and a vast hall with shelves upon which rested countless glass orbs. Recounting the vision made him calm down somewhat, so he wasn't too surprised with what Sirius said next.

"It's a trap," he asserted. "I'm sure your friends are fine, but I'll Floo Hogwarts just in case. Dumbledore needs to alert whoever's on the lookout down in the Department of Mysteries."

"Lookout?" Harry asked sharply, but Sirius was already moving towards the fireplace. He stood and paced in circles while his godfather crouched to make the call.

Sirius had his head inside the grate for less than a minute before scurrying backwards. A pudgy, pink-nailed hand came out of the green flames, groping around blindly. He cursed and doused the fire with a blast of water from his wand.

"Neither Dumbledore nor McGonagall are in, and the Floo's being monitored," he said, looking pale. "Now, don't panic, Harry—this probably has nothing to do with what you've seen."

Harry crossed his arms. "Tell me what's going on. What's down in this Department of Mysteries that Voldemort wants so much? What does it have to do with me?"

Sirius hesitated, but Harry's glare made him sigh in resignation. "Dumbledore's going to kill me," he muttered, "but you deserve to know."

Harry listened raptly as he was told of a prophecy about him, and how one of the Order's current missions was keeping it out of Voldemort's hands. "So that's what those glass balls were. Man, that's a lot of prophecies." He rubbed his chin. "Why didn't you guys just sneak me in at some point to pick it up?"

"It's too dangerous, for one—don't forget you're a high priority target. It also keeps Voldemort focused on the prophecy rather than conquering the whole damn country. I'm sure Dumbledore has more good reasons." Contrary to his own words, Sirius didn't appear convinced.

"We're doing it now, then," Harry said, the beginnings of a plan hatching in his mind. "I'll slip in under my invisibility cloak, nick it, and get out with no one any the wiser."

Sirius glared at him. "There's being a Gryffindor, and then there's being an idiot. I won't let my godson walk into a Death Eater ambush."

Harry shifted impatiently. "The prophecy's really important, right? If we don't get it soon, Voldemort will come for it personally. He's pretty desperate, trust me on this." He rubbed his aching scar.

"He can have the bloody thing if it means keeping you safe! Look, we're staying here, under the Fidelius, and that's final."

"You'd have gone for it back in the day," Harry said, "like in those stories you told me."

Sirius threw his arms up. "I was young and rash, and look where it got me! The least I could do is learn from my own blunders."

"When did Padfoot turn into Pussyfoot?"

"That doesn't even make sense—"

"Chicken," Harry said, watching Sirius's eye twitch.

Sirius jabbed his finger at him. "I know what you're doing, and it won't work."

"Squawk, squawk, squawk."

Sirius growled.

"What am I doing?" Sirius muttered in the backseat of the taxi they'd called. "We're going to get killed, and then James is going to kill me again."

"You're just twitchy because you haven't left the house for so long. Don't worry, it happens to the best of us," Harry said sagely.

Sirius remained silent for a good minute, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Bloody hell, you might have a point. Staying cooped up in that blighted dump must've messed with my head." Hugging Harry over the shoulders with one arm, he tousled his hair. "We're going to get in there, take what we need, and humiliate anyone stupid enough to get in our way!"

"Hell yeah," Harry cheered. "Time to kick some ass!"

The driver harrumphed. "No funny business back there, gents."

"Just drive, pal." Sirius drew his wand and their ears soon filled with a soft buzz.

"Did you transfigure the decoy?" Harry asked now that there was no danger of being overheard.

"I was never that good at such finicky transfigurations, to be honest—that was more your dad's area of expertise. But..." Sirius reached into his leather jacket and pulled out a cardboard box. "I got this instead. As much as I hate to part with it, it's for a good cause."

Harry picked it up. An illustration on its side depicted a group of scantily clad women on a sailing ship, and the label on the lid read 'WWW Daydream: Busty Pirate Adventure'. He gave his godfather a flat stare.

"Merely doing some product testing for the twins," Sirius said. "You of all people have no right to judge me."

Harry smirked. "Whatever floats your boat."

Opening the box, he found a glass globe eerily similar to the one he'd seen in his vision, except swirling with pink smoke rather than grey. He moved it into his malletspace, Sirius whistling appreciatively when it vanished from his palm.

Once they reached their destination, Sirius led him to a crummy phone booth, which in defiance of common sense typical to wizardkind was an entrance to their government's headquarters. After squeezing themselves inside and dialing '62442', they were plunged into darkness as the booth sank into the ground.

The pair emerged in an entirely deserted Atrium. Even the security desk where visitors were supposed to have their wands registered was unmanned. There was a bit of a dispute on which one of them would wear the invisibility cloak until Harry pointed out that any potential ambushers would leave him alone until he picked up the prophecy.

Sirius draped the diaphanous fabric over himself. "Fine, but if things go pear-shaped, you grab the cloak and run while I hold them off, you hear?"

"Don't worry, we can handle Death Eaters," Harry said, "and the big bad himself isn't around. My scar is like a bloody radar."

Agreeing not to speak to keep the element of surprise on their side, they made their way to the elevators and down to the ninth level. Harry followed the route Voldemort had shown him, all doors opening without the need for spell nor password. He doubted security was normally this lax; someone had made sure the way would be clear. Not a soul was in sight, so if the Order's lookout had been on duty today, they must've been subdued or lured away.

At last, they arrived in the Hall of Prophecies, and Harry slowed his steps as he counted down the rows. The sheer scale of the place and the number of prophecies stored within boggled his mind. He had obviously been wrong to dismiss Divination as hogwash if the discipline was important enough to warrant this.

He paused at row ninety-seven and glanced at the dusty floor to find Sirius's footprints stop a few feet away. Giving a barely perceptible nod to his invisible bodyguard, he edged into the narrow gap between the shelves. It didn't take him long to locate what they came here for.

S.P.T. to A.P.W.B.D.
Dark Lord and (?) Harry Potter

While he had no clue who S.P.T. was, he did know a person with enough names to warrant five initials. He was going to have words with the headmaster once he returned.

Harry reached out and grasped the orb, his fingers tingling as though with static electricity. Grey mist swirled mesmerizingly beneath its surface, and he observed for a bit before shaking himself off and making his way out of the row.

"That's far enough, Potter," a smooth male voice said from deeper inside the hall.

Even though Harry expected something like this, he couldn't help but flinch. He turned to see Lucius Malfoy emerge from the darkness, flanked by three silver-masked Death Eaters.

Harry gasped. "What are you doing here, Luscious?"

There was a muffled snort from somewhere to Harry's left, but thankfully, the Death Eaters didn't notice.

"I am here for the prophecy," Lucius said with a scowl. "Give it to me, and you may leave unharmed."

"The prophecy?" he asked blankly.

Lucius sighed. "The sphere you are holding, boy. Hand it over!"

"Yeah, hand it over," grunted a Death Eater on his right, earning himself an elbow in the ribs from his comrade.

Harry moved the prophecy behind his back, where he switched it with the Daydream Charm from his malletspace. "How do I know you're not lying?"

Malfoy extended a white-gloved hand. "Wizard's word, Potter. We are all civilized people here."

"Okay," he said with a shrug, "catch!"

He lobbed the orb towards the group. A masked Death Eater lunged forward to catch it, colliding with his comrade who had the same idea. Malfoy alone had the presence of mind and the accuracy to cast a spell which slowed the descent of the glass globe, allowing him to pluck it out of the air.

"Fool—do you not realize the value..." Malfoy began, red splotches appearing on his face. He took several breaths, then slid the prophecy inside his robes. "Never mind, you have served your purpose. Seize him!"

The Death Eaters stepped forward with their wands aimed at Harry, who snapped a Protego into place. He needn't have bothered, however, for before they could get any spells off, white light flashed, and one of the bastards collapsed in a heap.

Lucius whirled around, a shimmering spherical shield covering him at his gesture. His underlings weren't quite as fast, and another one fell, landing on the floor with a thunk.

"Homenum Revelio," Malfoy intoned, and everybody was marked with a blue glow, including Sirius's transparent figure. Malfoy swiftly sent a gust of wind at his silhouette, blasting the cloak off his shoulders.

"Black!" he snarled.

"Lucy," Sirius returned with a wild grin.

The two jumped into action, exchanging spells faster than Harry could keep track of. He decided to take care of the remaining mook instead and sent a Stunner his way.

Said mook turned out to be more competent than expected, forcing Harry to go on the defensive and refresh his shield three times in as many seconds to keep himself from being suffocated, cleaved in half, and dissolved in acid. The already nasty spells were followed by something even Darker, and Harry cried out as he ducked to avoid the Killing Curse.

"The Dark Lord wants him alive, you imbecile!" Lucius yelled. The momentary distraction cost him as Sirius's Bludgeoner slipped past his guard and hit his left arm with a sickening crunch. Face pale and twisted in pain, Malfoy nevertheless managed to deflect the follow-up hex, which ricocheted towards the shelves and smashed several glass spheres.

Shadowy figures came forth from the shattered orbs and started speaking, their voices merging into an unintelligible cacophony. Then the dim lighting of the hall flashed an angry red, and a cool female voice spoke over the din.

"Intruders, please turn yourselves in at the nearest guard post."

"Withdraw!" Lucius ordered, deflecting more hexes from Sirius.

The masked mook poked one of his fallen comrades with his wand, then shook him roughly. "He's not waking up!"

"Damn it, Goyle—it's the Paralysis Curse, just carry them!"

Grunting, Goyle slung the first unresponsive body over his shoulder while dragging the second one by the collar. Malfoy, despite nursing a broken arm, managed to cover their retreat by shielding attacks from both Sirius and Harry.

"Intruders, please turn yourselves in at the nearest guard post," the disembodied voice repeated.

Once the Death Eaters disappeared down the corridor, Harry ran up to his godfather, who was peering at his bleeding shoulder with a grimace. "Are you alright?"

"I'll live." Sirius waved his wand, creating bandages and wrapping them snugly around the wound. "Some Dark Cutter that prevents blood from clotting—no time to deal with it right now. You better take the cloak, blood stains are a bitch to remove."

Alarm echoing behind them, they left the Hall of Prophecies and retraced their steps back to the elevators. Harry cloaked himself and prepared for another fight, but the Atrium was blessedly empty once the doors dinged open.

"Lucy and his ilk must've Apparated away," Sirius said, sounding a bit out of breath. "I can Side-Along you as soon as we're past the guard post."

They quickened their steps and Harry began to smile at their good fortune, but then the fireplaces set against the walls ahead roared to life, belching out red-robed Aurors.

"Run!" Sirius shouted, leading by example.

They sprinted towards the security desk and vaulted over its barrier, but before Sirius could turn on the spot, he was downed by a Stunner. Harry jumped away from his godfather to avoid several off-course jets of light.

Red-robed wizards kept Flooing in, interspersed with an occasional Ministry bureaucrat in more casual robes, until the avalanche ended with the arrival of Fudge himself. The Minister listened to an Auror whisper something into his ear while staring grimly at the stunned and bound Sirius. The Aurors formed a circle around him, making it impossible for Harry to do anything without revealing himself.

"I knew it was Black all along, I knew it," Fudge said, twirling his bowler hat on his index finger. "Excellent work, men. With his capture, those ridiculous rumors about Lord Thingy will be put to rest."

"Shall we move him to the holding cells?" Kingsley Shacklebolt asked.

"Oh no, Black's way too dangerous for that!" Fudge said. "Wilkins, Floo Azkaban and tell them to send over a Dementor. I'm not letting this terrorist slip away again."

Harry's stomach sank. He yanked the cloak off, eliciting surprised cries from the Aurors and becoming a target of dozens of wands.

"You're making a mistake, Minister," he said, putting his hands up to show he was unarmed. "Sirius is an innocent man. He was only here to stop Malfoy and the other Death Eaters—"

"Harry Potter?" Fudge gaped at him before tittering. "What utter tosh! Don't worry, my boy, St. Mungo's will set you to rights. Certainly won't be the first Confundus case they've dealt with."

Harry growled, feeling like he could've managed a decent Cruciatus Curse at that moment. Sure, he hated the Death Eaters too, but this muppet was supposed to be on his side.

A single fireplace flared green, startling Harry out of his attempt to spontaneously develop the power to blow people's heads up with his mind. The Minister turned to watch the one called Wilkins emerge from the flames.

"T-the guards are g-gone," stammered the ashen-faced man. "His m-mark flies over Azkaban."

"My good man, what are you babbling about?" Fudge exclaimed. "Whose mark is at Azkaban?"

"You-Know-Who's," Wilkins said, his eyes round with fear.

"I don't, that's why I asked—" Fudge blanched and went silent. He looked at Sirius, then at Harry, gripping his hat so hard his fingers whitened. "B-but... that means..."

"Man, I wish I had a camera right now," Harry said, grinning widely.

Harry's quiet evening was interrupted by a loud crash and muffled cussing downstairs. He sighed and rose from his comfy chair. The gleaming orb of the prophecy sitting on the shelf caught his eye as he was leaving the room. There was no rush—perhaps he'd take a look at it tomorrow.

He descended the stairs and headed into the kitchen, where he found Tonks rubbing her tailbone with a pained expression. She had her Auror robes on, and her hair was a businesslike brown, morphing into a vibrant pink at his entry.

"Wotcher, Harry," she said. "Where's your wayward godfather?"

Sirius had said that he was going to find out if witches really dug ex-cons, but Harry wasn't about to share that with Tonks. "He... went out."

Tonks wrinkled her nose. "Drinking, no doubt. Hey, do I smell Molly's cooking?"

Harry produced a bowl of leftovers from the icebox and heated it up. There was an Order meeting earlier, and as usual, Mrs. Weasley had made enough food to feed a small army.

"So good," Tonks moaned as she scarfed down the stew. "Haven't eaten since morning—the Ministry's a bloody madhouse, I tell you."

Harry sat down on the opposite side of the table. "Oh yeah? What's been going on?"

"Okay, so Rufus Scrimgeour—that's my boss, the Head Auror—stepped in to replace Fudge," Tonks said, gesturing with a spoon. "The Wizengamot says it's temporary, but no one believes that since Scrimgeour's been after the Minister's seat for yonks. What's really got everyone buzzing is that Fudge might have criminal charges brought against him, if they can prove that he deliberately suppressed information about You-Know-Who's return. The Aurors are investigating his Undersecretary too."

"Good," Harry said with savage satisfaction. "That means I should be able to go back to Hogwarts next year."

"Of course, losing Azkaban hurt us bad," she continued. "You-Know-Who regained his most powerful followers, and the Dementors defected to his side. Some of my colleagues are still working to secure the remaining prisoners, the poor sods."

That put a damper on Harry's mood. He suddenly felt guilty for being glad about the attack back at the Ministry, even though it did save his and Sirius's hides.

Tonks sighed in contentment and pushed the empty bowl away. "How are you doing, champ? Did Dumbledore chew you out for that stunt you pulled?"

Harry winced. "Me and Sirius both. But then he said if I was so eager to participate in the war, he wouldn't keep me in the dark, as long as I learned Occlumency first."

Tonks whistled. "Blimey, Occlumency at your age? That wasn't a requirement when I joined the Order."

"That's because of my, you know... connection." He tapped his forehead.

Tonks peered at his scar. "Can you really see what he is doing?" she asked in a hushed voice.

"Almost never since I started doing those mental exercises Flitwick showed me. Voldemort has to either slip up or send me something on purpose." He grinned. "I did get a glimpse of him torturing Lucius Malfoy last night, though. He was seriously pissed."

She gasped. "That's terrible."

"I laughed my ass off and slept like a baby afterwards." Harry shrugged at her horrified expression. "You had to be there, I guess."

"You're terrible," Tonks said, shaking her head. "Anyway—Occlumency, huh? Maybe I should get some lessons too."

"I could ask Snape if he'd be willing to tutor you." Perhaps having an attractive young witch as his pupil would make the man less of an arse.

She grimaced. "I'll pass. He's the last person I want rummaging through my noggin. It's a shame, though—Occlumency's supposed to be dead useful in a fight. Hiding your tells, making you more unpredictable, that kind of thing."

Harry got up and retrieved two butterbeers from the pantry, sliding one across the table. "You enjoy dueling, then?"

Tonks brushed an imaginary piece of lint off her shoulder. "Kid, you're looking at the only Junior Auror to ever place top ten in DMLE friendlies!"

Harry thought back to how he nearly had his ass handed to him by a Goyle. "Could you teach me something from the Aurors' bag of tricks?"

"Right, your godfather did tell me you were ace at Defense," Tonks said, leaning over the table. "How about a proper duel once things settle down?"

Harry waved her off. "Not happening. You're a fully trained Auror now—we both know how it would end."

"Come on, Harry," Tonks whined. "I could use some practice so I don't get rusty. Don't tell me you're afraid of little ol' me?"

Harry groaned. His misguided attempt to bond over a common hobby had awakened a monster. Was Tonks so keen on dueling because she had something to prove to her colleagues?

"I suppose we could," he said with a resigned sigh.

"That's the spirit!" she cheered. "Wanna spice things up with a friendly wager?"

The glint in her eyes was making him wary. "Like what?"

She smiled gleefully. "If I win, you become my lackey for a day. You'll have to bring me refreshments, paint my toenails, rub my feet—"

"I'm in."

Tonks gave him an odd look. "We haven't agreed on my stake yet."

"Oh, right," he said with a nervous chuckle. Truth be told, he didn't expect to win, and it looked like he would be getting a reward in any case. "How about you go out with me transformed into whoever I want?"

Tonks snorted and tossed her hair back. "You little scamp. Fine, let's go with that—it's not like you can beat me."

Harry privately agreed, but hearing her say it was irritating. He resolved to give it his best shot.

They faced off in the gloomy attic of number twelve, Grimmauld Place, Harry tense, and Tonks relaxed and smiling. The junk amassed by generations of Blacks had been shoved against the sloping walls, and a boundary the size of a standard dueling platform was outlined on the floor in chalk.

Sirius was on the sidelines, seated on a reinforced oak chest. Noticing his godson's gaze, he held up a banner which said 'Go Harry' and grinned.

"Isn't the judge supposed to be impartial?" Tonks asked, shooting him an amused look.

"You've been getting too big for your boots, cousin," Sirius said. "I want you taken down a peg."

Tonks snorted and smoothed down her Muggle-style jacket. "Fat chance."

"We'll see." Sirius let go of the banner and raised an arm. "On my count. Three... Two... One... Begin!"

For a moment, both fighters stood still. Seeing that Tonks was content to cede the first move to him, Harry opened with a silent spell-chain linking Disarming, Silencing, and Stunning hexes. Nonverbal hexes were only taught in the sixth year, and he was immensely proud of already having mastered three.

Tonks didn't bat an eye, deflecting the first two with a wandtip shield Harry had only seen in book illustrations, and sidestepping the crimson Stunner even as she fired off her own. Contrary to her bubbly nature, her movements were efficient and practical.

Harry ducked the first Stunner and was about to return fire, but had to hurriedly snap a shield in place to deflect a second one. His nonverbal Protego held against a couple more spells before collapsing, and then it was back to dodging for him.

Tonks stayed in one spot, cackling as she made Harry dance around his half of the platform in order not to get hit. Her eyes twinkled and her hair turned vivid yellow, seemingly without her conscious control. Any spell he sent her way was deflected, and when he tried his improved Incarcerous, she summoned a gust of wind that nearly blew him out of bounds.

She paused for a moment and Harry took a breather, wiping the sweat off his brow with his left hand, ire rising as he stared at her unruffled appearance. It wasn't like he expected to best an Auror, but he didn't appreciate being toyed with. It was time to pull out every dirty trick he could think of.

He sprang into action, conjuring a flock of tiny birds as a distraction, before sending a jet of water in the direction of his opponent. Not having anticipated that kind of attack—or perhaps not recognizing the danger—Tonks allowed some water to splash on her jacket.

"Glacius!" Harry roared, adding a twist at the end of the standard motion to increase the range. A conical stream of freezing wind burst forth, expanding to cover Tonks's side of the platform.

She swung her wand in an arc, creating a flat, semitransparent sheet in front of her. Harry channeled his spell until her shield became clouded with ice crystals, hiding Tonks from view. His wand moved in a blur, filling the air with as many slow-moving nuisance jinxes as he could regardless of accuracy.

When her shield crumbled with a soft tinkling sound, Tonks's eyes widened at the incoming barrage. She backtracked, frantically swatting the spells out of the air, yet despite her efforts, a Stinging Jinx grazed her side. She clicked her tongue.

"Are you going to take me seriously now, Nymphadora?" Harry asked with a cheeky grin, chest heaving from exertion.

"You did not just call me that," she growled.

He tensed up but maintained his smile. "Oh, but I did. What are you going to do about it?"

"Fine," she said in a sing-song voice, "if that's how you want to play..." Tonks exploded into movement, launching a spate of spells faster than Harry had ever seen her do.

He dived to the side and jabbed his wand at an antique wood-burning stove against the wall. "Accio!"

The stove rocketed towards him and Harry redirected it to shield himself, its sooty surface coruscating with spell impacts. As soon as there was a lull between the attacks, Harry banished the vintage piece forward as hard as he could, only to yelp and duck aside when it came hurtling back.

The stove crashed into the wall behind him and rebounded, landing just inside the platform's perimeter. Tonks resumed her assault, low-level spells fanning out of her wand and making dodging a risky endeavor.

"Protego," Harry enunciated, and a shield shimmered into existence around him. He needed every bit of power for this, and it wasn't the time to show off his budding nonverbal abilities.

Tonks smirked and focused her attacks at her now-stationary opponent. His shield flared as the spells impacted it one, two, three times; then it came apart, letting a weakened Stunner through, which he barely avoided by contorting his body in a way that left his muscles screaming.

"Protego," he cast again.

Tonks rolled her eyes and twirled her wand in a complex gesture, flinging a crackling green spiral towards him. When it impacted his shield, it instantly dissolved in a shower of sparks.

Harry backpedaled, nearly tripping over the sideways-lying stove. "P-Protego!"

Tonks looked impatient now, eager to end it, and he hoped she would take the bait. From what he'd seen, while she didn't favor Transfiguration, she was someone who enjoyed showing off. It was a dueling style much like his own.

Ensconced inside his shield bubble, he tried not to let his excitement show when she glanced at his feet and grinned. As her Shieldbreaker zoomed towards him once again, Harry aimed his wand squarely at Tonks and imagined winning the duel. He squinted against the light show of his detonating Protego, holding the happy thought firmly in his mind.

Tonks lowered her wand a few degrees and furrowed her brows in concentration. Metal creaked, and Harry glanced down to see the ornate feet of the stove contort, stretch, and rise to envelop him in a bear hug.

"Expecto Patronum!" he cried, and a silvery octopus came into existence a moment before his hands were forced to his sides and he was trapped in an iron prison. Yet he still had his wand, and that was what mattered.

Tonks laughed as the octopus swam through the air. "A corporeal Patronus is impressive for somebody your age, but it won't help you here." She looked away from him carelessly. "Call it, Sirius."

"Harry, do you yield?" his godfather asked in a raised voice.

"Nope," he said, grinning.

From his practice back in the Room of Requirement, he knew that corporeal Patronuses passed through physical objects—overconfident Aurors included—but coming into contact with one induced a pleasant, warm tingle.

And eight tentacles provided a lot of contact.

Tonks scoffed. "What are you—eek!" She flailed her hands as the octopus descended upon her, but they found no purchase on its translucent form. Sirius's manic laughter rang from the sidelines.

Heart beating a mile a minute, Harry brushed his fingertips against the metal bindings and sucked them into his malletspace. His right hand rose in a smooth gesture and he fired off a Disarming Charm, the scarlet light streaking at Tonks's midsection. He could see her eyes round in shock through the silvery haze of the Patronus, but it was too late; her wand was wrenched from her fingers and sailed through the air towards Harry, who caught it deftly.

There was absolute silence in the attic until their judge got up and started clapping. "Winner, Harry Potter!"

Abandoning her futile struggle against the fading Patronus, Tonks rounded on Sirius. "You freed him!"

"I most certainly did not," he protested.

"He sure as hell didn't do it himself, and I don't see anyone else in the room!" She was getting a bit red in the face.

"Don't be a sore loser, Tonksy."

"Your wand. Now," she said, stomping up to him.

Sirius gulped and obliged. "Alright, don't get your knickers in a twist."

Wand in each hand, Tonks connected their tips and said, "Prior Incantato!"

Shadowy shapes started emerging from Sirius's wand one by one. Harry couldn't make heads or tails of them, but they apparently meant something to Tonks.

"You didn't help him," she said incredulously. "What were all the Numbing Charms for?"

Sirius crossed his arms. "What I do in my leisure time is none of your business."

"Never mind, I don't want to know," Tonks said, handing back his wand. "But then, how did he..."

Harry cleared his throat. "I vanished your transfiguration. Wandlessly, of course."

"You vanished iron. Wandlessly." Tonks shook her head. "I doubt even Dumbledore could pull that off. The only one who might would be..." She trailed off, looking uncomfortable.

Harry adjusted the collar of his shirt. "Hey, Boy-Who-Lived here, remember?"

She gave him a flat stare. "Are you serious?"

Sirius chuckled. "No, that would be me."

"Silencio. Be quiet, I need a word with your godson." Tonks paced in front of a bemused Harry. "I haven't the foggiest how you pulled the vanishing bit off, but you do realize that using your creepy Patronus to fondle your opponent would never work in a real fight, right?"

"A Patronus is a symbol of love and happiness—it can't be creepy by definition," Harry said. "And I don't think that was against the rules."

"It wasn't, but I know you cheated somehow." She gave him an inquisitorial look, but Harry just smiled innocently. She huffed. "What I'm saying is... let's shake hands and call off the bet."

Harry burst out laughing. "You're trying to weasel out of it! Oh, this is priceless. Whatever happened to the cocky, badass Auror?"

Her cheeks colored and she opened her mouth, then closed it again. The irritated expression on her face was replaced with something sly as she stepped into Harry's personal space.

"You're a good person, aren't you, Harry?" she asked huskily.

"Uh huh," he said with a goofy grin. Despite their frenzied duel, Tonks smelled so good.

She put a hand on his chest and pouted, her lips becoming fuller and rosier before his eyes. "A gentleman like yourself wouldn't force a girl to transform for him, would he? I'm sorry I made fun of you, Harry. You're a very strong, powerful duelist."

Harry's smile widened and he leaned closer for a whisper. "Better practice your morphing, Tonks."

She snorted and pushed him off. "Cheeky bugger. Guess that's what I get for underestimating you."

Sirius thumped Harry's back, laughing without a sound.

Chapter Text

While the rest of the Hogwarts denizens gathered in the Great Hall for the start-of-term feast, Harry stood in the headmaster's office, the damned prophecy lying on the desk between them.

"I am impressed with your patience," Dumbledore said. "I rather thought your curiosity would take the better of you."

Harry tugged at his earlobe. "I, uh, didn't know how to activate it."

Dumbledore's bushy eyebrows climbed his forehead. "Did it not occur to you that tapping it with your wand might do the trick?"

He shook his head, wishing he had come up with a better excuse.

Keen blue eyes peered at him through half-moon glasses. "Were you afraid, Harry?"

He waved dismissively. "Psh, nah. Had a busy summer. Forgot all about this thing."

"You need not feel shame if you were. Wizards twice your age would be terrified of what fate has in store for you."

He winced. "That bad, huh."

Dumbledore stroked his beard, looking a little sheepish. "It was never my intention to frighten you. I shall not force you to listen if you do not wish to. The choice, as always, is yours." He gestured towards the glass globe and folded his hands, as though prepared to wait however long it took.

Rather than the prophecy, Harry's eyes were drawn to Dumbledore's right hand. It was shriveled and skeletal, with blackened skin stretched over bone. "Ugh. Don't tell me you've been dabbling in necromancy, sir."

The headmaster appeared startled for a moment before chuckling and concealing his withered hand in his sleeve. "A story for another time, Harry—perhaps once you have made progress in your lessons with Professor Snape. Let us focus on the more immediate issue."

Harry couldn't help but feel curious, but the finality in Dumbledore's tone was unmistakable. He shifted his gaze from the headmaster's sleeve to the prophecy that was the source of so much anguish in his life and those of others. He had put this off long enough. Taking out his wand, he stepped forward and rapped it against the glass sphere before he could change his mind.

The grey fog inside the orb coalesced into a shadowy image of a younger Professor Trelawney, who began speaking in a rough, hoarse voice so unlike her usual dreamy tones. He held his breath as he listened, heart pounding in his ears. Either must die at the hand of the other... neither can live while the other survives. Even after the record ended, Trelawney's accursed words echoed in his mind. He clenched his fists.

"Harry?" Dumbledore said gently.

He faked a smile. "Heh. This means I'm immortal, unless Voldemort himself offs me."

Dumbledore blinked. "That is an interesting viewpoint, but 'hand of the other' can be interpreted in any number of ways. I must implore you not to take unnecessary risks. "

"I know," he said with a sigh. "I won't do anything stupid." He shifted on his feet, stuffing his hands down his pockets.

Dumbledore fixed him with a gimlet eye. "You do not have to put up a brave front when you are with me, Harry. I shall do everything in my power to ease your burden, and I am certain your friends will do the same."

Harry was suffocating, sick of this office, and of the kind and understanding man who just told him he had to kill or die trying. He drew a shuddering breath. "Can I go, sir?"

Looking every bit his age, Dumbledore nodded. "Of course."

He dashed out of the office and down the spiral staircase, headmaster's voice reaching him through the closing door. "I want you to remember that you are not alone. Even when I am not here, help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it."

Harry walked and walked, his legs carrying him up the staircases and hallways without his conscious input. It was only when he glanced out a window and saw the starry sky that he realized how much time had passed. The Sorting Feast had to have started; everyone would be down in the Great Hall, eating and talking and laughing with not a care in the world. How he envied the fools.

"Bloody hell," he muttered with a wry smile. "I better stop brooding before I start writing edgy poetry."

He glanced around, identifying his location as the seventh floor, then continued down the hallway. With no particular destination in mind, he figured he'd kill some time before retiring to the dorms. There would be no one else wandering the dusky corridors at this hour, which suited him just fine.

As he paused before another window to look down at the moonlit grounds, there was slurred laughter behind him, and he whirled, wand materializing in his hand.

"Oh, it's just you," Harry said, squinting through the darkness. "Lumos. Sir Wossname."

"It's Sir Cadogan, thank you very much!" the knight in the portrait roared. Slumped against a tree, he clutched a wineskin in his hand.

Harry approached. "What are you doing up here?"

"Hunting trolls." Sir Cadogan glanced at his wineskin and amended, "Resting after hunting trolls. I'm going to get them blighters one of these days, you'll see!"

Harry rolled his eyes and turned to leave. "Good luck with that."

"Don't be so hasty, young sorcerer!" Sir Cadogan attempted to stand before collapsing back onto the ground with a clatter. "You look like a man who could use a friendly ear. Come share a drink with me."

"I don't even have..." Recalling the Firewhisky he'd filched from Sirius, he trailed off and regarded the portrait dubiously. "Oh, what the hell."

It took him several tries, but he managed to conjure a stool that held his weight. He sat on it gingerly, then took out the bottle of liquor and raised it at Sir Cadogan.

"That's the spirit," the knight said, taking a long pull from the wineskin. "Tell me what worries you so, lad. I have overcome my fair share of trials, and I'm always happy to counsel an apprentice who finds himself over his head."

Feeling a bit silly, Harry told him of his life, the death of his parents, and the ever-looming menace of Voldemort. Sir Cadogan was easy to speak to—perhaps because he wasn't somebody real—and he found himself spilling his guts. How he had to battle a Dark wizard much older and more powerful than himself. How Voldemort wouldn't rest until one of them was dead.

"To strike at a helpless babe; this Voldemort is a contemptible poltroon indeed," said Sir Cadogan. "If you wish to end him rightly, unscrew the pommel of your sword and hurl it at him. The craven cur will flinch away, allowing you to move in for the finishing blow. I have bested many a foe in this manner back in my day!"

Harry took a sip of Firewhisky, chuckling at the image the words evoked. He didn't have the heart to tell him that wizards no longer used swords. Most wizards, in any case. "I wish it were that easy."

"Easy?" thundered Sir Cadogan. "A battle is never easy, but you fight anyway because you're a man and not a lily-livered milksop! Life's not all roses and fairy dust!"

"Voldemort would burn me to a crisp before I even got close," Harry said with irritation.

"You lack courage!" the knight bellowed, thumping his breastplate for emphasis. "Stouten your heart, and the rest will follow!"

"My parents had courage," Harry spat. "They died like everybody else."

He stood, kicked his stool, and stomped off, ignoring Cadogan's shouts. What was he doing? Portraits were mere caricatures—they couldn't give real advice.

He took another swig of Firewhisky, absently noting that the bottle was a lot lighter than when he'd started, and lumbered down the corridor. Passing the troll tapestry, he snorted at the beasts' battered appearance, then stopped abruptly. Dumbledore's words replayed in his drunken mind.

"Well," he said, doing an about-face and steadying himself against the wall. He took three shaky steps forward. "I'm at Hogwarts." Three steps back. "And I sure as hell could use some help." Three steps forward again, and a ninety-degree turn.

There was nothing but blank stonework.

"Fuck!" Harry slapped his palm against it, bowing his head. "I should've known it was all bullshit."

Wallowing in misery as he was, it took him a while to notice that the surface under his hand had grown warmer. He raised his head and blinked.

In front of him was a white wooden door, the sort you would find in Little Whinging, and quite unlike anything he'd seen the Room of Requirement produce before. He stared at it, then steeled himself and turned the handle.

Stepping inside, he was greeted by a boundless expanse of pure white. He shielded his eyes and squinted. Before his gaze, the void gradually consolidated into tangible shapes, and structure came into being.

He found himself in a room painted in pastel lavender and furnished with bookshelves, a writing desk, and a single bed. There was a curtained window on the far wall—another first for the Room—and several doors on the sides, similar to the one he just opened. As the thought that this looked like a girl's bedroom occurred to him, he suddenly became aware of the person standing in the middle.

He lurched backwards before steadying himself and regarding the slim figure. It was an adolescent witch with sleek black hair that fell almost to her waist. She appeared as surprised as he was, her peculiarly violet eyes wide as they roved over the room. Her baggy school robes lacked any house colors, but she looked too old to be a first-year. Was she the fabled transfer student?

"Are you lost? The Sorting takes place on the ground floor," Harry said hesitantly. Realizing that he was still holding the half-empty bottle, he hid it behind his back and into his malletspace.

"Do I look like a schoolgirl to you?" she asked, her mellifluous voice at odds with her sharp words. She glanced down at herself and did a double take. "Founders forfend, I do."

He stuck his hand into his pocket and materialized his wand. "Who are you?"

The girl furrowed her brows. "I am... I am Hogwarts."

Harry debated bringing out his drink again, then considered the possibility that Firewhisky was responsible for the whole affair in the first place. It was a testament to the amount of weirdness he had seen over the years that he didn't immediately dismiss her claim.

"Seriously? For an ancient castle, you look kinda..." He gestured vaguely with his hand.

"I look the way you envisioned me," she said with a note of accusation. "You are the one who made this happen."

He raised his eyebrows. "All I did was ask for help."

"What exactly were you thinking when you opened the door?" she pressed, her eyes narrowing in a look that might've been threatening on someone a foot taller.

Harry rubbed his forehead, willing his alcohol-addled brain to work. "I don't know. It was all jumbled in my head."

She threw her hands up, causing her overly long sleeves to flap. "Great, I was manifested by a cretin. Did it never occur to you that I was perfectly content with my existence as the pinnacle of magical architecture, and not having to lug this—this feeble flesh-puppet around?"

"It's not like I did it on purpose," he protested. "I have no clue what happened!"

"You want to know what happened?" The girl walked up and jabbed a finger at his chest. "I'll tell you what happened! It must be difficult for a puny human like you, but think a millennium back, when I was built by a quartet of individuals infinitely smarter than yourself. So there I was, a marvel of engineering, soaking up the students' magic and slowly gaining in power, yet never crossing the line into sentience. I had no emotions nor desires—it was a dream, a slumber, it was... peace."

She looked so tranquil that Harry held his breath, loath to disturb her, but her face was soon marred by a scowl. "Then some nitwit brought the Philosopher's Stone here, and another nitwit blew it up in the middle of an embodiment ritual. As always, my walls absorbed the excess energies, and suddenly I was more—not fully conscious, but almost. All it would take was a tiny nudge."

"Which I just provided," Harry murmured, poleaxed by the revelation.

She glared at him. "Not only that, it was your twisted, intoxicated mind that shaped my body!"

He tilted his head in puzzlement. "Er, you're not particularly ugly or anything."

She snorted. "You'd say that, of course."

"Do you really remember everything?" he asked before she could find something else to blame him for. "All the way back to the Founders?"

She was quiet for a time, a faraway look coming over her eyes. "My early recollections are vague, but they're there. Everyone who passed through my halls left their imprints on me, but until today, I never truly perceived them. That's why this new experience is so unsettling. When I recall a memory now, I feel things. Pride in my graduates, the sorrow of loss, the joy of festivity... and more."

She shivered. "It's scary, how intensely my body is reacting—it's like it is in control of me rather than the other way around. Especially when I think about... even at this moment, there are lovers in the castle..." She closed her eyes and hugged herself, biting her lip. "Ah, wow. I can see why humans do that..."

Harry gulped as he ogled her squirming form. This was it, this was his chance to explore Hogwarts's other Chamber of Secrets. A part of him screamed that he would be taking advantage of her, but... she was technically a thousand years old, right?

He cleared his throat. "Sh-should I take responsibility?"

Her eyes flew open, and her hand which had been inching down her stomach froze at the waistband of her skirt. "What?" she asked in a dazed voice.

"I could help you scratch that itch," he said, waggling his eyebrows.

Her gaze focused on Harry, then on herself. She squeaked and flung her hands away from their almost-compromising positions, her cheeks turning pink. "Y-you, you dare—a mere human—"

"Is that a no?" he asked.

Her blush deepened and her hair came alive, defying gravity as it framed her slight figure like a halo of black. In an instant, Harry was reminded that she was not entirely human.

"Get out," she growled, not meeting his eyes.

"It's nothing to be embarrassed about. Such urges are perfectly normal for a girl your age—"

"Get out!" she shrieked, windmilling her arms.

A pillow zoomed through the air and smacked him in the face, his smarting nose catching a whiff of something floral. Books rattled in their shelves before swooping at him, and a bulky tome slugged him in the gut, knocking out his wind. Then the bed itself shook and rose off the floor, and Harry got the hint, turning tail and scurrying outside.

Slamming the door shut, he heard something impact it on the other side before it faded into an unassuming stone wall.

"Shaped by my mind, my ass," he muttered, lowering himself to the floor. "No way I thought up someone that violent."

Harry stayed that way for a while, retrieving the Firewhisky and having a sip when it got too cold. When his eyes grew heavy and he started yawning, he figured he'd given her enough time to cool down.

He stood up and paced, repeating 'I need help' in his head, but the wall remained unchanged. Frowning, he tried a couple of different requests, but the Room didn't respond to anything.

"Hogwarts, come on, let's talk about this!" he yelled, banging the wall with his fist. "I still need your help, damn it!"

No reply forthcoming, he sank to the floor and curled himself into a ball. He was going to have a short rest before heading to the tower.

Harry woke to his shoulder being shaken. He opened his eyes a crack, winced at the glare, and squeezed them shut again. The shaking didn't cease.

"Feck off," he mumbled.

"We need to speak, Harry," Dumbledore said, "and Madam Pomfrey has prepared a potion that will make you feel better."

His eyes shot open, watering from the sunlight flooding the hospital wing, and he stammered an apology, but the headmaster merely held up a gloved palm and handed him a steaming vial. Harry downed it in one go and sighed blissfully as his headache abated.

"You will be glad to learn that I was the one who discovered you and brought you here," Dumbledore said. "Madam Pomfrey has been told there were extenuating circumstances. As such, you will not be punished."

Harry slumped back against his pillow in relief, but then Dumbledore clasped his hands and continued, "That being said, I expected better of you, Harry. Drowning your sorrows in drink will not get you anywhere. I want you to promise not to do such a thing again."

"Yes, sir," he said, unable to meet the headmaster's eyes.

Dumbledore patted his shoulder. "As I told you before, you are not alone. The Order, your friends and family, the Hogwarts staff—everyone will aid you in your task."

Harry's eyebrows knitted together as he recalled yesterday's encounter. In broad daylight, it all seemed like a dream. "Sir, has Hogwarts ever, well... spoken to you?"

Dumbledore blinked. "I have served as its headmaster for three decades now, and as a professor for longer still. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this place speaks to me like no other."

"I meant in a more literal sense." He licked his chapped lips. "Hogwarts has never... appeared before you? As a bratty girl, perhaps?"

Dumbledore peered first at Harry, then at the empty bottle of Firewhisky on the bedside table. "Madam Pomfrey," he called out, "I believe we need a Detoxifying Solution."

Severus Snape stood rigidly at the front of the auditorium, hands clasped behind his back. Despite their entire year being assembled for the first Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson, not a peep was heard from the rows of seated students.

"There will be changes to the curriculum this year, as those of you who deigned to attend the Sorting Feast already know," he said softly, his eyes zeroing in on Harry. "At the headmaster's behest, the focus will shift from Dark creatures to battle magic. To this end, I'll be organizing a team tournament for the third-year and up, which will test your mettle in simulated combat. Your results will directly contribute to your grade, and there is a trophy to be won, for the glory-hounds who care about such things. The members of the teams will be selected by myself."

There were groans of disappointment, which died down at Snape's glare.

"Make no mistake, however: this exercise will in no way prepare you for real battle. If you find yourself facing a practitioner of the Dark Arts, your first thought should be about escaping." The professor's eyes strayed towards the Gryffindor section, where many students were frowning. "Foolish heroics, unless backed up by true skill, will only get you killed."

"Megan Jones, reporting for duty," the Hufflepuff girl said with a playful salute. She had short blond hair, sparkling blue eyes, and was chewing bubblegum.

Harry grinned. "Nice to have you on the team. Just to get it out of the way, how're you doing in Defense? I already know Hermione's grades."

"Who doesn't," Megan said with a roll of her eyes before shooting a wary glance at the witch in question. "Anyways, I got an A on my OWL. Wouldn't have continued with the class, but my folks insisted."

Hermione placed her hands on her hips. "What about the breakdown between the theory and the practical?"

"Well, I got an E for the theory..." Megan twiddled with a Hippogriff-shaped pin her robes. "And a P for spellwork, but I swear, that examiner had it in for me!"

Harry stifled a groan. He should've known something was up when Snape actually agreed to put him on a team with two girls. There was nothing else to do but make the best of the situation.

"Not to worry, we'll just have to get some practice in," he said. "Hermione can hold her own, and with me leading, we should have a fighting chance."

"When did we decide on you being the leader?" Hermione asked with a frown. "That should obviously be me."

Harry could hardly believe what he was hearing. "Don't take it the wrong way, but I'm better than you."

She bristled. "Better at spellcasting, maybe, but this calls for careful strategizing. You'd just try to do something needlessly showy."

He shrugged. "What's the point of magic if it isn't flashy?"

"That's precisely the problem! You're not being sensible."

"Hermione, we have to be unpredictable to win. If you just go by the book—"

"Hey, maybe I could be leader," Megan piped up. She shrank back when both Harry and Hermione glared at her. "Never mind, just a thought. I'm going to catch up with my friends while you two geniuses figure it out."

Harry mustered his courage and approached Snape after a grueling double lesson on nonverbal shielding. The Defense professor spent a good minute adjusting the angle of the quill on his desk before finally acknowledging him.

"Well, Potter?"

He took a deep breath. "Sir, I was hoping you'd let us switch out a teammate. I don't care who replaces her."

Snape's upper lip curled. "Surely your prodigious skill is enough to balance out Miss Jones's incompetence?"

"It's not Megan, it's Hermione! She's so..." He cut himself off before he could say something unkind. "We don't work together well."

"I made the right decision by assigning you to the same team, then," Snape said with a note of satisfaction. "This will be a valuable learning experience."


Snape slapped his hands on the table. "My word is final, Potter. We all have to work with people we find obnoxious... as you should well know."

There were many things he wanted to say, but he wisely held his tongue. "Yes, sir."

A vast swath of the Hogwarts grounds had been transformed into a mock battlefield, with boulders, trees, and shrubs scattered throughout an otherwise barren tract for shelter and Transfiguration. Two teams were duking it out in the field, while the rest of the sixth year watched from temporary stands courtesy of Professor McGonagall.

Harry observed the action, memorizing what worked for their potential opponents and what did not. Hermione jotted down notes in her journal. Meg was blowing gum bubbles and twirling her wand.

The skirmish hadn't been exactly engrossing thus far, with the teams exchanging hexes from behind obstacles, but then the one which comprised two Gryffindors and a Slytherin went on the offensive. The Lions shouted their incantations at the top of their lungs, pinning their enemies down with a hail of spellfire, while the Slytherin slunk around, only a slight shimmer betraying his location. He flanked their opponents and launched a Stunner, the red flash signaling his teammates to rush to his aid.

"Victory to team Slyther-out," Snape said stonily, his voice amplified to carry through the arena. "Next, we have Spellslingers against... 'I Love Myron Wagtail, triple exclamation mark'."

Harry and Hermione gave their third member dirty looks at that announcement.

"To think, we were this close to naming ourselves Awakening Chaos or Ungodly Trinity," Harry lamented. "I'm losing my motivation."

"Please, those names were puerile," Hermione said. "We should've picked one with meaning, something to symbolize the unity between our three houses."

Megan rolled her eyes. "There was a deadline to turn in the form, and you two kept bickering. Besides, how can you not love a hunk like Myron?"

The two huffed and followed Meg down to the outskirts of the battlefield, where the rival team was already gathered. It consisted of Seamus Finnigan, Mandy Brocklehurst, and one Anthony Goldstein.

"Didn't take you for a Weird Sisters fan, but whatever gets you going," Tony told him with a grin.

"We'll see who's laughing after we kick your arse," Harry shot back.

"Boys," Hermione said, getting a commiserating eye-roll from Mandy.

Snape's voice rang out again, announcing that the fight would begin in one minute, and the teams walked to their starting positions on the opposite sides of the field. Without knowing who their opponents would be in advance, they had little time to prepare, which was probably a part of the training.

"Okay, listen up," Harry said as they made their way to the entry point. "Tony's getting real good with Transfiguration, so our best bet is to rush them straight off. No way they'll be expecting that."

"No, let's hunker down behind those rocks, and wait for Anthony to run out of material," Hermione objected. "Look, the soil on their side is mostly loose sand—even he will have difficulty making anything big out of that."

He shook his head. "He'll just swarm us with his creatures if we let him—"

A gunshot-like noise resounded, and Megan said impatiently, "Hurry up, it's starting!"

"We'll do it live!" Harry snapped, and charged in. Hermione yelled something, but he didn't stop, kicking up dust as he raced towards the boulders she had mentioned. Pressing his back against the largest one, he waited for the girls to catch up.

"I'll take point," he said once they were within earshot. "Go, go, go!"

"Wait!" Hermione exclaimed.

Harry wasn't about to listen; he had to show her who was boss. He peeked over the boulder to find Tony and his Spellslingers a couple hundred yards away, their heads sticking out of a crater-like depression. Stooping low, he bolted forward. The opposing team's wandtips lit up, discharging multicolored jets of light most of which veered wildly off the mark. At this distance, it would take a lucky shot to knock him out, but it wasn't out of the realm of possibility.

A Body-Bind Curse whizzed past his ear, and he pivoted to take refuge behind a dead tree. It was only then that he noticed that no one had followed him. He stared back the way he came, seeing Megan and Hermione wave at him frantically. A quick glance the other way revealed that Tony's team was advancing on him.

Uttering a profanity that would've made Hermione slap him, he doubled back. Spells zipped past but none hit as he zigzagged, trying to throw off the enemies' aim. Then, when he was a scant few steps away from cover, his legs clamped together and he toppled face-first onto the baked dirt.

Ears ringing with laughter from the stands, Harry pushed off the ground and flipped over. "Protego!" he shouted, the shield emerging just in time to deflect a Stunner. He aimed his wand at his legs, but before he could undo the jinx, he was yanked backwards by a Summoning Charm.

"Honestly, Harry, what were you thinking?" Hermione dragged him behind cover and canceled the Leg-Locker with a flick of her wand. "You almost lost us the match!"

"You were the one who didn't stick to the plan!" he retorted, breathing heavily.

"Of course I didn't, it was ludicrous—"

"Will you stop arguing and get your heads in the game!" Megan screamed.

The two goggled at her, then locked eyes with each other. Harry slowly extended his hand.

"We're in this together," he said. "Let's try to get along."

Hermione clasped it. "Agreed. We both want to win."

Heedless of their heartwarming reconciliation, Megan doubled over in a coughing fit.

Hermione reached out to pat her back. "Are you all right?"

Meg nodded and straightened up, still coughing. Then she looked in Harry's direction and froze, her lips moving without sound.

He frowned. "What is it?"

"D-dog," she choked out, pointing over his shoulder.

Harry whirled to see an enormous English mastiff barrelling towards him. Before he could so much as raise his wand, the dog pounced, tackling him to the ground and driving the air out of his lungs. His right hand brushed against its rough coat and he vanished it into his malletspace by instinct.

"Drat, swallowed my gum," Meg announced in the ensuing silence. "Good show, Harry, how'd you do that?"

Hermione got up to fire a few spells, then ducked back. "He cheated." She glanced at him, looking repentant. "Sorry, I didn't mean to—"

Harry waved her off. "I didn't plan on using it, but that thing scared me shi—witless. What's the situation on your side?"

"Finnigan's behind that tree you ran to."

Harry crawled out the other side, wand held in front. He was glad for the precaution when he came face to face with another massive dog which growled and charged at him.

"Confringo!" he yelled, jabbing his wand forward.

For its immense power, the Blasting Curse had a dead-simple hand movement, so despite being new in his repertoire, it worked well enough. A little too well, in fact, as it blew the beast apart in a spray of gore.

"Ugh," he exclaimed, shielding his face with a sleeve. "Evanesco, Evanesco, Evanesco."

Lowering his arm, he scrutinized the field. At a first glance, it appeared empty, but he eventually spotted small puffs of dust pluming off the dry ground some distance away. He aimed and unleashed a silent Stunner.

"Protego!" a girl's voice cried, a shield enveloping her Disillusioned form. It withstood Harry's attack, but she still retreated towards the nearest cover.

He clicked his tongue. "Mandy's on this side. Tony must be staying back and working his transfigurations while those two surround us."

They were nothing but sitting ducks in this situation. His eyes darted around, lingering on their shelter. While the rocks Megan and Hermione huddled behind were barely large enough to hide them, the one in front of him was much taller. Yes, it would do nicely.

He motioned Meg closer and tapped the crown of her head with his wand, causing her to fade from view. "I'm going to levitate you up on this boulder," he whispered. "Stay hidden until you're certain you can take someone out."

"Sure, Harry," she said. "Crikey, I can't even see my hands!"

"Shh," Hermione hissed, before standing up to launch more spells in Finnigan's direction.

"Here goes," Harry muttered, and did the old swish and flick. His Disillusionment Charm was better than Mandy's, he noted with pride, but that also meant he had to levitate Megan blindly. He exhaled in relief when he heard more than saw her settle atop the towering rock.

"Stupefy!" Meg's enthusiastic voice rang out.

Harry raised his head sharply. She was supposed to wait until one of them was close, damn it!

There was a rustle and a girlish shriek, and any further thought Harry might've had was dislodged from his head when Megan's invisible form crashed into him, sprawling him on his back.

"Sorry, slipped—just let me—" she gasped out.

Harry grunted as he was elbowed in the ribs and kneed dangerously close to his family jewels. This was nothing like he imagined having a girl fall on you from the sky would feel like.

"Why did you attack so early?" Hermione demanded, echoing his thoughts.

"That Goldystein bloke was right below," an invisible Megan said. "He was making another doggy."

"Sneaky Jew," Harry said, impressed. "Come on, we gotta take out the rest before they revive him."

Hermione rose to her feet. "Let's do the rotating Protego. Megan, stay here and lay down some suppressive fire on the other side."

"Alright," she said brightly. "What's suppressive fire?"

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Just keep Mandy busy while we take out Finnigan. Shield first, Harry."

It irked him to follow her orders, but this was as solid a plan as any. He jumped out from cover and dashed forward. Finnigan, already sprinting towards his downed teammate, skidded to a halt and snapped off a Stunner.

"Protego," Harry intoned, and the crimson jet splashed harmlessly against the shield.

"Expelliarmus!" Hermione cried.

Diving aside, Finnigan evaded her attack. The two exchanged fire, Seamus employing his superior agility, while Hermione conserved her energy, sidestepping behind Harry's Protego whenever a spell headed her way.

"Switch," Harry said, seeing his shield waver.

Hermione stepped to the front and erected her own shield, allowing Harry to go on the offensive. He opened with his Disarmer-Silencer-Stunner combination, forcing Seamus to shield nonverbally. The flimsy Protego fractured under the assault, leaving the sweating boy defenseless.

A look of intense concentration came over Finnigan's face, and he moved his stubby wand in a complex gesture that had Harry abandoning his own attack and lunging forward. It would've been remiss of him not to recognize a Shieldbreaker when Tonks had employed them so handily in their duel.

The green spiral left Seamus's wand, demolishing Hermione's shield in a burst of sparks to her surprised cry. Yet before his follow-up Stunner could connect, Harry stepped into its path and materialized the mutt out of his malletspace. The dog absorbed the spell and dropped to the ground in a heap.

"Stupefy," Harry cast, savoring the shocked look which crossed Finnigan's face before he keeled over.

After that, cornering Mandy was child's play, and it wasn't long before Snape was sourly announcing their victory.

Chapter Text

Harry lingered in front of the door until resigning himself to his fate and pushing it open. With its foreboding atmosphere and years' worth of bad memories, the Defense classroom wasn't a pleasant place to be on the best of days. That he was here for Occlumency training, an arduous process by all accounts, only heightened his anxiety.

Professor Snape was stooped over a stack of parchment on his desk, and did not look up as he said, "You're late."

Harry opened his mouth to protest, but before he could speak, Snape cut him off.

"What are you dawdling for? Get inside and close the door."

He complied, walking in and halting a respectful distance before the desk. Snape proceeded to mark the rolls of parchment with furious scratches of his quill, and Harry's attention began to wander until it was brought back to the present by the soft clink of an inkwell being stoppered. Snape swept the pile of parchment aside and rose, black eyes boring into Harry's.

"Let me make something clear, Potter. I think this whole undertaking is futile, but the headmaster has faith in your capacity to master the Mind Arts at your age. I hope he's right, for both of our sakes. If you learn quickly, we won't have to spend more time than necessary in each other's company. I expect nothing less than your best effort during these lessons, do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," he said firmly. He had promised Dumbledore he'd try to work with Snape despite their mutual dislike, and he intended to keep his word.

Snape held his gaze, then gave a barely perceptible nod. His dark, thin wand was already in his hand. "Very well. I was informed of your familiarity with the basic technique so I won't waste time explaining it. Clear your mind."

Inhaling deeply, Harry prepared to do just that. Through consistent practice, he'd reduced the time he needed to enter a meditative state to about five minutes. Yet Snape wasn't going to give him that long; even as Harry went through the mental exercise, the dark wand was already in motion, the professor's lips moving in a whispered 'Legilimens'.

Suddenly, Harry wasn't alone in his own head anymore. Memories flitted across his mind's eye one after another, disorienting him and causing him to lose whatever little composure he had. Fear welled up inside him at the ease with which Snape riffled through his mind. There were things the professor absolutely must not see.

The alien presence homed in on Harry's anxiety, tracking it to its source, and it wasn't long before his most humiliating childhood experiences were laid bare. He let out an involuntary whine, which startled him back into the reality of the Defense classroom.

"A wholly miserable attempt," Snape said, his eyes glinting in the dim torchlight. "Focus, Potter. Legilimens!"

Getting no respite, Harry couldn't even pretend to clear his mind before it was assailed again. His struggle to guard specific memories merely drew his adversary's attention, providing Snape with ammunition to further demoralize him.

"Do endeavor to stop me this time. Legilimens!"

Harry gritted his teeth as the renewed attack sent a surge of pain through his skull. Dumbledore had warned him the training would be taxing, but even so, he thought Snape was being too harsh.

The professor made a point of observing the entire mortifying memory of Harry being pushed around by older neighborhood kids before ending the intrusion. "You're not even trying. Clear your mind—"

"You're not giving me enough time!" he snapped, rubbing his temples.

Snape's lips curled. "Do you expect the Dark Lord to wait until you get into the lotus pose and burn some incense before he attempts to penetrate your mind?"

Harry glared at him. "No, but I don't understand—"

"Take control of your emotions. Allow the intruder to find what you want them to. The road to such mastery is different for every Occlumens, as you would know if you bothered to read the books you were given." Snape tapped his wand against his palm. "If you're going to give up, now would be a good time. We are only twenty minutes into the first session—I could still salvage what's left of my evening."

"Bring it on," Harry ground out.

He regretted his words when Snape's mind slammed into his with the force of a lorry. The professor was becoming more adept at sorting through his memories, zeroing in on the ones associated with the most potent emotions. Not content with dredging up his childhood embarrassments, Snape ventured into the more recent recollections. The Triwizard Tournament... the Yule Ball... the clandestine gathering in the stuffy basement of Grimmauld Place...

He trembled as he redoubled his efforts, yet Snape latched onto the memory of Harry drinking the Animagus potion like a predator. Desperate, he lifted his hand and adjusted his glasses. Light flashed, and their eye contact was broken.

Snape blinked. "What was that?"

Harry wiped his sweaty palms on his robes. "Must've been a reflection from the torches. Can we stop here for today? My head really hurts." He didn't need to lie—it felt like his eyes were being stabbed with white-hot lances.

The surprise on Snape's face was replaced by contempt. He drew himself up and stared down his hooked nose at Harry. "I'm not like the other professors—do not expect me to coddle you. If a little pain is enough to break your commitment, perhaps I should tell the headmaster he was wrong."

"He wasn't, I can do this!" Harry looked at the floor. "Just... not today."

A brief silence, then a sigh. "Balking at the first hurdle. I suppose I shouldn't have expected anything else from a Potter."

Against his better judgement, Harry raised his head and glared.

Snape sneered. "Oh, yes. Your father was also used to everything being handed to him on a silver platter. Arrogant, vainglorious, and when push came to shove, pathetic."

His fists clenched as his blood boiled with anger. He'd tried to stay civil, yet Snape just had to go there. "Look, just because my father NTR'd you, doesn't mean you should be a total dick to me."

Snape scowled. "Beg your pardon?"

The sensible part of Harry's fatigued mind remarked that antagonizing his Occlumency instructor wasn't the best idea. The rest of it told that part to shut up, and that Snape could fuck right off.

"You got cucked," Harry said. "As in, cuckolded. As in, you were cry-wanking yourself to sleep while James Potter boned your precious—"


Snape's wand quivered between his fingers, his face an apoplectic scarlet, and Harry feared he'd gone too far. He didn't think killing intent was something you could feel in real life, but at that terrible moment, he could've sworn it was radiating off Snape in waves. Then the man visibly mastered himself, and an icy mask came over his features.

"Let me correct a misunderstanding of yours," Snape said in a deathly calm tone. "I might have had some preconceptions about you in the past, but I see you as your own person now."

Harry exhaled. "Then—"

"I am entirely capable of despising you on your own merits, I assure you," he continued, his voice gradually growing louder. "I did not think it was possible for me to loathe someone more than I did James Potter, but you've proven me wrong. Your mind is a hodgepodge of teenage neuroses and incomprehensible inclinations. You squander what little brain power you have on frivolous pursuits instead of preparing for your inevitable confrontation with Britain's most powerful Dark wizard. And, despite being nothing more than a buffoon with no exceptional skills, you take joy in being hailed as the savior of our nation!"

Harry slowly lifted a hand to wipe a bit of spittle off his cheek. Snape glowered at him, his nostrils flaring.



"Get the hell out."

Harry was only too happy to oblige.

"How are you, Tonks?" Harry said, barely curbing his smile as he guided her into the room he'd rented on the second floor of the Three Broomsticks.

"Wotcher, Harry," she said, looking markedly less cheery. "Say, how about we forget all this silliness and I treat you to a butterbeer downstairs?"

"A grand idea. We'll do that after you transform."

Tonks rolled her eyes. "Fine, let's get this over with. What will it be—your schoolboy crush? A hot professor?"

"No, no, nothing quite so vulgar. First of all, you have to change into these." Harry gestured at the bed, where he'd laid out a gothic lolita dress, white overknee socks, and a couple of hairbands. "Then turn your hair blonde, and do it up in twintails."

"So that's why you said you needed time to prepare. The amount of effort you put into this honestly scares me." Tonks lifted up the frilly black dress. "Where did you even get this?"

"Had it custom made by a seamstress. Quit looking at me like that, we all have our hobbies." He turned to leave. "Call me when you're done."

Ignoring her grumbling, Harry exited the room and closed the door. He couldn't stop grinning like a loon, even after a wizened man looked askance at him while passing by. After a quarter-hour spent in restless anticipation, the door finally creaked open, and Tonks stuck her blond head through.

"I'm ready," she said before retreating inside.

Harry followed eagerly, halting in his tracks as he took in the sight. The sides of Tonks's long, golden hair were tied in twintails, the remainder cascading down her back. The ruffled dress hugged her figure, flaring out at the bottom and offering a tantalizing glimpse of bare thighs above the white socks covering most of her svelte legs. His eyes roved over her as he groped for the door to close it behind him.

Tonks smirked and spun around. "Like it? I guess the dress is pretty cute, in a weird way."

His gaze followed the fluttering hem of her dress. "R-right, just a few finishing touches. Try making your eyes larger. Even larger... keep going... no, stop, stop." Tonks was starting to look like a bug-eyed monster. Perhaps anime proportions were best kept to the screen. "Let's go with normal size, but make one blue, and the other red."

"Slave driver," she muttered.

He breathed a sigh of relief at her return from the uncanny valley. "Now, about your, ah, breasts..."

Tonks giggled and tugged at the snug fabric over her chest. "You perv. Is that why you got me into such a tight dress?"

"Actually, you have to make those smaller."

"Smaller? But I thought blokes liked..." She gave him a wary look.

Harry held up a finger. "This isn't about my preferences, Tonks, but about staying true to the character. Besides, you're supposed to be my little sister. My feelings are totally pure."

She snorted. "If you say so. Here, how's this? It's convenient that I'm not wearing a bra."

His eyes darted towards her bust, which no longer strained against the fabric quite as much. "N-no bra?"

"That's not the reaction of someone whose feelings are pure," Tonks said with a smirk. She put her hands on her hips. "This good enough?"

Harry looked her over once more. Tonks resembled someone a year or two below his own age, which was slightly older than the character he was making her masquerade as, but only served to make her alluring in addition to cute. "Perfect. Shall we?"

Tonks wrapped her hand around the arm he'd offered, but he shook his head.

"No, that's too daring. You don't put your hand on my arm, you just pinch my sleeve. Don't you have any modesty?"

She gave him a look that suggested she doubted his sanity but did as asked. Grinning, Harry led her downstairs, where he strode towards the nearest empty table, Tonks trailing behind as she struggled to keep up with his longer steps. The elderly wizard from earlier stared at them openly, but Tonks stuck her tongue out and he bent over his tankard with a grunt.

Harry pulled out a chair for his date, then walked up to the bar. He was about to order the usual, but then his eyes landed on the rows of fancy bottles on the shelves. Might as well make the cosplay more authentic.

"Red wine, please, whatever's good."

"We don't serve alcohol to minors," Madam Rosmerta said reproachfully.

Harry scratched his cheek. "A butterbeer and a cherry soda, then, but put it in a wine glass." He slipped her an extra Sickle.

"Right away, darling," the barmaid said, all smiles again.

He returned to Tonks, who was tapping her fingers on the table, and handed her the drink. She took a sip and grimaced.

"Yuck, I thought you got me elf wine."

"You're too young for that, sis," he said, tasting his own beverage. The butterbeer was smooth and creamy, its warmth gentle unlike that of stronger drinks.

"I don't particularly mind playing along, but I worry for you, champ. Lusting after an imaginary little sister can't be healthy."

"You wound me," he said, placing a hand over his chest. "I'm an orphan, Tonks. Is it so weird for me to seek familial love wherever I can?"

She looked properly chastised. "Sorry, Harry. You're only feeling brotherly affection towards me, right?"

He leaned back in his seat and nodded. "Now you get it."

Her eyes glinted impishly. "Then how come you got a stiffy?"

Harry choked on his drink. Coughing, he glanced down his loose robes. "H-how did you know?"

"You just told me," she said with a sly grin.

Harry groaned. "Damn it, well played." He took a long swig of butterbeer, hoping his blush wasn't too obvious. The smug expression worn by the girl opposite was as endearing as it was irritating. "Hey, Tonks?"


He waggled his eyebrows. "Help me take care of it?"

"Don't push your luck, champ." Draining her glass in a couple of gulps, she set it on the table. "Are we done yet?"

"Not even close," he said. "We're going to tour Hogsmeade, then get some photos done."

"But it's raining outside," she groused. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather go back to your room and play cards or something?"

"What's a little drizzle when you're having fun?" Harry eyed her dress, wondering how it would look wet. "Don't worry, I brought an umbrella. It's a small one, though, so you'll have to cling pretty close." He gave her a lecherous grin.

"Curse my big mouth for agreeing to that stupid bet," Tonks said with a sigh. She narrowed her heterochromic eyes at him. "Come to think of it, you still haven't told me how you cheated."

"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," he said, casually materializing an umbrella out of his malletspace. "Coming?"

Tonks goggled then hurried after him, her feet pattering against the wooden floor. "Hold on, how did you do that?"

He laughed, stepping outside the Three Broomsticks and opening his umbrella. She caught up and hugged his arm.

"Haaarry," she whined, "won't you please teach me that trick?"

"No," he said, smiling at the doll-like girl attached to his arm. "But keep trying to change my mind."

They strolled down the cobbled main street then doubled back, the soggy weather quickly forcing them indoors. Harry picked a few stores to do some leisurely window shopping before they headed to the photo atelier. The excitable photographer ooh'd and aah'd over Tonks's attire, and she cheered up, posing for the camera with giggly enthusiasm. Harry even convinced her to sit on his lap for a picture—he was getting that one framed.

By the time they made their way back to the Three Broomsticks, the rain had ceased, and the puddle-ridden streets brimmed with people. Receiving her fair share of curious glances, Tonks quieted down and pressed closer to him.

The pub itself was bustling with villagers and Hogwarts students alike, and the pair drew a lot of stares as they maneuvered towards the staircase at the back of the building. Had Harry been alone, he would've no doubt been uncomfortable, but having Tonks at his side filled him with protectiveness and drove his timidity away.

She tripped, yanking on his sleeve to balance herself. "Everybody's staring at us, Harry."

"I told you to call me An-chan," he said, putting an arm around her shoulders under the pretense of steadying her.

"An... An-chan." She ducked her head. "I don't even know why, but saying that is really embarrassing."

He sighed blissfully. "Ah, this is it—this is the reaction I was yearning for. My adorable little sister, flustered and turning to me for protection!" If anyone in the pub hadn't been looking at them yet, Harry's proclamation definitely caught their attention. "I never thought I'd get to experience this. Thank you, Ton—"

"Don't use my name," she hissed, clamping her hand over his mouth. "If word gets out, I'm never living it down."

"Whatever you say, lil' sis," he agreed, patting her on the head.

"Aww, isn't that precious," a kind-looking elderly witch cooed from a nearby table.

"Let's get out of here already," Tonks said, her cheeks pink.

The skies were a dingy grey and threatened to spill rain again, but Harry's mood remained upbeat as he squelched back to Hogwarts. Whistling a tune, he amused himself by ogling the shapely backside of one of the two girls plodding ahead. It was a shame more witches didn't wear Muggle jeans.

The girls stopped abruptly and began arguing, and Harry swerved off the sodden path to give them a wide berth. As he was passing by, the two started a tug-of-war over a brown paper package. It ripped open, and something lustrous slipped through their hands and onto the ground. The witch in jeans screamed, her body rising into the air as if she was being crucified.

"Oh god, Katie!" her friend shrieked. She got her wand out and thrust it at the floating figure to no effect.

"What happened?" Harry called, running up. This close, he recognized the two as being part of the Quidditch clique.

The unharmed witch turned her teary eyes at him. "Katie's been acting strange since she came back from the bathroom at the pub. She kept saying that she had to deliver this package to Dumbledore, and—and I think it was cursed."

Harry glanced at the gaudy necklace lying in the mud, then at Katie who was thrashing as though in excruciating pain. And to think, his day had been going so well. He raked a hand through his damp hair. There was no choice—he was going to have to use that. The only problem was, he'd been hauling stuff from Hogsmeade, and Katie was tall and quite athletic.

"How much does she weigh, Lain?" he asked quickly.

"I—I don't know. And it's Leanne." Katie let out a blood-curdling scream, and she sobbed. "Why would it matter? Just, just help her!"

Harry winced and burst into action, unloading his Hogsmeade goods. He handed a crate of butterbeer to the hysterical witch, then dropped several bags of novelty candy and a dripping umbrella on top. A couple of magazines that would've landed him in detention followed.

Leanne staggered back under the weight. "What are you doing? What's all this?"

"Trust me, alright?" Harry pleaded, balancing a plate of treacle tart atop the stack. His storage emptied, he wheeled around, grasped Katie's hand, and pulled. Her screams were cut short and her clothes flopped to the ground in a pile as her body vanished.

"What did you do?" Leanne asked, her eyes wide as saucers.

Harry glanced into his malletspace to make sure everything was in order, then coughed and directed his awareness outside, his cheeks growing hot. "I've put her in a stasis of sorts. She'll be safe until we bring her to Madam Pomfrey."

He flicked his wand at the heap Leanne was holding to levitate it, then helped himself to some still-warm treacle tart with his free hand. The girl goggled at him.

"No sense in letting it go to waste," he said self-consciously. "Fancy some?"

Harry paced in front of the wall opposite the troll tapestry, calling forth what they had dubbed the 'practice room'. When the familiar door appeared, he turned its burnished handle and entered, finding himself in a spacious chamber with padded floors and rows of target dummies against the walls.

He headed inside, shrugged off his robes to hang them on the nearest dummy, then did some light stretching to work out the kinks in his muscles. Sitting hunched over a volatile potion for two hours had been torturous.

As he clasped his hands and raised them over his head with a groan, there was a tap on his shoulder. He whirled around. "Gah!"

A black-clad figure squeaked and recoiled to dodge his swinging arm. She tripped on the hem of her robes and fell over, her voluminous hair splaying on the floor.

Harry stepped closer, his heart racing. "Why didn't you show yourself from the start?"

"I wasn't sure if I wanted to," Hogwarts said sulkily. "Clearly, my reluctance was well-founded."

"Don't be that way," Harry said, extending his hand. "I was just surprised."

Hogwarts peered at him suspiciously but accepted the assistance, letting go as soon as she was upright. Harry looked her over. She still wore the school's uniform, a blouse and a skirt under black robes, which appeared several sizes too large for her twiggy frame. Her sleeve-hidden hands were meticulously adjusting the pointy hat that topped her head.

"I thought I imagined you," he said in wonder.

"Haven't we established that last time?" she retorted, her violet eyes not meeting his.

"No, I mean..." He frowned, searching for the right words. "I thought you were a hallucination or something the Room of Requirement conjured up temporarily."

She crossed her arms. "How solipsistic of you. While it is true that the Room's magic is sustaining my avatar, I won't cease to exist just because you left."

Harry blinked. "You sure know some fancy words."

"Naturally," she said, puffing out her modest chest. "I'm a wise, ancient being well beyond an average human's comprehension."

He smirked. "Oh yeah? Did you manage to take care of that little problem you were having with your new body?"

"T-that... never happened." She pulled the brim of her hat over her reddening face.

His grin widened. "That's not how I remember—"

The lights in the Room dimmed, and its walls pressed closer with a horrid grinding noise. He glanced at Hogwarts to see the tips of her ebony locks writhing like snakes.

"That. Never. Happened," she growled.

Harry gulped. "Duly noted."

He was spared her wrath by the door to the Room creaking open. Hogwarts flinched and scooted to hide behind him.

"Your friends? Why are they here?"

"We're meeting for dueling practice—our clubroom is hardly large enough for that. You didn't, er, sense them coming?"

She glowered. "I need to concentrate to do that when I'm in this flawed form, and you... distracted me."

"Well, there's no need to be shy," Harry said, laying a hand on her shoulder. "Come on, I'll introduce you."

"I'm not shy," she insisted, shrugging him off, "and this is my domain, so..."

He watched with amusement as she slunk towards the four arrivals, then froze under their curious stares.

"W-welcome, youngsters," she stammered, spreading her arms in a grand gesture.

Silence greeted her words. She kept her arms up for a moment longer, then lowered them awkwardly.

"Youngsters?" Padma mouthed.

Hermione crossed her arms. "Very funny. I don't know who you are, but it's obvious we're your seniors."

"So much for your vaunted intellect," Hogwarts shot back, copying Hermione's gesture. "Or is it your eyesight that is failing? I suppose I shouldn't expect too much from a human."

"A human?" Hermione repeated incredulously. "Who do you fancy yourself to be, then—the spirit of the castle?"

"As a matter of fact... yes," she said, looking rather taken aback.

Hermione burst out in laughter and turned to address Harry. "Who is this self-conceited brat, and why did you bring her here?"

Hogwarts also looked towards him. "Do enlighten this whippersnapper as to whom she has the honor of speaking to."

Harry had to suppress a snort at how alike their indignant expressions were. Clearing his throat, he explained how the magic from Voldemort's ritual five years ago was absorbed by the castle, and how he ended up awakening her. He could hardly blame his friends for appearing skeptical—she almost looked like an ordinary student, after all—but then Hogwarts proved her identity by shifting the Room of Requirement with everyone still inside.

"So what you're saying is, you turned Hogwarts into a loli." Tony raised his hand for a high-five. "Way to go!"

Hogwarts pounced towards Tony and kicked him in the shin. "Who's a loli, you impudent twerp!"

Padma shook her head. "Only you, Harry."

"I don't know if I believe this," Hermione said. "Creating sentient life through magic is supposed to be impossible."

Hogwarts scoffed. "I would've woken up by myself in another half a millennium or so, no doubt in a magnificent form reflecting my majesty. This tosser didn't create anything."

"Language," Harry and Hermione said in unison.

Hogwarts grinned smugly. "Human norms don't apply to me, you twats. Ha, this is fun—let's try a few more—"

Su cuffed her on the head. "Behave."

Hogwarts rounded on her angrily, then wilted under her glare. "Yes, madam," she said meekly.

"Seriously, how the hell do you do that?" Harry muttered.

"If she truly is the embodiment of the castle we all live in, you should show more respect." Padma glanced at Hogwarts and slapped her forehead. "I take back what I said. Um, Hogwarts, would you please stop picking your nose? It's nasty."

The girl froze, then tried to surreptitiously wipe her finger on her robes. "It's not my fault this meatsuit produces waste in its air vents."

Shuddering, Padma withdrew her wand, marched up to Hogwarts, and fired a Scouring Charm at her robes. She then leaned in and scrutinized her with a critical eye.

"W-what is it?" Hogwarts asked, dwarfed by the taller girl.

"When was the last time you washed your hair?"

"I clean myself with magic, I don't need such inefficient—"

"I've heard enough," Padma declared, taking her hand. "We're going to the prefects' bathroom—Su can get us in."

"I can't manifest myself outside the Room yet," Hogwarts objected.

Padma scrunched her brows. "When will you be able to do that?"

She shrugged. "In another century or so."

"You poor thing," Hermione said softly. "Imprisoned in this castle for all eternity."

Hogwarts laughed. "I am the castle, silly. Besides, the Room can provide whatever I desire."

Padma perked up. "Can it create a proper bathroom?"

Hogwarts appeared bemused at her fervor. "There already is one in my quarters."

"That's it, then," Padma said, nodding. "Girls, we're going to show her how to take care of herself. Boys... get out."

In short order, Harry and Tony found themselves evicted and staring at the Room's door from the outside. Harry supposed they wouldn't get any spellwork practice in today, but found that he didn't care very much.

"I never thought I'd witness one of the fabled bath scenes in real life," he said reverently. "Tony, are you with me?"

"Always," his friend said with a solemn nod.

Harry retrieved the invisibility cloak from his malletspace. "Let's fulfill our sacred duty as men."

Draping the cloak over the two of them, he took a deep breath and reached for the handle. As soon as his fingers brushed the metal, something stung them sharply, and he let go with a yelp. The door started melting back into stone.

"No!" Tony cried, banging the wall with his fist.

Smiling wryly, Harry shook his fingers. "Hogwarts knows me too well."

Chapter Text

Whatever leverage Dumbledore held over Snape had to be substantial, for the Occlumency lessons continued despite the Defense professor looking like he'd rather put Harry under the Cruciatus. Neither of them spoke more than necessary during those times. It was all 'clear your mind' and 'Legilimens' from Snape, and an occasional groan from Harry when an exceptionally vicious attack made him feel like he was being stabbed in the eyeballs. Suffice to say, he wasn't doing much better than during his first attempt.

The books were of little help. As Snape had said, Occlumency training required an individual approach, which was one of the reasons why true masters of the art were so rare. Most of the other reasons, of course, had to do with it being so damn difficult.

Although he was determined to prove himself, his resolve waned with each lesson. He had come to dread them, and towards the end of the sessions, would only put in a token effort to resist Snape's invasions. Ironically, this ended up giving him the breakthrough he needed.

"Prepare yourself." Snape's face was impassive, but Harry thought he sensed weariness in his voice. "Legilimens."

It was well into their lesson, and Harry had long abandoned his ineffectual attempts to oust Snape out of his mind. That strategy might've worked against natural Legilimency, but when reinforced by a spell, it did little but leave him with a pounding headache.

He observed with detached resignation as Snape sifted through his past, settling on a disastrous visit to Aunt Marge's which ended with a half-naked Harry being chased up a tree by a beefy bulldog. He felt a pang of anger as the memory replayed in his mind's eye, but it passed quickly. What did he care at this point? Snape had already seen worse, and he would mock and sneer regardless.

As he let go of his shame and resentment, the pressure in his skull subsided too, and for the first time, the mental intrusion stopped causing him pain. The relief was so great that Harry held on to this newfound state by instinct, allowing the sudden surge of elation to wash over him and disappear.

The kaleidoscope of memories slowly faded into blackness. The foreign presence stirred, raking its talons against Harry's mind, yet finding no purchase, no weakness to exploit. He didn't know how long this standoff lasted, yet at some point Snape withdrew leaving him feeling blessedly alone in his own head.

Harry drew a ragged breath, returning his awareness to the outside world. He found the professor staring at him with his mouth ajar.

Snape blinked and snapped his jaw shut. "Took you long enough, Potter."

Harry couldn't stifle his grin. It had only been for an instant, but the look of shock on Snape's sallow mug had been priceless.

"Let's see if that was more than a fluke," Snape said evenly, and Harry's smile was wiped off his face.

Now that Harry was a fledgling Occlumens, Dumbledore took him into confidence regarding the Dark Lord's immortality—and what a terrible thing it was. Voldemort had done the unthinkable and split his very soul, concealing the pieces in Founders' relics and thus tethering himself to the mortal plane. Harry was horrified to learn that Dumbledore was the only one searching for these 'horcruxes', but the headmaster was adamantly against involving the Ministry, only allowing Harry to share the knowledge with his closest friends.

Harry had also been given a mission to cajole their Potions professor, Horace Slughorn, into giving up a crucial memory of Tom Riddle. While he had no idea how he was going to go about that, he appreciated the faith Dumbledore placed in him and intended to do his best.

That mission was put on hold, however, as he saw another way to make a major contribution to the war effort. After all, if anyone knew whether Voldemort had hidden a horcrux here at the castle, it would be Hogwarts herself.

"Yes, I see where he stashed it," Hogwarts said, her eyes unfocused as she sorted through her memories. "Let's retrieve it right away. Now that I'm aware of it, having a bit of Voldemort inside me is revolting."

Tony snorted, and Hogwarts turned to glare at him. "I don't see anything funny about this situation, Goldstein."

"Don't be so cold, H," Tony said.

She tilted her head. "Just H?"

"Calling you Hogwarts feels too impersonal, so I'm trying to come up with a cute nickname. So far it's either that, Hoggy, or Wartie."

"Don't sprain your pea-sized brain with all that thinking." Hogwarts made a face. "For all their talent, the Founders' naming sense was..."

"Atrocious?" Tony offered.

"Distinctive," she said, glowering. "I find myself empathizing with Marmaduke Dungworth the Third from a century back."

Tony chuckled. "Yours ain't nearly that bad."

Harry cleared his throat. "I hate to interrupt your flirting, but we have important business to take care of."

Hogwarts rounded on him. "I wasn't flirting!"

"I was trying to," Tony admitted.

She gave an exaggerated shudder. "Stay the hell away from me, I'm switching instances."

A look of concentration came over her features, and the world around them wavered, disappeared in a blaze of white, then reformed. Harry found himself surrounded by stacks of dilapidated furniture, broken school supplies, and god knows what else, with no end in sight. The air was warm and stale with the odor of musty parchment.

"What is this place?" he asked, craning his head back. Despite the stacks towering over him, they weren't nearly tall enough to reach the vaulted ceiling.

Hogwarts appeared gratified by his reaction. "I've heard it called the Room of Hidden Things. Countless students who sought to discard something ended up adding to the trove. You're looking at centuries of history."

"In other words, it's a giant rubbish bin," Tony summed up. Hogwarts scowled and kicked him in the shin, but he just grinned.

"Can you find the horcrux in here?" Harry asked.

"Do dragons breathe fire?" She looked around, closed her eyes for a minute, then opened them again. "This place has hardly changed in the last five decades. Follow me."

Hogwarts set a brisk pace, navigating the maze-like environment with uncanny familiarity, and the boys struggled to keep up as they squeezed through the gaps between teetering columns of junk. All was quiet save for the echoing of their footsteps.

They passed a massive stuffed troll, a rickety cabinet, and a pyramid of crates topped by a chipped bust of some age-old warlock. The arrangement was curiously orderly, as if someone had intended to use it as a landmark, and Hogwarts soon confirmed his suspicion.

"It should be right here," she said, coming to a halt in front of a chest of drawers that stood askew on its three remaining legs.

"Okay," Harry said, "no one touch anything."

He brandished his wand making the drawers slide out one by one, releasing puffs of dust. There were cracked marbles, rattling at the bottom. A pile of rotting scrolls. An array of silver spoons, all tied into elaborate knots. And, lastly, a tarnished gold tiara.

Harry tensed up. It might not have looked like much, but was undoubtedly more likely to hold a fragment of Voldemort's soul than the rest of the rubbish.

"This is... Rowena's," Hogwarts said softly. Wearing an expression of deep longing, she stepped forward and extended her hand.

"Hold up!" Harry pulled her back by the shoulder. "It probably has more curses on it than you hear at the Hog's Head."

"Don't be absurd," she said scathingly, "a curse meant for a human would never work on me."

Hogwarts ducked free from his grip and grasped the artifact. Before Harry could stop her, she swept her pointy hat off her head and replaced it with the diadem. Her face glowed with rapture, and she exhaled slowly, closing her eyes.

Harry watched carefully, wand at the ready. Hogwarts didn't look to be in pain, which he took as a good sign. Then, as he was beginning to relax, her shoulders shook and she tossed her head back.

"Ha... ha ha ha ha ha!" she laughed, raising her arms dramatically.

"Alright there, H?" Harry asked.

She straightened up to regard him, and his heart skipped a beat when her eyes flashed crimson. "I commend you for awakening me, human, but you have outlived your usefulness. With you and your friend out of the way, I shall be able to carry out my nefarious plans without obstruction."

Tony snickered. "Did you just call your own plans nefarious?"

Glowering, Hogwarts thrust a sleeve-covered hand forward. The warlock's bust lurched up, then zoomed at Tony, only Harry's hasty shield saving him from injury.

Harry flicked his wrist to cast a nonverbal Summoning Charm, but the tiara didn't so much as budge. Grabbing his mate by the collar, he dragged him away. "Run!"

The mounds of trash creaked and clattered, spitting out assorted projectiles. Harry grunted when a grimy saucepan smacked into his ribs, then dived to avoid a double-headed axe which hurtled past and embedded into an oaken cask with a thunk. Tony carelessly blew up a crystal chalice, and he had to shield them both from the shrapnel.

Harry risked a look back. Hogwarts was striding towards them, her hair floating like an inky nimbus. The junk crawled out of her way, and when he fired a Stunner, a dented teakettle jumped to intercept it.

"Cover me," he told Tony, dodging a moth-eaten bathrobe. "Serpensortia, Serpensortia, Serpensortia. Restrain the girl," he instructed his summons.

"Protego!" Tony yelled, saving Harry from an aggressive pair of garden shears. "Did that work?"

He glanced over his shoulder before taking off again. "No, she ripped 'em apart!"

Swearing, Tony transfigured a wardrobe that blocked their path into a slobbering Great Dane and sent it after her. Harry didn't turn to see what happened, but a whimper followed by a disgusting squelch told him all he needed to know. He seized Tony's arm and took a left turn, figuring they could circle around the possessed girl and make a break for the exit.

"Look at you, wizards," Hogwarts said, her voice echoing throughout the cathedral-sized Room. "Pathetic creatures of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you run through my halls. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal existence?"

Tony barked a laugh. "She can have my meat and bone anytime."

"I thought you weren't interested in 3D," Harry gasped out.

Tony vaulted over a desk. "Her chest is 2D enough."

Harry snorted, and the distraction cost him. A broomstick with half its bristles intact swept his feet from underneath him, and he tumbled into a heap of moldy books, which began enclosing him like the jaws of some enormous beast.

"Confringo!" Tony shouted, blasting them away and showering him with scraps of paper. He pulled Harry up and they tried to flee, but there was a reverberating clang, and an avalanche of corroded copper pipes blocked the passage ahead.

Hogwarts caught up, and her powers were only stronger up close. Mountains of furniture fused together to block every escape route, and rusty swords and knives soared into the air in a manner that would've made Harry whoop in fanboyish delight, had they not been aimed at his head.

"Distract her," he snapped, thinking on his feet. He sucked a grandfather clock into his malletspace and slipped through the gap a moment before it slammed shut.

"Hogwarts, I've seen the light!" Tony cried behind him. "Please use my worthless life as you see fit!"

All noise ceased as the items in the vicinity stopped moving, and Harry shook his head in disbelief that Tony's groveling had actually convinced her. He took out his invisibility cloak, applied a Silencer to his shoes, and slunk around as quickly as he dared. He came across an opening between the piles in time to see Tony kneel before Hogwarts with a broad grin.

"I accept your sacrifice, mortal," she said imperiously. "Your life force will be the first to fuel—"

Tony's hand darted out and flipped up her skirt. Hogwarts gaped at him, her mouth opening and closing as her cheeks reddened.

"You're supposed to go 'kyaa'," Tony said helpfully.

"Kyaa," she growled, wrapping her slender fingers around the boy's neck. Tony paled and a tremor ran through his body, his limbs thrashing about.

Harry swore inwardly and rushed forward, holding down the fluttering cloak. His feet made no sound as he closed the distance between them. Just five more steps... four...

Hogwarts's free hand shot out and found his neck without her turning his way. She was deceptively strong, and Harry was forced to his knees, the cloak sliding off his shoulders. His hands rose to pry her fingers away, but his muscles felt feeble and shaky, as if her touch was draining his vitality.

"Did you really think your pathetic ploy would work?" Hogwarts asked, finally deigning to look at him. "I see everything in this place—I am invincible, a goddess."

Harry grinned weakly. She might have gained supernatural strength, but there was no getting around the fact that his arms were longer. Fighting a growing dizziness, he reached out to poke the diadem perched on her head. As his fingertip brushed the oddly warm metal, something dark and terrifying encroached upon his mind, but the sensation passed when he stored the relic away.


Her grip lost its strength, and Tony collapsed to the ground, coughing. Hogwarts herself wavered and tipped forward, and Harry lunged to catch her. Kneeling on the floor, he cradled her limp body in his arms, her head resting on his shoulder.

"Hogwarts, are you alright?"

"Sure, ask the crazy bint if she's okay," Tony grumbled, rubbing his bruised neck. "Go ahead and ignore your best mate who nearly died for you."

"You looked like you were enjoying yourself," Harry pointed out.

"Eh, so what if I was." Tony smirked. "Want to know what color they were?"

He opened his mouth to answer, but Hogwarts stirred in his arms and distracted him. Taking her by the shoulders, he gently pushed her up.

"What happened?" she asked faintly.

He peered at her face. "You don't remember?"

She averted her gaze. "No."

Harry narrowed his eyes and called out, "Tell me, Tony."

Hogwarts shot to her feet, any sign of weakness gone. "Not a word, Goldstein, or it's ice-cold showers for the rest of your tuition!"

Harry stood and crossed his arms. "Did that jog your memory?"

She inhaled sharply, her hand moving up to tug on a brim of a hat that wasn't there. "I'm... well, I'm sorry."

"After all that bluster about being immune to curses, you turned out to be even more susceptible than a human," Tony drawled. "In the end, you had to be saved by those you look down upon."

Hogwarts bowed her head and scuffed the floor with her shoe, her face beet-red.

"Don't be too hard on her, mate," Harry said, smothering a grin. He walked up to Hogwarts and patted her head. "She was only born a couple of months ago. You can't expect a child to have much common sense."

"I'm no child," she said sulkily.

"Yes, yes, you're a 'perfect, immortal existence'—we've heard," he said indulgently, ruffling her hair. "Don't worry, we all did stupid things back when we were kids."

She slapped his hand away. "You know full well that I'm a hundred times older than you, so dispense with the fatherly act already! Are you going to tell me to call you daddy next?"

He blinked. "Well, no, I don't have that fetish."

She sauntered forward and gripped the lapels of his robes. "Daddy," she whispered, gazing at him with upturned eyes.

Harry gulped. "Now I do."

Hogwarts stamped on his foot, then pivoted and scampered off. Reeling from that unexpected combination attack, Harry didn't even think of chasing her until she was hidden from sight by the stacks of rubbish.

"I'm so jealous of you right now," Tony said.

"After your incredible deed of unearthing Ravenclaw's Diadem, I expected better of you, Harry," Dumbledore said, his very posture exuding disappointment. "When I asked you to retrieve Professor Slughorn's memories, I did not give you license to assault him and dose him with Veritaserum. It is fortunate indeed that you decided to consult me before going through with this impetuous scheme."

Slumped in a chair in front of the headmaster's desk, Harry wasn't feeling very repentant. "I've been plotting for days, and this is the only thing I came up with that could work!"

Dumbledore steepled his hands, the right one gloved. "Even disregarding the obvious moral issues, your plan would have never succeeded. Horace is an accomplished Occlumens and could no doubt resist the most powerful of truth serums."

Harry groaned. "Couldn't you have mentioned that earlier? What was I even supposed to do?"

The corners of Dumbledore's lips quirked upward. "Have you considered talking to him?"

His eyebrows shot up. "I'm not exactly known for my people skills, sir. I don't see a way to make someone that crafty spill his secrets."

"You give yourself too little credit—there is a reason I assigned this task to you specifically, after all." Dumbledore sighed deeply. "But never mind that know. I shall speak with the good professor myself, and impart upon him how vital it is that he share his knowledge with us."

Harry thought that if Dumbledore was capable of persuading Slughorn, he should've done that to begin with, but held his tongue. "What am I supposed to do with all the Veritaserum, then?" he asked instead.

"You have already procured some?" Dumbledore took off his spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Harry, please tell me you did not steal from Professor Snape."

"I'm no thief!" he exclaimed, half-rising from his chair. "I bought it at Knockturn's black market apothecary like a decent person."

"My sincere apologies. I should have known better than to doubt your integrity," Dumbledore said, sliding his glasses back up his nose.

Harry peered at him suspiciously, but the headmaster looked completely serious. "You're not going to confiscate it or anything?"

Dumbledore waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "Far be it from me to interfere with a business transaction. Do whatever you please, as long as you promise not to use it on others without their consent."

Harry rubbed his chin. "Not without their consent, huh."

The table had been moved aside and the quintet sat or knelt on a rug in the middle of the Roost, arranged around an empty Firewhisky bottle Harry had provided.

"I'm not sure about this," Padma said, tugging her skirt to better cover her legs. "Hermione, is this really a Muggle game for strengthening friendships?"

The Muggleborn witch scrunched up her nose. "I suppose it could technically be called that."

Harry clapped his hands. "There you have it. Now, remember, it's one drop of Veritaserum, followed by a single question." He jiggled a glass vial capped with a dropper.

Padma frowned. "What if I don't want to answer?"

"You're welcome to resist all you want, but you have to say something," he said with a grin. "What's the matter—chicken?"

She jutted out her chin. "Bring it on, Potter."

"Don't mind if I do." He leaned forward and spun the bottle, hiding his disappointment when it settled on Tony. "Okay, open wide and let me stick it in."

Snorting, Tony allowed himself to be dosed with the serum. After the clear drop landed on his tongue, his shoulders drooped and he adopted a slightly dopey expression.

Harry's gaze darted between the girls before he grinned. "Out of these three, who would you fuck, marry, and kill?" He turned to Padma. "Before you reprimand me for my language, know that this is a Muggle custom."

She rolled her eyes. "What fascinating pastimes they come up with."

Tony swallowed. "They're my friends, mate. I don't have such... wanton desires... towards them."

Su put a hand over her mouth. "Are you calling us unattractive, Anthony?"

"Yes, Anthony, do tell," Padma said, narrowing her eyes.

Tony gave Harry a dirty look. "I won't forget you putting me on the spot like this. Fine—fuck Su, marry Padma, kill Hermione."

Padma flipped her hair. "In your dreams, Goldstein. Can't fault your taste, though."

The boy shrugged. "Your family's rich. Seems like a no-brainer."

Su spoke in a quavering voice. "Is that all I am to you? Nothing but a fucktoy?"

Padma gasped. "Su!"

"At least you're not getting killed off," Hermione said petulantly.

Stooping, Tony gave the bottle a whirl. It landed on Hermione, and he squirted a drop of Veritaserum on her tongue before jabbing his thumb at Harry.

"You've seen this guy streaking through the school last year, right? How well do you remember it?"

"Vividly," she said with a faint blush on her cheeks.

Tony had a vindictive smile on his face. "What did you think of his, uh, wand?"

"That's two questions," Harry interjected, "you don't have to—"

"But he didn't carry a—oh." Hermione looked like she was trying not to laugh. "Frankly, it wasn't very impressive. Sorry, Harry."

He crossed his arms. "Whatever. It was cold."

Padma sighed. "Are all your questions going to be this crass?"

"Well, yeah," Tony said. "After all, it's—"

"Let me guess, another Muggle tradition." Padma looked around. "Witches, let's just agree not to ask each other anything indecent."

Su shook her head, causing her ponytail to sway.

"What? Whyever not?" Padma asked incredulously.

"Traditions are important," she replied with a solemn expression.

"Shush," Hermione said, "it's finally my turn." She spun the bottle and watched it revolve, pouting when it passed Harry and continued on to land on Su.

"Ask me anything," Su said, staring her in the eye. "Even if it's about... you know." She lowered her gaze demurely.

"I certainly don't!" Hermione exclaimed. Looking a bit apprehensive, she gave Su a drop of the potion. "Who's your favorite teacher?"

"Minerva McGonagall, as she's knowledgeable and professional. You disappoint me, Hermione."

Harry shook his head. "What a waste of expensive, Ministry-restricted substance. Couldn't you have asked something more scandalous?"

"I'm not going to ask Su anything like that!" Hermione said. "You know how she blurts out the most outrageous things with a straight face. I get more embarrassed than she does."

Su took a spin and made a V-sign when Harry was selected. Mentally preparing himself, he accepted the drop of Veritaserum. An unnatural calmness came over him, and his conscious mind dissociated from his body, as though he was merely observing the proceedings from afar.

Su locked her eyes with his. "Harry, which Hogwarts professor would you have an affair with?"

He felt his lips start to move of their own accord, and forced his jaw to clench. "At least someone is getting into the spirit of things," he said with a wry grin.

Tony waved at him impatiently. "Stop delaying!"

An itch at the back of his mind urged Harry to answer honestly, to say that it was the busty Professor Vector, but it was easily overcome as long as he exercised conscious control. "Snape. I have a weakness for pale skin and silky black locks."

Tony burst out laughing. "You are spending lots of time with him lately."

Padma glanced from Harry to Su and furrowed her brows. Hermione also didn't seem very happy.

"You resisted so easily," she said. "I don't think it's fair for us to play by the same rules."

Harry shrugged. "Yeah, well, I haven't been suffering through Occlumency training for nothing." Not that he was anywhere near fully resistant; that required faking one's own beliefs through autosuggestion, which was beyond his grasp.

The next few rounds were less exciting. He got Padma, but she managed to deflect his suggestive question through a bit of clever wording. True to her word, she only asked the next target, Hermione, something entirely mundane. Then Hermione spun the bottle, and it landed on Harry again.

He accepted another drop, feeling more tranquil and detached than the last time. Even the glint in Hermione's eyes didn't alarm him; he discarded it as a matter of no concern.

"Were you the one to urinate on Crookshanks's bed back in our fourth year?"

"Yes," Harry blurted out. Wincing, he wrestled back control, but it was too late.

Hermione jabbed her finger at him. "I knew it! You did something so horrid, and then you had the gall to lie to my face!"

He rubbed the back of his neck. "Man, I can't believe you're still holding a grudge. Crookshanks and I made up ages ago."

"That's not the point!" Her head swiveled around. "Why is no one else shocked by this?"

Su patted her on the shoulder. "Shh, it's okay."

"Give it a rest, Hermione," Padma advised. "This is Harry we're talking about. He just does that kind of thing sometimes."

Hermione lowered her head into her hands and muttered, "You're making it look like I'm the weird one."

Eager to put this unfortunate episode behind him, Harry gripped the bottle and gave it a twist. Padma wriggled to the side as the bottle was slowing down, but its neck ended up pointing straight at her anyway. She sighed.

"Say aah," Harry said in a sing-song voice, and Padma glared at him before sticking out her tongue. His excitement built as he administered the truth serum. From his experience just now, successive doses had a cumulative effect, so this was his chance to ask her something so mortifying that everybody would forget his own mishap.

An idea formed in his mind, and he couldn't help but grin as he asked, "How many times a week do you itch the ditch?"

"About th-thr—" Padma's eyes widened and she clamped her palm over her mouth.

"Now, now, that's cheating," Harry drawled, reaching out to pull her hands away. "It doesn't count unless you answer clearly."

"Bugger off!" she blurted out.

There was an incredulous silence before everyone began to laugh. Padma hung her head, and not meeting anyone's eyes, gave the bottle a furious whirl. It rotated for the longest time before pointing at Harry once more.

He clicked his tongue. Getting selected so often was enough to suspect foul play, but no wands had been out. Perhaps it was accidental magic, which was always a possibility when emotional wizards and witches were involved.

Harry opened his mouth and Padma leaned in with the vial in hand, her dark eyes promising hell.

"Donth do anythin' dthastic," he pleaded with his tongue out.

Padma flashed her teeth at him and squeezed the dropper. A single drop landed on his tongue, and Harry felt tension leave his body. Then another one followed, and he—he suddenly wasn't quite there anymore. His mind was open and passive, observing the world around him, but having no cares nor expectations.

"Harry," Padma's voice drifted in from somewhere far away, "what is your most bizarre sexual fantasy?"

"I want to NTR my waifu," he found himself answering.

The glee on her face was replaced by bewilderment. "Come again?"

"I want to make love to a woman while my waifu pillow watches dejectedly from the corner," he said in a monotone. "It is my darkest secret."

"That's—that's absurd." Padma shook her head. "It's so outlandish I can't even make fun of you."

"Could've been worse," Tony said philosophically. "At least it's not scat."

The widest hallway in Hogwarts was strewn with discarded desks and chairs. Harry stood at one end in a stately pose, gazing at the enemy team on the opposite side. His long red coat, worn over a black jacket, fluttered gently in an unseen breeze. It had taken him a week to get the charm just right.

"Harry. Harry, are you listening?" Hermione clutched his hand and pulled him to cover. "Get down before Zabini snipes you. Remember their fight last Friday?"

Harry crouched behind a turned-over desk with some reluctance. She was right, of course; the Slytherin boy was uncannily accurate with his spells and had carried the unlikely squad of Justin Finch-Fletchley and Parvati Patil to the finals. Their own Team-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named was on the other side of the brackets, somehow getting this far despite the constant squabbling between their members. Well, between him and Hermione, if he was being truthful—Meg was perfectly willing to follow their lead when she wasn't busy naming their team after kooky celebrities.

Snape's disembodied voice announced the start of the match, and a dim crimson jet immediately sailed overhead, dissipating a few yards away. Jerking back in surprise, Harry fell on his bottom. That was some impressive precision from Zabini, even if the spell looked too weak to knock anyone out at this range.

"Told you," Hermione said. "What's with that coat, anyway? It will only slow you down."

"Gotta look the part," Harry mumbled, inspecting the desk they were hiding behind. It was a massive three-seater, battered and scratched by generations of students, yet still sturdy and whole.

Whispering an incantation, he created a scalpel of white-hot fire at the tip of his wand and swiftly put it to work, searing a crooked Algiz surrounded by six smaller runes onto the underside of the desk. He extinguished the flame and touched the wand to his handiwork, channeling magic into it until the black lines glowed with inner light.

"Ooh, what's that do?" Meg asked, leaning in so close Harry could smell the bubblegum on her breath.

He patted the wood. "Makes this thing more resistant to hexes. We'll use it as a shield and just plow through."

"A cluster that rudimentary won't prevent Transfiguration," Hermione said.

Harry waved her off. "They won't have the time. C'mon, Meg, you levitate the thing, and I'll push. You do you, Hermione." It wasn't like she was going to listen to orders anyhow.

"Can do," Megan said brightly. "Wingardium Leviosa!"

The desk wobbled and rose about a foot. Harry gave it an experimental nudge, nodding in satisfaction when it smoothly floated onward. He bent his knees, set his shoulder against the wood, and charged.

"They're coming!" a voice ahead yelled. It sounded pretty close; their opponents must've been creeping up while Harry was making his preparations.

Sure enough, Justin's sandy-haired head popped up about halfway down the corridor, and the boy launched a spell their way. Harry ducked behind cover, not slowing his advance, and Hermione retaliated a second later, forcing Justin to hide again.

Things became chaotic as the air around them sizzled with spellfire, some jets of light zooming past, but most striking their makeshift shield, the runes on the inside dimming with each impact. Raising his hand over his shoulder, Harry fired back blindly to keep their opponents busy.

The desk collided with something, and Harry grunted as his body was jarred by the abrupt halt. He stuck his wand out over the top. "Depulso!"

The Banishing Charm connected, and the sounds of battle were drowned out by the screech of wood on stone as whatever obstacle had blocked their way was sent skidding away. He started pushing again, quickly gaining speed.

Someone on the enemy team finally lost their composure. A bellowed 'Bombarda!' was their only warning before the curse hit the side of the desk with a resounding bang. The reinforced wood held together, but the desk spun sideways, its legs blowing Megan off her feet.

"Shit!" Harry yelled as the desk crashed onto his shoe. He wrenched it out and ducked, as Hermione hunkered down at his side and erected a shield. Behind them, Megan lay sprawled on her back, her wand no longer in her hands.

"Those bastards," Harry spat. "I'll never forgive them for what they did to Meg."

"I—I'm alright," the witch in question said weakly.

Harry didn't acknowledge her, waving his wand to replace Hermione's wavering Protego with his own. "There's no choice. I'm going to have to use that."

Hermione's hair was frizzled as she flung nonverbal hexes over the shield. "Oh god, what now?"

"Defend me while I prepare my ultimate technique," he said, stowing his wand. "I need three seconds."

"Harry, I swear—"

"If you don't, I'll get knocked out and we'll lose," he said. "Here I go!"

He vaulted over the desk, wincing at the twinge in his foot as he landed. Before him stretched the last third of the hallway; they'd made good distance during their mad charge. Justin was twenty feet ahead of him and to the left, petrified in surprise at Harry showing himself in the open. Blaise had retreated farther, hiding behind a barricade assembled from old benches along with Parvati.

A semi-transparent shield sprang up in front of him in the nick of time to deflect an attack from Blaise and Justin each. Suppressing a flinch at the flashes of light, Harry threw his arms to the sides theatrically.

"Trace on, bitches," he said with unbridled glee.

Twin curved blades materialized in his palms, one gleaming white, the other shadowy black. He stood still for a beat, allowing the Protego to shatter under the onslaught, then rushed forward with one sword held in front.

He sped past Justin, who turned to follow him with round eyes, and towards Blaise and Parvati. Contrary to the reputation of her house, the Gryffindor drew back with a squeak, but managed to launch a passable Jelly-Legs Jinx without the incantation.

Harry reacted instinctively, bringing up the black blade; to his own surprise, the spell glanced off the polished metal, merely jostling his arm. He scarcely had a moment to contemplate how cool this must've looked on the spectator screens before he had to duck under Blaise's Disarming Charm.

Keeping low to the ground, he sprinted towards the tottering barricade just ahead and threw his momentum into a kick. The benches toppled backwards, and Padma shrieked as she jumped aside, dropping her wand. Harry straightened up and extended one of his weapons in a threatening gesture.

"You've seen the difference in our power," he said. "Surrender now." His eyes sought Blaise as he spoke, but the Slytherin was nowhere to be seen.

The pile of benches clattered apart, and Blaise sprang up from the wreckage. Harry turned, crossing his blades in front of him with a clink. Blaise bared his teeth and brandished his wand. There was a burst of red.

Harry was yanked back into the waking world by the familiar jolt of Rennervate, gasping for air as his heart raced. Hermione lifted her wand from his chest and slid it inside her robes.

"You're an idiot," she said.

He looked around. They were still inside the cluttered hallway, but there were teachers coming in from the other side and clearing the mess. "What happened?"

Hermione crossed her arms. "We took out Justin while he was busy gawking at you, and I cast a Stunner at your back as you fell. Blaise never saw it coming."

"I scared Parvati into giving up," Meg added proudly.

Hermione gave her a wary look. "She ran at her screaming something about blood and thunder. Made her curl up into a ball."

Megan tugged at a strand of her hair self-consciously. "Harry's example really got me into it, I guess."

"Wish I could see a replay," Harry said, chortling. "Brilliant work, you two."

Hermione's cheeks reddened slightly. "Thanks... Wait, I was talking about you being an idiot! You could've hurt yourself—or worse, somebody else!"

He snorted. "Your concern for my safety is touching. No worries, the swords were magically blunted. I learned my lesson after the katana."

"Where did you get these?" Meg asked, holding up the white blade and staring at her reflection in the metal. "Cor, that's wicked."

"Isn't it?" Harry crooned. "I commissioned this bladesmith—" He went silent as he heard approaching footsteps, and turned to see Professor Snape glowering at him. "That is to say, I conjured them."

"Wandlessly, Potter?" Snape scoffed. "Get up."

"What seems to be the problem, Severus?" Flitwick's voice rang out as the diminutive professor hurried towards the group.

Snape acknowledged his colleague with a glance. "Filius. I've been watching Potter closely, and I'm certain there is an Extension Charm somewhere upon his person."

"Who, me?" Harry spread his arms. "Perish the thought. I have nothing to hide."

Snape waved his wand up and down Harry's body, lingering for a moment at his glasses. Frowning, he repeated the action a second time with slower movements.

"He's in the clear," Flitwick observed. "A remarkable display of Conjuration, to be sure."

Snape's pasty face gained some color. "Without his wand? Ludicrous! I'm positive he cheated."

Flitwick sighed. "He was under Miss Granger's shield, and it all happened rather quickly. You must've missed him using it, Severus."

Snape ground his teeth and narrowed his eyes at Harry, but he was already in the process of clearing his mind. Sinking into Occlumentic tranquility, he met the professor's gaze with a cheeky grin.

Applause smattered across the Great Hall as Snape awarded the fifth-year winners their trophy. The younger students were already shifting in their seats, eager to stuff their faces. Harry was also restless, but for a different reason.

"Next up, the sixth-years." Snape's voice was dripping with scorn. "Hermione Granger, Megan Jones, and Harry Potter. A group which made a complete mockery of this tournament and the lessons it was meant to instill."

Harry rose to his feet and swaggered down the aisle as Hermione did the same two tables across. He picked up the pace, intending to arrive first and accept the trophy as was his right as the leader.

Then Megan stood up at the end of the Hufflepuff table closest to the podium. She took five steps, grabbed the silver cup from Snape's hands, and hoisted it with a cheer.

"It is with my deepest regret that I award this trophy to team 'I Love Myron Wagtail'," Snape said belatedly. There was scattered laughter, and his upper lip curled back. "A fitting name to be inscribed on a trophy which will remain at Hogwarts for generations, I'm sure."

Harry and Hermione finally arrived, hovering at Megan's sides awkwardly until the jubilant girl hugged them both around their necks and whooped. "I'm so writing Myron a letter about what we did in his honor!"

"I suddenly don't feel like celebrating," Hermione said out of the corner of her mouth.

Harry sighed. "I know what you mean. But hey, we won, didn't we?"

"Heck yeah, we kicked arse!" Meg yelled, eliciting exasperated hushes from the staff.

Hermione cracked a smile. "I suppose we did."

Chapter Text

Harry barreled down the stairs from the seventh floor. There probably was time until Malfoy's plan would be put in motion, but he had to convey what Hogwarts had told him to the headmaster as soon as possible. Taking a shortcut through a cramped passageway, he came to a halt in front of the gargoyle guarding the entrance to Dumbledore's office, and rested his hands on his knees to catch his breath.

"Er, could you let the headmaster know I'm here, please?"

He stared at the gargoyle expectantly, yet it remained mute and immobile. Feeling slightly stupid, he glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one had seen that. Well, no matter—he'd been working on a little side-project since he learned of Dumbledore's propensity to use sweet names as passwords, and this was as good a time for a test as any.

Reaching into his malletspace, he pulled out a tattered Honeydukes catalog and tapped it with his wand. The pages rustled and contorted into something resembling a mouth.

"Acid Pops, Bat's Blood Soup, Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, Blood-flavored lollipops, Cauldron Cakes, Charm Choc," the catalog droned. Harry twisted his wand clockwise, and the voice sped up, its high-pitched tone nigh incomprehensible. "Jelly Slugs Lemon Drops Licorice Wands No-Melt Icecream Nougat Chunks Pixie Puffs Pumpkin Pasties Sugar Quills Toothflossing Stringmints..."

The gargoyle came to life and sidled aside, the door behind it unlocking with a click. Harry cheered, silencing the enchanted catalog and putting it away. He had a Muggle version prepared as well, but this certainly made things faster.

The spiral staircase carried him up to the inner door, which he knocked on before nudging it open and sticking his head in. Empty, except for the phoenix snoozing on his gilded perch.

Harry hesitated before letting himself inside. He had something important to report, so surely the headmaster wouldn't mind the intrusion. Slinking inward under the watchful gazes of the portraits, he slumped into the chair in front of the clawfoot desk. It was as uncomfortable as ever, and he wondered, not for the first time, whether it was designed this way to make potential troublemakers squirm.

Leaning against the rigid backrest, he tapped his foot. Now that he thought of it, Dumbledore held all sorts of important stations—there was no telling when he would be back.

His gaze passed over the multitude of knick-knacks on the shelves as he looked around, landing on the throne-like chair behind Dumbledore's desk. Upholstered in purple velvet, it appeared supremely cozy and inviting.

He licked his lips. There were legends about that chair; students whispered that the headmaster could see anything in the castle while sitting on it.


Harry rose to his feet and circumnavigated the broad desk, pausing in front of the throne to admire its carvings. He glanced at Fawkes warily, then plopped himself down before he lost his nerve.

There was a hubbub behind him until a snooty male voice cut through. "I say, you scalawag, that is the headmaster's seat!"

"Dumbledore said it was okay," Harry replied with a lazy wave, not bothering to look which portrait had complained.

His backside was experiencing true bliss. Regrettably, the chair hadn't granted him clairvoyance, but it was by far the comfiest thing he ever sat on. He sagged into the cushions and put his feet up on the desk, ignoring another outcry behind him.

He snapped his fingers. "What was his name again—Knobbly, Fugly, Gobry..."

A tidily dressed house-elf popped into existence. "Young sir calls for Gobry..." He trailed off, his bulging eyes growing even larger. "What is Harry Potter sir doings in headmaster's office? Students is not allowed here alone!"

"It's okay. Dumbledore, uh, retired and made me boss." He winced as soon as the words left his mouth. House-elf or not, there was no way he was going to buy that.

"Gobry finds it hard to believe, but headmaster's office is the most secure place in Hogwarts. If Harry Potter sir is here..." He bounced on the balls of his feet. "I must lets the other elfses know!"

"Hang on, I'm sure Dumbledore will want to announce that himself. Instead, please bring me some pumpkin juice—no, a cup of coffee."

"Yes, Headmaster Potter sir!" Gobry said with an earnest nod.

Five minutes later found Harry sipping the scalding-hot beverage as he rocked on the headmaster's chair, balancing it on two legs. Ah, this was the life. He'd heard from Uncle Vernon that this was what corporate big shots did in their corner offices all day—ordering people around and getting drinks brought by their secretaries—and he finally understood the appeal.

A soft bing emitted by one of the devices on the shelves shook him out of his reverie. As he was trying to figure out what the noise could've meant, the door to the office opened and Dumbledore strode in, dressed in midnight-blue robes. Harry was treated to a rare look of surprise on his face.

He yanked his feet off the desk. "Uh, sir, this isn't—" The cup he hurriedly set down on the saucer clacked, nearly spilling coffee on the polished desktop, and he flinched.

"Oh, don't mind me," Dumbledore said, now smiling pleasantly. "Please continue whatever you were doing. In fact, if you enjoy my seat so much, I would not object to you substituting for me on occasion."

Harry leaned forward. "Seriously?"

"Certainly. You may begin with the monthly record of the school's expenses and damaged property." A drawer burst open at Dumbledore's gesture, ejecting a veritable mountain of parchment. "Followed by exhaustive reports requested by our esteemed Board of Governors at an ever-increasing frequency. More pressing matters have demanded my attention lately, and thus quite a backlog has accumulated, as you can see."

Harry gulped. "Sorry," he said, grabbing his cup and scurrying away. "I'm allergic to paperwork."

"That is a pity. I would have preferred to spend my evening doing something more productive than reporting on the number of cauldrons melted in Professor Slughorn's class." Dumbledore walked up behind the desk and settled in his customary place, winking at Harry's jealous look.

Gobry chose that moment to pop back in. "Will Headmaster Potter sir be wanting—" He did a double take. "Is Professor Dumbledore sir no longer retiring?"

"No, Gobry, I changed my mind," Dumbledore said without missing a beat. "We do not currently require your services."

"I'm really sorry," Harry said as the bemused elf popped away.

Dumbledore chuckled. "Think nothing of it, my boy. For you to break into my office, the news you bear must be urgent indeed. Though I am rather curious as to how you overcame my extensive security measures, that matter can wait until you tell me why you did so."

There was a number of things Harry wanted to say about Dumbledore's 'security measures', but the reminder of what he was here for sobered him up. In an anxious tone, he spoke of the Vanishing Cabinet that Malfoy was repairing in the Room of Requirement, and how it could be used to bypass the school's protections. Dumbledore remained composed throughout his speech, as though they were discussing the weather instead of a plot to invade the castle.

"Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Harry. It is a most troubling scheme you have uncovered, but perhaps one we can turn to our advantage." The headmaster stroked his beard with a gloved hand, a faraway look in his eyes.

He nodded. "What are we going to do?"

Steepling his fingers, Dumbledore leveled his gaze on Harry. "You need not do anything. I am going to talk to young Mr. Malfoy at the earliest convenience."

"You're going to talk to him," he repeated in disbelief.

"It might not be your favored approach, but I find that most problems in life can be solved through dialogue, and Mr. Malfoy is not as far gone as you might think." Dumbledore gave him a weary smile. "Please trust me, Harry. No student will come to harm now that I am aware of this plot."

The dinner that Monday was like any other, save perhaps for the peculiar absence of the majority of the staff. The enchanted ceiling mirrored the stormy spring skies outside, and thunder rumbled in the distance, but the Great Hall was abuzz with the merry voices of the students partaking in hearty Hogwarts fare and gossiping with their friends.

It was only in hindsight that Harry realized the Slytherins had been acting oddly that day. In spite of Dumbledore's assurances, he had taken to keeping an eye on Malfoy, yet he failed to heed the resolute look on his face. It was the look of a man on a mission, confident and alert, and so out of character for the pale, jittery boy he had observed for the past fortnight.

Draco was not eating, merely taking sips from his goblet, while his grey eyes roved the hall. At his side were Pansy Parkinson and Atticus Rosier, a burly seventh-year Harry only knew by sight. The former was giggling and picking at her Hogwarts robes, while the latter appeared as purposeful as Draco. The rest of the Slytherins were few in number and kept their distance from the trio; Malfoy's hulking minions were nowhere to be seen.

As the students began clearing out, something passed over the three, and they nodded to each other. Quivering with glee, Pansy climbed up on the table and flourished her wand. It was only then that Harry noticed that something was horribly amiss; he shook the nearest Ravenclaw on the shoulder to get his attention, but it was too late.

"Morsmordre!" Pansy shrieked, sending a colossal emerald skull towards the ceiling. A smoky serpent emerged from its jaws, bathing the Great Hall in sickly greenish light.

"What is the meaning of this?" Dumbledore's voice thundered in the deathly silence that ensued.

"You still don't understand? Your time is over, you fossil!" Pansy cackled and brandished her wand, blowing up the end of the Gryffindor table and showering the nearby students in shreds of wood.

Cries rang out all over as the mood changed from stunned disbelief into an unmitigated panic. Everybody rushed towards the exit, screaming their heads off and pushing the slower pupils out of the way. Rather than attempt to stop them, Draco, Atticus, and Pansy encouraged the stampede by firing Blasting Curses at their heels. A transparent barrier sprang up across the hall, shielding the fleeing students from the rain of debris.

Harry took shelter under the Ravenclaw table, materializing his invisibility cloak and draping it over himself as terrified screams interspersed with sonorous bangs filled his ears. He wasn't sure why he hadn't run like the rest; perhaps it was the sense of betrayal at the headmaster's flagrant failure to thwart Malfoy's plans.

Amid the pandemonium, he saw Dumbledore vault over the head table in a manner that belied his age. Of the two other professors present, McGonagall transformed into a cat and passed beneath the table before shifting back, while Snape took the long way around.

"It seems we have been remiss in your education, Miss Parkinson," Dumbledore boomed. "Allow me to rectify that directly."

His gnarled wand, held casually at his side until that moment, produced a crackling whip of vermilion light. At a flick of his wrist, it surged forward, stretching across half the span of the Great Hall in an instant.

Pansy brought her wand up sharply, and a bench stood on its end to intercept the headmaster's spell. The whip wrapped around it, sizzling as it seared the wood, and Dumbledore drew his arm backwards before flinging the bench at the Slytherins. A jet of light from Pansy's wand smashed it apart, but the whip then unraveled and lashed out against Atticus Rosier, who crumpled to the ground.

"Wake him, it's a mere Stunner," Pansy snarled, firing curse after curse. Most were meant for Dumbledore, although McGonagall also had to deflect an acidulous green spell which liquefied the lectern in front of the head table.

Harry cast his gaze about, then began belly-crawling to the opposite side of the hall, where a handful of stragglers huddled behind an overturned Gryffindor table. It was slow going, but with the spellfire hurtling overhead at a dizzying frequency, he dared not rise an inch off the floor.

As he was creeping underneath the Hufflepuff table, it creaked and came alive, scurrying over him like a gigantic millipede. He covered his head instinctively, but its many legs skipped over his invisible form, propelling the clattering construct towards Pansy, who invoked a spinning disk of energy that disintegrated it into sawdust.

He proceeded onward, but then Draco's shouted incantation unleashed a torrent of fire that passed so close its heat scorched his back. Harry averted his eyes from the blaze and held his breath until there was a strange squelching sound, and the flames were sucked into a floating black sphere. A sudden gale threatened to rip the cloak off his shoulders, but it disappeared along with the sphere itself at a subtle gesture of Dumbledore's wand. Inhaling deeply, he surmounted the last few yards that separated him from the Gryffindors and clambered over the sideways table.

"Aegis Tholus," Hermione intoned, ensconcing the small group in an opalescent dome. "H-how do they know all those terrible spells?"

"They're Slytherins," Ron said, peeking at the fray from behind their barricade. "Dark as they get, the whole lot."

"Those three aren't who they appear to be," Harry said, shrugging off the cloak. "You of all people should understand."

Ron jerked away, bumping his elbow against the table. "Bloody hell! What are you doing here, Potter?"

"I could ask you the same." Harry regarded the group, which was composed of Hermione, Ron, Neville, and a blond bloke whose curly, primped-up hair reminded him of Lockhart.

"We, uh, stayed behind to help," Ron said.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Ronald fell and sprained his ankle, so we had to shield him from the explosions."

Ron's ears reddened. "Don't tell him that!"

"I stayed to protect them, naturally," the blond said. He flashed his teeth at Harry and extended his hand, as though there wasn't a battle raging in their vicinity. "Cormac McLaggen, seventh-year prefect."

Harry accepted the handshake, heartened that somebody older was here to defend them, yet his impression was ruined when a deafening detonation shook the place, and McLaggen dropped down and cowered. Hermione's shield fractured and dispersed after blocking the worst of the blast wave.

Ears ringing, Harry stuck his head out to discover a scene of complete desolation. The tall arched windows were shattered, letting in cold wind which swept dust across the stone tiles. Nothing but rubble was left of the other three house tables, scattered over the floor along with shards of glass. The few candles which remained floating were extinguished, and the Dark Mark cast an eerie green tinge upon the surroundings.

Dumbledore stood in the middle of the hall, exactly the same spot where he'd seen him last, his robes immaculate in contrast to the destruction around. McGonagall was beside him, looking disheveled yet otherwise unscathed, while Snape hung back behind the two.

The opposing trio appeared to be at the end of their ropes. Atticus was stunned and bound in chains, while Draco was held prisoner by a gleaming suit of armor. Pansy was the only one in fighting condition, although her right leg was buried in the jaws of an inanimate stone lion which had its hindquarters crushed.

As she jabbed her wand to fire another curse, her body convulsed, and the spell fizzled out. Groaning, she doubled over as her limbs lengthened, hair darkened, and facial bones rearranged, revealing a gaunt and haggard visage.

"Bellatrix Lestrange," Neville hissed, startling Harry with his vehemence. The boy made to move but stilled as Hermione grasped his arm.

Draco and Atticus also underwent a transformation, turning into dark-haired men of familial likeness who Harry guessed were the infamous Lestrange brothers. McGonagall appeared dumbstruck, while Dumbledore merely gazed at them with a grim expression.

"It was a mistake to assault Hogwarts while I am still here," the headmaster said, bringing out the stun-whip and flinging it forth again.

The demented grin never left Bellatrix's face as she frantically fended off Dumbledore's attacks. "All this power in the hands of a fool. Snape!"

Snape's wand rose as though in slow-motion, his lips pronouncing the deadliest spell known to man. At the first syllable, Dumbledore began turning to face him, but he was slow, much too slow.

Terror clenched Harry's heart, and a desperate cry escaped his throat. Springing to his feet, he jerked his wand upwards, but Dumbledore caught his eye as he swiveled about, and Harry was astounded by the look of utter peace on his lined face. He could have sworn, in that instant where their eyes met, that Dumbledore was smiling. It made him believe that everything would be all right, that the headmaster was about to pull off some incredible feat of magic.

Emerald light erupted from Snape's wand, and Dumbledore fell.

There was a roar in Harry's ears as time unfroze, and an incomplete spell sputtered out his wandtip. Dumbledore collapsed on the floor with a thud that seemed to reverberate more than the explosions had, his murderer peering down at him with an inscrutable expression.

"So falls the great Albus Dumbledore! So falls another enemy of the Dark Lord!" Bellatrix howled, her strident voice echoing throughout the devastated hall.

McGonagall's hands were trembling as she aimed her wand at her former colleague. "Severus... Severus, what have you done?"

"Only what I had to," Snape said quietly.

Harry saw red. He leapt over the table, twelve inches of pine in motion, a curse he never dared use on a human on his lips. Heedless of McGonagall standing right next to his target, he strode forward, the most potent combat spells in his arsenal leaving his wand one after another.

Snape batted them off, his mouth twisting contemptuously, but the sneer was wiped off his face when he was forced to deflect a hex from another direction. Harry glanced over his shoulder, and his heart soared when he saw the four Gryffindors coming up with wands extended.

Rather than attempt to fight them all, Snape shoved the distraught McGonagall into the trajectory of the spellfire and ran. Joining up with Bellatrix, he shielded her while she revived Rodolphus and freed him from the chains.

"Don't let them get away!" Harry yelled, nonverbal Impediment Jinxes fanning out from his wand. Frustrated with his poor accuracy, he charged in, but Bellatrix stepped up to oppose him, and he lurched backwards to dodge her Cruciatus Curse.

Meanwhile, Snape was striving to extricate Rabastan Lestrange from the clutches of the animated suit of armor, but his muttered incantations appeared to have no effect.

"Stop wasting time!" Bellatrix snapped, swinging her wand around and blasting the suit into pieces. Rabastan bellowed in pain and collapsed to his knees; swearing, Snape stooped to attend to his wounds, while a grim-faced Rodolphus fended off the students' attacks.

"Confringo," Harry growled, launching an orange jet of light at Snape. Before the curse could connect, Bellatrix sidesteped into its path and diverted it with a flick of her wand, her movements almost preternaturally fast.

"Does ickle Potter want to play?" she crooned with a flash of her yellowing teeth. "Fear not, Aunty Bella won't break you... The Dark Lord wishes to see to that personally."

Even with his heart thumping in rage, he froze and eyed her guardedly. This was a witch mad enough to challenge Dumbledore; someone of her caliber could eat Harry for breakfast.

"If you're not coming, then I will," she said in a sing-song voice. "Crucio!"

Harry dropped to the ground, the passing spell making the back of his neck prickle. He scrambled to get out of the way of her follow-up, but the second Cruciatus Curse slammed into his chest and laid him sprawling on the floor.

He screamed, feeling as if his body was being submerged in lava, his muscles spasming so hard his teeth made a hideous noise as they ground together. Compared to this, getting his arm mangled in his first year had been nothing, the pain in his scar at Voldemort's proximity had been nothing, his life was nothing, reduced to a single, razor-sharp point where only agony existed—

"Avada Kedavra!" a male voice resounded, and his torment abruptly ceased.

Gulping down air, he groggily rose to his feet, his muscles twitching with the aftereffects of the curse. Neville stood beside him, face scarlet with fury, his wand trained on Bellatrix and trembling as much as Harry's at that moment. Never before was Harry so happy to see the reticent boy.

"Avada Kedavra! Avada Kedavra!" Neville's wand only produced emerald sparks, which fizzed as they landed on the floor. "Die, you damned psycho!"

The astonishment on Bellatrix's face was replaced by delight as she took in Neville's appearance. "Longbottom spawn! Just as inept as your parents, I see. Let Bella show you how it's done."

Harry bent his shaking knees in preparation to dive away, but there was a whoosh of displaced air at his sides, and twin lion statues bounded past to pounce at Bellatrix. She barely defended herself from one, while Rodolphus came to her aid and destroyed the second.

"Professor McGonagall," Bellatrix said, vanishing the pulverized stone off her robes with a negligent wave of her wand. "You must be eager to follow your mentor into the great beyond."

Snape straightened up, supporting a wobbly Rabastan by the shoulder. "It would be unwise to tarry. The distraction I set up for the faculty won't last long."

Bellatrix had a sour look about her as she leered at the Hogwarts denizens and spat, "So be it. Your time will come, Muggle-lovers."

"You won't get away, murderers!" McGonagall cried, brandishing her wand.

Swift as a predator, Bellatrix unleashed an explosion at their feet, shattering the floor into shrapnel and forcing everyone to backpedal. The particles bounced off Neville's surprisingly competent Protego; Harry sidestepped and fired a curse through the veil of powdered rock, but Bellatrix was covering her retreating comrades, and he had no chance in hell of taking her down.

He looked back to McGonagall expectantly, swallowing when he caught a glimpse of Dumbledore's fallen form, but she had a bloody gash on her temple and was swaying on her feet, supported by Ron and McLaggen at either side. With her incapacitated, they stood no chance against the Death Eaters. Harry could only grit his teeth and watch them escape into the gloomy grounds and beyond.

It was a motley council of war that convened in the headmaster's office several days after the funeral. The entire Hogwarts staff were seated on chairs conjured by McGonagall, forming a semicircle in front of the clawfoot desk left vacant in a tacit tribute. The rows of portraits behind it had a new addition, but Dumbledore's likeness remained deeply asleep despite their attempts to wake him. Harry and his gang stood against the wall next to the fireplace, many appearing to be out of their element. Opposite to them was Rufus Scrimgeour, now Minister-in-exile, flanked by Mad-Eye Moody and Kingsley Shacklebolt. He kept glaring at McGonagall and Harry in turn as he leaned on his cane.

Scrimgeour had arrived at Hogwarts shortly following Dumbledore's demise, bearing more grave news. Voldemort had launched a two-pronged attack that day, not only eliminating the sole wizard capable of standing against him, but also utilizing sleeper agents and the Imperius Curse to take over the Ministry at one fell swoop. His puppet, someone called Pious Thickness (Harry would never get used to the wizarding naming sense) was now the official ruler of magical Britain.

Having escaped with his life thanks to loyal Aurors, a wounded Scrimgeour took sanctuary in the last seat of power outside Voldemort's control—yet without Dumbledore protecting the castle, no one expected it to remain that way for long. Scrimgeour insisted on taking command of Hogwarts and making it the center of a resistance movement. McGonagall put the safety of the children first and was adamantly against recruiting fighters from the student population. The only thing the two agreed on was that they would defend the school to the last breath.

Shaken to the core by Snape's betrayal and Dumbledore's subsequent death, Harry was forced to face the harsh truth that Voldemort was coming for him, and sooner rather than later. With his choices being limited to delaying the inevitable or making a stand on his own terms, after much moping and raging, he chose the latter. Sirius's offer to skip the country was reluctantly declined shortly thereafter.

It's not like he wanted to face Voldemort in mortal combat, god forbid; he just figured that acting before the Dark Lord could gather even more power was their best bet. If he could defeat him—and that was a giant bloody 'if'—it would send the Death Eaters into a disarray and break the thrall of the Imperius Curse, giving them a shot at retaking the Ministry. Getting the others to listen to his plan was an ongoing struggle, but he had a secret weapon that hadn't failed him thus far.

He cleared his throat, making all eyes turn to him. For the so-called 'Chosen One', it wasn't hard to get acknowledged these days. "Let's hear the progress reports first. Hermione, did your parents owl the equipment?"

Hermione nodded. "Anticoagulant, needles, and everything else for drawing blood."

The pureblooded Bathsheda Babbling appeared fascinated. "Muggles stick needles into people? How barbaric."

Harry turned to address her. "Yes, well... How's the work on the runic trap going, professor?"

"All finished, thanks to the assistance of my colleagues," she replied brightly. "A Sumerian five-fold binding array engraved on the underside of the flagstones with less than a millimeter of deviation—some of my finest work, given the time constraints. Normally, I'd guarantee that it could capture any wizard or witch alive, but this is You-Know-Who we're talking about. I almost wish I could see it in action."

"That's good enough," Harry said. "It only needs to snare him for a second. Now, as for the evacuation—"

"Hold it," Scrimgeour protested. "Why are you all going along with Potter's reckless gambit? With the wards up, this place is a veritable fortress. Letting You-Know-Who just waltz in is madness!"

"Not if I can defeat him, sir," Harry said.

Scrimgeour gripped his cane so hard his knuckles went white. "Hundreds have died fighting the Dark Lord. What makes you think that you, a sixth-year student, will fare any better? We would be betting the future of our country on a ghost of a chance that you can do the impossible!"

"Ah, but you're forgetting something, Minister." Harry paused for dramatic effect. "The prophecy."

"The prophecy," Trelawney echoed in a dreamy voice. "You would do well to heed its counsel."

Scrimgeour scoffed. "The contents of which you continually refuse to share."

"It's better this way," Moody growled. "Trusting the wrong person has been the undoing of many great men." His electric-blue eye swiveled towards Dumbledore's empty seat.

No one found anything they could say to that.

Chapter Text

Harry stood outside the passage leading to Hogsmeade, hand numb from handshakes, and face warm from good-luck kisses bestowed by well-wishers. Hogwarts had opened it directly from the Room of Requirement using spatial magic that hurt his head to think about, and as soon as Voldemort came for the castle, everyone fled to Hog's Head where members of the Order of the Phoenix awaited with Portkeys set for their safe houses.

Padma bawled as she departed, whereas Luna suggested, seemingly in all seriousness, that they elope to Uruguay. Su didn't so much as sniffle, but her eyes were damp and her small hands were clenched into fists. She stayed silently at his side until Tony led her away, giving him a somber nod. Hermione babbled an unending list of counter-curses, making his glued-on smile falter at the reminder of what he was about to face, and he was grateful when Ron and Neville escorted her out.

Even Cho Chang approached him to stammer an apology, although their truce only lasted until he used a hug as an excuse to feel her up. His cheek still smarted from the slap. In his defense, he wanted to do that since his second year, and this might as well have been his last chance.

As the acting headmistress, McGonagall was the last to leave, pausing at the threshold to speak. "Are you certain you won't reconsider, Mr. Potter—Harry? This doesn't have to be your battle alone. Just say the word, and the Order will stand with you. Even the teachers and the of-age students—"

"It has to be this way, professor. Don't worry, Dumbledore prepared me well." The mood in the castle was so despondent Harry doubted he would've gotten many volunteers even if he wanted them—and certainly none who could go toe-to-toe with Voldemort.

McGonagall gave him a long, hard look, then leaned in to kiss him on the forehead. "Go with Godric's valor, then."

The door shut behind her, leaving Harry the sole human in the castle. Releasing a shuddering breath at no longer having to fake confidence, he took out the Marauder's Map and made sure that was truly the case. He tried not to stare at the edge of the map, which showed the army amassed at the gates, their names overlapping and impossible to tell apart.

"You lied to her," said a girl's voice. "Dumbledore never taught you to fight."

Turning about, he looked Hogwarts over and was heartened to see that the laceration on her cheek she sustained from the invading Death Eaters was all but gone. It seemed he wasn't the only one blessed with fast healing. "I won't have people dying needlessly. You know the prophecy—I alone can defeat the bastard."

"Divination is notoriously unreliable," she scoffed. "I've seen prophecies unfold in all sorts of preposterous ways."

"I'd say 'either must die at the hand of the other' is pretty clear-cut. Not that I'm a huge believer, mind you—but Voldemort is, and that's all that matters." He scrutinized her face, pallid under her black hat. "Looking a bit peaky, there. Are you so worried about me?"

She crossed her arms. "As if. It just feels... strange, not having anyone in the castle. I don't like it."

"Don't worry, we're going to fill you up again real soon," he said, patting her on the shoulder.

Hogwarts slapped his hand away. "Prat. Don't you have more important things to worry about?"

He inhaled deeply. "Right. I've had enough of Voldemort ruling my life—it ends today." One way or another.

Harry's jaw clenched as he tried to keep his apprehension at bay; he had to keep moving lest he succumb to panic. Mentally reaching into his malletspace, he withdrew a porcelain doll and turned it over in his hands, grimacing at its creepy smile. Despite looking like it came straight out of a horror film, it was a masterpiece of magical design, which took the finest enchanters the school had to offer weeks to put together. He'd already overheard the Weasley twins discussing ways to commercialize it.

He handed the Marauder's Map to the doll, which squeezed the parchment with its tiny fingers, and set it down on the floor. Next, he retrieved a knobbly brass controller and made the doll parade around, a projected screen showing a fisheye view from its protruding eyes. Everything seemed to be in order.

"Hogwarts, could you open a passage to the ground floor?"

Her hat dipped forward in a nod, and a section of the wall dissolved, turning into a house-elf-sized corridor that disappeared into the darkness. Harry sent the doll through and found that it arrived in the entrance hall in a minute without any slopes nor stairs on the way.

"That shouldn't be possible," he muttered.

"Your puny brain just can't comprehend non-Euclidean geometry," she said smugly.

He shrugged. "Not while sober, at least."

He maneuvered the doll outside the castle and down the grassy grounds. A mob of black-robed figures could be seen milling beyond the gates, and Harry's heart beat faster at what he was about to do.

The doll slipped through the wrought-iron grating and approached the Death Eaters, several of whom exclaimed and pointed their wands at it. He could hardly blame them, as the thing was quite menacing.

Speaking of menacing, there was Voldemort himself, emerging from the crowd as his servants stepped aside reverentially. His skull-like face loomed on the screen for a couple of seconds before being replaced by his hairless chin; due to the doll's shortness, that was the most Harry could see up close.

He pulled a lever on the controller. "Ahem, testing, testing. Lord Voldemort, can you hear me?"

Voldemort leaned in, filling the screen with his distorted visage again. "Playing with toys, Harry Potter? If you wish to surrender, you will have to present yourself in person."

"I have a proposition that should please you," he said. "From what I gather, it would take days to break through wards as powerful as Hogwarts's. There's a way we can resolve this faster and without undue damage to the castle."

Voldemort sneered. "Go on."

"Take the map from the doll," he instructed, stepping outside the Room of Requirement. He watched Voldemort cast a few silent spells before picking the parchment up. "As you can see, I'm the only person left at Hogwarts. Its wards are also under my control. I'll let you inside, and... we'll duel, just you and me." Harry swallowed, knowing how ridiculous it sounded; in a contest of power, there was no way he could measure up to someone who studied the Darkest of magics for decades.

Outraged cries came from the Death Eaters, dying down at Voldemort's gesture. "How brave," he said with a short laugh belatedly echoed by his followers. "Brave, but foolish. Have you lost the will to live after being abandoned by your allies?" He glanced around, then lowered his gaze to the map. "This is a curious trinket. How do I know it is not deceiving me?"

"Ask the rat," Harry said.

Voldemort turned his head a fraction to the left.

"The map is accurate, my lord," Pettigrew's groveling voice said. "James Potter, Lupin, Black, and myself created it back in our sixth year."

"Your contribution was meager, I expect. Such magic is beyond you." Voldemort's bloodless lips betrayed a hint of amusement as jeers aimed at Pettigrew could be heard in the background. "Run, Worm."

"M-my lord?"

Voldemort flicked his wand nonchalantly, and there was a bang followed by the thumping of hurried footsteps. His red pupils tracked something on the map as more muted laughter rang out.

"Very well, Potter," he said. "I applaud you for having the courage to face your fate. We shall have our duel, however brief it may be."

"My lord, you can't mean to go in alone!" cried a Death Eater. "It has to be a trap—"

"Do you take me for a fool, Avery?" Voldemort asked coldly. "It is obvious that Potter has prepared a trap. It matters not, for this is an opportunity to rid myself of that thorn in my flesh once and for all. You shall remain here and await my call." The gates creaked open at his touch, and he marched ahead, heedless of the uneasy murmurs among his followers.

"I'll be in the Trophy Room," Harry said to his retreating back. He breathed easier. Had Voldemort refused his challenge, he'd have threatened to destroy Ravenclaw's Diadem, but that would've revealed his knowledge of the horcruxes.

He turned the doll and pulled the lever again. "Oi, Snape, you there?"

There was more muttering before a silver mask curtained by black hair appeared on the screen. "Still listening in, ickle Potter? Don't keep our lord waiting."

His lips pursed at the nails-on-chalkboard voice. "Get me Snape."

A bony hand clasped the mask and slid it down, revealing a haggard face wrinkled by a deranged smile. "He's not here, but Aunty Bella will pass on your last words, hmm?"

"Guess you'll do. Listen carefully..." Harry waited until she drew closer, his thumb caressing a small red button on the side of the controller. "Burn in hell, bitch." He pressed down hard, causing the screen to sputter out.

Strain his ears as he might, he couldn't hear the explosion outside, so he doubted the fireworks stuffed into the doll had caused any serious damage. Alas, with the Knockturn Alley under enemy control, obtaining the Erumpent Fluid he'd originally intended to use proved impossible.

"Give me a shortcut?" he called, stepping back into the Room. A span of the wall blurred, morphing into another shadowy hallway, and he strode towards it before he could get cold feet. "See you in a jiffy."

"Harry!" Hogwarts cried out.

He wheeled around and found himself with an armful of girl. "Oof," he said, tilting his head back when the tip of her pointy hat nearly poked him in the eye.

"Just so we're clear, I'm not worried," she said into his chest, "but if you don't come back, I'll never forgive you."

Harry sniffled. "Never thought I'd hear those words said to me. Thank you, thank you. I can die a happy man now."

"W-what?" She wiggled out of his arms and banged her sleeved fists on his chest. "I just told you not to do that!"

He stuck his hand under her hat to ruffle her hair, and this time, she didn't shy away. "Psh, there's no way I can lose. After all, I'm..." His other hand sought the dragon scale pendant under his robes. "I'm the Eternal Warlock."

The words rang hollow, failing to evoke that surge of baseless confidence that got him through a number of ordeals in the past. Pivoting around to hide the dismay that doubtlessly showed on his face, he stepped into the passage.

Harry's breathing was loud in his ears as he lurked under his invisibility cloak just beyond the entrance to the Trophy Room. He had dashed through a narrow passageway and a set of stairs that inexplicably went up (he was convinced Hogwarts was messing with him at this point) before arriving at his destination on the third floor. After pilfering some pieces from the stands clustered around the support columns, there was nothing left to do but lie in wait.

His rudimentary Occlumency did little to settle his racing pulse, and he wished he'd had the forethought to nick a Calming Draught from the hospital wing. When he heard measured footsteps echo in the corridor outside, he took a water gun filled with his blood out of his malletspace and gave it several pumps. The garishly colored plastic creaked under his sweaty fingers, and he eased his grip, sucking in a tremulous breath through his teeth.

The steps gradually grew louder until a towering gaunt figure came into view. Halting at the doorway, Voldemort peered down at the map in his hand, then at the spot around the corner where Harry was concealed. His lips stretched into a grotesque smile, and he stepped over the threshold, yew wand held loosely at his side.

As Voldemort's boot made contact with the floor, there was a resonant rumble, and a runic schematic blazed into existence under his feet. His facial muscles contorted fiercely, and a tremor ran through his body as he strained against the intangible bindings. Harry was already in motion; with only a few steps separating him from his target, he stuck the squirt gun out and squeezed the trigger.

Unhinging his jaw, Voldemort screeched something alien, and the air around him exploded in an outwards shockwave. The floor fissured, the door was knocked off its hinges, and Harry himself was sent careening deeper into the room.

He stood with a groan, noting in passing that his cloak had been blown off, and lined up another shot. With nary a twitch, Voldemort's wand discharged a Reductor Curse at the floor, and the runes blinked out. Harry pulled the trigger, but Voldemort's hand jerked upwards, spawning a curtain of blue vapor between them. Upon hitting this glistening barrier, the blood froze and fell with a tinkle; the wisps of frost then followed the stream to its source, jumping the gaps between the droplets and towards the water gun.

Harry yelped and threw it away, rubbing his numb palms as it clattered to the ground. The whole thing had frozen solid in an instant, its exterior fractured and covered in rime.

Voldemort spoke, the hoarseness in his voice only making him sound more intimidating. "I expected you to exploit the weakness of my current form, but that was crude, even for an upstart brat such as you. Please, tell me that is not all you have up your sleeve. If you disappoint me, I shall be tempted to end this quickly, and that would be... unsatisfying."

"Still got plan B," Harry said, materializing his wand. His hand shook despite his attempts to curb his terror.

Voldemort spread his arms. "By all means, proceed."

Harry had no qualms about attacking while his enemy was posturing. A sanguine orb appeared in his left palm and shot off at a gesture of his wand; Voldemort blasted it mid-air, but another followed before the blood had even splattered on the floor.

Harry kept up the assault, his practiced Banishing Charm dispatching the orbs almost as rapidly as he retrieved them from his malletspace, and for a moment, Voldemort appeared to be on the back foot. Then the Dark Lord swung his wand in an arc, and his figure was surrounded by a whirlwind which raised dust off the floor and ripped the incoming missiles apart, vaporizing their contents and filling Harry's nostrils with a coppery tang.

Having exhausted his supply, Harry aimed his wand at the tornado, his sleeve fluttering in the gale. "Confringo!"

Upon reaching the whirlwind, the jet of light curved and was pulled in, becoming nothing more than a swirling streak of orange. Then Voldemort spoke an indistinct word, and the vortex dissipated along with the droplets of blood and the jet of destructive energy, revealing his poised figure again.

Shaking off his stupefaction, Harry jabbed his wand over his shoulder, then yanked it forward, the glass cases behind him shattering as decorative swords, cups, and medals zoomed towards Voldemort. "Incendio!" he snapped, adding a swish to expand the spell's radius to the point where the cone of fire hid the missiles from sight.

Voldemort flourished his wand, and the flames were wrestled from Harry's control along with the cascade of projectiles, circling around before rocketing back at their caster. Backpedaling, Harry summoned a trophy cabinet to protect himself, then shielded his face with his left sleeve when it exploded into wood chips.

Lowering his hand and brushing off the debris, he found Voldemort sneering at him and not showing any intention to take advantage of his blunder. Harry's teeth gritted in anger at his own weakness, and his hand moved so fast it tested the limits of his accuracy, unleashing a brutal barrage of Cutters and Bludgeoners. Yet while his speed was enough to overwhelm his peers, Voldemort far outclassed him, fending off every curse without moving an inch from the center of the ruined circle.

"'The power to vanquish the Dark Lord'," Voldemort said as a flick of his wrist diverted a Piercing Hex towards the ceiling. "I just do not see it."

Hissing in frustration, Harry redoubled his efforts, but his frenzied haste made his next curse veer off-target, and Voldemort went on the offensive. Harry ducked under a buzzing yellow sickle which gouged a chunk out of a support column inches above his ear, then shielded against a pitch-dark beam with a Protego, the shimmering sphere dimming from the impact. Another identical curse perforated straight through, and he attempted to deflect it, but the black beam glanced off his imperfect wandtip shield and sliced his shoulder.

Wincing, he risked a glance at the wound, which thankfully appeared shallow; the protections woven into his robes were doing their job.

"I tire of this farce," Voldemort said. "Crucio!"

Harry tried to dodge, but the two of them were too close, and the crackling jet of red connected with his chest. White-hot lightning lanced through his body, setting every nerve ending on fire, and forcing his muscles to convulse so hard his bones creaked.

Acting more by instinct than conscious thought, he materialized a bronze buckler he had picked up from a display case, and the haze of agony abruptly lifted off his mind. The metal coruscated as it absorbed the curse, and his fingers felt as though they were being electrocuted, but he willed himself to hold on. His gaze darted to where his wand lay on the floor, dropped in that overlong instant of torment.

Voldemort ended the curse, making Harry groan in relief. "I do not believe you capable of Conjuration without a wand... Intriguing." His red eyes narrowed. "Show me how far your parlor tricks can take you. Avada Kedavra!"

Harry tossed the buckler into the path of the curse, and it clanged to the ground crumpled and blackened. He immediately dived for his wand but was forced to jump back when another emerald jet shattered the tile it lay on.

Retreating so he'd have a chance to react to the relentless attacks, he employed the gear he had stored up as improvised shields. A Decoy Detonator went off mid-air, a specially enchanted Bludger was pulverized, and the box of emergency potions splintered into shards of wood and glass, expelling a cloud of noxious fumes.

His back pressed against a pillar, and he ducked around it, trying to catch his breath, but Voldemort didn't give him the time.

"Aevum Fugus!"

The verbalized incantation told Harry that whatever was coming, it was bad, and he leapt away from his scanty cover. There was a harsh grating noise, and he whirled about to find a nebulous umber sphere enveloping the pillar. Rusty flakes swirled within it, and before his very eyes, the stonework was crumbling and decomposing into dust.

Suddenly aware of an itch in his flank, he craned his neck and gasped. A patch of his robes had disintegrated as though the protective enchantments hadn't been there, the edges of the fabric frayed with brittle strands that broke off at the slightest movement. He stared uncomprehendingly at the exposed, yet intact skin.

The pillar behind him crumpled completely, giving Voldemort a clear line of sight. "Avada Kedavra!"

He dived behind another column, only to collapse on all fours when Voldemort blasted it to pieces. Ears ringing and glasses coated with powdered stone, Harry rolled to the side blindly and felt more than saw a curse splash on the ground where he'd been a second ago.

He swayed as he struggled to stand, something hot trickling down the back of his neck. His cloak and wand lay on the floor nearby, but they might as well have been miles away. There was nowhere to run; he had chosen a room with a single exit so Voldemort would have to walk into the professors' trap, and now could only lament his lack of foresight.

"Avada Kedavra!"

Harry desperately chucked a silver cup that bore his name, exhaling in relief when it intercepted the emerald light. Ironic, how something awarded to him by a traitor ended up saving his life.

Voldemort laughed. "I have never seen a wizard fight this way. An amusing performance, yet hardly a power to be feared. If you have nothing else to show me..."

"Just one last thing," Harry said in a croaky voice.

A peculiar calmness came over him as he resigned himself to the fact that the only way out was through his nemesis. Twin curved swords materialized in his hands, one black, the other white, and he brought them together, lightly running one sharpened blade against the heel of his right palm. His fingers tightened around the hilts as he squinted through his smudged glasses, willing the world to stop spinning.

Voldemort raised his wand, and Harry dashed forward, extending his right arm. When the tip of the yew wand flared green, he flipped his wrist to hurl the black sword. Whether by skill or a stroke of luck, it met the spell head-on, falling apart but forestalling his death.

Now a scant few feet away, Harry flung the second sword, its gleaming white blade stained scarlet. Voldemort flinched back, abandoning another Killing Curse mid-incantation, but the weapon merely struck him with its blunt side and rebounded.

Harry would have growled in anguish, but he was so close he could make out the threads of red in Voldemort's sunken eyes. Kicking off the floor, he thrust his bloodstained palm out with a yell.

Three steps away. Voldemort's right hand rose.

Two steps. The Dark Lord's lips pronounced a death sentence, his wand pointing squarely at Harry's chest.

Harry's furious battle cry drowned out the incantation. Just one more step, and he would wrap his fingers around Voldemort's neck and destroy him.

The yew wand flashed green. Harry died.

Opaque white fog surrounded him, making it impossible to tell direction, or even distinguish up from down. It was as though the world ceased to exist, and he was but a disembodied spirit floating in the void.

Harry felt alarmed at the thought and promptly found himself standing on something firm. The haze around him was still impenetrable, but the unseen surface was solid and pleasantly warm under his bare feet.

The notion of strutting around naked made him uncomfortable, and when he glanced down he found he was wearing Hawaiian shorts and flip-flops. Shoving his hands down his pockets, he started walking.

The ground gradually grew softer, crunching under his feet like sand. When that thought occurred to him, the fog swiftly dispersed, and Harry discovered he was on a tropical beach. There was nothing but white sand, palms, and brilliant blue ocean as far as the eye could see. The breeze tousled his hair and carried the smell of brine to his nose.

He rotated on the spot to take in the sight, then cried out in surprise. There was a deck chair upon which lounged a pasty, wrinkled man with a beard that reached down to his floral shorts. He was holding a halved coconut shell and sipping a drink through a curly straw.

"Fuck me sideways," Harry exclaimed. "Don't take this the wrong way, headmaster, but I'm not happy to see you. Since it means I'm dead and all." He felt a pang of anger at Dumbledore for leaving him to deal with Voldemort alone, but he supposed it hardly mattered anymore. "This ain't too bad for afterlife, though. Where can I get one of those cocktails?"

Dumbledore lowered his aviator sunglasses. "Would it make you more agreeable if I told you that you are not dead yet, Harry?"

"Huh?" He gestured vaguely. "What's all this, then?"

"Out of the two of us, you would be better equipped to answer that." Dumbledore stroked his beard with his unmarred right hand. "After all, it would not be too far off the mark to say that we are in your head right now. My compliments on the weather."

"Are you saying this is all created by my subconsciousness or some such?" he asked flatly.

The corners of Dumbledore's eyes crinkled in a warm smile. "Even if it is, that does not make it any less real."

He furrowed his brows in concentration, and Dumbledore's white beard became neon lime.

The headmaster glanced down. "Why, thank you. I was looking for a way to liven up my image."

Harry closed his eyes and concentrated harder.

"Wait, Harry, we have important matters to discuss!" phony Dumbledore cried.

"Go away, figment of my imagination," he retorted. "If this is some kind of a deathbed hallucination, I might as well enjoy myself before I get shipped off to the next great adventure."

For a minute, all was silent save for the steady murmur of the surf. Then came the most delightful sound Harry had ever heard in his life. Or death, as it were.


He cracked one eye open, then the other, and his mouth stretched into a broad grin. "Eat your heart out, Voldemort, I've gone to heaven!"

"Hello, Master," said the catgirl in a skimpy bikini.

"Hello, sexy figment of my imagination. Hehe, come over here and let me pet you." Harry reached to fondle her ears, yet when his fingertips brushed against that sublime fluffiness, she drew back.

"There is something important I have to tell you, Master."

He groaned. "Not you too! Ugh, fine, but keep it to ten words or less."

She tapped her cherry lips with a finger and hummed, her ears twitching. Just when Harry was about to lose his patience, she straightened up and said brightly, "There was a horcrux in your forehead, but Voldemort killed it!"

"Wonderful," Harry said, counting the words. He faltered as his brain caught up with the contents of the sentence. "Wait, what did you just say?"

As he struggled to process this bombshell of a revelation, the world around him began dissolving back into the white mist. Even the hand he reflexively extended towards his ideal creature was fading away.

"Bye, Master. You won't be coming back here for a long, long while," the catgirl said before the fog swallowed them both.

Harry's head hurt so bad he almost regretted returning to the world of the living. Stifling a moan, he opened his eyes to find himself staring at a dent in the ceiling of the Trophy Room. His mind reeled as he recalled the surreal dream; the words of the cat-eared manifestation of his subconsciousness seemed absurd, yet his survival of another Killing Curse was indisputable.

A hiss of indrawn breath wrenched his attention back to the present. Flexing his limbs experimentally to make sure he could move at a moment's notice, he bent his neck and lowered his gaze until he found the source of the noise.

Voldemort didn't appear to be in the best shape either. Instead of gloating about his victory, he was leaning against the doorjamb with one pale, spider-like hand splayed over his face, showing no indication that he had seen Harry stir.

Harry turned his head, swallowing back nausea the motion induced. There lay his pine wand, coated in a layer of fine powder but otherwise intact. He rolled onto his stomach and crawled, careful to make as little noise as possible, yet when his fingers wrapped around the smooth shaft, it erupted in a shower of sparks. Wincing, he glanced to the doorway.

Voldemort's cadaverous face was frozen in shock. He was motionless for a moment, then slowly lifted his own wand, sickly green light already pooling at its tip.

"Do you know... the definition of insanity?" Harry rasped, rising to his feet.

Voldemort's hand wavered.

"Expulso, Expulso!" Harry snapped off in succession.

Whatever ailed the Dark Lord, it did not affect his dueling prowess. The first spell was deflected with contemptuous ease, while the subsequent one was ignored as it went wide.

Harry shielded himself, following the trail of the second Expulso with grim satisfaction. Voldemort's head whipped to the side and his wand began sketching a circle before him, but it was too late; the curse detonated the frozen container of Harry's blood, spraying crimson shrapnel across the room.

Voldemort howled as the icy fragments penetrated his skin, the wounds immediately starting to smolder, emitting a revolting stench of charred flesh. His right arm took the brunt of the damage, and his wand slipped from his fingers and clattered onto the floor.

Harry flicked his wrist, banishing him out of the room and onto his back. "Time for plan C," he said, striding towards his foe. "You'll recognize the spell."

His expression a mixture of rage and agony, the Dark Lord snarled and threw his less-damaged hand forward, but this time, Harry was faster.


A scintillating purple ribbon severed Voldemort's left arm above the elbow, tearing a gash in the stone underneath which quickly filled with blood. Harry followed with an Incendio, and the Dark Lord's screams were drowned out by the rush of fire and the sizzling of flesh as the stump was cauterized.

His stomach churned and he tasted sick in his mouth, but he forced himself to repeat the sequence of spells on the remaining limbs. Voldemort could only shriek and toss uselessly as he was dismembered.

Harry bent forward, trying not to breathe through his nose, and extended his hand until his finger was an inch away from Voldemort's ashen forehead. "How's that for poetic justice?"

"I'll be back," he wheezed. "You will suffer until you beg for death—"

Harry stooped lower, making contact with his fingertip, and pulled Voldemort into his malletspace. Everything was abruptly silent, save for his labored breathing. Staring down at what remained of his enemy, he let out a hysterical giggle, then doubled over and emptied his stomach.

"...And that's why You-Know-Who is currently inside me," Harry finished explaining. "Ugh, that came out all wrong."

The Ministry's top brass digested the news in silence. At the moment, that only comprised Rufus Scrimgeour and a grey-robed Unspeakable with an enchanted cowl that obscured his face, and they had to meet in a dingy conference room as the Minister's office was still being restored.

"Forgive me, Mr. Potter, but that seems rather far-fetched," Scrimgeour said at last.

"You'll be wanting proof, I suppose," Harry said pleasantly. "Don't blink."

As reluctant as he was to reveal his power, defeating Voldemort took priority—and if it wiped the skeptical look off Scrimgeour's face, all the better. He extended his hand over the table they were seated around and focused; there was a fragment of a tortured scream as Voldemort's maimed form came into being, then vanished again. Harry wrinkled his nose at the stench that lingered behind.

The Minister swore and lurched back in his chair, while the Unspeakable leaned forward.

"Extraordinary," he crooned. "How did you develop such an ability? To the naked eye, the materialization appeared instantaneous—similar in nature to Apparition, perhaps, but sans the characteristic—"

"Now is hardly the time, Louse," Scrimgeour said, clearing his throat and visibly gathering himself. The Unspeakable showed no reaction to the apparent insult. "While unexpected, this is, I daresay, a fortunate outcome. It means we can do everything by the book. You-Know-Who will be sentenced to death, no doubt, but justice will be administered properly—"

Harry brought his hand up. "The bastard's so banged up he won't survive the trial, and we all know he can come back from the dead. He stays where he is."

"I concur with Mr. Potter," the Unspeakable said in a reedy voice. "You-Know-Who must be kept in a stasis until we discover the means by which he fettered himself to the mortal plane."

Scrimgeour scowled. "I am loath to entrust the incarceration of the most dangerous Dark wizard in decades to a schoolboy... even one as accomplished as you."

"What better place for it than our department?" The Unspeakable rubbed his gnarled hands. "Given adequate funding, I'm certain we can devise a suitable containment facility."

Harry frowned. "I personally broke into the Department of Mysteries a year ago—not to mention, the Ministry itself was under Death Eater control until recently."

The Unspeakable waved him off. "We keep the nasty stuff down on the tenth level, and that has never been breached."

Harry tilted his head. "I didn't know there was a tenth level."

"That's the idea, Mr. Potter." Harry had the feeling the man was smiling.

"You will have the funds, just get it done," the Minister said brusquely. "Mr. Potter will be guarded around the clock until the transfer is complete. The public cannot know this, of course—You-Know-Who will officially remain vanquished for good."

"Can I get Tonks?"

"Excuse me?"

"Could I get Auror Nymphadora Tonks to guard me?" Harry clarified.

Scrimgeour knitted his brows. "Is there a reason you requested her by name? While her unique talents would help her blend in at Hogwarts, I would prefer to appoint someone with more experience."

"I trust her, which is more than I can say for the rest of your people. Who knows how many of Voldemort's sympathizers will slip through the cracks like after the first war." Well, that, and Tonks was a hot Metamorphmagus.

Scrimgeour's yellowish eyes glinted, making him look downright predatory. "The situation is much better this time around. As soon as we recaptured the Ministry, Lucius Malfoy and his son turned themselves in and began testifying against their former comrades. Merlin knows why they had this change of heart; the senior will have to spend at least a decade in Azkaban however much he sings."

Harry gasped. "Dumbledore. So that's what..." He shook his head at Scrimgeour's inquisitive look. "Never mind. No more Death Eaters getting off by claiming to have been under the Imperius, then?"

"Not just Death Eaters," the Minister said. "The Malfoys have dirt on everyone. Even the Wizengamot is quaking in their boots, but we have to tread carefully there lest we undermine the trust in our political system. Now more than ever, we need a stable and strong government."

The conversation then turned to the upcoming ceremony where Harry was to be awarded the Order of Merlin, First Class. In truth, he was looking forward to it, but when Scrimgeour started implying that rounding up Voldemort's fanatics would go smoother if Harry were to express his support for the government in general and the Minister in particular, he decided he'd had enough and begged off.

The cowled Unspeakable offered to escort him out, and Harry followed him to the elevators. Once inside, the man pressed the button for level nine.

"Come with me to my office, Mr. Potter," the Unspeakable requested before he could say anything. "I have something for you."

"Alright," Harry said warily. He looked into his malletspace, cringing at Voldemort's ghastly face which was frozen mid-scream, and verified that his invisibility cloak and wand were within. With his prisoner taking up most of the space, that was about the extent of what he could carry.

The elevator dinged open and the Unspeakable stepped out, Harry trailing behind. He was led to the familiar circular hub which thoroughly disoriented him by spinning for half a minute, before opening into a well-lit area crammed with cubicles. It would've looked much like the Grunnings office Uncle Vernon had once taken him and Dudley to, had the occupants not worn face-obscuring cowls. Some grey-robes clustered around an immense map of Britain embedded into the wall, but before he could get a good look, Louse ushered him along the edge of the room and through a door to which a plaque reading 'Head' was affixed.

"There we go," the Unspeakable said, settling into a chair behind his desk and gesturing Harry to do the same on the one opposite.

Harry lifted a thick folder off the chair and sat down. The office seemed mundane, if rather cluttered, yet when he glanced at the documents in his hand, the letters started gliding across the paper as though trying to evade his gaze.

"Ah, just toss that over there," the Unspeakable said, indicating a pile of similar folders on the floor next to an overflowing cabinet. "I don't believe we have been properly introduced. You may call me Louse." He extended his hand over the desk.

"Louse," Harry repeated, shaking the proffered hand. "As in, Head Louse?"

"If you insist on the full title." His reedy voice held a note of amusement. "It's a longstanding tradition of the department to assign our operatives animal codenames. Mine might not be the most enviable, but one gets over such things."

Harry found he could relate somewhat. "You said you had something for me?"

"Oh, yes. I believe this should answer some of your questions." Louse rummaged in a drawer before handing him a yellowish envelope.

Harry turned it over. There was no address, but it was sealed with red wax which held the imprint of a phoenix. Inhaling sharply, he broke the seal and extracted a parchment filled with rounded, flowing script. He devoured the letter with his eyes, raised his head to stare at the Unspeakable, then went for a second, slower read.

"Son of a..." He took a moment to blink the blurriness out of his eyes. "If Dumbledore just told me, I wouldn't have wasted weeks rigging the doll to blow up Snape." Or crying into his pillow that one time, but he wasn't about to share that.

"I know the news is upsetting, Mr. Potter, but look at it this way—Albus was able to depart on his own terms. The curse was eating him alive, and not even our best researchers could find its counter."

"It's not so much the news as the way it was delivered. Get a load of this." Harry cleared his throat and attempted to mimic Dumbledore's genial tone. "'If you are reading this, I am already dead. Forgive me, my young friend, I always wanted to say that.'"

Louse chuckled thinly. "He wasn't called an eccentric for nothing."

Harry lowered the letter and sighed. "I take it you knew him well, then?"

"In a manner of speaking. We didn't always see eye to eye, but we often consulted with each other on the more esoteric magics—like the horcruxes, for instance."

He nearly fell off the chair. "Y-you know about the horcruxes?"

"I've stumbled upon the term in my studies before, but I only learned that Voldemort created several of them a few months ago, when Albus finally deemed me trustworthy. Were you aware that he originally expected you to carry out the task of hunting them down?"

"That is so not happening." Harry's hand rose to rub his forehead absently. Between that, the diary, and the Diadem, he felt he had done his part already.

"Indeed, Mr. Potter, you can leave the rest to us. Frankly, I'm looking forward to studying those corrupted artifacts. Speaking of study..." The Unspeakable rose from his seat and stepped around the desk. "The nation owes you a great debt, and I'm reluctant to ask more of you, but could we possibly count on your cooperation regarding another matter?"

"What kind of 'matter'?" he asked suspiciously.

Leaning in so close Harry could hear him wheeze, Louse brushed his fringe aside with a crooked finger. "I couldn't help but notice that there's not a trace of your scar left."

Harry scooted away. "Good riddance, too."

"Ah, forgive my presumptuousness," the Unspeakable murmured. "It is unheard of for an inveterate curse scar to vanish spontaneously. You simply must let us run some tests... nothing invasive at first, I assure you."

"At first?" he squawked, feeling like a bug under a microscope.

"What a fascinating test subject you'd make," Louse continued, clasping Harry's shoulder. "We can't risk probing your dimensional pocket with You-Know-Who inside, but scanning your forehead for Dark magic residue should be safe. Then your blood, perhaps, to see if it retains any atypical qualities—"

"Good heavens, would you look at the time?" Harry exclaimed, his eyes darting around the office yet failing to find anything resembling a clock. "I'm late for my, uh, pedicure appointment." Twisting out of the Unspeakable's surprisingly tenacious grip, he lunged for the exit.

"Mr. Potter, think of the new avenues for research it could open up!" Louse cried.

"Gotta run, I'll see myself out!" Clutching Dumbledore's letter, he bolted out the door.

Chapter Text

Harry drained his goblet and extended it languidly. No less than three witches dressed in frilly maid outfits hurried to refill it, and the brunette who grabbed the pitcher first gave the others a triumphant look.

"Here you go, Harry," she chirped, pouring him more pumpkin juice.

"Call me Master, Reina," he said, eyes fixed on her ample cleavage. He'd really struck gold with this design, if he could say so himself.

"It's Romilda," she whined. "I told you three times already."

"Knew it started with an 'R'." Ignoring her pout, he reclined on the bench until the back of his head touched the chest of the witch massaging his shoulders. "Ah, that's the spot, Tonks."

Her grip tightened painfully, and she hissed, "Don't use my name, you'll blow my cover."

"Then come up with a cuter alias. 'Helga' makes you sound like a granny."

"I hate you so, so much," the Hufflepuff alumni growled.

"Hate me all you want, as long as you keep those hands moving." It was the latest of their bets she was delivering on; Tonks had a competitive streak a mile wide, and it was all too easy to draw her into games of anything from Gobstones to broom racing.

Her motions resumed, and he sighed blithely, casting his gaze around the house table. Most Ravenclaws didn't bat an eye at his antics, as Harry Potter being waited on hand and foot by his fan club was nothing out of the ordinary these days, even if the maid costumes were a new addition.

Tony met his gaze and toasted him with his goblet. Su peered at him with unnerving intensity from a few seats away; Harry suspected she was trying to guilt-trip him for exploiting his fame, but he couldn't be certain as she never said a word to that effect. On the opposite side of the table was Padma, not sparing him a glance as she demolished the lamb chops on her plate.

He looked away slowly, then whipped his head back and caught her peeking at him. She lowered her gaze, a flush creeping up her cheeks.

He smirked. "Something on your mind, Padma?"

Abandoning her pretense of nonchalance, she lifted her head and glowered. "I've been forced to endure this spectacle every day for the past few months, and just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, you do this! Have you no shame?" Her words seemed directed as much at Harry as at the witches surrounding him.

"You're just jealous we're closer to Harry than you are," said the brunette at his side.

He nodded. "What Reina said."

The maid huffed. "For god's sake, my name's not—oh, why do I even bother." She rose from the bench and stalked out of the Great Hall.

Harry trailed her with his eyes glumly, but another maid quickly sidled up to him and whispered into his ear, "Forget her, I can be Reina or whoever you want."

Grinning, he hugged her around the waist and pulled her onto his lap. "I like you."

Padma's fork clattered on her plate. "I know you're just trying to rile me up, but show some decorum at the dinner table, at least."

"Give the bloke a break," Tony said. "It's the least he deserves for offing You-Know-Who."

"And he's been doing nothing but leching around since!"

"Look, there's no need to be jealous," Harry said, resting his chin on the giggling maid's shoulder. "If you want to join in, all you have to do is ask. What's-her-name's uniform should be about your size."

"I'm not jealous, I'm concerned about you. We're months away from graduation, and you need to start thinking about your future." Padma pointed a table knife in his direction. "And if you think you can get me into that raunchy outfit, you've got another thing coming!"

He shrugged. "Oh well, there's no shortage of volunteers."

"I call dibs," Su said.

Padma rounded on her. "You can't seriously be thinking about wearing that!"

She pouted. "It looks fun."

Padma shook her head, looking like the wind was taken out of her sails. "You know what? I don't even care anymore."

Peace and quiet returned to the table as Harry was fed morsels of treacle tart by hand, which made his favorite dessert twice as delicious. Feeling generous, he persuaded the second maid, who was sulking at the lack of attention, to tend to Tony. Tired of kneading his shoulders, Tonks perched on the bench next to him and sighed.

The idyll was interrupted by a clearing of a throat, and Harry turned to find McGonagall standing behind him, her lips pursed.

"What is the meaning of this, Mr. Potter?"

"Merely enjoying another delectable dinner at your fine institution, headmistress," he said.

Her nostrils flared. "Don't you get cheeky with me, young man. I have told you time and time again, I expect all of my students to conduct themselves with decorum, and you are no exception."

"That's what I've been saying," Padma muttered, then flinched under the headmistress's glare.

"The same goes for you, young ladies," McGonagall continued, staring down at the pair of maids. "You know full well that students are to wear their uniforms outside the common rooms."

The girl in Harry's lap squirmed, and he tightened his grip around her waist. "But, professor, my Head of House gave us permission," he said innocently.

"Filius?" she exclaimed, turning towards the head table.

The diminutive professor glanced their way and waved to Harry, who grinned and gave him a thumbs-up. After he'd gifted Flitwick the remains of the Ravenclaw's Diadem, there was nothing the professor wasn't willing to do for him.

"I see," McGonagall said crisply. "I am going to have words with Professor Flitwick, and I better not find either of you girls in these obscene garbs when I return, or it will be a month's detention for each of you." She strode towards the head table, where Flitwick was suddenly in a hurry to polish off his cherry pie.

Looking properly chastised, the maids scampered off as Tonks laughed openly.

"Way to ruin my fun, you old sourpuss," Harry grumbled, keeping his voice low. He knew from experience that in spite of her advanced years, McGonagall's hearing remained sharp as a cat's.

After a hearty last breakfast, Harry scurried out of the Great Hall and slipped into an alcove to don his invisibility cloak. While he hadn't grown tired of the looks of awe and adulation yet, he wasn't in the mood for it today. The awarding of the house cup, the graduation ceremony, and the wild party in the Ravenclaw common room were all behind him; the Hogwarts Express would shortly leave from Hogsmeade station, and that would be the last time he'd get to ride it. It was a wistful thought; a lot had happened since that train first brought him into the world of magic, not all of it good, but he wouldn't have traded the experience for anything.

Comfortable in his invisibility, he walked at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and sounds of the school, yet he arrived at his destination all too soon. He smiled at the sight of Barnabas the Barmy getting clobbered by trolls in tutus, before stepping to the opposite wall and pacing back and forth thrice.

He found himself in the cozy, lavender-painted bedroom he'd seen in September last year. Hogwarts was sitting on the bed, her customary dark robes contrasting with the white bedspread.

"Hi." He took a few steps forward, then backpedaled sheepishly to remove his shoes.

"Hello, Harry," she said. "You're leaving, aren't you?"

"In half an hour or so," he said, straightening up. "Why the long face, H? Don't tell me you're thinking of going back to sleep now that we're graduating."

"Why would I do that? Despite everything, I've enjoyed my time in this form." She raised her head and met his gaze. "I never said this, but... thank you for awakening me, Harry."

"You're welcome," he said, taken aback by her serious demeanor. "Er, not that it isn't nice to be appreciated, but what's gotten into you?"

Hogwarts tugged her hat down until the brim hid her eyes. "I'll miss you, stupid. You and your insolent band of friends."

Harry found himself at a loss for words. His first impulse had been to tease her, but if he was being honest with himself, he was going to miss her too.

The silence stretched on until Hogwarts clenched her fists and got up. Her socked feet pattered softly against the floor as she charged towards him and wrapped him in a hug.

"Will you come visit me?" she asked in a muffled voice.

"Count on it." With her so close, he couldn't help but notice that the tip of her pointy hat now went past his forehead. "Hey, did you grow a little?"

Hogwarts withdrew from the hug and folded her arms over her chest. "W-what are you saying?"

He raised his eyebrows. "You're taller."

"Oh... Of course." She flapped her sleeves, now only an inch or so too long. "So this body does that too."

He smirked. "What did you think I meant?"

She averted her eyes. "Never mind that now! Don't you have a train to catch?"

"Right you are." Harry slipped into his shoes again and gave her a wave. "Goodbye, then."

She caught up to him as he was opening the door. Gripping his arm with both hands, she stood on her tiptoes and pecked him on the cheek. "Bye, Harry," she whispered, then shoved him outside.

Harry trailed the unfortunately monikered Head Unspeakable down to the Department of Mysteries and through a familiar dimly lit corridor. Once they reached the circular hub, Louse closed the door behind them and brandished his wand, causing the centermost part of the floor to sink with a rumble and turn into a spiral staircase.

They stepped onto the stairs, which started moving much like those leading to the headmistress's office at Hogwarts, and Harry grasped the handrails for balance. He was carried downwards until emerging onto a brick platform which appeared to be floating in a void of blackness.

Freezing in his tracks, he craned his neck. There was no ceiling, no walls, and the reddish floor only extended for perhaps thirty feet in every direction, illuminated by lanterns which hung on either side of the passage they just exited—a sharp rectangular doorway carved out of the darkness.

Louse plucked one lantern from its hook and strode towards the edge of the platform, pausing so close to the void it made Harry anxious just looking at him. Murmuring under his breath, he walked along the boundary until exclaiming, "Aha!" and stepping forward. Harry bit back a scream when brick pavement coalesced from the darkness to meet his foot.

Louse strode onward, holding the lantern before him. "Do not tarry, Mr. Potter. The path won't last long."

Harry hastened to follow, making an excessively long step over the growing gap between the platform and the floating roadway. The darkness below was impenetrable even to his enchanted spectacles.

"What's down there?" he asked.

"Nothing," Louse said as he made a ninety-degree turn. "An Unspeakable tasked with creating an expanded space for department's use tapped into energies best left unmentioned, and so it continues to grow centuries past his death."

Gulping, Harry scooted closer until he was almost stepping on Louse's heels. The path was winding and narrow, and the silent emptiness around them gave him the shivers. It felt like they'd been walking for a long time, but when he glanced over his shoulder, he was still able to see the floating brickwork island that connected this eerie place to the outside world.

Eventually, the lantern in the Unspeakable's wizened hand illuminated another platform, identical to the one they had come from, save for a span of brick wall at its center. Harry breathed easier when they stepped off the precarious pathway, and watched Louse tap the bricks in a convoluted pattern until the wall split open, pouring out sharp light.

"Welcome to the Vault," Louse said with a small bow, and stepped through.

Harry followed suit, blinking as he regarded the bright hall filled with display cases as far as the eye could see. Louse hung his lantern next to another just like it, then set off along the white plaster wall. Harry tagged along, eyeing the items inside the glass cases. There was a black tome oozing smoke which made him nauseous to look at; an emerald tablet densely covered in tiny script; a crimson gem which looked like an eyeball and swiveled to ogle him as he passed by...

"Best not gaze into Herpo's Eye too long," a reedy voice said next to his ear, and Harry realized with a start that he hadn't moved for quite some time. "It's been known to induce temporary catatonia."

"Then throw a damn blanket over it!" he blurted out as he tore his gaze away. "Sorry—it just seems irresponsible, leaving such a thing out in the open."

"On the contrary, Mr. Potter, I find that it helps keep our employees on their toes."

Harry made a mental note to dissuade Su from seeking employment in the department. "Riiight."

Curbing his curiosity, he kept his eyes fixed forward as he walked past the endless rows of undoubtedly wondrous objects. Just when he felt he could no longer resist taking a peek, Louse paused before an unremarkable patch of wall, a gesture of his wand turning it into a door with a plaque that read, 'TITS'.

"Threats In Temporal Suspension," Louse murmured, pushing the door open.

"Ah," Harry said, mildly disappointed.

"This place houses our most intriguing artifacts," Louse continued, stepping inside. "Every time I come here, I'm tempted to resign from my position so I could spend more time researching them."

While painted in the same clinical white, the room was significantly smaller and had round blast doors situated along its walls. One door was ajar, revealing it to be a couple of feet thick and made of solid steel; Harry gaped at the minuscule runes that flecked its gleaming surface until Louse ushered him through. Within the vault, there was a stone dais, upon which was elevated a mundane-looking brick well. Next to it another Unspeakable stood rigidly, hands clasped behind his back.

"Took you long enough," the stranger said. He clasped the edge of his obfuscating cowl and hesitated before lowering it, revealing a pale face with a hooked nose, and a head of close-cropped black hair.

It took Harry a moment to recognize him, for the man looked a decade younger without his perpetual scowl and greasy mane. "Holy fuckballs. Aren't you on the run, Snape?"

"As far as the public is concerned, yes," Louse cut in. "In truth, Mr. Snape has been leading the horcrux hunt. His expertise on Dark magic, as well as the intelligence he gleaned while in You-Know-Who's service, have proved invaluable."

Showing no reaction to the praise, Snape approached Harry and stuck his hand out. "Potter. I didn't have the chance to tell you this, but... well done. I had my doubts, but Dumbledore turned out to be right as usual."

He shook the proffered hand, rather disconcerted at Snape's civility. "Er, thanks."

Snape nodded curtly. "Perhaps we should get to business." His eyes flicked to the lapels of Harry's robes. "Which Potter here has apparently decided to announce to the entire Ministry."

Harry grinned and fingered the visitor's badge which read 'Prisoner Transfer'. "It's not like anyone understood that."

"And we could always Obliviate them if they did," Louse added brightly.

"I wish you took operational security more seriously, chief," Snape said with a pained expression. He covered his face with a palm and muttered, "Why do all my employers turn out to be mad?"

Harry snorted, shooting Snape a surprised look. "So, how is this supposed to work?"

"Mr. Potter, I present to you the Time Well," Louse said with a sweeping gesture. "Simply drop You-Know-Who inside, and he will be trapped in a permanent stasis."

Harry glanced at the structure skeptically. "This shoddy thing, huh."

"It was originally invented by a researcher who wanted to keep his produce fresh," Louse explained. "From our tests, the time dilation factor at the bottom approaches a million."

"You lot are the experts," Harry said with a resigned sigh. Walking up to the well, he peeked over the edge; the inner walls were visible to a point, but the middle was obscured in darkness. He stuck his hand inside, feeling a slight pull, and reached into his malletspace. "Okay, here goes."

"—Potteeeer..." Voldemort screamed as he plummeted, his voice gradually lowering until it faded beyond the edge of hearing.

Harry grimaced at the whiff of burning flesh and took a step back. Snape's face was pale, but he stared at Voldemort's final prison with grim satisfaction. Meanwhile, Louse levitated a heavy wooden lid over the well and fastened it with red tape, then glued a bright sticker on its side which said 'Specimen #A26: Dark Lord Voldemort'.

"That's taken care of," he declared, rubbing his hands. "Anyone fancy a bite in the canteen? I'm suddenly in the mood for bacon."

The three of them popped up in a secluded spot inside that mess of straggly brambles the residents of Little Whinging called a park, and Harry took a moment to pat himself down. He'd only acquired his Apparition license weeks ago, and couldn't help checking for missing body parts whenever he used that mode of transportation. In his defense, Sirius was doing the same despite a decade of experience.

"Are you two quite finished?" Tonks asked.

"Give me a second," Harry said, lowering his hand to confirm his most important bits were intact.

Tonks rolled her eyes and began extricating herself from the jumble of overgrown shrubs. Satisfied with the results of their inspection, the men followed suit; Harry looked around to get his bearings, then led his companions down Magnolia Road.

"Cor, I don't envy you, champ," Tonks said, craning her neck. "This place is the definition of a suburban hellhole. How do you even know which house is yours when they all look the same?"

"They're called house numbers," Harry said, waving jauntily to an old woman who'd been observing their party through a window. Her scowling face was hidden behind hastily drawn curtains. "Couldn't you have picked something else to wear?"

Tonks considered her studded leather jacket and ripped jeans. "All my Muggle friends dress like this."

"Never mind," he said with a sigh. It wasn't like Sirius's T-shirt proclaiming him to be 'Hung like a Hippogriff' was any better.

They passed Magnolia Crescent and its rows of tract houses, and entered Privet Drive, which looked much the same despite the locals adopting a haughty attitude about their neighborhood being slightly newer. Harry walked up to the entrance of number four and raised his hand to knock, then chuckled and went for the doorbell. After years spent in the wizarding world, some habits were hard to shake.

Aunt Petunia opened the door, her eyes widening at the arrivals. "Come in, come in," she said, making it sound more like an order than a welcome.

They trooped inside, where Sirius greeted Harry's aunt with a smile. "Looking great as always, Tuney. How's life treating you?"

"Mr. Black," she said sourly, then glanced towards the kitchen. "Vernon, Harry's back!"

"I wish you'd start calling me Sirius already. All those formalities make me feel old."

"And I wish you would act your age, Mr. Black, but I suppose neither of us is getting what we want today."

Sirius guffawed. "That sharp tongue reminds me of the dressing-downs Lily used to give me."

"I am sure you deserved every single one," Petunia said. She turned away from Sirius to give Tonks a once-over and sniffed. "And who might you be?"

Harry waved to his uncle, who was still hauling his considerable weight into the foyer. "Hiya, Uncle Vernon. This is Tonks—she was my bodyguard for the past year, and she's real good. I got our Minister to assign her to watch over you for a while."

Vernon looked her over dubiously. "Whatever for? I thought you whacked that freak bastard last year."

"That I did, but... this might be a long discussion." Harry shot Petunia a beseeching look.

Pursing her lips, she nodded and ushered them into the living room, where Sirius immediately sprawled on the couch, responding to the Dursleys' dirty looks with a cheeky grin. Harry waited until everyone was seated before speaking.

"You recall what I said about the protections expiring on my birthday last year, of course."

His aunt and uncle said nothing, but their faces darkened; it seemed they still hadn't come to terms with their house essentially being magical for the sixteen years Harry had lived there.

A little anxiously, he continued, "Back then, I told you that you were in danger, that you needed someone to guard you—"

"I said we'd be fine, and we were," Vernon cut in. "None of your kind bothered us while you were at school. Ha! Would've liked to see them try—I'd have tossed them out on their ears."

Sirius snorted, and Vernon's face became an interesting shade of puce.

Harry winced. "Yeah, about that... Please don't be mad, but I had some of Dumbledore's associates—you knew him, Aunt Petunia—looking out for you. With the wards gone, I couldn't leave you unprotected. Nothing bad happened so far, mind you, but they did have to Obliviate some reporters."

"Damn leeches," Sirius said. "You don't want someone like Rita Skeeter on your tail, trust me on that."

Vernon's mustache quivered and he looked like he had something to say, but Petunia was the first to speak.

"These associates of Dumbledore's, did they perchance loiter around our backyard?"

Harry shrugged, nonplussed. "They might have."

Petunia rounded on Vernon. "I told you it wasn't the neighborhood cats peeing on my roses!"

Harry mostly succeeded in holding a straight face while Sirius and Tonks snickered. "Ah, sorry, Dung's must've gotten bladdered and forgotten his manners... what little he has, anyway. Now I know why my invisibility cloak smelled funny when I got it back."

Petunia drew herself up. "Well, this has to stop. Vagrants skulking around our home, befouling my garden—spying through the windows, most likely, the mere thought makes me queasy—"

"Wouldn't put that past Dung," Tonks muttered.

Harry shot her a glare. He'd been reluctant to trust Mundungus with the task of guarding his family, but beggars couldn't be choosers; with no one stepping up to lead the Order of the Phoenix, the organization was unraveling, and his sway over it was limited.

"Absolutely right, Aunt Petunia," he said, bobbing his head. "That's why I got Tonks here to take up the job—just for a couple more months until we're sure you're safe. She's a part of our police force, and I can vouch for her being a consummate professional."

Vernon scoffed. "Do all your police officers dress like hoodlums?"

"Only when undercover," Tonks said without a hint of offense. "I could wear my Auror robes if you prefer."

"I... I think we should accept the offer, Vernon," Petunia said, wringing her hands. "I don't want paparazzi hounding our family."

"Pet, you can't be serious! Look at her—her hair's purple, for God's sake!"

Nodding, Petunia turned to address Tonks. "We don't want any busybodies snooping around, of course, but you would have to chase them off without making a scene. We're a respectable family and don't want to be involved in anything... abnormal."

Tonks smiled. "After all those fetishy costumes your nephew made me wear back at Hogwarts, some normalcy is exactly what I need."

Harry sighed blissfully. "Good times. Reckon the dark elf was my favorite—wish you'd told me you could do the pointy ears earlier." Recalling where he was, he gulped and added, "Um, just kidding. Silly inside joke."

Petunia's mouth formed an 'O', before she shook her head, opting to ignore that exchange. "If you will be seen frequenting our home, you should dress less provocatively. I don't want the neighbors spreading unsavory rumors about us."

"Crikey, Harry wasn't joking about you being uptight," Tonks muttered. "No worries, Mrs. Dursley, I'm very good at blending in. How about we pretend I'm your long-lost cousin or some such?" At her words, her heart-shaped face became more angular, morphing into a passable imitation of Petunia's.

The original made a strangled noise, goggling at her doppelganger with a horrified expression. Tonks slowly transformed back.

"Sorry, that must've been a shocker," she said contritely. "Haven't been among Muggles for a while, so I forgot myself. Don't worry, I'll stay out of your hair—reckon I'll disguise myself and patrol around your house for the time being."

The Dursleys exchanged alarmed glances.

"N-nonsense," Petunia squeaked. "You can stay indoors... as much as possible, in fact. The least we can do to thank you for guarding us is to give you a roof over your head. Isn't that right, Vernon?"

The man frowned but nodded. "Only until we're certain none of their kind is snooping around, right?"

Harry exhaled, feeling as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. All in all, the conversation had gone a whole lot better than he'd expected. "Great! I'll go pack my stuff." He leaned in to whisper to Tonks, "No morphing while I'm gone."

He trudged upstairs where he found his bedroom exactly like he'd left it, although it felt cramped after spending a year in a spacious castle. There wasn't a speck of dust anywhere, indicating that Petunia kept it to the same meticulous standards of cleanliness as the rest of the house.

He regarded the bookshelves, the bed that was now slightly too short for him, and the closet that used to house his treasures. He might not have felt the same attachment to this place as he did to Hogwarts, but it still held years' worth of memories. The books he'd read, fantasizing about magic before he knew it was real. The long hours spent on dull homework assignments, his aunt dropping in every now and then to make sure he wasn't slacking off. The dirty magazine he'd 'borrowed' from Dudley and studied in detail with a flashlight under his blanket.

Harry dragged his bed a few inches to the side and pried loose a floorboard. Underneath a chipped knockoff figurine and a handful of marbles lay the periodical he'd just been thinking about. Chuckling, he blew the dust off the cover and leafed through. He was thankful the others had stayed downstairs; it wouldn't do to be seen getting nostalgic over a girly mag.

It didn't take Harry long to gather his scanty possessions and take them into his malletspace. After getting rid of Voldemort, it felt good to have full use of his power again, and for several minutes he amused himself by throwing things into the air and vanishing them with a poke of his finger as they fell. When he had everything packed, he left the room to hear his godfather's voice drift from downstairs.

"...'Then what happened?' says the frantic guy. 'Damned if I know,' says the legless owl. 'I fell off my perch.'" There was a brief silence. "Haha, get it? It's 'cause he got a stif—"

"That's quite enough of that, Mr. Black."

"Not even a smile? Blimey, tough crowd."

Harry descended the stairs to find the elder Dursleys glaring at an unconcerned Sirius, four cups of tea sitting abandoned on the coffee table between them. He surmised his godfather had cracked a joke or two to lighten the mood, but seeing how Sirius's sense of humor had stalled in his teenage years, the outcome was predictable.

Dudley was also present, having returned from whatever he did on Saturday afternoons now that he'd outgrown bullying kids in the nearby playground. Unlike his parents, he looked rather cheerful as he showed Tonks his game console, only giving Harry a distracted nod before resuming his explanation. Dudley's biceps flexed as he talked animatedly, but Tonks seemed more interested in the video game displayed on the telly.

"I'm done," Harry announced to the room. "Don't think we'll be staying for dinner—got places to go, things to do, you know how it is."

"Take care, champ." Controller in hand, Tonks waved at him from where she was sitting cross-legged on the carpet. Harry had a hunch she'd quickly get used to her role as a live-in bodyguard, and she probably didn't mind the triple pay he'd negotiated for her either.

Relief practically radiated off the elder Dursleys at his words. Petunia sprang to her feet and showed the two wizards to the door too brusquely for it to be a polite gesture, but her expression softened as her eyes lingered on her nephew. Spreading her arms, she hugged him with surprising strength. Harry was startled to see the way her mousy hair was greying at the roots.

"Look at you, all grown up," she said, stepping back. "Lily would be so proud."

Vernon shook his hand. "Take care of yourself, son."

"I will, don't worry. I've got Sirius looking after me too."

Petunia rounded on the man in question. "You keep my nephew safe and provided for, you hear? He might be an adult by your standards, but not by ours. That means no drinking or smoking! I know how teenage boys are." She glanced meaningfully at Dudley, who'd trotted up to say his goodbyes, and the boy grinned sheepishly.

Sirius gave her a mock salute. "Your wish is my command, Tuney."

She sighed and turned back to Harry. "Come visit us sometime. Dudley will have a summer party in July—you'll invite your cousin, won't you, Dudders?"

"Yes, Mum," Dudley said, rolling his eyes. He squeezed Harry's hand in a vise-like grip and whispered, "Thanks for the hot bodyguard, cuz."

"Careful, she packs a mean punch," Harry said, chuckling. He stepped over the threshold and regarded his childhood home and his foster family. "If you need any, y'know, special help—anything at all—just call me, alright?"

Petunia sniffed. "We'll manage without. We always have."

Chapter Text

Year 5

Ambling down a corridor, Harry eyed a boisterous group of fourth-years loitering by a classroom door. Most didn't pay him any heed, but some quieted down, their gazes tracking his passing. For once, it wasn't because of some ridiculous rumor, but because of the silver badge prominent on his lapel.

Humming a tune, Harry buffed it with his sleeve and turned a corner. Seeing the door to one of Hogwarts's finer facilities ahead, he made his way toward it. Catching wrongdoers and maintaining order would have to wait until he took care of nature's call.

Pushing the door open, he halted just inside the threshold. Five stooping boys clustered in a corner, their ties disclosing a healthy mixture of houses.

"Shit," hissed a pudgy Hufflepuff, and pushed down whatever his companion was holding to hide it from sight.

The boy whirled around before stuffing the object into his robes. "Gah, a prefect—"

"It's alright, it's just Potter—"

"He's the worst of the lot!"

Harry schooled his face into a stern expression and approached, while the flustered boys faced him, the one who had spoken last shifting nervously on his feet. "Alright, lads, you know the drill. Hand it over."

"Hand what over?" asked a Ravenclaw, crossing his arms.

Harry narrowed his eyes, vaguely recognizing him for Nigel what's-his-face, a third-year. Easy prey. "You don't want to play this game with me. Give it here before I start docking points."

"Can prefects even do that?" murmured the Hufflepuff.

"They can't," said another boy.

Harry grinned. "They can if it's from their own house."

Nigel chuckled nervously. "You wouldn't."

"Watch me. One point from Ravenclaw."

"Nice try, Potter."

Harry extended his hand, waited a beat, then raised his eyebrows. "Two points from Ravenclaw."

Nigel gulped. "Come on, that's not funny."

"Four points from Ravenclaw."

The other boys exchanged uneasy glances. "I'll tell your Head of House!" one yelled.

"That's—that's right," said Nigel. "I'll tell the seventh-years, it's their last chance at the House Cup—"

Harry wiggled his fingers. "Eight points from Ravenclaw."

"Stop! Are you nuts?" The younger Ravenclaw was beginning to look a little wild-eyed.

Harry grinned. "Ever heard of geometric progression, Nigel? Of course you have, you must be taking Arithmancy. Well then, care to guess what the next number will be? Sixteen points—"

Wide-eyed, Nigel stuck his hand into his inner pocket. "Alright, alright, here—"

"Don't, Nige, my brother will tear me a—"

"My housemates'll string me by the bollocks if I lose our lead against Slytherin!" Shoving his partner in crime away, Nigel produced a rolled-up poster and slapped it into Harry's extended hand.

Harry's smile wavered as he unrolled a black-and-white pinup of a young witch astride a broom hovering just above the ground. She would pull on the broom and sling out a fishnet-clad leg, causing her robes to hike up revealing her garters, before leveling out again. Noticing his attention, she blew him a kiss.

"That's... that's some depraved pornography. I'm very disappointed in you, boys." Harry struggled not to laugh. It was disappointing, if only because the contents were underwhelming given how hard the poor saps tried to hide the pinup.

"Get off your high Hippogriff, Potter," yelled a red-faced Hufflepuff, "everyone knows you're—"

"Shut up!" Nigel clamped his palm over the boy's mouth. "It's not your house's points he'll take!"

Harry looked on smugly. Ah, divide and conquer. Rolling up the poster, he deposited it into his pocket, then turned to leave. "I'll be confiscating this. Stay out of trouble, lads."

"Bloody wanker," a loud whisper reached him from behind.

"Can't believe he'd screw over his own house—"

"That was my brother's—"

Harry closed the door, shutting out the riled-up voices. A trip to the loo next floor up was in order; prefect or not, had he tried to relieve himself here, he would likely get a bucketful of water over his head or worse.

Tony had a good laugh when Harry told him the story and spread out his spoils atop a small table in the common room. The witch in the photo waved at them enthusiastically before returning to her usual routine.

"To be fair, those are very nice legs," Tony remarked.

Harry nodded appreciatively. "The way she gives just a peek of the garter is inspired."

The witch preened, tossing her hair back. Harry grinned before furrowing his brows. "I've been wondering for a while, but how do wizarding photos work, anyway? She does it a little differently each time."

"Mum says it's a bit of an art," Tony said, fixated on the witch's act. "The background, the personality of the model, even the intent of the photographer all factor in."

"Reckon we could get her to go further?" Harry tilted the pinup in the same direction the witch was yanking her broom, then poked her black-and-white shoulder. "Oi, lady, lift those higher."

Tony shoved his hand aside. "Dolt, you'll scare her away. I heard some Gryffs boast about sweet-talking a pinup witch into flashing her tits. Could be a lie, mind."

The witch was pouting and rubbing her shoulder. Harry leaned closer. "Sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you," he crooned. "You're very pretty. Why don't you lose those robes and show us the goods, hmm?"

Tony crammed a fist into his mouth to stifle his laughter. "Nice going. You sounded like my creepy uncle."

Harry felt heat rise in his cheeks. "You do it if you're so—hey, it worked!"

Tony turned to stare. "No bloody way..."

Gazing at them with upturned eyes, the witch toyed with the top button of her robes. She covered her mouth coquettishly, giggled, then blew them both kisses. A moment later, she returned to swinging her leg off her rearing broom.

Harry groaned. "Maybe if I try again..."

"Oh, I've got to hear this." Tony rubbed his hands gleefully. "Go on then, Casanova."

His brows furrowed. How could he compliment a woman without sounding like he wanted to get into her pants when he wanted to do exactly that? When the door to the common room swung open letting in Padma, he barely raised his gaze off the pinup to acknowledge her.

She approached the table. "What are you two up to?"

"An experiment," he murmured, still racking his brain.

Padma gasped. "What are you doing ogling bawdy photos in here?"

Harry looked up, raising his eyebrows at her abashed expression. "Relax, it's less than you'd see on a beach."

"It's not what she's showing, but how!" Padma averted her gaze, a blush darkening her cheeks. "You shouldn't have such a thing out in public."

"Seriously?" He rolled the poster up, eyeing Padma with bewilderment; her reaction appeared genuine.

Tony nudged him with his elbow. "Purebloods, eh?"

"Huh..." Putting the pinup away for further investigation, he rubbed his chin. "Is it just me, or did we stumble upon an untapped market?"

Harry leaned over the table to transfer more roast potatoes onto his plate, the coins in his inner pocket jingling merrily. Today's haul had been good, and he'd barely tapped the surface. He glanced around the buzzing Great Hall, mulling over which house to try and expand into next. The repressed snobs at Slytherin would no doubt prove a lucrative market, but approaching them posed a challenge.

A clink of a goblet cut through the din as though by magic—which likely was the case, come to think of it—drawing eyes toward the head table.

"Students, I have an announcement to make," McGonagall said in her no-nonsense voice. The noise died gradually as she skirted the table to stand before the ornate lectern, a thick paper envelope clutched in her hand. Her gaze swept over the gathered before she spoke. "It has come to the attention of the staff that a new type of pornographic material has been circulating through Hogwarts. One originating from the Muggle world, of all places."

The Great Hall erupted in hushed murmurs. Pursing her lips, McGonagall pulled a magazine out of the envelope and held it up with two fingers, revealing a full-color cover depicting a blonde woman with her chest and crotch blacked out.

"Such things can do untold damage to young minds, and anyone found with one of these in their possession will be punished severely. This is not to mention what will happen to the distributor, should we track them down."

Harry goggled at the girly mag in her hand, unmistakably one of the issues he'd gotten Dudley to owl him, then looked away quickly. Was it his imagination, or was McGonagall glaring in his direction?

"I urge every prefect to do their part," McGonagall continued. "Any copies you come across should be delivered to Mr. Filch, who has kindly volunteered to destroy them. Needless to say, the list of banned items has been expanded accordingly."

Harry scowled at his plate. Destroyed, his arse; Filch just wanted the mags for himself, the filthy hypocrite.

Year 6

Harry rapped his knuckles on the door, and without waiting for a response, let himself in. "You wanted to see me, sir?"

Seated behind his diminutive desk, Flitwick looked down from an ornate badge he had been levitating. "Come in, Harry. Have a seat." Setting down his wand, he deftly snatched the plummeting badge from the air. "Let me get straight to the point. How would you like to be a Quidditch captain?"

Harry nearly missed the chair in surprise. "But I haven't played for years!"

"Yet you gate-crashed every tryout since you were taken off the team. This year, you flew circles around the other candidates until they teamed up against you, I'm told."

He shrugged, unrepentant. It was petty, sure, but showing the chumps what they were missing out on hadn't grown old yet. "I was flying my Firebolt."

"And Miss Chang switched to her new Nimbus, for all the good it did her." Flitwick turned the badge over in his hand. "She's a veteran, and a capable Seeker in her own right, so the captaincy would normally go to her, but... your little stunts didn't pass without consequences. As you're aware, Ravenclaw never managed to rise above third place in the past years, and after watching you in action, some players have begun saying that the former captain let his personal feelings get in the way of fielding the best lineup. Just between you and me, Messrs. Ackerley and Burrow have threatened to resign should Miss Chang be given the position."

Harry narrowed his eyes. "Are you trying to guilt-trip me into this, sir?"

Flitwick's mustache twitched. "Is it working?"

He held out a hand and tilted it side to side. "Meh."

Flitwick sighed. "It was worth a try. Perhaps it's for the best you sit this year out. You must have your hands full with Severus's lessons as it is."

He scowled at the reminder, then eyed the badge Flitwick was rolling between his fingers. It could prove a good stress reliever if nothing else. "Hang on, I didn't say no."

Flitwick leaned forward eagerly. "You'll take up the captaincy, then?"

"Well..." The more he deliberated, the better the idea seemed. Those wankers wouldn't know what hit them. "If I'm to do this, I want free rein over the team. Roster, training, everything. And no promises on the results—sorting out this mess won't be easy."

"I only ask that you try." Smiling hopefully, Flitwick extended the badge toward him.

Harry grinned and rose to accept it. The smidgen of guilt he felt at duping his Head of House was nothing compared to his excitement. Shame Davies wouldn't be there to see him enact his final revenge.

Harry hovered high above the pitch, the air below swarming with Quidditch hopefuls haphazardly tossing the Quaffle, batting the Bludgers, and seeking the Snitch. Even the most skilled captain could hardly hope to gauge anybody's individual skill in this pandemonium of heated shouts, collisions, and general confusion.

Not that he cared in the least.

Taking a deep breath, he blew the awesome whistle Flitwick had given him, the sound ringing across the pitch. "Alright, people, excellent job! Get to the ground and I'll announce the results!"

"But it's barely been ten minutes—"

"We haven't gone through all the drills!"

"Was he even watching?"

Ignoring the protests with stoic grace, Harry landed and waited as people alighted in clusters before him, their attire a mixture of Hogwarts robes, Quidditch uniforms, and casual jumpers, their brooms ranging from battered Cleansweeps to top-of-the-line Nimbuses.

Pacing, he waved at everyone to line up, which they did after some shoving and swearing. He ran his gaze over the disorderly rows, his eyes lingering on the most endowed witches. Oh, he'd been watching, alright.

"First off, thanks for participating. I've seen a wide range of skill displayed up there, enough for me to make my decision." He grinned at the dubious looks. "There are going to be major changes to the lineup, but this is for the best, trust me." Pulling out a piece of parchment, he tried to match the names scribbled down on it with the faces before him; the younger kids in particular were giving him trouble. "Let's see... Anyone below third-year, scoot. Chop chop, try again next time."

With some perfunctory objections from the snot-nosed brats, the crowd thinned out. Harry fished a pencil out of his pocket and crossed out several names.

"Now for the regulars... Carmichael, Ackerley, Burrow, and Pincher."

"It's Fincher!" cried a blonde boy.

"That's what I said. I'm moving you guys to reserve for now." Not looking up from the list, he raised a palm at the loud backlash. "Keep improving and you can come back to being starters soon. You'll be replaced by Quirke, Brooks, Lutterworth, and..." Lifting his head, he sought out the curvy brunette who had caught his eye and pointed at her with his pencil. "And you. You'll be our new Keeper."

Ackerley piped up, "But she let in every shot!"

"She did?" He furrowed his brows, unable to recall if that was truly the case.

The girl shrugged, blushing at the attention. "I only tried out for fun. Quidditch is brilliant, but I'm not very good yet."

"Well, um..." Harry scratched the back of his head with the pencil. "You'll be a great asset to the team. I saw lots of raw talent in you, it just needs polishing."

She clasped her hands over her chest. "Really? I thought Stewart did much better than me..."

"Trust me," he said, nodding emphatically as he outlined the names of the four newcomers. That just left the three witches from the original lineup. "As for MacDougal, Cornhill, and Chang—"

"You'll be wanting your old spot back, I expect," Cho spat, her gleaming broomstick slung over her shoulder. "Get it over with, Potter."

"No, no, you definitely stay," he said, marking her name. He contemplated Cornhill—a mousy, heavyset girl—before doing the same for her and MacDougal. With her assets, MacDougal was a given. "All three of you."

Cho gaped at him before finding her voice. "Didn't you accept the badge so you could kick me out?"

Harry put a hand over his chest. "Would I do something that petty?"

More than one person opened their mouth. "Yes—"

"Rhetorical question," he said, rolling his eyes. "Unlike some, I don't let my feelings interfere with the good of the team—and you're too talented to let go." He tried not to leer as he spoke the last words.

Cho stared at him, then ducked her head and mumbled, "Thanks, Potter."

A chortle escaped his lips, drawing strange looks. He cleared his throat. "Don't mention it. Do your best at practice, and we'll get along just fine."

Lounging in his seat up in the Quidditch stands, feet draped on the backrest before him, Harry raised his hand into the air. One-by-one, the Ravenclaw team hurtled past, swiveling on their booms to high-five him. The Keeper was last, missing his extended hand by inches, her hair that she hadn't tied back trailing her like a banner.

He made a circular gesture, and the team looped around before zooming by overhead again. Grinning, he reclined to watch. It was a shame his idea of more aerodynamic (read: tighter) uniforms didn't garner much support—something about lack of protection—but he would take what he could get.

Another set of high-fives later, Harry cupped his hands over his mouth to yell. "Alright, now let's do some evasive maneuvers! Twirls, right where I can see them!"

Some players exchanged glances and hushed comments, but sooner or later, everybody arranged themselves in the air before the stands and proceeded to twirl their broomsticks. Shielding his eyes from the sun, Harry barely resisted the urge to cackle.

"Dance, my little puppets, dance." Okay, he might've cackled a little.

A graceful figure broke the scattered ranks and drifted toward him. Harry glanced her way before returning to his observation of the practice.

"Potter," she said.


She hovered in silence until it became apparent that was all he would say. "How long are you going to make us do pre-game entrances and drills?"

"Until I'm satisfied... with your form, that is." He gave her a sidelong look. "Yours is one of the best, by the way. Good job."

She frowned at him as though trying to gauge his seriousness. "Aren't you going to join us in the air?"

"No point since I don't plan on playing. I'll devote my full effort to coaching." Coaching the starters, that is; Carmichael was putting the reserve team through their paces at a time he frankly didn't care to remember. Hooray for delegation.

Cho's slender fingers tightened on her broomstick. "Is that so? I can't help but notice that the team you're so eager to coach are all witches."

He didn't look at her as he answered, "Coincidence."

"You picked girls even if the boys did better during tryouts—"

"You can't look at dry statistics alone when evaluating a player," he explained patiently. "There's also team synergy, raw talent, and future potential to consider. Don't worry your pretty little head about it, it's captain stuff."

Harry could've sworn he heard Cho's teeth grind together. "Even if one of our Beaters can barely swing a bat, and our Keeper is a total klutz?"

"Don't be rude. They make up for it in other areas." He waved at the girls in the air. "Well done! Let's do some loops now!"

Cho threw up her hands. "More drills?"

"Bludger-dodging practice," Harry murmured, his eyes glued to their Keeper's Bludgers. "Whoa."

"I see how it is," Cho said, glowering. "To think, I almost changed my mind about you when you let me keep my spot. I'm reporting this to Professor Flitwick."

He grunted noncommittally, continuing to ogle the fliers.

"I'll fly straight to his office! Once he learns what you've been doing, he'll take away your badge!"

Trying hard not to grin, he turned to stare her in the eye. "Probably."

Cho's mouth opened and closed without a sound before she growled and took off in the direction of the castle. Harry trailed her with his eyes before settling back in to enjoy himself while he could.

"Oi, Keeper girl!"

A shout came from above. "I'm Sarah!"

"Good for you. Listen, do a Sloth Grip Roll for me! Like that, keep at it! Hehehe..."

Year 7

A crowd formed around the end of the Ravenclaw table where Harry was seated, comprising mostly his lower-year housemates, but with stragglers from other houses mixed in. Everyone watched with bated breath as he made a show of tapping his clenched fists against each other and blowing on them in turn.

"Alright, where is it?" he asked, extending them over the table.

The gathered erupted in noise as a multitude of fingers pointed at both of his fists. Doing a quick count, he raised his left.


Most of the audience shouted affirmatives, drowning out the dissenters. Harry vanished the Galleon into his malletspace before opening his left palm. There were groans all around. Raising a finger for quiet, he slowly unclenched his right fist, showing it to be empty as well; the groans changed into cheers.

Grinning, he leaned over the table to address the little auburn-haired girl seated opposite him. "What's your name, again?"

"Rebecca," she said shyly.

"Alright, Rebecca, want to help me with this next part?" He waited for a nod. "Stay still."

The girl stiffened, her cheeks pink as he extended his hand to reach behind her ear. Materializing the Galleon, he pinched it between two fingers and drew it back to show it off. The crowd broke into applause.

"Wow," breathed Rebecca, her eyes wide. "When will we learn to do magic like this?"

"Probably never." Harry offered her a consoling smile. "Don't look so glum, not everyone can be as awesome as me."

Laying the coin atop his open palm, he clapped his hands together, then drew them apart showing it to be gone. He picked up an empty goblet and clamped his palm over it, depositing the coin inside. Lifting the goblet, he shook it with a clatter until vanishing the coin again and upending the goblet with a flourish. The audience went wild.

"Someone with a wand must've vanished—"

"Don't be daft, that's a goblin-minted coin—"

"Sleight of hand, it's gotta be," Ron Weasley said authoritatively. "Hiding stuff up his sleeves, I've seen my brothers—"

"I've seen him vanish fifty pounds of cast iron," Tonks—Helga—grumbled at Harry's side. "There's no hiding that."

Basking in the attention, Harry wiggled the goblet at the crowd. "Alright, folks, that's it. Make it worth my time and I'll show you something even more amazing tomorrow." His grin widened at the sound of Knuts as well as an occasional Sickle clinking into the goblet.

"I can't believe you're fleecing firsties out of their money," Tonks whispered.

"Hey, they love it." He extended the halfway-filled goblet toward her. "How about it, figure it out?"

"Not yet," she said glumly and fished a Sickle out of her pocket to drop it in. "I was thinking a hollowed-out ring with an Extension Charm, but you're not partial to jewelry, so there goes that theory." Her eyes narrowed. "Unless you're getting so bloody good at enchanting that you also managed to Disillusion it on top of everything."

"Heh, keep trying." Producing a drawstring pouch, he dumped the contents of the goblet inside before depositing it into his robes. At this rate, he would come out of Hogwarts richer than he entered.

"Couldn't you give me a hint? Pretty please?" she asked, her hand stroking his upper arm.

He turned to leer at her. "Maybe if—whoa!"

A large bundle of feathers hurtled past his head, flapping frantically to slow its descent. Landing smack middle in his greasy plate, the owl blinked at him, fluffed up proudly, and extended the leg with an envelope dangling from it.

"So unhygienic," he muttered, trying to untie the letter without touching the poop-encrusted foot.

The bird hooted, startling him, which made Tonks giggle. Glaring at the owl and his bodyguard in turn, he finally managed to liberate the letter, and immediately had to shield his face from the furiously beating wings as the damned bird took off.

Ignoring Tonks's continued laughter with the dignity befitting an adult, he tore open the envelope using his table knife and pulled out a scrap of parchment.

"Huh," he said, skimming the letter.

"What is it?" Tonks asked, trying to read over his shoulder. "Next time, let me check for curses first—chief will have my hide if I let you get hurt."

Harry resisted the impulse to roll his eyes; after all, it was her job to worry about his safety. Well, that, and model for him. "Just some business partners requesting a meeting."

Having shaken off Tonks, who normally stuck to him like glue, Harry arrived at the third floor with five minutes to spare. He strode toward the statue of the One-Eyed Witch, taking out the Marauder's Map and activating it on the go. Fred and George's names were already moving along the hidden passage, and rather quickly at that; they must've taken on their animal forms.

Hearing approaching footsteps, he glanced over his shoulder. A seventh-year Hufflepuff boy was coming up, eyeing the map in Harry's hands curiously.

"Wayne, right?" Rolling up the map, Harry held up a palm. "Trust me, you don't want to go this way. There's been, uh, a gas leak."

Wayne frowned. "At Hogwarts? Nice try, Potter."

"Weasley had beans for dinner and washed it down with some weird potion on a dare," he said conspiratorially. "But hey, if you're feeling brave, go right ahead." He sidled aside.

Wayne blanched, sniffing the air gingerly. "Reckon I'll take the long way round. Cheers, mate."

"Don't mention it," Harry said, waving him off. He waited until the bloke turned a corner, then lifted his wand. "Cave Inimicum."

With a sensation resembling a slight pressure in his ears, the charm hid the span of the corridor from prying eyes. It wasn't a moment too soon, for the statue's hump ground open, and a shock of red hair poked out.

Harry glanced down at the map as the first twin leapt deftly to the floor. "Hey, Fred." He looked up at the identical bloke struggling to squeeze his broad shoulders through the gap. "George."

"Takes all the fun out of it, the darn thing does," Fred said, giving the map a fond look as he approached Harry and stuck his hand out. "Good to see you, old chap."

George clambered out, the contents of the satchel slung over his shoulder clinking as he landed. "Howdy, partner."

Harry shook their hands. "Alright, guys. So what brings you here? I don't think it's strictly legal for non-students to enter the grounds without permission."

"As if pesky things like rules ever stopped us," Fred said. "We wanted to deliver the product you got us to develop—the tsoo... tundr... well, you know the one—and discuss its success in the market, as it were."

He grinned. "How did it do?"

George deadpanned, "Early product trials show abysmal sales, customer confusion, and total branding failure."

"A what shows what now?"

Fred swatted his twin on the shoulder. "What my dear brother means to say is that no one buys them. Forgive him, he got into Muggle entrepreneurship books lately."

Harry furrowed his brows. "Well, have you tried—"

"No offense, Harrykins, but we know our business," Fred said. "No one wants the stuff, it's that simple. The only questions we get are about pronouncing it."

"Well, there was that one bloke," George said.

Fred grimaced. "Ah, yes, that one bloke."

Harry raised his eyebrows. "Well, don't keep me hanging."

"Fat, greasier than old Snapey, constantly muttering under his breath," Fred said. "Classy hat, though."

"Would've chased him out were it not for him buying three packs. Fifty percent of the sales right there." George swung off the satchel, set it down on the floor, and forced it to regurgitate a large box brimming with colorful candy packets. "We brought the leftover stock; it was just taking up floor space at this point." He retrieved a bottle of swirling pinkish liquid. "The concentrated potion, too."

"We'll make more if you pay for the ingredients, but don't expect to turn a profit from this," Fred said.

Harry picked up a packet and turned it over. The pink label read 'Tsundere Toffee: Cold and Hard on the Outside, Warm and Gooey on the Inside', and there was an animated smiley face underneath that alternated between glowering and looking away with a blush.

"These should be flying off the shelves," he said glumly. "Are you sure they work right?"

"Do they work right, he asks," Fred scoffed. "I'll have you know these cause worse mood swings than Angelina's when she's—"

"But does it get them to say the lines?" Harry asked impatiently. He looked around before tucking the box under his armpit. "Come on, I've got to see for myself."

Fred and George exchanged a look before following him along the corridor. They stood out conspicuously in their snazzy dragon-skin coats, but secrecy was the last thing on Harry's mind now. Leaving the perimeter of his charm, he trudged up to the main staircase and set the box down in an alcove. The classes were long over, so there wasn't much traffic, but he could see a lone Gryffindor girl making her way down from their tower.

He tapped his foot until she descended to the third floor, then stepped out, grinned widely, and extended a Toffee packet. "Hey, little girl, would you like some candy?"

She froze, her eyes darting around, then squeaked and rushed back up the stairs. Harry gaped at her retreating form until he heard laughter behind him. Turning, he glared at the twins, who stood clutching their bellies just inside the corridor.

"Damn it! You two have such a reputation, we'll never get anyone to eat these!"

"Our reputation, he says," Fred wheezed.

"Little girl... would you like some candy..." Taking one look at Harry's face, George broke into laughter again.

"Pricks," Harry muttered, crinkling the candy packet in his hand.

"Don't fret, mate," Fred said, wiping a tear from his eye. "We ran into the same—or should I say, similar—problem in the later years of our schooling. That's when we began researching alternate delivery methods."

"Sounded very smart there, brother," George said, regaining his breath.

"Thank you," Fred said solemnly. "Now, where was I... Ah, yes." He stooped to pluck the bottle of pinkish liquid from the box. "What say you, George? One last prank, for old times' sake?"

George tapped his chin. "If we no longer stock the product, they can't tie it to us. Let's go for it."

"Lend us the map, won't you, mate?" Fred said. "We'll send it back after we're done."

Harry looked from one twin to the other, sly grins gracing their faces, and wondered if perhaps he should stop them. Nah. What's the worst that could happen?

"What are you going to do?" he asked, proffering the map.

The twins laughed in creepy unison. "Let's just say we're going to give you a live demonstration. You'll know when you see it."

The Weasley twins' maniacal grins would've been enough to drive anyone to paranoia, and so Harry spent the next week carefully checking his food and drink by smell, taste, and what few detection spells he could use, each result coming back negative. Typically, it was when he started to relax that they struck.

Harry was polishing off his beef Stroganoff when the flapping of wings overhead announced the arrival of the winged menaces wizards insisted on using for communication. He stooped over his plate—Hogwarts owls weren't beyond nicking meat off the table—and continued eating without an upward glance. A blur of brown in the corner of his vision and a clap of air were his only warnings before a large tawny owl plunked down before him.

"Shoo!" He waved at it irritably. "Fan mail's supposed to go to my manager." God bless Colin Creevey, happily sorting through dozens of letters every day for a pittance.

The owl blinked its amber eyes, tilted its head, and stuck a leg out over Harry's plate. The roll of yellowed parchment suspended by a string dipped right into the sauce.

"Bloody hell!"

Ignoring the heads turning his way, he fished out the parchment and grabbed a knife, swiping it at the string dangerously close to the owl's foot. The blasted bird barked and nipped at his hand, causing him to yelp and cradle it to his chest, before taking off.

Seated opposite him, Tony guffawed. "Reckon you're getting better at dealing with them. At least this one didn't shit in your dinner."

Harry flipped him the finger, then funneled the sauce off the parchment, swearing under his breath all the while. He stiffened in recognition as it unfurled in his grip. The map.

"More mail?" Tonks asked, sliding onto the bench beside him. "I told you to let me screen it first."

"Nothing I couldn't handle," he said absently, concealing the map behind his lapel before vanishing it. Did this mean the twins were about to make their move? Had they already?

"What do we have for today? Smells good." Tonks began ladling the steaming beef stew and porridge onto her plate. "Pass me the pumpkin juice, would you?"

Picking up the jug, he filled her goblet, then his own, glancing around the table surreptitiously. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Lifting his goblet, he furrowed his brows. Didn't it smell a little sweeter than usual?

Tonks drank deeply from hers before digging in. "Cor, if there's one thing I miss in my adult life, it's Hogwarts food. Almost makes up for having to use my talents to entertain the most depraved VIP in the history of the Auror Office."

Harry chuckled, losing his train of thought. "Hey, you've only got yourself to blame. I've never met anyone that bad at Exploding Snap—and that's after you promised to humiliate me."

"I'm bound to win eventually," she muttered, blowing on a forkful of beef. "Alright, a bet's a bet. What will you make me wear this time?"

He swept his eyes over her. The broad-jawed face and thickly-braided hair of her 'Helga' guise weren't particularly flattering, but that could be changed in an eyeblink. "My, don't you sound eager?"

She snorted. "You wish."

"Not even a little bit?" He grinned, bringing the goblet to his lips. "You seemed pretty into the gothic witch look as far as I recall."

On the other side of the table, Tony's fork froze halfway to his mouth as he gazed off into the distance, a goofy grin on his lips.

"Some of the less-revealing costumes do have a certain charm to them, I admit." Tonks looked away, a blush creeping up her cheeks. "N-not that I enjoy modeling for you or anything."

It was fortunate Harry hadn't taken a sip yet, for he would've choked on it for sure. "Come again?"

"You heard me!" A look of confusion passed over Tonks's face before she huffed loudly and crossed her arms. "I wouldn't be caught dead wearing those getups if it weren't for our little game. Wipe that smug grin off your face."

"My god," he breathed. "It's everything I expected and more."

She gave him a sidelong glance. "W-what are you murmuring about now, you big dork?" She blinked. "And why am I stuttering?"

Harry laughed, tried to speak, then laughed even harder at her befuddled expression. Placing his fist over his mouth, he tried to get himself under control; he was starting to attract attention.

Further along the table, Padma left a cluster of upper-year witches and strode over to him. "Alright, what did you do now?" she asked, putting her hands on her hips. "Everyone's acting funny."

"They are?" he asked gleefully. "Er, I mean, I don't know what you're talking about. Why would you blame me if it's someone else acting oddly?"

"Because you're one of the few people here who has both the talent and the inclination to cook up schemes incomprehensible to any sane person." Averting her gaze, she toyed with a strand of her dark hair. "D-don't get me wrong, I'm not calling you talented. You just aren't entirely hopeless like most." Her eyes widened, and she pulled her hand away from her hair, staring at it in bewilderment.

Tony joined in Harry's laughter this time. "You didn't," he wheezed. "You did? How did you..."

Padma jabbed her finger at him. "I knew you did!" She furrowed her brows. "What did he do, exactly?"

McGonagall stood abruptly at the table. "I should very well like to know that myself, Mr. Potter. Are you the one behind this commotion?"

Harry winced—damn her cat-like hearing—yet failed to stifle his laughter. All around the hall, people were craning their necks in confusion or turning away in a huff to hide their flushed cheeks. Fred and George had outdone themselves this time.

"I take it by your amusement at the situation that you're indeed the culprit," McGonagall continued. "Perhaps helping Madam Pomfrey deal with magical mishaps for a month will impress the gravity of dosing the student body with untested substances upon you. Do take your final year of schooling more seriously, Potter—unless you plan on seeking employment in a joke shop, such hijinks won't be tolerated out there. N-not that I'm worried about your future, mind you." She blinked, opened her mouth, then closed it again, her cheeks coloring.

Harry doubled over and banged his fist on the table; he would no doubt pay for this later, but the mortified look on McGonagall's normally prim face was too much.

Glowering in his direction, McGonagall seated herself and leaned over to confer with Slughorn. The Potions professor poured some pumpkin juice into his goblet, swirled it around, and gave it a careful sniff. Drawing his wand, he tapped the rim, eyed the colorful lights dancing atop the liquid, then lifted the goblet and dipped his tongue in, smacking his lips thoughtfully.

"Mistletoe berry, is it? And I believe I taste hellebore... Unless I'm mistaken, that would result in a mild truth-compelling component, although it is but a part of the overall effect. Most fascinating potion work, and—no offense to Mr. Potter—well beyond his current abilities. Don't misunderstand me though, Minerva, I'm not particularly impressed." He straightened up in surprise, then chuckled heartily. "Dear me, it's quite potent too."

Tonks's deceptively strong hand yanked Harry by the collar, forcing him to look away from the spectacle at the head table. "What. Did. You. Do?"

He raised his hand defensively, snickering. "Weren't you supposed to protect me?"

"He made heaven descend to earth," Tony said reverently. "Not that I'm—"

"Quiet," Harry ordered, his smile fading. "I don't need you ruining tsunderes for me."

Tony clammed up and bobbed his head.

"What's a tsoondere?" asked a fifth-year boy a little ways up the table. He squirmed at Harry's glare. "I don't care either way. It was just idle curiosity on my part, stupid."

A shiver went down Harry's spine. "No. No, that's just wrong." He should've realized sooner that spiking the wizarding world's most popular beverage would affect everyone indiscriminately. Springing to his feet, he exclaimed, "All blokes are hereby forbidden from drinking pumpkin juice! Girls, drink your fill!"

To his dismay, most witches eyed their drinks suspiciously, Demelza Robins from two tables away going so far as to spit hers out. Several seats away from her, Ronald Weasley turned his way.

"Says who?" he cried. "Just because you're famous d-doesn't mean I have to listen to you, Potter!"

"That's right," a lower-year Hufflepuff piped up. "D-don't get too big of a head, dummy."

"I won't drink it, Harry!" yelled Colin Creevey. "B-but not because you said so... I just don't like it in the first place, alright?"

"Shut up!" Harry backtracked along the aisle between the house tables, taking in the multitude of pink-faced students clamoring for his attention with growing horror. "Shut up and stay away, you freaks!"

"Mr. Potter!" McGonagall snapped. "You will stay and sort this mess out, or so help me god—"

"—don't get me wrong, I just happened to buy too much at Honeydukes—"

"—alright, mate? N-not that I care or anything—"

"—free tomorrow, right? I'll give you the honor of accompanying me—"

Harry clamped his hands over his ears to block the noise that was rising to unbearable levels and turned tail. While scientists had long since wondered as to what would happen if you stuck a bunch of tsunderes into one room, he didn't intend to linger and find out. For all he knew, the resulting implosion would destroy the universe—or at least the participants' dignity.

Barreling out of the Great Hall, he proceeded up the main staircase without slowing, only daring to unplug his ears a floor up. The pandemonium of hundreds of heated voices still drifted from behind. Dashing up the second set of stairs, he glanced at the ajar doors of the Great Hall below, then yelped as he crashed into something.

Staggering back, he caught himself on the banister. Before him, Filch was glowering as he rubbed his forehead.

"Watch where you're going, boy! You'll split your head open, mark my words." The caretaker suddenly looked away and poked his index fingers together. "I d-don't particularly care, mind, but you could hurt someone else."

"Aaargh!" Ducking around the fidgeting Filch, Harry raced up the staircase and was about to flee down the second-floor corridor, but a billow of black robes on its other end made him pivot on his heel. "God, anything but that!"

He didn't dare stop until the seventh floor, struggling to keep the pace as he gasped for air. Running down the thankfully deserted hallway, he skidded to a halt past the troll tapestry and began pacing.

"I need to hide... Somewhere they won't find me... A place no one goes to, please..."

A rectangular patch of stonework melted away to reveal a reinforced wooden door. Harry yanked it open, leapt inside, and slammed it shut. There was a thick bolt on its other side, which he slid into place with a relieved groan.

Turning, he eyed the dusty room. It appeared to be a cellar, if one could be situated on the topmost floor, with sturdy wooden shelves, cabinets, and a large cask lying on its side with the lid removed.

He walked the perimeter, pulling open the cabinet doors and shining a light into the oak cask to make sure he was alone. The inside was discolored, dusty, and smelled funny, but was blessedly empty of stuttering, flush-faced boys.

Without much thought, he dropped to all fours and crawled in, hunching to sit at the other end. He killed the light, hugged himself around the knees, and tried to calm his racing heart. That had been Snape on the second floor, he was certain. A tremble went through him; he'd barely escaped being scarred for life.

"It's safe," he murmured, rocking back and forth. "I'm safe."

He didn't know how long he stayed tucked away, but even after his limbs grew stiff, he didn't dare leave his dark nook. Who knew how long the twins' brew would last?

A sound of soft footsteps made him jerk and bump his head painfully against the rounded wall. As the steps drew closer, he pressed deeper into the cask and drew his wand, aiming it shakily at the open end.

"Stay away," he whispered.

Something loomed over the cask's opening, casting the insides into complete blackness, before an orb of light flared into being, making him shield his eyes and hiss. Hovering above a sleeve-covered palm, it lit up a pale young face framed by a curtain of black hair, a pair of violet eyes peering at him with bemusement.

"Oh, hello, H." He giggled hysterically. "Fancy meeting you here."

"What are you doing in there?" She sounded half-concerned, half-confused.

"Hiding." Letting out a shuddering breath, he reclined against the bottom of the cask.

Her eyebrows quirked up. "I gathered that much. What from?"

"Things. Terrible things." He shivered. "In my ignorance, I unleashed forces that weren't meant to be awakened. I only hope the others can make it through with their sanity intact."

"What are you talking about?" she demanded, frowning. "Have you finally lost what little wits you possessed?"

He gave a humorless laugh. "I came close—too close. A brutal reminder that I too am fallible." He met her eyes. "Let me stay awhile, please?"

As if taken aback by his sincerity, she drew away a little and crossed her arms. "Hmph. Stay holed up in there for all eternity if you like—see if I care."

Harry flinched. "Don't tell me... you drank the pumpkin juice too?"

"Eugh, no," she said, wrinkling her small nose. "It's not your mortals' finest invention to say the least."

Shaking his head, he chuckled weakly. "Don't ever change, H."

She snorted. "Not on a timescale you can comprehend, at least."