"Here we go again," Harry said, frowning at the crowd of students and their parents milling around the platform at King's Cross. "Another year of boredom."
"Cheer up!" Sirius clapped a hand on his shoulder. "It could be worse."
"Easy for you to say," Harry grumbled. "You're not the one stuck in a castle surrounded by grubby little children." It seemed to him that his second year was shaping up to be even more frustrating than his first. Not only would he be forced to keep his head down and act like any other student, but Voldemort might be regaining a body at any moment and the Diary Horcrux was still unaccounted for. "Kill me now," he said.
Sirius chuckled. "Ah, teenage melodrama at its finest - Andromeda warned me about that."
"I'm not –" Harry began to argue, only to be cut off as a bushy haired girl came barrelling through the barrier from the muggle world and crashed into him.
"Orion!" Hermione cried out, grabbing on to his arm in order to keep her balance. "I'm so sorry, my luggage trolley got away from me, though really, what are you doing loitering so close to the entrance? You're blocking the way for everybody else."
Harry ignored her scolding and just smiled in greeting. "Hello, Hermione," he said. "How was your holiday?"
Hermione immediately brightened up. "It was simply brilliant! We took the ferry over to Ireland and visited loads of different historical sites around the country and even spent some time in the magical parts of Dublin. I learnt so much about ancient druidic culture and their magical rituals..."
Harry tried to look interested as Hermione began reciting the various facts she'd learned over the summer, but it didn't take long before he was sending Sirius a pleading look over her shoulder.
Taking his cue, Sirius stepped forwards to interrupt. "So you're the Hermione Granger I've heard so much about," Sirius said with a charming grin. "Nice to meet you, I'm Sirius Black, Orion's father."
"Oh!" Hermione blushed as she shyly returned his smile. "Nice to meet you, too, Mr Black."
Harry stared at her in horror, recognising the look on her face but nevertheless trying to convince himself that Hermione couldn't possibly have a crush on Sirius. He looked desperately around for a distraction and seized on the two adult Grangers hovering awkwardly in the background. "Are those your parents?" he asked, nodding in their direction.
Thankfully his words got Hermione to stop blushing. Instead she nervously bit her lip as she introduced her parents to the Blacks. Harry wondered whether she thought Sirius was the type of prejudiced pureblood who would refuse to associate with Muggles. If so, he was glad of the chance to prove her wrong, since he didn't want Hermione to think that all wizards were bigots.
Sirius and Mr Granger nodded politely to one another, while Mrs Granger held out her hand to be shaken. "Pleasure to meet you," she said with a friendly smile.
"Mum!" Hermione looked horribly embarrassed. "I told you, you don't shake hands here!"
"Oh, I beg your pardon," Mrs Granger apologised.
"No harm done," Sirius said easily. "I know it must be hard to keep track of all the little differences between our worlds."
"You've got that right!" Mr Granger said. "When I first saw that Diagon Alley place you could've knocked me down with a feather - imagine all that hidden in the middle of London. Those goblins came as a shock, let me tell you. It was like a scene out of the Lord of the Rings, wasn't it, darling?"
Mrs Granger nodded. "I thought we'd wandered into the middle of a film set," she said jokingly.
Sirius looked confused, apparently trying to figure out the reference before giving up. "I hope the goblins didn't give you any problems?"
"Well, not exactly," Mr Granger replied. "Though they do seem rather unpleasant, don't they? And the pound to galleon exchange rate has gone up considerably since last year, which is a bother."
The adults continued to make polite small talk, which inevitably included several baffled pauses due to their different backgrounds. After a few false starts they found common ground in their magical children, though Harry found it rather surreal to listen to Sirius chat about the merits of boarding schools and the level of classes offered at Hogwarts. With them being so far from a typical father and son, it was odd to hear Sirius sounding so much like an ordinary parent.
Harry was brought out of his thoughts by Hermione nudging him with an admiring smile. "Your dad's awfully nice," she said, her eyes fixed on Sirius' face.
"Stop right there," Harry ordered. He still remembered Hermione mooning over Lockhart in his old world, which had been bad enough – there was no way he was going to listen to her sigh dreamily over Sirius. "Oh look, there's Draco," he said in an attempt to change the subject. "Draco! Wonderful to see you!" he called out, waving the other boy over.
"Hello, Orion," Draco said, looking gratified by the warm welcome. "If Pansy asks, you, me and Nott arranged to share a compartment on the train so there's no room for her to join us, all right?"
"Fine by me," Harry said, having decided that twelve year old girls with crushes were to be avoided like the plague. As happy as he was to see Draco, however, the same couldn't be said for the sight of Lucius Malfoy strolling up to the group, ornate cane in hand. Harry eyed him suspiciously, wondering if he had any nefarious plans concerning the Riddle's diary – there had been no sign of it, but Harry was used to expecting the worst and so was determined to keep a close eye on the man.
"Black," Lucius drawled, sending a chilly smile at Sirius while pointedly ignoring the Grangers. "Narcissa sends her regards and wishes to know whether or not you are free to come to dinner at the Manor on Friday."
"Sorry, Malfoy, but I can't possibly take the time away from work," Sirius said without looking at all regretful. "You know how busy it is at the Auror Office at the moment. With everyone hoarding their gold at home the number of burglaries has shot up, and just yesterday I caught Mundungus Fletcher selling counterfeit Philosopher's Stones in Knockturn Alley."
"What a shame," Lucius said with equal insincerity. "I would have thought you would be glad of the chance to spend some time in proper company." Here he sent a disdainful glance at the Grangers, both of whom looked rather out of place in their muggle business suits.
Judging by their frowns, the Grangers were well aware that they'd been insulted, but they apparently decided not to respond in kind. "The Philosopher's Stone?" Mrs Granger repeated as if Lucius hadn't spoken. "Is that the stone Hermione was telling us about - the one that Flamel person created?"
"Yes, mum," Hermione said hurriedly, sending a nervous glance at the Malfoy Paterfamilias. "It can transform any metal into pure gold, as well as produce the Elixir of Life that makes the drinker immortal. No other known magical artefact is capable of such feats, which is why the Stone is so valuable – its creator Nicholas Flamel is widely acknowledged as the finest alchemist in centuries, and his theories on the transformative properties of -"
"Breathe, Hermione," Mr Granger interrupted with a fond smile.
"So is Flamel one of those Dark Wizards you mentioned?" Mrs Granger asked.
Hermione's scandalised expression made Harry want to laugh. "Mum! Flamel's a genius – he mentored Professor Dumbledore, you know!"
"Well, dear, he sounds rather too interested in immortality for my tastes," Mrs Granger replied. "In books it's always the stereotypical villain who dedicates their life to hoarding gold and living forever."
Hermione looked ready to explode, but blushingly subsided as soon as Sirius re-entered the conversation. "I agree with you about Flamel," he said to Mrs Granger. "The Stone being stolen has just lead to a whole heap of trouble for everyone, and Flamel's threats to create another one have the goblins up in arms."
Mr Granger looked very interested at that piece of information. "So is that why the exchange rate has shot through the roof? Hermione's school supplies cost three times as much as we were expecting."
"Well it seems the goblins have at least done one thing right," Lucius said to Sirius, though it was clear to everyone that his comment was aimed at the Grangers.
"Ah yes, Lucius, let me introduce Mr and Mrs Granger to you," Sirius said, his expression making Harry wonder what he was up to. "We were having a lovely conversation before you arrived," and ruined it, Harry mentally filled in the missing words. Sirius wasn't finished, however. "Their daughter Hermione is known as the brightest student in her year, only matched by Orion here."
"Sirius!" Harry hissed in alarm.
Lucius sneered down at Hermione. "Yes, I had heard something of that sort," he said with a harsh look in Draco's direction. "How standards have fallen."
Draco winced. "Father still hasn't forgiven me for letting a muggleborn beat me in my exams, not to mention losing our bet," he muttered in an aside to Harry, but unfortunately Hermione overheard him.
"It's your own fault for not studying harder," she said. "And for making that silly bet in the first place."
Harry sighed as the two glared at each other. "The bet's over and done with. Let's just forget about it, hmm?"
"I just wish I could," Draco grumbled. "I've been stuck in extra lessons all summer and have had to listen to endless lectures on the purity of the Malfoy bloodline. I think Father's concerned that I'm turning into a muggle-lover or something because I've been avoiding the word 'mudblood'. It's all your fault, you know, Orion."
"Feel free to blame it all on me, Draco, just so long as you stick to the terms," Harry told him.
The tense atmosphere between Draco and Hermione, not to mention their parents (Lucius still refused to speak directly to the Grangers, but aimed continuous barbs their way via Sirius), was making Harry increasingly nervous. He was therefore relieved to see Theodore Nott and his father approaching, hoping they might diffuse the situation - unfortunately, he'd forgotten that the Malfoy and the Nott families strongly disliked each other due to some centuries-old argument.
"Ah, Black, just the person I wanted to see," Nott Senior said while his son offered a quiet greeting to his fellow students. "What're the Aurors doing about this mess with the goblins? They're charging twenty galleons just to let people into the bank and I've heard they've even threatened to close their doors entirely. It's a disaster!"
"The Ministry has the situation well in hand," Sirius trotted out the well-worn phrase with a bored expression.
"I hope your situation isn't too dire, Nott," Lucius said with a malicious smirk. "You have my deepest sympathies for your troubled financial situation. I know you can't afford another loss, what with your gambling problem..."
"I wouldn't listen to rumours if I were you, Malfoy," Nott snapped back. "Why if I did I would expect to find some very nasty things under your drawing room floor..."
Harry glanced between the elder Nott and Malfoy, who were glaring angrily at each other; the Grangers, who looked offended at being ignored; and Sirius, whose attention had wandered to a beautiful witch standing further down the platform. Time for a strategic retreat, Harry decided. "Right, dad, I'd better get on the train. See you at Samhain!"
"Bye, Orion. Remember what we talked about, all right?"
"Yeah, sure, got to go!"
After a hasty exchange of goodbyes, Harry hurried onboard and settled into the first empty compartment he came across. His fellow second years must have decided his was a good example to follow, since they joined him only a short time later. For one long moment Harry, Hermione, Draco and Nott stared at each in silence and then burst out laughing. It really was ridiculous that their parents were acting more childishly than they themselves ever did.
The train journey north was spent eating sweets and sharing holiday stories, and Harry managed to stop obsessing over Voldemort and his Horcruxes long enough to win a few games of exploding snap. He had to admit it was nice to see everyone again and to reassure himself than his friends were alive and well. The Weasley twins stopped by to say hello to Harry and to trick Draco into eating one of their experimental joke products, Marcus Flint barged in to remind them of the upcoming Quidditch tryouts for the Slytherin team, and Luna Lovegood could be seen wandering up and down the corridor singing quietly to herself.
"Quidditch is a barbaric sport," Hermione said sniffily as soon as Flint left. "Not to mention the obvious sexism present in the Slytherin team – it's disgusting!"
"Hey, our House has won the cup eight years in a row," Nott pointed out. "We must be doing something right."
"Will you be joining the try outs this year, Orion?" Draco asked. "I was going to myself, but then Father refused to buy new Nimbus Two Thousands for all the players – I couldn't possibly let myself be seen flying alongside teammates on inferior broomsticks."
Nott sniggered. "Daddy having money troubles, is he?"
"He is not! It's just the goblins causing problems, that's all," Draco retorted.
While the two boys argued and Hermione took out a book to read, Harry called out to Luna as she passed by. "Hi, Luna, long time no see!"
Luna peered around at him in surprise. "Oh, hello, do you mean it's been a long time since there's been a sea around here, or that you've never seen a long time?"
"Er, what?" Harry shook his head in befuddlement. "I meant I haven't seen you for quite a while – not since the Beltane festival the year before last. We danced together, remember?"
"Why would I forget?" Luna asked in that dreamy way she had. "I hope you're not suffering from memory problems, Orion. Minister Fudge might have had you obliviated so that you can't tell anyone that he's secretly breeding Heliopaths for his own private army."
"I don't think so, Luna," Harry said. "I can remember everything just fine."
"But how can you know you've forgotten something if you've already forgotten it?" Luna said curiously.
"Um..." Harry couldn't think of an answer to that question. Luna was one of the kindest people he knew and she was certainly intelligent enough to belong in Ravenclaw, but her way of seeing the world made his head hurt.
"Stuttering is a sign of a Nargle infestation, you know," Luna told him. "I'll make you a butterbeer cork necklace to keep them away if you like."
"I really appreciate the offer, but I think I'm fine for now," Harry said with a smile.
"All right then," Luna said and wandered off down the corridor, humming to herself again.
"What on earth was that girl talking about?" Hermione asked, apparently having been distracted from her book by the talk of imaginary creatures.
"Nargles are magical animals that live in mistletoe," Nott explained. "I read about them in the Quibbler."
Harry stared at him in surprise. He knew Nott had some odd ideas when it came to conspiracy theories (like being convinced that Dumbledore was secretly ruling the Wizarding World and that Gregory Goyle was only pretending to be stupid), but reading the Quibbler took it all a step further.
Draco gave a disbelieving snort. "You don't really pay any attention to that drivel, do you? It's written by a Lovegood, which means it's full of crazy ideas. Which makes me wonder, Orion, what possible reason you could have to engage a member of that family in conversation. If you're trying to tell me that Loony Lovegood will ever amount to anything, then all I can say is that your Assessor ability must be faulty."
"I like her," Harry said simply. "And don't call her that. Her name is Luna."
"I've already stopped using the 'm-word', what more can you want?" Draco sniffed. "You can't get your way in everything, Orion."
Harry thought that was ironic considering how spoilt and self-centred Draco could be. If ever Harry was in danger of forgetting that fact, the boy opened his mouth and reminded him. Case in point, Draco launched into a long lecture about his skill on a broom and how he'd definitely be picked for the Quidditch team if he ever deigned to try out, and then spent an hour sulking after the others laughed at him.
Once the train finally pulled in to the station at Hogsmeade, Harry was quite relieved to see Pansy latch onto Draco and drag the pouting boy away somewhere. He was less pleased, however, when Draco was replaced by Daphne, who greeted Hermione with a warm smile and somehow arranged things so that she was beside Harry in their Thestral-drawn carriage.
The sun was setting as they rumbled down the path leading to Hogwarts, lending a backdrop of pink and yellow to the castle's soaring turrets and looming battlements. Harry heard several girls sigh about how romantic it all was, causing him to edge further away from Daphne.
"A carriage is so much more comfortable than those small boats, don't you agree?" Daphne asked him.
"Right," Harry said, still wondering how he'd ended up sitting next to her.
"It gives a whole different view of the castle," Hermione said enthusiastically from her seat next to Nott. "I'm so excited to be back for another school year – I wonder what song the Sorting Hat will sing this time? I read in 'Hogwarts: A History' that it never sings the same one twice."
Harry kept asking questions and encouraging Hermione to keep talking until the carriage came to a halt outside the massive gates to the Entrance Hall. Remembering the manners his Black relatives had drilled into him, Harry jumped down first and lent a helping hand to both Hermione and Daphne, before they all joined the stream of students making their way inside.
"Get out of the way, mudblood!" An older student wearing a Ravenclaw tie roughly shouldered Hermione aside.
"Bastard," Nott muttered. "No offence meant, Orion," he quickly added.
Illegitimacy was not looked on favourably in pureblood circles, mainly because the integrity of family lines was deemed too important to put at risk. Harry couldn't care less about that sort of thing though. "None taken," he said. "So Hermione, want me to hex him for you?"
"Violence is never a good solution, Orion," Hermione said primly. "In any case if anyone was going to hex him, it would be me," she added.
"Giving your revenge a personal touch, I like it," Nott said with a smirk.
Harry wasn't happy about letting the older student off scot-free - he knew several humiliating curses he'd like to try out - but nevertheless settled quietly down beside the other second years at the Slytherin table. He smirked at the sight of an unhappy Draco sitting next to Pansy and nodded hello to everyone he hadn't seen on the train, but they didn't have time to talk before Professor McGonagall lead the long line of nervous first years into the Great Hall. Harry's eyes were immediately drawn to the faces of those he used to know. Ginny was hidden in the back, but was still easily spotted due to her bright red hair, Luna was wearing her typical faraway expression, and Colin Creevey seemed ready to explode from excitement. They all looked so very young and innocent.
"What a bunch of mudbloods," Pansy said with an unpleasant sneer. "That mousy little boy in particular."
"Muggleborns," Draco corrected her before Harry could. "Call them muggleborns."
Pansy couldn't have looked more aghast if Draco had just announced his resorting into Gryffindor. Harry suspected that Draco just didn't want to let anyone else do something he couldn't, but was still pleased with the outcome no matter the reasoning behind it.
"Whatever," Pansy said, tossing her hair over her shoulder. "Either way, that boy obviously has no breeding, I mean look at him!"
It was true that Colin was bouncing up and down and staring around the hall in obvious amazement, while the pureblood first years were more subdued in their behaviour – for them, the novelty of magic had worn off long ago.
"You're right, Pansy," Harry said, causing all the Slytherins to stare at him in shock. He and Pansy were known to never agree on anything. "He probably is a muggleborn, judging by how excited he is. It's understandable though seeing as this is his first day in the magical world. I mean, look at the older students." Harry nodded at the other House tables. "Can you tell who's a muggelborn there?"
Pansy glanced around the hall as if expecting to see students holding up signs announcing 'My parents are Muggles!'
"See, there's no difference," Harry said triumphantly when she didn't answer straightaway. "Which just shows that muggleborns don't take long to adapt to wizarding society once given the chance."
"I'm afraid I don't quite agree," Daphne said, giving a delicate cough as she joined the conversation. "Muggleborns are rather easy to identify due to their reluctance to conform to magical fashions. That girl sitting at the end of the Hufflepuff table is wearing ribbons in her hair, for example, and so must be a muggleborn."
"Either that or she doesn't know what time of year it is," Tracey Davis put in with a giggle. "Witches only wear their hair like that during magical festivals."
Pansy looked vindicated by their support. "Yes, and what about that boy," she said, gesturing to one of the Ravenclaws. "He's wearing a muggle t-shirt under his robes."
Harry would never have noticed those sorts of details if they hadn't been pointed out to him. "Oh," was all he could think of to say.
"Shh!" Hermione hissed at them all to be quiet. "The Sorting is about to start."
Sure enough, they had missed all of the Hat's song and McGonagall had begun calling out names. Harry quickly fixed his attention on the proceedings at the front of the hall, partly to avoid further conversation and partly to test out a theory of his. The year before he'd pretended to be an Assessor by predicting which Houses his fellow first years would end up in; having actually turned into an Assessor due to his weird brand of luck, Harry wanted to check if he was actually able to read people's characters to that extent. He'd missed the Sorting in his old world and only recognised a few of the eleven year olds currently trying on the Hat, so it was a good time to test his abilities.
"Branstone, Benjamin," McGonagall called out and a shy looking boy shuffled forwards.
Harry eyed him carefully, thinking he looked rather like a Ravenclaw. He had that studious, bookish look about him.
"Hufflepuff!" the Sorting Hat shouted out.
"Oh," Harry mumbled. Obviously he still needed to practice, though he suspected that he'd never be able to Assess people completely accurately except on the nights of Beltane and Samhain. As it was, during the rest of the Sorting Harry managed to guess the right House around half the time, which at least showed that his Assessing skills made some sort of a difference.
There were no unexpected Sortings, unlike Hermione's the year before. Colin happily ran over to the Gryffindor table and Luna joined the Ravenclaws after what looked like a very interesting conversation with the Hat. Looking at them Harry was once again struck by how bizarre it was to be surrounded by people he knew, but at the same time didn't know. He'd grown used to thinking of Hermione, Draco, Neville and the others as separate people from those he'd left behind, but it was still strange to watch Ginny being sorted into Gryffindor and know that she would never be the same girl that Harry had dated back in his old world. For one thing, Harry was determined never to let her be possessed by Voldemort, which would surely lead to a massive change in her personality. Without that terrifying and life-altering experience, Harry had no idea what sort of person she'd grow up to become.
Another big (and very welcome) difference became clear at the end of the Welcoming Feast, when Dumbledore stood up to make his customary speech. As always he warned the students about the Forbidden Forest and the rule about no magic in the corridors, but the surprise came when he introduced the new Defence Professor.
"I am delighted to welcome an experienced Auror as part of our staff," Dumbledore said with a beaming smile. "Professor Longbottom has agreed to take a year away from the Ministry to teach here at Hogwarts."
"Longbottom? Is he Neville's dad?" Hermione asked as everyone clapped.
"Yeah," Harry answered. "I had no idea he would be teaching us, but as an Auror he must know a lot when it comes to Defence."
Harry vaguely remembered Sirius boasting about getting Moody to assign an Auror as Lockhart's replacement, but he hadn't realised it would be Frank Longbottom. Sirius always spoke well of the man, so Harry was prepared to believe he'd make an excellent teacher and wouldn't turn out to be a Death Eater in disguise. Twisting his head around to observe Neville's reaction to the good news, he was surprised to see him looking thoroughly miserable.
"What's wrong with Neville?" Harry wondered aloud.
"Maybe he doesn't want his father to witness his utter incompetence," Draco said with a sneer.
Harry sighed. "Come on, Draco, Neville's spellcasting has improved a lot over the past year."
"Yes, yes, I know," Draco said. "He'll grow up to be a powerful wizard, I heard you the first time."
Harry gave up on convincing Draco to be nicer and instead joined the other Slytherins in making their way down to the common room as soon as Dumbledore dismissed them. As he prepared for bed he wondered what changes a competent Defence Professor would bring. He definitely believed it was good for students to be taught how to properly defend themselves, but wasn't sure what the long-term consequences would be. Maybe more witches and wizards would end up qualifying to be Aurors, or be able to protect themselves from a Death Eater attack, or any number of other things.
Thinking about the endless causes and effects, with each small change leading to many others, gave Harry a headache. It was becoming increasingly clear to him that he couldn't accurately predict future events – the theft of the Philosopher's Stone was an unfortunate example of that. Because he hadn't heard anything about a break-in before the beginning of his first year, Harry had thought the Stone would be safe in Gringotts. He was obviously wrong about that, however, and had no clear idea of what would happen now that Voldemort had the Stone. He felt like he was flying blind.
Harry was convinced Voldemort had stolen the Stone, but still felt like he didn't have enough information to do anything about it. As a wraith, Voldemort must have had help breaking into Gringotts, but the question was who. It could have been Quirrell, Harry supposed, but that was unlikely since according to Sirius' sources the man was currently sunning himself on the beaches of Majorca. Perhaps another Death Eater was involved – Barty Crouch Junior, or Macnair, or dozens of other dark witches or wizards, but with so many choices it was impossible to find out the truth. Harry hated not knowing and half wished he were still a Horcrux so that he could catch glimpses of what Voldemort was up to. His visions had been painful and dangerous, but still useful at times.
As things stood, there was simply too much Harry didn't know, such as how the Stone worked, what Voldemort's plans were, and where the Horcrux Diary was. Harry really didn't want to deal with the Chamber of Secrets being opened, but so far he hadn't seen any signs of Ginny or Hermione (or anyone else Lucius Malfoy might dislike) being possessed. Which meant that the Diary might still be hidden at Malfoy Manor, in which case Harry had no idea how to get hold of it.
There were ways to find answers to a few of the questions rattling around his brain, however, which was why Harry hung back after his first Potions lesson of the year to talk to Snape. As much as he disliked being stuck at Hogwarts, he might as well make the most of it. If the Stone could be used to restore Voldemort's body, then there was no one better to ask than a Potions Master.
"Yes, Black, what is it?" Snape demanded without turning around from checking the content of his storage cupboard. "Before you start, no, I will not let you stop working with Longbottom, so don't even bother asking."
"No, sir, I know," Harry said. He was pretty sure Snape viewed sharing a cauldron with Neville as a fitting punishment for the crime of being Sirius Black's son, which actually suited Harry just fine. "It's got nothing to do with the lesson – actually, I'm interested in doing some extra credit work."
"Do not take me for a fool, Black," Snape snapped. "All you want is a pass to the restricted section."
"Well, yes, sir," Harry admitted, deciding to go with at least the partial truth since Snape was too much of a Slytherin to be easily fooled. "After hearing so much about the Philosopher's Stone recently, I want to know how it works. The idea of the Elixir of Life is just fascinating! How powerful do you think it is? Could it regrow whole body parts, or..."
Snape interrupted him impatiently. "You will have to research the answers yourself." He still sounded rather sceptical of Harry's intentions, but nevertheless strode over to his desk and picked up a black feather quill. "If I give you permission, I will expect a three foot essay on the Philosopher's Stone and its abilities as pertains to potions and alchemy. Understood?"
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Harry said as he watched Snape scrawl a short note in his spidery handwriting. As much as he hated essays, in this case it would be worth it. Deciding that while he was at it he should try getting the answer to another of his unanswered questions, he added, "Actually, sir, there's also a potion I've been wondering about. I once read a short description of its effects in my family's library, but I haven't found it mentioned anywhere else. Apparently it makes the drinker hallucinate about their worst memories, as well as causing overwhelming pain and thirst."
Snape frowned. "That does not sound like any potion currently in existence. If it exists at all, it has never been made public."
"So there's no known antidote then?" Harry asked in disappointment. He'd hoped to find some way to safely retrieve Slytherin's Locket from the cave, but it seemed his luck wasn't that good.
"Beyond using a bezoar and other broad-spectrum antidotes, I imagine not," Snape said, his voice dark with suspicion. "Black, if I ever hear of such a potion being used, I will make your life a misery, do you understand?"
"Um... yes, sir."
Harry beat a hasty retreat from the classroom before Snape could ask any awkward questions or decide to use Legilimency on him. Although upon reflection, he realised that Snape had never once met his eyes throughout the whole conversation, as if eye contact would allow Harry to Assess his deepest darkest secrets. He hoped Snape never find out that his Assessor talent didn't actually work that way, with physical contact being more important than anything else. For once the Potion Master's paranoia was working in Harry's favour - while Harry had been practicing Occlumency on and off, he didn't want to test his skills against an expert of the Mind Arts.
To be on the safe side, Harry decided to be extra careful in acting like a normal twelve year old for the next few months. Harry didn't exactly think the Potions Master routinely violated his students' minds, but he knew how ruthless the man could be. If he ever suspected… an image of Professor Footswitch coughing up blood appeared in his mind's eye, making Harry shudder.
It had been worth asking Snape those questions though, he decided. With the permission slip clutched in his hand he headed straight for the library, hoping to get some research done before dinner. He noticed Hermione sitting at a quiet table with Terry Boot, Mandy Brocklehurst and a few other muggleborn Ravenclaws, all of whom looked scarily intent on their work. Harry wasn't sure whether interrupting them was a good idea, but decided to risk it.
"Hi, Hermione," Harry said, nodding at the others as he pulled up a chair. He only got frowns in return, though whether that was due to his being a pureblood or his interference in their study time, Harry wasn't certain.
"Shh! Keep your voice down," Hermione hissed. "This is a library!"
"Sorry," Harry whispered back. "I suppose you don't want to hear about my research into the Philosopher's Stone then?"
That immediately got her attention. "You? Extra research?" Hermione asked disbelievingly.
"Hey, I pick up a book from time to time," Harry defended himself. He hated magical theory, but he could research when he had to – he just didn't see the point of it most of the time. "See, I've asked Snape for a permission slip and everything," he added, waving it at her.
"Professor Snape, Orion," Hermione corrected him, though her attention was mostly focused on the scrap of parchment. "I don't suppose you'd want any help with your research?" Hermione offered, her eyes glued to Snape's note.
"Of course, you're welcome to help," Harry said generously. "The more the merrier."
Hermione gave him a knowing look, making it clear she knew he was roping her in to do most of the work, but luckily she didn't seem upset at the idea. Apparently she viewed access to the restricted section as a fair trade. "Let's get started then," she said.
"You're a great friend, you know that, Hermione?" Harry said with a grin.
She brushed of his praise with an uncomfortable shrug. "Yes, well, why don't you go and get 'Moste Potente Potions' from Madame Pince while I make a research plan.
"Whatever you say. You're the expert," Harry replied. No matter how many more years experience he had, Hermione would always be far better than he was at research. Harry had been trying to plan things more instead of letting others make the decisions for him, but intellectual pursuits would never be his strong point. Fortunately for him, within a few days Hermione had completely taken over the project, leaving Harry free to do other things – such as fulfil his promise to help Sirius with his Board of Governors problem, which was what lead to Harry strolling over to the Gryffindor table one day during lunch.
"So, Fred, George," Harry said. "Can I interest you in a little mayhem?"
Identical looks of mischief spread across their faces. "What do you have in mind?"
Half an hour later the three were staging a mock duel outside the history classroom, where the new first year Gryffindors were in the middle of a lesson. One spell smashed open the door and another caused Harry to skid across the floor, conveniently placing Professor Binns between himself and the twins. While the startled first years looked on and the Professor continued lecturing obliviously, Harry raised his wand and cast one final incantation, appearing to stumble over his words as he did so. The bright blue spell hit the ghost in the chest, spreading through the insubstantial form until all the dull grey spirit glowed with an eerie light. Behind him, Harry could hear Colin Creevey snapping photographs as Binns' shape began to blur, slowly fading away until finally there was nothing left but thin air.
"Hey, where did he go?" one of the students asked.
"Does this mean our lesson is cancelled?" wondered another.
Little Ginny Weasley was the only one that seemed to grasp exactly what had happened. "Oh no! You killed Professor Binns! Fred, George - Mum is going to kill you!"
"Oi! Why are you blaming us?" George complained.
"It was Orion here who cast the spell," Fred pointed out.
"Who me?" Harry said with a look of innocence pasted on his face.
It was at that point McGonagall turned up to investigate the disturbance. "What is going on here?" she demanded. "Mr Weasley and Mr Weasley, I might have known you two were involved in this commotion. Ten points from Gryffindor for disrupting the lesson. Now off with you."
"Please, Professor," one of the first years spoke up. "They killed Professor Binns."
"I highly doubt that," McGonagall said impatiently. "Professor Binns is already dead."
"But Professor -"
The protests continued and McGonagall gradually changed from dismissive, to sceptical, to red-faced and furious. "Exorcising your Professor! And dragging Mr Black into your mischief! I have never been so ashamed of my House. Fifty points from Gryffindor!" McGonagall yelled at the twins.
"We didn't –"
"Fifty points each," McGonagall snapped. "And not another word from either of you unless you want that doubled."
The twins quickly shut up and disappeared from the classroom before she could decide to give them detention on top of everything else. Harry followed on their heels, not wanting to give McGonagall time to wonder whether he should also be blamed.
"Better watch your back for a while, Orion," Fred said.
"We won't forget you leaving us to take the blame like that," George said.
Harry shrugged unrepentantly. "Slytherin," he said as if that was all the explanation that was needed.
"Hah! I suppose we should have expected such sneaky behaviour, eh Fred?"
"Right you are, George."
"It was so worth it though," they both said in unison, then burst out laughing and high-fived each other, apparently not caring about the massive point loss.
It didn't take long for the tale of what had occurred in the history classroom to spread and Harry soon found himself to be the hero of Slytherin, with all his housemates congratulating him on making Gryffindor lose so many points. The Hogwart's ghosts, in contrast, seemed to view him as the enemy. While the Fat Friar promptly disappeared though the floor whenever he spotted Harry, Nearly-Headless-Nick materialised in Harry's path at unexpected moments, forcing him to walk through the ghost and endure the unpleasant feeling of being doused in ice-cold water. That was nothing compared to Peeves, however, who had started following Harry around, tripping him up, throwing water balloons at him, and hiding dungbombs under his bed. The Poltegeist didn't usually target Slytherin students, but Harry wasn't about to ask the Bloody Baron to put a stop to it. That particular ghost had cornered Harry in the dungeons one night just before curfew and had threatened him with gruesome and explicit dismemberment if Harry even thought of casting another exorcism spell while at Hogwarts. Only after Harry had nodded his fervent understanding did the Baron congratulate him on successfully carrying out such a Slytherin plot, before floating away through a wall with one last foreboding promise of "I'll be watching". Thoroughly unnerved, Harry had resolved to stay out of the Baron's way for the next six years.
Despite all that, Harry didn't regret getting rid of Binns, especially since it meant he was spared from ever again having to sit through his mind-numbing lectures. Sirius had written a letter promising to arrange for a much more interesting teacher to be hired and Harry found himself looking forward to actually learning something for a change. In the meantime, Dumbledore announced that History lessons were cancelled until a new Professor was found, giving everyone several extra hours off a week. Hermione wasn't happy ("But how will we be prepared for our exams without classes?"), but the rest of his friends patted Harry on the back and expressed their thanks.
Harry himself had at first planned on using the extra free time to practice his spell-casting, but that changed once he joined the Slytherin Quidditch team. He had debated whether or not to try out, but in the end had justified it as good physical training. Flying was one of the few things he'd always enjoyed at Hogwarts, though as a change of pace he had decided not to try for the Seeker position. After watching Harry fly, Flint had said he could choose either Beater of Chaser, but the thought of going up against the Weasley twins armed with clubs had made Harry decide to give Chasing a go. It was very different from the more independent role of Seeker, but Harry got on all right with Pucey and Flint, his fellow Chasers, and after several weeks of practice they worked well together.
Flint was as much of a slave driver as Wood had been (with the difference being that strategy sessions consisted mostly of figuring out ways to injure the opposing team without gaining a penalty), but despite the long hours and questionable tactics Harry enjoyed himself a lot. Flying by himself never gave him the same adrenaline rush as a fast paced game of Quidditch did, and he liked the challenge involved in filling a new position on the team.
"We're going to flatten Gryffindor!" Flint crowed after every training session.
Harry found the Slytherin's aggressive playing style great for working out his frustration with the whole 'Voldemort situation' as he was calling it in his head. It had taken three weeks of research for Hermione to discover that the Philosopher's Stone could not be used to create a brand new body (or at least that was what Harry could gather without daring to ask the question outright), which meant that Voldemort would probably have to use some form of ritual as he did in Harry's old world. Because he and Sirius had destroyed Riddle Senior's bones, the exact same ritual wouldn't work, but Harry didn't think that would do more than slow Voldemort down. As things stood he couldn't think of any sure-fire way to prevent Voldemort from regaining a body and in fact wasn't even certain that it hadn't already happened. Simply put, Harry had no way of knowing what was going on or what he should do next.
Aside from the Dark Lord, there were also the Horcruxes to deal with. With the goblins tripling the security around their bank, Harry couldn't imagine managing to steal Hufflepuff's Cup from Bellatrix' vault – if it was actually there in the first place, which wasn't certain. When it came to Nagini he wasn't sure if the snake even was a Horcrux, which complicated things still further. As for the Diary, Harry kept a wary eye out for petrified students and bloody messages on the wall, but so far there had been no sign of the Chamber of Secrets being opened. If he were still a Parselmouth he could've released a dozen cockerels into the chamber in a preemptive strike, but as it was he was stuck watching and waiting – something Harry had always hated doing.
It was a stressful start of term to say the least, and Harry was looking forward to going home for the holidays and talking things over with Sirius. He was hoping that, as an Auror, Sirius might have a few leads to follow or ideas on what their next move should be. If all else failed, Harry intended to steal a bottle of Firewhisky and get drunk, which would take his mind off things if nothing else. An encounter with Trelawney a week before Samhain, however, added an extra urgency to Harry's holiday plans.
It was midday on a Friday and the corridors were mostly deserted, since almost all the students were gathered in the Great Hall for lunch. Harry was on his way there, having lost track of time while training in the Room of Requirement, when Trelawney suddenly appeared in front of him with a crystal ball tucked under one arm.
"My poor Assessor!" Trelawney pointed a shaking finger at him, the many bracelets on her wrist clanking together so loudly that the sound almost drowned out her words. "Doom is upon you! Your old foe shall soon return! Oh I See... I See death before you! "
Harry stopped trying to edge away down the corridor and actually looked at the woman. Beneath her runic jewellery and obsession with incense, the Professor did seem to have a smidgen of Seer talent. Harry could sense the potential within her – Trelawney just tried too hard, pushing herself to meet the standard of Cassandra Trelawney, her famous ancestor. Too often she ended up fabricating predictions, but even her wild guesses were more accurate than mere luck would suggest. He wished he could dismiss her words as nonsense, but if she was right, it seemed Voldemort was definitely on his way to regaining a body.
"Thanks for the warning," Harry said at last. Though far from happy over her prediction, hearing his fears confirmed actually helped steady him. "I'll keep it in mind."
Trelawney blinked at him in bewilderment. "You're welcome?" she said uncertainly. Harry got the impression no one had ever thanked her for one of her predictions before, which wasn't a surprise given her penchant for doom and gloom. But Harry couldn't help noticing that her earlier prediction of 'that which he feared most' occurring had actually come to pass - Voldemort had managed to steal the Philosopher's Stone. With this latest prediction added to the picture, Harry was more certain than ever that Voldemort would soon return.