Author: nos tres reges PM
VINCET 1: Some people, when crushed underfoot, simply buckle and lie dead still. Some find inner strength and fight back. Yet some others pawn their Aunt's wedding ring and hex their relatives. Shades of grey, argues Harry. No SlashRated: Fiction T - English - Adventure - Harry P. & Hermione G. - Chapters: 8 - Words: 78,821 - Reviews: 487 - Favs: 1,425 - Follows: 724 - Updated: 07-28-09 - Published: 03-17-09 - Status: Complete - id: 4930996
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CAPUT VIII: LASCIVITI ANCILLORUM
In the days following the incident with the Dragon, the tension in the Gryffindor first year boys' dormitory only got worse. It was almost unbearable, and it didn't get any better when Ron's shaky performance in Transfiguration earned the boy a rebuke about how he should be 'more like Mr. Potter'. That Dean and Harry were not speaking with each other, coupled with Neville's natural timidity and Seamus' standard animosity, was enough to make the room more of a prison than a retreat. The three boys, already alienated from the rest of the house, seemed closer to cracking each time Harry saw them. He was not about to let them, since he would likely be implicated, and he had important things that would be disrupted.
Fortunately, he had the time and method to go about repairing the situation so that it did not collapse about his ears entirely. Ameliorating himself with Ron wasn't difficult or time-consuming in the slightest, since Ron already believed that Harry had gone off to complete another part of his 'mission'. He'd shared a bowl of Chocolate Frogs with the boy in the Common Room—making an effort to be seen spending time with him—and he'd played on Ron's obvious ambition: "Fifty points and the scorn of the ignorant—that's a small price to pay, mate. You'll be recognized sooner or later, and when you're recognized, they'll say that you're the Gryffindor even Godric himself would aspire to be like."
Ron's eyes had lit with the prospect of stardom. "Never doubted you for a minute, mate," he had responded cheerily, before his eyes hardened. "And of course, the twins will beg for forgiveness, turning my hair that horrid shade of blue. They've lost way more than fifty points this year, even if it wasn't all in one go..."
Harry nodded, certain the twins would never, ever apologize to Ron, even if he won a bloody Order of Merlin.
Neville wasn't particularly popular enough to burn bridges with Harry, who, despite his reputation as a curmudgeon, was very well-regarded throughout the entire school, bar Slytherin. For his part, too, Neville hadn't been angry at Harry for ditching; if he had been, he had held it from Harry quite well, and Harry was sure that he had smothered any ill will after he took the time to confront him personally and make amends. Harry had even gone so far as to deliberately (and violently) sabotage his own potion on a day Snape was being particularly vicious, so as to deflect for Neville.
Dean had proved to be the hardest, as he'd been least friendly with Harry out of the three, and was rather close with Seamus. In the end, Harry had resorted to the most basic of measures to keep Dean from squealing to McGonagall about the dragon, and about Harry's involvement—guilt. Harry had made it abundantly clear that he wouldn't hesitate to tell all of Gryffindor that Dean had lost his father's Invisibility Cloak. Such things were rare enough that Dean's reputation would take an insufferable blow. The balance between Harry and Dean was precarious, though, and Harry continued to think of other possibilities to keep Dean quiet for good. For the time being, there simply wasn't the time.
As exams approached, the stress began to pile up on Harry, too. He had scored on top of his class the entire year, and he was determined to do so for his exams, too. As Hermione's grades were nipping at the heels of his own, he had to put in a significant amount of time, and that effort began to show in his constant exhaustion. Then there were his lingering (though diminishing) troubles with the Trace. He had to study and practice casting a Containment Ward, which was no small feat of magic for the first year, considerable though his talents might have been. It took him nearly two weeks of practicing for hours at nights to even make a showing of it. Even that attempt had been weak, but after a full month, he considered himself capable, if not an expert at it. Still, it took time, and it was time he didn't have—hence the stress.
He'd been taking a calming potion for almost a week when things came to a head in the wee hours of a Sunday morning (or was it the late hours of a Saturday? The Potions essay he had finished a few minutes prior had stolen a great deal of his sanity).
A trembling Neville came through the portrait hole.
"Harry, is that you?" the boy managed to squeak out.
Harry's head jerked up, and he slammed closed Advanced Warding for the Paranoid and Insecure. "Huh?" he said, before he turned to look at Neville.
Neville was visibly distraught. His eyes were wide and wild, and he was shaking. Harry rose and strode briskly to the boy.
"I wanted to make sure you three got back all right. Merlin, you look terrible! What did they have you doing?" Harry cringed—the balance between him and Dean would be even more precarious...
"Forbidden Forest. We split up, and Hagrid left me with Malfoy."
"Ugh," said Harry, as he pulled Neville over to one of the chairs. "No wonder—"
"No," interrupted Neville. "No, Malfoy was bad but this was worse. We were looking for a—for a dying unicorn," said Neville.
Harry blinked. "That seems like awfully dangerous work for first years—"
"We found it."
"What?" asked Harry. "Seriously? You found the unicorn—?"
"We found the thing that was killing and eating the Unicorn." It seemed impossible, but Neville turned even paler, and looked ready to throw up.
"Easy, Nev. Have a seat." He drew his wand, summoned two empty glasses sitting around, and Scourgified them. With a sharp bang, hot cocoa began to pour out of his wand into the cup. With his back turned to Neville, he removed one of the little stoppered bottles of the Draft of Peace from inside his robe, popped the cap, and emptied it into the cup.
Neville sat down in a chair, but he did not look any more relaxed. "Here," said Harry, as he handed the glass to Neville. "Drink some of that. I guess chocolate is supposed to make you relax. Take a few minutes, and then tell me what happened."
Neville nodded gratefully. He managed to lift the heavy mug to his lips without spilling, and he drank the hot liquid quickly.
Harry allowed the boy a few minutes silence. Neville's jitters seemed to disappear, and then his breathing relaxed to be significantly smoother. "Much better," said Neville, after he'd finished his drink. "Where'd you get the Draft of Peace?"
"Brewed it myself," said Harry, who was quite surprised that Neville knew his little trick.
It must have been a mark of the efficacy of the potion that Neville barely raised an eyebrow. "That's supposed to be really difficult to brew."
Harry shook his head negatively. "Not harder than any other potion. As long as you follow the directions perfectly, you get a perfect batch."
"How come you do so badly in Potions, then?" asked Neville. "Didn't you just blow up a cauldron the other day—?"
"Unlucky," said Harry quickly. "Just made a simple mistake. How'd you know I slipped you a potion?"
Neville hoisted the mug and showed Harry the bottom of the cup, where little crystals were encrusted. "Look. Powdered Hellebore becomes granular in water, and it tastes bitter. It's only used in a couple potions, too, since residual buildup can cause heart attacks."
"Ah," said Harry, sagaciously. "I learn something new each day. Anyway, what's the deal? What happened in the forest?" He suddenly realized that the other two boys were missing, and so he amended his questions. "Why don't you start with where Dean and Ron are?"
Neville nodded again. "They're probably still with Hagrid. Dumbledore took me from the Centaur and told me that detention was over—he said I should get some rest and that I could come speak to him or another teacher whenever I liked. I might go see Sprout in the morning," he added, and seemed to consider the thought.
Harry nodded, trying to coax more out of Neville. "What's this about a Centaur?"
"He saved me in the Forest. Hagrid paired me with Malfoy, the git."
Harry wasn't sure to whom Neville was referring—Malfoy was a git, but he would call Hagrid the same thing if ever the huge man paired him with the Poncy Prince.
"Anyway, Malfoy kept picking at me, saying I wasn't totally useless if I kept leaving things for him to find." Neville scowled. "I'm really, really sorry about that, by the way."
"Don't worry about it," Harry cut in. It wasn't Neville's fault, he knew, but the entire damned cloak wasn't just a muck-up, but a catastrophe. While he'd been uneasy to use it himself, handing it over to Malfoy (of all people!) just because of his eagerness to get a book was a big mistake. Of course, the plan had been perfect in his mind. The fact that he owned and was willing to loan out an Invisibility Cloak should have curried him a lot of favor. Instead, his Hogwartsian nemesis had it, and Harry was still at a loss as to how to get it back. He pursed his lips before he spoke again. "We'll get the bastard back for that, and we'll get the cloak back too, I promise you. That was my fault, though, not anyone else's. Now, after Malfoy proved just what a prat he is, what happened?"
"Happened real fast," Neville continued. "We were looking for a unicorn that Hagrid had been tracking because it was wounded, and Malfoy and I—oh, and Fang—"
Harry gestured for Neville to continue.
"—And we found it, and something was eating it." Neville said the last bit as a horrified whisper. "That's cursed, that is. Every wizard knows that Unicorn's blood grants a cursed immortality. Who would do that?"
Harry had an idea, but Neville beat him to the punch. "And then this big black thing comes swooping toward me, and I trip on this root, but Fur—Firenze, I think he said his name was—comes galloping up to me and kicks this thing right in the chest, and it just takes off. At first I thought it was a Lethifold, but Firenze was hinting that it was You-Know-Who—"
"Ah," said Harry, who understood the entire world just a little bit better. "So he really isn't dead, then."
"You knew?" asked Neville incredulously.
"Both Hagrid and Dumbledore have hinted at it," replied Harry. His mind was very busy all of a sudden; he could suddenly understand why the Philosopher's Stone was at Hogwarts, with Dumbledore.
Harry listened to the rest of Neville's story. The boy seemed eager to move on, and Harry couldn't blame him. After Neville finished, Harry cleaned the glasses, and followed Neville up to the dorm room, where he left two more steaming hot cocoas on Ron's and Dean's night stands.
The next day, for the first time since entering the wizarding world, Harry Potter sought out Albus Dumbledore, and not the other way around.
"Ah, Mr. Potter. A pleasure to see you as always." They stood outside of Dumbledore's office, in front of the hideous gargoyle that guarded the staircase upward. The Headmaster was dressed in vibrant purple robes that trailed a few inches on the ground, and in his right hand was a rickety old broom. He surveyed Harry over his half-moon spectacles with a hint of a smile. "Not ensconced in the library, today?"
"Hello, Professor," he replied, completely ignoring the passing remark about his swotting. He gestured to the broom. "Going for a fly?"
Dumbledore nodded. "Just a short one, admittedly. Where I am going has no access by Floo—"
"Sorry? By flu?"
"Floo, Harry. It is a magical way of traveling by chimney, and one of the more popular methods of Wizarding travel. You of course know of Apparition—"
"—I beg your pardon, sir," said Harry. His cheeks were beginning to flush in embarrassment. "You have me at a disadvantage."
The Headmaster waved his hand dismissively, but his eyes betrayed his surprise. "No matter. To put it succinctly, Apparition is teleportation, and it is a skill that most wizards and witches learn when they come of age."
Harry nodded. He would put it on his list to find out about both.
Dumbledore shifted his weight from one foot to another. "I am traveling to a dear friend's estate. As he is... rather in high demand, you might say... he has neither a Floo connection nor a way to directly Apparate to him. As a result, I must take my broom with me, fly out of Hogwarts, Apparate at a suitable distance to his estate, and then fly in the rest of the way."
"Complicated," said Harry. "Would you like me to see you out?"
"If you'd like," replied Dumbledore. "I admit I have less time than I would like, so we will have to move with some speed. Ah, but you know the Summoning Charm—I forgot. When we reach the grounds, you may summon your broom and accompany me to the gates."
Harry nodded again. "Professor—"
"—But I'm sure you did not just seek me out to keep an old man company, Harry. Let us walk and talk. What is on your mind?"
Harry kept his mouth closed for a moment, after deciding to collect himself before speaking. "Sir, I've some concerns about the Stone," he said, "and I think, given that you're leaving the school, that my concerns are even more valid."
Dumbledore turned his head to look at Harry, but he didn't make a noise or betray any sort of emotion.
Harry winced inwardly as he realized that he was intended to continue. He took a breath. "Neville Longbottom told me about last night. I have reason to believe that You-Know-Who—"
"—Call him Voldemort, Harry. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself."
"—Voldemort, then, intends to attack the Stone."
Dumbledore nodded, his face calm. "I cannot honestly say that I'm surprised that you've put this all together, Harry. However—" He smiled. "—I'm afraid that you underestimate me." He gestured for Harry to lead the way down the central staircase, and followed after the boy.
"Voldemort is indeed back—or, rather, I suppose, was never gone in the first place. What Mr. Longbottom and Mr. Malfoy unfortunately witnessed was but a phantom of the man he once was. I have long suspected his return, but it seems that your presence at the school was sufficient motivation to brush the dust off his cloak. I suspect—of course, I could be wrong, though I rarely am—that it is his hope that he will be able to secure the Stone and a body of his own, and then kill you in one fell swoop."
"That's comforting," said Harry.
There was a subtle brush of magic in the air, and if he tried not to listen to the conversation, Harry could hear a faint buzzing noise in the background. "As we discussed some months ago, Harry, I have made my own plans to ensure that his plan fails. He will not succeed in resurrecting himself, because he will not be able to retrieve the Stone."
"When we discussed your similar concerns at Christmas time, you pressured me to upgrade the stone's defenses. I have done so, but perhaps not quite as you would like. In short, if you believe Voldemort is making an attempt on the Stone, you would do best to leave well alone. I have taken every reasonable step I can to ensure that he will fail to escape."
"It—it's not that I don't trust you, sir, but—"
"—But Voldemort is a prodigious wizard, do you mean to say, Harry?" At Harry's nod, Dumbledore continued. "Undeniably true, yes, but even in top form, he was unable to best me."
"But sir," said Harry, insistently, "are you not leaving the castle right now? Do you think hiding the stone in the school is even wise in the first place? It puts us all in danger! For all we know, he could come kill me first, and then go after the stone!" Too quickly, Harry found himself once more at odds with the headmaster.
Dumbledore glanced sharply at Harry, just as they passed the landing to the third floor. "You do not know Voldemort like I do, Harry. He will attack no student unless he is spotted, and he will spot no student since he will make an effort not to be seen," he said. "Voldemort will only move to kill you once he has regained his body, because your murder would be the most terrifying and demoralizing demonstration of his rejuvenation. He is prone to celebration and grand gestures, Harry, and that is why I have utmost confidence that you and your peers will be fine."
"And the stone, too?" asked Harry. "Will that be safe, sir? I cannot imagine that he would be easier to defeat if he succeeded."
"Ah," said Dumbledore. "It is the safety of my charges that concerns me the most, Harry, not the safety of the Stone. For, you see—" Dumbledore made a show of patting down his robes. "—it's not so much that Hogwarts keeps the Stone safe, but rather that Hogwarts has kept me safe."
Dumbledore's expression saddened unexpectedly. "Unfortunately, recent events have shown that this world is too dangerous, too greedy, too selfish by half to allow such a potent and valuable item its continued existence. You see, Harry, I am on my way to the estate of Nicholas Flamel, who, you might know, is—"
"—the inventor of the Stone, sir, yes."
Dumbledore beamed. "—You did do your homework properly, then, didn't you? You are correct: I am returning the stone to the estate of my dear friend Nicholas. The stone shall be destroyed tonight."
"I'm sorry, sir... They'll die, won't they, without the elixir?" Harry asked. For the first time, he saw Dumbledore as a man with friends, people he cared about... people who would die because of decisions he was forced to make. It was unnerving.
"Indeed, but before Nicholas undoes his greatest work, he and his wife Perenelle shall imbibe the elixir one last time. They shall have enough to straighten out their affairs—a good ten or twenty years, likely—before they move on to the next great adventure." His sad smile lingered. "I confess: in my own advanced age, it is not death itself that upsets me, but that because of greed and selfishness, we are forced to sacrifice one of the greatest relics of magic. It seems even immortality itself has a finite lifetime," he finished with a soft chuckle.
Uneasily, Harry nodded. He was unsure how to respond. "Well, sir... I shouldn't bother you any longer. I just wanted to let you know what I knew. I'll—I'll go, now. I'd bet you'd like to be alone with your thoughts—"
"Nonsense," said Dumbledore, as they stepped out of the castle and into the bright, warming light of midday. "I have no particular desire to spend any more time reflecting on mortality, Harry, since I suspect I shall be doing enough of it later to quite satisfy me. You may accompany me to the gates. There is nothing that makes me feel older than passing time alone. I could use your company; like laughter, youth is contagious. Now summon your broom, would you?"
A minute later, they were both in flight. Dumbledore looked to be a competent flier—his posture was not stiff, for one, and he was adroitly handling the broomstick with one hand while the other trailed down his side—but it was admittedly difficult to be on par with Harry, who was lazily performing barrel rolls with just his knees.
"I love flying," muttered Harry to himself. There was something so utterly relaxing about the wind fluttering through his hair—
"I had gathered as much," replied Dumbledore. Harry looked over in surprise. "Old, yes," said Dumbledore, with a small smile, "but not deaf. I admit to watching you keenly during Gryffindor games, Harry. You remind me much of your father, but I don't believe he was ever quite as skilled as you are."
Harry's curiosity was piqued. "What was my father like?"
Dumbledore seemed to consider for a few moments. "He was very similar to you, Harry, though without a care in the world. He was intelligent, brave... noble, even, and extremely well-liked by most, if not all. He was very fond of Quidditch; early in his time at Hogwarts, he stole a snitch, and whenever one of the professors' backs was turned, he would let it out of his pocket, let it have a short taste of freedom, and then he would reach out and snatch it out of the air. Had he been caught, he might have faced serious consequences, but—and perhaps this is the measure of your father that you should take most to heart—the professors seemed very shortsighted around him, even suspiciously so.
"He was, I believe, for most of his years, top of his class, just like you are, and in exactly the same subjects: Transfiguration; Defense; Astronomy... He was quite strong in Charms, too, I believe, but there were few that could top your mother's proficiency in the subject. He would have been a shoe-in for Prefect but for his inestimable talent for mischief. Between him and his three friends... Ah, Harry. You have not known such ingenious chaos. Misters Weasley and Weasley are undoubtedly talented, Harry, but they would be humbled by some of the feats of magic and trickery that your father and his friends accomplished."
As the front gates to the school came into view, Dumbledore began to descend to the ground, which was only a few dozen feet below them. Harry joined him, and they walked the last minute before he put his hand on the grill of the exit. The gate swung open, but Dumbledore stopped. "I knew your father best when he was older, Harry, though even at that time he was barely more than a boy himself. He had more heart and more courage than anyone I have ever known, save maybe your mother."
Dumbledore stepped out, and smiled at Harry. "He—they—would be incredibly proud of you, Harry. Never forget that."
The gate swung shut, and locked itself. With only a slight popping noise to ever suggest he had been there, Dumbledore was gone.
The second he was satisfied that Dumbledore was actually gone, and not just invisible, or returning immediately, Harry turned back to the castle, threw his leg over his broom, and flew back post-haste. He could not help but grin stupidly to himself.
In all the times that he had spoken to Dumbledore, the man had never been so straightforward. Even though the Headmaster seemed to be significantly more arrogant and self-aggrandizing when he was being honest with Harry—earned though it might be—Harry could say he far preferred it that way. The Headmaster's whimsical manner made him unpredictable. In the span of twenty minutes, he had revealed more than he had in six months to Harry, and he had also confirmed his absence for the evening. That meant that Harry was free from the Headmaster's overzealous scrutiny of his every move.
Ultimately, he was most glad for that, since he did not plan to take more than one half-hour to break the trace. There were still a few kinks to work out, but they were minor.
He did not consider dismounting until he was right in front of the doors to the castle. Even then, he stopped himself, and on a whim, flew upward to the Astronomy Tower, since it was significantly closer to Gryffindor Tower than the Great Hall. The corridors were mostly empty as he trotted at a brisk pace back to the Common Room; it seemed like most of the students were deep in revision for the exams that commenced the next day. He, under other circumstances, would have liked to have been studying, too, but he understood his own priorities, and first on his list was to enable himself to perform magic outside of school. Failing an exam (not that he would, even if he hadn't been revising for a few weeks) was not catastrophic, since his grades were high enough that he could skip all his exams and still come close to passing.
Katie Bell was in front of the Fat Lady.
"Hullo, Katie," he greeted her.
She gave him a toothy smile, but behind it was a look of slight worry. "Say, you haven't seen Fred and George lately, have you—?"
"No," he said.
"Shit," she replied. "They kept trying to get me to play Strip Exploding Snap with them while I was revising for Herbology. I finally got mad enough that I gave their man bits a bit of a hexing." Katie blushed beet red. "Just a Stinging Hex, that's all, but they were bothering me so bad, and they had to go to the Hospital Wing..."
"—So I'm a little worried about retribution, as you might expect. If I know they're going to do something, I'll go to McGonagall, I will, but the longer I go without seeing them, the more I worry—"
"Listen," he said. "That's nice and all—real chuffed for you and whatnot; I hope it works out for the best—but have you seen Hermione?"
He ignored the brief look of hurt on Katie's face. He did not have time to deal with emotional girls at the moment. He could perform damage control later.
"I think she's in the Common Room," said Katie, and she turned and walked off without another word.
Harry rolled his eyes and stepped up to the Fat Lady. "Lascivia Ancillae!"
The portrait swung open, and Harry stepped inside the dark, stony corridor. He did not go far, though, since he heard familiar voices, and they sounded like they were arguing.
"—think we should go get Harry," came Ron Weasley's voice from further down the corridor.
Harry perked up, curious as to why Weasley, of all people, was recommending him.
"Screw him." Dean's voice cut through. He was audibly furious, and while Weasley's attempt at staying quiet had been patently pathetic, Thomas was clearly not bothering to make an effort. "He'll just wander off if things get rough. Anyway, everyone here already loves Harry. Think of what they'll think of us when we do this. We'll be heroes! Forget fifty points. Dumbledore will have to give us five hundred!"
"Maybe we should wait. Dumbledore will be back soon, and Professor McGonagall–"
Neville. The surprise that Neville of all people was conspiring with Ron and Dean on his own free will was shocking, so much so that he missed the first part of Dean's interruption.
"If you're that much of a nancy, then you can crawl back into the Common Room. 'Course, when we're the heroes of the school, everyone will still hate you."
Harry didn't need to see Neville's reaction to know the boy would go along with it. He'd used Neville's desperate craving of attention for himself–he knew how effective it was. Dean might have gone about it with all the subtlety of a Hippogriff in a shopping center, but Neville was hardly a tough nut to crack.
"Weasley, you coming, then?" Dean's voice again.
"Yeah... yeah. Harry'll see for sure than I can be trusted. I won't be mucking things up this time round."
"Right, well, you can kiss Potter's arse some more when we get back. Be nice to have that cloak of his right now..." The voices trailed off as the three started to move down the corridor.
Eager to avoid them, Harry jumped off down a side corridor—one that led to toilets on the ground floor—and stood there for a long minute, not sure what to think or to do. He had a fairly good sense that he knew what the three were up to, and, in some long-buried part of him, he could feel a twinge to go pull their arses out of the fire. It was quite well buried, though, and in another second, he knew exactly what he intended to do, and how he intended to use the distraction afforded to him by the possible sacrifice of Dean Thomas. Even at the potential cost of Neville, who he could easily see as a true confidante once the boy acquired some sort of self-esteem, he would make good use of the window he had.
He found Hermione sitting at one of the furthermost tables.
"What are you so cheery about?" she snapped. Her hair was wilder than he had seen it before, and her eyes looked to be slightly red from lack of sleep. She was half-invisible behind a stack of books and loose parchment. "Professor Snape hasn't given us any idea which potion we'll need to brew, so we need to know them all. And I haven't seen you studying at all today—" Hermione, clearly, had no intention to stop grumbling.
"Come with me," Harry interrupted, no longer able to control a mad grin. "Leave it all here; we're finished. It's time."
"Finished?" Her face scrunched in confusion, before she jerked up, eyes open. "Now?"
Harry nodded. "Let's go. The Charms classroom is empty right now, and I've had permission from Flitwick to use it while revising. We're doing this now."
"That's Professor Flitwick for you," she said scornfully, though her heart was clearly not in the admonishment. "Let me just put everything in the corner at least."
He rolled his eyes, but nonetheless gave her a few minutes to tidy up. She did so with uncharacteristic speed, and Harry barely kept his jaw from dropping when she literally tossed a book on top of a pile. It took him about thirty seconds longer before he realized that he knew the banishing charm, and could send all of Hermione's books and papers upstairs to her bedroom.
"Hermione, just a sec," he said, interrupting her frantic scrub of her work area. "I can banish your stuff up to your dorm—"
"Oh, Harry, would you? That'd save so much time—"
With a flick of his wand and a quick word, the entire stack lifted itself up and flew up the staircase to the girls' dorms.
Hermione blushed and straightened out her robe. "Okay," she said, "I'm ready. Lead the way."
Harry did, but not before casting a simple Notice-Me-Not Charm on both of them; both he and Hermione wore stupid grins, grins that were at very least attention-drawing and at worst an outright admission of culpability. The truth was that he and Hermione were ecstatic for different reasons. For Hermione, this was the culmination of self-application to an academic pursuit—a test of her own skill and intellect—as well as an opportunity to solidify her first friendship at Hogwarts.
For Harry, it was freedom, pure and simple. It was cutting the chains of his previous life.
In short order—Harry didn't even remember much of the journey, so internally focused was he—they found themselves on the third floor, standing outside the Charms classroom.
"Hold on just a second," he said, as Hermione reached out to open the door. He let his wand slide down his forearm and into his hand. "I want to cast a few things—just to make sure we're not disturbed, you know?"
That was not quite the truth. In fact, there were quite a number of spells that he wanted to cast. More Notice-Me-Nots, a Perimeter Charm with a Caterwauling Hex... A delayed Shock Jinx on the door handle, an Imperturbable Charm on the door on itself, a Stealth Sensoring Spell, and the first part of a Cone of Silence...
Hermione was looking at him strangely. Her cheeks were flushed again. "What?" he asked, as he opened the door and stepped inside the Charms classroom.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Nothing, really. That's just some really advanced magic—"
"I've been researching them all year, ever since I knew that I was going to do this. It doesn't make much sense to do it—Silencio Secundus!—and then get caught doing it." He turned to look at her. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"I'm excited," she said, though he had the sense that it was not entirely the truth—or, perhaps, not the entire truth. She followed him over to one of the workstation tables and sat down. "So, what's first?"
"Well, let's run through this first, shall we?" he said. With two jabs of his wand, he cast the spell that would let him see the individual Runes and Strokes of magic. He could feel his own heart beating. This was it–he was really going to do this. At Hermione's nod, he continued.
"So, as you know, the Trace is in two parts. The first and foremost part of the spell is the part that transmits wand usage data to the Ministry." He put his wand down on the desk and drew her attention to a few of the Runes which wrapped through the big blue band. "It's a tricky enchantment, because it has a number of little traps. This node, in particular, keeps a list of spells used in the recent past. It has capacity for about twenty or twenty-five spells, depending on how complex they are. What it's designed to do, though, is to store that list in case the rest of the Trace is unable to transmit data. Then, when the connection between the wand and the Ministry opens, it sends all the spells in a burst."
"Clever," said Hermione. "It's a wonder they don't catch the Purebloods more often—"
"Well," said Harry, who wasn't sure that he wanted to get into the topic, but did so anyway. "That's for a number of reasons. The one that's going to hack you off the most—"
"—It won't bother me too badly," she said. "I know that they get special treatment—"
"—Is that the Ministry doesn't monitor Purebloods'—or, for that matter, Half-bloods'—houses."
"But that's outrageous! The whole Statue of Secrecy is all a plot to keep down the 'undesirables'! Surely Dumbledore—"
"Hermione! Calm down. Yeah, I bet Dumbledore knows. But he knows how things work–he's not going to needlessly pick a fight with the oldest families in Britain. He serves as Headmaster by grace of the Governors, and there's powerful interests represented on that board. You can bet that if he tries to overturn or change the enforcement of that law that there'd be a real serious look at his leadership, and if we lost Dumbledore, it's conceivable that Hogwarts might not even accept Muggle-borns.
"Anyway, we're about to join them, aren't we? At least as far as our wands go. And I thought you said you weren't going to get hacked off—?"
Hermione nodded, though she was a bright crimson—whether in embarrassment or in anger, Harry didn't know. "Right, then. Go on, please."
"The other part of those Runes, as you might expect, transmit the data to a specific location at the Ministry. I had a look at them the other day, and I noticed that they weren't active. I don't think the Ministry monitors us while we're in Hogwarts, which to some extent makes sense, but is actually quite fortunate, since we would have to find an un-Traced wand if they were. The trick here is plausible deniability, and if they have us on record as casting a Containment Ward, that would become a lot more difficult."
"So they deactivate the Trace on the wands instead of just ignoring the records? We are lucky," she said with a whistle. "That could've put an end to everything right there."
"No," said Harry. "It would have made it difficult, yes, but I've had plans in place since last week to temporarily relieve Hagrid of his wand-brella if that part of the Trace suddenly went active again. I've checked it every day."
She ran a hand through her hair—or tried to, anyway; it got stuck halfway down, and she pulled it out with a wince. "So," she said, and trailed off to let Harry continue.
"So, the only other thing you need to know about that part of the Trace is that it's weak. We can probably remove it all in one glob without any worry. The only strong security feature is the Tamper-Proof Charm, and we'll get to that in a minute. For now, what you need to know is that a simple 'Finite' will probably work. If not, then I'll show you how to disassemble each of the Strokes myself. It's not particularly difficult, just a bit time-consuming, and you have to be steady-handed, normally. On the upside, we'll be behind a Containment Ward, so you could practically use a steak knife to sever them, and damn the consequences."
She leaned in closer to him. "Tell me about the Tamper-Proof Charm now," she commanded.
"The Tamper-Proof Charm is the second aspect of the Trace, and it's by far the more challenging to dispel. Fortunately, we're not going to dispel it. It's designed to collapse when triggered, and that collapse causes the rest of the trace to send a high-priority signal to the Ministry." He looked at her almost sadly. "I'd hoped, in the early going of my research, that since the rest of the Trace is not active, it wouldn't send if we did it at school, but when I did more research, I found my hopes to be quite premature. The Tamper-Proof Charm will both activate the rest of the Trace, and it's got enough internal power to make it out of Hogwarts."
"But the Containment Ward will prevent that?"
"Yeah," he said, "but we're really lucky. I was reading some of the back issues of Recent Developments of Magic, and there was a really robust debate about whether the Trace should have more power—the Ward-breaker, they were calling it. Ultimately, though," he said, and he flashed a grin at her to remind her that such developments were to her advantage, "the Pureblood faction lobbied against it, since it could interfere with the suite of enchantments upon their homes."
"So all we need to do," he said, summing up, "is to cast the Containment Ward, and then cast 'Finite' on the whole Trace. That will collapse the Tamper-Proof Charm. The Containment Ward will do its job, and while we're waiting for the signal to weaken, we'll cast 'Finite' on the rest of the Trace. Then it's just a waiting game."
"That... sounds ridiculously easy for such a complex piece of magic," replied Hermione. "Are there going to be any snags that we haven't anticipated?"
"If I haven't anticipated them, I wouldn't know, would I?" said Harry, with a hint of impatience. "But no, I don't believe there will be." He pointed to his glasses. "The enchantment on these doesn't lie. It's not possible to hide something from Venefilux Ostende, since the hiding would show up as its own magic. It is easy, though, but then, the Ministry has to be able to remove it when you turn seventeen, anyway, and they're not notoriously competent, are they? I suppose, too, that if you have the know-how to remove the Trace, you have the skill enough to break it regardless of how tough it is. The Containment Ward is not easy magic. It's a wonder I can do it at all."
Hermione was distracted. "I wonder if they ever do spot checks?" she asked.
"God, let's hope not," said Harry, whose eyes pressed tightly closed at the thought. "If they do, just tell them that you swear you didn't remove it and that your wand must be defective. If it happens, and they put the Trace back on, we can always take it off again. I think we're fine, though. I've checked, and while the Weasleys have the Trace still on their wand, neither Nev nor Malfoy have it active on their wands."
There was a long moment of silence. Hermione broke it first. "Remember that you promised only to use your wand over the summer for self-defense, right?"
"Yeah," said Harry, though he had no intention of limiting himself to that. It was too good an opportunity to pass up, practicing magic over the summer. "I'll probably use it for lesser things, too, like lifting heavy stuff and doing the dishes, too—just little things that will make my life easier, if that's okay—?"
"Yeah," she said eagerly. "Of course those things are fine. Just—promise me you won't Hex your relatives?"
"Unless it's in self-defense," replied Harry, and he held up a hand as if to make a vow. He was telling the truth, too; he planned to Confund the Dursleys until they couldn't see straight, but that was a Charm, not a Hex.
"Well," said Hermione, and she rubbed her hands together. "I suppose we'd best get started?"
"No time like the present," agreed Harry, and he picked up his wand. "I'm going to cast the Containment Ward first," he said. "I'll need complete quiet for the next few minutes, and we'll have a window of about twenty minutes to do both wands, since that's about as long as I've been able to manage lately."
"Are you going to go first?" she asked. "I mean, I don't have a problem going first, but I think I'd be a lot more comfortable seeing you do it—"
"Say no more," said Harry. "Er—wink, wink, nudge, nudge, and all that. Put your wand on the table, would you, and then keep quiet."
Hermione did as she was told, and Harry picked up his own wand. From his breast pocket he removed his shrunken copy of Advanced Warding for the Paranoid and Insecure, enlarged it, and flipped it to page two-hundred seven. The Ward was quite complicated to cast, but it also required a tremendous amount of power, and Harry wanted to be absolutely sure that it would work before he put in the requisite power.
With his wand held loosely in his right hand, he drew sharp, cutting lines in the air. The writing—blood red, and glowing faintly—floated in the air. Gar... Raido... Thurisaz... Another few flicks of his wand had Strokes properly connecting the Runes, but he did not slow down, since there was more to do—there were layers upon layers of Runes to be cast for such a complex enchantment. As a complex Ward, there was no simplified method of casting the spell, like there was for Wingardium Leviosa or similar. All of it had to be constructed painstakingly, piece by piece, Rune by Rune, and Stroke by Stroke.
A few minutes later, he checked the book again, and looked up to admire his handiwork. It was not a particularly big containment ward—maybe ten feet in diameter—but it would do, and any larger would require an external power source that he would have to create. As it was—
"Okay, Hermione," said Harry. "I'm going to enable the ward. If I start to glow or anything—"
"Don't touch me. It means I'm doing it properly."
He closed his eyes, felt out the line to Cweorth, and pushed pure, unadulterated magic down it. He could feel the strain on his body: at first, his shoulders tensed without thought, but then he felt his abs clenching and his teeth grinding against each other. With a great push and a grunt, he felt the Ward draw enough strength to start, and he kept the raw magic flowing long enough to draw a Stroke between the Rune and his body. That would keep it going for as long as possible, until he exhausted himself magically.
"Okay," he said, and he opened his eyes. There was a light gray dome surrounding them; it was barely visible to the eye, but for the slight shimmer that it made in the breeze that was emanating from the connection. "Okay, we're good to go."
She handed him her wand, and he set it right back down on the table. His own wand twitched in his hand, a revelation of just how eager he was.
He took a deep breath, placed his wand against Hermione's, and began. "Finite!"
There was an audible snap, and at the same time, a ghostly wind shot from the wand. With his charmed glasses, he could see it bounce off the Containment Ward, which, mercifully, was doing its job. "It has about a minute's worth of power," he explained, partly because he knew Hermione was interested, and partly because forcing himself to talk calmed him. He placed his wand back against her wand. "Finite!" he said again, and he watched as the Strokes on the Trace all dissolved with little resistance. A third "Finite!" and the Runes disappeared, too.
He put his wand down on the desk, and watched the signal continue to carom off the walls of the ward. In another thirty seconds, it faded, and Harry let out a breath that he didn't know he was holding.
She hugged him. "Brilliant, Harry!"
He accepted the hug, though it did little to quell his shaking. "I think—I think you'd best do mine, now," he said. "I don't know how long I'll be able to hold the Ward."
"Okay," she said, and she picked up her wand.
"Test it first," he said. "Just—just to make sure it works. Do you know a Cheering Charm?"
"That's fourth-year material!" she exclaimed. "I might know most of the second-year stuff, but certainly—"
"—Then hand me your wand," said Harry impatiently. "I seriously need one."
She did as she was told, and in a trice, Harry felt five times better. He handed it back to her. "Okay," he said. "Go for it. I didn't see any magical activity occurring on your wand other than the spell itself, so it looks like it's worked."
Hermione placed her wand to his, and repeated the process. "Finite! Finite! Finite!" A minute later and it was done.
Harry picked up his wand. There were no traces of magic on it.
They were just leaving the Charms corridor when they bumped into Snape.
"Potter!" he snarled as he turned around the corner into sight.
"Professor," replied Harry. "Something wrong, Professor?"
Harry knew that there was, in fact, something wrong with Snape. The man's normally severe expression was even more sharply defined, his eyes wilder, his body language stiffer.
"Have either of you seen Professor Quirrell?" he demanded.
Harry exchanged a look with Hermione. "No, sir," he said, as he turned back to Snape. "Not for a few days now—not since the end of classes."
Harry could not help but notice Snape's anxious glances down the corridor. He knew that the Professor's eyes were fixed on the unassuming oak door at the end. He wondered if the Professor knew that there was a massive three-headed dog behind the door.
"Very well," said Snape, who looked like he was grinding the words out from between his teeth. He brushed past them toward the door, but spoke over his shoulder as he walked. "I suggest, Granger, Potter, that you return to your Common Room immediately if you know what is best for you. I suppose I shall have to notify the Headmaster—"
"You won't find him here, sir," said Harry, who hadn't moved a step, despite Hermione's urging hand on his arm
Snape stopped in his tracks and turned around slowly. "Tell me what you know, Potter," he said, "unless you wish to see yourself in detention for the rest of your miserable life."
"Well," said Harry, who didn't even flinch at Snape's threat, "surely you know as well as I do that the Headmaster is at the Flamels' this evening—or doesn't he confide in you like me?"
Snape sneered, but Harry could see the wheels turning in the man's head. "Did—did the Headmaster mention what he was to be doing there?"
"Of course," said Harry, as if holding the Headmaster's confidence was the easiest thing in the world. "He and Mr. Flamel are destroying an invaluable magical object. You may know about it—"
"—Of course I know about it, you foolish boy. Are you positive that this is the case?"
"Absolutely. What was it Professor Dumbledore said? Ah: 'It seems even immortality itself has a finite lifetime.'" He paused for a second. "He would think it foolish, sir, for you to go down after the Stone. After all, he has set a terrible trap for Voldemort—"
Snape actually spat on the floor. "Do not speak his name! You have no idea what sort of power—"
Harry's response came to him immediately. He pushed out with his magic, just like he had done to power the Ward, until he was emitting a faint blue shine. "Don't I, Severus?" he asked, using the name that was whispered to be the Potions Master's.
He held Snape's glare for a long minute, during which time, memories of his own performance—of nights swotting in the library, of surpassing the fifth years in Charms club, of dueling Cedric to a near standstill—sprang unbidden to his mind. It was only when he remembered Hermione kissing him on the cheek at Christmas that he clamped down on the memories so hard that he was left feeling cold and empty.
Snape only raised an eyebrow, yet he didn't speak. He stood there, staring at Harry for what seemed like a very long time, before he opened his mouth. "Next year, Potter—" he said, slowly, silkily, in the manner that only Snape could speak. "—Next year, within the first week, you will come find me. Your brewing skills are deficient. I shall be giving you remedial Potions lessons—"
Harry didn't need the little voice in his head to tell him that Snape wasn't telling the truth.
"I understand, sir," he said.
"Despite your mark in my class this year, it is obvious that you have some natural talent. It would be... a shame," said Snape, his eyes whirling quickly, "to see that talent go to waste. If you are as prodigious as the Headmaster seems to think you are, then you should have no difficulty elevating your mark into passing range."
Snape made to exit the Charms corridor—opposite the direction he had been originally heading, Harry noted—but stopped short, and looked over his shoulder once more. "You would do better in Potions," he said, with heavy inflecting on the word, "if you learned to clear your mind from any distractions, and to compartmentalize your thoughts so that you are utterly focused at the task at hand."
Snape's eyes looked into Harry's once more, but no memories suddenly jumped to the forefront. After a second, Snape tore his eyes away. "I must go contact the Headmaster."
In a flutter of dark cloak, he was gone.
Harry turned around. Hermione was looking at him with a decidedly unpleasant look.
"I think you'd best explain—"
"I think I'd best explain—"
"—So Dumbledore's gone to go destroy it," he finished, as they stepped in past the Fat Lady. "I wasn't sure how, but I knew that Voldemort was managing to get near to the school—after all, he's the one who's been killing the Unicorns—"
"—since drinking Unicorn blood will give you strength, but at the cost of a cursed life..." said Hermione, with a look of horrible understanding on her face. "And you think—"
"I know now," said Harry. "I admit I had half-suspected Snape, simply because he's greasy and awful, but when Snape mentioned Quirrell, I remembered the night of the duels—"
"—Where Quirrell never showed up, and Dumbledore vanished," Hermione finished for him. "So it's Quirrell, then."
"Makes sense, doesn't it?" he asked rhetorically. "I mean, the whole turban thing, the whole stutter... Who would ever suspect Professor Quirrell?"
She nodded. "So—what are you going to do about it?"
He turned to her with a start. "Weren't you listening to me? Dumbledore's got the Stone. It's suicide to go after Voldemort."
She turned her head away from him. "I just thought—"
"—That I would want revenge on the... thing that killed my parents? I'm not stupid, Hermione. You can be brave without being stupid. I'm not about to end up like Nev and Weasley and Thomas, probably lying dead in some chamber, all for some damn notoriety and house points."
"They—you..." She sputtered for a few seconds. "You just let them go to their deaths?"
He sighed. "I don't think they'll die," he lied. "It was either stop them or break the Trace. I trust in Dumbledore enough to prevent them from getting hurt. Hell, he could have just drawn a simple Age Line to prevent them from even getting close enough to open the door, for all I know."
"And you're just going to leave them there?"
"Don't seem so shocked. I have no desire to commit suicide. Dumbledore will be back soon, and he'll fix things."
She plunked herself down on a chair. "I—I don't know what I think," she said. "I think studying will take my mind off of things. I think I need to study."
He smiled at her. "Great. I'll join you in just a minute—I need to go run and grab my notes..."
He ran up to his dorm quickly, opened his trunk, and pulled out the bound sheaf of parchment. With a flick of his wand—his newly liberated wand, he reminded himself with a smile—he closed his trunk, and made his way down the stairs.
Hermione was gone.
He wandered over to the staircase leading to the girls' dorms. Angelina Johnson was coming down the stairs, and she waved to him as she caught sight of him.
"Did you see Hermione on your way down?" he asked, once she approached close enough.
She thought for a second. "No," she said, "and I've been on the stairs for a bit, talking to Leanne."
Harry felt his stomach lurch out beneath him. "Thanks, Angie," he said, and stood aside so she could go past him.
He closed his eyes tightly. He knew where Hermione had gone. He had no desire to go himself, but he knew that she, unlike Neville, was not a loss he could stomach. Whether it was because of her constant companionship, or the kindness and affection that meant a lot more to him than he had ever thought it would, Hermione's safety was paramount.
He only wished he didn't have to do something so profoundly stupid to protect her. "Dammit, Hermione," he whispered, but he knew that he didn't really begrudge her.
Harry ran down the halls, cursing his luck. Snape's sudden interest in his studies; Katie's look of hurt when he'd blown her off; Dumbledore's poor timing, running off to do what he'd had all year to accomplish; four of his classmates happily walking to their deaths... Hermione–fury and gut-wrenching anguish battled for dominance. He wasn't sure what he would do when—if—he found her. The fact that she was so close to him, that she meant so much to him, disturbed him. He could not consider just telling her that they were no longer friends. He knew that she'd written her parents about him, and he didn't know how to Memory Charm people yet...
A part of him was shocked to admit that he had no desire to lose her as a friend, either. He was clever enough for the both of them, but Hermione was a genius, really. He knew a lot about the trace, and read widely, but Hermione, with very little effort, genuinely understood.
At long last, he reached the end of the third floor corridor. He stopped at the far door and took off his rucksack. Inside was a battered wireless that he'd liberated from Finnegan's trunk. He removed it from the sack, and fiddled with a few of the nobs until a warbly soprano sounded. He turned up the volume until it was loud enough to be heard clearly; wireless and wand in hand and ready to use, he opened the door—
—Only to find the enormous Cerberus asleep. In the corner, an enchanted harp played.
"Thank god for that," he said, and abandoned the wireless on the floor. Fluffy's sleep was quiet and obviously deep; it was drooling, and the drool was running down its muzzle into a large puddle on the floor. The trap door was open and unobstructed, though where it lead to, Harry could only guess; it was blacker than night down the hole, and even a whispered 'Lumos!' did nothing to illuminate it.
He did the most illogical thing that he could think of (short of slapping Fluffy on the hind), sure that it was exactly what he was expected to do: he lowered himself into the trap and let go.
It was a long fall. He felt like he was falling forever, and just as he figured that he had to have fallen down all three flights of stairs and was now underground, he landed surprisingly softly with an 'Oomph!' on top of a pile of what looked to be thickly coiled ropes. The stench was terrible and very nearly overpowering–like overcooked cabbage and rotting meat. It took him a second, but once he plugged his nose and looked around, Harry understood why he was so easily bypassing the second 'protection': he was on top of a Devil's Snare—or rather, it was more accurate to say he was on top what used to be a Devil's Snare; all that remained was the scorched limbs of the giant carnivorous plant. Getting down had been easy. He had no idea how he was supposed to get back. Perhaps that was what Dumbledore had meant when he said that return would be nearly impossible...
Even in the near-pitch dark, he could make out a small bit of light from down a long corridor leading onward. He stood, brushed himself off, and started walking briskly down it. About halfway down it, he could hear slight sussurations... Whispers, maybe, though he couldn't imagine from what. After another few seconds of listening, he could hear mixed in, though faint, a girl's sobs.
There was only one girl that it could be. He doubled his pace.
Suddenly the corridor spilled into a tall, two-pillared room that looked like it was cut from stone. It was a testament to the spectacle that Harry barely noticed the room, though; instead, his eyes focused on the tens of thousands of luminescent birds that were swooping down, attacking a quivering pile of robes.
As he crossed the room, his eyes were called to the birds. There were scores of them, all shapes and colors and sizes. Their glow filled the cavern with a ghostly light. When he focused closely, though, he realized that they were not birds, in fact, but keys.
Harry had never known keys to fly, nor to angrily swoop down like bees, either, for that matter.
"Hermione!" Harry cried out, as he moved for the pile. A head peeked out, bushy-haired and looking frightened to death, before it gave a loud shriek and retreated back into the jumble of robes.
As he approached, a number of the keys began to dive-bomb him. The teeth on the keys were sharp, and in several places ripped his robe, and cut roughly into his forearm. Furiously, he slashed his wand forward, trying to knock them out of the air, though there were too many and they were too quick to be caught. Moving closer to the screaming girl only led to more and more keys toward them both.
"Harry, you have to open the door!" A small, feminine hand burst out of the shimmering pile, and thrust toward him. Before he could reach it, though, hundreds of keys swooped down on it, scratching the pale skin viciously. With another scream, her hand flew open, and a silver key leaped from it.
Harry jumped for it, purely by reflex. Thankfully, the key only could flutter feebly, since both of its wings were crushed. He raised his arm over his head as he tried to push toward the door across the room. The closer he got, the more fierce and daring the keys became, and was after he was repulsed for the third time that he began to get angry.
His wand fell into his hand comfortably, and he raised it. "Immobulus!"
A blue shockwave knocked the keys back, leaving them floating slowly, unable to swoop. Harry stepped forward and jammed the key into the door.
He let out a deep breath and released the Immobilization Jinx. The room filled with the soft tinkle of metal hitting stone. Hermione had been correct; by placing the key in the door, the life in each of the attacking keys had been snuffed out, and they all suddenly fell, unhindered by Harry's own magic.
He crossed the room in what seemed like a second. "Hermione, are you all right?" He looked down at the pile of robes with concern, his ire–for the moment–forgotten.
Slowly, the tight bundle relaxed, and became a girl, albeit a girl who was bleeding badly through her robes. There were rough scratches on legs, and the arms of her robes were all but shredded up to her shoulder. There was a large cut on her face, too, starting near the bridge of her nose, running under her eye, and across her cheek. She nodded shakily.
"Come on," said Harry, and he hooked his arms under hers and lifted her up. "Let's get you out of here. I don't know that the keys won't come back to life, but I'm pretty sure that nothing is going to wake up that Devil's Snare."
Her legs were shaking, and so he half-carried, half-dragged her out of the key room and down the corridor back to the Devil's Snare. Halfway along, Hermione's legs gave way, and they crashed to the ground. Neither made a move to get up.
"The keyhole was silver," Hermione blurted, "and then I saw it, flying just at knee-level with a broken wing. I didn't know they would attack when I grabbed it." Then she sniffled. "Oh, this was such a mistake. I'm so sorry, Harry."
"Hermione," he said, slowly. "You're babbling. It's okay. Just—just relax."
Hermione nodded, for which Harry was grateful. He supposed that given the circumstance, she thought her best bet at keeping their friendship intact was simply to be contrite. He wasn't inclined to disagree.
At last, he pulled himself to his feet. "Right. You haven't seen the others, yet, have you?" he asked. "Wait; don't answer that. Of course you haven't. Stay here, okay? Dumbledore is coming soon–he'll get you back. When he does, tell him who came down here, but nothing else, all right? I'll talk to him when I see him. You have your wand?"
Hermione nodded, and Harry gave her a tight smile, before starting to move away.
Hermione made to get to her feet, but he turned around and shook his head negatively. "Stay seated. You're not in any shape... Just take care of yourself, okay? I'd stay and use my robe to bandage you up, but my robes aren't in much better shape than yours, and if the cleverest witch in our year is in this state, I can't imagine that the three stooges are doing much better."
"I'll be okay," she said, though he could hear her pain in her voice.
"Just stay here, and I'll be back with the idiots in a moment."
Hermione winced slightly, but returned Harry a smile through tears. "I'm sorry, Harry."
"Don't worry about it. After all, I never miss a chance to show everyone what a big hero I am. I probably would have done this anyway."
She giggled slightly, and Harry moved on, his expression decidedly grimmer as he looked away. He would be having words with Hermione, once this was sorted out.
He moved through the key room and down the next corridor. It was interesting that the protections weren't all back-to-back; he thought it a rather poor reflection on Dumbledore, since he didn't think that he would have been able to survive keys and the Devil's Snare at once.
The second he reached the next room—and really, all he saw of the room was that it was a crimson red, and dimly lit by wall sconces—his stomach lurched. Lying on the ground at a very awkward angle was Ron Weasley, his limbs contorted oddly and his face pale beneath his vibrant red hair.
He clamped down quickly on the fury inside of him and moved to the boy. He was relieved at once to see that Ron was still breathing; he didn't particularly like the boy, but there was a difference between disliking him and wishing death on him... Since he lacked any true medical magic skills—a deficiency he vowed to correct—he satisfied himself with a few numbing charms and with resting Ron's head on his own tattered cloak. Ron's left arm and right leg were clearly broken (probably in a few spots, guessing by the angles), but the boy seemed well otherwise, apart from being unconscious. There were no signs of the other boys. How had they gone on, if Ron was in this state?
"I'm going to strangle the pair of them," he said to himself. "I don't care what their reasons are."
He left Ron for the time being. When he finally turned his attention back to his surroundings, Harry noticed that the 'room' was in fact a giant chess board; the door leading onward was on the other side of the room, guarded by sixteen fierce-looking white pieces.
Harry stepped forward onto the board, wand walked straight toward the offending pieces. As he approached, the men-at-arms crossed their pikes, creating a barrier that Harry could not cross.
"I imagine," said Harry to the White King, "that I must play my way across the board?" The expressionless stone face nodded back.
Harry returned the nod and stepped back. He made his way across the board, but stopped to survey the pieces he was to command. He had played chess a few times against his peers at Hogwarts, and while he was not inept, he was hardly an active or an expert player. He knew very well that he was unlikely to best whomever–McGonagall, he guessed–had designed this challenge. But then...
"I'll take King's Rook," he said, and he took the spot that the giant stone chariot vacated.
White's King's Pawn slid forward two squares.
Harry took a deep breath. "Okay! You—King's Pawn! Forward two squares!"
The match quickly became, Harry decided, one of the worst games of chess he'd played in his life, let alone in the past few months. There was no denying the skill of the white pieces; they were ruthless, and took every opening he gave to attack viciously. By the same token, there was no denying the absence of his own skill. Ron, were he conscious to see it, would have gone ballistic. Of course, Ron was unconscious, presumably because of the same lack of skill, so Harry did not feel entirely deficient. Still, there was no possible way he could win the game, given his losses.
"All right, Queen: take the Bishop–the white-square one." Dutifully, the piece moved, and Harry clenched his fists. This was his last chance...
Two seconds later, a loud cheer broke out amongst the white pieces, as a pawn moved forward and slashed his pike with such speed that the black queen broke into two. The heavy stone fragments cleared themselves off the board, into the growing pile of debris, most of which was cluttered on the King's side.
Harry wasn't sure whether to grin or not. "Here we go," he whispered to himself, before he stepped forward. He moved quickly, straight up the seventh file, and never stopped. He swept past the graveyard: past beheaded pawns, past the slain knights, past all four bishops... past his own dead queen. Everything had been sacrificed to create this single, narrow channel.
Harry stopped on the first rank. He turned to the White King. "Check."
The King moved forward one space, and Harry stepped off the board and continued on his way, unhindered by the pieces. He had heard correctly, after all: he'd only had to play his way across the board, not win the game. It was a critical difference, and one hell of a gambit, but it had paid off.
Behind him, the pieces continued the game, obviously unable to stop once they had begun. Decimated and deprived of his last major piece, the Black King abdicated two moves later. Harry continued onward.
As he entered yet another room, Harry was surprised to see no obvious obstacle—no scorched plant, no psychopathic inanimate objects. Harry gripped his wand tighter. He could almost feel his hand twitch in anticipation.
As he reached the middle of the room, a roar erupted from the corner behind him. He spun on his heel, only to catch a visibly wounded Mountain Troll stagger forward, blood dripping from its mouth. In its hand was a club the size of Harry.
At last, Harry grinned. Ever since Hermione's disappearing act, he had grown tenser and tenser...
"Depulso!" Harry roared, and whirled his wand in a tight, level corkscrew–a textbook Banishing Charm. The Troll's face was a picture of confusion as its charge was stopped abruptly. With increasing force it was thrown backwards, and it slammed hard into the stone wall with a loud 'crack!'.
The Troll lumbered stupidly to its feet again. Harry's grin grew.
He ducked under the first swing, and with a sharp jab of his wand, the Troll lost its footing and fell to the floor. As it tried to get up again, he cast another Banisher, sending it sprawling on all fours again.
A small voice in his head told him to quit playing with it, to finish it and be done. He knew it spoke the truth. He also knew that he had to make sure that the Troll would not recover; it would not do to be ambushed when he was carrying Neville out of the gauntlet.
As the Troll lumbered to its feet again, he began spinning his wand in a slow circle, as he prepared to cast the most deadly curse he knew. It stepped groggily toward him, its club raised high, and he let it get as close to him as he could, so that his curse would have even more power...
Blue jets of flames shot from Harry's wand. These were not the tiny Bluebell Flames that Hermione seemed to favor. These gouts of flame were deadly and adhered to whatever they touched. They would burn until doused with water, which was exactly what he wanted. The Troll caught the burst of flames in the upper torso, and it took it exactly one second before it noticed that it was on fire.
Harry had never heard a Troll scream before, and had no desire to hear it scream again. He took shelter in the doorway, and turned his head as best as he could. To say that the Troll was in great agony was to understate things, and he felt, both at the same time, a great pang of sympathy for the stupid beast, and a great rush of empowerment. It was enough to make him sick.
At long last, the troll collapsed to the floor and stopped moving. He doused the flames, and looked at the destruction he had wrought. "Christ," he whispered, disgusted. He could look no longer; he shook himself, and moved forward again, very eager to put the charred remains of the Troll behind him.
As quickly as he had released it on the Troll, the frustration returned in the next room. As he stepped into the room, great flames shot up, barring his advancement and his retreat. Inside the room, seven bottles—or what he presumed had been bottles—sat on a shelf. All were shattered into fragments and were leaking various colored fluids. A book sat on a short table, presumably to tell the Stone-seeker what the bottles were for. Whatever had been printed on the book was lost to the ages, though, since the book, and the table it stood on, were charred beyond recognition. Why Dean and Neville felt the need...
Even if he could have read the book, the bottles were empty. He presumed that they had contained potions; clearly, they were the key to the flames. Since they were emptied, he was stymied and trapped.
He sank down to the floor. He could think of no way to clear the way. Even though he was skilled enough with a Repairing Charm to fix the bottles and perhaps even restore the book, he knew no charm that would refill the bottles with what they had once held.
He pondered the room itself. He didn't know how to cast the Blasting Charm, so blowing up the wall to the side of the flames was not an option. He could repair the table and use it to bridge the flames, but he had a sneaking suspicion that such a method would fail outright. With a quick flick of his wand to confirm his theory, he found that the fire was not doused by conjured water, either.
"Well, shit," he said, at long last. He was at an impasse. There was just no way to solve the bloody puzzle—
—except for refusing to play the puzzle. He knew how wizards worked; hell, he knew how people worked: if there was a game in front of them, they would constrain themselves to play by the rules. So few understood that fighting smart and dirty were the same thing, and if there was one man he expected to recognize that fact, it was Professor Snape, who he was positive had prepared the room.
He stood, cast a Flame-Freezing Charm, and walked unscathed through the fire, on to the next room.
It was the final room.
Quirrell was muttering in thought, facing the far wall. He hadn't noticed Harry, and Harry intended to keep it that way for as long as possible.
In front of Quirrell stood a tall mirror, and with a jolt, Harry recognized it as the one he had seen at Christmastime. The inscription at the top... 'Erised Stra Ehru Oyt Ube Cafru Oyt On Wohsi'... It took him only a second to understand what it meant, and instantly his opinion of Dumbledore rose. It was a devious ploy to keep the man guessing.
In the corner were Dean and Neville. Both were bleeding, and both looked to be unconscious, though otherwise unharmed. Harry breathed a mental sigh of relief.
He raised his wand and stepped further into the room.
Quirrell whirled and batted—simply batted!—the jet of blue flame away. "Potter!" he spat. "I wondered if I would see you here. You have a terrible habit of sticking your nose where it doesn't belong."
"I could say the same thing about you," replied Harry. "How long have you been a traitor, Professor?"
Quirrell grinned; Harry was sure he would remember the look in the most terrifying of his dreams. "A traitor, Potter? Surely you don't see things in such black-and-white terms—?"
"The only thing I see is you, dead! Depulso!"
Quirrell snarled, and side-stepped Harry's spell. With a simple hook of the Professor's finger, Harry felt himself slammed backward into the wall. It took the wind right out of him, and he collapsed to the ground in a tumble of his own limbs.
"I am no traitor, Potter," said Quirrell, who folded his arms behind himself and stepped slowly over to the boy. "I, alone, on the merest hint, sought out the spirit of the greatest wizard that has ever lived. I, alone, nursed him back to strength. I, alone, know of his plans, and know of what he has done and how great he is."
He stopped in front of Harry. With a single jerk of his finger, Harry rose in the air, suspended by his throat. He shuddered violently as he struggled to breath, until finally Quirrell allowed him to gasp inward.
"I, alone," said Quirrell, as he looked Harry straight in the eye, "am strong enough to do magic with a mere thought, all because the Dark Lord has seen fit to bestow upon me his knowledge, so that I may restore him to health."
He spun on his heel and paced away. Harry, no longer supported by magic, crumpled to the ground again. "Since you're not surprised to see me, I suppose Severus told you, then, Potter, that I was serving You-Know-Who?" he asked, mockingly.
Harry sat up. "Not exactly, no," he replied. "I mostly pieced it together from discarded sugar packets and bumper stickers."
"A pathetic attempt at humor, Potter. Still, I do not begrudge you the effort. It must be difficult to see the man who will murder you become greater than ever before."
"To tell the truth," said Harry, "you're a bit of a rough crowd, anyway."
Quirrell hummed dismissively. He had turned back to look in the mirror. "I don't understand," he whispered. "I see the stone—I have it; I see myself presenting it to my master... but where is it?"
Harry's hand slid out to grab his wand, but Quirrell apparently had eyes on the back of his head, for Harry's wand jerked away, and flew across the room into his hand.
"A curious wand," said Quirrell, as he looked down at it. "Holly, hmm? And—Phoenix feather, too? Oh, my, Potter. Did you know that your wand—"
"Brother wand with Voldemort's, yeah," said Harry, who was still having problems getting to his feet. His legs did not want to hold any weight, and each time he tried to rise, he collapsed like a new-born fawn.
"You should refer to him with respect," replied Quirrell mildly. "He is a great man, after all—"
"—Was a great man, perhaps."
"—Will be a great man again in a very short time. He is not forgiving, Potter. Now, be quiet. I must examine this interesting mirror."
Harry did as he was told. The longer that Quirrell stared at the mirror, the sooner Dumbledore would arrive.
"What does this blasted mirror do?" muttered Quirrell to himself. "I don't understand. Master?"
To Harry's immense horror, a voice—sibilant like a snake's—spoke from under Quirrell's turban. "Use the boy!"
Quirrell turned straight around and gestured at Harry, who flew the length of the room to come to rest beside Quirrell.
"Look into the mirror, Potter, and tell me what you see. Be warned: I shall know if you are lying, and I will be most displeased if you do."
Harry thought of nothing but lying, anyway.
Quirrell pushed him in front of the mirror, and Harry turned his head to gaze at the reflection—
Only to gasp at the sight.
He saw himself in the mirror. He was not much older there than he was now; his wand was in his hand, pointing downward, and his eyes were narrowed dangerously. He was standing in the Dining Room of Number Four, Privet Drive, and beside him, spread-eagle on the ground with their eyes blank and unmoving were Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon, and Dudley.
His deepest, most heart-felt desire was to kill the Dursleys.
"Well?" asked Quirrell, who must have heard Harry's gasp. "Well, what do you see, boy?"
Harry clamped down on his fear and shock and looked at the Professor. "I see myself killing you, sir."
Quirrell stared at Harry for a long time, not breaking eye contact. At long last, he straightened out. With a snap of his fingers, Harry was tied up in tight ropes that restricted his movement in any which way. "I warned you about lying, Potter. My master did not wish to do this; no, it was his wish that you die a clean, inauspicious death, but if we must, I suppose..."
The Professor stepped away from him, and began to unwrap his turban.
"What—?" asked Harry, who all of a sudden felt very confused.
"My master has been pleased with me, lately," said Quirrell. "Despite my early failings—I did fail to steal the Stone from Gringotts, after all—he has recognized that Dumbledore, that old coot, has been fighting him for it. He has not seen much need to use me to the full extent that he is capable, but—alas—there are exceptions."
Quirrell let the turban drop. On the back of his bald head was another face, if Harry could call it that. It was hideous and snake-like, and when it breathed in, it was with a terrible rattling noise.
"My master," said Quirrell, simply.
"Ah," said the head on the back of Quirrell's head. "Well done—well done—my servant. You have brought me both to the Stone and to my conqueror. Well done indeed."
Harry stared at the face, enraptured and disgusted at the same time.
The face noticed. "Harry Potter! Do you see what has become of me? Smoke and vapor—a parlor trick, one might say. You have reduced me to this—oh, yes, how far the mighty can fall, indeed. To think I was once a god, and now I have no form but for when I can share a body."
"Voldemort," whispered Harry.
Voldemort scowled. "I see that Dumbledore has been planting ideas—delusions—in your head, boy," he spoke. "Let us see what else is in your head, shall we? Legilimens!"
It was pain beyond any Harry had ever felt. His scar was molten steel pressed against his head; he could not hear his own screams for the pain. His memories flew past his mind's eye—he could see himself talking to Hermione just hours before; he could see himself checking Ron's heartbeat again, and getting utterly crushed by the white pieces at Chess; he could see himself killing the Troll, ending its miserable life—
And the memories suddenly shifted. He saw the Troll in much greater detail—was forced to stare at it as its skin withered away, as it screamed helplessly and tore at its face and chest—and he watched as he suddenly recalled his deepest desire—
Suddenly, Voldemort's face swam into view again. Harry was panting; he could feel where tears had fallen down his face. "Interesting," said Voldemort. "You have walked the same path that I have, Harry Potter. Did you know that I killed my only relatives when I was sixteen?
"They were particularly worthless—even more so than your own, I suspect. Tell me: does it intrigue as it does me how similar we are? You are a natural Legilimens—I felt your probing; you, like me, have dived into complicated, deep magic; you, like me, have killed before your first year was over at Hogwarts. You even look a bit like me—that is, before you and your dear mother reduced me to this wretched state...
"Of course it intrigues you. You are too like me for such a connection not to resonate within you, not to make you want to know more, to learn all that you can be." He paused for a second, as if to consider, but in the very next second, his harsh, penetrating eyes were on Harry's again. "Now, Harry," he said, almost kindly, "Where is the Stone? Legilimens!"
Smatterings of his conversation with Dumbledore rushed past again, and he saw himself fly with the Headmaster to the front gates, before his vision returned to normal again.
"So, Dumbledore has the Stone, does he?" asked Voldemort, with anger in his voice.
"Indeed, I did have it, Tom," said a cold-yet-familiar voice from the doorway.
"Dumbledore!" hissed Voldemort. Quirrell's arms raised unnaturally backwards, and a spear of green light flew from his fingertips, past Harry, and presumably at the Headmaster.
A deep gong sounded, and Harry suddenly felt himself flying backward toward the Headmaster. A second later, and the ropes binding him were gone. At his feet was his wand, which Quirrell had obviously discarded. He picked it up at once—
—Only to be shoved back behind Dumbledore as another of the green spears lanced out toward them. Dumbledore conjured a huge silver shield to block the spell, and again, the deep gong sounded.
"It's foolish to resist, Tom," spoke Dumbledore, in one of the kindest voices Harry had ever heard him use. "The Stone has been destroyed tonight. I took it to Nicholas himself, and we summoned the Fiendfyre to put it to rest."
Voldemort hissed, and another jet of light shot from his fingers, so powerful that it smoked on contact with the wall which Dumbledore had stood in front of just seconds ago. "I am glad you joined us, Dumbledore," said Voldemort. "It will be a glorious thing to defeat you and Potter in one evening. I am strong enough for this, I think, and when I am done, I shall use your corpses to resurrect myself, even stronger than before..."
With a flick of Dumbledore's wand, the Mirror of Erised shattered into a million pieces of glass, the fragments of which all shot at Voldemort. At the same time, Dumbledore's wand danced over the wooden frame of the mirror, and it twisted until it was a wooden spider, which went off to grapple with the two-faced man.
The shards of the mirror burst into flame as they shot at Voldemort, but none of them hit him. Instead, they swirled around him in a deadly hot vortex that expanded outward at Harry and Dumbledore. Harry ducked, and raised his own wand to cast a Shield Charm, but Dumbledore just transfigured the glass into water, which dissolved at once, and which doused the fire.
Voldemort grinned. Stone from the ceiling began to fall, and Dumbledore was forced to dive out of the way to avoid being crushed. While the Headmaster was occupied, from Voldemort's fingertips flew a purple curse, and it was aimed straight at Harry. Harry, who had just dived to avoid a stone himself, was caught with his wand arm pinned by his side, and saw no way to avoid the spell in time.
The spell never hit. Dumbledore stood in front of Harry, Shield Charm engaged.
Voldemort only laughed. "You protect him, Dumbledore? You protect him? Do you know what is in the boy's mind?"
Dumbledore said nothing, but sent a cutting return blow at Voldemort, who dodged.
"Oh, no," said Harry. Dumbledore's eyes glanced at him, and Harry pointed.
Dean and Neville had both just arisen, and were walking—stumbling, more like—across the room toward Harry and Dumbledore. Voldemort took advantage of their distraction and lobbed a curse at the both of them, which Dumbledore hastily deflected back across the room. The spell bored three feet into the wall.
Dumbledore flicked his wand thrice, conjuring up two small dogs and a gorilla, which he sent across the room toward Voldemort. With a sharp 'bang!', a five-inch cannonball shot out of Dumbledore's wand, and just grazed Voldemort's robes.
The Headmaster landed the first hit, though. Distracted by the gorilla, which was finally getting within range to start doing some serious damage, Voldemort missed an innocuous little spell from the Headmaster that sent him flipping backwards, end-over-end, until he managed to find his feet. Another green curse from Voldemort put an end to the gorilla, and he turned his attention to the dogs while Harry and Dumbledore dealt with Neville and Dean.
Neville was moving for the Headmaster, who, with a quick spin of his wand, sent the boy back to dreamland, and back past the flames that barred entrance to or exit from the room. Harry was not nearly as polite, and with all his strength, reared back and caught Dean squarely across the jaw with his fist. Dean dropped like a rock, and Dumbledore, with another flick of his wand, sent the boy beyond the flames, as well.
It cost him, though. A second later, Dumbledore cried out and reached for his shoulder. Blood spurted from a deep wound, and Voldemort let out a cry of triumph. The advantage did not last long, though, as Dumbledore sent a trio of spells, spread-burst, at Voldemort, who was forced to take evasive action to avoid them. In the meantime, Dumbledore traced his wand over his shoulder, and the cut was gone, with no trace of it but the spattered floor.
"Harry!" said Dumbledore, in a deathly quiet voice. "You must use a Flame-Freezing Charm and retreat!"
"I'm not leaving you, sir—"
"He is using you to hinder me," replied Dumbledore, as he deflected another spell heading their way, and replied in kind with one of his own. "I will be fine. Go, and I shall cover you. Tell Professor Snape to raise the barrier—"
Harry stepped back toward the fire, and flicked his own wand over himself to renew the Flame-Freezing Charm. Dumbledore stopped to deflect a spell away from Harry while he did it, but in the process, missed one directed his own way. Harry snapped off a Shield Charm, and was satisfied to note that the spell bounced away.
"Thank you!" said Dumbledore. "Now go!"
Harry stepped past the flames, and into the waiting arms of Professor Snape, who was tending to Dean and Neville. "Sir!" he said, as he extricated himself from the uncomfortable position. "Professor Dumbledore says to raise the barrier—"
As he said it, though, there was a cry of great pain, and a second later, a wild wind ran through and out the potion room.
A second later, Dumbledore stepped through, looking older than Harry had ever seen it. He exchanged glances with Professor Snape, and then with Harry.
"A lucky shot, if ever there has been one," he said. "I did not account for Voldemort being able to flee as a spirit. I believed, unfortunately," he said, "that by drinking Unicorn Blood, he had locked himself into a corporeal form. Obviously I was mistaken."
Dumbledore looked expectantly at Harry. "I suspect, in the coming days, that I will hear no end of it from you for such a mistake. I cannot say I do not deserve it, but will you at least hold off your chastisement until you are healed and rested?"
Harry nodded, but had the grace to appear bashful.
"I think, given the circumstances and your injuries, Harry, you will also forgive me if I do this—"
Harry lost consciousness.
"A toilet seat. Ugh—how sanitary," said Harry, as he looked through the pile of presents left by his admirers.
Hermione, who sat in the bed next beside him, laughed.
"Still, a decent haul of Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Botts'. Forget buying my own sweets; I'll just do something heroic again, next time I run out. You reckon people'd pay up for vanquishing Snape—?"
"More people than you might suppose, Harry," said Dumbledore. Harry's head turned to him slowly, unbelieving. When had the man shown up? How long had he been listening there for—? "Dear Professor Snape—" He inflected the word deeply, and surveyed Harry over his glasses. "—Is apparently quite unpopular with his students."
"No surprise," said Hermione under her breath.
Dumbledore seemed to be surprised by the other voice chiming in, but recovered seamlessly. "Ah, Miss Granger!" he said. "I trust you are recovering well from your injuries?"
Hermione beamed up at the Headmaster. "Yes, sir," she replied. "Madam Pomfrey had me better in under an hour, sir, but she kept me for observation—she wanted to make sure that none of my cuts were infected."
"I see," said Professor Dumbledore, and his eyes flicked to Harry, and back to Hermione. "I think Madam Pomfrey might have kept you in the hospital wing for a different reason, Miss Granger, as it is standard Mediwitch practice to disinfect all wounds."
"Oh," replied Hermione.
Dumbledore smiled kindly down on her. "You have my permission to return to your dorm room," he said. "If Madam Pomfrey inquires as to your whereabouts, I shall tell her that my elbow hurts—that should prove sufficient distraction, I think, since nobody can help fussing over an old man's health."
"Thank you, sir," she said, and made to stand up.
"Wait, Hermione," said Harry. "Stay for a few, would you?" At her nod, Harry turned to the Headmaster. "Anything you say to me, you can say to Hermione. I'll just tell her later, anyway."
"Very well," said Dumbledore, and with a brush of his wand, he drew up a squashy leather chair in between their two beds and sat on it. He was silent for a long minute, while he took off his glasses and polished them on his robes, and when he spoke, it was to ask Harry a question: "How much have you shared with Miss Granger about last night, Harry?"
"All of it," said Harry, at once.
"Good," said Dumbledore, "then I shall not have to backtrack. Last night, Harry, you encountered Lord Voldemort for the second time in your short life, though not quite in the same form as you last encountered him. I have no doubt that you found the experience both illuminating and harrowing."
"He was once a very impressive young man—very much like you, in fact. He was clever, brilliantly so, even, and very well-spoken for his age." Dumbledore paused. "For all the similarities between you, Harry, there are quite a few differences. Tom Riddle—as he went by as a boy—would never have walked to his death just to save his friends." Dumbledore glanced at Hermione again. "Nor, for that matter, did young Tom ever indeed have friends.
"I am sure he has mentioned the similarities between you two. Do not let his words go to your head, Harry, since he is a persuasive speaker. His speech has a way of insinuating itself into you, slithering stealthily under your sight until he has wrapped himself around your mind. It is an ancient branch of magic that he has resurrected: he attempts to control your fear, and through it, defeats you before the battle even starts. The only way to defeat him is to remember the truth, to stand up to him, and to fight fear and loathing with kindness and mercy wherever you go.
"But enough of that. Have you been enjoying the gifts from your admirers, Harry? I admit to having sent a few Frogs myself, in appreciation of your bravery."
"Yes, sir," said Harry, and he took a few Frogs off the pile. He handed one to Hermione, and offered one to Dumbledore, who accepted it. "Er—if you don't mind me asking, sir, what happened to Professor Quirrell?"
Dumbledore sighed at the question. "Quirrell's life was signed away the moment he allowed Lord Voldemort to share his body. I don't imagine you know much about possession magic, Harry, nor you, Miss Granger, but voluntary possession is much different from involuntary possession. When the body adapts to share space with another, there are a host of physiological changes that occur. In cases of involuntary possession, these changes do not occur, since the possessor usually just displaces the mind of the possessed. However, in Professor Quirrell's case, and in cases of voluntary possession, the body adapts to permit both minds full access.
"After a certain amount of time—a few months, most scholars seem to agree—voluntary possession becomes fatal if one mind should leave the other. I... cannot imagine the sort of pain that Quirrell must have felt. Again, studies suggest that the experience is terribly traumatic for both, and when I sped up their parting, so-to-speak, I had hoped that Voldemort would not survive as well. Disheartening as his escape is, I don't believe that he will have any memory of the events that have occurred since he possessed Quirrell."
"So Quirrell's dead, then," said Harry.
"Yes," replied Dumbledore. He sighed. "I suppose I shall have to find a new professor to teach Defense." He looked at Harry. "That is the tenth Professor I've had in ten years. The position is cursed, Harry: I kid you not."
"Professor Snape has always wanted the position, hasn't he, Professor?" asked Harry.
"Oh, very cheeky, Harry," replied Dumbledore. "I'm afraid you will have to work harder than that to earn yourself some more chocolate, though."
"So why does Voldemort want to kill me, Professor?" asked Harry, in between mouthfuls of Frog. "I don't think I've ever asked you—"
"—And I wouldn't have told you the answer before today, Harry, but having seen your performance against Lord Voldemort leads me to believe that you are capable of hearing if not the whole answer, then certainly part. In short: there was a prophecy made about you before you were born. Voldemort heard only part of it, and he believes that it means that you will be his downfall."
"And does it say that I will be—?"
"Does it matter?"
Harry thought for a moment. "I don't suppose it does, does it?"
"One more question, sir—"
"Ask away, Harry. I shall do my best to answer."
"Why didn't you draw an age line in front of the corridor leading to the Stone?"
Dumbledore was silent for a very long time. Just when Harry thought to repeat himself—perhaps the Headmaster had not heard?—Dumbledore spoke. "Sometimes, when you are as ancient as time itself, and you are used to dealing with problems on the monumental scale, Harry, you forget simple things that might be a great deal of help. Remember that, both of you."
He stood. "Now, if you will permit me to say my piece, and I shall leave you both to your chocolate: next year, Harry, I shall summon you to my office. Since you have had the dubious privilege of having your mind invaded by Lord Voldemort, I shall be teaching you the art of Occlumency, in order to forestall any such future invasions. This summer, in addition to your homework, I ask you to please work at clearing your mind for extended periods of time—perhaps before you sleep would be best, since you will be capable of practicing it while you are unconscious, as well."
He handed Harry a book—Unfogging the Mind by Copernicus Tabernathy—and spoke again. "This should tell you all you need to know about how to go about clearing it. It is important that you should practice."
"Now, I know that you are not on the fondest terms with your relatives, but you will have to return there for the greater part of the summer. Mrs. Weasley—Ronald's mother—has volunteered to take you for the latter half of it, if you should wish—"
"That's fine," muttered Harry.
"—but I rather figured, given your coolness toward the boy, that you would rather spend it with Miss Granger and her family. I have spoken to your mother, Miss Granger, and she has agreed to house Harry for the last two weeks before school begins again. I hope this is far more satisfactory to you, Harry?"
"Much," said Harry, with great relief. Hermione's look was inscrutable.
"Since you must remain in the hospital for another night, Harry, I have taken the liberty of dismissing you from your remaining two examinations. Professor Snape was most displeased to hear that you were going to miss taking his—I do believe he has planned to make Gryffindor brew a Boil-Curing Potion from memory—"
Dumbledore glanced sharply at Hermione, whose eyes brightened at the Headmaster's hint.
"—but I have made him understand, as I always do," he finished. "Anyway, get better quickly, Mr. Potter; don't forget that the last Quidditch match of the season is on Friday. I do believe that Professor McGonagall would be most disappointed if you aren't up to flying."
The Headmaster turned to walk out of the Hospital Wing, but stopped short. "Oh, one last thing," he said, as he strode over to Harry's bed. "I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Thomas before he was dismissed, and he said that he had borrowed your Invisibility Cloak to go after the Philosopher's Stone."
Dumbledore's smile was mischievous. "Anyway, since he told me that he had left it in front of Fluffy, I went and checked, and it was missing. It turns out that a passing Mr. Malfoy kindly kept the cloak for you, so that it would not be covered in drool. I persuaded him to return it to me so that I could give it to you." From within his robes, Dumbledore drew out a small square of fabric, which expanded slowly until it was the proper size again. He handed it to Harry. "As I said, Harry, your father would have been extraordinarily proud of you."
"Anyway, a good day to you both."
And with that, the Headmaster strode out of the Hospital Wing.
Harry and Hermione stepped onto the Hogwarts Express together, and found an empty compartment near the end.
"I still can't believe that you beat me in Charms," said Hermione, when they had settled down enough to talk.
"Oh, give it a rest already, Hermione," said Harry, and he bashed his head against the wall of the compartment. "You beat me in Transfiguration and in History, and you were top in Potions, since Snape flunked me on purpose."
"Well, you did beat me by nearly ten points in Defense, so I think that gives me the right to complain."
"You think that Quirrell knew when he scored me at the top of the class that I'd be using his knowledge to help kill him?"
Hermione smiled gently at Harry. "I'm sure it crossed his mind.
The compartment door slid open. In the doorway was Katie Bell.
"Oh, hey, Katie," said Harry.
"Hi, Harry," she replied. "Hermione."
Harry rose to his feet. "Look, Katie, I just wanted to say how sorry I was for blowing you off—"
Katie shook her head. "It's okay, Harry. I stopped being angry the minute that I heard you were responsible for offing that miserable excuse for a Defense Professor."
Harry exchanged looks with Hermione. They had heard the rumor that Harry had been the one to kill Quirrell, before, but at Harry's insistence, they had not tried to correct it.
"Well, I'm glad. Nice flying, by the way," said Harry, by means of transition to a more pleasant subject, "against Hufflepuff. I didn't get a chance to congratulate you—"
"Well, it was a done deal, wasn't it? I just had fun."
Harry smiled. "Well, it was nice flying anyway, even if McGonagall just about skinned you alive for that inverted Porskoff Ploy—"
Katie snorted. "She's got her trophies. That's all she cares about, I think."
There was a moment of silence. "Anyway," said Katie, whose eyes flickered over to Hermione again. "You have a nice summer, Harry. I'll see you in the fall."
"You too, Katie."
She hugged him and went on her way. Harry closed the door and sat down again beside Hermione.
"What?" he asked Hermione, at the look she was giving him.
She smiled elusively and shook her head. "Nothing. It's just going to be an interesting year, next year."
Harry leaned back. "I suspect that you're right, as usual."
"When am I not?"
"On two more questions than I was, if we're talking about Charms."
She shook her head, and waved her wand threateningly at him. Gold sparks shot out the end, just missing his face. "You be careful, Harry Potter. You're going to wish that you never taunted me about marks in the first place. I'm going to practice hard, this summer."
Harry closed his eyes. In his hand, he could feel the cool grip of his holly wand. To his knowledge, it was the first time he'd ever smiled when thinking about the Dursleys.
"So am I, Hermione."
-- TO BE CONTINUED --
We wanted to write a (short) note before we move on to the second work.
Thank you for reading 'Vincet'. It's been an absolute pleasure to write, and the response has been fantastic. We're so proud that people enjoy our work; it's eclipsed our successes as individual authors by far.
We're not giving up any time soon, either, so those of you who say "It's just like any other canon rehash first year book", neener-neener. And, yes, there is a point to this all. We didn't just decide to rewrite the books with a Harry that was "more like the authors". In fact, dare I say it: none of us are particularly like this Harry, which is why he's so fun to write. As things progress, and his personality ossifies more, it just gets more and more fun, too.
The chapter titles are in Latin for no reason other than to be a reward to those who track the information down. We will be continuing with the trend, I'm sorry to say. So that we don't irretrievably frustrate the rest of you, though, here are the translations:
VINCET -- He Shall Conquer.
CAPUT PRIMUS, CAPUT II, etc. -- Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc..
ITERUM, PUER QUI VIVEBAT -- Again, the Boy Who Lived
DE AEDES FUTURUM CECINIT -- It Sang about the Houses and the Future
RESTICULAS ORBIS TERRARUM VIDIT -- He Saw the Strings of the World
QUAESIVIT RESPONSUM NEQUE GLORIAM -- He Sought Answers, Not Glory
ALTERUM INIMICUM VICIT -- He Conquered One of His Enemies
SENEX OMNIPOTENS -- The Omnipotent Old Man
GRADUUM ASCENDISTIS -- They Climbed the Stairs
LASCIVITI ANCILLORUM -- The Desires of the Servants
Just as a side note, the alternate title for the final chapter was 'Two Guys One Chap'. It was wisely cut.
As a side note, one third of our trio, R———, will be writing a little less on the sequel, since he's just completing his own book for publication. He'll still be the managing editor, and he'll still do some scenes, but he's going pretty nuts and needs to pay his bills first.
Please be sure to add an Author Alert for us, since 'Vincet' will continue in its sequel, VULTUS SERPENTIS.
A———, R———, and T———,
NOS TRES REGES