The Tinkerer

Chapter 16

When Harry arrived at the first room on the left going down into the dungeons at five to seven, Draco was already there, apparently having been waiting in the dark like some kind of vampire. Harry's wand lit up the boy's shoes first, then rapidly tracked up to his face, whereupon Draco said, "Hullo."

"Good God!" Harry exclaimed. "Hullo, Draco. Have you just been here in the dark?"

"Didn't want anyone to notice the wandlight," Draco explained. "Glad you could make it."

Harry shook his head, telling himself that in a way it sort of made sense, and he said, "Did you get the book?"

"Yes, and I memorized the first few spells on your list. Good list, that."

Harry took another look around the darkened classroom. He said, "You must have really good dark vision."

"I read it earlier, idiot," Draco laughed.

"Oh, right," said Harry. "So. Where's this secret training room thing?"

"Well, it's not really all that," Draco demurred as he cracked open the door and peered up and down the corridor, then waving Harry to follow him. "It's a retired potions lab on the second floor dungeon. I don't think anyone knows it exists, anymore. It's really secluded."

"Potions lab?" repeated Harry. "Like an old classroom?"

Draco looked at him with an arched brow. He said, "There are four or five potions labs down here that are available for student use. However, they all have passwords to enter. My father used this particular one when he was a student at Hogwarts, and told me the password. When I looked in on it last week, it looked rather like nobody had been there since my father was in school. I doubt even Professor Snape knows it exists. The other three that I know about are used all the time, of course. However, only NEWT students are allowed to use them unsupervised. That being said, a NEWT student can supervise younger students. Sometimes Lestelle will take the first and second years to get some extra practice. Lestelle doesn't care, he just does his homework while we work. He's just there in case something has to be vanished, you understand. I mean, he doesn't answer our questions or hold our hands or anything, he just lets us work. I asked him once about the properties of something or other, and he told me to look in the book. First and second year potions can be dangerous, but only if you really bungle them – that's why we have to be supervised. I think one of the second years' parents is paying him for it, but I didn't ask. I wonder if Lestelle would let a Hufflepuff join us? I'll see about that next time, if you're interested. Or Longbottom, I suppose. He could use the extra practice, from what Corner said. Not that you should listen to Corner, the boy's an idiot – Ravenclaw or not. Anyway, we always use the lab that's right next to the Common Room entrance. But there's another one that the NEWT studnts won't let any younger students into, ever. Not really sure what they're doing in there, to be honest. Then there's another lab that people sometimes use when those two are occupied. But this fourth one, nobody even knows it exists, other than myself and Goyle of course."

"And now me," Harry said once it was clear that Draco was pausing for breath. "Well, thank you for showing me." He'd never seen the boy so excited before – but then again, they were going to be practicing dueling in a few minutes. Of course, as Harry gave Draco's rather odd behavior a bit more thought, it occurred to him that they had never really been alone together, except that time when Draco was revealing what his father had 'accomplished' on the Quirrell front – which was not exactly a good setting for excited gibbering. Generally, Mr. Goyle and Crabbe, at least, were rarely more than ten feet away from Draco, and more often than not they were joined by the entire Slytherin pureblood clique. Certainly, the pair had never gone on any kind of adventure before. He wondered if this is what Draco was really like when you got him alone, or if maybe he'd just had too much raspberry fool, which had been delicious.

It seemed that the path that they were taking was incredibly circuitous. They had already made about ten turns or so, and Harry really had no idea what cardinal direction they were walking in, or how their current position related to the Slytherin Common Room or the Entrance Hall. They had, at one point, even taken a staircase going down, the first such staircase that Harry had seen in the dungeons. "Are you sure you know where you're going?"

Draco laughed. "Of course I know where I'm going. I've only been studying maps of these dungeons since I was about four. Don't worry. I'll admit it's a bit of a long walk, but we're going the right way for Sunday night."

Harry just had to trust him, he supposed. It did occur to Harry, though, that if he had grossly misread Draco's character, and if this was some kind of joke, he would probably be lost for at least several hours down here. The map thing was interesting, though: "Your family has maps of this place?"

"Yes, of course," Draco said, giving Harry a strange look. "Well, I guess your family might not, come to think of it. All Gryffindors for centuries, right?"

"At least a few generations. I don't really know past that."

"And now you," Draco said, echoing Harry's earlier statement, then laughed.

"Oh, yes, the yellow stain on the family tapestry, that's me," said Harry.

Draco laughed, then he said, "I only meant the main line, of course – those that were born with and died with the name Potter, you understand. From what I understand, they've all been Gryffindors, until you that is, for quite a long time. So of course you wouldn't have any maps of the dungeons. My family, on the other hand, have all been Slytherins for a very, very long time. Ever since we first set roots in this country, back in the 12th century. And of course, back in those days, these dungeons weren't nearly as large as they are now."

"You mean to say, your family expanded the dungeons?"

"Well, we had a hand in it, certainly. Many other families have contributed to the castle, over the years – building new towers and such. But for Slytherins of course the sensible thing to do was to keep digging and digging. Hogwarts is built on very strong granite bedrock, you know, so you can dig quite deep without really much risk."

"But I don't understand. What's the point of having all of this? I mean, it's deserted."

"Of course it's deserted now," said Draco. "Although, you only know Bagshot's version of history, I suppose…. Well, before the Muggle-Magical Wars –"

"The what?"

Draco was frowning quite a bit now, but somehow was still excited. "Oh, what did the muggles call them – the witch hunts, right? As if we were animals! – of course, our people called it war. Anyway, before the wars – long before Secrecy –, it looked like the wizarding population in Albion – that's the old name for Britain, of course – would just keep growing and growing. Many of the more important families had several wives or concubines back then, and producing thirty wizarding children or more wasn't particularly rare. Not that polygyny is favorable, you understand, but the result was a huge population surge on this island. And Hogwarts was the only school in Albion back in those days – and people would come from the Low Countries and France and Denmark and other places as well."

"A lot of students, then," Harry said, looking around. They had passed six or seven classroom doors already, just since they had come down the staircase to the subbasement.

"A lot of students, yes. You wouldn't believe it looking at it now, but there was a time when a lot of this was being used regularly. Back then, of course, there were House-specific teachers."

"Really?" said Harry.

"Oh, yes. Slytherin – and all of the Houses – were sort of schools-within-a-school during the hay day of Hogwarts. Instead of fighting with the other Houses for space up on the surface, Slytherin just built more classrooms down here. And that door there, do you know what that is?"

It wasn't actually a door at all but rather a relief in the shape of a doorway – a pointed archway done in serpents and evergreens. At the center of the otherwise blank wedge of wall under the arch, Harry spied another ouroboros, this one with what seemed to be spiky fins along its back, and it was encircling an intricate celtic knot forming a heptagram.

"That is where the Common Room and quarters for lower division students were. First through third years, you understand. In those days, the one upstairs was only used for NEWT students – although they didn't have NEWT exams as such back in those days, of course. There's a third Common Room somewhere around here – I haven't looked for it yet. And then there's a dining hall down here, too. But of course, there's not nearly enough students to justify any of that anymore.

"Honestly, I'm not surprised you don't know about any of this, though. Reading Hogwarts: A History, and A History of Magic, you'd think that the school's never really changed. Nobody wants to admit that our race is dying off, of course, but the evidence is plain as day down here. Well, it's pretty obvious on the surface, too, really. There's only, what, eight or nine classrooms being used on the surface? – and as many towers, nearly! I'll just say, they didn't build all of those towers and turrets just for more storage space. I mean, just look at Ravenclaw Tower. You know, it used to be occupied from basement to dovecote, but now they're only using it for the Ravenclaw Common Room, and you can't even access the lower levels. Gryffindor Tower's just the same, of course."

Harry ran his fingers along the spiked spine of the encircled serpent. The wall was very cold and very smooth. Looking closely at the relief, Harry saw that the serpent's visible eye was embedded with a mottled green and black stone.

"They're all sealed, of course. They say that the Headmaster can open up any of the sealed rooms upstairs – where the doors haven't been vanished altogether –, but down here supposedly nobody can open most of them. A lot of people have tried to open them up, of course, but they're barred by old magic. I don't think anyone's been in that Common Room for centuries. It still appears on the old maps, of course, and old journals from former students mention it. One of my ancestors briefly mentions the construction in one of his journals, actually. Anyway, the lab's right over here."

Harry used all of his mental cantrips to rapidly memorize the password, which was 'totius nobilissimae philosophiae absoluta consummatio.' He repeated the password to himself in a whisper, to help him lock it in his mind, and then he said, "That's a mouthful."

"Worth remembering, and not just as a password," Draco said seriously. While Harry would remember it, he didn't ask what it meant. He was sure that at some point, unless he abandoned it, he'd eventually have to give in to the wizarding world's inclinations and begin learning Latin, and at that time he would know what it meant.

The door had swung open, and Harry and Draco entered to be treated to the sight of what was probably the worst-off classroom that Harry had ever seen. Despite the enchantments all over the dungeons that circulated the air, this room's odor spoke of the use to which it had been put in the intervening decades since it was last used by Malfoy the Elder – as a good place for Hogwarts' rodent population to come to breed, defecate and die. He wondered how they ever got in, but when Draco shut the door again, he observed by the light of their wands that there was a crack under it that was evidently large enough for them to squeeze through.

"It's not much, I know," Draco understated.

"Oh, it's great," Harry said saccharinely.

Around the room, Harry saw that there were a few shockingly solid tables pushed against the walls, and a few cabinets set into the walls, and precious little else. He set to putting some lighting charms here and there about the cornices and ceiling, and once cast in a nice orange glow, he could see that the room had potential – once it was cleaned up, that is.

"Do you know a vanishing spell?" he asked.

"Unfortunately not," said Draco.

"Oh, wait, I know one," Harry recalled, feeling foolish. The spell that he had used to clean out cauldrons in his own potions lab made quick work of the rat dung and carcasses that littered this one, but they elected to leave the door open and take their chances with being discovered so that the air circulation spells could hopefully benefit the retired lab.

"All right, so what did you get from the library?"

"Well, I thought there was little point in wasting time with tickling jinxes and such like," said Draco. Harry noted that 'tickling jinxes and such like' were not on the list in any case. "So, I thought we might start with the Disarming Charm."

"Excellent," he said. "How does it work?"

"Well, I don't know how it works, really – oh, how do you do it, you mean? – well, it's just a little ninety degrees withershins twist, and the incantation is Expelliarmus. I think I'm saying it right."

"Expelliarmus," repeated Harry. Then he said, "Wither-what?"

"Wi-ther-shins," Draco enunciated slowly, giving Harry a funny look.

"You'll have to forgive me. Wither-who?"

"Withershins means turning to the left, Harry."

"Anti-clockwise," he summarised. "Right. Withershins – why not? Okay. So, just like this?"

Draco's disbelieving look angled itself from Harry's face to his hand but it only increased in the intensity of its incredulousness.

"You're holding your wand wrong, Harry," he said, speaking very slowly again.

"No, I'm not," he said. "This is how Flitwick said to hold it. And the books." Harry remembered Justin's offhand insult about Weasley – he doesn't even hold his wand right. If Harry had been holding his wand wrong this whole time, that was humiliating.

"Well, not wrong, I guess. But look, this is how you hold your wand when you're dueling. See? Put your thumb on the top. Right, like that. And then put your index finger forward, don't wrap it around like the other three fingers. Yes, that's the way."

Harry did what his friend told him, but it felt strange to hold the wand like that. "What's the point of this? Are you saying there's two ways to hold a wand?"

"This is how you hold your wand when you're dueling – that is to say, it's the grasp used by most dueling stances, although there are others. Most hexes and jinxes and things have been designed to have very small, precise wand movements. Things like a ninety degree withershins twist, see. Well, if you hold your wand with your thumb on the top, it's easier to tell that you've turned it exactly ninety degrees. An eighty or one hundred degree twist won't work nearly as well. It will probably work, but not as well. If your thumb's not top and center on your wand in the 'zero' position, you're just guessing how much you've twisted it. Then you put your index finger forward for stability."

"All right, that makes sense," Harry said. "So, for other spells, you can hold your wand … that other way?"

"Yes, it's fine for things like Wingardium Leviosa or what have you, because those spells don't use very precise wand movements anyway. But my father says you should always hold your wand like this, just so you learn good habits, even though the other way is more comfortable."

Harry tried turning his wand ninety degrees both withershins and the other way, and immediately discovered a problem. "Er, Draco, when I turn my wand like this, it points in a funny direction."

"That's odd. Let me see. Oh, I remember now – you're supposed to turn with your elbow, not with your wrist. Er – yeah, that's a little better. I think it's okay to use a little wrist. Keep practicing that. Let me just double-check the pronunciation."

After a minute or so, Harry was able to turn his wand a quarter turn withershins without pointing the wrong way, and Draco nodded in approval. Draco said, "Well. I was right about the pronunciation. You remember it, right?"

"Expelliarmus," Harry said.

"Watch where you point that thing!" Draco exclaimed. "Only joking, of course. It won't work if you're not trying. Okay, let's give it a go. Would you like to try first?"

Harry shrugged and walked over to one edge of the room, Draco taking the opposite, and tried the spell. To his shock, it very nearly worked – Draco's wand left his hand and clattered to the floor a yard to Harry's left. Draco was also knocked back against the wall, though, and Harry was briefly worried that he'd clocked his head, but Draco waved his concerns off. "No dueling without a few bumps and bruises, right? Anyway, don't worry about me, it's your turn to get hit now, Potter!"

In some ways, Draco's first attempt was similar to Harry's: Harry was smartly slapped against the wall, feeling glad that he was standing right up against the wall so that he didn't fall on his arse, but also thinking that a wall-softening charm might be good to learn, if that existed. In other ways, however, Draco's first attempt was much less satisfying: Harry's wand was still firmly in his thumb-on-top, index-forward grasp and showed no signs of flightiness.

"You know, even though it's not supposed to happen when the spell is done properly, in a real fight that push-back effect might be dead useful," Harry commented. "It might be a good idea to remember how to do it that way."

"Maybe – but it would be even more useful if your wand left your hand," Draco groused, glaring at Harry's unmoving wand.

Harry rolled his eyes. "Try again," he said.

Within half an hour, they were disarming each other quite efficiently enough, although Draco was still a bit inconsistent about catching Harry's wand in his left hand. "Don't worry, wands can't be damaged that easily," Draco said, a bit chagrined as Harry's wand slipped out of his grasp yet again and clattered noisily to the stone floor. Draco's spellwork was perfect, he just had a particularly uncoordinated offhand. "Anyway, I'll work on that in my personal time. With Crabbe's wand. What's next?"

"How about the Stunning Spell?"

"Too difficult," Draco said promptly, causing Harry to frown. "How about something with fire?"

"I'm not really sure if we're allowed to light people on fire," Harry said sardonically. "Besides, we should stick with my list."

"Oh, just a little fire. It'll be fine. Do be a sport, Harry!"

Lighting things on fire was all well and good, but this meant that Harry would have to look up and practice the Stunning Spell on his own time. Rolling his eyes, Harry consented. "All right, why not? I already know the spell to light a cauldron flame, but that's not a lot of good in a fight," he said.

"That'll be Incendio, I guess? Yes, it's great for lighting fireplaces and such but there's a whole world of fire spells, you know," Draco gushed. Harry stared, wondering if he was putting his life in the hands of a pyromaniac. "Pansy's grandfather showed us a wonderful spell that makes a sort of whip of flame, and you can wrap it round the enemy. Very effective, let me tell you. He used it to roast a pig, if you can believe it! We didn't end up eating it, though – it's not really a cooking spell. The pig was very dead but not very well-cooked. Of course, he didn't say the incantation out loud – stingy, senile prig. And then of course there's Fiendfyre – well, I don't have to tell you how destructive that spell is. Quite difficult though, and also illegal to even know how to cast it, probably. But look, I found a lovely spell while I was doing that research – d'you know, I think I like the library? – and anyway, I think we can probably pull it off. It's not very tricky."

Harry looked over Draco's shoulder at the book. The spell was called Tongue of Salamander, and by the description it quite simply sent a quick little stream of fire out of one's wand. It seemed to be rather simpler than Incendio, and far more practical in a dueling situation – assuming that it didn't immediately immolate the opposition, which seemed like a minimal risk unless they happened to be covered in something like lamp oil at the time.

"That'll work," he said in appreciation. It was very intimidating but unlikely to seriously hurt anyone. It was perfect – even if it wasn't on the list.

By the time the pair of aspiring duelists had figured out how to make a thin stream of flames rather than a great self-dangerous puff of it, and had discovered that the tables in the room were very fire-proof but the cabinet doors were not, Harry's watch said that it was already just ten minutes before curfew. "We could stay out longer," Harry said.

"I'd rather not get detention this early into the term," Draco countered. "Everyone says that if you make a bad impression before Yule, you're in for a rough seven years. We've made good enough progress for one evening, I think."

"Yes, but –" Harry cut himself off. "Well, you're right of course. Anyway, tomorrow evening?"

"Tomorrow is fine with me," Draco said. "We don't have any homework assigned except for that Charms essay, so I should be quite available."

On the walk down the main corridor of the subbasement level, they passed the archway that supposedly led to the retired lower division Slytherin Common Room again, and Harry suddenly remembered what Daphne Greengrass had said that morning – we neglected to tell you the password. But there hadn't been a password to the Slytherin Common Room – he had just had to yell at the door to open. Surely, the password wasn't 'just open your arse up.' That would be strange, and inappropriate. He felt like he was missing something important.

Harry decided not to dwell on it. The answer, no doubt, would come to him in the middle of the night or something.

"Draco," he said. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

"Siblings? No. I'm a one-and-only. Why?"

"Well, it occurred to me, earlier you said that some wizards used to have dozens of children. But out of everyone at the school, the only family I can think of that has a bunch of children is the Weasleys –"

"– Just as many as they could afford, and then they had Ronald too," Draco snorted.

"And you said something about how our race is dying off," Harry added pointedly. "So why aren't there thirty little Malfoys?"

Draco seemed to think about it for some time. Then he said, "Well, I suppose the culture's just changed. There's no more space for us to spread out, you know. I mean, Hogsmeade is the last safe village on the whole island, and it's full. With the war and everything, it just made more sense to consolidate rather than disperse. People were dropping like flies, during the war, you know. I think a lot of young families wanted to have a child, so that they wouldn't be wiped out, but didn't want to have a lot of children, because that might just mean a lot of orphans."

"But after the war," Harry said. "You know, after World War II in the muggle world, there was something called the baby boom. All of the soldiers came home and got married and had a bunch of kids, all at once. And the muggle population – well, boomed. So I wonder why there wasn't a baby boom in the wizarding world."

Draco was momentarily distracted by his disgust at the concept, but then he seemed to look at it more pragmatically, and his conclusion was, "Not enough survivors, maybe. Our parents' generation was devastated, you know – hundreds of young people killed…. Or maybe, people think the war might not really be over."

Harry glanced at Draco sharply. While Harry knew that Voldemort lived, he had thought that he was one of the very few that knew that. "You mean, people think that Vol – You-Know-Who might come back?"

Draco shrugged. "A lot of people have different ideas," he said noncommittally.

Harry pressed: "And some people believe that he isn't really dead?"

Draco frowned, now. "The problem is, he just disappeared out of the wide open blue, and nobody knows how or why. There are unanswered questions about the whole thing. There are a lot of different theories, but nobody can prove anything. So even though the world celebrated his downfall, it left a funny taste in the mouth. You know? And besides…."


"Well. Even though the Dark Lord was … well, even though he disappeared, is probably the safest way to put it – the root causes of the war haven't been addressed, you know? I mean, the issues haven't changed, and a lot of people still want change. So even if the Dark Lord is dead, a lot of people think that someone else will rise up to take his place and continue his work, because the work isn't done yet. In fact, the Ministry's only gotten worse since then."

"You can kill the revolutionary, but you can't kill the revolution," Harry summarized quietly.


In a strange way, Harry almost wanted to sigh in relief. Somehow, this way of looking at things somewhat, very slightly assuaged the guilt of being the one who kept Voldemort alive. It didn't really matter if Voldemort was alive or if he was dead. By himself, Voldemort had just been one very powerful wizard – capable of doing a lot of damage, perhaps, but not by himself capable of changing a society. But he had had followers, and allies. In that sense, whether he lived or died was immaterial, because if he died someone else would just rise up – if not immediately after, then after a decade or two – because his position had been popular with a lot of people.

But then Harry had a chilling thought: what if it was him, Harry, that was destined to rise up and fill Voldemort's shoes? After all, hadn't Harry taken one look at this society and immediately begun planning with Hermione how to change it? – and while Harry had said that he wanted to do it slowly, was that not, perhaps, just because he didn't appreciate just how slow his opponents would make it if he played by their rules? Harry couldn't quite picture himself turning into a terrorist, but he was already a radical and perhaps that was only one step away. He tried to imagine Voldemort at eleven years old, wondering if he was already on the same path, but it was impossible to imagine a child version of the Dark Lord.

"Do you think that just having more land would help?"

"Sorry?" Draco asked – apparently he had been lost in his own thoughts, too.

"I mean, if our kind took land from the muggles, or even created new land, which I think might be possible, and built more villages, or even cities, and perhaps even financially incentivized people to have large families, do you think that would be enough to change the culture? Would that be enough to satisfy people that we aren't being wiped out?"

"It would help, certainly," Draco allowed. "But there's still the fear of muggles. As long as they keep multiplying, it'll be difficult to convince people that we're safe."

"It's hard to imagine, us being afraid of the muggles," Harry said.

"Because of magic, right? But magic can't solve all of our problems, not really. During the Muggle-Magical Wars – well, at the beginning of the wars – wizards made up a much greater percentage of the population. And the muggles had much less sophisticated weapons back then. But even so, there were so many of them … and they would often target children, who didn't know to hide their magic, and couldn't fight or flee – and then they would kill people while they slept, too – and remember that most people can't Disapparate without a wand, so being caught without your wand, or having it broken …. that's why we went into seclusion, really, you know. To protect the children, and let people sleep at night without keeping their wand under their pillow."

"Even the muggles admit that the witch hunts were horrible," Harry said. Of course, muggle history books didn't remember it for what it was: genocide, or attempted genocide, perpetrated by church, state and mob alike.

"They say that the muggles often targeted the wrong people," Draco said. "If there weren't any witches around, any old crone or gypsy or drifter or heretic would do the trick. But they found real witches often enough. Today, though, the real problem is the muggleborns."

Harry looked at Draco sharply again. "How is that?"

Draco seemed a bit chagrined by his statement, as though it had come out wrong, or as though he had forgotten just whom he was speaking with. "Well," he put delicately, "it's the big loophole in the Statute of Secrecy, isn't it?"


"No muggles are supposed to know about magic – unless they happen to be related to a witch or wizard. So you have parents, siblings, grandparents, sometimes aunts, uncles, and cousins, all knowing about it, sometimes even owning enchanted items, or having the muggleborn's books laying around for anyone to find. For each muggleborn, there's a whole household of muggles, at least, that know all about it, and they're not always discrete about knowing, either."

Harry frowned. "I see what you mean," he admitted somewhat grudgingly. The International Statute of Secrecy was flawed in that way – but the question was, how could it be done any better? "Not just about the Statute of Secrecy loophole," he added, "but about the threat of the muggles, too. If they found out about us … it might be all right in Europe, but there are a lot of places in the world that wouldn't accept witchcraft. Not that I agree with killing them, like You-Know-Who did…."

"No, not killing them," Draco agreed, looking rather surprised by what Harry had said. "They're human beings – Homo sapiens inferiror is still Homo sapiens. Nobody is proposing killing them off."

Harry looked at Draco blankly. What an odd statement to make! Of course that's what You-Know-Who was proposing to do. But then, growing up in the post-war period – no, the inter-war period, Harry reminded himself – it might be easy to forget, in some circles, or to justify how many muggles had been slaughtered, like Harry's own grandparents had been slaughtered, by the forces of Voldemort.

"At any rate," Harry said, electing not to remind Draco of facts that he found inconvenient any further, if only to remain civil, "it does seem like there's a solution to all of this, one that doesn't require bloodshed."

Draco eyed Harry speculatively for a moment. Then he said, "Do let me know what you come up with, Harry."

Great, Harry thought, wanting to slap himself on the forehead. Now Draco thought that Harry was going to literally solve all the world's problems – "Well," Harry said, "I can find my way back to Puff from here. Er – see you tomorrow, Draco."

Draco's worldview had given Harry a lot to consider. While Harry had some rather big problems with the way wizarding society was run, and while Harry planned to keep his options open in case he wanted to make a career in the muggle world when he grew up, that wasn't to say that he wanted his own kind to be wiped out any time soon. And as Harry took his solitary path back to the Badgers' Burrow, he could not help but take notice once more of all of the unused rooms everywhere and all of the corridors that led only to dead ends because what they used to lead to had been sealed off – he could not help but consider that maybe Draco was right in saying that their kind was dying off. The castle seemed to lack the vital vibrance it usually had and felt very cold just then.

But what was the solution?

"Harry!" Hermione exclaimed when he entered the House of Huff. "Where have you been?"

"I've just been with Draco," Harry said. There was no point in lying to her, not really, but he added, "It's sort of secret, though."

"Draco? What have you been doing with Draco for the last two hours?"

"I'll tell you – quietly. Actually, maybe we should go somewhere private."

"Good luck finding somewhere private," she said. The Common Room was still bursting with activity even then. It seemed like the party wouldn't wind down for another few hours, in fact, never mind that the following day was Monday.

Harry scanned around the Common Room, spotted that some of the first year girls were missing, presumably in their dorm, but all of the boys were present, so he tugged Hermione by her sleeve down the corridor that led to the boys' dormitories. They passed Henry Rousseau in the corridor, and Harry thought that he was about to be told off for bringing a girl into the boys' dorms, but Henry just grinned widely and said, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do!" He was drunk! So much for prefects, thought Harry. Then again, Henry was in the delicate situation of acting supportive of the team captain while hiding his personal disappointment at having lost so handily, so perhaps it was somewhat excusable that he should fortify his spirit. Harry nodded seriously and continued to the first years' dorms.

On the way, Harry tried to think of a good way to broach the subject of the social issues that Draco had addressed, but he found himself at a loss for how to bring it up to her, particularly when he had no solutions to the issues, and particularly when he ran the risk of having his head filled with nonsense by the oldblood heir, having just been meeting with him. So, after Hermione sat down on Ernie's bed, and Harry sprawled out over his own bed, he said, "Draco and I were just practicing some dueling spells."

"Practicing spells?" she repeated. "But whyever would you want to keep that a secret?"

"Well, a few reasons. First of all, I don't want any of the other first years in our House tagging along. I know that you're not interested in dueling, but Ernie and Susan definitely are. If they were to come along, too, I'd be ruining my advantage during the try outs."

Hermione frowned a bit, but she said, "That makes sense."

"Also, I don't want anyone to accuse me of helping the other team. You know, I'll be giving Draco an edge in getting on his own team, as well – making the Slytherin team stronger overall. Once you consider the inherent advantage of having younger students on a team, it doesn't really look good that I'm helping one of them, even if he's helping me, too."

"How is it inherently advantageous?" she asked.

"Well, look at it like this. If Draco and I are good enough to compete with third years now, then by the time we're third years, it'll be completely unfair."

"I see what you mean," she said, eyes slightly wide. "And then in fourth year, when you advance to the Beta bracket, you'll have no trouble at all with the best fifth year students, probably."

"Right. Picking first and second years for Gamma squad, fourth years for Beta and sixth years for Alpha might be risky this year, but next year, any team who does that now will have a huge advantage. An advantage which, in a small way at least, I intend to get for Puff – but which I'm also helping Slytherin get."

Hermione shook her head. "I doubt Gryffindor, at least, is going to be thinking about next year already," she said.

"In truth, I just want to be on the team. But I think it makes sense strategically, too, because despite what Professor Flitwick is hoping, I doubt much of what we learn in the dueling clubs will 'filter down' into the rest of the school, not in any significant way. It'll almost exclusively benefit actual club members. Of course, it would be even better if I helped Ernie and Susan get trained up, too, since that would increase the team's advantage. But I'm being selfish – I don't want to increase the competition against me getting on the team. So I don't want them to know that they're being excluded."

Hermione gave him a somewhat devious look, then, and she said: "How can you be so sure that you're not being excluded?"


"It's just, how do you know that Susan and Ernie aren't practicing together without you?"

Harry blinked. It had never even occurred to him that they might be. "Are they?"

"How would I know, either?"

Harry threw a pillow at her. "Very funny," he said. "Although if they're serious about getting on the team, that's exactly what they should do. They must know that I'm their biggest competition out of the first years, so if they're smart, they will exclude me."

Hermione snorted. "You really have to stop saying things like that, Harry."

"Why? Are you going to burst my bubble?"

"I just might," said she.

"I thought you weren't even interested in dueling."

"I wasn't. But now that it sounds like you might actually stand a chance of getting on the team, I kind of feel like pulling you back to Earth before that big head of hot air carries you off into the stratosphere. So maybe I'll propose to Ernie and Susan that we three train together and leave you out in the cold."

Harry shrugged from his reclined position. "I'm not adverse to some competition, exactly," he said. "I just don't want to share my advantage with everyone. It's just business. That being said, you're more than welcome to train up, too. It'd be fun having another first year on the team."

"You're not on the team, yet, Harry Potter," she reminded him. "And there's some pretty strong contenders in second and third year, you know. It's been all the talk at the party, who thinks who's going to get picked."

"And everyone thinks that I'll get picked," he pointed out smugly.

"Not everyone," she said. "There was one particularly vocal boy who thought you didn't have a chance."

Harry groaned. He suspected he knew who that was. "Never mind him," he said, getting up from the bed. Harry saw that Hermione was about to get up to, and so he said, "You stay put. Hang on," and started rummaging through his trunk, finally retrieving the bag which contained the six abacuses (abaci? – he still wasn't sure) that he had purchased the morning before. "Look," he said, spreading them out on the floor between the two beds, "I've had an idea about these."

"Oh, do tell," she said unenthusiastically, regarding the beaded devices warily.

"More features," he said, grinning.

"Like what?"

"Well, look, so far it can only do math, right? Six times seven," he added to demonstrate. The abacuses all snapped into the position of 42, displayed either by numerical flippers or just by the beads, depending on the feature set of the particular model.

"What else could an abacus be used for, though?" she asked.

"Picture this, like this," Harry said, holding one of the smallest models over his left wrist. "What does that remind you of?"

"The nerdiest pocket calculator known to man?" she asked.

"Yes, obviously, but look more closely."

She seemed to look more closely, then she looked at Harry blankly. He explained: "What if it told the time, too? Good-bye, mechanical wristwatch, hello time-telling magical wrist-abacus!"

Hermione seemed quite doubtful. "It's a bit more cumbersome than a watch, isn't it?"

"Well, sure, like this. It can be made smaller, you know."

Now she was nodding thoughtfully. "Yes, I suppose if you made a very small model, with one of those numerical displays, that might be quite useful."

"Quite useful? I've just made wristwatches obsolete. Quite useful, my knee. It's revolutionary."

"Well," she said, "it's not bad."

"Now I've just got to go out and buy some magical clocks, I think …"

"There's a description of how to make a magical clock in Artifice," she pointed out.

"Yes, well, I'd like to take one apart …"

"There isn't much to take apart, though. Magical clocks don't actually have clockwork, not really."

"Oh, fine," he sighed. "Well, it should be easy enough to make an abacus-cum-timepiece, don't you think?"

"I don't see why not," Hermione said. "In fact, a lot of people already carry around one of each. It would be very convenient for a lot of people to combine them. And then, having a wearable abacus would be convenient in and of itself."

"Precisely. Now – more features!"


"Of course, more. Now, you've read Everyday Enchanting –"

"You know I have."

"Do you remember the mirrors?"

"You know I remem – wait, that's actually quite brilliant!"

Harry nodded, feeling quite smug. "So, you see?"

"Yes – you can do away with the silly numerical flippers altogether – it would be simple to enchant a mirror to display the numbers!"

"Well, yes, quite. But think bigger, Hermione."

Hermione pondered for a moment, then it struck her. "Susan's mirror – communication!"

"Now you see," Harry said, grinning. "And our abacus-cum-timepiece is now an abacus-cum-timepiece-cum-telephone. Better than a telephone – a videophone. A device like that, you could probably sell for fifty or sixty galleons apiece! It'll be a mint – and more to the point, we'll be minted. And change the world."

"Change the world? Well, it's certainly ambitious," she allowed.

Harry rolled his eyes, though. "Hermione, tell me, what's the biggest problem with Susan's mirror?"

Hermione thought about it but came up empty, shaking her head after a few moments.

"Okay, let me phrase that question a different way," Harry said. "Why is it that, despite mirrors like that existing, people are willing to stick their heads in fireplaces instead of using them?"

"The floo can connect to anyone," Hermione said, and it was only after she said that that her eyes widened. "I see what you mean about changing the world, now. But the problem is, how does the floo network even work?"

Harry shrugged. "No idea," he admitted. "But we'll figure it out. And we'll replicate that plumbing – what's a word for plumbing for fireplaces? Chimneying? Smokestackery? –"

"Well, it's called the floo network, so I think networking might be the term –"

"Not very magical, but all right – we'll figure out how it works, and create a mirror network that does the same thing. Other than being able to step through it."

But Hermione now looked very thoughtful. "I wonder if we could make one that you can step through?"

"Probably you'd get stuck in Wonderland … but it's worth looking into, definitely," Harry said thoughtfully.

"I really don't think Wonderland is real," Hermione pointed out.

"Only joking, of course. But then again, a few months ago I really didn't think dragons were real, so who's to say … only joking! But there would be a practical difficulty," he added. "If it's a device strapped on your wrist."

"Right. It might not work out so well, traveling by wristwatch," Hermione said. Then, apparently imagining what it would look like to be sucked into your watch, she started giggling. Harry rolled his eyes again but he had to laugh, too. It was a peculiar mental image.

"Still, worth seeing if mirror-travel is something that's been attempted. And anything else to do with mirrors, clocks and abacuses, for that matter. Oh, I've had another brainwave – if we're using a mirror as a display, that means we can probably make a graphing abacus!"

"Brilliant," Hermione said. "One thing at a time, maybe, but that's brilliant."

"More features, come on," Harry prodded. He was really starting to have fun with this.

Hermione thought about it some more, and she said, "You know, there's another kind of magical clock, too. Instead of telling you what's the time, it tells you what it's time for. Like teatime, bedtime, time to pay the mortgage – whatever it might be."

"Brilliant," Harry said. "I think I've got one – what about a fax machine?"

"If you can send a picture of your face, why not a document?" she agreed. "We'd have to think of a way to print, though."

"It's even better if it's a separate device, of course – more gold, you know –"

It was Hermione's turn to roll her eyes, but she said, "I think it might have to be a separate device – unless we want to make a larger version of this –"

"Well, of course!" Harry exclaimed. "A mobile one, then a permanent one for the office, one for at home – we'll be printing money. Er – forging it, or whatever."

"Casting it?" she offered. She wasn't sure, either. They locked eyes and laughed.

Harry said, once he had stopped laughing, "It'll be like having the Philosopher's Stone."

"The what?"

Harry gave her a strange look. "You know. The Philosopher's Stone?"

"I heard you, but what is that?"

"It's an old muggle myth. I read about it when I was doing research for one of my computer games. Supposedly, it turns base metals like lead into gold – among other things. I wonder if it's real? Well – it couldn't be. Gold would be worthless if it were real. Anyway – we'll be rich, Hermione! Well, richer in my case."

"Don't be a prat," she said.

Harry just laughed again, though. "Just think about how those apparatchik shrubs at the Ministry will react when you tell them you won't be needing another student loan next year – and by the way, here's the whole outstanding balance in one lump sum, thank you very much and have a nice day."

"That would be nice," she said wistfully.

"Will be, you mean. Anyway, let's talk design."

"Right," she said, coming out of it. "How is this even going to work?"

"First, we should start with a development version, of course. Proof of concept, you know. Now, this version is going to incorporate the first three features we were talking about – an abacus, a clock and a mirror to display the output of abacus and clock. Right? We'll make it a communication mirror in the next version. Now, the way I figure it, the difficult part will be coming up with, or finding, a spell that can display alphanumeric characters on a mirror. After that, it's just a matter of tying the abacus and clock into it by altering the enchantments already used for the number flippers and clock hands, respectively…."

An hour later, when Harry's dormmates finally came in to go to bed, the abacuses all over the floor had been joined by several sheets of parchment which had sketches of the developmental product, as well as the generic runic arrays for basic clocks and abacuses which were found in their enchanting books. Ernie looked around, first at Harry, then at Hermione, who was on his bed, then at the pile of abacuses and parchments on the floor. Then he shrugged, told Hermione to budge over, and very casually laid down on his bed, causing Justin, Wayne and Neville to go into hysterics. Hermione checked the time, gasped, made her excuses, and darted out of the room, leaving Harry to pile all of the items into his trunk.

"What were you two working on all this time, anyway?" Justin asked.

"Oh, you know us – just changing the world, one wristwatch at a time."

"Ah, right. Well, g'night Harry – g'night everyone."

The next morning, Hermione found Harry by the Hearth well before breakfast, and to Harry's eyes it looked like she had hardly slept because her eyes were very red. "The problem is," she said without preamble, "actually making the physical object. I mean, it's just an abacus glued to a mirror that's also glued to a clock, sure – but that's a few thousand runes, easily. I mean, how do you even etch runes that tiny?"

"Easily," said Harry. "Forget about all of those designs from last night. All rubbish. I've got a new idea. Modular, efficient, and we will use muggle means to do it."

"Muggle means?"

"CNC laser cutters and other muggle machines can be leveraged to do rapid, mass etching of all kinds of materials, of course including the metal and glass that our devices would be made of. Using these muggle tools alongside magical techniques will produce higher-quality products, and will do so considerably more cheaply, than any enchanted etching knife ever could. Look at this –" and he produced from his robe pocket the tiniest of his abacuses, which he had decided to carry around so that he could study it further whenever he had a few spare minutes "– and tell me what you see."

She took it from his hand and regarded it closely, clearly suspecting that it was another one of his games, but eventually she just sighed and she said, "It's an abacus, Harry."

"Wrong," he said promptly, and she scrunched her face up in annoyance. Trying not to smile, he said, "What you see here is a waste."

Harry was hoping that Hermione would ask him to explain, but she just glared at him expectantly. He flashed her a little grin and he said, "Hermione – look more closely. A wooden frame. Little wooden beads moving on little metal rods. Do you know what that is? It's a bad design. It's fragile. It has too many moving parts. Why beads? There's no need to use any beads, really. The enchantments do the calculation, and then additional enchantments move the beads so that the user can see the output. Now, if you wanted an abacus which only did the calculation, and had no way of reading the output, you could reduce the size of this thing by, I would wager, sixty to seventy percent, easily, and probably more. A design which does not use beads, or any moving parts, will be able to be considerably smaller than this hand-held version, even just using current enchanting techniques – namely: using a specially enchanted etching knife to etch the runes perfectly – that is, as perfectly as a knife can do it – which is how this abacus was undoubtedly made, and how most enchanted items on the market today are currently made. Now, if we use something a little more intelligent than an enchanted etching knife – namely: muggle CNC laser cutters – I believe we can fit all of the necessary runes on a surface less than a square centimeter. Do you see what I'm talking about? A chip! A magical microprocessor!"

"But you must display the output," Hermione pointed out.

"Yes, clearly, and we'll accomplish that using a different runic chip. A separate chip dedicated to display functionality, which is connected both to the abacus core chip – the central abacus unit? – we'll think of the terminology later – and the display chip will also be connected to the mirror display. Using a modular design like this, we'll reduce unnecessary redundancy while making the device easier to repair and assemble. It will also allow us to use considerably stronger materials, materials which cannot easily be worked by etching knives."

"And," Hermione realized, "a modular design will, furthermore, make the device extensible without requiring the whole thing to be re-designed. Using enchanted chips instead of etching the runes all around the surface of the object…."

"Precisely. Now – we're planning far ahead of ourselves, Hermione. Well, that's what you do when you're designing the future, I suppose. But first thing's first – we must design these two chips, and hook it all up, and see that it works like I expect it to work. So – delegating! Would you rather work on the display chip or the abacus chip? – we will add a clock and a communicator and whatever else we want to add in later, once we determine whether this design paradigm is tenable."

"I suppose it really doesn't matter to me," she said. "I mean, we'll probably end up redesigning them again when we try to connect them together, in any case –"

"Now, I want you to think carefully about this, Hermione. In fact – answer me this evening. While you think about it, bear in mind that you're about to embark on a very specialized project, and consequently there's the chance that it will define your future endeavors – will you be a display chip specialist – and later, more broadly, an input-output specialist – or an abacus chip specialist? Because while it's true that we will undoubtedly have to make some small modifications to our designs in order to get the chips to communicate with each other, the natural thing to do would be to model the bridge between the abacus chip and the display chip after whatever design we come up with to bridge the display chip and the mirror. In other words, coming up with a bridge will be primarily the responsibility of the one who designs the display chip, since in this simple, two-chip design, the display chip will be the only component that's connected to two other components."

In Charms, after having successfully demonstrated the Wand Light Charm – and getting five points for Puff for demonstrating the Lantern Light Charm and the Beacon Light Charm – Professor Flitwick seemed perfectly content to allow Harry to work on his own projects while most of the rest of the class continued to struggle at it. While a small part of Harry wished that it was more like Potions, where one could just leave as soon as their brew was completed, the fact that the professor would at least allow students to read their books and even work on papers once their work was done in these practical lessons was quite permissive, so Harry really had little room to complain. Of course, sticking his nose in his books did earn him a dirty look from Hermione, who still hadn't given up on the concept of going around the classroom and helping the other students, despite the negative experience of their first attempt at so doing, both to earn their favor and to rack up a score of House points. For Harry, though, it was simply not worth the trouble of dealing with the likes of the Gryffindor boys, all of whom he disliked, or exposing himself to more of Zabini's odd looks.

Yet Runes were almost as infuriating as Weasley and Zabini, and he found himself rubbing his temples as he tried to work them out. Runes had to be the most bizarre and baffling programming language ever designed by mankind – of course, that was probably part of the problem Harry was having, trying to think of it as a programming language, which it was surely not. If it were to be compared to a programming language, however, it could be said that each of the two hundred and ninety-four standard Nordic runes could represent either a function, or a fragment of a function, or they could represent a real-world object, or they could represent a runic group that appears somewhere else in the array, or they could represent some sort of logical operation, or they could indicate any number of other things – all depending on their placement, their sequential configuration, and, most infuriatingly of all, the intent of the runecarver.

While it was possible to memorize all of the different uses of each of the two hundred and ninety-four runes, it was this intent part that was driving Harry around the bend, because it meant that the runes sometimes did not really explain what the enchantment was supposed to do. Even one of the simplest runic clusters, the tri-rune that was traditionally used to make stones give off light, could technically be interpreted any number of ways – and Harry's enchanting book made sure to point out several 'additional applications' of the tri-rune, one of which, bafflingly, was to make a stone that absorbed light instead of gave it off – without altering a single scratchmark! What, precisely, the stone would do largely depended on the intent of the runecarver.

For somebody with a background in computers, it was extremely counter-intuitive and baffling.

On the other hand, of course, the advantages were clear: even if you made a small mistake, or left something vague, your intent would fix any bugs and fill in any gaps, and the object would probably do just what you wanted it to do. If he could just wrap his mind around the concept that runes were not, not, definitely not a computer programming language, he was sure that he could leverage this forgiving quality to great advantage. It would be possible to reduce a runic array substantially just by leaving some things up to intent.

Harry took out a piece of parchment and his quill and sketched two copies of the light-giving tri-rune. Taking out his wand, he touched the cluster on the left, and tried to feed into it the concept of his intent, wrapped in his magic. Using no words, and just shaping one's intent, was similar to how transfiguration was done, which was something he had a knack for, so it came as no shock to him when he felt the slight tug on his wandhand, and the runes lit up, emiting a soft white light.

Harry pointed his wand at the runic cluster on the right, now, and tried to shape his intent in a different way. When he felt the tug on his wandhand, he looked and saw that the second tri-rune was now shrouded in a ring of shadows, such that he could barely make out the runes upon the parchment.

Then something peculiar happened. The light from the left-hand tri-rune and the darkness from the right-handed tri-rune both seemed to burst out of the parchment, looking almost like a white and black fluid, and they arcked together, and in the center there was a strange swirling of light and its absence, looking almost like a galaxy.

Harry stared, mesmerized, for several long moments, until Wayne finally caught his attention. "Harry! What is that?" he was asking.

"No idea," Harry admitted.

Justin said, "It's brilliant…."

Harry glanced over and saw that Wayne and Justin were both mesmerized by the strange dance of light and shadow. He wondered how one was supposed to deactivate the enchantment. The trick, he found as he looked back to the book, was to 'annoint' the runic cluster once more – meaning to tap it with one's wand or with a magically-charged fingertip – and to instill it with 'empty intent,' meaning the intent for nothing to happen. Harry did as instructed, first to the right-hand tri-rune and then to the left-hand one, and they became light-neutral once more, just ink on parchment.

"Well, Harry," Wayne said after a moment. "I think you've just invented a magical lava lamp."

Harry grinned. Wayne was right – he'd just made his first enchanted object. He asked, "You think I could sell these?"

In Transfiguration, Hermione pulled Harry to a back corner with her. Once settled in, she told him, "I think that I want to design the input-output – the display."

"Brilliant," said Harry. "That's the hard part. Good luck!"

Hermione frowned. "It is the hard part, isn't it?"

"Well, for now," Harry said. "If it's just an abacus and a display, then the display is the tricky part. But as we add more features and components, I think my part will start to get rather tricky, too."

"Well, I'm sure I can do it," she said with confidence that Harry was not entirely sure was genuine.

"Remember, Cerie and Susan are part of our enchanting club, too," Harry pointed out. "If we're willing to share our gold with them, we can ask them for help on this project."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "When did you get so greedy, anyway?"

"Greedy? I'm not greedy. In fact, I like to have enough money to be generous. You can't be generous if you don't have any money, can you?"

She shook her head, but she said, "I suppose that's right. We better get to work."

Transfiguration could never be as boring as History, but after Harry had transfigured his peanut into a pea pod and back again and over again several times, he found himself going over his occlumency exercises, just to stay focused, and prevent himself from transfiguring the peanut into the shape of the runes that were dancing around in his mind's eye unbidden.

"Hermione," he whispered after a while. "Take Susan and Cerie to the lab after dinner. We should get the enchanting workshop operational as soon as possible. I might lose my mind otherwise."

Hermione nodded, looking very serious, and Harry saw that her peanut had rather suspiciously taken on the shape of the sewhwanan rune, which represented vision, perception and illusion – undoubtedly, one of the central runes for her part of the project.

Lavender caught Harry by the elbow as he tried to exit the classroom, and he almost asked her what she wanted before he finally remembered what he had planned for that afternoon. "Where do you think you're going?" she asked coyly, batting her eyelashes in an unpracticed way.

"Let's wait in the corridor for the others," he said.

"Oh, right – so silly …" she said, flushed. Harry wondered if she had forgotten that they were not meeting one-on-one, and he looked at her curiously. Ernie, Justin and Wayne passed by, noticed Lavender's expression, and exchanged mirthful glances and suppressed laughter, and then Neville, Hermione and Cerie came by, and now Lavender was staring at her shoes, and they just looked at the pair strangely.

"Right – where's Kevin, anyway?" he asked.

"He was just here …"

And he was there again, walking out of the classroom side-by-side with Draco, the latter of whom was fixing the former with a rather peculiar look. "Harry. Lavender," said Kevin, and they nodded to him. "Do you know, when you asked us to meet after Transfiguration, it somehow escaped my mind that it's lunch after Transfiguration."

"Oh, that's all right," said Harry. "We'll talk things over in the kitchens."

Finding that agreeable, the quartet of education reformers made their way down to the Entrance Hall, through Hufflepuff Hall and into the kitchens, and were seated and served by a group of the ever-eager elves.

"Right, then," said Draco. "What's the plan?"

"Hm?" Harry said around a mouthful of corned beef sandwich, looking around at the group. He swallowed, and said, "The plan was for us each to come up with our own plans, wasn't it?"

It was like déjà vu. The way that the other three looked to him for his ideas reminded Harry very much of how the first years of Hufflepuff had really expected him to come up with a plan for Project Zabini (other than Susan's memorable laxative potion suggestion, of course). Now, looking around at their blank and chagrined faces, he thought that he might as well leverage his position as a leader, and he said, "Well? Nothing?"

"I've got something," Lavender said after a moment, "but it's not very good."

"Well, go on," Draco said impatiently.

"Well. I was just thinking. Why don't we just issue a formal complaint to the Ministry and request that the Department of Magical Education launch an investigation? That way, we can bypass the normal Hogwarts channels, like the Board of Governors." To Lavender's credit – or perhaps not – she sent a small, apologetic smile in Draco's direction when she said this last bit.

"Brilliant," said Harry. "Will it work?"

"Hogwarts isn't like Shaftly and Lawrence Bay and Helsing schools," Kevin pointed out. "They're all bound by strict regulations. But Hogwarts, as an elite private school, has always been given more leeway."

"But is that a good thing, really?" Harry asked. "I mean, these regulations that the other schools are forced to abide – would they allow incompetents like Quirrell, or dead people like Binns to jeopardize our educations? – and waste our money?" he added, glancing at Lavender, recalling her impassioned speech from the day before.

"Well, yes, it is a good thing," Draco said. "It's what gives the professors the freedom to pursue their own curriculum, challenging their students, expecting excellence. The Ministry regulations that govern the other schools expect mediocrity. It would be a mistake to go over the Board's heads with this."

Draco's personal stake was plain to anyone, but his points made sense. "In that case, perhaps it's best not to go to the Ministry if we can avoid it," said Harry. Kevin and Draco nodded, while Lavender looked only slightly put out by her idea being put on the back burner. "But even so..." He trailed off, not wanting to be the one to say it.

"We've only had lukewarm success going through the Board of Governors," Kevin completed. Harry tried not to look too grateful while Draco tried not to look too pained.

"What about just asking Dumbledore?" Lavender said. The three boys looked at her, perplexed. "I mean, have we tried asking Dumbledore yet? Because going to the Board of Governors is going over his head, isn't it?"

Harry nodded slowly. It was the most direct course of action, clearly, yet it had not occurred to him simply because he had his own reservations about the Headmaster. Yet he would be remiss to allow his own personal feelings to interfere with this collaborative project. The only thing was – "Actually, I like that idea. But who's going to go to Dumbledore?"

The representatives of the other three Houses looked at him curiously. Deciding not to beat around the bush, Harry said plainly, "Because I won't."

Kevin and Draco looked at each other, and then simultaneously directed their gazes towards Lavender. "It was your idea," Draco pointed out.

She looked like she was going to be sick, but she firmed up her lips and nodded.

"Plus which, you're the best speaker," Harry added.

Her green about the gills look vanished, replaced by a bright grin, and she said, "It'll be my pleasure!"

Plan of action in place, Harry decided to change the subject to something that he thought Lavender would appreciate, lest she change her mind. "So, Lavender," said he. "Have you thought of what we should call our organization?"

"Oh, yes!" she gushed. "I had so many good ideas, but I finally settled on one that I think you boys will like – the Society for the Advancement of Scholastics at Hogwarts."

"Sash?" Harry repeated, wondering in what sense that was something that the boys would go in for. "Well. All right, I sort of like it. Kevin? Draco?"

Kevin tilted his head noncommittally. Draco snorted, then looked away, apparently bored by the whole thing.

"And," Lavender said, "I propose that, as a symbol of unity, we all wear these wonderful sashes –"

But Harry and Draco were shaking their heads and saying, "No, no, no," well before she had produced the purple and white patterned strips of silk from her bag, and upon actually seeing the accursed things, Harry and Draco rapidly stood from their chairs and started making to the kitchen exit, leaving Lavender to hurry after them, Kevin looking around in bewilderment. "Oh, do wait up!" she exclaimed. "Fine. How about black? Would that work for you?"

They looked around at each other. "It would be an improvement," Draco allowed.

"I'd have to see it before I agreed to wear it," said Harry.

"I don't really wear scarfs," said Kevin as he approached the other three.

"It's not a scarf," she huffed. "It's a sash. It's like a belt. Don't you know anything? Anyway. We're not done with this meeting, Sit back down, you lot."

Once they had very reluctantly resumed their seats, Lavender said, "You know, I can't go to Dumbledore empty-handed. I think we should have another petition."

Draco rolled his eyes, apparently not savoring the concept of missing half of his dinner to collect signatures again. But Harry saw Lavender's point and said, "That's agreeable," before Draco could voice a complaint.

"Yay!" she said. Draco looked like he was about to choke. Kevin looked like he didn't understand the word. Lavender cleared her throat, and she said, "Since I already have the important job of taking our complaints to the Headmaster, I'd like for one of you –" except she was staring directly at Kevin "– to draft the petition and make copies of it." Harry and Draco followed her lead and stared at Kevin, who sighed and nodded his consent, muttering something about how he'd probably do the best job of it anyway.

"Now, I think we four make a fine group," Harry said, almost completely honestly, "but this really is a lot of work. Should we recruit more members?"

But Draco and Lavender both said, "No!" at exactly the same time, and Harry let the matter drop without another word, although he did wonder about the vehemence. Lavender and Draco, judging by their shared looks of surprise, wondered, too.

After that, it seemed like nobody else had any important SASH matters to bring up, so they fell into talking about other matters, and Harry eventually found himself asking Lavender, "So. What do you think about Weasley?"

Her face said it all, but her mouth said it more eloquently: "He's such a cad! I honestly can't believe half the things that come out of his mouth. He's lost our House more points than everyone else combined, I think! And he's been in detention literally every single day since school started two weeks ago. His own brother's friend, Lee, actually started a betting pool on how long he'll be here before he's expelled – and his twin brothers put gold on expelled before Halloween! And you know what? – they didn't even get very good odds for it! And his other brother, who's a prefect, practically has him on a leash! He won't let him out of his sight! He's completely anti-social, too. I don't think he has any friends, now that Oliver and Seamus are avoiding him. He's just the worst!"

"The worst of the Weasleys," said Draco, scowling. "That's low, all right."

"And he's daft," Lavender added. "Do you know, in our first Potions lesson, Professor Snape asked him some question about wormwood or something, and he obviously didn't know it – but then Snape asked the same question at the next lesson, and didn't Ron still didn't know, even though Snape had told us the answer. Then, before the third lesson, Parvati reminded him what the answer was, and he was very rude to her, and ten minutes later, when Snape asked, he didn't know!"

"I was there," Draco added, seeing Kevin and Harry's looks of skepticism. "I even heard Patil tell him the answer. The boy's about as bright as a size seven cauldron bottom."

"Sorry I asked," Harry said.

"I'm just glad you didn't hold it against all Gryffindors," Lavender said. "He's not really one of us, you know."

Except Harry couldn't help but think, there it is again. The Gryffindors really were quick to turn on their own – like a wounded lion, he supposed. Even though Lavender hadn't been part of Weasley's group, and even though Weasley really was a berk, her words reminded him of what Rivers and Finnigan had done to Weasley, and in a way it made him feel bad for the hot-headed boy. Never mind that he deserved it – that's not what Houses were supposed to do. He liked to think that that's not what Hufflepuff would do.

"Speaking of Potions," Kevin said, checking his gold pocket watch. "It's about time for our lesson."

The rest of the SASH contingent all regarded their own timepieces in surprise before hurrying to the exit. "Good meeting!" Harry called with a wave as Lavender and Draco split off in the Entrance Hall.

"It was, though, wasn't it?" Kevin said, smiling slightly, his voice lighter than usual.

Harry looked at Kevin curiously, and it suddenly occurred to him that he'd never seen Terry or Sonny, or any of the other three Ravenclaw boys, give him much attention. He wondered if Kevin didn't really have any friends in his own House – was Kevin isolated, like Zabini and Weasley? But Terry and Sonny wouldn't do that. They had even tried to make Lisa Turpin feel less isolated – he had noticed that they had taken to sitting next to her in classes other than Potions, where she still partnered with Hermione –, which was difficult considering how she acted all the time.

It was probably Kevin's own fault, in a way, Harry concluded – he was not very approachable, and didn't seem to have any sense of humor to speak of. And unlike Lisa Turpin, he didn't seem vulnerable, he didn't seem like he needed people to help him. Other than the slightly wistful way in which Kevin had just said that he enjoyed the meeting, Harry had never heard him express any emotion other than carefully-controlled contentment.

As he thought about all of the trouble brewing in every other House in Hogwarts, Harry decided to do whatever he possibly could do to make sure that none of the first year Puffs ever had to feel like they were alone. But Puff or not, nobody deserved to feel like that. Not Weasley, not Zabini, and definitely not Kevin.

"Yeah, it really was," Harry said, and he gave Kevin a little knock on the shoulder and a grin.

Thank you for reading!