Harry and Hermione stepped off the Knight Bus and walked onto the grounds of Greengrass Manor. While Harry was still adjusting to a lot of aspects of his new life, he really enjoyed the weekly occlumency lessons, as it meant they were able to see Tracey and Daphne regularly. It was a nice break from daily business with the Grangers.

Sarah wasn't there when they went inside, though, and Daphne seemed surprised to see them when she looked up from her book.

"What are you two doing here?" She asked.

"Um… occlumency lessons?" Harry said, confused. "It is Tuesday, right?"

"Didn't you get my letter? Sarah had a last minute emergency, so she cancelled today."

Harry glanced at Hermione, who just shrugged. "No, we haven't gotten any letters lately. I mean, we've gotten the muggle letters, but that's it. No owl post."

Daphne raised an eyebrow. "That's weird. Did anything change recently that might interfere with it?"

He shook his head. "No, not that I can-"

"No, wait." Hermione interrupted him. "Dumbledore put some protections over the house. Do you think that could have affected it?"

"I'm not sure, honestly. It sounds like something my mum could look into, though. Let me get her."

"That's so weird, though." Hermione said. "Why would it affect mail?"

Harry just shrugged. "Maybe he made a mistake?"

"It would be a weird mistake to make, though…"

A loud thump in the room to their left drew their attention, and was quickly followed by the door slamming open and a young girl with blonde hair running into the room with her hands held above her head.

"Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-oof!" She looked up at Harry after running into him. "Hi! Are you Harry Potter?"

Tracey ran into the room. "Tori! You know Daphne doesn't like it when you interrupt her reading time! Oh! Hey guys. What are you two doing here?"

"Trying to figure out why we didn't get Daphne's letter about Sarah cancelling our lesson today." Harry answered.

"Oooooooh-wait, what? How did you not get an owl post letter? That stuff's borderline infallible."

"Dumbledore might have accidentally messed something up when he put some protections over our house?"

Tracey's brow furrowed. "Maybe, but that would be a weird mistake to make."

"That's what I said!" Hermione exclaimed.

Harry looked down as the blonde girl, who was currently trying to climb him, with very little success. "So, uh, who's this?"

"Hm? Oh, that's Tori — Astoria — She's Daphne's sister. Daphne's been sending her away on playdates whenever we have lessons since she can be a bit of a handful." Tracey shrugged. "I think she's exaggerating, though. Tori's not much worse to be around than I am."

Harry enjoyed Tracey's company, but the thought of there being two of her was a bit much even for him.

Daphne came into the room, followed by Isabelle, and immediately groaned. "Oh Morrigan, Tori's found you. Well, we won't be staying here, since you need to look at the wards on their house, right?"

Isabelle looked pensive for a moment. "Well, I would need to go to the house to check the wards, but so long as you're here, how about getting in some spell practice? I'm sure going over your practical work before the school year starts would be helpful."

"Mum, you just want to experiment on my friends!"

"No, I want to make empirical observations about your friends. Come now, surely you wouldn't mind, would you?"

"I mean, being able to do some magic would be nice…" Harry admitted. "And you said the basement has Trace suppression wards on it, right? So we won't get in trouble?"

"Of course not! Come on, let me show you to my lab."

Daphne groaned again. "Mum, you're so embarrassing!"

Harry idly followed the others while Hermione peppered Isabelle with questions.

"So how do Trace suppression wards work?" She asked. "I mean, I'm not even sure how the Trace itself works, as I've read so many contradictory theories. Some say that it's on the people, since there are squads to detect and reverse accidental magic. Other people have said that it's devices placed in the houses of mages, but I can't imagine most purebloods just accepting that. And then there was this one theory that-"

Isabelle laughed, cutting Hermione off. "Most people are unaware how it works, and the Ministry is in no hurry to correct those misconceptions. It's harder to block the Trace if people don't know how it works in the first place. The simple fact is that there are actually two forms of the Trace, each with a different purpose. The first is a detection system spanning the entire country that specifically looks for chaotic bursts of accidental magic. Accidental magic is very easy to detect due to the chaotic and disordered nature of it, and that's what the accidental magic reversal squad is for. That is not what Trace suppression wards block though. No, what they block is an enchantment placed on every wand that reports every spell cast back to monitoring devices kept in the Ministry. The spell in question is designed to break when the magic of an adult mage gains ownership of the wand."

"Oh… What does that mean, though?" Hermione asked. "I mean, surely I can't just give my wand to you to break the Trace…"

Isabelle opened a door and began walking down the stairs. "No, it wouldn't. The wand would have to recognise me as its new owner, which consequently means that it would not recognise you as its owner."

Hermione frowned. "I don't suppose there's an easy way for you to break the Trace for us?"

"The only methods I know of are ones I am bound not to do as part of the secrecy vows I took as a DOM operative. If I ever find a way around them, I'll let you know. For now, we need to work in the basement." She turned around and gestured at the room. "Welcome to my not-so-secret lab!"

While the rest of Greengrass manor was Victorian in its architecture, the basement more closely resembled one that you'd find in a muggle home, with a smooth cement floor and concrete brick walls. That said, it was still lit by torches.

"Just give me a moment to get things set up." Isabelle said, rushing over to a large metal machine. "It takes a bit of work to get this thing fully functional, but it is a one-of-a-kind piece of machinery."

"What does it do?" Hermione asked as Isabelle started a large crank shaft of some kind.

"It's designed to monitor the flow of magic within a person, allowing me to gather a rough idea of their magical strength and areas of expertise by observing them casting a variety of spells. It's just a tad bulky."

Harry was pretty sure that that was an understatement. He watched as Isabelle threw her whole body weight into pushing several large metal pillars into position.

"There, that does it. Who wants to go first?"

When no one volunteered, Harry raised his hand. "I'll go, I guess."

"Wonderful! Please stand on the red X in between the four pillars. I'll have the machine generate a few targets for you."

Harry moved into position, looking at the area around him. While it was mostly clean, there were a few loose rocks and stones lying on the ground. He supposed that would be useful if he needed to block any spells.

"And there!" Isabelle leaned over so she could see him. "Hit the target with anything you want!"

A target floated out of one of the pillars and moved a few metres away from him. Harry aimed his wand and fired at it. "Flipendo!" The target was knocked back substantially, but quickly returned to its initial position.

"Marvellous! Try a few more so I can get some better readings!"

Harry dug through his limited offensive spell repertoire. "Impedimenta! Incendio! Tarantallegra! Trin! Somnium! Petrificus Totallus!"

Isabelle hummed from where she was sitting. "Interesting. The target is going to shoot a spell at you. Please use magic to block it."

Oh, well that was going to be easy. Harry eyed one of the nearby rocks as the target transformed into a sphere and began to glow. Once it shot at him, Harry waited half a second to get a feeling for its speed, then aimed at the rock. "Wingardumlevosa!" He said, the spell coming naturally to him. He whipped it into the path of the spell, which dissipated when they collided.

"Whoa." Isabell stood up and moved next to him, a piece of parchment in her hand. "Where did you learn that, Harry?"

Harry shrugged. "I just sort of thought it was easier than using a shield? Quirrell taught us that shields don't block all spells, but physical objects block most of them. And it's not like it's that hard to move a rock in the way of a spell."

Isabelle smiled. "Perhaps not for more people, but you seem to have some very impressive reflexes and spacial awareness. Have you considered quidditch? I imagine you could make a marvellous seeker."

He shook his head. "I'm not very interested in sports, ma'am."

"That's a shame." Isabelle looked at the parchment she was holding. "Tell me, how many times do you think you cast that spell over the past year?"

Harry couldn't even begin to say. "Hundreds?" He guessed.

"I see… Harry, could I ask you to indulge me in a quick experiment?" Isabelle picked up one of the rocks and placed it in front of him. "I want you to cast the levitation charm on this rock, but I want you to focus very hard on getting the pronunciation right, and to not move your wand as you cast the spell. Can you do that for me?"

He didn't see what that was supposed to do, since wand movements were super important to spells, but he indulged her anyway. "Wingardium Leviosa."

To his surprise, the rock actually floated in the air. Just for a few seconds, but still.

"Impressive. To have almost mastered point casting at your age, even if only for a single spell…" Isabelle mused.

"I thought you had to do the movement, though? I mean, why else would the teachers make us do it?" Harry asked.

"Because you do need it, or at least you need it at first. If you cast a spell often enough, or enough times, though, you can start cutting corners. Your movements and incantations can be less precise, and with an extremely large amount of practice, you can even use spells wandlessly." She held her hand out and the rock leapt into her grip. "Of course, learning even a single wandless spell requires using it thousands of times, so most adults only know a small handful that we use on a daily basis. Can you repeat that for me a few times, then try using some shields to block instead?"

Harry nodded and did that, blocking several more spells with rocks before moving onto shields. He had to admit, he didn't much care for using shields, as it made him feel like a sitting duck waiting for spells to hit him. Still, his shield didn't break, and once he'd done it a few times, Isabelle moved back over to him.

"Would you mind indulging me once again? I want you to try casting a shield at the last minute, but this time, I want it to be a different kind of shield. Move your wand like this…" She swished her wand towards her body. "…And say 'protego'. It's more advanced than the simple contego shield you've been using, but covers a lot more of your body. Alright?"

Harry nodded and readied himself. His eyes went wide when the target shot its spell bolt, as it seemed much larger and brighter than before, but he held his ground and cast the shield at the last minute. "Protego!"

A shield flickered into existence around his whole body just as the spell bolt collided with it. The shield immediately shattered, but it did manage to stop the spell bolt.

Isabelle applauded. "Oh, very nicely done! You seem to have an exceptional talent for defensive spells to be able to manage a full protego at your age. Sorry about the boost in power, but I wanted to see what your limit was. Here, eat this and go sit down for a bit while I get some readings from your friends."

Harry sat down and started eating the energy bar type food that Isabelle had handed him. It tasted extremely strongly of apples, to the point where it tasted more like apples than an actual apple did. It was tasty enough, though, and it made him feel better. He watched as Isabelle guided Tracey, Hermione, and then, after much insistence, Daphne through similar exercises to the one he'd done. Each one seemed to be somewhat tailored to them, with Isabelle requesting more ice spells from Daphne and more fire spells from Tracey, but it was broadly the same. Once they were all sitting down again, Isabelle shut down the machine and moved over to them.

"Brilliant work, each of you!" She said cheerfully.

"You just wanted numbers for your experiment." Daphne complained.

"Of course, darling, but it also served as some much needed practice for your practical work. The four of you probably shouldn't do any more casting for now, but as thanks for helping me out, you may feel free to make use of this room whenever you want spell practice. All I ask is that you be careful of the machinery. We have a duelling stand over there, which will contain most spells, so please limit yourselves to that area. Now, why don't we see if we can't figure out why that letter of ours didn't arrive. Daphne, Tracey, I trust that the two of you can take care of yourselves for a bit? Oh, and make sure that Astoria doesn't cause too much trouble while I'm gone."

Tracey nodded at the same time that Daphne groaned, before Isabelle turned back to them.

"Alright, we'll have to take the Knight Bus for now, but once I've been to your house, this will be much easier."

It was a tumultuous trip back to the Granger residence by normal standards, but it was fairly par for the Knight Bus. Harry didn't particularly mind, being well used to death defying stunts on his broom, but Hermione never seemed to handle it well. As they stepped out of the bus and onto the lawn, Isabelle nodded in approval.

"Dumbledore did some good work on these wards. He's even incorporated some designs I helped make into the scheme. Well, let me check to make sure that nothing should be blocking your mail. She waved her wand about for half an hour before frowning. "I can't find anything wrong. Do you have something I could use to write down some equations to make sure?"

"Oh, um, we have notepads and pens in the kitchen. You can come inside, if you'd like."

Isabelle nodded. "That would be nice, yes. I had hoped that this would be quick, but whatever's going wrong is proving tricky to diagnose."

Harry awkwardly trailed behind as Hermione showed Isabelle to the kitchen and handed her a pen and paper.

"Ooh, a ballpoint pen!" She exclaimed. "I love these things!" She giggled while scribbling in the corner to get the ink flowing. "Alright, I'll work away at these for a bit. I'll holler if I need anything, but you two can just pretend I'm not here for the time being."

Harry and Hermione shrugged at each other then went out to the sitting room, picking up the books they'd been reading earlier. He completely lost track of time as he read, becoming increasingly engrossed in the story, and was only distracted by the sound of slamming coming from the kitchen making him jump.

Isabelle poked her head into the room. "Unless I'm making a series of mistakes in my calculations, there's nothing wrong with the wards. Nothing should be preventing you from receiving mail, which leaves me at a bit of a loss. I'm going to pop back to my house and send a letter with a tracking charm on it to see if that will give me any clues. Be back in a few minutes!"

And with that, she vanished with a loud crack, making Harry jump once again.

"You know you don't have to be so skittish while you're here, right?" Hermione asked.

Harry nodded. "I know, I just can't help but get nervous, you know? I'm sure it will get better with time."

Hermione shrugged and went back to her book, leaving Harry relieved that they weren't talking about it anymore. True to her word, Isabelle reappeared just a few moments later, making Harry jump once again.

"And now we wait." She said, taking a seat and pulling out a book of her own.

Harry thought that this was a good way to spend time with people. No talking, no interacting, just spending time in a room with people you know, doing your own thing and bothering no one. He didn't understand how some people could be so obsessed with interaction.

He had just started on the next chapter when Isabelle perked up. "What in the world…? I'll be right back."

And with that, she vanished once again in a loud crack, causing Harry to jump once again.

"That's not a pleasant noise." He muttered.

"From what I've read, it's not a pleasant experience, either. Supposedly it feels like being sucked through a tiny straw." Hermione said without looking up from her book.

"Ugh." Harry went back to his book, only for Isabelle to reappear once again.

"Okay, whatever is interfering with your mail is not a ward. It seems to be something actively searching out mail sent to you, as the letter vanished a dozen miles out from the house and the tracking charm on it was dispelled. I'm going to send another letter and keep an eye on it this time."

She vanished again, though at least this time Harry was mostly expecting it.

"She reminds me more of Tracey than Daphne." Hermione commented. "All energetic and focused but sort of easily distracted."

"I think Tracey told me that Daphne's personality takes more after her dad." Harry replied. "No idea how that marriage happened, though."

"Yes, well, love works in mysterious ways." Hermione said, waving her hands for dramatic effect. "I mean, dad's a fairly normal guy so long as you don't put him behind the wheel of a car, but mum can be a little, uh…"

"Yeah, I know what you mean."

Hermione put her book down. "Did you notice that of the four of us, all of our mums seem kind of weird and maybe just a tad crazy? I mean, my mum is, well, she's not that bad, but you've seen her. Daphne's mum is a kind of crazy researcher. Tracey's mum is… well I don't know what she does but there is no way it's normal."

"My mum was normal." Harry said.

"That we know of. I mean, maybe when she was alive she, I don't know, talked to snakes or something."

Harry raised an eyebrow. "I can talk to snakes, so maybe she could too. It doesn't strike me as that weird."

"I guess that's true." She looked at him. "You can talk to snakes, huh? That's interesting."

He shrugged. "I mean, it's not like there are many snakes to talk to. The first and last time I talked to a snake, I was at the zoo. I've literally never seen a snake anywhere else."

"Fair enough."

They sat in silence for another half hour or so before the adult Grangers came home.

"Hey kids!" Helen said as she shoved the door open with her hip, her hands filled with a large paper bag. "We picked up some Chinese food for dinner. How were your lessons?"

"We didn't have any lessons today." Hermione said. "Our tutor cancelled, but apparently we didn't get the letter about this. Daphne's mum is trying to figure out what went wrong."

Helen glanced around the corner. "Oh, is she still around? I think we have enough food that she can stay for dinner, if she'd like."

Isabelle reappeared in the middle of the room with a loud crack. "Okay, it is absolutely not an issue with the wards. Something is actively stealing mail meant for the two of you. It was invisible, but I still saw it attack poor Euclid and steal the letter I'd given him. I tried stopping it, but it vanished quickly and quietly." She turned around and saw Helen standing there. "Oh, hello. Isabelle Greengrass. I'm the mother of your children's friend."

"I gathered!" Helen said as she set down the food. "Lovely to meet you. Helen Granger."

After they shook hands, Isabelle turned around and sighed. "I wish I had a more immediate solution, but I'll need to do more research to figure out what exactly is going wrong. I'm not likely to have any answers anytime soon. I could try using muggle post and seeing if that works, but muggle post is much slower than owl post. If I ever need to deliver any urgent messages, I'll just pop by and drop it in the mail slot myself. Hopefully that will work."

"Hopefully." Helen echoed.

"While I'm here, I suppose I should mention that I was planning on taking Daphne and Tracey shopping for their school supplies on the twenty-first of August. Would you like to join us?"

"Hmmm…" Helen pulled out a small planner and flipped through it. "I have two surgeries planned for that morning, but I should be free after noon. Isn't that a little late in the summer to be shopping for school supplies?"

Isabelle shrugged. "I have business in the Alley on that day anyways. May as well take care of both at once."

"I suppose that makes sense. Richard has a full schedule that day, so it will just be me. I just need to remember to tell our secretary to mark me down as busy for the rest of that day. In the meantime, would you like to join us for dinner? We picked up some Chinese takeout."

"Oh, really? Goodness, I haven't had Chinese since Melody was last in the country. We don't have much in the way of foreign food on the magical side of things. I suppose I may as well, though I shouldn't be long. I do have to make sure that Tracey and Tori don't burn down the house again."

Hermione turned to Harry and mouthed, "Again?"

Harry just shrugged. Seemed about par for the course.

Tom Riddle had a problem.

His problem was that his host was a complete and utter imbecile.

Sure, there were definite advantages towards manipulating the younger Malfoy into retrieving his diary, but he didn't expect the boy to be this stupid. If he'd known, he would have just followed through with his original plan to have Lucius drop him on someone he wanted killed.

Still, Tom was resourceful. This was a setback, to be sure, but it was far from unsalvageable. If there was any advantage to being stuck with this absolute ignoramus, it was his obsession with the Potter boy.

At first, Tom thought that Malfoy was just going on one of his usual tangents and doing his best to tune the boy out, but that all vanished once Draco wrote that Harry Potter was famous for defeating the Dark Lord Voldemort at a young age. That raised many questions, and Tom had been doing his best to get all of the information he could without it seeming too suspicious. Fortunately, Draco was obsessed with the boy and it was easy to get him going, but each new thing he learned just raised further questions. How had a fifteen month old baby been able to not only survive the killing curse, but then explode the greatest Dark Lord ever? Why was the greatest Dark Lord trying to kill a baby in the first place? Tom was no saint, but he'd stuck to murdering pets instead of babies, not that the temptation was never there. People really didn't give him enough credit. Honestly, the nerve of them.

Draco had his own speculations, but they were all equally laughable. The idea that Potter was somehow an even greater Dark Lord that he had the power to destroy Lord Voldemort was ridiculous. No one was better than Voldemort, let alone an infant. Draco was also utterly convinced that he and his friends had gone on a valiant quest at the end of last year to stop Harry Potter from stealing the Philosopher's stone, but that story had holes in it big enough that one could fly a dragon through them. Tom didn't think highly of the man, but surely even Dumbledore was not foolish enough to keep the Philosopher's Stone in Hogwarts. Draco was also certain that Potter had killed one of their teachers in a grab for the stone, which was even more ridiculous. No amount of favouritism would ever cause Dumbledore to let students off the hook for murder, let alone murder of a professor. Tom had barely gotten away with murdering a student, even though he'd gone through all the effort of covering up the evidence and framing someone else.

Draco was an unreliable source of information, and Tom needed information badly. His best bet at this point was just to wait until Draco returned to Hogwarts and try to procure himself a more sensible host. Someone less… dumb and Gryffindor-ish. He'd still have to deal with Dumbledore of course, but surely not even Dumbledore wouldn't be as annoying as this boy.

After all, it wasn't like there would be anyone else in Hogwarts who could stop him.

Harry yawned and pulled himself out of bed. He stretched and shuffled his way over to the bathroom, making sure he thoroughly brushed his teeth — the Grangers were very particular about dental hygiene. The door to Hermione's room was open but she wasn't inside, which meant she was probably already downstairs with her nose buried in a book. Harry considered changing out of his pyjamas, but he really didn't feel like it at the moment. His first goal was breakfast, then he could figure out how he wanted to spend the day.

He was surprised to find that the Grangers were once again home, despite it being a Friday. It was still an occasional shock to him given that Vernon never took any time off of work except for his dedicated vacation days, but he supposed it made sense given that the Grangers ran their own practice. That didn't explain why they were home today, though.

"Um… good morning?" Harry said before yawning.

Richard looked up from the stove where he was frying some bacon. "Harry! Good morning, and happy birthday."

Harry blinked. Was it already his birthday? He'd kept fairly close track of it before, but his new living situation had him at such ease that it must have slipped his mind.

"Helen and Hermione are out grabbing a few things, but breakfast should be ready soon, so you can take a seat. Is there anything special you'd like to do today? Also, what kind of cake do you want?"

"…Cake?" Harry asked.

"Of course. What kind of birthday cake do you want? Do you have any favourite flavours?"

"I've not had much cake before." Harry said frankly. The only time he'd ever had cake was leftovers from Dudley's birthdays, and he was usually hasty when doing that so he wouldn't get caught. Certainly not enough to pick a favourite flavour.

Richard frowned but didn't ask for any elaboration. "Let's just stick with a chocolate cake with vanilla frosting, then. It's hard to go wrong with that. We can experiment with other flavours in the future."

"Right…" Harry sat down at the table as Richard put the bacon on a plate and began frying some eggs. It was hard to believe that Harry had been living here for a month without incident. He wasn't sure he'd ever had a month without some sort of incident before.

Richard placed the food on the table in front of Harry and promptly went back to work in the kitchen, pulling various items from the cabinets. "Sorry about the simplicity of the breakfast." He said as Harry buttered his toast and began eating it. "I considered doing something fancier like eggs benedict, but I'm rubbish at tempering egg yolks."

"It's fine." Harry said. It was still more than he was used to getting on his birthday.

Richard began whistling to himself as he began mixing ingredients together in bowls, no doubt making the cake. "So, you never answered my question. Is there anything special you want to do today?"

Harry shrugged. "I've never been able to have a real birthday celebration, so I'm not sure what I would do. It might be nice to have Daphne and Tracey over so we can just hang out? I can send Hedwig to ask if they'd like to come over today. I just need to remind them that they can't mail back with an answer, since we still haven't figured out what's going on with the owl post.

"That sounds fine to me. Although, if you're going to have friends over, you may want to get dressed first."

Harry looked down at his pyjamas and sighed. He supposed he'd have to get changed after all.

"And that's the situation." Croaker finished, waiting for Rabbit to reply.

Rabbit said nothing for a long time. When they eventually spoke up, they didn't have much to say. "You have to be fucking kidding me."

"I wish I was kidding you." Croaker said, rubbing at her temples. "But Prophecy is certain that there is going to be a powerful, unknown, uncontained anomaly in Hogwarts, and we need to find an excuse to move on it once the Lepchon levels stabilise to… somewhat safe levels."

"That's not how Lepchon fields work and you know it. It's never going to be anywhere near safe." Rabbit said, downing their glass in a single gulp. "Besides, Dumbledore will never allow it. He doesn't even let Ministry inspectors in here without a full warrant. There's no way to get a full DOM containment team in here."

"Which is why I am asking you to find an excuse!" Croaker hissed. "Dumbledore covers up lots of things that happen in the school. I am asking you to find one big enough that we can get a warrant, or failing that, cause an incident that will let us get a warrant. This may well be our only chance to make a move on it for the near future, and I'd like to at least ascertain what kind of threat we're dealing with. If this is potentially world-ending, we need to know and be prepared for it."

Rabbit sighed loudly. "Fine, I'll fabricate an incident if I have to, but you better have an exit strategy ready if I blow my cover. I refuse to take the fall for this. It's a damn shame you didn't come to me about this last year, though — the Defence teacher was possessed by Voldemort and trying to steal the Philosopher's Stone."

"The Philosopher's Stone was in Hogwarts!?"

"Of course it wasn't, but due to some misinterpretations and a lot of gossip, a lot of people thought it was, Voldemort included. He possessed the Defence teacher and nearly killed Harry Potter and his friends."

Croaker glared at Rabbit through the communication mirror. "And how do you know this?"

Rabbit grinned. "Dumbledore told one person, and you know how I'm… resourceful like that."

Croaker rolled her eyes, not that it was visible through the concealment charms on the cloak. "Don't cause any problems, Rabbit."

"This coming from the person asking me to fake an incident to get a warrant? But yeah, I get you. Lay low when I can and keep casualties to a minimum. Rabbit out."

Once the communication mirror cut off, Croaker took several deep breaths to steady herself before tossing off her cloak. She could already tell that this was going to be a fucking mess, but they had to move on it. An uncontained anomaly of that power couldn't be allowed to roam freely. Containment, or at least identification, had to be their top priority.

Harry was worried that shopping in Diagon Alley would be a repeat of last year where he had to constantly avoid crowds and well-wishers, but Isabelle was doing a good job keeping most of them away from him, and Helen was gladly distracting those who weren't deterred by her. It was still stressful, but it was a lot better than it could have been.

"I'm still annoyed that we have to go to the bookshop last." Hermione complained as they were measured for their robes.

"Because we know that if we go there first, you'd keep us there so long we wouldn't get anything else done." Helen said teasingly.

Hermione just grumbled at that.

"Besides, the book signing isn't until two, so we have time." Isabelle said. "No sense in showing up early."

Hermione grumbled further, but Harry tuned her out and focused on letting them take their measurements. Daphne and Tracey had taken a seat near the door while they waited, Daphne sitting still and reading a book while Tracey fidgeted awkwardly. He smiled as he realised just how effectively that captured the difference between them.

"And that's you done." Madame Malkin said as she stood up. "Your robes will be ready in half an hour. Come pick them up then."

The potions supply store was their last stop before the bookstore, and Tracey quickly began looking over everything and correcting any mistakes any of them made.

"Those frogspawn are improperly pickled." She said as Harry grabbed a jar off of the shelf. "They'll go off before January."

Harry glanced at the jar, not being able to tell any immediate difference between it and the others. "How?"

"The brine is cloudy." Tracey said. "It should never be cloudy when you buy it. That means that it's either old or that it was done improperly."

"Huh." Harry would definitely not have noticed that if it wasn't pointed out to him. He put it back on the shelf and grabbed another one with clearer brine. Tracey went off to tell Daphne about the difference between dried and freeze dried and the effects it had on various potions. Potions was the only time Tracey ever seemed serious about anything — well, that and alchemy. Sure, she didn't neglect her studies, but Harry wouldn't say that she took them seriously.

It was always interesting to see this side of Tracey, especially given how rarely it showed itself.

Tracey slowed them down a bit, but they finished at the potion shop fairly quickly and finally made their way to the bookshop. There was a huge crowd gathered around the front and packed inside the store, making it tricky to work their way inside. There were posters everywhere advertising a book signing by a man named Gilderoy Lockhart, not that Harry had ever heard of him.

"Who's Gilderoy Lockhart?" He asked Tracey as they pushed through the crowd.

She grinned at him. "Oh he's the best. Words don't do him justice."

Harry thought it was a bit odd that words couldn't do an author justice, given that authors were all about words, but decided to reserve judgement. They made their way to the front of the crowd and waited. "So when's he going to show up?"

Tracey shrugged. "Whenever the time is right. I mean, he's always there whenever anyone needs-"

"Someone dashing!" A new voice echoed through the store. "Someone adventurous! And, dare I say it, someone gentlemanly! Someone who's always where he needs to be! Someone like me,

𝔾𝕚𝕝𝕕𝕖𝕣𝕠𝕪 𝕃𝕠𝕔𝕜𝕙𝕒𝕣𝕥

𝔊𝔢𝔫𝔱𝔩𝔢𝔪𝔞𝔫 𝔄𝔡𝔳𝔢𝔫𝔱𝔲𝔯𝔢𝔯!"

A puff of bright yellow smoke filled the stage, and when it cleared, a blonde man with identically coloured robes was standing there, cape billowing in the wind, and smile twinkling brightly. He crossed to the front of the stage with gentlemanly ease, his expression full of dashing charisma. Surely, a more gentlemanly gentleman had never gentled-

Harry shook his head. What in the world was that about?

Tracey chuckled beside him. "Classic Gilderoy."

Hermione shoved her way over to them. "I'm sorry, but you two heard that too, right? He said his name in a different font? How in the world does that even work?"

"Ask Aunt Izzy later. Now quiet! He's about to start speaking."

"That's right, ladies and gentlemen." Gilderoy Lockhart, Gentleman Adventurer began, his tone formal yet casual. "I, 𝔾𝕚𝕝𝕕𝕖𝕣𝕠𝕪 𝕃𝕠𝕔𝕜𝕙𝕒𝕣𝕥, 𝔊𝔢𝔫𝔱𝔩𝔢𝔪𝔞𝔫 𝔄𝔡𝔳𝔢𝔫𝔱𝔲𝔯𝔢𝔯! have chosen to bless each and every one of you with my fine presence on this finer day." His smile twinkled like a shooting star, both beautiful and ephemeral. "I shall be providing autographs free of charge to all of my adoring fans, and perhaps even some photos if you're lucky!"

"Speaking of photos." A man shoved past Harry. "I'm from the Daily Prophet. May I, Mister Lockhart?"

Gilderoy laughed jovially. "Of course, my dear chap. I'd tell you to get my good side, but there isn't an ugly angle on me." He chuckled gentlemanly at his own humorous joke. "Let me strike a few poses for you. Variety is the spice of life, after all."

As Gilderoy struck several poses, his gaze swept over the audience, his expression shifting when it passed over Harry. "Great scott, is that…?"

Harry tensed. He really didn't want the attention drawn to him, but Helen and Isabelle were too far back in the crowd to help him. Harry flinched as Gilderoy walked up to him, but thankfully he stopped just next to Harry.

"Tracey Davis, you little hellion! You didn't tell me you'd be here today!"

Tracey giggled. "That's because it's a surprise! Hiya, Gilderoy."

Gilderoy picked Tracey up, eliciting more giggles from her. "Dare I ask what brings my deviously devilish goddaughter to Diagon on this delightful day?"

"You! But also shopping for school supplies."

"Ah, I see." Gilderoy said, his tone conveying the sage, gentlemanly wisdom that filled his soul. "Well, I had planned to announce this later, but with my darling goddaughter in the audience, there is truly no time like the present! I am pleased to announce that this year, I will be filling the Defence Against the Dark Arts position at Hogwarts!"

That elicited a loud cheer from the crowd.

"Yes, yes, I'm sure many of you are excited that you or your loved ones will have the great honour of being taught by me, 𝔾𝕚𝕝𝕕𝕖𝕣𝕠𝕪 𝕃𝕠𝕔𝕜𝕙𝕒𝕣𝕥, 𝔊𝔢𝔫𝔱𝔩𝔢𝔪𝔞𝔫 𝔄𝔡𝔳𝔢𝔫𝔱𝔲𝔯𝔢𝔯! It will surely be an experience without parallel!"

"So we'll actually have a competent teacher this year?" Daphne asked as she moved near the rest of them. "That'll be nice."

"Quirrell wasn't a bad teacher." Harry said halfheartedly. "I mean, he did teach us loads and focused heavily on practical work. He was just, you know, evil."

"And possessed." Tracey added. "I still can't believe he shrugged off a full C4 charge."

"I don't like him." Hermione said plainly.

"I mean, I can't say I liked him after he tried to kill us, either." Harry said. "I'm just saying that Quirrell-"

"Not Quirrell!" Hermione hissed. "Him!" She pointed to Gilderoy Lockhart, Gentleman Adventurer, who was posing gentlemanly for the cameras, gentlemanly.

Tracey gave Hermione a skeptical look. "I've known Gilderoy my whole life, and while he can be a bit, you know…"

"Egomaniacal?" Daphne offered.

"Yeah, that. While he's got an ego, he really is the strongest wizard I've ever met. I mean, he single handedly killed a nundu! No one can do that, but he can, because he's that amazing." Tracey had stars in her eyes as she said that.

"I just don't like him. He gives me a bad vibe."

Tracey crossed her arms. "You can't just judge someone based on a vibe! Trust me, Gilderoy Lockhart is awesome. You'll see."

"Maybe…" Hermione replied.

At that point, Isabelle and Helen moved over to them and Gilderoy Lockhart dismissed the cameraman with a gentlemanly flourish. "Isabelle, darling." He leaned down and kissed the back of her hand as only a true gentleman could. "Lovely to see you again."

Isabelle smiled gently. "Likewise. You know your synaesthetic charm is still on, right?"

"Ah yes, sorry about that. You know how the press is." He pulled out his wand, and with a gentlemanly flourish that only a-

Harry jolted as that thought cut itself off and a faint presence at the edge of his mind receded. "What was that?"

"A synaesthetic charm." Isabelle replied. "It comes from the muggle word synaesthesia. They're used to make recipients associate ideas from different senses, like making someone hear words as though they're in a different font, or in this case, appending every single action Gilderoy does as being 'gentlemanly' or some variation thereof. That said, I think you laid it on a bit thick today."

"What, you didn't like the bit about the most gentlemanly gentleman who ever gentled-"

"It was heavy-handed even by your standards, Gilderoy."

He chuckled. "Now then, my dear, I don't believe we've had the pleasure of meeting before."

"Helen Granger." She replied. "I'm the mother of one of Tracey's friends. Well, technically two of her friends, but one of them is very under the table, you know?" She whispered.

"Ah yes, Tracey told me about that. Clever bit of work there, but don't worry." He winked. "Your secret is safe with me. In fact, while you're here, let me give each of you a complete set of my books, free of charge."

"Oh, you don't have to…" Helen protested.

Gilderoy laughed. "Nonsense! Any friend of Tracey's is a friend of mine." He gestured to a man behind the counter. "Fetch four full sets of my books, and put it on my account."

"Have you run into Melody recently?" Isabelle asked.

"Melody? No, we haven't been in the same corners of the world for the last two years. Last time we worked together was with that Bermudan warlord and his pet scylla. Solved the mystery of that triangle, though!"

"The Bermuda Triangle?" Helen asked. "That's real?"

Gilderoy chuckled. "It was real. Rest assured that I, 𝔾𝕚𝕝𝕕𝕖𝕣𝕠𝕪 𝕃𝕠𝕔𝕜𝕙𝕒𝕣𝕥, 𝔊𝔢𝔫𝔱𝔩𝔢𝔪𝔞𝔫 𝔄𝔡𝔳𝔢𝔫𝔱𝔲𝔯𝔢𝔯! solved the case — gentlemanly. The Bermuda Triangle is no more."

"It's still geographically real." Isabelle clarified. "But its claim to fame has been neutralised."

"Goodness!" Helen exclaimed.

"By the way, here's the arithmancy on the spell you wanted designed." Isabelle said, handing him a sheaf of parchment. "Do take care with it."

"I certainly will, Isabelle. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to my adoring public." Gilderoy waved his wand, gentlemanly charisma flowing off him in waves. "Fare thee well, friends!"

"Well he's certainly… something." Harry commented as they left the bookshop.

"That he is." Helen said. "Handsome, too."

"Muuuum!" Hermione whined.

She laughed. "I'm just teasing darling. Well, we'd best pick up your robes so we can be on our way. I need to drive Rich home from the practice, so he doesn't destroy the car again."

"At least you remembered that this time…" Hermione muttered.

Harry finished washing his plate from breakfast and put it in the drying rack. It was still somewhat odd that he and Hermione were just… left at home with no supervision on weekdays. Sure, it wasn't like they were the sort to cause any major trouble, but it was still highly unusual to him. The only times Harry had ever been left at home alone with the Dursleys, he spent the whole time locked in his cupboard. Helen and Richard discouraged them from watching too much TV, but they were still more or less allowed free reign so long as they cleaned up their messes.

Harry went back up to his room, intent on finding something to do for the rest of the day, and was greeted with a highly unusual sight.

"Hermione!" He shouted. "There's a house elf jumping on my bed!"

He heard the sound of Hermione clambering up the stairs and running down the hall. "What do you mean there's a…" Her gaze locked on the house elf before turning back to him. "Why?"

Harry shrugged. "Why would I know? Um, excuse me? Can we help you?"

"Eep!" The house elf gave a small squeak before turning to them. "Apologies, Dobby is not used to mages paying him any mind. Do- er, I am Dobby, a house elf in service of the…" He paused. "Dobby cannot say the name of his family, but he had to come here to warn Harry Potter. A great evil is about to be unleashed upon Hogwarts, and Dobby knew he had to keep the great and amazing Harry Potter safe."

"The great… okay, we can deal with that later. Why can't I go to Hogwarts?"

Dobby wrung his hands. "Dobby, or, uh, I cannot say. Dobby is forbidden to go against his masters or to interfere with their plans. It took everything I had to do this much."

"So we don't have to worry about people sending house elves here to interfere on their master's behalf?" Hermione asked.

Dobby shook his head. "The bond imposed on elves does many things, but binding them to be near their masters or their homes is one of them. Dobby will have to punish himself very badly for doing this…" His expression hardened. "But I had to. I had to warn you. You must stay away from Hogwarts, to stay safe from the great evil that will soon be unleashed there. I cannot warn you further, but please, you must promise Dobby that you'll stay away!"

"We can't just stay away, Dobby." Harry said. "We have to go to school. Besides, our friends will be there too. We can't just leave them to deal with whatever will be there on their own."

"Friends who do not even write to you?" Dobby challenged.

"Well it's not our fault that there's been…" Harry's eyes widened. "You're the one that's been interfering with our mail!?"

Dobby winced. "Dobby thought… I thought that if you did not communicate with your friends, then you might think that they had abandoned you."

"We see our friends every week for regular lessons." Hermione said. "We realised that there was a problem with the mail almost right away. We couldn't fix it, but we did realise there was an issue. We last saw our friends just a few days ago."

Dobby's shoulders slumped in defeat before he pulled himself upright again. "Then I must take more extreme measures. I am terribly sorry, but this is for your own good." He snapped his fingers and caused objects to begin flying wildly around the room. "Young wizards are not allowed to do magic outside of school, so Dobby will get Harry Potter expelled!"

Harry sighed and pinched his brow. "Dobby, that's not how the Trace works. You'd have to use my wand for magic to make it count, not just use it in my house. If using magic in the house was enough to trigger the Trace, when Dumbledore and Isabelle would have tripped it when they were doing stuff with the wards."

"Oh. Then Dobby will take Harry Potter's wand instead!" Dobby leapt onto Harry, squirming and grasping as he tried to find his wand.

"It's not on me!" Harry yelled. "I don't carry it around with me unless I leave the house for the magical world."

"Can house elves even use wands, anyways?" Hermione asked.

Dobby let go and collapsed on the floor. "Please do not go. Please… It's terribly dangerous and Dobby cannot… I cannot let anything happen to you."

"Why do you do that?" Hermione asked. "Sometimes you refer to yourself as 'Dobby' and sometimes you refer to yourself as 'I'. Why is that?"

"Enslaved house elves are only allowed to refer to themselves by name. Normally Dob- I could not do it at all, but I have been straining against the family — against the bond. Not enough to disobey them or be truly free, but enough that I can be me. I can be free in words if not in body."

Hermione's mouth fell open in shock. "Enslaved house elves aren't even allowed to use first person pronouns!? That's terrible!"

"Terrible it is, Miss, but such is the fate of house elves."

"And if you're struggling against it…" Hermione paused in thought. "That means Tracey was right, wasn't she? House elves don't need the bond to survive, do they?"

Dobby's face contorted. "It's… there is much Dobby cannot say about the bond. It binds his actions and words in many ways. Most elves find comfort in the bond, but not Dobby. Not me. Many elves say that Dobby will die after he is freed, but I do not care. I would rather die free than live like this."

Hermione nodded resolutely. "You shouldn't have to live like this. If there's ever anything we can do to help you, you need only say so."

"But we do have to go to school." Harry said. "Whatever threat there is, we can keep ourselves safe. Especially if that new Defence teacher is as good as Tracey says he is."

"I still don't like him…" Hermione mumbled. "But I'll choose to trust that he can at least handle what comes after us."

Dobby pulled the two of them into a tight hug. "You are both such kind souls! It was hard to do this much. Dobby has to rest for a while. It has all been very tiring." He pulled out a stack of envelopes and handed them over. "I still say that you would be best staying at home, but Dobby will not stop you. Please take care. You'll see me again if I find a way I can help." He snapped his fingers, cleaning up the mess he'd made before vanishing with a soft pop.

Harry looked through the letters, handing Hermione everything addressed to her. There was nothing much of importance, although it did have his list of school supplies. That would have been nice a few days ago, since he and Hermione had to reference the lists that Daphne and Tracey had instead. Oh well.

"Well, that was… certainly something. I feel bad for him, though." Hermione said from beside him.

"Yeah, but this really raises some questions about house elves, doesn't it?" Harry said. "I mean, they're being forcibly enslaved by an entire society — maybe even the world."

Hermione clenched her fists. "I think I'm beginning to see why Isabelle breaks the law so casually, and why she's fine with us doing the same. If this is what the law is about, then I want nothing of it."

"Cheers to that." Harry said as he flopped over on his bed. "At least we know we need to do something about it now."

Hermione grabbed some paper from his desk and began writing. "Since the mail situation was fixed, I'm going to send a letter to Tracey asking if she knew about any of this. I'll see if there's something we can do to get Dobby freed. There has to be some way we can help."

"And if not… then I guess we'll have to find our own."

Hermione nodded. "This cannot be allowed to stand."

A/N (Tendra): Astoria is basically Tracey but without the intense drive to be her best self. Tracey was sorted into Slytherin for a reason, despite her poor impulse control.

I resisted the urge to add in loads of exposition in the spellcasting scene, but I did want to use it to loosely introduce some ideas that are used in some of my other fics.

I fucking love 𝔾𝕚𝕝𝕕𝕖𝕣𝕠𝕪 𝕃𝕠𝕔𝕜𝕙𝕒𝕣𝕥, 𝔊𝔢𝔫𝔱𝔩𝔢𝔪𝔞𝔫 𝔄𝔡𝔳𝔢𝔫𝔱𝔲𝔯𝔢𝔯! so fucking much. Clearly, he's the most gentlemanly gentleman to ever gentle his way to being a gentleman adventurer, gentlemanly. Needless to say, his position as Tracey's godfather makes him one of her favourite people. And honestly, who can blame her?

The idea of house elves not being able to use first person pronouns came to me as I realised that I was shifting between Dobby referring to himself in both first and third person. It struck me as a really fucked up thing that the wizarding world would absolutely do as a way to further dehumanise their slave race. Rest assured that I do have plans for this. Plans that aren't "oh, the elves need to be slaves". Remember kids, slavery is only ethical if it's between two consenting adults and has firmly established boundaries and safewords!

Did you know that the Scrambled Sorting Saga now has its own TV Tropes page!? I am so immensely proud of this achievement. Thanks for making the page, DigiXBot!

E/N (Xgenje): I LOVE Lockhart (unrelated to why Tracey likes him). That Manz trigonometried the fuck outta that Triangle. If I had even half of the Stupendulous Gentlemanliness that he did, I would have taken over the world and given out free soup ladles.

Ten almost killed me with that "gentlemanly gentleman to ever gentle". I actually nearly choked on the gum I was chewing but it was entirely worth it.

E/N (MANNAT): Lockheart is so iconic I love every scene he's in. This chapter was just such a vibe and I loved seeing Tracey again (can't wait for Melody Davis action :p). I'm super excited for the upcoming year and can't wait to read more!