He leaned against the platform until a loud, excited family crossed in front of him, before stepping back neatly through the barrier. He turned, to be met with Snape's dark eyes.

"Potter."

Welcome home, I guess.

Chapter Seven

"Professor." Harry's tone was completely blank, hiding his surprise. Snape had a dark feeling around him, like the Freaks Harry had just left, but the potions master was just... swimming in the feeling. And it wasn't the nice sort of feeling like Nox or Jasmine held – it held the smell of blood and death in it, sticking on the inside of Harry's mouth and filling his nose. He wanted to be sick.

He didn't, of course, because that would be stupid.

Instead, he stepped out of the way of the doorway-thing to avoid being run over and turned his thoughts carefully to other memories of Kings Cross and the platform as he asked casually, "Sent to fetch me, Professor?" Now faced with the actual prospect of returning to Hogwarts, Harry felt an unavoidable urge to put it off. When responding to J's order, his reaction was simple – he had chosen returning to Hogwarts over being beat up. Now...

Snape's response interrupted any further thoughts, "Unfortunately, Potter, that is the situation." The potions professor started walking and Harry kept up with him, making sure to walk almost directly beside the man instead of trailing behind. Unexpectedly, Snape turned and glared with no small amount of malice.

"May I inquire," His voice was low enough not to be overheard by the crowd, but no less irritated, "What could have possibly possessed you to leave like that?" Not waiting for a response, he continued, "You could have been picked up by death eaters at any moment. Everyone has been even more concerned for Precious Potter, and I've had to wait here all day, just on the chance that you might deem to show up. And that's all not even mentioning the state Albus has been in." Snape didn't seem to care about how the Headmaster felt, only annoyed with the effect it had had on life in the castle.

Harry shrugged, rather lamely. His main plan had to be scrapped with the abandonment of the scared schoolboy approach, so he just had to wing it. Though, to be honest, he was rather impressed that the professor hadn't even seemed to notice his change since last spring. He went with his natural response and replied, not at all apologetic, "My bad?"

"Your bad?" Snape's voice was incredulous, and he apparently considered that train of conversation too stressful to continue at the moment, "Regardless, there is no excuse for you taking so long to get here. You cannot possibly hope I will believe the bus ride here took almost twenty-four hours."

Harry shrugged again. They had come to a stop near a list of arrivals and departure times, so Harry took the opportunity to lean against the wall, crossing his arms casually and trying to hide his sudden exhaustion, the after-effects of spending the night with Leo catching up on him, "Oh, you know." It was a casual phrase, used only to stall. Snape couldn't possibly know his story because Harry himself only had the vaguest idea of what he was going to stay.

"I caught a bus out," He remembered a bus trip at random away from St. Brute's, "But then I was tired, you know? Fell dead asleep," Carefully, he brought up the feeling of drifting off in the back of J's truck, "And when I woke up I was clear on the other side of town. Took ages to find a ride back in. Guess that's my bad again, too. Ooops."

Repeated use of the muggle phrase earned another glare from Snape, which Harry ignored. Having found whatever he was looking for on the list, the professor turned his full attention back to Harry, "And I'll have you know that, though you've sufficiently fooled the Headmaster, I certainly do not believe the message you sent us, particularly after seeing your current... condition." He directed a sneer at Harry's trench coat

Damn. Harry hadn't planned an excuse for that yet. This conversation wasn't going as well as he had planned. He quickly changed his 'Oh, shit.' expression into something mildly embarrassed. He brought a conversation he had had with two seniors in October to the front of his mind, remembering what had occurred after he had failed to pay the charge for staircase privileges, "In all honesty..."

He cleared his throat, as though he didn't want to admit the situation, "Some... people... had promised to throw me off the roof or through a window – my choice – because I owed something to them," He let Snape guess what he was owing for. Even getting the man distracted on his status as a possible druggie was better than getting caught in a lie, "And I didn't want to stick around and see if they would keep their word," He shrugged again, feigning discomfort, "I needed an excuse to leave."

Snape smirked, apparently buying the ruse – Thank God – and stated briskly, "Well, Potter," His name was turned into an insult, "The train to Hogsmeade departs in a few minutes, so if you would kinsdly get on board and stay there, I will join you after I wrap up some unfinished business." Cutting off the reply Harry wasn't honestly planning, Snape finished with a glare and swept off towards the muggle side of the station. So there are aurors out there. Score one for avoiding that mess.

Harry pushed himself away from the wall and made his way through the crowd. It wasn't quite so bad as it was every year on the first of September, but the large groups of families and friends still put his nerves on edge, especially after lingering stress over J and dealing with a crying Nox and everything... yeah. He needed a break.

To that end, Harry found an empty compartment, dropped his backpack on the floor, and took a leaf out of Kael's book – he stretched out on the seat like it was perfectly normal and relaxed every muscle in his body. It was a trick he had learned at St. Brutes – even if it seemed impossible to fall asleep wherever you were (In class, for example) you could just relax and either fall asleep or at least get some much-needed rest.

Unfortunately, his rest was cut abruptly short as Snape jerked the compartment door open with his usual scowl and closed it firmly behind him. The picture of laziness, Harry opened his eyes long enough to verify he had no reason to care before closing them again. Keeping his thoughts vaguely tired and sleepy-sounding, he tried to work through Snape's abrupt new feeling.

The professor was probably around as powerful as J, but not significantly more, and he couldn't touch the vampire when it came to the scary-ness factor. Harry wasn't too adept at distinguishing the different kind of Freaks by sense alone, but Snape was definitely leaning toward the Kael-and-J end of the spectrum – maybe even past them. He couldn't imagine why he only just noticed the feeling now, and not the first time he had seen the professor in first year. Maybe being around so many Freaks?

He hurriedly turned that line of thinking away as Snape demanded incredulously, "You intend to sleep all the way to Hogwarts? Knowing how much trouble you've caused? That you may very well be expelled for sheer idiocy when we get to the school, should I have anything to say about it?" The professor sounded more surprised than offended. Harry hadn't realized he was acting so differently than his previous norm. He was tired, he was gonna sleep. End of story.

Harry faked a very realistic yawn and explained coolly, not even opening his eyes, "Yeah, I'm gonna sleep. I was only gone for a day and I didn't ask anyone to looking for me – not my fault if they did. And I can't be expelled for stuff outta school, anyway. So... yeah. Sleeping sounds good. I was up half the night – maybe more than half."

Snape made a vague that's-your-own-fault-don't-complain-you-idiot noise, but seemed content to leave well enough alone. Harry was glad to be able to keep to himself for a while, but he couldn't really think about anything important with a legilimens in the room – it just wasn't a good idea. His coat was warm, though, and the seat was actually much softer than he was used to at St. Brutes (his mattress had been stolen a few weeks ago when he forgot to lock the door and had been replaced with something than felt like a 2-by-4) so he quickly started drifting off to sleep.

Like in the back of J's truck, though, he kept himself to a very light doze, and forcibly redirected his thoughts whenever they strayed too close to a delicate topic. Eventually, however, he must have slipped into a deeper sleep because the train screeched to a halt in what seemed like an impossibly short amount of time. That was bad – all year he'd been practicing not sleeping too deeply as a protection against occasional attacks by RD-and-friends – and it meant he had to have been more tired than he had realized.

Harry yawned, this time for real, and dug his sunglasses out of his pocket before slipping them over his nose. His hair wasn't spiked – no real time that morning – so he reached up and vaguely brushed it over to where it probably covered his scar.

Snape was already pulling open the compartment door, so Harry swung his feet to the floor and grabbed his backpack in one motion, already mostly awake. Snape didn't say a word as Harry fell into step beside him. He kept his face smooth, but he had to keep calling up the memory of J ("I am ordering you to return to Hogwarts and find out anything you can.") to stop himself from turning back to the station and just screwing the whole plan of returning to school.

He couldn't be certain what he found so repulsive about the idea. Harry certainly didn't fear the Headmaster's response – that was almost laughable. He honestly didn't give a crap what his friends though about them. He wasn't really angry at Hermione and Ron... he just didn't care. Classes would be easy after St. Brutes, as weird as it was to think that way. No geometry at Hogwarts, at least.

But the thought of so many studious people (And in all honesty, rich people. They went to a private school after all. With the exception of maybe a few families, everyone there had to have some sort of money) all in uniform, arriving in class at time, not knowing how to play poker, carrying zero weapons, never swearing... It all seemed unfamiliar after a few months of St. Brutes. And the staring. At St. Brutes he was a newbie – to be shoved down the stairs on sight – but no one cared beyond that.

Back at Hogwarts, though, he would be the Boy Who Lived again, without even the insulting continuances his friends and acquaintances had made (-to Sleep through Class, -to be a Retard, -Unfortunately for the Rest of Us...). Harry didn't like staring – it was one of the reasons he had changed his appearance in the first place. He wasn't about to change back to blend in, but...

They were approaching the doors to the castle, now, and Harry had to cut his rambling short. Now or never, I guess. He resettled his backpack on his right shoulder, popped his collar, and removed all lingering disease from his face. He brushed the note in his pocket – scare those normies good. They were all mostly wimpy private school people – they couldn't hurt him if they tried.

Harry let Snape go through first – it was probably important to the professor from some reason like respect or something stupid like that, and Harry honestly didn't care to bother annoying him – and caught the heavy door with one hand and slipped in, walking beside the older man as quickly as possible without actually have to look like he was hurrying.

In all honesty Harry had only the vaguest assumption that they were heading towards Dumbledore's office before they turned onto the hallway leading to it. He hadn't really cared about knowing and had held no particular inclination to ask while on the train, probably due to the fact that he had been asleep. Unfortunately, he didn't have any idea what the Headmaster would say to him and, therefore, had absolutely no plan or falsified memories set up.

He repressed his natural, "I am totally screwed," response to the situation. It was Dumbledore, after all. Beyond his political power and skill at legilimency and maniac control over Harry's life and being really, really old and all that... he was still basically a principle. And principles were, by a rule, usually nothing to get really worried about. Some ranted and yelled, others tried to explain in calm terms why you should be taken out and shot for being such an idiot, others offered lemon drops... but none could actually do anything serious to a student.

The gargoyle jumped aside to a sneered, "Laffy Taffy." It actually would have sounded fairly comical if Harry wasn't trying so hard at not trying so hard at not being nervous. His boots made a light tap on each step of the spiral staircase. It wasn't loud, but it echoed in the small space. The staircase had to be there intentionally to make people nervous, Harry decided, and it was just like Dumbledore to use that sort of tactic – it wasn't obviously scary, but noises, like someone's heartbeat, seemed much louder in the small space.

Harry pushed the last of his nameless worries to the side – they were retarded, anyway – and stepped up into Dumbledore's office. It was just as usual – silver trinkets moving all over, Fawkes's cage open and empty in the corner – and the Headmaster himself was just as typical. Silver hair, twinkling blue eyes, eating lemon drops.

The Headmaster actually did a double take when he saw the Boy Who Lived, which more than made up for Harry's original discomfort at returning to the school. He got over it quickly enough, and gestured the student towards a plush chair with a grand, "Harry, my boy! So good to see you! Take a seat, take a seat. I don't suppose you would care for a lemon drop?"

Harry sat on the edge of the chair, refusing to relax into the cushions. Something about them felt weird, and he didn't want to risk being affected by anything. He shook his head mutely at the offer of candy – the mention of food made his stomach roll, but he quickly forced that thought out of his head, turning his attention strictly to one of the silver instruments so the Headmaster couldn't pick up on anything.

It worked. Dumbledore leaned back in his chair as he ate another candy, offering a smile and a vague, "You don't know what you're missing, my boy." One of Harry's hands clenched tightly around the arm of the chair at the repeated use of that term. 'Newbie' was bad enough, 'Normie' was even worse... but 'my boy' was just about the most annoying term that readily came to mind.

The Headmaster poured Harry a cup of tea that reeked of mint almost strongly enough to cover the mustiness that meant it was spelled. He accepted it, held it in his hands as if to warm them – in all honesty, his hands were rather cold – but made no move to drink it and kept the steam well away from his face. Just in case.

Dumbledore finally seemed to tire of trying to trick Harry into whatever sort of spells they all were and set down his own teacup as his eyes stopped the annoying twinkling and grew stern, "Harry, my boy," Say that one more time and I throw you out the window, "You need to stop acting so rashly. We can't protect you if we don't know where you are. I understand that perhaps the –ah – darker creatures at that school seemed dangerous but we had the situation completely under control."

Harry wanted, so badly, to tune the Headmaster out. It was boring and too many more remarks about the Freaks would get him too angry to control the thoughts he was projecting. But there was a chance that something of use would be mentioned, so he dug his thumbnail into the opposite hand and forced himself to sit there and pay attention.

"When you left, you had no protection, my boy." You have a death wish, don't you? "We couldn't help you. And the... darker creatures we mentioned somehow managed to slip our attention. We didn't catch a single one of them – we still have no idea where they went to. We couldn't have helped you if you ran into them! We have reason to believe they're all traveling in one group – if you had stumbled upon them, there's no knowing what could have happened to you.

"And all the aurors were out – are out – looking for them. Fudge refused to send any off to find you. Do you understand the seriousness of this, Harry? Not only are there Death Eaters about, but there is a literal army of evil beings likely aligned with Voldemort on the loose. It's not safe for you out there, my boy." Harry's thumb nail dug deeper into his hand, but his expression remained clear as the Headmaster's voice lost the sternness and he tried to make it seem like he honestly cared,

"Do you understand, Harry? We only want what's best for you – we want to help you. There was a security scare at the beginning of this year – someone was trying to impersonate one of our professors. We only wanted to keep you safe by sending you to that school," A poorly hidden tone to his voice told Harry that Dumbledore didn't think the changes caused by St. Brutes were good ones, "But now everywhere is dangerous, and Hogwarts is the safest in this new light. Do you understand? Will you be more careful, my boy? For us?"

All Harry wanted to do was tell where Dumbledore could put his 'my boy' or ask who 'they' were, but he did his best to mold his face into the correct expression – cowed, probably. It didn't work, so he dropped his head to hide it, letting his shoulders slump forward. Trying to get some middle ground between past- and current-Harry, he responded, "Yeah... Yeah, I get what you're sayin'." The words were less polite than he might have previously used, but the voice was soft and a little shaken.

Harry ran a hand through his hair, touching the back of his neck subtly with a still-freezing hand to make himself shiver. Time to assure them the change was only physical, he was still 'their' ally, "Yeah... I had some Freaks – dark creatures – in one of my classes. Just freshmen, but... creepy. There's a rumor the Freaks killed someone last year... I would hate to meet them when they're already on the run." He pulled up J's face in his mind, when the senior was at his Freakiest.

Dumbledore soaked it up, giving a relieved smile that he thought Harry wouldn't catch. He reached over to pat Harry's arm soothingly. Harry's other hand had fallen into his lap, hidden from sight, and it clenched into a fist. Lately physical contact from a normie had felt so weird – Harry cut his thoughts off and concentrated on the mint smell of his tea.

"It's alright, my boy." Shut up, shut up, shut up, "They can't get in here. You'll be safe with us." Harry looked up and forced a relieved smile. He slowly stretched his fingers out of their fist, getting his emotions back under control. Judging the conversation near the end, he lifted the cup to his lips and – carefully not inhaling the steam – faked a swallow and fought the urge to lick the remaining moisture off his lip. The Headmaster seemed even more pleased with that.

Sitting back with a smile, Dumbledore continued in a happier tone, "Well, I'm sorry to say there's no quidditch this year." Harry was surprised to find that he didn't care but made an attempt at a disappointed expression anyway, "Instead, we're hosting the Tri-Wizard Tournament!" That seemed familiar... Oh, yeah, Duh. While they covered the past in class during Magical History, Mr. Callaghan often assigned reports on current events for outside of class. They had gone over it almost first thing that year.

"Yeah, I heard about that. Durmstrang, Beauxbatons, and us, right?" Harry normally wouldn't have replied with more than a, "Yeah." but he wanted to prove that he knew enough about the topic to get the Headmaster to shut up and let him go do something with even the pretense of being remotely interesting.

Dumbledore's smile faltered a bit. He had obviously wanted to share the news. He quickly returned to twinkling, though, "Yes, my boy!" Die, die, die, "Well... I've drawn you up a schedule! It's about time for dinner," The thought of food made Harry want to jump off the astronomy tower, "So you can be on your way, my boy!" He handed Harry his schedule and patted his arm again before waving the Boy Who Lived off towards the staircase.

Harry accepted the schedule and forced another smile as he exited the office. The moment he cleared the gargoyle, he wiped the remaining tea off his lip with his sleeve. Just a few drops probably wouldn't hurt, but... it usually didn't hurt as much to be safe. He walked tensely down a few halls at random until he was out of hearing and sight of the Headmaster or any students.

Inexplicably angry, Harry slammed a fist into the stone wall, causing both his hand and the wall to emit popping noises. His knuckles burned and his wrist ached, but he punched the wall again, even harder. He couldn't say exactly why he was so angry – it could be the spells or the way the Headmaster had spoken of the Freaks or the repeating of 'my boy' – but he had the distinct impression that, under normal circumstances, he wouldn't even have been fazed.

That knowledge didn't do anything to soothe his temper, though, and he smashed his hand against the wall one final time, jarring his entire body. Feeling a little better, Harry glanced down at his hand. There was blood on his knuckles and on the wall, but that was quickly mopped up with a black sleeve. His hand would probably bruise, but there was no other notable damage. He smoothed his hair with shaking hands, straightened his sleeves, and headed off towards Gryffindor Tower.

It wasn't until he was halfway down the hall that Harry caught a good look at the wall.

There was an indentation, the size and shape of a first, in the stone.


Harry only stopped running when he started hearing the voices of other students. He leaned, breathing hard, against the cold stone as he regained his composure. Yeah, running didn't help anything. He knew. But he hadn't been able to stop himself, and it did help burn off some adrenaline.

Once he could breathe and think more clearly, Harry straightened his sleeves and collar, adjusted his hair, shrugged his shoulders. It was fun, to be able to pop his collar. At Brutes, only seniors could do it, but Harry severely doubted anyone was going to try to stop him here. It was a private school, after all. Feeling better, but still sick to his stomach, he walked calmly to the Fat Lady, thankfully without running into anyone.

She was the same as ever, meaning that she refused to let him in without the password. Harry frowned. This is just stupid. As if a portrait can stop me from going anywhere. He was an inch away from just prying the door opened when he realized it could be so much easier. Casually he brushed his hair away from his scar, "I just got into the school – Dumbledore said he was 'having a moment' and couldn't remember the password – I was just supposed to go on in."

Seeing the Fat Lady was still indecisive, Harry gave a rueful smile, "He said it wouldn't be a problem for me because it's not like there'd be any suspicion of me being a dark wizard or anything." He faked a laugh at the hilarity of the idea. Apparently even portraits liked to avoid being laughed at, because she smiled like she had agreed with him all along and allowed him into the Tower.

The common room was just the same garish red and overbright gold as always – no surprise there. It was empty, though, which was a little weird. The clock read just past seven, and though he couldn't exactly remember the meal times, Harry guessed dinner had just started. Thankful for the silence, he climbed up to the fourth year boy's dorm. He received a momentary shock when he saw his trunk at the foot of a bed and Hedwig perched on the headboard, but he brushed it off.

Flopping onto the bed (it was much softer than he was used to), Harry gave the owl a soft stroke and sent her down to the Owlry before he dug through his backpack for a notebook and a pen. It took a while – it was buried under a pile of clothes and, embarrassing but true, hair products. He could only find his History of Magic notebook, which was totally full, but the backs of the pages were clean.

Just in case he lost the slip of paper, Harry copied J's cell phone number on a page near the center of the notebook. A few lines down he wrote Day One – and then stopped and stared at it for a while. What had he found out so far? He thought back to the conversation with the Headmaster and scrawled D thinks 'army' Freaks with LV. Vague enough. Even if someone rifled his notebook ad found it, that wouldn't make much sense.

He tapped his pencil against the paper a couple times and scrawled D thinks Freaks 1 group. It didn't seem particularly important, but J had wanted every bit of information reported. D caught 0 Freaks – 0 info. That seemed like a pitiful amount of news, and Harry had the strong impression that J would not hesitate to show his displeasure if Harry wasn't successful in finding information. There was no knowing when he'd get another chance to talk to someone about the Freaks, so Harry tried again.

It didn't seem to apply much, but her wrote it down anyway – SS, HW teach, Freak? A few seconds of staring at the paper later, and he added D think Freaks can't get HW? D thinks no Freaks in HW? True enough – though he might have been lying to put Harry more at ease. Hazarding a guess, he added D not able to tell Freak from normie? Even with the less solid facts, it didn't seem like much. It would probably be better to try to find something else before sending it off, to avoid J's temper.

Harry's head snapped up as he heard footsteps outside the door and talking voices. He glanced at the clock and swore – eight already, and he hadn't even noticed. As casually as he could, Harry slipped the pen and notebook under his pillow and assumed a 'relaxing' position and expression. He crossed his booted feet, linked his hands behind his head, and let his eyes drift halfway closed.

The door opened and then closed. One pair of feet walked in. Something hit a bed with a soft thump. Some shuffling. The shuffling stopped abruptly, to be followed with a few steps. Hesitantly, a voice spoke up, "H-Harry? Is that... you?" He knew that voice, though it had deepened a bit since he had last heard it.

Harry opened his eyes slowly, easily succeeding in seeming a little sleepy and out of it. A familiar redhead was staring at him from halfway across the room. The Boy Who Lived faked another yawn – he was doing that a lot lately – and swung himself into a sitting position so that his feet were resting on the floor. He rubbed his eyes gently and stretched his shoulders, as if he had been asleep for a while.

Finally, Harry looked up at his friend with a vague smile, "Hey, Ron. I'm back, I guess. What's up over here?" It was so... strange, seeing the other boy. He seemed thinner, paler, more gangly and geekish than Harry remembered. Seeing someone with their hair combed, shoes tied, shirt buttoned up, and wearing a tie... it was eerie, almost, after so much time away.

Judging by his expression, Ron was experiencing a similar sort of surprise. Harry knew he hadn't changed that much – new clothes and improved hair weren't that startling. Gym class and getting pounded on a regular basis (or running from said pounding) had made him a little more fit, with a tanner complexion. He might have put on an inch or two, maybe. Nothing terribly surprising.

Ron seemed to disagree, though, and stared for several more seconds before being able of deciding on one change to mention, "Harry... your glasses?" The Boy Who Lived frowned, uncomprehending, before reaching up to touch his glasses. Or, rather, where his glasses should have been. His hand passed through empty air. Wait... what? But I can see fine! He didn't remember just getting rid of them. He always picked them up after showering and getting dressed. He guessed that one day he just... hadn't picked them up when he didn't need them.

Harry, despite being considerably puzzled and a bit shaken by that, waved it off like it was nothing, "Oh, yeah. My prescription stopped working so I got a new one and decided on contacts instead." Ron was still staring. Snap out of it! I'm not that different! "They get dry and feel weird sometimes, but it's a lot better than glasses, I think."

Ron finally got himself together and nodded shakily in agreement, but he was still staring at Harry as if the Boy Who Lived was going to jump up and eat him or something insane like that. The redhead sat down on his bed – it was on the other side of the room, a fact neither of them failed to notice – and said, rather lamely, "Didn't see you at dinner."

Harry nodded in confirmation. With his Freak friends, even with his normal friends at St. Brutes, they didn't waste time with yes-and-no-question sort of conversations. They knew eachother well enough that a word or two would do instead of whole sentences. It wasn't that they talked less, just faster and with less repeated words.

Harry got that Hogwarts was different, though he couldn't remember much of the previous year, and elaborated for the sake of conversation, "Yeah. By the time I got here, dinner had already started. I wasn't real hungry, so I came up here and crashed for a while." Mostly true. It didn't really matter, anyway.

There was a short silence while Ron seemed to try to find a way of saying something that was on his mind. Finally, he said, "So... I heard your Aunt and Uncle sent you to some muggle school. What was it called? What was it like?" It went unsaid, but Ron was obviously asking, What was it like to change you so much?

Harry brought his feet up to sit Indian-style on the bed, mostly for an excuse to move. When had it gotten so awkward and formal to talk to Ron? "Yeah. Sent me to St. Brutes – St. Brutus's Secure Center for Incurably Criminal Boys, if you want the long version. It was..."

A small smile broke onto Harry's face as he cast about for a summary. It seemed weird but St. Brutes had been awesome. Crazy awesome, "...pretty great. The people our age – freshman, newbies – and people a year or so older were all cool. The seniors were kinda scary at first. Spent the whole first month with a black eye on one side or the other." Harry grinned. His friends at St. Brute's had always laughed his injuries aside, almost like it was cool to come away with only a couple bruises.

Ron didn't seem to be thinking the same way, though. Now that it occurred to him to think about it, Harry couldn't remember ever getting seriously beaten up by another student at Hogwarts. Fights happened, yeah, but the hazing was weirdly absent. Ron was still a bit shocked, "Man... That's awful."

Shaking his head, Harry tried to explain, "That's just how the seniors were – are, actually. I kept forgetting and using their doors, or once I took the fire escape down because I was in a hurry, and then I didn't have the money to pay for staircase privileges when two seniors were trying to shake me down for cash. After I got the rules, it was cool. Not a big deal."

The redhead still seemed shocked so Harry added dismissively, "Besides, I was a geek when I first got there. A loser. I didn't get how to blend in or fight back or anything. I was just, you know, a target. If I were a senior I woulda probably pounded myself, too. It's just... normal, you know? Not anything personal, just something you do."

That didn't seem to help the matter. If anything, Ron looked even more shocked, maybe even a little scared. He obviously didn't know what Harry was talking about. Sure, Harry wasn't too close friends with him anymore, but he wanted someone to talk to at Hogwarts so he changed the subject, "So, what's been up over here?"

At long last, Ron got himself together enough to respond, "Just... the usual stuff. Cedric Diggory's our Champion for the cup. He hasn't been doing great, but he hasn't done that bad either. I dunno... The new Defense teacher's some guy – calls himself Mr. Velker. Crazy strict, thinks we're all ages behi –"

Harry started at the name, "Velker teaches here, too? Damn, if that's not crazy. He teaches at St. Brute's too. Wicked awesome – the stuff we learned was actually useful, you know? Though he was always keeping us past the bell so I'd be late to my next class. Do you think he's teaching the same thing in both classes? We just finished..." Harry thought back, it felt like ages ago, "Advanced mirror-block things. It has a name, but I wasn't paying attention. What've you been doing?"

Ron didn't seem as enamored with the teacher. In fact, he frowned and said, almost petulantly, "We've just been reviewing things from first and second year all quarter. He's always yelling about how we're too slow or thick and barely ever lets us do any spells – and when he does, they're dangerous. Like, seriously dangerous. People are always going to the hospital wing in his class. He's insane."

Frowning, Harry tried to understand that. Yeah, Velker let them do some cool spells sometimes. Yeah, stupid people got hurt in his class. And yeah, he always yelled at the stupid people for a good twenty minutes before letting them go to the nurse's. So what? He actually knows the stuff he teaches. It's useful. He shook his head, brushing it off, "Whatever. He probably just liked my class, or something."

He fished around for something to say, some topic they could agree on, or at least discuss, "So... how's Hermione doin'?" She was more sensible than Ron – Harry was even willing to bet that she liked Velker. She defended Snape sometimes, after all. Though, compared to some of the people at St. Brutes, Snape wasn't so bad.

Ron frowned. Obviously not a good subject, "We're not really... hanging out together. She's started hanging out with these Ravenclaws, even eating at their table sometimes." Ron said it like she was doing something completely unforgivable, though Harry didn't really get it, "And I've been hanging out with Seamus and Dean more. They're waiting for me downstairs, so... I'll see you later."

"Yeah. Later." Since when has everything at Hogwarts gotten so... retarded? The door clicked closed behind Ron – private school kids and their respect for school property, can't even slam doors like normal people – and Harry rubbed his forehead. He was getting a headache again. He dug through his backpack till he found an unmarked bottle Kael had given him. In all honesty, Harry didn't know what the little white pills inside were, but they worked miracles for the headaches and he didn't really care. He swallowed two dry and flopped backwards with a sigh.

Flexing his fingers, Harry was struck with the urge to punch the wall again. The image of stone dented in floated back to him and he forced himself to relax. It's cool, He told himself firmly, Adrenaline can do crazy things. RD coulda slipped me speed or something crazy like that. That explains the wall, no problem. It'll fade in a few days. It's all cool. It still didn't feel all cool, though, and Harry wished he had the number of anyone's cell phone – anyone but J, that is. He couldn't call until he had something more to show for himself.

Needing something to do with his hands, Harry pulled out his latest Defense assignment. Admittedly, the guy could be pretty strict sometimes. He'd probably expect the assignment turned in even though Harry had switched schools. But that wasn't mean, really. If it happened to someone else, it'd be hilarious. Even if he was asked for an assignment he didn't have, Harry would just shrug it off – grades weren't such a big deal anyway, and he was perfectly capable with laughing along with the rest of the class.

So why couldn't everyone else just loosen up and get it – get any of it?