Forging the Sword
Chapter Ten: Etching the Steel


The next day, they sat in Defense, listening to Aesalon approach the topic of the Statute of Secrecy from a different angle.

"In a large part, it comes down to population," their professor lectured, leaning against his desk, deep blue robes a bright contrast to the lighter wood. "Does anyone here know the average number of children per couple in the wizarding world?"

Everyone glanced at each other, because what?

Finally, Neville raised a hand. "Um, sir. Two or three?"

Aesalon favored Neville with an approving stare. "Correct. Now, can anyone tell me how long that's been the standard?"

More glances exchanged among the students. Parkinson shrugged and raised a hand. "Practically forever, sir."

"Again, correct. For a third question: does anyone know the average number of children muggles used to have, say, five hundred years ago?"

This time no one raised a hand, not even Hermione. Which didn't really surprise him. Hermione might be interested in practically everything, but this isn't exactly the type of thing you usually spend time on. Although I think it was more?

"No one? Very well. Then you may be surprised to learn the average muggle family had between seven and ten children. It was not exceedingly unusual for that number to climb past twelve."

A fair amount of suppressed choking occurred throughout the room. Aesalon smiled at his student's goggling disbelief. "It does indeed sound like an impossible statistic. Still, the population did not expand as quickly as you no doubt are imagining, due to the high mortality rates of their children at the time. Muggles had numerous offspring because - among other reasons – children were an economic necessity, as well as what allowed the parents who lived long enough to become feeble to survive their old age. Children, then, were not simply a source of joy and way to uphold the honor of their house, but a necessity for the continuation of the species."

"But that's insane," Greengrass blurted. "The parents relied on their kids for survival? And so they simply had a lot of them, even knowing a lot of them would die? Instead of just having one or two and protecting them? That's... evil."

And he wanted to object, because a Slytherin calling muggles bad? It was almost a reflex to come to the muggles' defense. But this time? Greengrass had a point there.

"Evil?" Professor Aesalon raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps so, from our point of view. And yet, what course of action would you have advised them to take? Simply die out?"

"Sounds fine to me," was a mutter from the back of the room. That he took objection with. And oh the non-surprise: it definitely came from the Slytherin's side.

Aesalon bent a reproving stare on the offender, but continued the lecture. "It has been a very, very, long time - if it ever, in fact, happened - since there were as many wizards as there were muggles. Not for thousands of years before Merlin's age of wizardry. But until relatively recently, we were not outnumbered by so high a proportion as we are now. When Hogwarts first opened, and for a few millenia before, we averaged approximately one wizard for every thousand muggles. That number actually rose a few times due to various calamities, such as Justinian's Plague in 541, or the Muggle's Thirty Year War in the early 1600s. The ratio peaked most recently during their Plague of Black Death with one wizard per every five hundred muggles in Europe. Currently, there is one wizard for every ten thousand."

Their professor paused, allowing the class to absorb his words and their ramifications. Personally, he was fascinated. He'd always known there were a lot less wizards than muggles; but no one had ever given him any numbers before.

At last Aesalon continued. "In other words: while our population has tended to hold relatively steady, with a slight, although statistically significant, growth rate, the muggles have had an exponential growth rate - particularly since their so-called industrial revolution. It is this relentlessly increasing growth rate that has partly made maintaining the Statute of Secrecy far more important than it was before. When it was first implemented, it was merely an option, albeit one that has surely proven to be fortuitous. It is now a necessity if we wish to avoid a period of possibly dangerous upheaval. Miss Granger."

He resisted the urge to cover his eyes as he winced in anticipation, but Hermione only calmly asked: "I'm sorry, Professor, but what does this have to do with defense?"

Aesalon nodded. "A question I'm sure many of you share. You will have noticed, that all the essays assigned over winter break dealt with the Statute of Secrecy. I believe knowing the reasons for the Statute in the first place, as well as the spells and methodology that were developed to actualize it, and the current tactics the Ministry employs in maintaining it, are all relevant to today's remedial topic. To wit: what you should do if you break it." A pause, as they were all subject to a piercing look. "Via accidental magic or otherwise."

He straightened in his chair, interested. Until now, they'd pretty much just been told "Don't do it." Even the notes they'd been given at the end of their first year had pretty much just said: don't do it. He'd never realized there were procedures for if you did.

Come to think of it, Aesalon just said this was a remedial class - which means it was something that was supposed to be covered first or second year. Probably first.

And if Dobby had decided to pull his little levitation trick in front of the Dursley's dinner guests, instead of in the kitchen? What would he have done? Actually, come to think of it, he'd been careful practicing wandless magic over the summer. Careful as possible, anyway. But raw magic could be unpredictable at the best of times. If something had happened, if he'd accidentally done... something. What would he have done? Run away?

Right. Because that would solve the problem of someone who wasn't supposed to know about magic knowing about magic. Brilliant plan.

Still, if I felt threatened enough, and didn't know what else to do...

The more he thought it through, the more relevant today's lecture seemed.

"First," announced Aesalon from the front of the room, "stay calm, and evaluate the situation. Are you in danger? Is anyone else in danger? If your physical safety is at risk, your first priority is to get to a safe place. The Ministry Obliviator Squads and the Accidental Magic Reversal Squads are both very good at their jobs; do not put your life at risk unnecessarily. If you are not in immediate danger, ask yourself these questions: One, is there an adult wizard or witch nearby who can aid you? Two, is the action or item that broke the Statute a single event or continuous anomaly? Three..."

Belatedly, he scrambled for his quill.


Outside the classroom, the three of them came to a stop.

"So." He looked at Hermione. "Are we still going to his office hours tomorrow?"

She nodded sharply, eyes narrowed. "Oh yes."


The search for a source of Occlumency instruction was not going smoothly.

"It's no use," Hermione shrugged. "There flat out aren't any books about it in the Hogwarts Library. Not even in the restricted section. Which makes sense, really - restricted doesn't mean banned to non-adults. Students under the age of 17 can wander at will, if they have a permission note from a professor."

Harry sighed and ran his hands through his hair. I'm not even surprised. "And what about the idea of owl-ordering away?"

She held up two fingers, ticking off points. "First, we'd have to get there. And I don't think we should try it at Hogsmeade - where they'd automatically be suspicious of student access - so that'd mean Diagon Alley. Which would mean all the difficulties of getting to Diagon Alley. Not that it isn't doable – we could just slip away next Hogsmeade weekend – but it might be noticeable. Second and more importantly," she shrugged again. "They'd still want to verify whoever picked it up was an adult. They have to, or they get in trouble with the Ministry. Fooling an adult witch or wizard might be... chancy. I mean, I think we could do it. Especially with planning. There are... things, I've read about. And I've already brewed polyjuice once. But..." she trailed off.

He grimaced, filling in the unspoken point. It'd be a risk. And with something like this, we'll probably only get one chance. Getting caught... would be bad.

"Okay," he said, considering. "How about going through someone else?"

Ron looked interested. "What, like getting someone else to buy it for us?"

He nodded, and Hermione considered it. "I don't think I could get my parents to do it," she said. "They believe, ah, firmly, in obeying the law."

Which really explains so much about Hermione, he thought. Although Ron and I seem to be doing a fair job of corrupting her.

"Actually," she said, continuing thoughtfully, "I'm not even sure they could buy a book on Occlumency, even if they were willing. I don't know the rules about giving muggles free access to wizarding spellbooks, but I imagine there have to be some."

"Which would mean my aunt is out as well," he added in. Not that he ever would have asked her in the first place. He briefly thought about the reaction he was likely to get if he'd asked his aunt to purchase a magic book for him... ha.

They both turned to look at Ron. His shoulders hunched under their gaze.

"I don't know..." his friend began. "The twins would probably have done it, but they're not legal either. Mum and Dad definitely won't. Bill and Charlie... maybe. I mean, they're both pretty cool. But I'd kinda want to sound them out first, you know? And probably would have to talk to them face-to-face. Which is hard to do when they're thousands of miles away. Which means the only one both old enough and close enough to talk to, would be Percy."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Well, it was a good thought."

"I'm not sure..."

At the contradiction, he looked back to Ron, who was apparently thinking hard. "I mean, yeah, a year ago, you'd be right. No way. But... he's changed, some. After Ginny. And, well, everything else."

Harry raised an eyebrow, because he hadn't really noticed much of a change. Well, some. Percy wasn't annoyingly overbearing like he used to be. But it's a long step to go from 'no longer a priggish jerk' to 'will help in illegal activities'. Still, Percy was Ron's brother.

"You know him best," he said aloud.

Hermione looked skeptical, but nodded in agreement.

"Let me think about it," Ron said. "I'm not promising anything. But... maybe."

"Well, it's better than nothing," Hermione said wryly.

"Hopefully," he agreed.

As long as it doesn't backlash into the professors or parents getting involved.

"Okay," he nodded. "That's settled until Ron talks to Percy - or decides not to. So, next question would be: what do we need to make another diadem?"

"Can't we just transfigure one?" Ron asked.

"I... don't know." He tried to put words to the instinctive rejection he felt at the thought. "I'm not sure it'd be a good idea. I imagine the original diadem was real silver, not transfigured. And while my transfiguration is pretty good, I'm not sure I could make authentic enough silver. Besides, transfigured items aren't exactly the same as original items. I think I'd prefer to buy a bit of silver, then shape it. But... I'm not where to buy it." He looked at their wizarding expert.

Ron shrugged. "Like I'd ever have a reason to buy silver bars?" Which, yes. Point. "Hey," Ron continued, "why not just melt down some sickles?"

"Sickles aren't made of pure silver," Hermione interjected. "Not to mention all the anti-copying, anti-counterfeiting, anti-tagging, and anti-alteration charms on them?" She shook her head. "If we can buy it, it'd definitely be simpler."

They exchanged glances, finally he turned up his hands and sighed. "Well, I guess we ask some housemates, then. Someone has to know. We'll just tell them it's for an experiment of Hermione's." He paused. "Um, if you could, Hermione, could you come up with something that sounds good?"

She sighed. "Of course."

He grinned. "It's not my fault everyone knows you're a brain."

"Which is better than not having one," she rejoined archly.

Ron laughed, and they turned their attention to other things.


At breakfast, discreet inquiries yielded the name of an artisan supply store. He wrote the name down and slipped it into his book-bag with a significant look to Ron and Hermione, then returned to his meal.

Later, done with classes, they headed for their defense professor's office.

There were a few other students waiting, when the three of them arrived. Unsurprising - Aesalon was a fairly popular Defense teacher. They hung back, more than happy to let others go first. When the last student had left, Hermione led them inside.

"Miss Granger." Aesalon nodded to her as she entered, clearly unsurprised. Then his eyebrows rose. "Messrs Potter and Weasley."

"Professor," they acknowledged respectfully.

"Sit," he swept one hand out in a graceful gesture, indicating the chairs before his desk. "I imagine Miss Granger is here because of her grade - but what of you two?"

"We're just interested, professor."

"Very well." He folded his hands together. "Shall we begin, then?"

"Professor," Hermione sat straighter in her chair. "Ron and Harry convinced me that muggles weren't so much an actual threat to the lives of wizards and witches - in the middle ages - as they were a bother that occasionally became something more. They had good points; I admit I was probably wrong. But did you really mark me down to an Acceptable because I made a mistake in gauging the magnitude the obstruction muggles were?"

"Of course not," Aesalon responded with a negative shake of his head, "that would be a drastic overreaction, especially in a paper otherwise well organized, well thought out, and - uncharacteristically - concise. I assure you Miss Granger, my note was forthright - I penalized you for making a fundamental error in logic."

"But what error?" she burst out.

"Miss Granger. You are muggleborn - you are far more familiar with the muggle world today than your wizarding raised classmates are likely to ever be. Modern wizards and witches do not think much on muggles; they have no reason to. Interaction between our two worlds is strictly controlled, and - for the average magical being - relatively rare. Which means you perceive all the most dangerous aspects of muggle culture - the rapid innovation, the continually evolving technology, the pursuit of knowledge without regard to safety - quite clearly. You looked at what they've accomplished comparatively recently, and projected forward what they might accomplish in the future, and from that, concluded that muggles were a viable threat. But although the situation now is of almost no similarity to the situation of the 1600s, you wrote as if it were."

He tilted his head as he finished. "Current cultural biases have no place in historical analysis. It was a fundamental mistake in your methodology. That is why you were downgraded."

She frowned, apparently processing. "I see... But, you do agree muggles could be a threat? In current times or the future?"

Dark eyes surveyed the three of them. "I believe their discovery of magical beings would cause a great deal of unnecessary effort at best, and some amount of grief at worst." He waved his hand in a gesture of flat negation. "In any case, I do not see how a real confrontation could ever happen. What would going to war gain us? Territory? Gold? The muggles have nothing we want. Even if certain - political elements - were to gain influence, I doubt wizarding response to muggle hostility would be anything similar to the fighting you seem to imagine cropping up."

Hermione was still thinking, but that last sentence made him curious. "What then, professor?"

Aesalon spread his hands. "We have a variety of methods - and magical creatures - by which muggles can be killed without their ever seeing their opponent. If it was an isolated problem, the ones instigating it can be quietly obliviated, controlled, or otherwise contained. If it was widespread, and for some reason their military did discover a method by which they were a threat..." He shrugged. "Honestly? I believe we'd start with assassinating every general, then work our way down. By the time we reached captains, their organizational table would be severely compromised. If we hadn't moved on to the members of parliament first."

They were appalled into silence.

"It won't happen," he assured them. "Yes, it's occasionally a bit worrying, when they make a leap in technology. The Unspeakables responsible for keeping abreast of new inventions - and keeping our wards a match for them - have had to occasionally scramble a bit, such as when satellites first came about. Still, that's why the Ministry has tasked them to devote time and funding on the issue in the first place. Did that answer your concerns about your assignment?"

She nodded and rose. They quickly followed suit. "Yes, Professor. Thank you."

"Then I wish the three of you a good day."

Outside, as they walked away, he asked Ron about the one part of the conversation that he hadn't quite understood. "Who are the Unspeakables?"

Ron shrugged, "Almost no one knows, for certain. Who they are, or what exactly they do. They work somewhere called the Department of Mysteries. It's very top secret - no one who works there can talk about it. Magically bound to silence - hence the name."

"Huh." He said. It makes sense, though, that they'd have people keeping track of muggles. "Wait," he said, suddenly realizing: "If no one is supposed to know what they do..."

They stared at each other.

Hermione swallowed. "I suddenly find that entirely preconceived and ruthless plan to destroy the military a little more disturbing."

They exchanged glances. "Yeah..."


He sat on the tower wall, watching Hedwig retreat into the distance, carrying his letter to the artisan supply store. With luck, depending on how fast they got back to him with a catalog, then how long it took to fill his order... he was hopeful they'd have the raw silver in a week or two. Sighing, he turned his head and stared out at the setting sun.

Elsewhere, the hours younger version of him was leaving Aesalon's office with Ron and Hermione, on their way to dinner. Which left him free for some much needed solitude. Reaching down, he picked up the candle he'd brought with him, staring at the unlit wick. Learning to call fire with his wandless magic... the more he thought about it, the more he flinched.

And he knew why.

He'd told Hermione he didn't regret killing Quirrell - and he didn't - but that didn't mean he didn't wish it hadn't been necessary. And it definitely didn't mean he didn't wish he could have done it a different way.

Burning a man to death...

He shuddered, the sense-memory still strong when he thought too long on it. The smell of burnt hair, acrid and unmistakable. The charred odor of flesh even more repugnant. He closed his eyes, then opened them again, quickly, as the images flashed across his eyelids. Quirrell burning. Quirrell screaming.

He set the candle down, and looked again at his hands.

Dumbledore'd said he'd lived because his mother had sacrificed for him. Lived because of the protections she'd left on him - in him - wound through his being. Lived because she'd loved him.

He'd looked up fire, once. Wondering why the protection had manifested as such. Why it'd been so... violent.

Surely a protection wrought of love should be more... gentle?

He flexed his hands, feeling restless, recalling what he'd found. Fire was, apparently, the purifying element. Across numerous cultures. Across different belief systems. Fire burned, and in burning, cleansed. Toxins broke down in fire. Curses broke, as the items they were cast on were immolated. And in natural ecosystems, what burned left behind an ash rich in nutrients, to nourish what would later grow.

No wonder phoenixes were beings of flame.

His mum must have loved so fiercely. He'd bet she would have kicked ass.

He wished he'd had a chance to know.

So. Fire. He'd done it before. By accident. He'd even found a certain affinity for it, as his experiment with the incendio charm had proven.

And... just because I learn how, doesn't mean I'd ever use it on a person. It's... an exercise. Not a weapon. Never a weapon.

He closed his eyes, and tried to pretend his hands weren't trembling. Opened them, and stared hard at the wick, concentrating.

Concentrating.

Concentrating...

When it lit, he jerked back, then took a deep breath. Breathed out, carefully, as pride mixed with terror. Tipped his head back, staring past the sun into the twilight, as stars started to appear.

Reminded himself to calm down. It was okay. Just because I can do it, doesn't mean I have to.

It was an exercise.

Just an exercise.

He tried to ignore his clammy skin, and the faint shivers as winter air froze cold sweat into ice.

Just an exercise.

(Please God, just an exercise.)


Tracking down Percy had been... difficult.

Ron sighed and scowled, staring at his brother where he sat in one of the more abandoned corners of the library. Well, not the tracking down part, so much. Head Boys were never invisible. But finding Percy somewhere quiet, and alone... that'd been the difficult part.

Since when is Percy popular?

And not just with Gryffindors. He'd found his brother with Ravenclaws. Hufflepuffs. Slytherins, of all people. It was weird.

He narrowed his eyes, and huffed. Something was up.

He pulled his wand, and carefully cast a spell Hermione had spent days practicing with him on. The noise-containment shield went up around the table, and he nodded, satisfied, then put away his wand and strode to the table, sliding into a chair across from his brother. "Okay. What's going on?"

Percy looked up and blinked for a second. "Ron?" Then his brows furrowed the slightest bit. "Excuse me?" He looked mildly perplexed, but otherwise unruffled.

"That!" He exclaimed in frustration, pointing at his brother and his calm composure. "You're always so-" He faltered. Distant wasn't the right word. Controlled, maybe? No, not even that. Unflappable? Poncy Percy had been the twins' nickname for him for years, and he'd never stopped getting flustered by their teasing. Turned red, sputtered, took off in a huff.

Not anymore.

Not that the twins were doing much teasing towards him, these days.

"Ron-" Percy began.

"Is this because of Ginny?" he interrupted.

For once, his older brother looked startled. "What?"

"This." He gestured. "This new you. Is it because of Ginny?"

"Ginny's murder hurt us all," Percy began, oddly gentle. "It changed us all, to greater or lesser extent. You're certainly not the same little brother you were a year ago."

"Don't call me little," he muttered. He looked at Percy, wondering. Because yeah, I might have changed a lot, but-

"Then what's up with your new friends?"

"Ron," Percy said, finally sounding exasperated. "I am Head Boy; I graduate this year. Next year, I should be working at the Ministry."

He barely refrained from rolling his eyes, because like that needed to be spelled out? It was a wonder his older brother hadn't been stuck in Slytherin, ambitious as he was. Ugh. Percy's always wanted to be Minister of Magic some day. Ofcourse his first job will be at the Ministry.

"Some of the books I've been reading have pointed out that networking doesn't have to wait til after I graduate," his brother continued. "And it's never too early to work on one's C.V.."

Some of the books he's been reading? "Wait a minute. Is this from that Prefects Who Gained Power book of yours?"

Percy tilted his head. "Some of it."

"Well, you're less annoying than you used to be," he grudgingly admitted. His brother looked caught between amusement and offense. Done with the subject, he moved on. "If I ask you something, will you keep it to yourself? Like, really to yourself? And not tell Mum and Dad?"

Percy abruptly looked wary. Studied him closely. "I'd think so. Unless it's something that'll get somebody hurt."

Not exactly the yes he'd been hoping for, but probably the best he'd get with this older brother. He thought for a second, weighing it- "Fine." He decided abruptly. "But you have to listen to me. I mean, really listen. Not just make a snap judgment."

"All right, Ron. I'm listening."

One last moment to reconsider, then: "Ever heard of something called occlumency?"

Percy's eyes widened, then narrowed. "Yes..."

And here goes nothing... "I want to learn."

"No."

Narrowing his own eyes in turn, he settled in for a fight.

The argument between him and his older brother got long.

Then it got loud. (Thank Merlin for noise-silencing charms.)

But in the end, he won. Because he had one truth that Percy couldn't deny, and he'd use it even if it hurt them both: "If Ginny knew occlumency, she might be alive right now."

Clearer thinking and resistance to magical manipulation of emotions... maybe it wouldn't have saved her. You-Know-Who was terrifying. But maybe it would have.

"Fine." Percy said at last, defeated. "I actually do have a book on it already in my trunk. But I cannot legally lend it to you."

What? "But Percy!"

"Ron." Percy's tone said he was being thick. His older brother carefully enunciated "I cannot legally lend it to you. From my trunk."

It took him a second. Oh. Oh!

"Right." He said. "I understand."

"Good. Now," his brother continued, standing, "I have a Prefect's meeting in twenty minutes. I imagine I'll be pretty busy this week - too busy to work on an extra side project- until, oh, next Tuesday."

He scrambled to his feet in turn. "Right." he said again, faintly in shock. For all he'd planned it and fought for it, he'd never actually expected to win. "Um, Percy?"

His brother paused, "Yes Ron?"

"Thanks."

Percy gave a faint smile, but his eyes were troubled. "Don't mention it." A pause. "Literally. But... you're welcome. And be careful."

He watched his brother go, then hustled toward Gryffindor tower. He needed to be in and out before the end of that meeting.


When he met up with Harry and Hermione, he was grinning. "I've got good news and bad news," he announced.

Hermione was watching him with an indulgent smile. Harry was harder to read, though his eyes showed amusement. "Yes?" The black haired boy inquired.

"The good news," he told them, "is that I am now in possession of an occlumency textbook."

Harry grinned outright at that, then sobered. "And the bad news?"

"Um," he rubbed his neck. "We only have it til next Tuesday. And since I doubt we can learn it by then... we'll have to make copies." He looked down at the book. "And since it's restricted material... probably by hand."

Hermione's mouth fell open. The three of them stared at the book in his hand; not exactly a tome, but no light bedside reading either.

"So..." he looked at the two of them... "Who wants to start?"


She set aside her quill and flexed her fingers, trying to rid them of the faint developing ache. The occlumency text sat partly copied before her, but her mind for once wasn't one what she was reading. Copying wasn't geared for comprehension; couldn't be, really, when the goal was to transcribe information as quickly as you registered it. Which left part of her mind free to wander, even as she transferred words from one page to another.

In this case, to wander back to the issue she'd been thinking on ever since the talk with Professor Aesalon.

People thought she didn't understand the reasons behind pureblood prejudice.

They were wrong. She understood all too well.

The thing was, for most of recorded history, the pureblood bigots had been right. Partly, anyway. Not in their innate superiority; they'd been wrong about that. But in their conviction of their civilization's superiority.

The muggles might have lost the wonders of ancient technology when they fell into the dark ages, but the wizards never did. Crete had possessed flush toilets, three thousand years ago. Medieval towns had been filthy midden heaps; cesspits of brewing disease and sewage. Bathing was not a priority for peasants - for many centuries being too clean was downright dangerous, associated as it was with something destructive, like being a witch... or a Jew.

Wizards, meanwhile, were scrupulously clean. Disease free. Well fed, healthy, with good teeth and an easier life - and consequently, one and all, much better looking than the average muggle. They lived longer. They lived longer even now, with the average age muggle life span about seventy years, but they'd especially lived longer compared to back when the average muggle might expect to live until their early forties.

That wasn't even out of mid adulthood for wizards.

It hadn't been just blind prejudice that said wizard kind were better. At that time, wizards - insofar, at least, as you judged a people by their culture, and the benefits it conveyed upon their citizens - were better. They lived longer. They had a far lower infant mortality rate. They were better educated. They were prettier, healthier, and had more leisure time.

She got it. She did. She'd rather be a witch than a muggle, and she was muggleborn. That was true even today. Six hundred years ago? Magical powers would seem more a divine miracle than an unexpected opportunity.

So yes, she understood where the prejudice came from. What she didn't get was how it seemed to stop there, for all of wizardkind. Acknowledging their superiority, then going their merry way.

Granted, not everyone today who lived in a first world country cared about those in undeveloped countries, or even those in worse circumstances in their own country. But some did. Enough did, that it was at least an issue of popular awareness. People talked about it. There were organizations out there dedicated to helping.

But wizards? As far as she could tell, they'd just pulled away and ignored the less fortunate muggles.

That muggles had, on their own, created a civilization with all those things wizards possessed – education, health care, philosophy, leisure time, arts and sciences, sexual equality, democracy - she was proud of it. Proud of all that her parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents all the way back had accomplished.

But part of her couldn't forget that the wizards never helped their muggle cousins. And when Draco Malfoy sneered, or Zabini sniggered, or she ran into a cultural barrier that wizardborn didn't even see...

She heard the slurs of inferiority, and she remembered. That at least muggles cared when they could.

And quietly (very quietly, in the back of her mind), she wondered just who was better than whom.


It was just as well, Harry decided, nibbling on his quill, that we didn't have the raw bars of silver on hand. The scramble to copy Percy's occlumency book left little time for their usual side projects as it was. Not that I'm helping as much as I should, he admitted guiltily to himself, eyeing the thick section of the book he'd yet to do. It was somewhat embarrassing, but of the three of them, he'd proven to be the slowest at copying.

Mostly because he kept getting distracted, slowing down to read and think, rather than copy by rote. But... occlumency really wasn't what he'd been expecting.

He'd thought maybe it was a spell. That it was advanced, and complex, and required fine control and lots of power... and that wasn't it at all. Because apparently, the Chinese fortune cookies were right. The first and most lasting thing you needed to do, was know yourself.

Not the superficial type of knowing – what annoyed you, what your favorite food was – but really knowing. Knowing truly, deeply, and without prevarication, all that you were: good and bad, temper and faults, virtues and vices. It was about knowing yourself so completely and reflexively that anything that wasn't you... became instantly noticeable.

Because the truly insidious part of most emotional attacks, was how the victim usually only realized what was happening to them too late to fight back. If they ever realized at all.

There were two possible approaches outlined in the book, and he, Ron, and Hermione would have to discuss which one to take, but he already knew which he favored. The one approach was quick but painful. The other, longer, but less traumatizing. For once, he wasn't on the side of speed.

The faster way was to forcibly subject the learner in question to mental violation. Curses, charms, select predatory creatures... there were a number of ways to do so. Repeated trauma built up a sensitivity to mental intrusions, much like allergies or rashes could spontaneously develop after too much exposure to a substance. It did work... but then, you could teach someone good shielding charms eventually too, if you spent enough time throwing curses at them. That didn't make it a good way to learn.

The other way – the one that focused more on knowing yourself consciously than traumatizing your subconsciousness – took longer. But he suspected it had more benefits in the long term. And hard as such a thing was, there were methods to find guidance. Or pointers, at least. The book listed things to try, to find information you weren't sure about. Something called a Boggart apparently showed you your greatest fear. There were other – albeit weaker – mirrors than Erised which showed you hidden – or not so hidden - desires. Amortentia gave you the smells of who you found most attractive. The Taedium Draught took on the smell that most disgusted you. There was a curse which whispered taunts (fed by your own mind) to make you angry. There was a curse that dropped you into one of your least favorite memories, (and tried to hold you there). There were spells mind-healers knew, to test your mental balance.

There were so many ways to gain knowledge of yourself, if you were willing to put in the work. And more importantly, to not flinch away – and deny – what you found.

That wasn't all there was to it, of course. But is was the largest part. And apparently, for most, the hardest part. Once you could recognize when you were being targeted, learning to block the creatures that did it was supposed to be far easier to learn.

But weirdest of all, some of what the book says... it's familiar. Very familiar. It reminds me of what it's like when I center myself, before I try some difficult wandless magic, or divination, or transfiguration.

He tried not to let himself hope, but...

Abruptly, he shook himself from his wandering thoughts. It's appealing, yes, but I'll never find out if I don't finish this.

Sighing, he flipped the page.

At least it's Ron's turn come eight.


A week or so later they were sitting round a table in the common room. It was the middle of January, and the fire was every bit as welcome as the more passive warming enchantments threaded through the castle. He was working on his potion's essay, frowning over a comparison of helbore with felfever, when Ron spoke.

"We should get involved in a club," his friend announced.

Hermione looked up with the slightly glazed expression of one who had been pulled from deep concentration, and was replaying the last thing they'd heard. "Ron?" she asked.

His own reaction was more immediate. "Are you crazy?" he asked their friend. Then he paused for a second. "Wait a second. Does Hogwarts even have clubs?"

"There was that dueling club last year," Hermione put in doubtfully. "And I think Flitwick has a choir?"

"I'm not joining a choir," he said. Just in case, you know, there was any doubt. "Also, seriously. Are you crazy?" He expanded his arms in a wide gesture. "We're straight-O students. We're looking into the efficiency of silver in divination mechanisms." Which was their cover for anything to do with the diadem. "We're scheduled to start learning defensive mind magic charms." And they needed to come up with a better cover for occlumency. "Hermione's taking every class Hogwart's offers. You've got three notebooks full of your 'folklore research.' I've got divination and defense and quidditch. Even if we wanted to join the choir, when would we have time?"

"Will you stop nattering on about the choir?" Ron asked irritably. "And," he continued, grumbly, "It's something Percy said."

He blinked, a little surprised. Ron's taking advice from Percy? When'd that happen?

"He said we should join a- club?" Hermione asked. And that minute hesitation was totally where she'd wanted to say "choir" instead. He was sure of it.

"No," the red-head shrugged. "He's got, well, all sorts of books on gaining power and influence and stuff." Ron shuddered. "Seriously, the entire right side of his trunk is like a library of 'How to take over the world' books."

"Well, that's..." he searched for words, then settled on: "Disturbing." Dark Lord Percy, he tried mentally. Nope, didn't quite have the necessary ring to it.

Ron rolled his eyes. "It's Percy," he stressed. "Anyway, he said it's never too late – or too early – to start making... contacts?" He tried the word out as if it were something arcane and mysterious, possessing unknown power.

Right. He thought, not quite managing to contain his huff of disbelief. "Contacts with thirteen-year-olds?"

"They're not going to be thirteen forever," Hermione defended.

And yes, true, but- "Maybe it's something you and Ron should do."

She looked somewhat puzzledly disapproving. "Why not you?"

He quirked an eyebrow, then looked around and lowered his voice. "Have you really not noticed that I don't actually like most of the kids in this school? They watch me and whisper about me and spread nasty rumors. Most of Gryffindor is okay, but everyone else?"

Her eyes softened in sympathy, but she shook her head. "Harry, the Gryffindors are okay because they know you, at least a little bit. If you want the rest of the school to act like them, you have to let them get to know you as well."

"Besides," Ron threw in, "I think it'd help us not look so... different... to normal students."

He grimaced and slouched down, unwilling but reluctant to fight over it. "I'm still not joining a choir." He crossed his arms. "And I really do think we're too busy to take on anything more."

He watched Ron and Hermione exchanged glances.

"Look mate," Ron began. "How about we just look around and see what's available that's not choir, then come back to it?"

Hermione nodded. "No need to make a decision now."

He sighed, feeling outnumbered. Hell, he was outnumbered. "Fine," he agreed grudgingly. "Can I go back to charms homework now?"

She sniffed, and Ron raised his hands in a "hands off" gesture. He stared at them both suspiciously for a few seconds, then bent his head back towards his potion's essay.

Choir, he thought to himself, and shook his head.


The silver arrived at January's end. He'd put the time waiting to good use, practicing divination and occlumency every spare moment. Even his normal research into defensive magics had taken a back seat to the two subjects.

A month hadn't made the Baron any less creepy, but the ghost had kept his promise to help. The intricate partial reshaping was different than any transfiguration he'd done before, but he could do it. Barely.

"Too large, shrink the entire tiara slightly."

Hermione and Ron were watching him worriedly, but his world had narrowed down to a cool voice issuing commands, and two images: one on the table before him, one within his head. He concentrated, sweat running down his face despite the coldness of the dungeon room, as he tried to match exacting instructions.

"Thinner, and it should have more of a curved edge."

He envisioned the change, and flicked his wand through the spell.

"Not that much of a curve, and the lacework needs to be more delicate."

He took a deep breath, concentrated, flicked again.

"Good, keep it that thick. You need to extend the peak a quarter centimeter, and the bottom curl on either side should be a touch longer. The wings should be balanced; elegant."

It'd taken forever, to get this close. He was just thankful Hermione had insisted they do a life sized sketch of the front and sides – as best they could tell from the pictures and the Baron's comments – before he had to start with the actual transfiguration. He held the image, and cast.

"Good. Now, you need to inscribe her favorite saying – 'Wit beyond measure is man's greatest treasure' – on the front."

Flick.

"Shift all the words about one fingerswidth to the right."

Flick.

"More calligraphic."

Flick.

He wouldn't have been able to do this last year. Hell, he wouldn't have been able to do this three months ago. And part of him wanted to crow in validation of how far they'd come in just half a year, except that even with all his practice, this much fine transfiguration was draining him swiftly. He didn't know how much longer he could keep this up. And that the baron knew the diadem so well... It was their good fortune, but honestly, it was also a bit creepy. Or stalkerish.

"Smaller letters."

He flicked, trying to ignore the faint trembling in his limbs. The Baron circled the tiara a few times, eyes thoughtful.

"Perfect."

He was so involved, for several seconds the comment didn't make sense, as he tried to figure out what he was supposed to alter. Then he looked up. "You mean-?"

Dark eyes stared down at him. "It's as close to an exact copy as you're likely to get."

He groaned and slumped back, aware now of a faint dizziness. "Oh, thank God."

"Harry!" Hermione stepped closer, "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," he replied, trying to resist the urge to ooze boneless down the chair. "Just- wiped out."

"No wonder, mate." Ron leaned over and stared at the diadem, fascinated, "You've been transfiguring for almost two hours."

He blinked. "Really?" Because he'd known it'd been a long time, but he hadn't known it'd been that long of a time.

The red-head rolled his eyes. "Yes, really. It's a good thing we saved." He stopped abruptly, glanced at the Baron. "I mean, brought your cloak. Curfew started an hour ago."

He took a deep breath, then carefully pushed himself to his feet, and picked up the diadem, and gently settled it into the case they'd made. Turning, he faced the Slytherin ghost. "Baron. Whether or not this works... Thank you."

The Baron stared at him, to all appearances expressionless. He resisted the urge to fidget under that dark gaze. At last, the Baron inclined his head. "Go," was all he said.

"Right." He said, discomfited. He glanced and Ron and Hermione, then jerked his head toward the door. He gestured them ahead of him, and they slipped from the room. He followed then gently closed the door behind him, still feeling the weight of the Slytherin ghost's spectral eyes on the back of his neck.

Long practice had the three of them smoothly huddled under the cloak, and Hermione spun them back to just after they'd entered the room. He closed his eyes as time blurred around him, the box holding the diadem tight in his grip.

Let this work, he thought. Please.


Caution called for them to wait til the weekend, and the days passed both quickly and all too slow. Come Saturday they ate with their housemates then disappeared off to one of the unused classrooms on the second floor. It was as close as they could get to the center of the castle while staying in the uninhabited parts. Now that the moment of truth had arrived, they sat there staring at each other.

Hermione looked somewhat disbelieving, even though she'd been with them all the way. "Are we seriously trying this?"

Ron shook his head. "We talked to the Bloody Baron for this. We bloody well are doing it."

She still looked unconvinced.

"I told you, Hermione," Harry said, going through the motions of setting up his scrying tools. "Not all divination is like Trelawney teaches. You've read my book."

"I did." She nodded. "And Discern seemed far more – lucid – than Trelawney's ever been. But like you said, I read the book. She made it pretty clear how important knowledge or familiarity was for an undertaking like this..."

He shrugged at her objection. "According to the Baron, this is as close to an exact replica as we're likely to get. And we don't have a better idea, do we? If someone who was there when it was lost doesn't know where it is, no one does. We have to find some other way."

She was looking at him with one arched eyebrow. He sighed. "Look, I know it's a long shot. I mean, I'm sure people have tried scrying for it before. But unless someone got more out of the Gray Lady than I ever did, then no one's tried scrying for it with an exact replica as a focus." He shrugged. "It might be enough. And if it's not? Not like it's going to hurt."

"Come on, Hermione," Ron interjected, "like Harry said – we all know it's half chance. So let's get it started."

"Fine," she said. "Sorry. I just – don't want us to have wasted all this time and-" she waved her hand, "everything, on nothing."

"It's not going to be a waste," Ron replied. "Even if Harry doesn't get so much as a glimmer, well, at least we now have some idea of what it looks like. Will be more than we had before."

He poured the purified water into his bowl. "Quiet guys," he said. "I need to concentrate.

He unwrapped their copy of the diadem, and held it in his hands. He'd handled it quite a bit, over the past few days. His fingers could map the dimensions with his eyes closed – he was sure he could replicate another from scratch if needed. He'd worn it and held it and even – furtively, and feeling more than a little silly – licked it. Without actually having touched the real diadem, his chances weren't going to get any better.

He gently placed the copy into the water, centering it in the middle of the bowl. Then closed his eyes, and visualized. Sight and touch and taste and weight and what he knew of its crafter, he murmured the spell and reached-

-felt that familiar feeling that said the connection was starting to form-

And slammed into a wall.

Blackness.


"Harry?"

He wanted the pain to go away.

"Harry! Harry!"

He wanted the voices to go away, too.

"Please, Harry. You're starting to really worry us."

But there was a reason to return. There was a reason to wake up.

"Mate, you're not bleeding, but if you're not up in another five minutes, I'm getting Pomfrey."

A reason the voices were familiar. A reason that was important.

("Ron, are you trying to threaten him into consciousness?"

"Come on, Hermione, it might work – you know how he hates the hospital wing.")

It was so hard to think past the pain in his skull. But he knew how to. He'd practiced it. Just shift it sideways and focus-

Wakefulness snapped into place.

"Harry?"

"Hermione." He groaned and opened his eyes slowly, blinking upwards into worried sets of brown and blue eyes. "Ron."

"Oh thank Merlin," Ron exhaled in relief. "I was afraid we'd have to get a medi-witch. And wouldn't that be hard to explain."

Hermione gave Ron a glare. "I was afraid we'd have to get a medi-witch, because I'm pretty sure scrying spells aren't supposed to do that."

You and me both, Hermione, he thought, ignoring Ron's somewhat indignant protests. ("It's not that I didn't care-"). Cautiously, he attempted to sit up, wobbling a little.

"Whoah," Ron steadied him. "Careful, Harry. You okay?"

He blinked, the light felt bright, the pain was - shifted away but still present - and he was dizzy. The last time he'd felt like this, Dudley had shoved him over a tree root – on the way down his head had hit the trunk. Is it possible to get a magical concussion? "I... think so. Just... hurts, a little. Feels like I ran into a wall." A second of reflection. "Headfirst. Into a wall. What happened?"

"Nothing much, at first," Hermione still looked worried, but had lost the air of panic. "Then you gave a kind of yelp-"

"Grunt." Ron amended.

She favored Ron with a disbelieving glance. "Grunt?"

"Yelping is not manly," Ron said. "I'm looking out for Harry, here."

She rolled her eyes. "Fine. You gave a manly grunting yelp, stiffened, then collapsed."

He frowned. "That's it?"

They both glanced at the overturned scrying bowl. He followed their gaze. Make that: the pieces the overturned scrying bowl.

He swallowed. "Yikes."

Ron shook his head, "I'm not sure what happened, but the last time I saw anything like that, it was when Charlie tried to apperate into Gringotts. It wasn't quite this bad, but he ended up dazed and on his butt in the middle of the street. Dad said that's what happens when you go against strong wards."

Hermione looked at him, "Did you get anything?"

He snorted, "Other than the knowledge that the diadem is – apparently – protected?"

She simply met his gaze levelly, ignoring the sarcasm. "Yes. Other than that."

He frowned, thoughtfully. "I'm not sure..." He winced. "Everything still hurts. I'm pretty sure I started to feel- something. A connection? It's still blurry. I think- Maybe. Give me a day or two."

"All right." They exchanged glances. Ron turned back to him. "You think you can handle standing?"

He tested his dizziness, looking around carefully. "Yeah," Ron stood, then reached down. He accepted the hand up. "Ow."

Hermione looked worried, "I think we should head straight to the dorms."

"Yeah," he admitted, not daring to step away entirely from Ron's steadying hands. "I think that might be a good idea."


Ron sighed and looked down at his notebooks. Immortality's far more complex than I ever thought. But I think… I think I've really done all I can. A little more sorting, a few more details… and it'll be finished. At least for now.

It would be good to be done with the project. But he hadn't exactly found anything that screamed 'Voldemort used this!' despite his hopes.

Frustrated, he pushed his work to the side, almost burying Scabbers under it by accident. His pet rat wiggled out from under the edges of his notebook, squeaking in indignation. "Whoops," he murmured. "Sorry Scabbers." But his attention was pulled back irresistibly towards the reason he was still on his bed at eleven in the morning.

Harry was sleeping. Harry had been sleeping for the past seventeen hours, ever since they'd gotten him back to their dorm room, and his friend collapsed on his bed. At this point, he was more than a little bit worried. He and Hermione had been taking shifts, just in case.

Seamus had been taken aback a little last night, to come into their room and find Hermione sitting on Harry's bed. When she'd said Harry was feeling a little sick, and she would be watching over him while Ron went to dinner, the other boy had backed down rather than argued.

Wise of him. Hermione was kind of terrifying sometimes.

He stared at the sleeping features. Harry didn't seem to be in pain, at least. But he was getting really really tired of sitting around, waiting, while friends and – others – might be hurt.

Might be slipping away in front of him. And he wouldn't even know.

He gritted his teeth, then forced himself to relax. He doubted it was anything that bad in this case.

Wake up soon, Harry. You're a git for worrying us like this.


He woke up Sunday afternoon, groggy, but feeling otherwise fine. He carefully sat up, his last memory one of dizzying pain. A rustling noise had him looking to the side, where Hermione and Ron sat on Ron's bed, Hermione reading, Ron practicing – he squinted at the misshapen, blue-patterned mouse – transfiguration. He hoped.

"Hey," he greeted them, blinking.

Hermione's eyes were worried. "How do you feel?"

He took careful stock. "Okay, I think. Ah." He rubbed his forehead, trying to clear away the cobwebs. "My head doesn't hurt anymore." He frowned, taking in the sun spilling in through the dorm windows. "How long have I been asleep?"

"You slept almost twenty hours," she said, still watching him carefully.

"Bloody worried us, mate." Ron added.

"I'm fine," he repeated with more emphasis, now mostly sure of it himself. "So what happened?"

The two of them exchanged glances. "We were hoping you'd tell us that. You collapsed, the bowl shattered... when you woke up you were talking but migraine-ish. We figured unless we were involving Madame Pomfrey, sleep would be the best bet." The red head shrugged. "You remember talking about running into wards, right?"

The memories were painful, but clear. "Yeah," he acknowledged. "I think I felt... something. I'll have to experiment."

Hermione's face was disapproving. "Is it going to knock you out every time? Because I'm not sure that's a good idea..."

He shook his head, and was grateful the movement raised no twinges. "It was painful, but that's all. It's not like it really hurt me, or anything." Her face was still skeptical, so he changed tactics. "Look," he explained, "I could swear I did feel, okay, maybe not an actually connection, but maybe a direction towards one? Or... something?" She raised an eyebrow. "I can't- We've come so far, Hermione. I don't want to give up now. Not when there's still things left to try."

He looked to Ron for support, but Ron's eyes showed indecision, so he looked back to Hermione. "Come on, guys. Trust me. I wouldn't do this if I thought it'd really hurt me."

Her sigh was one of resignation. He made sure not to display the victory he felt, because he was pretty sure Hermione would hit him for it if he did.

Still, ow, he thought. Please don't let it hurt that much every time goes wrong.


It did get better. A little bit.

He also got very, very, familiar with the feeling of a backlash migraine.

Eventually, he learned to walk in the direction that didn't leave him unconscious. It was a slow process by necessity. He could only try once or twice before the headache left him sweating, hurting, and needing to sleep it off. Gradually, his resistance improved. He went from trying on Saturday, and sleeping twenty hours, to being able to try Saturday and again on Sunday. Eventually, after more than a month of knocking himself out, he'd learned how to pull away before the wards back-lashed. After that, the task became more exhausting than painful, although concentrating too long still left him with a headache.

Two more weeks, and they had their answer.

Such as it was.


This was not what I was hoping for.

The three of them stood together, staring. The others didn't seem to know what to say. And Harry sure as hell didn't either.

At last, Ron broke the silence. "And behold," he said, voice filled with a kind of frustrated amusement, waving his arm in a grand gesture, "the secret hiding place of the great diadem is... a wall."

Harry rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to bare stone.

"Obviously, a secret room of some kind," Hermione murmured. "I think? Or maybe we're just on the wrong side of it?"

He raised a hand and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Okay," he said. "Hermione's right. We could just be on, like, the backside of it. Let's try coming from the North."


A half hour later, he sighed. A wall. Again.

Hermione looked determinedly hopeful. "From the east?"


They glared at the stone, then Ron said desperately, "Try west?"


He sighed, and slid down said wall in helpless resignation.

On either side of him, Ron and Hermione did the same.

Across from them hung a tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy being clubbed by trolls. Down a ways, two suites of armor guarded the stairs up to the eighth floor. He looked around in frustration, again, but the feeling was clear. They'd circled around it, over it, under it... mapped out a space roughly nine by nine by nine meters across. Three months of aggravation and research and searching, and it led them here.

To a blank wall.


Chapter End


Notes:

- To everyone still reading; thank you. I'm glad you haven't given up. If I managed to miss replying to your review, I still read and treasured it.

- Canon Notes: The diadem's appearance was created based off the description of the books instead of the more recent version seen in the 7th movie. Flitwick's choir, on the other hand, is from the second movie, I believe. Whether the Unspeakables, in addition to researching death and life and time and love and brains, also research how to keep muggles away, is never discussed in the books. I, however, find it plausible that someone is keeping up with new technology.

- Also, someone more talented than I needs to write a sci-fi AU, where wizards and muggles team up to fight an invading alien/extradimensional menace. Wizards have the spec-ops missions - scouting, spies, assassination, infiltration, sabotage - and muggles provide raw firepower and bodies.

Because there are endless debates on the whole "Who Would Win, Wizards or Muggles?" topic, but I can't help but think it'd be so much more fun see them working out each other's strengths and weaknesses - and idiosyncrasies - against a common foe. Because both sides would be absolutely sure the other was composed of lunatics, but glad to have them anyway.


Next Chapter:

"What's the first step in destroying a curse? Can it even be done?" Harry paused. "I mean, with our level of training."

"There's a reason Gringott's hires professional curse-breakers." Ron frowned. "Some of the tombs... really nasty stuff. Bill tells us stories sometimes – when Mum's not around to hear. And he always said, if they had no clue what was protecting a tomb, the first thing they'd do is figure out what type of curse it is. After that, you have a better chance of disarming it. And are less likely to kill yourself by setting off a trap with the wrong counter-curse."

At the mention of fatalities, their eyes were drawn back to the diadem, still lying innocently on the floor. He swallowed then looked up again to meet their eyes. "No one puts it on. I don't think it can influence us unless it's already got a hold, but... we don't risk it. And we lock it, so it takes two of us to open it up."