Forging the Sword
Chapter Eleven: Final Sharpening
"Have you noticed something… off… with Harry?"
Hermione froze in the act of reaching, head turning by instinct and ducking slightly as she peered through the gaps between the books and the shelves in the direction from which the words had come. Through the space between, she could see Parvati look up from her beauty magazine and raise an eyebrow at Lavender's hesitant question. "You'll have to be more specific."
It probably wasn't the politest for their year mates to sit around the library and gossip about Harry – Hogwarts' most famous current student - during free period. But it definitely wasn't the politest to listen to them.
Not that she had any intention of leaving.
This is going to be so incredibly awkward if they realize I'm here…
Blindly and half by instinct, she slowly reached down to retrieve her wand. Holding her breath, she carefully wove a notice-me-not charm about herself. Only after she felt the shimmering veil drape around her, did she relax again.
Seamus dropped down onto the seat next to Lavender. "You two talking about Harry?"
Lavender appeared temporarily flustered, and Hermione barely refrained from rolling her eyes at that distraction. Of all the boys Lavender could have chosen to start developing a crush on, this is the one she chose?
Parvati tossed perfectly coifed hair over her shoulder and eyed Seamus like an uninvited bug. When the boy showed no sign of noticing, she sighed, sounding much put upon. "Who else? For more than a month he's been walking around all pale and pinched looking, come weekend."
Seamus nodded. "I remember. About a month and a half ago, right after that big transfiguration assignment? Ron and Hermione practically carried Harry back to the dorms one Saturday. And then refused to leave. They said it was just a headache, but every week?"
Hermione felt her eyes narrow at that last observation, not so much at the fact that one of Harry's dorm mates had noticed, but that he was sharing it freely. And in public.
Note to self: don't trust Seamus to keep something confidential. Not without specific instructions or incentive, anyway.
Lavender looked puzzled. "I wonder what he's doing?"
Parvati shrugged. "Maybe he's sick?"
"Only on weekends?" Seamus rebutted.
"It's Harry," Parvati said flippantly. "And Hermione and Ron, for that matter. They're always up to something." Her tone conveyed clearly how little she cared, and she flipped her Witch Weekly magazine to a new page. "How about we talk about something that's actually interesting? Look Lavender, a new facial cream came out; says here they've added trace amounts of Bundimun secretions. It's supposed to supply an extreme deep cleanse."
"And that's my cue to go…" said Seamus. "We still trading notes on Flitwick's next charms quiz?"
Parvati waved him off dismissively. "I'll have my copy to you by Wednesday. Now buzz off."
And that's probably my sign to leave, too, Hermione thought, watching Seamus flee from the prospect of girl-talk. Still – we forget sometimes, as busy as we are with all the research and watching we do on everyone else… people are watching us as well. Idly, maybe. But that doesn't mean they're not thinking.
And comparing notes, apparently.
Maybe Ron really did have something, with his idea about widening their social circle. Even if Harry would apparently rather be hexed than join in.
Although speaking of Harry and hexes – I wonder how his practice is going?
Harry sat on the bare stone of the castle battlements – because he'd rather avoid both people and flammable items if possible – and took a deep breath, focusing on fire. A bare moment's hesitation, and the candle lit.
Alright. Now concentrate…
He remembered, months and months ago, standing with the other Gryffindor third years, watching the final form defense students plait fire and water with nothing but wands and willpower. He might not ever get that far, but it was something to try for.
He set another unlit candle down a few inches from the first, and tried to focus on the image he painted in his head, of the flame growing and stretching as if a living thing, reaching towards the unlit wick of the other…
Almost an hour later he found himself staring, baffled yet pleased, at one lit candle. Okay, so I was aiming for one lighting the other, instead of the flame jumping from one to the other…
Still. Progress was progress, right? At least something had happened. So he grinned, pinched the candle out, and started again.
He lost himself in the practice, and wasn't sure how long it was or what broke his concentration, but when he looked up a phoenix was watching him, perched on nearby stone.
He blinked. "Fawkes?"
The dark gold raptor eyes had an odd weight to them, and seemed to take in the scene of scattered candles and dancing flames. He shrugged, feeling strangely compelled to explain. "Wandless magic practice? I'm trying to get them to light easily and quickly."
Fawkes beat his wings - once, twice - and lifted off the stone crenellation, hop-flying the few short feet to Harry's knee. The phoenix was a surprisingly heavy weight, and he leaned back slightly to give Fawkes more room. Sharp talons pricked at his skin through his robe, but the firebird was apparently being careful, for which he was grateful. Others might regard the phoenix as "just a bird" – albeit a very magical one. He remembered the bloody, eyeless sockets of the basilisk, trailing gore down the sides of its head. Fawkes hadn't just taken out the most lethal weapon of a supremely deadly dark creature; he'd made it look easy.
Anyone who angered this magical bird did so at their peril.
"Not with Professor Dumbledore?" he asked.
Fawkes looked at him, then looked at the candles, and trilled a low note that seemed to echo with command.
The candles went out.
He stared, surprised. I didn't know phoenixes could do that. Wait. Why did Fawkes just do that?
Tightening talons broke his train of thought. "Ouch! Fawkes!"
The talons loosened again.
"Um, are you saying I shouldn't?" he guessed hesitantly.
Fawkes mantled his wings. Then shifted, and sang again, this time a rising scale that rippled through the air. At the high note, both candles burst back into flames. A few seconds of silence, and Fawkes trilled that low note again. The fire vanished. Golden eyes stared into his.
Okay… obviously there's something he's trying to tell me.
He wasn't sure how smart phoenixes were, but his basic guess was very. Fawkes had, after all, been the one to bring the Hat and the Sword it contained to him in the chamber. The firebird had also zeroed in on the diary as what had to be destroyed to destroy Riddle, and made sure to bring it to Harry quickly. Then had managed to convey to all of them that he would fly them back out of the chamber. So no, Harry didn't doubt that Fawkes was trying to show him something.
Which means I better figure out what he's trying to tell me. Er. He sneaked a glance between the candles and the phoenix. "Okay, you're not just telling me to stop, because you lit them again after they went out. Um, are you showing me you can do it too?"
Fawkes slowly raised one wing… and whacked him with it.
"Hey!" he yelped. That had been a surprisingly solid blow. Birds looked so delicate and graceful in flight – you forgot just how much solid muscle wings were composed of. "Okay, okay! Geeze." Fawkes seemed to… sigh? Was he reading too much into a bird's body language? Then the phoenix repeated his earlier demonstration, lighting and quenching the candles, and stared at him again.
He had to resist the urge to hunch his shoulders.
Fawkes made a sort of chirruping noise of encouragement. Slowly, Harry opened his mouth, thinking it through. "Okay, you're not telling me to stop; you're not just joining in or playing. You watched me light them with magic, then you lit them with magic…" He shook his head, frustrated.
Fawkes released another encouraging trill, and Harry tried to ignore the vague suspicion that he was being treated like a slightly addled fledgling. Fawkes was acting surprisingly similar to Hedwig when she seemed to think he needed mothering. I lit the candle, then he did. They were the same actions right? Except- "No, wait. The very first thing I was doing was lighting the candles. The first thing you did was put them out! You could do both with magic. You're saying-" he stumbled to a stop as his brain caught up to his words.
Ruefully, he lifted one hand a smoothed it down Fawkes' feathers, feeling a little solemn all of a sudden. "You're saying, if I want to start fires with magic, I better be able to stop them too, right?"
A trill of – satisfaction? – rewarded him. Harry bit his lip, but smiled. "Thanks, then. For the advice. You're right. If I'm going to use fire, I need to be able to control it, too." He bent his head, trying to hide the sudden surge of emotion. Fawkes shifted, nuzzling his neck briefly before lifting away, and Harry felt another small smile cross his lips as he got himself back under control. Carefully, he gave the bird one last stroke, then pulled his hand back to allow the Phoenix room to take flight.
The bird paused one last second, to sing the candles back into flame, then took off, winging past the battlement to wherever phoenixes went when they weren't saving young idiot wizards from themselves.
He watched Fawkes go, sighed, and then turned back to the dancing flames. Right. Let's try it then.
And after that… I think I have a few questions for Ron.
"Fawkes taught you to put fires out?"
Harry felt his eyebrows draw together, puzzled, because that level of incredulity seemed all out of proportion to the topic. "Um, yes? Sort of? I mean, he showed me I needed to know how to do it. Which isn't exactly the same thing…"
"Harry. A phoenix. Taught you something."
He glanced over at Hermione, whose brow was furrowed, but so far wasn't saying much. He didn't understand why of them all, it was the wizardborn who was having trouble with this concept. Although wizards do seem to have some kind of weird ideas about other magical creatures... Maybe that's it?
He frowned at his friend. "Fawkes isn't stupid, Ron. He saved me in the chamber. He's at least as smart as Hedwig – he understands when you talk to him."
"I don't- That's not-" And wow, Ron wasn't always the smoothest talker, but the sputtering was unusual. Ron threw his hands up. "Gah! That's not what I meant. Harry. Do you have any idea-" In the middle of what seemed like the start of a rant, Ron abruptly stopped. Inhaled slowly, then exhaled. "Never mind. Muggle-raised. Of course you don't." Another slow, inhale, exhale repetition. "Harry," Ron's voice was level, the way it only got when his friend was being dead serious about something, "phoenixes don't do that."
And he knew Ron wasn't accusing him of lying, but he couldn't help that defensive flash of emotion – too many people accusing him of doing things he hadn't. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon and Private Drive neighborhood residents and his elementary school teachers and Hogwarts students and Professor Snape and he was so sick of it all - and he had to shove down the flare of emotion, borrowing the control he'd hard-learned with wandless magic. "Well, Fawkes did, so obviously they do." Then he winced, because that had still come out a touch snappier than he'd intended.
"I think what Ron means to say," came Hermione's voice, and he glanced over at her, "is that he's never heard of that happening before."
"What, really?" he asked, head twisting back towards the other boy.
"Well. Not exactly, but." Ron pinched his nose. "Right. Look, there are legends about people who learn from magical creatures. I mean, it's rare enough you can get information from other races who speak: the goblins don't share their secrets of weapons forging with anyone, people stopped asking the centaurs to tell them the future once the survivors started coming back with arrow holes in them, the merfolk drown wizards who poke their noses into treasures they've claimed from the seas! But, the really, really, old stories, like the girl who learned to weave starlight from the unicorns, or the sage wisdom from the augureys. They exist, but everyone knows they're just stories. Myths. No one takes them seriously these days."
And… he didn't know what to say to that. What can I say? he wondered. Because there was no answer he could give, that wouldn't sound arrogant. So instead he just spread his hands, hoping they got it, and under that, tried to ignore the flash of panic and oh god, not another thing that sets me apart….
"Maybe people just don't talk about it," Hermione suggested.
Harry seized on that chance with eagerness, because: "That makes sense. I mean, if it's, I don't know, the wizarding equivalent of a fairy tale, than anyone who actually claims to have been taught will just be regarded as mad. Or a liar." He nodded. "I'm certainly not going to tell anyone else about this. Besides – it wasn't. I mean, it's not like he gave me a lesson, or anything. Just…" he groped around. "Advice! Yeah, he gave me some advice." He nodded again with conviction, feeling his emotions settle out. "I'm sure he gives advice to Dumbledore all the time, too." He even managed a smile. "Don't read anything into it, Ron."
And… Ron was staring at him, with a strange expression on his face. One Harry couldn't read. It looked a little like frustration and a little like disbelief, and maybe some exhaustion or calculation or something else, but it was just….
Disturbed, he looked away. He didn't know what he'd seen. And he was so very done with this conversation.
He grabbed his bag and stood. "I've got to hit the library real quick – I need another book for my charms essay."
Then before either of his friends could say anything, made his escape.
Ron watched him flee, then turned to Hermione. "It's not just common but secret," he said flatly.
Hermione's brown eyes were rueful. "You know that. I know that. But Harry?" A graceful shrug moved slim shoulders. "Harry never believes he's anything special. Different, maybe. But not special."
Which wasn't the same thing at all, he knew. Still… "I don't get it," he finally confessed, frustrated. "The quidditch skills, the parseltongue, the Sorting Hat, the entire mess with Quirrell in our first year and You-Know-Who in general – he's not stupid, Hermione. But he sure as hell acts like it sometimes!"
That was the worst part, really. One of the things that had always bugged him a little about Harry. It could be frustrating, occasionally, to see all the special skills Harry seemed to have been born with – no matter that some were double edged as a goblin's gift. But it was infuriating that Harry didn't even acknowledge what he had.
Because there was modesty, and there was this. And Harry's stubborn insistence that he was "just Harry" had gone from charmingly humble to a boldfaced lie.
He felt his fingernails bite into his flesh, then forced himself to push away the bitterness. You aren't supposed to lie to your friends. Especially not your best ones.
So why won't Harry give it up already?
"Isn't that part of his charm, though?" Hermione's voice drew him back, as she set chin on one hand, staring back at him challengingly. "Don't pretend you'd like him more, if he strutted through the halls like Malfoy, crowing of his successes."
Ugh. He felt his mouth twist in distaste. "Bad image, 'mione."
She arched one eyebrow in a gesture he'd learned meant she felt she'd proved her point.
"You don't get it," he said forcefully. "It's not about bragging, it's about... He presents himself as really just a misunderstood, ordinary wizard, and he's not. That's not being humble, Hermione. Humble is about acknowledging your skills without being overly proud or pushy about them. Confront him about it, and he denies what he is. It's-" his words stumbled to a halt, as a faint thought grabbed at him, trying to come to the fore. Like looking at a chess piece; that moment when he'd survey the game, and see, and know, as if the board itself could speak: this piece is important. That formation is the shatter-point. Here is the play where the possibilities can change.
This wasn't chess. It wasn't exactly the same. But this was Harry, and his best friend was every bit as complicated as the game once known as the territory of kings.
So what do I see, that I still don't know?
He denies what he is, he thought again, past incidents coming to mind, shies from his fame as You-Know-Who's defeater. He hates his fame, but not just because he hates attention or praise, no matter what he claims. He never minded the recognition he gained from quidditch victories, or the twins' celebration of points scored against Snape or Malfoy…
Hadn't loved it either, mind, but that was just Harry for you.
Argh. Why won't it make sense?
The basilisk. The wandless magic. The adventure with smuggling the dragon in first year. Riding a centaur, when everyone knows they'll kill a wizard before kneeling to one. Calling the sword of Gryffindor from its resting place. Bargaining with a thousand year old ghost, famed for his malice and still clad in the chains of his crimes. Set, even now, on the path to recovering a lost diadem of legend.
He's not fooling anyone, so why is he still pretending? If I didn't know better, I'd swear he didn't know… himself… Thought came to an abrupt end, because, no. It couldn't- but it explained- but there was no way… The realization was breath taking for sheer improbability. But he searched again through the memories of almost three years...
"Hermione," he said, amazed. Disbelieving. Because how could they have never noticed? "Hermione. Harry doesn't know he's the Boy-Who-Lived."
He stared at her, because this was huge. …and why is she staring at me like I'm the mad one?
"Ron," she said, voice tinged with gentle sarcasm. "He's only been complaining about it for the last three years. I think he knows."
"No," he shook his head. "No, he knows that we call him the Boy-Who-Lived. He doesn't know he is the Boy-Who-Lived."
Hermione might be muggleborn, but she was wicked-smart. Harry still hadn't read any of the books he was mentioned in, but Ron remembered their first meeting on the train. Hermione knew what the Boy-Who-Lived was, to the magical world.
He could almost see the moment she got it, got the distinction he was making. Because it wasn't just a baseless title. Harry'd proved that, in the time they'd known him. And if he didn't realize it himself…
He thunked his head against the table, welcoming the small flash of pain, and resisting the urge to repeat it, because seriously? "Alright," he straightened up. "So what do we do?"
Another week passed, and Harry found himself glaring at the familiar stone wall, by now both memorized and absolutely loathed.
Slytherin's secret chamber password didn't work. (It was worth a try, right?)
Spells didn't work. (Not even… destructive ones.)
Scrying didn't work.
Going over, under, around, or through didn't work. Nor did asking, commanding, begging, or attempts at bribing. (Hermione had looked at him strangely that time, which he didn't get at all. It wasn't like they hadn't run into multitudes of other things that should have been inanimate, that later started talking, moving, or trying to kill him. This was Hogwarts. Walls pretended to be doors. Doors pretended to be walls. Stairways moved while suits of armor walked. It'd be weirder if the secret wasn't guarded by some sort of limited sentience.)
All that work. Months of it. The diadem was right there. And it might as well be on the moon.
He glared at stone in balked fury. It's like a puzzle with invisible pieces!
How's he supposed to solve it, when he can't even see its full shape?
Sighing, he ran his hand through his hair, then stepped back, regretfully conceding defeat. Again.
Maybe Ron or Hermione would have a new idea.
He certainly didn't.
Two weeks later, Hermione sighed as she slid onto the bench at Gryffindor table. She was early - food wouldn't be appearing on the tables for another twenty minutes - but she'd given up another attempt at searching the library in frustrated disgust. Whatever secrets were hidden on the seventh floor, they seemed to have remained stubbornly undocumented.
She tangled the fingers of one hand through her hair as she dropped her forehead down to rest on the other. It felt like she was failing. Harry was crazy ideas and stubborn willpower and both the best and worst luck in the world. Ron was wizard culture and obvious common sense that somehow managed to slip past her or Harry in their excitement. ("Are you a witch or aren't you?" rang through her memory.) She was supposed to be the research member of their triad. Book knowledge, magical theory, history – when the boys had a question, she found the answer.
But I can't find it now.
Even though both Harry and Ron had drastically improved their schoolwork this year, she knew they pursued it for what it gained them, not for the joy of learning itself. The Hat might have chosen Gryffindor for her in the end, but she was sure Ron had never even been considered for Ravenclaw. Harry might have, but she had her own suspicions about which secondary house fit him best.
And both of them still found her love of knowledge baffling at times.
She'd never told them – never would tell them – but love alone wasn't the reason she spent hours upon hours in the library nowadays, long after her homework was done.
Well, she amended ruefully, not love of knowledge, anyway.
Because Ron and Harry were brave, and quick, and smart enough – for boys, anyway. But they never looked before they leapt, never thought before they stood up for what they believed was right, never backed down, even when saner wizards would have fled long before.
Sacrifice yourself to a giant stone chessman – why not? Walk through fire to confront a professor intent upon theft – of course! Sojourn merrily into a forbidden forest at night to be nearly eaten by giant spiders; head into a hidden chamber to confront a legendary monster; plot to take down the most powerful dark wizard of the past century – why bother to hesitate? Or look for outside help?
Too often, her knowledge was all the failsafe they had. So she got perfect scores on her homework, and lived with the nightmares of failing. Of freezing. Of not knowing the answers, because she missed some little detail in a class lecture, or didn't read that one crucial book.
Because those wonderful, idiotic, impossible boys were hers. And by God, no monster, wizard, or forgotten magic was going to take them away.
She heard the scuffle of someone settling across the table, and she straightened up, opening her eyes. Then frowned. "Ron! Honestly? Dinner's starting in five minutes – how many of those have you had?"
Three-quarters of the way through opening another chocolate frog, blue eyes looked shiftily back at her. "Um, not many?"
She raised an eyebrow, then switched her stare over to Harry. Although given the smudge of chocolate near his mouth, he'd clearly been an all too willing conspirator. "You're going to ruin your appetite."
"Hah!" Harry's eyes twinkled. "As if anything could ruin Ron's appetite."
Package open, Ron ignored them both with lofty disdain, and bit the head off the chocolate frog.
She sighed. Idiotic, impossible boys.
"So, who'd you get?" asked Harry. His chocolate frog card collection was a great deal smaller and more sporadic than Ron's, but given the zany characters that the creators had decided were worthy of commemorating, reading them was usually an entertaining way to familiarize yourself with some of the more bizarre aspects of wizarding history.
Ron flipped the card over. "Huh. New one, I think. Carletta Pinkstone."
Hmm, she thought surprised. I don't know that one. "What did she do?"
Ron lifted the card, reading. "Let's see… born 1922; still alive today... Ah! Here it is. 'Famous campaigner for lifting the International Confederation of Wizards' Statute of Secrecy and telling Muggles that wizards exist.' Sounds like a real nutter."
"What?" Harry's eyes were wide. "She wants all muggles to know about magic?"
Hermione blinked, more than a little surprised herself. Given how xenophobic wizards and witches were…. "That can't have been a popular opinion."
Ron shuddered. "You got that right. Telling all the muggles. Can you imagine?"
A little offended for the muggles she knew, she arched an eyebrow. "I don't know – think of what we could accomplish collaboratively. And besides," she remembered a conversation from a few months ago, after coming back from winter holidays, "didn't we concur that muggles aren't a threat to wizards?"
"Well yeah," Ron shrugged. "So? Just 'cause they're not a threat doesn't mean we should be friends. We leave them alone, they leave us alone. We're both happy."
"He's got a point, Hermione," Harry put in. "When I first met Hagrid, he said that everyone would want wizards to use their magic to solve their problems."
Which, yes, that was probably true. But… "So?" she echoed back to them. "You use magic to solve your problems."
Ron shook his head. "But they're wizard problems! Not muggle ones."
Her amused good humor faded. There it was, again. She'd understand not wanting to help because they were afraid of exposure. Less nobly, but still understandable, not helping because there's only so many wizards to go around, and the muggle demands would be insupportable.
But not helping because they just didn't care? They're not wizards, so they're not the wizards' problem?
"So because they're muggles, they're not worth helping?" she challenged.
"I didn't say that!" Ron protested.
"Oh, I think you did." She just barely kept her tone from confrontational. "Maybe you didn't think of it like that, but that is what you said."
Harry looked a bit uncomfortable. "Come on, Hermione… I'm sure he didn't mean it the way you make it sound."
Maybe it was her frustration with not being able to find answers earlier in the library. Maybe it was aggravation at Ron's diminished but still present ability to open his mouth before thinking. Maybe she was just fed up with it all: every time she'd been called mudblood by arrogant purebloods she could outthink in her sleep, every unthinking assumption of superiority she heard touted in muggle studies, every time a wizard seemed to be certain that, just because they'd been lucky enough to be born with magic, it automatically made them better than some muggle, who might be twice as brave, or intelligent, or compassionate. As if the ability to turn a pillowcase into a teacup meant anything, compared with how someone lived their life – what they believed in and what they did with those beliefs.
"Muggles think." She said, flatly. "They love. They create and destroy; write, listen, and learn; laugh and hate and live and grieve and grow. And you think their problems aren't worthy of solving – the child dying of an incurable disease, the innocent man being tried for a crime he didn't commit, the family trapped in an earthquake or hiker lost in the wilderness – because they're not wizards."
Ron's mouth was open, but he was obviously lost for words. Harry looked like he was listening, but reticent.
"Oh, get off your high horse, Granger."
The words came from behind her, and she snapped her head around. "Smith," she acknowledged the Hufflepuff levelly. "This is a private conversation."
Every inch the arrogant ponce, Zacharias Smith sniffed haughtily from across the distance between the two house tables. "Then don't have it in a public place."
"Nobody asked you to contribute," she retorted, trying to tamp down on her temper before she said something she'd regret. "I don't butt in to your conversations. Why don't you return the favor?"
"Hmph. I should have known. Just like a muggleborn: so eager to pontificate, but along comes someone who knows better and contradicts their view, and all they can do is sulk."
Ron went red. Harry's eyes went cold. And she-
Why that little, unmitigated bastard!
Well. She was good and truly furious.
She spun on her seat to face the Hufflepuff table. "Honestly, Smith? That's the best you can do? Not "just like you, Granger" but "just like a muggleborn"? As if we're all the same?"
"You are all the same, Granger. You might not want to concede it, but that doesn't change the facts. Muggleborns just don't want to admit that maybe we're justified in keeping away from muggles, because then you'd have to acknowledge that your family is of inferior stock."
Some of the other faces at the Hufflepuff table were disapproving of what Smith was saying, but some of them… weren't.
She was almost speechless with anger, and he took the opportunity to conclude: "It's not your fault they're flawed, of course. And muggles certainly don't deserve to be hurt for the failings they were born with, and can never change." His voice would be almost kind, if not for the overpowering thread of condescension. "But the sooner you accept that maybe you don't have all the answers - that maybe we're separated for a reason - the better off you'll be."
He… really believes that.
It was a different kind of magical bigotry than she was used to. Smith… he didn't seem to look down on muggleborns. He didn't want muggles subjugated. But he took it as given, that they were lesser, because they couldn't wave a stick around.
"What's the reason, then? Why not help? Look at muggles here in the U.K. now – near universal literacy, a high standard of living, free health care, free basic education – wizards don't do better with any of that. And if wizards had always cared, maybe we'd have achieved this centuries ago."
"You seem to forget the last time we tried to live together with muggles," Smith said. "Merlin and Morgan le Fay? Merlin was betrayed by the very muggles he befriended, in the end. And Morgana! Queen of Avalon, one of the most powerful healers to ever walk British soil, but the muggles remember her as an evil, incestuous witch who brought about the downfall of their righteous king."
For a moment, listening to him, his reasoning made perfect sense. Except-
"That was almost two thousand years ago!" She protested. "Honestly, you're still holding a grudge?"
He sneered. "They've done nothing to prove they've gotten more tolerant since. Witch burnings, remember? Racial prejudice, sexual prejudice – you name a way for muggles to indulge in unthinking hatred, and they'll be doing it far and wide. Nothing different is accepted. Tolerated at most – until the day something goes wrong, or someone needs something to blame, and then the mob is at the door."
He had a point. She hated to admit it, but she couldn't refute everything he said. But at the same time, his perspective was so unbalanced. Muggle society was still changing, still evolving, but even in the course of her parents' lifetime, there had been positive change. Slavery was long outlawed. Diversity was beginning to be embraced. Gender equality was rapidly catching up. Maybe the first female minister of magic was elected hundreds of years ago, but England had elected Margaret Thatcher in 1979. And wizards traded discrimination against skin color for discrimination against species; bigotry from the rich looking down on the poor for bigotry from purebloods looking down on muggles.
Muggles weren't better than wizards. Wizards weren't better than muggles. And if they had the same problems, then maybe they could share solutions. But as she started to point this out, a Hufflepuff prefect intervened.
"Right," the older student said, tucking brown hair back behind one ear. "That's enough out of both of you. If you want to debate this, do it later." Dryly, she added: "Preferably where you're not shouting back and forth between tables."
Hermione glanced around guiltily, and realized their argument had become a center of attention.
Still, if I stop now, I'm tacitly letting his points stand…
"Can I just respond to what he said? It won't take but a moment."
The prefect shook her head. "Uh huh. And then he'll want to respond to your response. After which you'll want to respond to his response to your response." She raised her eyebrows. "I think you see where I'm going with this. Nuh uh. Respond later. Privately."
The tone of voice said the prefect wouldn't be swayed. Furious, but knowing she could do nothing, Hermione turned back to the Gryffindor table.
To see Ron and Harry staring at her.
"What?" she snapped, stabbing at her broccoli with her fork.
The two exchanged glances. "Uh. Nothing."
Right, she thought sarcastically, but turned her attention back to thoroughly mutilating her vegetables.
She couldn't wait for this day to be over.
Harry glanced nervously at Hermione, noting that she was still hacking vegetables into bits. He looked sideways at Ron, who was also eyeing their friend warily. Which just proved that, no matter what some people thought, Gryffindors did notice danger when they were staring it in the face. "Hermione, what was that? I mean, I get being stressed, but that was…"
Out of character, to put it mildly. Hermione wasn't shy about her opinion, but she also wasn't usually the type to get into a loud argument in the middle of the great hall.
She shook her head. "Not now, Harry, okay? I'm just stressed over some of my research projects."
He frowned. Since I doubt the homework's been invented that could upset Hermione this much… He glanced at her again, noting the frustration in her brown eyes. One of our special projects. Has to be.
Which also explained why she didn't want to be discussing it here. He surreptitiously surveyed the rest of the table. Especially since half of Gryffindor is still listening.
Aimlessly, he cast for something else to talk about, looking for something that would be interesting enough to grab Hermione's attention. Finally, he settled on a thought that'd been vaguely bothering him since he first realized that – while he didn't trust the new defense teacher one bit – he nonetheless respected the bloke. Maybe even was distantly fond of him.
"You ever wonder why we still have a "Defense Against the Dark Arts" class?"
Ron choked on his half-eaten mouthful of potatoes. A few seconds of rather unpleasant sputtering later, and the redhead managed to speak. "Mate, why would you of all people ask that?"
He shook his head. "I'm not doubting that the knowledge is necessary. I'm just saying… look, how many Defense teachers has Hogwarts had over the past few years? It's got to be over forty – or near enough, yeah? They've had a new teacher every year since before my father started Hogwarts."
"Right," said Ron. "Everyone knows that the Defense position is cursed. Something bad always seems to happen to the professors."
"And curses are really dangerous," Harry continued. "I'm pretty sure several of the professors have been seriously injured. I don't know how much of Lockhart's fate was related to the curse – but Ron's wand blowing up at exactly the right time, when Lockhart chose a spell that would do the maximum amount of permanent damage if it backfired…"
Ron was looking a little disconcerted, possibly unsettled by the idea that his wand had been the unknowing implement of a malicious curse.
Hermione was looking far more lively and alert, though, and Harry gave himself a mental pat on the back when she bit her lip and looked considering. Ha. I knew it – give her an interesting intellectual problem and she can't help but get absorbed.
"It might have just been the power of the spell…" she offered. "Ron's wand had been periodically backfiring. Remember the slugs?"
Ron looked disgusted. "Hermione, I don't think I could ever forget the slugs." He gave a full body shudder.
Harry barely repressed his own. Vomiting up slugs. Ugh.
"The point," she emphasized, "is that we'd already seen the wand miscast before. It wasn't something new. The timing was… suspiciously good. But it still could have been a coincidence."
"Maybe," he admitted. "But none of that's my point, really. The fact is, defense instructors have died. Or been maimed. Mentally incapacitated. Suffered financial, personal, or political mishaps." He waved his hands. "The main reason we ended up with Lockhart in the first place is that no one competent wants the job. Who would? It's a death trap!"
At this, Neville – who had cautiously sat down only a few feet away from Hermione – spoke: "I don't think anyone could call Professor Aesalon incompetent."
Harry arched an eyebrow at that quietly offered yet extremely accurate point. But the follow up question – then what is he doing here? – was one that had been bothering him for months with no sign of resolution.
"He said his main trade is as a historian," he offered instead. "Hogwarts has a pretty awesome library, and it's not open to the general public. Maybe he's just teaching here to get access to the resources."
Neville nodded thoughtfully, and seemed to accept the explanation. He, Hermione, and Ron traded glances, but silently agreed to let that topic die.
"I don't see what all this has to do with why we have a Defense class?" Hermione asked instead, returning the conversation back to his starting point.
"Well, we all think anyone who accepts the job is a little bit crazy. Or has some serious incentive." Everyone nearby – friends and eavesdroppers alike – nodded. "But why does Hogwarts keep hiring them? I mean, employing someone they know is going to get hurt – maybe killed – because they accepted the offer, doesn't that seem kind of… malicious… to you?"
Ron looked thunderstruck. Several other Gryffindors looked uncertain. Neville looked surprisingly upset by the insinuation – glancing at where Professor Aesalon sat among his colleagues at their high table. Hermione…
Looked like she had found a new puzzle.
Whoops, he thought. I wanted to distract her, not give her something new to research!
But it was probably too late to avoid it, now.
He sighed, but didn't say anything. If Hermione had one flaw, it was her complete and total inability to let a question lie unanswered.
Come to think of it, he reflected, Ron and I probably haven't been that good an influence in that matter. Sure, academically, neither of us has a spot on her. But I'm not certain Hermione would have started doing things like lying to a professor in order to get a signed pass to the restricted section, if the two of us hadn't taken a somewhat… relaxed… approach to the letter of the rules.
And possibly the spirit, on occasion. Especially if it was Snape's spirit.
Although then again, she may have, he acknowledged. She might have been the most rule-abiding of us all, but she doesn't let anyone tell her what she's capable of learning.
Which was all sorts of handy sometimes.
The next day, he and Ron cornered her in their study spot.
"All right, Hermione," he said. "I ask again – what was last night all about?"
She sighed, and shook her head. "I'm sorry for losing my temper – although I don't really think anything I said was a lie." She looked directly at Ron. "I definitely shouldn't have snapped at you, though. I do know that you don't look down on muggles."
Ron looked a little uncomfortable. "Well, I still think the idea of letting them know about us is barmy. I don't think they could handle it." When storm clouds started to gather in her eyes, he continued hastily. "That doesn't mean I think less of muggles like your parents! They have to be intelligent if they raised you."
Harry smirked at that line as Ron, apparently entirely inadvertently, mollified the brewing danger.
"We have different problems, though." Ron continued. "Muggles have to regulate food production – we regulate new spell creations. Muggles regulate hunting of creatures; we raise wards so wizards aren't hunted. They don't know our stories: what's been tried, what failed, and why. Maybe if they had an answer we needed – you know, like a way to end hatred or some other big stuff like you talked about – it'd be worth it. But they haven't found a solution to that stuff either." He paused, and then continued with surprising insight: "I don't think they ever will, either. I mean, some of that stuff's just what being sentient is about, yeah?"
And the wording of that said a lot, Harry reflected. A muggle, he was sure, would have said that hate and love and other emotions, good or bad, was just part of what being human was about.
He shook aside the thought and looked at Hermione. "So what had your temper on a hair trigger?"
"I feel like I'm failing," she admitted. "I've spent days in the library looking for something about the seventh floor corridor. Literally days, I mean. I'm sure I've got over seventy two hours of research on it."
"And…?" he asked.
"And I can't find the answer!" she burst out. "I always find the answer. It's what I do. And now I can't." She took a deep breath. "And I don't think that will change on its own.
He ran some quick calculations. "We've got, what, two months 'til end of term?"
"More like one and a half. Probably one, really - I doubt we'll be very productive in the last week or two. We'll be busy with tests."
Ron shook his head. "Come on, you know we'll have the material down cold by then. I don't think they'll distract us that much. Well," the boy amended with a faintly teasing smile. "Maybe you. Tell me, have you already started reviewing?"
She sniffed in mock affront, then smiled, surprisingly sly: "Yes, and so have you, actually. Why did you think I was asking those questions about inanimate to inanimate transfiguration last quiz session?"
He snickered at Ron's faintly affronted mouth gape. You'd think Ron would learn.
Turning his attention back to the problem, he ran through what they'd done previously when stuck, but was unhappy with the answer. "I don't think the Bloody Baron would be any help, this time. He already gave us his best knowledge of the diadem, and that was wrong. Or the Hat, which flat out refused, whether it knows anything or not." He nodded to Hermione. "I'm sure Hermione's scoured the library. If the answer is at Hogwarts, I don't think it's in a book. So if the people alive at the time don't know, and no one alive now knows, and it wasn't written down anywhere we can get to…"
He trailed off, vainly hoping for the thunderbolt of inspiration to strike as it had occasionally before.
Hermione looked physically pained to have run into a problem she couldn't answer, that she didn't even know where to look to start finding an answer. Ron…
Hmmm… maybe someone else got the lightning strike instead.
"You're thinking of something," he said.
"Okay…" the red head said slowly. "Harry, hear me out here." Ron took a deep breath. "I think we should start a club."
Maybe seeing something in his face, Ron slammed his hand down. "Start a club, I said. And not another bloody choir!"
Harry glanced at Hermione, who was watching the two of them with rounded eyes.
"You know I've been interviewing a lot of people for the Immortality Project."
Harry acknowledged that, because yes, Ron really had been.
"I'm almost done, by the way. And I know I've said that before, but this time it's really true. I should be done by Friday." Ron paused, apparently having sidetracked himself, then shook his head and continued. "Anyway, the whole reason I did that was because you suggested the answer might be hidden anywhere, right? Some myth or bedtime story or legend that's been forgotten by most of the world. Some key piece of knowledge that the wizard or witch doesn't even think has any significance, something they've run across or their parents told them or they just read somewhere in passing."
"Yeah…" he said, beginning to get a feeling where Ron was going with this. And feeling disgruntled, because he suspected that meant the other boy was going to win.
I don't want to join a club. Or start one.
"Well?" Ron spread his hands wide. "Aren't we in exactly the same position here?"
He crossed his arms, feeling sulky. Slid his eyes toward Hermione. Saw agreement in them. Sighed and closed his eyes.
This must be done. And if no one else can do it…
Finally, he snorted, and opened his eyes. "Well, when you said we should join a club… I'm not sure a history club was what you originally had in mind."
Hermione looked intrigued. "Not exactly history. More like… knowledge. Maybe cover current event questions… Specific historical questions…"
"Questions that we just happen to have an interest in?" he asked wryly, although without any real objection. He'd thought it before: Hermione was surprisingly ruthless when it came to the acquisition of knowledge. "So we basically use them to hunt for information we can't find?"
"I wouldn't say using them…" she said, primly. "We're expanding their educational horizons. It's mutually beneficial. Just," she hesitated, possibly searching for more palatable wording, "maybe not equally so."
Ron shook his head, apparently impressed. "Step away from the dark side, Hermione…"
He was vaguely impressed himself. With both of them.
I choose awesome friends.
"So, scavenger hunt club?" he asked.
"Niffler hunt!" Hermione put in.
"I'm not sure how popular it'd be, though," Ron said. "I mean, except for with Ravenclaws."
True, Harry thought. But there are ways around that.
"We could have some sort of semi-build up competition," he suggested. "Theoretically, to see if there'd be enough interest from the student body. Announce we're asking, hmmm, three questions. And give a few galleons as a prize for the winning answer." He shrugged. "I've got more than enough left over, and this is definitely a worthy cause."
He sighed again, bidding sad farewell to his life of quiet isolation. It'd been a good year, without outside distractions. He'd gotten so much done.
"Sounds like we have a plan, then." A thought struck him, and he grinned. "I vote we make Ron the Niffler Club President."
And if there was just a bit of malice to his smile… who could blame him?
Friday had arrived, and Ron Weasley was ready.
"Wizards, witches, gentlebeings," he said, waving his arms in a grand gesture and carefully ignoring the funny looks Harry and Hermione were giving him, "I present unto thee the fruit of my labors, the flower of my most harrowing task… the Project!"
With that, he dropped his three notebooks in front of him on the table. They made an impressively solid whumping sound. Harry and Hermione looked at them, then returned to staring at him. Hermione had her eyebrow arched. Harry's head was tilted about twenty degrees to the left.
He pretended not to see it, treasuring the glow of satisfaction for a job finally – finally! – finished. Truthfully, he was proud of himself. Yeah, the secret to You-Know-Who's immortality was no laughing matter. And yes, he hadn't found out exactly what You-Know-Who did – that signed note had proved frustratingly elusive. Still. This was the largest, longest running project he'd ever completed.
Over eight months of effort. Questions asked of probably two-thirds of Hogwart's foreign-descended population, (and Merlin, had it been hard to come up with plausible excuses for his curiosity, sometimes!) Three notebooks.
Bloody right I'm proud.
Hermione leaned forward, eyes bright with curiosity. "You're done?"
He collapsed down into the cushions on his side of the table. "Well, no promises we find anything useful," he admitted. "But I asked everyone I could think of. And read all I could find." He paused, then added with a grimace, "Including some I kind of regret." He shuddered, recalling some of the… darker… textbooks that had no doubt just barely managed to avoid the restricted section. Probably because they'd been history texts, but still.
Ick. What's wrong with some wizards?
Harry was staring at the notebooks. Green eyes looked back up to meet his. "So why three? Just find that much?"
He shook his head. "Yes and no." He laid the stack out carefully in a horizontal row in front of him, and moved his hand over the farthest right. "Immortality is apparently not as simple as a bloke would think. I call them the Dead," he moved his hand to the middle, "the Undead," another shift, this time to the far left, "and the Undying."
"…the Dead, the Undead, and the Undying." Hermione repeated, deadpan. "That's how you categorized them?"
He shrugged. "Hey, I figure by separating them like that, we can get rid of two-thirds of 'em in one sweep." He hesitated, then shrugged and added: "If we know what category to put You-Know-Who in."
Harry looked surprised. "Obviously, the Undying."
Unfortunately, that had been exactly the same moment Hermione spoke. "Oh, honestly. Dead, of course."
Two heads swiveled to face each other.
Harry looked challenging. "He's wandering around a bodiless ghost. He's Undying. Does not die."
Hermione shot their friend a look Ron recognized all too well from quiz review sessions before tests. "He died, Harry. Everyone agrees about that. No more blood, no more breath. Therefore: Dead."
They both turned to look at him. "Ron," asked Harry, "how exactly did you define Dead?"
"And Undying?" Hermione added.
He looked back at them, feeling vindicated. "See!" he said, triumphant. "Not as simple as you'd think."
Harry sat, reflective, as Hermione finished reading the last page of the third notebook. When Ron had dropped his completed Project – and you could hear the capitals in the way the red-head said the word – on the table, he'd been eager to hear the results. Now he was… thinking.
Because he knew the next question they had to ask. And it was reminding him of things he normally didn't dwell on.
Hermione looked up from her notes. "So we have Undying for those you say literally cannot die – they're basically invincible. Eternally young. The true meaning of immortal."
Across from him, Ron nodded. "I don't think any of those are actually real," the wizardborn confessed. "Even with magic, there's no such thing as truly eternal life, not even phoenixes, and they're the closest wizards have ever come. Everything that's born, dies." The four words had the faintest hint of rhymed poetry to them, somewhat out of character from his friend. At his glance, Ron shrugged, notably embarrassed. "It's something we learn early – rules of magic so fundamental we get them from bedtime stories and spirit-tales."
Hermione looked interested, but continued. "Undead for things that died, then came back. Vampires." She frowned. "Sentient portraits?"
Ron shrugged. "Well, they come to life after the wizard painted in them dies. I thought about putting them in Dead, but they're not really the same as the wizard who died, you know? They don't technically fit in any of the categories. But you said be thorough, so I figured I might as well be thorough."
Hermione seemed caught between praising his diligence and critiquing his work. "I doubt the You-Know-Who that Harry fought in first year is just a magical construct," she finally settled on, fairly diplomatically. "Still, good thinking. And finally, Dead for things like ghosts. Things where the body has been destroyed, but - something - lives on without it."
He watched Ron nod, then gave voice to the disturbing thought that had first come to him when he listened to Ron explain his categories. "Was there a body?"
At the blank looks, he rolled his eyes. "Voldemort. When I was a baby. Everyone always says I killed him. We know it's not true, or at least not completely true. But I'd always assumed, you know, that there was a body. Otherwise all the celebration of his disappearance would have been a bit premature, right? So how do we know?" He looked between the two of them.
Hermione had been the one to say she'd read about him in books, after all. And Ron was wizardborn.
Ron looked unsure. "I… don't know. I mean, blimey, I'd think so. I don't think he just… transfigured… into a spirit/ghost/remnant thing."
"I'm inclined to agree with Ron," Hermione said, slowly. "Books speak of celebrations on the day after his defeat. Not a day a few weeks later when they decided he'd gone missing. But it's not like they announced what they did with the corpse – if there was one."
Ron snorted. "Are you joking? Of course not. The Ministry probably cremated, purified, warded, then vanished the ashes. No one wanted an inferius You-Know-Who - or his spirit - summoned back."
He absorbed the information quietly, going over the few things he did know about that night. "Well, we all agree his body was almost certainly killed. But I don't think 'almost certainly' is good enough." He met their gazes levelly. "For this, we need to be sure."
Ron knew him well. "So how do we find out?"
"Ask Dumbledore?" Hermione suggested.
He shook his head. "I don't want to bother him."
"Well, I don't know another way," she admitted.
He smiled grimly, remembering words spoken in a shack on a small island, by the first wizard he'd ever met. Stamped indelibly into his memory – just like everything else from that night; that wondrous, terrifying, amazing night, when he'd first learned of all the lies that threaded through his life.
Took yeh from the ruined house myself, on Dumbledore's orders. Brought yeh ter this lot.
Harry smiled as held the page up in front of him.
New Hogwarts Club!
The Niffler Hunt Club
Looking for a more exciting way to study? Have an obscure question you'd like to ask?
Want to earn some prize money?
We're running a competition to gauge student interest in our potential new club. Drop your best ideas to these questions into the box outside the great hall before the end of the month. Winning answers will get five galleons. Come up with a better one than we did, and you get ten!
1) What is the most useful spell ever invented and why?
2) Who knows Hogwarts Castle the best?
3) Who was the most influential wizard or witch of all time?
Competition ends the week before finals starts, so get your answers in early!
I had to split this chapter into two parts – possibly three, we'll see - because the length was approaching frankly ridiculous dimensions. Which means, alas, that last chapter's original teaser is still upcoming.
Canon Notes: J.K. Rowling actually has King Arthur and Merlin existing after the founding of Hogwarts. (Merlin, she says, was sorted into Slytherin.) This is patently impossible – the timelines do not add up. At all. There is no English King Arthur who fits the required time period, and there certainly wasn't one with a widely known wizard adviser, knights of the round table, or a kingdom named Camelot. I try to keep as close to canon as possible, but I'm going to chalk this one down to Rowling's infamous math skills, and ignore her revisionist dates for Arthurian history.
Other canon items of interest: According to the chocolate frog cards, Morgan le Fay (AKA Morgana) actually is noted as a skilled Healer, in addition to being "Queen of Avalon" and a dark witch. The first female minister for magic was Artemisia Lufkin, elected in 1798. Seamus and Lavender went to the Yule ball together in fourth year. Carletta Pinkstone really did campaign to abolish the statute of secrecy. Bundimuns are a magical creature that takes the form of greenish fungus with eyes, and an infestation of them can destroy a house as their secretions eat away the foundations. Finally, Hermione's third year boggart was McGonagall telling her she'd failed her test – I've always assumed this was actually symbolic for a greater fear.
Other Notes: It always kind of vaguely bothers me when people bash Fawkes indirectly. You know, like in all the indy!Harry stories where he starts calling the Order of the Phoenix the Order of the Flaming Chicken/Flamingo/insert-clever-insult here. I mean, you can dismiss the Order itself all you want, but Fawkes is a genuine badass. He retrieves a horcrux, blinds a basilisk, saves Harry's life, whisks Dumbledore anyway from Ministry aurors through Hogwarts's wards, and intercepts a killing curse. Also, his tail feathers find their match in Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter. He should get more appreciation.
From the dais, the Headmaster continued speaking, to all appearances oblivious to the whispered speculations filling the great hall. "Places are available for up to twelve students who wish to accompany our delegation to the northern school of Durmstrang. Requirements include parental permission, endorsement by at least two teachers, completed O.W.L.s, and success in the preparatory competitions that will be taking place at Hogwarts over the next two months."
Preparatory competitions? Harry echoed silently. Wonder what those will be?
"An impartial judge will make the final decision regarding which Hogwarts student is most worthy to compete for the Triwizard Cup, the glory of their school, and a thousand Galleons personal prize money." Excited whispering rose once again among the students. "But please note, this is not a decision to be made lightly. Students who elect to participate but are not chosen as the champion, will nevertheless be spending the entire year at Durmstrang. As this will be N.E.W.T. year for most candidates, you are advised to weigh your decision carefully.
"The first competition will be a test of your transfiguration skill, and will take place in two weeks. Additional details will be supplied beforehand. Now, the elves have prepared a delicious feast for us, so why don't we all dig in?"
Dumbledore had barely taken his seat when the hall erupted into loud conversations.