Forging the Sword:
Chapter 12: Don Your Scabbard

That Saturday afternoon, Harry made the trek to Hagrid's hut in silence, Ron and Hermione following behind.

Hagrid was still Hagrid – a mountain tall, with long tangles of bushy black hair and beard, and a touch of whiskey on his breath. His tea was strong enough to curdle Harry's tongue, his biscuits rock hard, and his honest enjoyment at seeing the three of them at his doorstep was unmistakable.

Here, Harry had to push down a touch of guilt. While he'd remembered to send Hagrid a Christmas gift, he'd barely seen the older man this year. And the only reason I'm here now is to interrogate him… Next year, I've got to remember to visit more often.

"Now then." Hagrid set down his offering of said rock cakes, then settled into his chair like an boulder coming to rest. The chair creaked under him, but otherwise seemed to bear its burden well. "What brings the three of yeh here? Harry, yer note said it were sommat important?"

"It is," he agreed, looking down at his tea as he played with the cup. "Hagrid, the day we met…" Harry looked back up. "You said you were the one who found me after my parents were killed. Does that mean you were the first one there?"

Hagrid abruptly sobered, looking older and sadder. "Yeah, Harry. Got yeh out just before the muggles started swarmin' around. Dumbledore was in some sort o' meetings a' the Ministry, but he had monitoring charms o' some type up at yer parent's place. Since I were still at Hogwarts a' the time, he'd left the alarms ter me. Lily an' James were dead, but it told me yeh were still alive. Well, I sent a message ter catch up ter Dumbledore whenever he got free, and took the floo ter the pub a' Godric's Hollow. You were a poor little thing with a great slash across your forehead... an' cryin' fit to break me heart."

Harry swallowed the sudden lump in his throat at Hagrid's description, and pushed on. "Was Voldemort… there? His body, I mean?"

Hagrid's eyebrows jumped up. "Gallopin' Gorgons, Harry. Why'd yeh want ter ask a question like that?"

"Voldemort's not dead," he replied defensively. "But you said yourself some people say he is. And Hermione said there were all sorts of celebrations and stuff on the day after it happened. So I just - why'd people assume he was gone that quick, if there wasn't a body?"

He glowered at the tabletop, uncomfortable with Hagrid's discomfited stare. It wasn't like this was just morbid curiosity. "It was my parents and me – I have a right to know what happened!"

"Easy, Harry." Hagrid sighed like a billows exhaling. "I'd no' say you were wrong. But it were a dark time, an' it's no' an easy tale ter tell." A pause, then Hagrid continued: "An' truth ter tell, I don't know what happened ter him that night. No one does. There'd bin some sort o' explosion, Harry. That entire side o' the house… it was jus' gone."

That… wasn't what he'd been hoping to hear. But- "If there was no sign of him, then how did people know so fast that something had changed?"

Hagrid's eyes were solemn. "Have yeh three covered the imperius curse yet?"

Imperius. The mind-control curse. He shuddered. "Yes." Not in an official Hogwarts class, mind, but they'd run across it early on in their studies. The idea that you could be made to do things like that – kill your family with your own wand, commit acts against your deepest beliefs and not even know… it was terrifying. A sort of creeping horror that took the very thought of trust and splintered it down the middle. Your best friend could be an assassin. Your boss at work. Your own mother.

God, taking a step outside your door would be an act of bravery itself.

"That night, when he disappeared, it broke on some people. The one's You-Know-Who had put under personally. And then on the ones those themselves had imperio'd on his order."

At his side, Hermione gave a small gasp. "Really important people?"

Hagrid nodded. "Some of them. They couldn't figure it out, a' firs'. What'd happened. People were in hysterics. Some who'd vanished – thought dead – were back. Some people no one had realized were cursed were breaking down. Aurors, Wizengamot members, the chief editor for the Prophet… Well. There was no hiding summat had happened. And since no one figured You-Know-Who had jus' let 'em go… Only one other explanation for the curses ter be lifted. And then, o' course, someone jus' couldn't keep his mouth shut when Dumbledore explained abou' you."

Hagrid of all people complaining about someone spilling secret information was unintentionally hilarious.

"So, you took me away from there?"

"Abou' the time I was carryin' yeh out o' the ruins, Dumbledore got a message ter me through Fawkes. Told me ter take yeh to a wizard friend o' his ter get checked out, where yeh could stay for the day while Dumbledore sorted things, then ter take yeh on ter yer aunt and uncle's place tomorrow night. I flew yeh ter the safehouse, then wen' back ter Hogwarts, and later flew yeh ter Privet Drive. An' that was the last I saw o' yeh, 'til I took yeh yer letter."

"Flew me?" He raised his eyebrows, imagining Hagrid crouched precariously on a desperately laboring broom, his toddler-self stuffed in one of the man's overlarge coat pockets. Considering that the first time they'd met, Harry'd seen Hagrid pull a live owl out of a pocket, it wasn't unlikely. Still, the idea of Hagrid scrunching himself onto a broom was somewhat hilarious.

Apparently picturing the same image, Ron grinned, then nudged him. "Explains why you're so good on a broom though, mate. Got your start early."

"On a broom?" Hagrid slapped his knee. The sound was rather like a small thunderclap. "Nah; I used Black's motorbike." Then he looked horrified.

Harry felt his attention come to a point. That was… a familiar kind of horrified. The one that said Hagrid had said something he didn't mean to. A glance at Ron and Hermione proved he wasn't the only one seeing it.

"Black?" he inquired idly.

"Ah. Bloke I knew," Hagrid said gruffly. "He had a flyin' motorbike."

Momentarily diverted, Harry grinned. "So that's where it comes from!" To Ron and Hermione, he explained: "It's a dream I've had several times. A flying motorbike." He looked back towards Hagrid with a smile. "It's always been a good dream."

Hagrid's face softened, and Harry almost felt guilty as he continued: "Maybe I could get this Black to show me it?"

"No!" Hagrid's voice was thick with alarm. "No, Harry. Black's, ah. He's no' around anymore. Sorry, Harry."

Harry took in the mulish stubbornness on Hagrid's face, and weighed the likelihood of getting more out of his friend. But the topic was apparently upsetting, and Hagrid looked uncomfortable but resolved, so he figured he'd let it go. For now.

They took the rest of the visit to catch up with Hagrid about what had been happening in the past year. Hagrid told them a little about some of the creatures he'd encountered in the forest, while he, Ron, and Hermione took turns talking about schoolwork and the professors. By the time they left, the sky was starting to turn dark.

Hiking back up to the castle, he considered what they'd learned. "Well, that wasn't quite as helpful as I'd hoped it'd be. Whether Voldemort just got exploded or what, I don't think there's any way for us to tell. But any idea what that bit with Black was about?"

Hermione shook her head, but Ron frowned. "I know there's an old pureblood family named Black," he said slowly, "but that's about it. I don't think there's a lot of them around anymore? Pretty sure I've never met one."

"Huh." Harry trudged a few more steps in thought, watching the ground as gathering shadows made the path tricky in dusk's light. "Hagrid seemed really alarmed to have brought him up, but I don't know why. Think it's worth looking in to?"

"I'm not sure we could find anything with just a family name." Hermione sounded dubious. "And that's assuming that this Black belongs to the pureblood Black family. Besides, it might not actually have anything to do with us."

Ron shook his head. "Hagrid was upset for a reason. Like, 'whoops-I-accidentally-mentioned-Nicholas-Flamel' level of upset."

"But it could be a lot of things, including something personal to Hagrid. A broken friendship, maybe. An unpaid debt. An argument from the pub." When Harry stared at her skeptically, she rolled her eyes. "Honestly, not everything in our lives is a conspiracy."

No, just half of it, Harry thought. But it was true that they had more than enough on their plates as it was, so he shoved the mystery to the back of his mind as they entered the portcullis and headed for the great hall for dinner.

Hermione sighed as the stands around her erupted loudly into yet another chanting cheer. ("Gryffindor, you're red and gold; Gryffindor, you break the mold-") Honestly, the things she did for her friends.

"Did you see that, Hermione?" Ron turned his head to look at her, face flushed, grinning from excitement at Gryffindor's most recent score. "If Harry catches the snitch now, we'll beat Slytherin for the cup!"

She smiled back wryly – impossible not to, in the face of his forthright enthusiasm – then slid her eyes back to the field. Abstractly, she could almost understand the appeal. There was a tremendous energy in the air, as practically every Hogwarts student turned out to watch the last match of the school year. The weather was decent again, and chasers danced in intricate, dizzying patterns through a crystal blue sky as Bludgers cracked against beater bats, and seekers circled and swooped above. It was a toss-up which was more amusing: Lee Jordan's commentary, or McGonagall's frustrated and largely ineffectual attempts to ride herd on him.

Still, I think I'll keep my feet firmly on the ground, thank you very much.

Safety charms and stabilizing charms aside, she never felt quite safe on a broom, with no handholds other than the broom itself, and nothing but miles of open air around her and hard ground below to break falls by breaking bones. Used to glass windows and seatbelts – and her mother's derogatory opinion on the intelligence of riding motorcycles that could leave one smeared across the asphalt in case of an accident – and brooms just felt far too wobbly and uncertain for her muggleborn sensibilities.

Plus, she admitted to herself, I think Neville's broken arm the first time I saw a broom being used probably left a lasting impression.

If she had to give up her free Sunday afternoon, though, at least watching the Gryffindor-Ravenclaw match wasn't the worst use of her time. As long as the match didn't last for seven hours like the Hufflepuff-Ravenclaw one had.

The first time Ron had explained that some professional Quidditch matches could last for months before the snitch was caught, she'd been sure she was hearing things. Thankfully, Hogwarts' class schedules prohibited such from occurring.

Because Harry would be all for continuing the game until it was caught, and Ron would be right there with him. And so would their team captain, from the stories Harry's told about Wood.

Quidditch fanatics, the lot of them.

She glanced down at the book she'd brought, just in case. She'd struck a deal with Ron and Harry long ago: she'd come to the quidditch games, and she'd even watch. But after two hours, she was allowed to read in peace.

Although 'in peace' usually actually translated to 'until someone scored' or 'one of the seekers started diving' or 'Wood blocked a shot' or 'Slytherin pulled a nasty foul' or- hmm.

Well, for a certain measure of peace, anyway, she amended ruefully.

She checked the time, then fingered the edge of her book again. She thought she remembered a reference to a scandal about the Black family in it, and she'd been trying to track it down. Because while she might have told Harry that not everything was about him – and she believed it, too – she wasn't foolish enough to discount what the past few years had taught her about secrets in the wizarding world.

They're everywhere. And they're dangerous. Especially when purebloods are involved.

She smiled grimly, feeling the cool resolve she'd developed over the past week – since that debate with Smith in the Great Hall – strengthen. And it never hurts to be well informed.

Harry watched as Aesalon strode to the front of the class, all contained grace and smooth intelligence. The man had remained an excellent defense professor – and a friendly one, in his own, aloofly professorial way. But Harry'd never quite gotten over the feeling that their defense professor was watching him, (and his friends), just a shade more intently than he did others in their class.

"In this final month of defense," Aesalon began, "we start our last unit of new material. As you may recall, in the beginning of our classes together I stated that we would conclude the year with a comparatively brief module on category five creatures. Such creatures – sometimes more sensationally known as 'wizard killers' – are impossible to train or domesticate. They are also comparatively rare. Please remember that, despite their lethality, most of you are unlikely to ever see one of these creatures unless you take on a career specialty will bring you into contact with them."

That would be a lot more reassuring, Harry reflected, if I hadn't already encountered two different species of them on my own.

And for all that the basilisk had come closer to killing him than anything else on this Earth had, that nighttime chase through the Forbidden Forest by a bunch of voracious acromantulas was a recurring special in his occasional nightmares.

Aragog could talk to us. He had a conversation with us. And he still was okay with having us eaten. Even with a year of safety and stone walls separating him from the incident, he could still feel the edges of that paralyzing, slowly mounting terror.

It'd been like talking to a sociopathic cannibal. One with too many eyes and legs.

And Hagrid calls it friend?

Hagrid hadn't been guilty of Myrtle's death. And he hated that Voldemort had been the one responsible for framing and expelling Harry's monster-loving friend. But releasing that creature into the forest to protect it?

Maybe, just maybe, it was fair Hagrid was expelled.

(Because what else can you do with a student who deliberately helps a monster with a taste for human flesh escape?)

"Nonetheless," Aesalon continued from up front, and Harry pulled away from his train of thought with a touch of guilty relief. "It is important to have at least a basic awareness of the fundamental dangers and habitats of such creatures. To that end, I will be dividing the section on category five creatures into two subdivisions. In the first, we will be covering creatures perilous but straightforward, including dragons, lethifolds, manticores, basilisks, nundus, acromantulas, chimeras, and quintapeds. In the second," he paused, and dark eyes swept the classroom, "we will be discussing the more controversial issues of dementors and werewolves."

A slight rustle went through the classroom as students shifted or glanced at one another. Harry raised an eyebrow in surprise.

Magical creatures hadn't been one of his, Ron, and Hermione's areas for extra advanced study, partly because they were just lower on priority, but mostly because both Aesalon and Kettleburn seemed to be covering them quite competently. What he knew about werewolves was probably – truthfully – muggle influenced. And all he really knew about dementors was that they were supposed to guard the wizarding prison of Azkaban. But from that small susurrus that'd rippled through the classroom…

This should be interesting.

The last gasp of winter faded as several weeks of studying went by, and Harry learned to turn a book into a rabbit in transfiguration, learned how to create a Confusing Concoction in potions, and learned, again, how utterly grateful he was that Hermione's time-turner gave him extra hours to nap. Now, flopped out along the grass by the Black Lake's shore, Harry luxuriated in the early spring day, warming charms making up the difference for Scotland's still anemic sunlight. Final exams started soon, and only two weeks total 'til end of term. He was already dreading returning to the Dursleys.

Wind skimmed across the lake to ruffle his hair, and he stretched, holding it for a long moment before he sighed, relaxing back onto the soft meadow ground. Eyes closed, he could hear the rustle of papers as Hermione sorted through the various scraps that had been dropped into the Niffler Club suggestion box. Ron was off working on basic occlumency exercises in the peaceful isolation they required, though he'd had said he'd be joining them when he could. "Anything awesome so far?"

"A spell to enhance sexual gratification. And endurance."

He choked and felt his face go red, as he heard the words placidly come from his female friend's mouth. "Hermione!" After a second of vainly wishing he'd heard anything else, he warily cracked an eye open, staring up at Hermione where she sat perched on the edge of a rock. "You're joking."

She raised a lofty eyebrow. "Not in the least."

"Someone actually put that down?"

"Oh, Harry. This suggestion box has been educational in so many ways. You have no idea."

He shuddered. "And I really don't want to."

Okay, so maybe he was a bit morbidly curious. But there was no way in hell he'd admit it in front of Hermione, who was both a girl and a lofty almost-year older than him.

Besides, I bet Ron and I can snag them and go over them together later…

"Anyway," he said pointedly, "I was more referring to the Hogwarts castle question. Although I'm glad you're finding… useful spells… from the other one."

She smirked. "I suspect some of them just wanted to anonymously scandalize the uppity-mudblood girl."

There was far too much dark glee in Hermione's voice for him to say anything about her using the word mudblood to apply to herself. Something had changed a little, since the confrontation with Smith almost a month ago. She'd started with simmering fury, then melancholy, then frustration. He was pretty sure there'd been a letter or two to her parents in there, too. But for the last week or two, she'd seemed… settled.

Not exactly like she was at peace with the prejudice, because that implied a level of acceptance with stupidity that Hermione would flat out not brook. But like… she didn't take it personally anymore. Water was wet, shit stank, and pure blood bigots were morons. So she'd take an umbrella, avoid the stables, and twist their little, limited minds into frothing fits of fury by shattering every expectation and assumption of superiority they made.

It was awesome. Also, vaguely terrifying. And he was kind of embarrassed, because he'd always known Hermione had untapped potential, but this was a level of badass he hadn't expected. In its own, mostly rule-abiding, book-loving way.

"So?" he prodded instead.

"Suggestions so far include: Dumbledore. Ghosts. Various professors. The founders. Binns, specifically and with surprising regularity – I guess because he's both a ghost and a history professor. House-Elves. The portraits. The writer of Hogwarts, A History. Hogwarts, A History itself. And something called Blibbering Humdingers – I have no idea what those are."

He was nodding along as she went, most of the suggestions already considered. "Wait, go back. House-Elves? Like Dobby?" A pause. "Blibbering Humdingers?"

"No. Idea."

"Right." Which either meant it was a solid lead… or someone was just messing with them.

Who am I kidding? The way our luck runs? Of course someone's messing with us.

"Well, you can always ask, ah…"

"Luna Lovegood. It's a memorable name."

"Yes. Well, you can always ask Luna Lovegood about them. Let's go back to the house-elves. I didn't know Hogwarts even had them."

She pursed her lips a little, looking displeased. "Neither did I. Hogwarts, A History doesn't mention them, which seems like a rather glaring oversight."

"I'm not sure how exactly knowing about them helps, though?" he questioned. "I mean, we've been here for three years, and we've never even seen one of them, so it's not like we can just walk up to one and start talking." He frowned. "I guess we could ask one of the professors about them…?"

"I've read that the mark of a good house-elf is that they're never seen." Hermione tapped the feathered edge of the quill against her lips. "I'm not sure the professors would say anything. They'd obviously want to know why we were asking."

And that wasn't a discussion Harry felt comfortable having with any of them.

Especially since we don't even know if it'd be worth it. I get that house-elves are apparently magically-bound servants, but how much about Hogwarts' secrets would they really know?

"Who would know the most about house-elves?" he asked instead. Hermione thought he was paranoid enough as it was.

"Hagrid?" Hermione suggested. "A book in the library? A student whose family employs one?" Something seemed to cross her mind. "House-Elves themselves?"

He blinked at the last one. That was… a marvelously simply answer. "You're brilliant."

"I am, in point of fact," she agreed easily. Then she tilted her head, and narrowed her eyes at him. "What are you thinking?"

He grinned. "That I know just the house-elf to ask."

I wonder how long it'll take Hedwig to get a letter to Dobby?

Harry sighed, staring at the familiar stone gargoyle guarding entrance to the headmaster's office.

He'd done it properly, this time. Instead of asking Professor McGonagall for the password, he'd sent Hedwig to Professor Dumbledore with a note, asking to speak to the Hat again. And promising, this time, not to kick Dumbledore out of his own office.

Well, that wasn't how I worded it. But the meaning was hopefully clear.

If Dumbledore had been surprised to receive the request by owl, he certainly hadn't shown any sign of it, instead promptly inviting him up for a chat right before dinner.

Which means I better get up there, or I'll make him late to the meal.

Not exactly an amazingly good idea, when it came to your school's headmaster.

"Ice Mice," Harry told the statue, then ascended the stairs after it moved aside.

"Harry," Dumbledore greeted warmly, blue eyes twinkling with good cheer. "I was quite pleased to get your note entreating access to the Sorting Hat once more. Dare I inquire if this will be a regular request?"

He shifted, feeling uncomfortable under the scrutiny considering what he was contemplating, and stared at Dumbledore's desk rather than meet his eyes. A marked up article held pride of place in the center, where it fairly bled red ink. And seemed to be from Transfiguration Today, if he was reading his upside-down journal titles correctly. Was the man still stuck grading homework papers?

Well, journal submissions. Which, from what Hermione said, was basically the grown-up version of homework for researchers, anyway.

"The Hat gives good advice," he offered tentatively. "And it said I could come back?"

Somehow, that last part had turned into the question instead of the statement he'd intended.

"Indeed it did," Dumbledore replied, "and indeed it does. The Sorting Hat has a long and noble history of advising the school in times of trouble. That it chooses to advise you as well is to your credit."

Harry felt somewhat awkward at the praise. "I think I just amuse it, sometimes," he admitted. He looked to where it sat. "May I?"

"Go right ahead." One white, bushy eyebrow lifted. "If you're not too uncomfortable, of course."

He smiled a little, and shook his head. "It's fine." He walked to the Hat, picking it up with one hand and raising it above him. Before the brim obscured his vision of the grandfatherly wizard whose office he was inhabiting, he added ruefully: "It's all in my head, after all."

Then he dropped the Hat, and let the rest of the world fade away as he concentrated. Because he had a sneaking suspicion-


There it was. He could feel the Hat.

You return once more, the Hat said. And oh. Interesting. Yes, quite interesting indeed. You're using me as a test?

You knew I felt something last time, he thought back towards it, remembering that strange flicker in his mind. That was before I even knew what occlumency really was. But then when I read that book of Percy's…

Because those exercises and tenants had been about knowing yourself. Controlling your temper. Mapping the edges of your moods and thoughts and magic; the cartography of your being.

And Harry'd started working on such almost a year ago, when he sat in a deserted muggle park at midnight, and wrestled magic with raw willpower. Had worked on it even harder, after that fight with Ron. And every time he balanced, every time he calmed and centered and prepared for a difficult magical task or conversation: from divination to his elaborate transfigurations, from his deliberate emotional disengagement with McGonagall to his newest ability to spark fire with forceful concentration…

When he'd realized that cheering charms and confundus charms slipped away too quickly, and then recalled how he'd felt the magic of the Hat in his head last time he visited…

It'd been so hard not to hope. But he figured there was maybe one way he could test what'd he barely dared to propose even to himself.

Yes, the Hat said, cutting across his train of thought. You have indeed been developing the basis of occlumency from long before you ever picked up the book.

A riot of emotion swept through him: triumph and relief, and a touch of worry paired with satisfaction, as he carefully shaped and presented his request to the magical artifact on his head.

You want me to be your safety net? The Hat's mental voice was incredulous.

So he thought on the reasons, fast as he could switch from one to the next, secure in the knowledge he didn't have to vocalize and format for the enchanted object that paired with him as he moved through his thoughts. How deciding that the benefits outweighed the risks didn't mean he'd forgotten there were risks, how he worried even more for Ron and Hermione, if no one at all knew what the three of them were up to. The Hat had just confirmed that he was further along than his friends – if something was to start going wrong, chances were it would happen to him first...

It doesn't necessarily work like that, the Hat interrupted. I've been sorting minds from near the beginning of this school; I've seen thousands of them. This is all in your head, as you so aptly observed. And their occlumency is all in theirs.

It was an unexpected blow to a barely burgeoning hope.

I wouldn't worry too much about them, the Hat advised. Neither of your friends seem the type to repress things they don't want to deal with. Your ginger is too bluntly straightforward; your brunette too self-aware.

He quirked an eyebrow. You're referring to them by hair color now?

I am a Hat.

He wasn't quite sure what that had to do with anything?

It's a hat thing, the Sorting Hat replied. You wouldn't understand.

And now he was wondering about whether different hair colors mattered to the headgear that was covering them. Argh. Did the Hat play deliberately (crazy) inscrutable on purpose?

Well, I believe it's time you let me get back to my composing, and you down to dinner.

Wait, he thought, even as he obediently moved to lift it off, do you?

Just remember, young Gryffindor, the Hat said, apparently ignoring his query, my observation was that your friends don't seem the type to repress things.

That was… a somewhat chilling comment.

Which he would address right after he got his answer. But do you?


And just as he'd been able to feel it this time when the Hat flowed into his mind, he felt it when it melted away again. It might still be on his head, but it wasn't in his head anymore.


Right, he thought sullenly as he lifted it back to his perch. It definitely does that on purpose.

"Finished, Harry?"

He started, having forgotten about Dumbledore's presence. "What?" He blinked a few times, refocusing on the here and now. "Oh, right. Yes. Thanks, professor."

"Then perhaps you'll escort an old man down to dinner?" Dumbledore stood, neatly capping his inkwell and laying aside his quill. "I hear the house-elves have outdone themselves with their roast tonight. And you can tell me what you think of the prospect of the Fifth Principal Exception to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration having been too hastily declared."

He stared for a moment, then decided to just go with it. It's not like he'd ever understood what went through the headmaster's mind. "Sure."

Bowing, Dumbledore gestured towards the door, and Harry preceded him out of the office.

As Defense Against the Dark Arts slowly filled, Harry noted an air of suppressed tension in the room.

"Dementors," Professor Aesalon said mildly. The classroom fell silent. "They are dark and fearsome creatures, and of their origins and physiology we know little. In regard to them, we have more questions than answers, so today I will not be revealing to you great truths. Rather, I'll be educating you better on what questions you should ask, when relevant matters of policy are raised."

Harry glanced around. Every student was listening intently. Last weeks' lecture on werewolves had been interesting, but there was a hushed weight to the air today.

"I will begin with what we do know." Their professor announced calmly. "First, dementors are not, strictly, actually classified as beasts. Nor are they beings. The best categorization we have for them is "non-being" – a set of creatures that cannot die, as they do not live. Like the boggarts and poltergeists we studied earlier this semester, dementors are not born, do not age, and do not exhibit the biological processes common to living creatures. They do not have cells, they do not breathe, and they have no blood. Their population grows or shrinks without visible cause and by inscrutable means. They are creatures that exist only through the existence of magic; creatures that in many ways are of magic, and in fact, without magic, they cannot even be seen. Remember that they cannot be eradicated by any means we have so far discovered, for this is a key point when we consider the question of how to deal with them."

The professor swept a piercing glance over them, then continued. "In appearance, dementors are flying, cloaked creatures, roughly humanoid in shape and three meters high, who alter the very atmosphere around them negatively with their presence. They are blind, but have some sort of ability or mechanism to sense their favored prey, which is humans. They feed on human happiness and hope, and to be near them is to be devoid of those things. Those Kissed by a dementor are left empty shells, bereft of their soul."

Wait. They steal souls? That's… he grimaced. So very wrong. And they can't be killed? Then how do you fight them?

As if sensing his question, the professor continued. "There are obviously ways to defend against them, else news of dementor attacks would be far more common. The most successful is the Patronus Charm; an ancient, enormously complicated spell that conjures a magical guardian formed of your positive emotions. If you are caught in the open, the Patronus Charm is your best – and possibly only – chance, as it will drive dementors away."

And what, Harry thought, if you don't know this 'enormously complicated' spell?

"There are also several other defenses that can be deployed," Aesalon expanded, "because while dementors are amortal, they are still solid. They cannot phase through physical barriers, so a well-fortified home – or castle," he added, with a gesture to the surrounding walls, "is impervious to them. Similarly, spells of concussive force hitting them will knock them back. The spell will not, however, actually harm the dementor, so such are a temporary measure at best. Dementors cannot be transfigured, set on fire, or drowned."

Right, so see them and run like hell to the nearest building, Harry concluded. At least until we get old enough to learn this Patronus Charm.

Professor Aesalon paused for a moment. "Any questions so far?"

Dean's hand went up. "How smart are they?"

"We don't know," their professor replied plainly. "They have at the very least a rudimentary intelligence, as they can be negotiated with. They recognize individuals, and are capable of undertaking the duties required to be guards of Azkaban, which includes escorting dangerous arrestees during trials, bringing prisoners their meals, and burying any who die whilst serving their sentence. They do not appear to have any written language, nor any spoken one. How they communicate with each other, how they come to consensus or decisions- we do not know."

This time, it was Hermione who raised her hand. "If dementors harm by their very presence, what about the prisoners they guard?"

Aesalon nodded to her. "And now, we come to the controversy." He looked back out over the classroom. "I have heard the accusation that Azkaban, run by our own ministry, where prisoners are forced to suffer the dementors unceasingly, is a barbaric and inhumane institution. That it ruins good wizards and witches who might have only made mistakes. That for many of the inmates, rehabilitation efforts would have been every bit as effective, and far more morally sound. That the estimated five percent of the population in Azkaban that scholars believe are falsely convicted, are put into an unceasing nightmare of torment for no righteous cause and no evil to their name." He paused for moment. "This is all true."

Harry blinked, surprised. Is he allowed to say that?

"But we have to ask: is this better than the other option?"

"The other option?" Hermione sounded outraged, and Harry wasn't surprised. Hermione believed very strongly in rules, yes. But correspondingly, she believed that rules had to be fair, and clear, and justly applied. "Like what?"

Professor Aesalon looked surprised to be asked. "Dementors stay at Azkaban for the convenience of easy access to free meals, Miss Granger. For safety from the Patronus Charm, and the promise of occasional souls to devour. If we did not provide these souls and emotions, the dementors would seek them on their own. If a portion of our population must suffer their presence, is it fair that the portion which must do so is those who have inflicted harm upon society? Some say that by their sacrifice, they make good their debt."

Watching their professor, Harry hummed in thought. Interesting wording, there. Some say so, huh? I wonder if you do?

"Morale dichotomies are usually false," the cool rejoinder came from the Slytherin side of the room. Surprised, Harry looked over. Theodore Nott was generally the quiet, loner type. It was unusual for him to speak up in class. "You present two options: feed them criminals, or feed them innocents."

"Couldn't we seal them away?" Parvati shrugged at the looks she got. "You said they couldn't pass through solid objects."

"But they don't die," Dean said. "So- if they got free sometime in the future, well they're not exactly going to go back to just hanging around Azkaban, right?"

Hermione shook her head. "A future risk that might not happen versus a harm that's definitely happening right now?"

Pansy sneered. "And what if that 'future risk' is the soul of your infant daughter? You'd be a little more concerned then, Granger."

He winced, slightly. Uh oh, looks like Hermione's getting ready to verbally eviscerate her. Which would be awesome to see, but in front of a professor might not be the best place. "Are we doing research?" he asked to the classroom at large, heading off the possible explosion. "I mean, do they have a dementor they're experimenting on, or a researcher assigned to maybe coming up with a spell that would get rid of them?"

Draco's haughty expression would have done his father proud. "And I suppose you think the rest of them will just sit around while we try that, do you?"

Lavender was frowning, somewhat thoughtfully. "It seems cruel." She tucked a strand of hair back behind her ear, and glanced down, then back up again. "Don't you think? You said they have some amount of intelligence... it's not their fault they feed off emotions, just like it's not our fault we eat beef or chicken. It's one thing to kill them to defend ourselves, but to wall them away while they starve forever, or experiment on one 'til we find a way to kill it…"

"You've obviously never been near one," Millicent Bulstrode was magnificent in her disdain, "if you can feel even a knut of pity for those monsters."

"Not all of us have had reason to visit a criminal," Seamus said, coming to Lavender's defense. "And maybe not having met one just means we're not biased."

Bulstrode's voice was vicious: "If by 'not biased' you mean ignorant, you-"

"Enough." Professor Aesalon's voice cut through the rising tension. He gave a moment for everyone to compose themselves, then spoke again. "As I said: there is a significant amount of controversy involved in the topic of dementors. Supporters for the status quo come from all spectrums, from those like Miss Brown who worry about the ethics of genocide on what is acknowledged as at least a semi-sentient species, to those who recognize the sheer horror of Azkaban prison, but believe its cruelty a good thing which acts as an extra deterrent to those considering committing a crime. This is an issue which does not necessarily have a 'right' answer, but rather only answers you can live with for yourselves." His voice turned brisk: "Your homework for the day is to write an essay on dementors, explaining your ideal solution to the issue, and expounding on what difficulties must be overcome to implement your resolution. There is no minimum or maximum length; rather the essay should be long enough to answer the question clearly and with an implementable level of detail. Please spend the remaining time before class ends working on your outline. I will be available for questions."

Discussion clearly ended, Harry frowned down at his parchment. It seemed like everyone had a point. Starving them forever was cruel, feeding them was cruel in a different way. You couldn't transfigure them into something more harmless, and they were impossible to kill.

And we're supposed to come up with a solution?

He dropped his head down on his desk, already feeling the developing headache.

I think Professor Aesalon likes to see us suffer.

That weekend Harry was pouring over his transfiguration notes in a quiet nook in the castle's upper terraces. Tests started Monday and he was pretty sure he was ready, but he wanted to be positive. Like hell was he getting anything less than an O from McGonagall.

"Harry Potter, sir!"

He started, quill streaking jaggedly across half of his carefully written notes, hard enough to tear through the first layer. He whipped his head around, trying to get his heart back under control. Enormous, green, perfectly round eyes stared back at him from a small face with a pencil shaped nose and bat-like ears.


"It is Dobby, it is!" Dobby's voice was still as squeaky and high pitched as he remembered, and the house-elf fairly vibrated with excitement where he stood. "Harry Potter, sir, sent Dobby a letter. Dobby is so happy. Dobby has come to help!"

The bolt of sheer terror those words sent through him was perhaps uncharitable. It was also, he thought, rather justified.

"Ah. You have?" he said weakly.

"Dobby has! Dobby will answer Harry Potter's questions about house-elves!"

Still stunned from Dobby's sudden appearance, it took Harry a moment to switch gears. He'd kind of expected a reply by letter, but maybe he shouldn't have been surprised. It wasn't like Dobby hadn't gotten into Hogwarts on his own before. (He ignored the faint twinge in his arm.)

Okay. Right. He refocused. The diadem. "I'm… glad to see you again too, Dobby." When the house-elf's expression turned ecstatic, he continued on hastily: "Thanks for coming to help. Um, so is it likely that the house-elves who work at Hogwarts would know all the secret rooms and passages and stuff?"

Dobby nodded so hard that his ears flopped back and forth. "House-elves know all about our charges, sir. House-Elves would know!"

That was a rather stronger confirmation than he'd expected, but if Dobby was sure… "Any idea how to contact one?"

Dobby quivered in place. "Harry Potter asks Dobby for help. Dobby will get one!" Then he disappeared with a pop.

Left staring blankly at the space Dobby had vacated, Harry sighed. Of course.

Then, quicker than he expected, Dobby was back, this time with company. The other house-elf was dressed neatly in a pressed tea towel, one stamped with the Hogwarts crest and tied into a toga. The newcomer bowed. "I is Bandy, sir. Sir has a question?"

"Ah, yes." He took a moment to formulate his thoughts. "There's a place, on the seventh floor. It's somewhere near the staircase up to the eighth floor. On one side of it there's a wall near a tapestry of Barnabus the Barmy. Another side of it is by an empty classroom with desks. Another side of it is near a portrait of what's usually four women having a garden party-" he broke off, because Bandy was nodding fervently. "You know it?"

"I does, sir. You is talking about the Come and Go room."

That's… an intriguing title. "The Come and Go room?"

"It is a most amazing room, sir," Bandy replied, seeming happy to be able to answer a wizard's questions. "Sometimes it is there, and sometimes it is not, but when it is there, it always has exactly what you need!"

He caught on quickly. "So, if I needed a place to hide something away I didn't want to be found…"

Bandy looked down, looking… embarrassed? "House-elves use it to store items, sir." After a moment of what looked like struggle, Bandy burst out with: "Oh sir! It is not a fitting place for you! It is not neat and lovely! House-Elves did not know a wizard would want to see!"

"Whoa, whoa." He raised his hands, trying to calm the house-elf down. "It's okay. I promise I won't mind if it's a little messy."

When that still didn't seem to ease Bandy's distress, he added: "I prefer it this way, really."

Huge eyes peered back at him with doubt. "Sir does?"

"I do," he said firmly. And he wasn't even lying. The more disorganized and unused by wizards the place was, the better the chance that the diadem was hidden there. "So do I have to do anything special to get in? A password?"

"Sir would think of his need three times, as sir walked in front of the blank wall across from Barnabus sir's tapestry. Then the room would come."

"All right," he said, faintly dizzy with exhilaration. There'd been so many leaps of excitement since they first started looking for the diadem, and so many matching setbacks. To think this might be the last one…

"Thank you," he said, looking directly at Bandy.

Bandy squeaked and blushed. "I is most happy to help a great wizard like Harry Potter, sir!"

He smiled at the small house-elf. "Still, thank you." He paused, a thought coming to him. "If I have more questions, could I ask you?"

Bandy beamed, and nodded. "I is always happy to help sir! If sir calls for Bandy, Bandy will come!" Then the house-elf disappeared as suddenly as he'd arrived.

Staring at the empty space, Harry shook his head. Hermione swears no apparition is possible within Hogwarts, so it can't be that…

Smiling, he turned back to the remaining house-elf. "Dobby, thank you too. You've been an amazing help."

Dobby swayed a little in apparent pleasure, and grinned back at him happily. "Dobby is happy to help Harry Potter. Dobby will help anytime!"

"Thanks," he said, again, for lack of something better. Then, curious: "So, what have you been doing since last year?"

"Dobby has traveled the country for a whole year, sir, trying to find work!" Dobby squeaked. "But Dobby hasn't found work, sir, because Dobby wants paying now!"

Harry frowned. "Not from anyone?" He couldn't imagine Dobby was asking for that much money. It was kind of surprising he hadn't had even a single taker in an entire year of looking.

Dobby shook his head. "Most wizards doesn't want a house-elf who wants paying. 'That's not the point of a house-elf,' they says, and they slammed the door in Dobby's face! Dobby likes work, but he wants to wear clothes and he wants to be paid. Harry Potter.…Dobby likes being free!"

"I'm glad you do," Harry replied, although he felt a smidgeon of guilt. He looked carefully at Dobby, but the elf looked much as he always had, small, somewhat spindly, with huge eyes and a marked inability to stand still. If the elf was starving for lack of work, Harry couldn't see it.

But I don't know much of anything about house-elves, he worried. Would I know if something was wrong?

He thought about asking directly, but looked again at Dobby, who was so happy and proud to be free. To be his own person, responsible only to and for himself. Would the elf admit it if he was hungry?

Did I?

"Look," he said, mind scrambling rapidly. "I was thinking. Maybe you could work for me as a sort of… part-time… thing? I mean, I don't have a house for you to look after or anything-" he stopped because Dobby's eyes were overflowing with tears.

"Harry Potter, sir, wants Dobby to work for him!" The elf was practically bouncing in place. "Dobby will be the best worker Harry Potter has ever has. Dobby will take care of everything!"

"Hey, hey. Wait a sec," he said, alarmed. Dobby stilled a little, but the house-elf's tennis-ball sized eyes were locked unwaveringly on Harry's. "I'm not sure how much you can do. I mean, I'd be glad to have your help, but remember that I live with my muggle relatives. If you do magic there…"

Dobby suddenly looked deeply ashamed. "Oh, Dobby is a bad, bad, house-elf! Dobby deliberately got Harry Potter sir in trouble! Dobby should have trusted Harry Potter's great wizard powers instead!"

The house-elf twitched, and Harry seized his small hands before the house-elf could start hitting himself. "It's okay!" he said. "You are not a bad house-elf. You're a good house-elf, all right? You were trying to save me." Then, thinking he'd best expand on that: "Just, you know, don't do anything like it again."

"Dobby won't." Dobby gave a small sniffle. "Dobby promises."

"So, you can't do my chores for me. But maybe I could pay you to, I don't know, run my errands, maybe? Buy food or new books or stuff?"

Actually, the more Harry thought of it, the more thrilled he was with the situation. I'll be able to adapt my study and plans as needed, instead of trying to make sure I have every single thing I need before the summer starts…

"Dobby can do that, yes. Dobby does not even need paying-"

"I'm definitely paying you," he interrupted, firmly. "How much do you want?" He had no idea how much money you typically paid a servant in the wizarding world. "Name a figure."

Dobby looked vaguely distressed. "Dobby will take a galleon a month. And," he continued tentatively, "a day off every two months?"

A galleon? he thought, incredulous. "Isn't that a little low? And you can do whatever you want, when you're not running errands. You could take a week off, if needed."

Dobby shook his head, vigorously. "Oh no, sir. Dobby likes freedom, but he isn't wanting too much, sir, he likes work better."

"Agreed then…" Harry said, slowly. "But you can renegotiate any time, alright? I promise I won't get mad." Then, remembering how little Dobby would actually have to do around Privet Drive, tacked on: "If you want to look elsewhere additionally, for more work, that's okay, too."

"Dobby is so happy, so very happy-" And then, as if the house-elf could no longer restrain himself, Dobby lunged forward, colliding hard into his midriff, hugging him so tightly he thought his ribs would break.

When Dobby let go, Harry manfully resisted rubbing his aching torso. "That's it then, I guess. I'll see you at Privet Drive? And my relatives won't?" he added meaningfully.

Dobby smiled, a touch of something sly in his eyes. It was a familiar slyness. A slyness that usually resulted, however inadvertently, in Harry's pain. "Good house-elves is not being seen, Harry Potter. And Harry Potter says Dobby is a good elf."

Then like Bandy before him, he pop'd away.

Dazed, euphoric, and feeling vaguely bewildered, Harry had only one thought:

What did I just get myself into?

When Harry came tearing into the common room and snagged her and Ron in the middle of their study session, almost bodily hauling them back out - barely giving her time to pack up her notes! - Hermione had to admit she'd almost snapped his head off.

Does he have any idea how much work I still have to do?

Her study times were blocked out to the fifteen-minute increments. Time sleeping, eating, and showering were all ruthlessly budgeted. She'd been contemplating recently whether she could justify cutting her sleep time down to five hours a night instead of five and a half.

And he drags me off in the middle of review for potions?

Not that Ron and Harry were academic slouches, anymore. But she thought sometimes they didn't really realize what it meant, that she was taking three extra classes. As the school term wrapped up for the year, she was definitely feeling the strain.

Honestly, she'd have much rather dropped Divination by now. Possibly muggle studies, too. She'd do better to learn from a book – or Harry – than that fraudulent excuse for a divination professor they were saddled with. Meanwhile, muggle studies had been a year-long education in what kind of daft ideas and unthinking assumptions wizards – even those interested in muggle culture – could come up with.

And I can't just do decently, she thought worriedly. Because the professors wouldn't look at a student who took every single class Hogwarts offered, and did decently, and think 'well done.' No, they'd look at her previous record compared to her new one, and think 'poor dear must have taken on too much – look how her grades dipped. She used to get all Os.'

And then, of course, would be the gentle offer to reduce the course-load.

But if I attend fewer classes, I don't have any justifiable need for the time-turner. They'll take it away.

She couldn't let that happen. Not yet, anyway.

The time-turner wasn't a miracle. It didn't solve all their problems. But it helped. In the face of what the three of them were trying to do, they had to hang onto every advantage they could get, no matter how much work it was.

The temporary sacrifice is worth it, she admonished herself again. I just have to get through this last week.

God, the second she got off the Hogwarts Express, she was sleeping for a week. Then reading something just for herself. Just for fun. Something in no way related to evil wizards, academic subjects, or magical governance.

"All right, Harry," she said, once she judged them far enough away from the busier areas of the school corridors for it to be safe to talk. "What's going on?"

She recognized the route he was taking them, of course. After the past few months spent haunting the area, how could she not recognize the familiar route up to the seventh floor? But it was Ron who made the obvious leap quicker than her. (She blamed sleep deprivation.) "You find something out?" Ron's voice raised in excitement, "Did Dobby reply?"

Harry was grinning like all his birthdays had come at once, practically bouncing as he walked. "Dobby showed up. Just appeared while I was in the middle of reviewing." Green eyes slid a teasing glance her way. "I'd swear he apparated…"

I am not going to rise to the bait. I am not going to rise to the bait-

"Thought you couldn't?" Ron asked, sounding interested.

"For heaven's sake, Ron!" It just slipped out, so she continued: "I've told you before. Hogwarts, A History says apparation is impossible on school grounds!"

Harry shrugged. "Well, Dobby does something that lets him appear and disappear from place to place. All the house-elves apparently do. One moment there, the next pop."

It was kind of distantly interesting, but she was too tired to be truly curious.

"What'd he tell you?" she asked instead.

"It's called the Come and Go room." They tackled the stairs at speed, Harry's excitement spreading, and Harry continued talking in snatches as exertion made breath scarce. "House-Elves use it to store stuff. It's only there when you call it into being - apparently it can be anything. A lot of people find it, use it once, then go on, never realizing there was anything special about it."

"It's odd, though." Ron commented. "'Cause blimey, you'd think in a thousand years and forty times that many students, that at least one person wandered by thinking 'I wish I knew where Rowena Ravenclaw's diadem is' or some such."

"Well," Harry replied, "you have to think of what you want to see three times in a row. That probably helped prevent stray passing thoughts from triggering it."

"The number three's magical properties are well known." She put in. "I'm half surprised you don't have to do it seven times. But creating anything the user imagines… I wonder how they do it? Some form of conjuration is obviously involved." The prospect was fascinating. A magical room that was created from nothing, into whatever the summoner desired?

I wonder what sort of limits it has. If I imagined a vast desert, how big could it be? Space, like time, was a far more flexible concept for wizards than muggles, but there still seemed to be some limits on how much you could - fold? Make?

Could I create a place where there's no gravity? No sound? Where water ran uphill? Could it accurately create somewhere I've never seen but know only of by reputation?

Even fatigue-fogged and overworked, the idea was interesting enough to spark the curiosity she'd have sworn she was too worn out to feel.

They arrived at the stretch of blank wall just opposite Barnabus's tapestry. There, between the window on the far end, and the man sized-vase they stood beside, Harry began to pace, face screwed up in concentration.

"Harry!" Ron called excitedly as a highly polished door had appeared. Eagerly, Harry seized the knob, and flung it wide. The three of them crowded around the doorway, peering inside.

She couldn't help gaping, awed by what she was seeing.

Beyond lay a room the size of a large cathedral. High windows sent shafts of light down upon what looked like a city with towering walls, built of what must be objects stashed or hidden by generations of Hogwarts inhabitants. There were alleyways and roads bordered by teetering piles of broken and damaged furniture, probably hidden there by the house-elves Harry'd mentioned. There were untold thousands of books, and she felt an atavistic shiver of glee at the prospect of exploring them. She frowned at the chipped bottles of congealed potions – dangerous, that – and frowned equally at the corked, filled, bottles whose contents still shimmered. Hats, jewels, cloaks, robes, and all manner of cloth lay scattered, crumpled, or flung about. Several dinged, broken, or bloodstained weapons (and that someone had thought it necessary to hide away a bloodstained weapon said ominous things about the purpose to which it had probably been used) lay in various states of rust and ruin.

"Merlin's balls."

"Ron!" she reproved. Though truth be told, she agreed with the sentiment.

But his blunt exclamation had freed them from their moment of frozen awe.

"Right," said Harry. "Probably best not to stand around out here where anyone could walk by…" And leading the way, he entered the room.

When the door closed behind them, she looked around, still dazed at the sheer volume of illicit wonders surrounding her. Finding something specific in here would be like finding a needle in a haystack. And given that this involves magic, and probably the fruits of ill deeds or simple rulebreaking, she reflected, it's a haystack potentially mined with explosives.

"Now what?" asked Ron.

"Now," Harry began, reaching into his bag for a canteen and familiar bowl, "I try scrying one more time."

After the past few months, all of them were exquisitely familiar with the process. When Harry rose to his feet, face half dreamy-distant, half ferocious-concentration, she and Ron followed him silently.

Harry led the way as they passed by wonders, horrors (it looked like several things had died in here), and the simply bizarre. They walked by an enormous stuffed troll – and trolls had not gotten any prettier since the one almost killed her in first year – then turned left at what might be an armoire. Harry finally came to a pause by one small furniture-mountain, halting near an acid-damaged cupboard, a large rolled up carpet – possibly flying? – that leaned on it, a wig and several other beauty implements, and a crate with a bust of an ugly warlock sitting on top. She spotted the tarnished tiara – wedged half under the wig and besides a small pile of tattered quills – even before Harry reached for it.

It looks just like the model the Baron helped us make, part of her observed distantly.

Which had been the point. But it was still such a moment of disbelief, to see the real thing looking almost exactly similar, albeit tarnished with age and lack of care.

The three of them clustered round, staring at the comparatively small object sitting placidly in Harry's hands.

"I can't believe we did it," Harry admitted.

Ron crowed with triumph and Hermione felt her lips stretch into a grin. "You were the one convinced we could do it in the first place!" she rebutted, amazed at his audacity.

"Well, yes," Harry said, wryly. "But still, isn't this a little crazy? A millennia of looking, and we're the first ones to find it? It only took us a year."

"Forget about that, mate." Ron was grinning. "Let's see what it can do! Put it on."

Harry looked back down on it. "Hermione, did you ever find any instructions for this thing?"

She rolled her eyes. "It's a lost masterwork, not Zonkos merchandise with an instruction manual."

He looked down thoughtfully, and started to raise it to his head, then paused, lowered it, and abruptly held it out to her. "You worked just as much at this as I did, doing all the research. And Ron and I have noticed how hard you've been working these past few months. You keep up with classes and still find time to help us with whatever catches our attention- so here. You can try it first."

She swallowed hard, throat aching as she bit back sudden tears. That had been- one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to her.

"You sure?" she asked, glancing from Harry, to Ron, then back to Harry.

Ron shrugged, looking fine with it, and Harry smiled, gently pressing it into her hands. "Go for it, Hermione," he said. "Besides, you're much more in line with the Ravenclaw house values of studying and pure love of learning and all that rot. Maybe it will work best for you."

"I would remind you both that you're straight-O students as well," she rejoined absently, attention all on the priceless, ancient, magical artifact in her hands.

Then slowly - curious, cautious, and barely breathing - she set it gently on her head.

She wasn't expecting the voice.

When Hermione started, expression morphing into shock, Harry felt a flash of horrified alarm. "Hermione!"

But her expression had already calmed again, and she signaled for silence. She tilted her head, for all the world looking like she was listening to something.

Harry exchanged glances with Ron.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but this isn't it. "Hermione?" he prodded again, cautiously.

"It's odd..." she trailed off, obviously concentrating on something that neither he nor Ron could see. "Hmmm."

"What does 'hmmm' mean?" Ron burst out indignantly. Harry wasn't feeling far behind him.

Absently, Hermione replied. "It's talking to me." Her eyes fluttered closed. "It asked me what I needed help solving – says it's designed to be a magical aide to the thinking process. It'll enhance my own abilities, as well as work as a consultable receptacle of all the knowledge I, and any other users – now or ever – impart." Her eyes flew open, brown sparkling with glee. "This is brilliant. It must have interacted directly like this with Rowena Ravenclaw. My God, can you imagine the things it can tell us?"

He grinned at her sheer enthusiasm. After his repeated chats with the other intelligent, articulate, piece of founder's headgear, the idea of a circlet that talked in your mind – and gave advice – wasn't all that strange.

Please don't let it have the same personality as the Sorting Hat, though.

"Can I try?" Ron asked.

Hermione pouted, looking reluctant to hand over such an incredible object so soon. But Ron's puppy-dog eyes were surprisingly effective, so she half-heartedly handed it over.

Ron dropped it on his head with about half the caution Hermione had used, and twice the enthusiasm.

Harry watched several expressions pass over his friend's face, guessing Ron and the diadem were going through introductions. After a minute or so of silence, (while Hermione watched with impatience, looking like she might attempt to snatch the circlet back at any moment), Ron smiled, somewhat sheepishly. "I told it I wasn't the best at studying, but it says not to worry." Then he grew more excited. "Also, the more we wear it, the better it will be able to help us. If we wear it for several hours a day, whenever we study-"

The prospect captured the imagination.

Hermione was fairly humming with eagerness. Ron was obviously thrilled. "All right, you two," Harry told them both. "My turn." Hermione's expression fell and Ron sighed, then unenthusiastically passed it back.

He pondered it for a moment, then set it on his head, wondering how it'd feel to his budding occlumency. Would it be like the Hat?

Something slithered into his mind.

Hello. How may I assist-

He ripped the circlet off his head, shaking, as he hurled it away. It hit the floor with a clatter, bouncing as it skidded, before it came to rest at the foot of a dented shield and half of a broken bookcase.

Ron and Hermione were staring at him, shocked.

"I recognize that voice," he said, his own voice trembling.

"Whoah, mate." Ron stepped towards him carefully, even as Hermione's eyes darted between the diadem and Harry himself. "What do you mean?"

"It's his voice," he bit out, feeling violated. He'd had it in his mind.

They stared at him, uncomprehending.

"Voldemort's," he hissed.

Ron paled, and Hermione looked horrified. "My God," she said again. This time it sounded of terrified dread.

Neither of them did anything inane like asking if he was sure. He'd had far more interaction with that monster than either of them.

Then Hermione gasped, and clutched at his robe sleeve. "Talking." She said, rapidly. "Seducing. Trying to get us to wear it longer." In almost a whisper: "The diary."

Harry got what she was saying immediately. There was only one diary in their lives. Fury and nausea swirled in such a dizzying combination, he felt light-headed.

Ron, already pale, went first sheet white, then red with fury. "How many of these bloody things did he make?"

It was an appalling question. That they didn't know the answer was even worse.

"We need to destroy it." Ron bit out. "Now."

Hermione looked conflicted. "Destroy the diadem?"

He had to admit he understood how that felt. All that work-

We were so proud, he thought bitterly. A mystery of the centuries, and we – three third years – had solved it.

God. He thought of his earlier feeling of pride and felt sick.

Voldemort had gotten there before them. And true to form, had ruined everything he touched.

"Ron's right," he said, voice dead. "It's necessary."

"The diary was You-Know-Who's," she said, tentatively. "It was completely his creation. But Ravenclaw's diadem is older than whatever curse You-Know-Who put on it to create this magic-sucking construct. If we can destroy the evil magic without destroying the diadem..."

"He killed Ginny." Ron snarled. "Something exactly like that, killed Ginny. And you'd risk it killing again?"

She swallowed hard enough for Harry to see, but responded. "All the reasons we originally looked for the diadem are still valid. We're still decades behind You-Know-Who in knowledge and experience. We still need something to help us bridge that gap."

Ron's voice was poisonous with fury. "Like that's what you care about, right now? Don't pretend." Blue eyes were dark, murderous. "You were so eager to get your hands on the diadem, so happy. 'It must have interacted directly like this with Rowena Ravenclaw,'" he mimicked in savage falsetto.

"Ron," Harry said, warningly, because that was a little too far.

Brown eyes grew faintly watery, but Hermione lifted her chin with stubborn pride. "We were all excited," she said with careful dignity. "And if you're trying to ignore how eager you were as well-"

"That was then," Ron blazed back, voice like a cutting curse. "When we thought it was harmless." He gave a bitter laugh. "You-Know-Who booby-trapped this, and you still think we can somehow win?"

It looked like this might get ugly (it was already ugly) so Harry pulled magic into his voice, and projected-

"Stop." It echoed out, humming with the magic he'd gathered.

Both turned to look at him, Hermione teary-eyed, Ron's lips pressed thin in anger.

"Ron," he said, addressing his angry friend first. "Do you know how to destroy it?"

At that, Ron paused. "Diffindo?" he offered, suddenly uncertain. "Incendio?"

Softly, Hermione pointed out: "It probably has protection charms on it. I doubt something on the level of the general dispel would work."

Harry had to agree. Finite Incantatum was fine for a basic, all-purpose, dispelling charm for active jinxes or charms. He doubted it was up to dealing with protections formulated by Voldemort. And that was just assuming – unlikely – that Rowena hadn't imbued it with protections of her own.

"You remember what happened to the classroom when we were testing fire protections," Ron protested, referring to the incident earlier that year. His tone was already much less aggressive. "If Harry put his all into it-"

As much as Harry hated to disappoint Ron, he was already shaking his head. "I broke a protection we ourselves had created," he reminded Ron. "I think Voldemort probably did better than several third years."

"So we take it to Dumbledore!" Ron shouted.

"And explain how we found it how?" Harry shook his head again, sharply. "I want it destroyed," he said, flatly. "If we can't do it ourselves… yes. I'd take it to Dumbledore. But we do that, and we will never have the diadem."

Ron's face had crumpled, slightly. "It killed Ginny," he repeated again, sounding helpless.

"And it will be destroyed," Harry swore. "But we can't forget: it's not the only thing we need to destroy." Then, recalling his favored summer reading about Dark Lords patterns, he had a nasty thought. "Ginny was once," he said, breaking the silence that had fallen. "This is twice." He looked at the two of them, serious. "If this is a favorite tactic of his, we need to learn how to deal with it. Now. Before we run into it one day, in the middle of a disaster, when we have no time to figure it out."

At that, Ron closed his eyes, looking defeated. A silence of several minutes endured. When Ron opened his eyes again, they were tortured but steady.

Harry let out a slow, careful exhale. Thank God, he thought. That could have gone so much worse.

In all sorts of ways.

"What's the first step in destroying a curse?" he asked wizardborn and bookworm. "Can it even be done? I mean, with our level of training."

Ron's voice was gravelly, but focused. "There's a reason Gringott's hires professional curse-breakers." The ginger 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. Harry 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 away, so it takes two of us to open it up."

There would be no reiteration of Ginny. Not again.

And once they learned how to break this-

Not ever.

After the shattering revelations of the weekend, tests for Harry passed in a blurry daze. Certain moments stood out with greater, crystal clarity – Flitwick's breath turning white as Harry's glacius charm froze the air; harvesting puffapods, the large, pink, seedpods overflowing in Hermione's cupped hands; watching his tortoise, previously a teapot, slowly crawl away in transfiguration – but most of the week seemed oddly distant and unimportant.

It was a very good thing he'd known all his subjects backwards and forwards, and hadn't needed any last minute cramming. Otherwise, his marks would surely have suffered.

But even after acknowledging that fact, he still felt somewhat removed.

Drained, he realized, leaning against the wall as he waited for Ron and Hermione to arrive. I feel drained.

The year had been a roller-coaster, and the high note that he'd expected to end it on had turned into a nightmarish drop instead.

Well, at least I know what I'll be studying this summer, he thought grimly.

Wandless magic. Occlumency.

And curse-breaking.

The last was a priority all three of them shared. Bill, he rather suspected, was going to be surprised by his younger brother's sudden ardent interest in his career.

Harry's eyes caught on a neatly robed figure who was staring out one of the windows looking down into the courtyard. Cocking his head, he took in Professor Aesalon's distant gaze.

Curiosity ate at him. He'd expected something spectacular or painful to happen to the man by now. That the older wizard had managed to avoid the defense curse so far was interesting.

He considered approaching and asking about it. And why not?

He quieted his mind, then slowly drifted toward the man, coming to a stop at a respectful distance. "Professor?"

Aesalon turned toward him without hurry and nodded in acknowledgement. "Mr. Potter."

Harry shifted on his feet. The impulse to approach the man had been only half thought out, but it was rather too late to turn and walk away now. "I guess I was wrong then, sir."

And I'm kind of wondering why.

Aesalon cocked his head, and his eyes sharpened. "Oh? About what?"

"That you wouldn't be here next year."

"Ah." Aesalon turned back, looking out the window once more. "I'm afraid I must tell you that you were, in fact, correct. I will not be returning to teach defense next year."

He rocked back on his heels, surprised. And somewhat disappointed. For all that Aesalon had been a little odd, he'd also been a pretty brilliant professor, if a demanding one.

And he, at least, hasn't tried to hurt or kill me in any capacity. So far.

"Is it because of the defense curse?" he ventured.

"Perhaps," Aesalon said, vaguely. "Such things work in mysterious ways. Let me just say that I wasn't surprised to have my plans changed."

Well that was clear as mud.

But whatever the real story behind Aesalon's departure, Harry had a feeling he wouldn't be getting it.

"Why the questions?" his professor – ex-professor? – asked.

"I'm interested in curse-breaking," he admitted, figuring that was a safe enough answer. "And the defense curse is, well, pretty relevant to us here at Hogwarts, you know?" He shrugged.

"Particularly given who is theorized to have caused it, I imagine," Aesalon murmured.


"You don't know?" Aesalon raised an eyebrow. "It's all speculation, of course. But it's fairly widespread and accepted speculation, among those interested in such fields." Dark eyes drifted to his scar, then out over the castle. "There aren't many wizards powerful enough to stalemate Albus Dumbledore even once. Much less for years."

Voldemort, then, he thought darkly. Has to be.

The evil wizard had more than enough malice, too. Although he must have felt particularly strongly about the issue, to have birthed an old magic of such strength and lasting malevolence.

"I took this job for several reasons," Aesalon said, drawing him from his thoughts. "One of them – a small one – was curiosity about you."

He could pretend coyness, but what was the point?

"We'd guessed," he'd admitted.

Aesalon didn't question the plural. "Yes, your Miss Granger and Mister Weasley promise to be a formidable pair. Remarkable loyalty." A few seconds pause, and the older wizard sighed. "Titus Peters is a friend of mine."

The way Aesalon said that, the name should mean something to him. Harry was, however, absolutely drawing a blank.

A small smile quirked one corner of the professor's lips. "He led the auror squad who was here last year."

Oh. Oh. Aesalon's words brought the memory of the man back to mind. Salt and pepper hair, gruff, and an impressively commanding presence, but also quietly sympathetic when they'd found Ginny's body, and surprisingly protective. They probably hadn't shared more than a few hundred words and a half hour, but the captain had left a good impression.

"He talked about me?" Harry asked.

"Some," Aesalon said. "Nothing gossipy, or extensive. But it was enough to make me accept this assignment rather than another."

Harry scowled slightly, looking down at the ground. He wasn't sure how he felt about the fact that Peters had been talking about him. I guess I should be used to it by now.

That didn't mean he had to like it. But at least, from what Aesalon said, the auror captain had been fairly restrained.

"Your friends have arrived," the professor said. Harry looked back up from the ground, turning to see Ron and Hermione walking down the hall.

"I should go, then," he said, and waved to catch their attention. Ron waved back and Hermione smiled, and they both changed bearings to head toward him. "Thank you for teaching us this year, professor. You were very good."

"It was a pleasure," the man said, simply. "Have an enjoyable summer, Mr. Potter."

Enjoyable wasn't likely, what with heading towards the Dursleys. "You too," he muttered back, then took off for his friends.

It wasn't until he was climbing aboard the train that he realized there'd been something odd about that last exchange with Professor Aesalon. At the time, he'd been distracted first by his discomfort over being gossiped over, then by the appearance of his friends.

Assignment? He wondered. Funny way to talk about a job offer.

But exams were over and Hermione and Ron were loudly debating the relative merits of starting an Exploding Snap game as soon as the three of them grabbed a compartment, so he shrugged, smiled, and focused on enjoying the last day he'd have with his friends until Hogwarts started once more.

Hours later, Harry sighed as he watched his pro-offered knight be ritually slaughtered, wincing when the black queen stomped on said knight's face with one delicately slippered heel. Helm or no helm, that had to hurt.

Ron's chess set was disturbingly violent sometimes.

Across from where he and Ron had set up their game, Hermione snuffled in her sleep from her sprawl over the other booth seat. The girl had only stayed awake through a few games of Snap before her eyelids were drooping. By now she'd been snoozing for the better part of two hours.

Exams must have tired her out even more than we thought.

Ron followed his gaze to land on their sleeping friend. "You ever find it amusing that everyone's convinced Hermione's just a nice, polite, girl we drag along on our crazy adventures while she tries to restrain us?"

He raised an eyebrow. "As opposed to an enthusiastic enabler always willing to help us in our search, and who set fire to a professor in her first year here? And started a brawl with another girl in her second, just to create an opportunity to snatch a hair from her for illegal polyjuice use?"

Honestly, the wonder was that Hermione hadn't been the one put in Slytherin.

"Exactly," Ron said, sliding his bishop several spaces.

He shrugged. "It is pretty impressive, isn't it?" He contemplated their sleeping friend. "She always follows the rules in class. I guess that means people assume she always follows the rules everywhere."

"More fool them, then."

He leaned back, staring at the board as he tried to figure out the significance of Ron's latest move. "Agreed."

Privet Drive was… Privet Drive. His aunt and uncle were unhappy to see him return, and happiest when he wasn't seen at all. Dudley continued to flee at the slightest hint that Harry might be casting magic – really, the pathological fear of magic his aunt and uncle had managed to instill in the boy was as extensive as it was uninformed – and Harry did his level best to spend as little time around his family as possible.

It seemed the best solution for all involved. And if the first few weeks of the school break didn't exactly speed by, well, he'd had worse summers.

And at least this time I'm getting letters…

He glanced down at the most recent news from Ron, skimming back over the contents. Amidst words about daily life, ("Mum's super proud: Percy got like five hundred N.E.W.T.S…"), information squeezed out of his brother regarding curse-breaking, ("Bill says he'll be visiting and I can ask him all my questions then,"), and response to Harry's latest query, ("I don't think my parents would let me accept a broom from you if you sent it by owl, maybe best hold on to it until we get back to Hogwarts-") had been bubbling excitement over the chance to attend the 422nd Quidditch World Cup.

Harry's breath caught as a pang of sheer want coursed through him.

There'd be wizards and witches from all over the world attending. Ireland had flattened Peru in the semi-finals, so they'd be matching up against Bulgaria, who had Victor Krum – widely regarded as the finest up and coming seeker in the entire sport. Even Hermione would be going.

He kicked his foot against the desk, feeling sulky. It's not fair.

"Harry Potter is sad?"

At Dobby's words, Harry looked over. Hiring the house-elf, part time, had been the best idea he'd ever had. Even within the restrictions of avoiding notice and use of magic, Dobby was surprisingly handy to have around. And was someone to talk to, occasionally, even if the house-elf wasn't exactly the best conversationalist. "A little, I guess." He sighed. "I really want to go to the World Cup. But my aunt and uncle would have a cow." He frowned. "A full grown one with mad cow disease."

Dobby scowled a little. Dobby, Harry had come to realize, did not approve of Harry's family at all. "Dobby thinks that Harry Potter is a great wizard, sir, and should do whatever he wants."

Harry smiled a little at the stubbornness in Dobby's voice. The house-elf was one being, he knew, who would always take Harry's side. "It's not quite that easy, Dobby. I mean, I'm pretty sure I could still get tickets – the match isn't for at least another month. Not very good tickets, maybe, but passable. It's getting there and back without my aunt and uncle noticing. Trying to hire a cab would be hideously expensive, and take hours."

"Dobby could take you there," the house-elf piped enthusiastically.

Harry stared, surprised. "What? You mean, like you do? With the appearing and disappearing? You can take people with you?"

Dobby nodded, looking thrilled to have a solution to Harry's problem. "Harry Potter must trust Dobby though. If Harry Potter's magic fought Dobby-" the house-elf's voice dropped to a whisper. "Very very bad things, sir. Very bad."

Well, if that was the only sticking point… "You know I trust you, Dobby."

Hopefully, exposure would make Dobby's star struck looks a little more rare. Or less disturbing.

One way or another, one of them was sure to acclimatize.

Then, just really realizing what had happened, he grinned. "You know what this means? I'm going to the World Cup!" He dove for the nearest writing implement. "I have to write Ron." Not that they'd probably be able to meet up at all, since Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were still pretending Harry didn't exist. (And if that ached still, Harry, in turn, would pretend it didn't.) But he still had to share the news. And who knew? Maybe Ron could slip away for a bit.

Then, just as he moved to put quill to parchment, he paused, and turned back to the being that'd made all this possible. "Hey Dobby?"

"Yes, Harry Potter sir?"

"Want a ticket as well?"

Huge eyes welled with tears of gratitude, and Harry smiled. He doubted Dobby was a quidditch fan any more than Hermione was, but Harry knew how much it meant to the house-elf, to be treated as if he had as many rights as any witch or wizard.

"Two tickets it is, then." It wouldn't be the same as watching elbow to elbow with his best friends, and the seats wouldn't be as good as the Top Box seats Mr. Weasley had apparently gotten from work, but it was more than he'd thought he'd have even this morning.

And on my own, he realized, I'll be able to explore as much as I want.

Ron was going to be so jealous.

He smirked. This is going to be great.

Chapter end

Canon Notes:
Regarding widespread instantaneous knowledge of Voldemort's defeat: Hagrid said to Harry about people on the night of his parent's death, "Some of 'em came outta kinda trances." – I assume this is a kid-friendly reference to imperious. Also, imperio'd people can apparently imperio others. I'm assuming (hoping?) there's some sort of diminishing returns involved in the chain…

Dementors, oh those lovable anthro-personifications of depression. Despite Fudge's quote about them "breeding" in HBP, we have Word-of-God statement from J.K. Rowling that they cannot be killed, and they do not breed, but rather "grow like fungus" where there is decay. Make of that information what you will.

Boggarts and poltergeists being amortal non-beings is also canon. There is a suggestion of the possibility (from the WOMBAT test from J.K. Rowling's site) that house-elves are actually equally (or possibly even more greatly) tied to the buildings families inhabit, than to families themselves. (Dobby describes the house-elf "enslavement" as "bound to serve one house and one family forever" in CoS.) A Puffapod is a magical plant that produces large, pink seedpods filled with shining beans.

Parts of Dobby's dialogue is lifted, word-for-word, from the books where appropriate.

Other Notes:
I really, really, tried – promise – to not have to break this chapter in two. As you probably noticed, given we haven't gotten to the Hogwart's Opening Feast, I'm afraid I failed. As it is, you got 14,000 words, (and the diadem located at last), so I hope it's not too big a disappointment.

Also, Hagrid and house-elves, why do you make me suffer with your dialects and queer verbal quirks?

Someone suggested Forging the Sword's summary was perhaps a bit too… opaque? You must tell me, dear readers, do you think there are ways my summary can be improved?

Next chapter:

Ron swallowed as the students all turned to stare at him.

There had been a time Ron dreamed of fame. There had been mirror, three years ago, that showed him as a prefect, as a quidditch captain, as adored and respected and fêted.

Watching the numerous eyes watching him, he took it all back.

Why oh why had he agreed to be Niffler Club President again?

Somehow, he was sure this was all. Harry's. fault.

(It might have something to do with the slightly malevolent giggles the other boy had come down with, when they'd planned out this first meeting.)