Chapter Eighteen

Hiding and Fighting

There was a kind of freedom in punishment, Harry realized. As he left the commons room, swinging the portrait gently so as not to wake the Fat Lady in her frame, he couldn't help but smirk at the thought of students walking the halls after curfew to attend a professor's detention. He imagined Filch becoming overjoyed, then heartbroken, catching a student out of his bed only to discover that Harry was already in trouble.

Harry's bemusement didn't last more than a few steps. He was tired, and sore, and the memory of Kreacher's final whimper was only a few hours old. Professor Dresden had not deigned to consider such matters, however, and had scheduled his punishment immediately, with Ron's and Hermione's to follow at a later date to be determined.

In the few hours they still had, Harry, Ron, and Hermione had thrown every spell they could think of at the locket within the tenuous privacy of the boys' empty bedroom. To none of their surprise, the locket shrugged off their best spells. Like the ring that had disfigured Dumbledore's hand, the locket would not be so easy to destroy.

Red-eyed from crying, Hermione had still possessed the sense to come up with a hiding spot for the locket. None of them had wanted to keep it on their person, least of all Ron, so Hermione had suggested the Room of Requirement. Harry had agreed, remembering where he had secreted the Half-Blood Prince's copy of his potions book the year before, and had taken the locket to make a detour on the way to Dresden's rooms.

Thinking of the old copy of Advanced Potions-Making made Harry's blood boil as his hand clenched around the cold shape in his pocket. They were one Horcrux closer to stopping Voldemort and avenging Dumbledore. Stopping the tyrannical Death Eater would be only slightly more satisfying than seeing Snape led away from Hogwarts in chains—or worse—once the shadow war came to an end.

One step at a time, he cautioned himself. They needed to destroy the Horcrux they had, then find the cup, and then the missing item belonging to Rowena Ravenclaw, and finally, the snake. And before all that, Harry had to appease McGonagall's babysitter by pretending to show contrition.

He ventured down from the tower to the seventh floor, following the familiar path he had taken back in the days of Dumbledore's Army. The tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy hung right where it always had, but before Harry began to pace, he drew a folded piece of parchment from his robes and tapped it with his wand. "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good," he promised the page.

The Marauder's Map poured into being on the blank parchment. Harry scrutinized the live simulacrum of the castle, taking great care to make sure that his was the only name appearing in the corridor where he stood. Then, for good measure, he searched the map until he could confirm the elsewhere locations of Headmaster Snape, Professors McGonagall and Dresden, Filch, and Molly Carpenter.

He stared at that last name, feeling some residual annoyance. Professor McGonagall might be the one with the Trace spell on Harry, but with Molly working for him, Professor Dresden had the next best thing: a pair of eyes and ears that could raise a veil at will, one possibly better even than Harry's invisibility cloak. Harry would need to dream up some counter-strategy to the invisible spy before their next Horcrux hunt, and in the meantime, they would have to rely on the Map to avoid prying eyes within the castle.

"Mischief managed," he whispered, and tapped the parchment blank. Then he paced the corridor three times and, on his last pass, found the entrance to The Room of Hidden Things.

The maze of oddities looked much as Harry remembered it, piled high with broken furniture, dusty old tomes, cabinets, cages, and too many other items for his tired eyes to sort. A stale sense of quiet pervaded the room. It was as though the space were hidden from time as well as the castle. Nothing had moved or seemingly been touched since the night of the Death Eaters' invasion. Once a place of hidden wonderment, the room now felt lifeless and, despite its mountainous clutter, somehow empty.

Harry let his feet remember the path as he wandered the room. His attention fell upon the empty spot where the Vanishing Cabinet had stood. The vacancy sat like a scar in the clutter, another reminder still lingering after Lupin and Tonks had seen to the artifact's removal.

Then he bumped into the old bust of the warlock whose gnarled marble face marked Harry's hiding spot. The silver tiara he'd placed atop the bust clattered to the floor. Shaking himself free of his reverie, Harry checked in the dusty old hutch and found Snape's copy of Advanced Potions-Making, its new cover still clean and smelling of binding chemicals. He opened the book in the middle, tossed the locket atop the page, then slammed the cover closed. The pages folded awkwardly around the shape of the locket, the cover propped at an odd angle.

It was not a perfect hiding place. The Room of Requirement was not as secret as it once had been, but that might work in their favor. There were too many objects in the room to inventory effectively, and that was only if someone had a mind to hide or find something in the room in the first place. The locket would still be safer here than it would be in his personal possession, especially with Snape and his army of Aurors conducting random inspections of students.

Harry replaced the tiara atop the bust, then tilted it at a jaunty angle. "Keep watch over that for me," he told the bust. "Hopefully I'll be back for it soon."

When he left the Room of Requirement, he nearly jumped out of his skin to find someone else lurking in the corridor. He drew his wand before he recognized the other person, who was even more startled than he. "Neville?" he whispered.

Neville clutched at his chest, his own wand halfway out of his pocket. "You nearly gave the castle a new ghost there, Harry," he joked in a hushed voice. "I had only walked by twice when the Room opened. What were you doing inside?"

Harry hesitated. He had prepared to explain his skulking to teachers, but not to friends. "Er, dropping off a bit of contraband," he admitted, choosing a half-truth. "I'm on my way to detention with Professor Dresden."

"I heard about that. Best not to be caught with anything that would get you in more trouble, I suppose," Neville said, smiling.

Furrowing his brow, Harry said, "Why were you trying to enter the Room of Requirement? And what are you doing out so late?" Breaking curfew was no strange occurrence for a bad seed like Harry, but to his knowledge, Neville rarely ever did so, and never without good cause.

Neville's shifting posture and wandering eyes only made Harry more suspicious. "Just…looking for a place to practice," he said, stammering. "Nothing like the old days, I mean, but…well, privacy isn't as easy to come by as it used to. You know?"

Harry did know, and chided himself for not checking the Marauder's Map before leaving the Room. He had just assumed that his quick visit would remain a secret because his entry had gone unseen. That rank sloppiness could have spelled disaster. "I know exactly what you mean," Harry said. "The Room is all yours."

They exchanged nods, and Harry left Neville to pursue his late-night studies. Harry knew there was more to Neville's excursion, but if Neville didn't press Harry for more details, then he deserved the same consideration.

Professor Dresden, however, did not warrant the same discretion. When Harry arrived at the classroom door and found it unlocked, he threw it open and marched inside, intent on being as petulant and obstreperous as possible. If Dresden wanted to use his authority as a teacher to try and keep Harry under his thumb, he would quickly discover just how much actual respect Harry had for the school's staff.

Unfortunately for Harry's self-righteousness, the classroom was empty. A handful of lit candles filled the room with long, deep shadows. In the back, the bins of equipment were all neatly stacked, and the training dummies were gathered into the corner. Even Mouse's enormous bed sat empty with the big dog nowhere in sight.

"The man can't even be bothered to show up for the punishment he assigns," Harry grumbled to no one.

"It's sadly in keeping with his character, I'm afraid," a voice behind Harry answered.

For the second time that hour, Harry jumped in fright. He whirled around toward the source of the voice, but there was no one else in the room, just an empty desk and chair next to the chalkboard. "Hello?" Harry called, slipping his hand into his pocket to grip his wand.

"Over here. Yoo-hoo."

It took Harry a moment to find the voice's owner. What he had mistaken for two more candle flames on the desk were actually a pair of glowing, pinprick eyes hovering inside the sockets of the bleached white skull acting as bookend on Dresden's desktop. The glowing eyes drifted in their sockets, following Harry's approach.

"You can talk?" Harry asked the skull.

"Talk," the skull answered, its voice drifting out its unmoving jaw, "converse, soliloquize, pontificate, elucidate, lecture, disseminate…I've even been known to blather from time to time."

"Who are you? Or should I be asking, 'what' are you?" Harry said.

A tiny chuckle rolled out of the skull as the candle flame eyes brightened. "One of those questions suggests you might be as smart as those glasses make you look. To answer them both: I am a spirit of air and intellect, a being of pure thought molded from the arcane fabrics that bind all realities together, a cognizant repository of knowledge older than the collective age of wizardry and twice as wise. Harry calls me Bob."

Snorting, Harry echoed, "Bob? So you live with Dresden, then?"

"Well, I don't exactly pay rent, but I suppose you could call us 'housemates.' Really, the poor sap would be lost without me. Did you know he managed to lose another blasting rod? He'd only just made that one. And his staff, too. Honestly, it's a wonder he's still breathing, let alone that he was hired to teach magic."

Harry decided that he liked Bob, even if he was a long way from trusting the skull-dwelling creature. He had been burned too many times by magical things whose existences and nature he couldn't readily define. "So does that make you the brains behind the Professor's success?"

Bob laughed heartily. "Because I'm a skull. I get it. Yes, I'm the brains, the knowhow, and the sex appeal, my dear boy. You'd be smart to sneak back here after-hours for some private tutoring. You could even, say, invite some of your classmates to join you. Some of the cuter ones, perhaps of the female variety?"

The suggestion raised Harry's eyebrow. "I think I'm already in detention. Sneaking into a professor's classroom for lessons with his bookend wouldn't make me terribly smart, would it?"

Bob sighed. "The pleated skirts, the cute little vests, the knee-high socks…so tantalizingly close, and yet always out of reach," he lamented, and cast his glowing eyes toward the rows of empty tables.

Harry decided to mistrust the spirit even more than before. But, at the same time, finding a repository of knowledge was too good an opportunity to let pass. "Bob," Harry said, "what do you know about getting rid of cursed items?"

"Lots of things," Bob said, sounding bored. "Nasty business, really. That's why there are so many cursed knickknacks sitting in tombs and crypts. It's easier to just bury them as opposed to actually dealing with them. Bad luck for grave robbers, but that's the cost of doing business."

"But if you wanted to destroy one," Harry said, trying to sound nonchalant. "If you had to, but the curse made the item all but invincible. What then?"

There was a long pause as the glowing eyes considered Harry. Then Bob said, "I take it back. You're not nearly as smart as those glasses make you look. You must be a moron, asking someone a question like that."

"What?" Harry protested. "This is Defense Against the Dark Arts. Cursed items are dark arts. It's a valid question."

"It's a dangerous question," Bob shot back. "And what's more, you weren't even clever about asking it. Not 'my friend with the great gams said the funniest thing about curses the other day,' or 'my one friend with the spectacular rack told me that all the handsome skulls knew how to smash cursed objects. Is that true?' No guile, no tact…It's a wonder you're still breathing too. Does having the name 'Harry' do something to your brain?"

"Hogwarts is no stranger to cursed items," Harry shot back. "Diaries, necklaces…I think you might even qualify. Shall I tell the Aurors about the Professor's evil paperweight?"

The glowing eyes shrank into pinpricks. Bob's voice softened, his tone so deep that Harry could practically feel it vibrating in his chest. "You're very lucky I'm not so evil, Harry Potter. That question you're asking is a dangerous one. That information is quite troubling to the beings who go to great lengths to create such potent curses, and those beings are all incredibly powerful, and rarely kind. Simply knowing how to undo their arts might be cause enough for any one of them to snuff you out like the flickering mortal mote you are. Would you really risk the wrath of gods and monsters for such knowledge?"

Harry swallowed and tried not to shiver at the ice trickling up his spine. "Yes," he said.

"So certain?" purred Bob, his voice a rumble. "Is your life worth so little? Or is the knowledge worth that much?"

"It is," Harry said. "The second one, I mean. I need to know."

The skull's eyelights snapped back to their full size. Bob laughed, his voice light and teasing like it had been before. "Then you're also gullible, because I'm not going to tell you," he sang.

Harry slammed his palms on the desk, glaring at the skull. "Are you serious? After all that?" he demanded.

"The look on your face!" Bob exclaimed through peals of laughter. "Priceless!"

Before Harry could consider the question of inflicting bodily harm on a bodiless spirit, the sound of the classroom door made him startle back from the desk. The door swung inward and Mouse trotted inside, followed shortly by Professor Dresden. The tall man shut the door behind him and said, "Goggles? Glad to see you where you're supposed to be for a change. Were you talking to yourself?"

Carefully, Harry shot a sidelong glance at the skull on the desk. Its eyes were dark again. "Pretty much," Harry said.

"Had to take the mutt outside, which in this castle is a twenty-minute endeavor," Dresden said, and ruffled Mouse's voluminous mane. "I'm tempted to just sneak him into the Headmaster's office and let him do his business there."

The jovial tone sparked fresh irritation in Harry. "Can we please just get on with it?" he said. "I'm in detention. Shall I write lines for you? Maybe give Mouse a bath?"

The suggestion made the great dog chuff and shake his head. Dresden thumped Mouse's side and said, "Nah. Back in America we have a rule against cruel and unusual punishment. You probably have something similar here, just spelled with extra vowels."

"Fine. What shall my punishment be, then?" Harry said, folding his arms.

"Easy. Tell me what you were doing, and you can leave," Dresden said.

Harry was taken aback. "What?"

Shrugging, Dresden said, "I didn't get much out of Glinda or Ginger. They can't lie worth a damn, but aside from telling me about the shack, they were like a Boston seafood buffet: all clammed up."

"And they didn't warrant detention too?" Harry asked sardonically.

"What, you think I'm dumb enough to keep the three of you together?" Dresden said, and laughed. "Whatever you three are, you're a team. I'm not going to get anywhere coming at all of you at once, so I'm starting with the most stubborn one and working backwards. I figure if I can crack you, the other two will be a breeze."

Harry scowled. "I apparated back to Little Whinging. There were a few things I never got the chance to pack when Professor McGonagall kidnapped me and dumped me in your basement."

Dresden sighed, dropping his head to his chest. He gestured toward the back of the room and said, "Have it your way. We'll do a more traditional detention instead. Let's go."

They walked to the open training area in the back. At Professor Dresden's instructions, Harry arranged a series of thin tumbling mats in the center of the area, then dragged a pair of training dummies out to face the pads. Each dummy was a chipped wooden torso with a featureless head and two segmented, swinging arms, the ends of which held fake wands. Dresden had painted something approximating faces onto the dummies: one was bearded and scowling through dark brows, and the other was red-headed and had a smug, rodent-like face.

"This is Donald," Dresden said, patting the faux-bearded dummy. "The other one is Rudy. They'll be assisting us in tonight's exercise."

"And what will that be?" Harry asked as Dresden positioned the dummies at an arm's length apart.

Taking Harry by the shoulders, Dresden guided him to the center of the mat. Then, as he considered the stone floor, he added several more mats around the first until Harry had relatively soft ground for ten feet in every direction around him. "Simple," Dresden said. "Don't get your ass kicked."

The two dummies and their painted faces did not inspire concern in Harry. "Wandless, I suppose?"

Dresden drew out his own wand and grinned. "What kind of wizard doesn't use a wand? Just stick to the pads." Then, with a gesture, Dresden said to the dummies, "Similo Dagobah!"

The dummies jerked at Dresden's command. Their segmented arms began to whirl at the shoulder, clacking loudly as their fake wands swung in a ridiculous windmill motion. With each pass of the wand, the dummies produced a jet of silver magic that streaked at Harry, buffeting him with a watered-down imitation of a Stunning spell. It struck with the force of a padded fist, a staggering blow more irritating than painful.

After the first jet knocked him back a step, Harry whirled his wand and summoned a shield to soak the barrage of curses. "Protego!" He kept his wand moving, picking up the rhythm of the dummies' whirling arms as he renewed his own spell. Then he timed his opening and thrust his wand forward with a cry of "Expelliarmis!"

His spell split and caught the hands of one dummy, pulling the carved wooden fists out of their sockets. The blocks of wood tumbled across the floor, still clutching their splintery wands, and Rudy's arms fell still as the dummy slumped forward. Then it was a simple matter for Harry to catch Donald's next hex and repeat his attack, and the other dummy's hands joined the first's.

Dresden nodded. "Not bad. You'd fit right in with my Third-year class. They swing their wands like a drunken orchestra conductor too."

"So that's the exercise? Throw pitiful spells at me and make fun of me?" Harry said, and smirked. "You should ask Snape for lessons. Your detention was his hobby for six years."

"And now he's running the school."

The retort cut the smile off Harry's face. His eyes flashed to Dresden's, and he felt a moment of intense pressure as he glared deeply into the other wizard's gaze. He expected Dresden to be leering, pleased at his little dig. But the man looked back at Harry, somber and deadpan.

Dresden's gaze shifted, and the pressure lessened. "Where did you go this morning?" he said.

Harry's scowl didn't let up for a second. "Out to the shop," he said.

Sighing, Dresden waved his wand and called, "You heard the man. Let's pick it up, team!"

The dismembered wooden fists rattled, then tumbled across the floor to leap back into their sockets. Now re-armed, Rudy and Donald began to swing in earnest again, peppering Harry with their hexes. Harry staggered at the first few blows, then cast his shield again. Silver force splashed against his shield faster than it had before. Harry gritted his teeth and pushed the incantation through his thoughts, unable to speak it fast enough to refresh the spell as the dummies battered him. Protego! Protego!

He had just timed a new counteroffensive and was preparing to disarm the pair again when something hit him in the ribs from his left. He staggered, then cast a wild shield that barely kept him upright as he spied a third practice dummy sliding up into the fray to flank him. This dummy's doodled face looked dour and miserable, and it had a fringe of white hair painted on its crown. The resemblance was obvious even before Dresden said, "Uh-oh! Looks like Auror Stewart wants to get in on the fun. Better keep that shield up!"

Casting wider, Harry angled himself to block from both directions. The dummies' arms swung asynchronously to create a constant stream of force hammering Harry's shield. Their ridiculous faces belied the sheer amount of magic they poured into Harry. "Suppose it's good McGonagall didn't recruit you as an art teacher," Harry said, his breathing labored as he renewed his shield with constant wandwork.

"No, she hired me to be a babysitter instead," Dresden said. "Tell me where you went."

"Nowhere. Ron and I went for a walk wearing an invisibility cloak. It's pretty common for real wizards to do," Harry retorted.

Another hex struck Harry through his shield, this one coming from behind him. He had already become accustomed to casting while staggered, and stretched his shield charm to circle around him entirely. The hexes burst into silver concentric rings against his shield like muffled fireworks. Harry saw a fourth dummy sliding into the exercise, this one with a pinched expression and hand-drawn wrinkles. A large pincushion had been glued to the back of its head to approximate a gray hair bun.

"Whoops," said Dresden, nudging his wand at the new dummy. "Now Minerva's getting in on it. Better start remembering."

"Do you really expect me to tell you anything?" Harry snapped. Sweat gathered at his brow as he focused all his magic on deflecting the barrage. "Or is this some stupid lesson about me taking on more than I can handle?"

Dresden admitted, "It's a little bit about that, yeah. Though I have to admit, you annoyed the shit out of me when you slipped my tail, so I kind of want to see you knocked on your ass a few times just for funsies."

"I know how many Death Eaters are out there waiting to kill me," Harry snarled through the flash and sizzle of the hexes. "They've been trying to kill me since I was eleven. Since I was born! They aren't the problem."

"Then what is the problem?" Dresden said.

The strain against his shield brought Harry to one knee. He poured his magic into the spell, pushing back against the circle of hexes. "The problem," he huffed, "is that I'm here. That I let myself get dragged back to school by McGonagall, who thinks she's keeping me safe when all she's really done is painted a new target on the school and saddled me with the one wizard on the planet who knows even less about what's going on than I do."

"Yeah," Dresden said, "it must really suck when someone who's supposed to be on your side ices you out and makes you feel useless."

"You don't understand," Harry said through his teeth. "I have to—"

"Why you?" Dresden demanded, cutting him off. "What the hell makes you so special, Goggles? For Christ's sake, you're a skinny pipsqueak who looks like he needs a sandwich and a hug, not a goddamn war."

"Because I'm the only one who can," Harry said.

"Bullshit. I've saved you, like, three times already."

"Because I'm the only one who knows—" Harry snapped his mouth shut, taking a hex to the shoulder as he stopped himself from revealing the one secret he absolutely could not let slip.

Dresden spread his arms, his expression tired. "Then tell me. Hell's bells, kid, I am not going to just sit back and watch you kill yourself because you've got a stubborn streak."

"I have to—" Harry began.

Dresden cut him off with a shout. "Why you?"

Closing his eyes, Harry was back atop the tower, trapped and petrified beneath his invisibility cloak. He watched again, straining against the spell that locked his body in place, his muscles grinding like blocks of ice beneath his skin. Helpless, he watched the circle of Death Eaters closing around Dumbledore. He watched the lance of green magic flash, watched as Snape threw the Unforgiveable Curse into a frail, poisoned, merciful old man. Time slowed, and the air itself seemed to carry Dumbledore backwards, his beard streaming behind him in a long, wispy ribbon as he drifted, almost gently, over the precipice of the tower.

"Ventas Reducto!" Harry screamed.

His shield burst apart into a torrent of wind that consumed the hexes firing into him. Laced with slivers of light, the whirlwind billowed outward, pouring over the four dummies and beyond. Dresden snapped his wand up and summoned a hemispherical shield that sparked against the deadly wind. The wind shredded the dummies, tearing them piecemeal into splinters that rained across the entire classroom.

As the torrent faded, Dresden allowed his shield to drop. He marched toward Harry, his boots crunching the remnants of the lesson, spurs jangling, coat billowing behind him. His face was set into grim lines as he loomed over Harry.

Kneeling breathless, Harry struggled to his feet and met Dresden's hard look with one of his own. "I have to do this," Harry said, "because I watched Dumbledore die, and I could only stand there. I saw him murdered, and now his killer is running his school. My school. His master murdered my parents, and now he's back from the dead to take over the world. People have been dying to protect me, dying because of men like Snape and Voldemort, and I can't let them anymore. Nobody else dies in my place. Never again."

The silence grew between them until it swallowed the room. Face hardening, eyes burning, Dresden said, "You're really not going to talk, are you?"

Harry just pressed his lips together.

Dresden sighed. All at once, he seemed to deflate, his eyes cooling into black coals as he rubbed his stubbly chin. "Hell's bells. Okay, kid, you're free to go. Detention over, or dismissed, or whatever." He stepped aside and gestured to the door.

Blinking in surprise, Harry said, "Wait. Really?"

"Punishment isn't just a tool for small-dicked asshats to make themselves feel big," Dresden said. He walked to the nearest chair at the back row of tables and swept it clean of splinters, then collapsed into it. "It's also meant to correct detrimental, potentially self-destructive behavior. But it's obvious that knocking you around is just going to waste both our times. So just go."

Harry stared at the older wizard, waiting for the punchline to a joke he didn't understand.

Noticing Harry's lingering, Dresden looked up and scowled. "Kid, I'm tired. I've had a long day of dealing with an impossible Fae vampire and a bunch of moron students determined to get themselves killed. Go to bed."

Stiffening, Harry retorted, "I'm not afraid to die."

"Nobody is until they're actually dying," Dresden said. He rubbed at his face, his thumbs making circles against his eyelids. "Is this how Ebenezer felt? I might actually owe him another apology. I don't think I've ever met somebody as determined to miss the point of a lesson who wasn't me."

Harry scowled, sweeping his feet through the scattered remains of the dummies. It would take more than a few mending charms to put them back in working order. "I'm not dim, Dresden. You want me to admit some trite platitude like, 'I can't do this alone.' But I'm not alone, and you know it."

"I know you're not, Goggles," Dresden said, his eyes still closed as he tried to massage away his obvious headache. "I actually like your friends a lot. They seem like good people. Ginger is from one of those giant families, right? Kind of like the Carpenters, actually. And Glinda is way too smart for this place. She'd probably be wizard president, or whatever communist equivalent you have here, before she's thirty. Are they just as ready to die as you are?"

A flash of anger turned Harry's vision bright. "Don't you dare," he said, taking a dangerous step toward the professor.

Shrugging, Dresden said, "Not a pretty thought, is it? Must be the same thing McGonagall thought when she dragged you here and put your leash in my hand. How will she feel when you get yourself killed? How would Dumbledore have felt? Or your parents?"

Harry's wand was raised before he realized what he was doing. "You don't have the right to talk about them," he snarled.

Dresden looked up, nonplussed at the sight of the wand being aimed at him, or the murderous look Harry could feel twisting in his features. The American wizard looked as though he had aged ten years in the space of a day as he ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess I don't. But you needed to hear that anyway. Just like you need to hear this."

"You—!" Harry began.

"I'm sorry," Dresden said.

Harry's step faltered, making him stagger. His wand wavered as he said, "…what?"

"I'm sorry," Dresden repeated. "I really am. This whole time, since I took this stupid job, I've been treating you like some rowdy kid that needs a babysitter. But that's not what either of us need."

Harry's hand dropped to his side, his anger uncoiling into confusion. He could not think of what to say, and so remained silent, watching the tired professor rubbing at his face.

"The point of the lesson, Goggles," Dresden said, and toed the carpet of splinters around them, "wasn't just to knock you around. You already have enough enemies, and you have plenty of 'allies' standing in your way. You don't need me to be another one. You need someone who will actually help you. You need someone you can trust. And that should have been me from the start. But I've been too wrapped up in figuring out what's going on and trying to keep tabs on you, and you've been too busy ducking me like the rest of the quote-unquote teachers around here."

"And why should I suddenly trust you?" Harry said. There was no venom in his tone this time.

Spreading his hands, Dresden gestured to himself and admitted, "You already said it: I know less than anybody else about what's going on. I'm not from around here. Hell, I might be the only person you know who's never actually met a Death Eater."

"Not true," Harry said, and despite his grim mood, he couldn't fully suppress his smirk. "You've talked to Snape."

A short laugh jetted through Dresden's nose. "Besides him," he said.

"Fenrir Greyback," Harry said.

"We didn't exactly have time to chat," Dresden noted. "Look, I told you when we got here that we were partners in this. We both know that was a load of crap."

"Obviously," Harry said.

"So let's mean it this time," Dresden said. "The people swinging at you are hitting me too, and I take that kind of thing personally. I want in on this fight, Goggles. If some warlock with a snake fetish is looking to enslave the world, I want to personally feed him my boot."

Harry watched the professor carefully as he said, "What if I still say no?"

Shaking his head, Dresden said, "Then I'll quit and go home. The whole reason I was asked here was to keep you safe. I can't do that if you're purposely sneaking around me to play guerilla soldier. And I have my own rogues gallery of people who want me dead. It's not like I really need to recruit yours too."

"McGonagall wouldn't like you quitting in the middle of the year," Harry noted.

Dresden snorted. "Screw her. You think you're the only one she's keeping in the dark? She has made it abundantly clear how unhappy she is that I'm here instead of Ebenezer. I owe her 'jack' and 'shit,' and Jack already paid his tab."

That last thought gave Harry pause. He had thought of Dresden as just another of McGonagall's safeguards. If the two professors were butting heads behind closed doors, it meant that McGonagall had even less control at the school than Harry had thought, which was at once encouraging and terrifying.

The American was a wild card. He wasn't loyal to the remnants of the Order, or the Death Eaters. Truthfully, the towering wizard didn't seem loyal to anyone but his own whims, whatever those might be from moment to moment. But aside from their mutually false promise of partnership, Dresden had never struck Harry as a liar. Secretive, infuriating, dangerous, and confounding, but not a liar.

"I'll never be able to tell you everything," Harry heard himself say before he even stopped to consider the words. "There are secrets I need to keep if we're ever to beat Voldemort. Too many people know already."

Dresden was silent for a long moment after that. His eyes flicked back and forth as a silent dialogue stormed behind his expression. Still looking downward, he said, "I can respect operational security. To a point. But let's look at the bare bones of the thing right now. Whatever you're doing, you need to leave the castle, right?"

"Yes," Harry said.

"That will be a lot easier if you have an authority figure on your side," Dresden continued. "You want to go somewhere? You tell me where, and you tell me what we're after. Maybe not all of the 'why,' but you tell me everything you can. And you don't go without me." He took a deep breath, as though the terms had cost him something personally. "You agree to that, and I'm on board."

Harry's mind raced through the possibilities. With McGonagall's trace on him, he couldn't leave the ground more than a few hours at a time without risking her discovering them. Having a teach to help excuse their absences could at least make said absences more frequent, perhaps even extended. And Dresden had been right earlier: he had saved Harry, somewhat. Whatever else the wizard was, he was no Death Eater.

As if reading Harry's thoughts, Dresden raised a hand and said, "Before you answer, you should know that I have one other condition to this fuster-cluck I'm proposing. I want you to make things right with Molly."

Guilt and panic lurched in Harry's stomach. Even if Molly never succumbed to the poisonous influence of her housemates, she was still surrounded by Death Eater children, many of whom had already expressed a direct interest in murdering Harry. "She can't be a part of this," Harry said quickly.

"We can talk about what Molly will or won't do to help later," Dresden said. "I'm talking about you two making up. Whatever happened between you two, she's really broken up about it, even if she won't admit to it. You two were like peanut butter and chocolate last summer, but now you're orange juice and tooth paste. Hash it out, Goggles. Or no deal."

Harry sighed, quashing a storm of complicated, uncomfortable feelings. "And the annoying nicknames?" he said.

"Also required," Dresden said, folding his arms.

Tapping his fist against his thigh, Harry considered the deal before him. There were too many unknowns to feel good about the decision. And he still needed to gauge Hermione's and Ron's opinions about this ludicrous proposal. But he knew they would come to the same conclusion as he: that they needed another ally in this fight, and not another obstacle. With so much stacked against them, it was time to finally admit that they could not hunt for Voldemort's Horcruxes as they had wanted to before the summer. The war had changed, and they needed to change with it.

"You realize," Harry said, "that the best-case scenario is that we drive each other mad arguing and perhaps accidentally make actual progress against the Death Eaters."

"Accidental progress, huh? I think you just gave me the title for my autobiography," Dresden said. He stuck out his hand. "For real this time. Partners?"

Shaking his head, Harry took the proffered hand and hoped he wasn't making an enormous mistake. "Partners," he agreed.