Disclaimer: I own magical America and the theories, ideas, etc. that are not infringing on JKR's world.
Info: Warnings and story info found in previous chapters. Questions and comments swiftly addressed on the yahoo group, so feel free to join.
Reviews: Pure Happiness
Betas: Super, massive, tons of love for Shadow and Styx. Without them, my chapters would be much sadder. And super hugs love for my muse/ sounding boards Megan and Felix.
AN: As you can see, I'm still working on the story and I don't intend to stop. But I think it's safe to say that updates will be a little longer in coming than I had hoped, though hopefully not as long as the last two have been. I'm attending Florida State University and I've been a little busy.
AN2: Hathorne class list has been posted on my yahoo group.
If there's bizarre formatting or lacking of formatting or some other visual problem - its all ffnet's fault. Super.
A Different Start: American Harry Prequel 40
"You're late," his watch muttered from the depths of his pocket. "Again."
"More than aware, watch," Harry muttered back, pausing at the foot of the stairs to adjust one of the straps on his backpack. As he started across the foyer towards the front office, a voice called out from the hallway opposite.
"Hey, Jamie, do-?"
"No time," Harry cut off, turning to jog backwards. "I have this lunch thing and then there's the classes thing and then there's the dinner thing. I'll talk to you then."
Mindy laughed and waved him on. "Don't forget to bring the Charms research."
"I never leave home without it." Harry waved back and turned, then stopped short as he almost tripped over a library cart. The cart wheeled back about a foot and the stone gargoyle perched on one of the handles shook a tiny fist at him. "Hey, you were the one about to run into me, little dude. And don't pretend you were going to poke me. I don't have any overdue books. You just weren't paying attention."
The gargoyle crossed its arms and hunched in on itself sullenly.
"I don't have time to feed you." Harry reached out to tap the little stone top hat on its little stone head as he passed. "Go steal someone else's pocket change."
"You're still late," his watch muttered, resigned. "Getting later. And later. And even-"
Harry pulled the watch from his pocket as he crossed the foyer. "I will conjure up some stones, build a well, conjure up water and then throw you down the well if you don't stop that, watch."
His watch was silent a moment, then mumbled, "Late."
"Don't think I won't well you." Harry stuffed the watch back into his pocket and turned down the short hallway that led to the front office. He stopped just inside the office to sign out in the thick Student Activities book, pausing for a moment to study Johnathan Keller's name scrawled messily on the next line up.
"How may I help you?"
Harry looked up as Mrs. Abernathy floated through the bookcase that divided the front part of the room from the back. "I'm going into town, Mrs. A. I stopped by yesterday afternoon to drop off my signed request and get the map and everything, so I should be good to go." Harry pulled his Hathorne ID out of his wallet and slid it over the sensor above the book. He put the ID back slowly, watching as the date and time appeared to the right of his name. "Plus, I'm going into town with some older students."
Mrs. Abernathy slid halfway through the counter to peer at the book before drifting back behind the counter proper, clasping her hands together in the folds of her flower patterned dress. "Would you care to leave anything behind, Mr. Potter?" She gestured behind him. "Just pick a locker and take the key with you."
"That would be great, in fact." Harry turned to the lockers set into the wall behind him, some full-sized, some half-sized, and only a handful with keys missing from their locks. He pulled his backpack off and peered inside to make sure he had everything he needed before shoving it into one of the half-size ones at the bottom.
"Really, really late," his watch sighed. "Really-"
"If you don't shut up, I'll leave you here, too," Harry threatened, hand hovering over the locker key. "Don't think I don't have an alternate means of telling time." His watch was silent. "Good." He pulled the key out and pocketed it.
"Is your watch supposed to do that?" Mrs. Abernathy asked.
"No, it's not. It's really not."
She laughed. "Is there anything else I can do for you, Mr. Potter?"
"I think I'm good."
"Then enjoy your visit."
"That's pretty much guaranteed," Harry said with a grin, heading for the door. "There's going to be pizza. See you later, Mrs. A."
"Certainly, Mr. Potter."
"You really are late," his watch murmured so quietly Harry almost didn't catch it.
Harry put on an extra burst of speed as he crossed the foyer and reached the doors just as someone was coming in, barely mumbling a greeting as he slipped outside and stumbled to a stop.
"Motherfu- Merlin of God! Beast door from hell!" Harry shuddered as the identification magic wriggled and crawled all over him, making his skin hum and twitch like something inside desperately wanted to get out. As the last of it slid over him, he turned and kicked the door, then kicked it again for good measure with a growl. "You- I- One day, door…" He gave the door one last kick before he sucked in a calming breath, shutting down his magical awareness almost entirely as he turned, only to stop short.
Johnathan and a stocky boy Harry half recognized were standing nearby, both staring at him like he'd lost his mind.
"Hey, guys," Harry greeted casually, sliding his hands into his pockets as he wandered over. "Am I late?" He gave his watch a silencing squeeze before it could say anything.
"Late…? Uh." Johnathan checked his watch. "A little. But we're still waiting for… what was that?"
"What was what?"
"Beast door from hell?" the other boy said.
"Ohh, that." Harry glanced back at the door for a second. It doored back at him. "That was the door trying to eat my soul and me strongly protesting the invasion." They continued to stare at him. "Magic isn't being very nice to me."
"Oh." Johnathan leaned over to the other boy. "He's a Magurist."
"Ohhh." He nodded slowly. "Yeah, that makes a lot of sense."
"So! I'm late! Are there more people? I kind of thought there'd be more people."
"Yeah." Johnathan nodded towards a lanky boy just beyond the courtyard, crouching in the grass beside the path to town, intently watching something. "Gav's studying a frog or something over there. He's… a little weird about them, to be honest." Johnathan shrugged. "But we're still waiting for Storm and Bidgie."
"Promising names," Harry approved.
Johnathan gestured to the boy beside him. "And this is Meyer Wendon."
Harry accepted the brisk handshake the other boy offered, easing his shields just enough to get an impression of confidence from the contact as he eyed the bright blue streaks in Meyer's hair. "You're the Varsity Quodpot Captain, aren't you?"
"That's me." He grinned, showing off bright blue braces. "Win-it-all Wendon."
He pulled his shields in tightly again. "I knew I recognized you."
"And I certainly recognize you," Meyer laughed.
"Yeah, the Harry Potter thing."
"Oh, well, that thing, yeah – but that's not what I'm talking about. You're the new Varsity Quidditch Seeker! Most players get put on the Junior Varsity team first, you know, or at the very least don't get put on the Varsity team the third week of school."
Harry laughed, shrugging. "It was a good day."
"I'll say." Meyer leaned in close, forcing Harry to look up even more to meet his eyes. "You know, there's no rule against being on the Quidditch and Quodpot teams."
"Yeah, no." Harry took a step back. "I know that Quodpot is the big American game, but I'm definitely a Quidditch player. Unless you guys have a secret Seeker position I don't know about."
"No. Damn." Meyer sighed. "Val won't shut up about you."
"Yeah, your captain. We've been friends for years. I've never seen Mr. Critical this excited about a new player. If he doesn't shut up about what a fantastic flier you are and how versatile you are and how well you work with others, I'm going to curse him."
"You'll have no choice?" Harry asked with a grin.
"None at all."
Harry shrugged nonchalantly, even if he couldn't keep the smile off of his face. "Everyone on the team is nothing short of fantastic, and Val's a great captain. I really like working with him."
"I'm a great captain, too," Meyer offered with a hopeful grin.
"Still a no."
"Did you really try out for all of the positions?" Johnathan asked curiously.
"Yeah, I thought it would be fun."
"I like people to know the range of my abilities," Harry said. "And I like keeping my skills sharp in other positions. If my captain and team don't know I'm a decent Chaser, it's less likely I'll be allowed to play Chaser in practice."
Meyer snickered. "Val says you're a crap Keeper."
"Not even I can be perfect at everything."
"Oh, I think I see the girls," Johnathan said, nudging Meyer as he shadowed his eyes with his hand, peering towards the side of the building.
"Shhh!" Meyer nudged him back, a little urgently. "They'd beat you if they heard you say that. And me, too, for good measure."
"That's why I don't say it where they can hear," Johnathan muttered. "And it's not like Storm even cares. It's Bidgie."
"She'll beat you for calling her a girl?" Harry asked, glancing between them. "I don't get it. It doesn't seem like that big of a deal."
"And that's because you're rational."
Johnathan scowled at Meyer. "Hey, let's not forget that this is entirely and only your fault."
"No. This is all Bidgie's fault," Meyer countered. "She started it."
"Okay, sure, if you want to call it that. By calling you a boy."
"Exactly. She called me a boy."
"You… are a boy," Harry pointed out slowly, though he couldn't stop himself from glancing at the front of Meyer's pants. "Right?"
Meyer followed his gaze. "Yes! I'm a boy! I mean, I'm a young man. Definitely a guy is what I'm saying."
Harry shrugged. "I'm still confused, then."
"Genius over here decided to make a big deal out of Bidgie calling him a boy one day," Johnathan groaned. "So, Bidgie, rationally, very rationally, pointed out that we call her and Storm girls. That led to an argument about the appropriate use of boy versus girl, and the implied insult of calling a young man a boy, but the social acceptability of calling a young lady a girl, and the idea of society sanctioned substitute words and cultural associations-"
"Whoa," Harry interrupted. "Just, whoa. Was that the actual argument? In those words?"
"In those words," Meyer said. "More or less. I thought it all out beforehand and everything."
"And how long ago was this?"
Meyer muttered something, kicking the ground.
"What was that?"
"Our first year here," Johnathan sighed.
"Riiight. So I see I totally belong here, if those are the kinds of ridiculous arguments you have. But that argument is absolutely ridiculous."
"No it isn't!"
"Yeah, it totally is. Merlin, save me from the ego of twelve-year-old boys."
"See!" Johnathan pointed at Harry. "A reasonable human being!"
Meyer fixed Johnathan with a thoroughly unimpressed look before he turned his attention back to Harry. "You're twelve, aren't you?"
"Not that twelve. I might be a pain in the ass over something like that for a day or two, but I have way better things to do with my time than let it continue on for years. Things like organize my socks."
"I'm pretty sure you've just been insulted in some way," Johnathan said with a smirk.
"Hey, I only pointed out that 'guys' was a much better alternative," Meyer argued. "It's Bidgie that turned the conversation into a verbal death match."
Johnathan groaned. "And genius over here still randomly brings all of this up because somewhere in his Quodpot damaged brain, he seems to think that this is an argument he still has enough wiggle room in to actually win. And now Bidgie has started smacking us both when it happens, as if I have any control over the stupid things that come out of his mouth."
"Sucks," Harry told him with sympathy.
"Yeah, well, she's a girl," Meyer muttered.
"She will beat you," Johnathan said. "She will. And I'm not in the least ashamed to say that I'll run away and leave you to your fate."
"You're a terrible friend."
Harry laughed. "I'm inclined to let her beat you, too."
Meyer turned a betrayed look on him. "We're not even really friends yet and you're already being a terrible friend. This doesn't speak well at all for our relationship."
Harry shrugged, stifling a giggle.
Johnathan smoothed a hand down his shirt with a nonchalant look. "I don't envy Bidgie's boyfriend at all."
"Hey." Meyer shoved him. "She's a perfectly wonderful girlfriend."
Johnathan grinned and shoved back. "Gee, that sounds rehearsed."
Meyer shoved back. "Well, it's not."
"Oh, that's right. She's a great girlfriend. It's her boyfriend that's terrible."
"Her boyfriend is the best boyfriend in the world, I'll have you know."
Harry snorted as Johnathan and Meyer got locked into a shoving match that sent them stumbling back a little more with every shove. He rolled his eyes and turned away from them to look for someone approaching, only to come face to very curvy chest. He stumbled back.
"It's good to see someone behaving for a change," she said with a grin, stepping towards him like she was about to give him a hug.
Harry half tripped back another step and seized her hand to shake, making the bracelets all up and down her arm jangle. "Hi! Bidgie or Storm?"
She laughed. "Bidgie. Hang on." She stepped around him and ended the shoving match with one well-placed shove of her own that sent Johnathan and Meyer stumbling in opposite directions, bracelets jangling wildly on both arms.
"That was impressive."
"Thank you." She lifted an arm to wave. "Come on, Storm! A little energy!"
Harry glanced back and shaded his eyes with a hand to better see the approaching figure. The figure waved back lazily, not picking up her pace in the slightest as she smoothed her hand over the rainbow scarf wrapped around her waist and pushed multi-colored hair back over her shoulder.
Johnathan let out a heavy breath. "It looks like she's doing her slow thing again today."
Harry glanced over. "Slow thing?"
"Yeah. She's taking time to appreciate breathing in nature's air and the ground beneath her feet and the way birds fly and the leaves rustle and I don't even know what else."
Meyer groaned. "Basically, we're never going to eat."
Harry turned to study the newcomer again. She was only a few yards away, and now he could see that the strange multi-coloring of her hair were actually dozens, if not hundreds, of tiny, beaded braids that fell to her waist and half-blended with her bright scarf. A small Capuchin monkey perched on her shoulder, clutching a handful of braids.
"That is... monkey."
Johnathan sniggered. "Yes, that is monkey."
Harry shot him an unimpressed look, then looked around again as the sound of clacking beads quieted. She had stopped next to him, adjusting the patched cloth bag over her shoulder as she looked fixedly at the ground.
"So, you must be Storm..."
She held a finger to her lips and crouched, black skirt pooling around her. She studied the ground for a moment, then carefully picked up a piece of string, giving it a little shake before tying it around the end of one of her braids. Harry stared for a moment at her bare feet as she stood.
"Yes, this is Storm," Meyer put in. "And now we're all here. So let's go."
"RaineStorm, properly," she corrected, leaning in to kiss Harry's cheek with a smile, not moving a step. Beads brushed against his face. Even through his tightened shields he felt a soft hum of magic from them. "But do call me Storm. And you're Harry Potter. I imagine not needing to introduce yourself gets tiresome after a while." She tapped her lips thoughtfully. "I must admit, you weren't entirely what I was expecting."
"People knowing me is still pretty new, actually," Harry said slowly, trying not to stare at her mismatched eyes, both startlingly bright, one blue and one green. "So, what were you expecting?"
"A top hat."
Harry frowned in surprise. "A... top hat? Like, an actual top hat? On my head?"
She nodded quite sincerely.
"Well... I feel completely inadequate now. Not only do I not have a top hat, I don't have the words to respond to that."
She laughed and patted him on the head. "That's all right."
Harry glanced at her shoulder. "You have a monkey."
"I do. He's my familiar." She reached up to give him a little scratch. "Not really, though. At least not yet. I'm hoping we'll start to form a bond like that in time. He might not be as inherently magical as a cat, but he has his advantages. Like tiny little hands." She shrugged her shoulder a little. "Say hello, Quaae."
The monkey chittered and hopped on her shoulder before he solemnly held out a tiny hand. Harry couldn't help but grin as he offered his finger in return and the monkey gave it a shake.
"He's pretty friendly." Harry laughed. "Not that I have much experience with monkeys."
"He'll be even friendlier once he gets to know you," RaineStorm said as Quaae turned his attention to picking through her beaded braids. "Make sure you check your pockets before you head off. He likes to steal things."
"Not to interrupt the monkey ogling," Johnathan called out, heading for the path, "but we really should get pizza. We're already running late and I have a test in a few hours. So breathe and watch the birds while walking at a reasonable pace."
"I was ready in more than enough time to take my time." RaineStorm gave Quaae a settling pat and followed. "Bidgie was obsessing over the number of times she used 'overcompensation' in her paper and refused to leave until she'd eliminated at least half of them."
"How many?" Harry asked curiously.
"You don't even want to know."
"That many, huh?" Harry snickered. "Where'd Bidgie come from?"
"It's short for Bridgette. Bridgette Collier." She paused, like she was waiting for something.
"Hey, Gav!" Meyer waved to the distant figure ahead of them.
Harry nodded slowly. "Yeah, Bridgette, Bidgie, I can see that."
She laughed again. "Go ahead and call me Bidgie."
"And call me Jamie."
"Crap." Johnathan looked around. "Did you two sign out for the visit? You came out the side door."
"Yes. Bidgie needed to drop something off to a classroom after we signed out, so we just used the side door instead of backtracking."
"Gav!" Meyer waved again.
The figure in the distance finally looked up. After a second, he unfolded his lanky frame from his crouch, lifting his own hand to make an encompassing gesture that managed to convey that he was more than ready and had, in fact, been waiting for them for quite a while. That was followed by another gesture that just as clearly said, furthermore, they were the ones that would have to catch up with him, so there was no need to get so worked up. He crossed his arms and crouched down again.
"That was pretty damn impressive," Harry said. "I've never seen so much meaning in two movements."
"Yeah, he's good at that." Meyer settled his hand on Bridgette's back, rubbing slightly, before resting it familiarly on her waist.
Harry skipped forward a step to join the group properly, sliding in between Johnathan and RaineStorm. "What kind of test do you have?"
"It's in Advanced Defense Two." He sighed heavily. "It's an overall assessment of our last set of skills, but there's a lot of emphasis on shields, especially Cast-Through Shields."
"Good shield. And versatile. Just wait until you get to the variations."
"What's a Cast-Through Shield?" Bridgette asked, glancing back.
"It's a shield they teach you for the sole purpose of dropping your grade in the class," Johnathan muttered. "Oh, and giving you gray hairs."
"Pish tosh." Harry waved a dismissive hand. "Cast-Throughs are strong, sturdy shields designed to absorb or reflect spells while still allowing you to cast your own spells through it without weakening the overall structure of the shield. It's not that bad."
Johnathan looked unmoved.
"Glad I went the easy Defense route," Bridgette said with a laugh.
"As am I," RaineStorm agreed.
Harry glanced away from Johnathan and further up to look at RaineStorm. "I'm completely surrounded by giants."
"It's because you're twelve," Johnathan laughed. "Don't worry; puberty will visit you one day."
"I'm not worried," Harry said dryly. "It's already visiting. My voice starts to break when I get excited."
Bridgette grinned. "That's so cute!"
Johnathan and Meyer exchanged commiserating looks.
"I really am the youngest one here, aren't I?" Harry asked. "Physically, at least," he added with a snicker.
"I think I'm being insulted," Meyer said. "Again."
"I know you're being insulted," Bridgette said, glancing back at Harry with a grin. "I like him."
"Gav's fourteen," Johnathan said with a shrug. "So he's only two years older. But honestly, how much older are the rest of us? We're only sixteen."
"Seventeen," Bridgette put in. "I'm seventeen."
"Right, we're all sixteen, except Bidge, who's seventeen, and therefore more amazing than us," Meyer said.
"You look… strangely familiar," Harry said after a moment of studying Bridgette. "More than just seeing you around school, I mean."
"Ah." She laughed. "Not a big fan of magical pop music?"
"I like it well enough," Harry said with a shrug. "But I lean a bit more towards rock and country."
She laughed again, glancing back at him. "I was invited to perform at your birthday party. Bridgette C."
Harry stared at her. "You were…. Oh! Oh. You're… right." He nodded slowly. "Bridgette C. Pop music super star. And now I feel kind of stupid, and sort of embarrassed."
"My agent was told you were a fan of my music."
"Oh. Well. No." Harry shook his head. "No. I have to be honest; I just told my family that I didn't want any old people music. I mean, I've heard your music, and I even have one of your albums, but it's not exactly…"
"Yeah, I thought it was a little odd," Bridgette said with a giggle, moving to walk more to the side. "I probably would have come, just for being there, but we had a family gathering that weekend."
"Honestly, I didn't even know a third of the people who performed, if not more, and I was only able to meet a handful of them."
"I guessed as much."
"At my birthday party, I did have a lot of old people music," Johnathan said, sighing a little. "And I did a lot of smiling and nodding when the guests talked about how much they liked it."
"Kind of sucks."
"I didn't get invited to your party," Meyer said to Harry, pretending to look hurt. "I'm famous, too."
"You toss exploding balls around at ridiculous heights while straddling a long wooden rod," Bridgette said dryly. "What, precisely, would you have done to entertain them?"
"It sounds so dirty and absurd when you put it that way," Meyer muttered.
"I think it would have been pretty Ozzin'," Harry put in. "But I have no idea how you could have managed that on a stage. And being completely realistic, think about balls exploding in mid-air without warning in an enclosed space filled with active duty Aurors…"
Johnathan winced. "Messy."
"Never mind," Meyer said. "It's totally cool my invitation was lost in the mail."
"I suppose I should just get the ugly truth out of the way now and not have it hanging over our heads," Harry said, trying not to grin at Meyer. "I'm not a big fan of Quodpot. I don't think I've ever seen a game you were in."
"But I play on the All-American team for the International Quodpot League," Meyer protested. "I'm Aaron Meyer Wendon. Win-It-All Wendon. I'm a professional Quodpot superstar."
"Not my thing."
Meyer laughed. "But hey, at least you actually know who I am. And don't call me Aaron. Only my fans and the press call me that."
"And your great grandmother Edna," RaineStorm added.
"Yeah, but- she's ridiculous. There're six Aarons in my family and she insists on calling us all Aaron. The name is like a disease we just can't seem to cure."
"So I should totally call you Aaron?" Harry asked.
"No, I go by…" Meyer fixed him with a narrow eyed look.
"I bet you'll never guess who I am," Johnathan put in with a grin.
Harry looked over at him and gave a start. "Holy crap! Where did you come from? Who are you? Why aren't you wearing pants?"
Johnathan glanced down in confusion. "But I- oh." He laughed. "I'm going to have to stay on my toes around you."
Harry grinned. "Sir, you're going to have to stay on your fingers around me."
"I have no idea what that even means, and I have to agree," Meyer said.
"So," Harry turned to RaineStorm, "should I feel stupid for not recognizing you at all?"
"Merlin, I should hope you don't recognize me. I'm the heir of the Waiye family, the founders and owners of Waiye Technologies-"
"The largest magi-tech company in North America," Harry put in. "I know the company. You have a contract with the USAS. My laptop is from Waiye Technologies. It's a good laptop."
Her brows went up slightly. "You have good taste. And odd information. Most people don't really pay attention to what companies have contracts where."
"You learn weird things when you wander the USAS when you're bored," Harry said with a shrug. "And Suntree bought my laptop, so Sun has good taste."
"Hey, Gav!" Johnathan waved.
The lanky boy stood up again, pushing his glasses higher up on his nose. "It took you long enough."
"We were introducing ourselves. Anyway, Jamie, this is Gavin Rite."
Gavin thrust his hand out and gave Harry's a brisk shake. "I'm here on scholarship." He peered down at Harry from behind his glasses, curly brown hair falling into his eyes. "Full scholarship."
"And I sing rock songs in the shower. Nice to meet you."
"How is that relevant?" Gavin asked, pushing his hair back impatiently.
"I thought maybe it was 'share completely unnecessary information when you meet someone' day. I was contributing. How was yours relevant?"
"It saves time," Gavin told him matter-of-factly, joining them on the path into town. "At a school like Hathorne, there are always people who look down on scholarship students. If you know that before you get to know me, I know I won't have wasted my time getting to know you."
"Oh. Yeah, I don't care."
"I had expected you'd find it only moderately interesting, if that. But then, no one knows very much about you."
"Well, I like long walks on the beach and rainy afternoons and-"
"Gav likes frogs," Bridgette said with a laugh. "And toads."
"What kind of pizza do you like?" Gavin asked Harry.
"I'll eat just about anything, but mushroom and spinach is my favorite."
"I find that acceptable."
"We're still getting pepperoni five cheese, thanks," Meyer told them. "You weirdoes can have fun with that spinach."
"And we're getting a pineapple ham," Bridgette said firmly.
Meyer shuddered. "Fruit on pizza is just… unnatural."
"You just have no taste."
"I have plenty of taste, thanks, and I think it's an abomination unto pizza, too," Johnathan put in.
"You're in the minority."
"By one," Johnathan protested. "Three against two is not a huge majority."
Bridgette looked at Harry. "Opinion?"
"It's not a huge majority," Harry agreed with a bit of a shrug.
"No. What's your opinion on ham and pineapple?"
"Oh, sure, I'll eat just about anything. Just no pineapple and anchovies. I'm not touching that."
Bridgette made a face. "That's disgusting."
"Oh, it really is," Harry agreed. "It really, really is."
"Four to two, the majority continues to hold," Bridgette said brightly. She nudged Meyer. "And I win, so you owe me ice cream after pizza."
Meyer squeezed her waist lightly. "I always buy you ice cream afterward, sweetheart."
Gavin fell in step with Harry, peering at him intently.
Harry glanced over. "Yo?"
"Do you like toads?"
"Uh…" Harry kicked a stone down the road. "Honestly, I've never really given toads much thought."
"You should. And frogs, too. They're fascinating creatures. Toads have a Bidder's organ, did you know? In male toads, it develops into an ovary if the testes are damaged, making them fully functioning female toads."
"Wow. I had no idea."
"I don't know if I really needed one," Bridgette muttered.
"I'll lend you a book," Gavin told Harry.
RaineStorm leaned in towards Harry, shifting Quaae from her shoulder into her arms. "He'll talk your ear off about toads if you let him."
"It is quite impossible to talk someone's ear off," Gavin stated. "Sound waves simply cannot remove an ear under any normal circumstance, let alone within the range humans are capable of producing."
RaineStorm groaned. "Come on, Gavvy…"
Johnathan settled an arm over Harry's shoulders, speeding them up until they were walking several steps in front of Gavin and RaineStorm, who were now debating the illogical nature and point of using idioms. "They can bicker like that for hours if you let them," he chuckled. "About nearly anything."
Harry laughed. "Sounds fun."
Johnathan grinned, dropping his arm from Harry's shoulders to nudge him a little. "They're not half as interesting as you, though."
"What? Me?" Harry glanced over, brows raised. "What did I do?"
"I've heard some pretty interesting stories about you and one of the jerks that go to school here and Quidditch camp."
"Ohh, Ambrose. Yes, I'm familiar with him."
"Familiar?" Johnathan laughed. "I heard that you embarrassed the hell out of Carrick and his friends."
RaineStorm and Gavin quickened their steps to catch up. "Carrick?" she asked. "Did someone mention Carrick?"
"I was just asking Jamie about it, yeah."
"Did you really dump his breakfast tray on him?" Bridgette asked, falling back to walk a little more in line with them, pulling Meyer with her. "And turn his hair pink?"
"I heard that Carrick and his friends were mocking your normal choice of clothing and you turned their robes into dresses one afternoon," Meyer put in with a laugh. "I wish there were pictures."
"Any other wild rumors you've heard?" Harry asked a little dryly.
"I don't think I want to know, on second thought."
"I must admit, he's been almost tolerable this year," Gavin said thoughtfully. "And everything I've heard, possible exaggerations aside, points to you as being involved in the change in some capacity."
"He uses words like that all the time," Meyer said, shaking his head. "In the most casual conversations."
"Yes, I do."
"So, breakfast trays and pink hair and dresses and-"
"Whoa," Harry interrupted with a laugh. "We had some… encounters, but it's not as ugly as it sounds."
"'Encounters' is a loaded word," RaineStorm said.
Johnathan shook his head. "I heard the dress thing from at least four people. That happened."
"Sure, it definitely happened," Harry agreed. "But it wasn't me. Not technically. I'll admit that my constantly refusing to step aside and let them be kings of the camp probably motivated some of the others to stand up for themselves, but the actual act had nothing to do with me."
"What about the breakfast tray?" Bridgette asked. "Please tell me the breakfast tray really happened. I've had this image of him and his friends with egg in their hair and oatmeal dripping down their shirts ever since I heard it. Please tell me it happened."
"Nope, sorry. I didn't in any way cover them in any kind of food."
"Pink hair?" Meyer demanded. "I know that happened. I know for a fact that the camp administration spoke to you more than once about it, even though you never seemed to get in trouble for it."
"For a fact, huh? An actual fact?"
"Terrence mentioned it to me," Johnathan said with a smug smile. "Of course I mentioned it to my friends. I don't imagine Terrence would lie to me."
"Of course Terrence mentioned it." Harry rolled his eyes. "The next time I see him I need to kick him in the shins or curse him or something."
Johnathan's mouth opened in surprise. "You really do have a different relationship with your bodyguards."
Harry shrugged a little. "Well, Terry's not really my bodyguard. I mean, I totally concede I'd still smack him even if he was, but only two of my Pottery Defenders are actually assigned to me as bodyguards. The rest of the PDs just pretend to be my bodyguards so they have an excuse to be in my shining, illustrious presence."
"Illustrious?" Meyer asked. "Really? Illustrious?"
"Technically, you could say that he is, in some people's eyes, deservedly famous and notably outstanding because of achievements or actions on his part," Gavin said. "Admittedly, the details of the aforementioned achievement are rather unclear beyond the most apparent result…"
"Gav, seriously, no one uses words like aforementioned in actual conversation," Meyer said with a groan.
"I just did."
"You don't count!"
"The pink hair," RaineStorm prompted. "I bet that's a great story. I bet that's a fantastic story. You should tell us that story."
Harry frowned slightly. "That's a little more prurient interest than I expected. Why are you so damned intent on hearing about the pink hair?"
"Because my family actually is obscenely rich and well-connected and his family is barely rich and connected, but he still acts like he's Merlin's gift to the world when he most clearly isn't."
Harry's brows went up. "Whoa?"
Everyone else stopped walking to stare. Gavin gave a little cough.
RaineStorm glanced around the group then looked down. "So... in the interest of full disclosure, Carrick and I used to be friends..."
"RaineStorm's a recovering snob," Johnathan said a little dryly. "Sometimes she has a relapse of spoiled brat."
"Oh." Harry took a moment to think about that.
"To be fair," Meyer said into the silence, beginning to walk again, "none of us really like him. I'm sure we all find the idea of him being embarrassed a bit satisfying."
"None of us like him at all," Gavin corrected. "At all."
"Is he really that bad? I know you've obviously had more experience with him, considering the bulk of my experience is a single week at Quidditch camp and a handful of momentary glimpses of him around school until he notices me and disappears, but... I actually kind of like him. It's his friends that are utter crap."
"Oh, he's quite horrible enough on his own when he takes it into his mind to be," RaineStorm muttered.
Gavin scowled. "He thinks scholarship students are undeserving of Hathorne's full range of resources." He took his glasses off and held them up to the light to inspect them. "As if the inclusion of those who know the true value of hard work and were expected to compete for both the money to attend and a place at the school will somehow diminish the school's quality." He put his glasses back on. "Faulty traditionalist logic."
"And you turned his hair pink." RaineStorm smiled, looking satisfied. "I'm sure it was infuriating. I'm sure it was perfect."
Harry laughed. "To be entirely fair, I didn't do it to them. They did it to themselves. No, really, they did. You know about magical auras, right? It's the-"
"Personal magic that radiates out from and surrounds one's body, but remains an active and connected part of one's magic," Gavin cut in, nodding. "Because of its unique dual nature of being both outside of the majority of magic and yet still a part of the whole, it allows one to set up shields, body wards, and defenses that extend beyond the body anywhere between two inches to three feet that are always actively safeguarding and passively being maintained. They are, however, limited in what they can do, and as far as shields go they are relatively weak. It's basic, common knowledge."
"For some people, maybe," Meyer muttered.
"We have to learn some of the aura shielding in L5 Defense," RaineStorm said. "They're incredibly complicated. I'm next to hopeless with them. Not that defense is my strength by any means."
Johnathan nodded slowly, stepping up from the path onto the sidewalk that ran in front of the first row of student-oriented stores. He picked up a discarded cup and tossed it into a nearby trash can. "It was part of the physical defense lessons I learned when I was younger, with all of the other presidential family defense strategies. From what I recall, though, all anchored spells are passive, and changing someone's hair color isn't a passive spell."
"You're right," Harry agreed brightly, peering curiously through the window of a small food store as they passed. "I have detection and alert shield spells active, and I've been trained to respond on reflex if a certain kind of alert ripples through my magic-"
"Alerts don't ripple," Gavin said firmly. "Alerts are connected to trigger spells that create a physical sensation to draw attention to the direction of an incoming spell-"
"Easy there." Harry held up his hands.
"Gav believes that when you talk about magic, you should take care to be as literal as possible," Meyer said wearily. "He'll interrupt you all the time."
"Yes, I will. When you use lax language while expressing concepts related to magic, it will inevitably lead to lax magical discipline."
"Just humor him. It's easier than arguing."
"Or argue," RaineStorm said with a grin, letting Quaae down to scamper off ahead of them as they came to the end of the block and turned down one of the connecting streets leading further into town. "It's easier than being literal. Lax thinking leads to lax magic, not lax language."
Harry couldn't stop himself from giggling. "You really want me to be literal about magic?"
Gavin eyed him suspiciously. "Yes."
Harry didn't try very hard to stifle another giggle. "All right. Remember you asked for it. As I was saying, I've been taught to respond in specific ways if a certain kind of alert ripples through my magic – yes, ripples through my magic. As a Magurist, my interaction with magic is wholly unique from other forms of force-spell magic casting and, to varying degrees, unique from other forms of Magurist casting. So I perceive the alert as a ripple that goes through my magic."
Gavin continued to eye him suspiciously before he nodded slowly. "Continue."
"If it's dangerous in any way, I snap real shields into place and I fire out a tracker to find the spell's origin. If it's not dangerous, I snap up much weaker shields and fire out a return spell of my own, usually something embarrassing or inconvenient."
Johnathan grinned slowly. "Ohh..."
"That's why I didn't get into trouble. It was Monty that cast the actual spell – something to give me terrible gas, or along the same vein, as near as I could tell from the taste – no, don't even try to work that one out," Harry added as Gavin opened his mouth. "Trust me, that's as literal as you're going to get."
"If it wasn't Carrick that cast the spell, how'd you turn his hair pink?" RaineStorm asked with a puzzled frown. "Did you miss?"
"I never miss."
Bridgette fixed him with an 'it's hardly necessary to exaggerate' look. "Come on, everyone misses."
"If someone dodges, sure. But I never miss a stationary object."
"Everyone's aim is off sometimes," Bridgette argued. "No matter how good you are."
Bridgette opened her mouth, looking fully ready to counter, but Johnathan shook his head slightly and she subsided.
"So what happened?" Meyer asked.
"They were practically in each other's lap." Harry rolled his eyes. "They were hiding behind a directional sign, almost on top of each other, huddled together. The way I track and return spells is through..." Harry trailed off as he tried to figure out how to explain without giving too much away.
"Classified?" Meyer asked dryly. "We get that from him," he jerked his thumb at Johnathan, "all the time."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Johnathan laughed.
"No, not so much classified as... complicated. My spell picks up the fading traces of the caster's magic and traces it back to the magical aura it belongs to. The problem is that the magical aura isn't self-contained. When you're pressed against another person, your auras are overlapping and mixing together at the edges. When I sent my spell back, it was powerful enough to hit Monty square on and then spill over onto the other two. Ambrose and Benny walked away with a nice solid shade of pink, but Monty's hair was practically glowing." Harry grinned. "I made sure to lock the spell nice and tight, too. The camp administration couldn't figure out how to unlock it to cast the counter spell."
"Really?" Gavin asked doubtfully. "No one there could unlock it?"
Harry shook his head. "It's not that my spell was just that super amazing or anything. There just wasn't a powerful enough Magurist on hand to untie all of the magical knots I'd put into the spell. Yes, I do mean that literally."
RaineStorm studied him intently.
"Let's catch the train," Johnathan said as they rounded a corner and moved towards a group of covered benches. The street signs changed from student blue to town green.
Harry paused in surprise for a moment then skipped ahead a few steps to catch up with Johnathan.
"All right," Meyer said, cutting in before Harry could say something, "I understand you not getting in trouble for the initial spell, but I have a lot of trouble believing they'd just let you get away with refusing to take it off without getting kicked out of camp or someone threatening legal action or something. As annoying as Carrick and his friends are, their parents are still really rich and really influential with the right kind of people. Especially Carrick's friends. That's why they can get away with being such colossal jerks to begin with."
"Oh, come on, Meyer," RaineStorm laughed. "Harry Potter? Really? The spell was cast in retaliation, even defense, and it wasn't even harmful. Unlike their spell. If Harry Potter wants to throw his weight around-"
"Can I put a word in?" Harry interrupted. "Because I didn't actually refuse to take it off. I tweaked the spell so it would break if they apologized and even half meant it. They muttered their apologies, nothing happened, and it was out of my hands at that point. At least until the end of the week. I didn't actually have to be present for their expressed remorse to trigger the reversal spell, but there really wasn't much point in keeping it in place after we left camp. It'd only have taken a week or two for their parents to find someone capable of untwisting my spell."
"Hah." Meyer grinned, settling next to Bridgette on one of the benches and stretching his legs out. "I bet that was great, the three of them with pink hair. It almost makes me wish I played Quidditch. Almost."
Harry snorted. "For the record, Ambrose apologized the next day and his hair changed back."
"That seems unlike him," Johnathan remarked, looking a little startled as RaineStorm picked Quaae up and then handed Quaae over to him. The monkey promptly started tugging on his tie.
"Admitting to having been in error in some way? Very unlike," Gavin agreed, leaning against one of the overhang's support columns.
"Maybe you don't know him as well as you think."
"I know him as well as I need," RaineStorm said with a snort, shaking out her hair to untangle her braids, beads clacking.
Johnathan made a flailing gesture in RaineStorm's direction. "Raine... Monkey... Choking me..."
"He just doesn't like your tie."
"I know the feeling," Harry murmured, eyeing the simple black and blue striped tie.
Johnathan pried Quaae off of his tie and thrust him out towards Bridgette as he sprawled on the bench next to her, loosening his tie. After a moment he pulled it off entirely and shoved it into his pocket, looking almost sheepish.
"Did you say train?" Harry asked him, turning to stare at the narrow paved road. "I don't see any tracks. Is it like a bus?"
"It's more like a tram than a train, but everyone calls it a train, even the locals."
"Have you seriously never even visited town even once during your placement testing and when you came to do a walkthrough of the school or anything?" Meyer asked, sitting up with interest. Quaae chittered at him unhappily as his movement jostled Bridgette and the bracelets he was studiously trying to remove from her arm.
Harry shrugged. "My first visit to Hathorne, I Portkeyed in to the blue street Student Drop and we walked to the nearest connecting streets and into the town itself, but we didn't get in much further than a street or two. I don't recall seeing a tram or tracks or anything then. After that, I always went directly to the school by Floo. More secure."
"Well, the town has a tram," Johnathan said. "They'll tell you that there're only twenty streets or something in town, but that's major streets. Hathorne Town is full of unnamed side streets and alleys and single streets that loop and twist and turn and properly ought to be two or three streets. You definitely have to bring your map when you visit until you get used to it."
"I noticed that when they gave me a map yesterday," Harry agreed.
"The tram helps. There are actually two tram lines. The city line only comes as far as the last green street before you reach the student blues, but it crisscrosses through town, hitting all of the major centers of activity like the post office and the mall. The other line hits the major professional areas, loops around the outskirts of town, runs through the biggest neighborhoods and over to the edge of the forest where you'll find the really expensive homes."
"They run about every ten minutes," Bridgette added, pulling one of her bracelets out of Quaae's hands and handing him back to RaineStorm. "It's really useful when you're running late or you're wearing heels or something like that."
Harry turned to grin at her. "Good thing I learned about this before I tramped all over town in my heels. Man, you've saved me a lot of aching feet."
"Yeah, me, too," Meyer said with a grin of his own. "I hate when I have to walk all over town in heels."
"You couldn't walk ten feet in heels if your life depended on it," Bridgette snorted.
"I beg to differ," Harry said. "In fact, I outright differ, no begging needed. Especially if my life depended on it. There's not a lot I couldn't do if my life depended on it."
"I believe it." Johnathan stood up to check the bus schedule.
"So where's the track?" Harry asked, turning to the road again.
"Under the road," Gavin answered, straightening up a little with an intent look. "It's a polarized magic rune system-"
"It works like a magnet pulling another magnet across a table," Meyer interrupted. "But, you know, more magical."
Gavin fixed him with an annoyed look.
"Come on, Gav," Meyer groaned. "Pizza Wednesday is a little light for a lecture on magic influenced physics and all of that."
"I'd love to borrow a book on that," Harry told Gavin with a grin.
Gavin gave him a little smile. It made him look more boyish. "I'll lend you one."
"Or three," RaineStorm teased.
Harry moved to the edge of the street and chanced easing his shields down enough to study the magic laid out on the road. It felt and looked extra bright and tingled against his own magic, but not so much so that he wasn't able to study the two buzzing solid lines of magic rooted beneath the street, shifting between green and yellow and shooting off little sparks like a broken power line in a cartoon. "Now that's interesting..."
"What's interesting?" RaineStorm asked from directly behind him.
Harry gave a start and turned, then took a half step back at her aura. It was stable, but constantly in motion, flowing and moving and shifting in cascades of color that blended and twisted and ribboned around each other. Harry couldn't even begin to make out what any of it meant, and the uneasy feeling he'd been getting lately when he tried to look past the most superficial layer of an aura without permission flared. He tightened his shields.
"Jamie?" RaineStorm asked slowly, concerned.
Harry shook his head. "Nothing." He ran his hands through his hair, pulling out the tie and shaking it free from the short ponytail. "Where are we getting pizza? There were, like, three pizza places I spotted just on the way here."
"We're going to A Pizza Place," Johnathan answered. "That's actually the name," he added quickly at Harry's thoroughly unimpressed look. "It's called A Pizza Place."
Gavin rolled his eyes. "My, aren't they clever."
"The pizza is more than worth it." Johnathan stood up, nudging Bridgette to get her attention, nodding to the approaching vehicle.
It looked like a long trolley car floating just off of the ground, painted with a tropical underwater scene. "That's pretty cool."
"The town holds a contest every year for a new design and it's painted over the summer. I really like this one. Last year..." Johnathan shrugged. "It was really abstract. It's not exactly my style."
The trolley slid to a stop in front of them and several people got off, mostly students. Harry was distracted for a moment by the buzz of magic radiating from the front and back of the bus, warm and solid like invisible barriers and just strong enough to break through his shielding. He tightened his shields a little more to dull it to the vaguest awareness. He moved in behind Johnathan, ignoring the startled glance and stare of the last person getting off as they noticed him.
"Hey, Johnathan." Harry settled next to him. "How long have you guys been working on Cast-Throughs?"
"About a week and a half."
"And no one's been able to help you?"
"I've worked with a few people in class and met with my teacher. I've also talked to someone in Student Learning and worked with a couple of people there. I'm just having trouble with it for some reason." He shrugged.
"And your bodyguards haven't been able to help? That sort of spell is a specialty of theirs."
Johnathan frowned and then got a very odd look on his face. "I... never actually... thought to ask one of them. It's never occurred to me. Damn." He slumped back in his seat, long legs stretching out in front of him. "Wish you'd said that yesterday or something, when I could have asked."
Harry laughed. "I'll see if I can help you after lunch, if you like."
"Think you'll be able to help?"
"I'm actually pretty good with them." Harry grinned. "I helped Terry tweak his over the summer."
"I'm coming to you the next time I have a problem in Defense."
"You know where I am."
"Hey." RaineStorm slid down the seat to sit closer to them. "What else happened at Quidditch Camp?"
"I ate a really good omelet. I mean, absolutely spectacular. There was goat cheese in it, crab, mushrooms, freshly picked herbs. Now it's your turn to tell a story."
RaineStorm looked a little startled then laughed.
"Or better yet, why aren't you wearing shoes?"
She looked down at her bare feet and wiggled her toes. She looked down at Harry's dress boots. "Why are you?"
"You're right. Why am I?" Harry pulled his leg up on the seat and started to take off his boot.
"I have a story about frogs," Gavin told them.
Everyone groaned. Harry couldn't help but grin. "Yeah, sure."
"I know where you can get an amazing omelet in town," Bridgette interrupted a little desperately. "And I know where you can get the absolute best eggs and bacon you'll ever have."
"Amazing apple pie," Meyer put in. "There's a small little restaurant that has the most amazing apple pie. They use three to five different kinds of apple, whatever they have on hand each day, and it has this kind of sweet crumbly crust and it comes with a scoop of slightly cinnamony ice cream."
"Clearly no one is interested in frogs," Gavin interrupted. "There's no need to continue with this charade."
Harry pulled off his other boot and wriggled his toes in his socks.
"Purple socks," Meyer snickered. "Out of clean laundry?"
"Are you kidding? I love these socks!" He pulled up the leg of his pants to show the rest of them. "And there are bumblebees on them! What's not to love about these socks?"
Meyer stared at him for a moment. Johnathan coughed on a snicker. Meyer finally shrugged and turned his attention to untangling a thread on his shirt from one of Bridgette's bracelets. "If you'd take better care of your shirts," she was muttering.
"I like your style," RaineStorm said. "Even if you're sadly bereft of a top hat."
"I like yours, too," Harry grinned, pulling off his socks and tucking them into his boots.
Harry glanced into the third floor dorm lounge, checking to see if his preferred phone call spot was open before coming into the room properly. He half waved to a small group in front of one of the televisions as he made his way to the very back corner where three phones were arranged on small tables beside armchairs. He settled into the furthest armchair, lightly kicking off his slippers and wriggling a little to pull his Hathorne ID from his back pocket. It only took a moment to flick his fingers upward, putting up a silencing and privacy ward around his area, and then he picked up the receiver and slid his ID card through the phone reader to reach an outside line. He punched in the number. The phone rang only once before it was answered.
"A bit late, isn't it?"
"It's barely ten, Sunny." Harry shifted and resettled to sit mostly sideways, digging his feet into the cushions. "I bet you're drinking a glass of carrot juice as you read through some trashy tabloids or something."
"Carrot juice, yes. Tabloid, no."
"Finished them, have you?"
"Yes. It amuses me to see that some strange things can be found equally on both sides of the magical divide."
"More Elvis sightings?" Harry asked with a grin. "It's so completely ridiculous. The aliens abducted Elvis because he knew entirely too much about the purple balloons."
"Well, that had been classified," Suntree sighed.
"Oi, I'm no greenie. I put up the super-duper Elvis and Easter Bunny level classified wards before I even made the call. So there."
Suntree chuckled. "Seeing as how I have you on the phone, your mother wanted me to send you a note tomorrow asking about-"
"It wasn't me," Harry put in quickly. "It was Al."
"Are you sure?"
Suntree made a thoughtful noise.
"Unless it was a good thing, and then that was entirely and only me. But everything else is Al's fault."
"Your mother wants to know when you'll visit again."
"Oh, right. Hey, I was just there last weekend." Harry twirled the phone cord around his finger, digging his socked toes further into the cushions. "I've got a Quidditch game this weekend. My first one. She could come see that, you know."
"Child, you know that your mother would spend more time watching the palms of her hands than watching you fly."
"It'd still be kind of cool if she'd come. It's my first game. I mean, seriously, my first game! And besides, flying on a broom is way safer than driving a car."
"Strangely, for some reason that doesn't reassure her. But I'll be sure she knows you'd like her to come." There was a quiet glass on glass clink from somewhere near the phone. "Your mother said I should remind you that you're only required to stay at Hathorne three nights a week. With that dutifully said, we both know that you're aware of that and you're simply enjoying yourself, so I'll tell her in a few days that I contacted you and you're still settling in."
"Thanks," Harry said with a smile, pulling his feet out of the cushions and slouching to dangle them over the arm of the chair, looking out over the lounge room. "And I sort of am. Just not, you know, traditionally."
"Still adjusting to the magic?"
"Yeah. I mean, I'm pretty much great. The school has fantastical and awesome wards, so even though there's magic going on everywhere, it's all pretty well balanced and there's not much buildup. Sure, sometimes I walk through a light fog of magic or don't tighten my shields and brace myself enough when I enter a building and I feel a little overwhelmed for a few hours, extra sensitive, but it's not that bad. I just keep my awareness to a minimum when that happens. So it's really just a matter of adjusting to the different flavor."
"That's good, then."
"All that said, though, today I ran through a door without bracing myself at all and... Merlin fucking God. And don't you correct my language. This was... I stumbled out the other side of the door and the identification magic wrapped itself around me, clawed its way in through my pores, slickered and slurched and slurged-"
"Hey, when you find real words to describe the feeling of magic walking its sticky, hungry fingers along the inside of your body and through your senses, tingling and tickling and shivering under your skin, slithering through your magic like it's picking your pockets and rubbing itself into your little corners and touching you in ways that are just completely wrong, you let me know what they are. When you know how to describe being cracked open and run through and left open and raw and vulnerable to the merest brush of outside magic, you let me know."
Suntree was silent for a moment. "Are you all right?"
Harry sucked in a breath and rubbed his eyes. His contacts needed to be replaced. "Yeah. It was just... intense. And really, really weird. I've walked in and out of buildings before without fully tightening my shields and without properly bracing myself, and while it's made me want to jump around and flail and rub my skin off to make the magic go away, today was... uncharacteristically unpleasant, to the extreme. I think I should talk to Healer Z."
"I'll check his schedule tomorrow and let you know what days he's available."
"Awesome. And actually, that's sort of related to why I called. Part of it, at least." Harry stretched and slouched, legs sliding further over the arm, then squeaked as a cat launched itself from the next chair over to bat at his feet.
"I was just attacked by a random cat..." Harry pulled his legs up to his chest and peered over the side of the chair. The cat had curled up on his slippers and looked like it was ready to take a nap. "And now it's appropriated my slippers."
Suntree chuckled. "You had a question?"
"Yeah, but hang on." Harry shifted to sit cross-legged, eyeing the cat as he dropped his wand into his hand for the tight control. He made a complicated twist and swirl and jab motion with it, discretely casting his spell. For a moment nothing happened, and then the cat was on its feet, hissing and spitting, ears laid back and fur standing on end. Harry pulled his legs back up to his chest with wide eyes and turned his body in towards the chair. "Well, at least we know you're not a spy, cat," he muttered to it.
"What did you just do?" Suntree asked with a hint of a sigh.
"Animagus reveal. The cat's kind of frizzy now."
"You overpowered the spell."
"Gee, you think?" Harry glanced over the side of the chair cautiously. The cat had settled on his slippers again to groom itself, looking none too happy. "I'm going to have to fight an epic battle when I want to reclaim those slippers."
"Be sure to send me the memory so I can record it for all of time. We can use it to teach our trainees."
"Oh, right." Harry slipped his wand back into the holster. "I'm having a sort of problem, I think."
"I signed that healer contract and everything, for all of the confidentially stuff and not taking advantage stuff and all of that stuff-"
"Your eloquence is overwhelming."
"-and I'm totally cool with not being a terrible person and not poking at things I don't have permission to poke at, but I'm having a serious problem with that entire asking to study a person's aura thing."
"So, you're having a serious problem being polite?"
Harry snorted. "No. I'm having a serious problem with the fact that asking permission to read someone's aura is pretty much advertising to the world that I read auras. It didn't even occur to me when I signed the contract because, well, first of all it was in regards to healing, and I'm primarily healing Aurors and law enforcement, and there's an implied consent to reading auras in healing. Second, I didn't realize just how restrictive the reading without permission was going to be. I can't even take more than a glance at the surface without beginning to feel uneasy, and the longer I look, the more uneasy I feel. That's totally the contract keeping me in line, isn't it?"
Suntree made a thoughtful sound. "You didn't actually sign a tightly restrictive contract. If you were flagrantly overstepping yourself, there's certainly a clause in the contract for magic to keep you in check, subtly at first, like this, and then more forcibly as the action continued unabated. But I rather doubt you're delving into the depths of every aura you meet, and for the contract to be restricting you this much this soon, you'd have to be."
Harry smacked his forehead with a hand. "Great. Just... great. So, what's going on? What's wrong? Any idea? Because the way this is going right now, it's just not going to work for me, Sun. Good or bad, I've gotten used to scanning people. I mean, I haven't even been able to look at Geoffrey's aura for more than a couple of seconds. He's too good at picking up unease and fear."
"Vampires are quite well suited to that, yes," Suntree agreed.
"And I'm not afraid of him. I'm not. I certainly respect that he's pretty damned dangerous, but so am I when I need to be. Though..."
"It might be a good idea to have me work with a vampire at the USAS?" Harry glanced down at the cat. It hissed at him. "You guys have vampires, right?"
"Several, yes. And that does sound like a good idea. Vampires are generally very neutral in magical conflicts of the kind you're most likely to be impacted by, so they weren't considered a threat for your defensive training."
"My vampire is more of a nuisance than a threat, and only sometimes, but I still don't want to give him any ground."
"So, you haven't been able to study his aura? Is it necessary to you not giving any ground?"
"Uh..." Harry twirled the phone cord around his fingers. "No? Maybe? Probably? Better safe than sorry?" Harry sighed. "Come on, Sunny, you know he's not the issue. This is serious. What's going on?"
"I honestly..." Suntree trailed off into deep silence for a moment. "Actually, can you call me back in ten to fifteen minutes? I can't say much, but I might know someone who can answer this fairly swiftly."
"Absolutely. Ten to fifteen?"
"Give or take. I might chat for a few minutes. Pretend I'm polite."
Harry laughed. "All right. I'll call you back." He hung up slowly and glanced down at his slippers. The cat stared back at him with barely open eyes, sprawled out across one of his slippers and kneading the other. "Great. Thanks. With my luck, Geoffrey's going to be allergic to cat dander or something."
The cat yawned.
Harry looked back at the phone thoughtfully, and then pulled his ID out again to swipe and dial. The other line was answered promptly.
"United States Auror Service Headquarters. This is Temple Guardian; how may I help you this evening?"
"How many people think your name's a joke, Temple?"
She laughed. "Too many. But that's what happens when both of your parents are Aurors. What's up with you? I haven't heard from you in quite a while. What are you doing calling the public line and not the inter-department directory?"
"Honestly? I figured I'd have better luck getting the transfer with you. But the better question is: what's up with you? How's little Temple?"
"Walking poorly and biting very well. The real question is how big Temple's doing."
Harry grinned. "How's big Temple doing?"
"Happy to be back to work full time. I'm even happier now that my kid has stopped looking like a little goblin. Hey, I can admit that she came out looking like I'd had an affair with our banker," she said as Harry began to laugh. "But she's downright cute now that she looks human."
"Congratulations on her being human, then. How's the husband?"
"Dealing with a yeti problem somewhere at the moment. He calls every morning to make ridiculous noises at little Temple over the phone, which are all the more touching because I can hear his friends dying in the background."
Harry smiled faintly. "That's a great dad right there."
"Yeah, he is," Temple said fondly. "But that's not why you called. You said you were hoping you'd have better luck with me?"
"Yeah. I have a question about the wards at Hathorne. Not anything specific about them, just a question that someone familiar with Hathorne's security would be able to answer. If I go through the directory, I'll just be transferred to someone at the bottom of the decision chain and I'll be on the phone ten minutes getting transferred up the ladder to someone in a position to decide whether I can ask my question or not, let alone answer my question. Think you can transfer me over to someone who might be able to make that decision?"
Temple made a thoughtful noise.
"It's already pretty late on a school night," Harry pointed out. "I have to review a presentation for tomorrow. I have Quidditch practice tomorrow at five thirty. That's AM. And Suntree's expecting me to call him at a certain time tonight."
Temple laughed. "All right. I can transfer you over. It's not like there's anything going on tonight, anyway."
"You're the best. Give little Temple hugs from me."
"Rub peanut butter in your hair from her," Temple said with a snicker. "Hang on. It might take a minute or two for someone to pick up." There was a click and then the line went silent. After a moment the hold messages kicked in.
"If you're interested in volunteering with the United States Auror Service, there is a wide and varied range of programs sponsored and supported by the USAS. From USAS supported summer camps to youth programs to community safety and awareness groups to international relief and aid organizations, the USAS is active in your community today. If you want to join, ask to be transferred to Volunteering when you have completed your business today, or press one now to speak to someone while you wait."
Harry dug into his pocket for his chapstick as it clicked over to the next message.
"The United States Auror Service is ranked in the top ten percent of employers in Magical America with employment opportunities spanning multiple fields and disciplines. Being an Auror is only the most public face of the USAS. The USAS is a recognized leader in cutting edge research and development in all classical and experimental fields of magic, medicine and science. The USAS is on par with many of the top-ranked magical Universities in its devotion to scholarly research and education. Traditional and non-traditional resource procurement, management, and support make up a considerable portion of the USAS working force. The USAS offers its employees a full range of government resources and advancement while enjoying private employment pay and benefits. If you'd like more information about employment with the USAS – where employees are valued – ask to be transferred to Human Resources when you have completed your business today, or press two now to speak to someone while you wait."
"Note to self," Harry sighed, "the inter-department directory will babble really crazy ads at me while I'm waiting, but at least those are amusing."
"That they are," someone responded on the line.
Harry sat up straight. "Hi! I didn't realize someone had picked up!"
"I'm sure. How can I help you?"
"Where exactly have I been transferred?"
"Warding. You're speaking with First Supervisor Archimedes Carmichael."
"Oh! Yeah! Hey. It's Jamie."
"So I can tell," Archimedes chuckled. "I understand you have a question of some kind? One you might not have the clearance to know?"
"Yeah. Okay. I know that I'm not cleared and have no need to know any of the details about Hathorne's wards – which, by the way, are pretty damn sweet, from what I've been able to feel of them – but I have a question that's related to them. I'm assuming that the wards at the USAS are even more damned amazing than Hathorne's wards, and Hathorne's wards are pretty frickin' tight. So I'm wondering why Hathorne's building identification scans skulk around inside me with slimy little fingers, leaving trails of ugh and gah and urg across my aura, while the USAS wards are just a light tickle I don't even notice most of the time."
Archimedes was silent for several moments. "I'm sorry? What's going on?"
"Oh. I sense wards?" Harry said slowly.
"As I've heard, yes."
"Oh, good. I was worried for a second we were going to play the 'who's cleared to know what' game. There would have been something entirely too ironic for a Wednesday night in me not being able to find out if I'm cleared to know what I'm asking because you're not cleared to hear the question."
Archimedes chuckled. "Yes, I understand that you're capable of sensing wards."
"When I enter and exit buildings on campus, the identification wards that check to make sure I'm allowed to be here crawl all over me and inside me and run their nails over the chalkboard that is my soul-"
"Basically, yes. But the USAS wards don't do that to me. I know I don't do any building entering or exiting there, but when you move through different levels of security, it's basically the same setup. And the stronger the wards, the more intense the scan gets, so I'm confused as to why I can walk around the USAS all day and not even notice the scans unless I'm fairly open, but at Hathorne they still make me twitch and wince even at my most braced and shielded."
"Ah. I honestly couldn't even begin to answer that question. But let me see if you'd be allowed to ask that question of someone else..." There was a period of computer keys clacking and Archimedes humming under his breath. "Unfortunately, while you do have the clearance to talk to someone about the general security setup at Hathorne, you have to submit an official request."
"Damn. All right. And I need to do that in person, right?"
"I suppose I can wait a few days."
"Though..." There was a little more clacking. "One of your PDs is involved in the annual security assessment, so he might be in a position to answer your question without all of the official hoopla."
"Most excellent! Which one?"
"Hmm... Might not be my place to say," he said cheerfully. "It shouldn't be too hard to figure out, though."
"Considerably helpful, in fact," Archimedes agreed. "I didn't have to tell you that last bit, you know."
"Yeah, I know. And thanks. But I should probably go. I need to call Sunny back soon. Oh, wait. What's your extension?"
"Seven-two-nine-eight. Talk to you later."
"Bye." Harry hung up. After a moment, he picked up the entire phone, shifting in the chair to rest his back against the arm while looking out at the room, feet on the opposite arm. He settled the base on his stomach and picked up the handset again, sliding his ID through and dialing the most obvious number. It took almost six rings before the line was picked up.
"Marsen," he grunted. "And I'm not putting on fucking pants."
Harry pulled the phone away from his ear to stare at it in confusion, and then moved it back to his ear a little cautiously. "Why aren't you wearing pants?" he asked slowly.
There were a few grunts and some shifting. "Fuck. I am wearing pants."
"No offense, but what the fuck do you want? I just got off a hellish field assignment, I haven't slept in thirty hours, apparently I am wearing pants, I lost my soup, and I just managed to fall asleep. What? What is it?"
"You lost your soup?"
"Yes. You called?"
"Oh, yeah. I have a question about Hathorne's wards-"
"A question about Hathorne's wards, and since you're in warding-"
"Residential. Residential warding. I ward houses. I ward houses and apartments and condos and villas and fucking bungalows and chateaus and even a goddamned houseboat once. I don't ward schools. I don't know shit about warding schools."
"Is that it?"
"Good." Al hung up.
Harry stared at the phone for a moment, and then pressed his thumb down on the cradle. After a moment he swiped his ID again and dialed his next number carefully. It didn't even finish ringing when it was picked up.
"He's dead," Tony said impatiently. "I'm absolutely sure of it this time. Log it and leave me the hell alone."
"I..." Tony cleared his throat. "Jamie?"
"Hang on. I have to clean something up." There was silence on the other line.
Harry pulled his watch out and flipped it open to show the time. He considered just hanging up and calling Suntree back and then doing homework. He hoped Tony wasn't cleaning up blood.
"I'm back. Bit late, isn't it?"
"He's dead this time?"
Tony was quiet a moment. "I thought you were someone else."
"Clearly. Doesn't your phone tell you who's calling?"
"It does. But he's been calling every fifteen seconds for the last three minutes. I stopped waiting for it to register. What's up?"
"No, really. He's dead this time?"
"Unless he's faking it again."
"It's a little classified. What's up?"
"Um. Yeah. Do you know anything about the Hathorne wards?"
Tony started to laugh. "When have I ever showed myself proficient enough in warding to understand those kinds of wards?"
"I... You're right. You're absolutely right. But I bet you know who is proficient enough."
"Actually, I'd have to check my files and those are in my office, and I'm headed to a bar at the moment."
"Is that a little bit classified, too?"
"Not unless getting drunk is classified now. Which it is, by the way, if your mother asks."
"I'm going to call someone more useful now."
"Hah. Good luck with that. Hey, we should get together for lunch next week or something. We haven't seen much of each other lately."
"Yeah, that sounds great. You're coming to my game this weekend, right?"
"Are you kidding? I requested every other weekend off for the entire year."
Harry grinned. "I'll talk to you then."
Harry put the phone back on the cradle and considered his options as he checked his watch. He could practically feel the sullen displeasure radiating off of it at being silenced most of the day. "Oh!" Harry swiped and dialed again, snickering a little as the phone was picked up after two rings but was fumbled about and dropped before a voice came on the line. There was a loud background noise, like he was in the middle of a crowd.
"Special Agent Macree speaking," Terry said with exaggerated care and enunciation. "How may I be of assistance to you today?"
"Yes?" Terry sounded as confused as Harry felt. "Is there something I can help you with?"
"I think there might be. Is this a bad time? It's not that important."
"No, it's- wait. Who-? Is this Jamie?"
"Oh! Oh, it's just Jamie." Terry sniggered. "I thought you were Johnathan, and I was like 'Oh my Merlin, why is Johnathan calling me on my private line, I'm way down on his contact list,' but it makes so much more sense that it's you calling me from Hathorne. It was Hathorne calling on my phone, you know."
Harry began to giggle. "Are you drunk?"
"Drunk? Me? Never! Well, okay, maybe a little. But it's my night off and I have people over and I can't very well force them to drink alone, can I? It's physics."
"Is it really physics?"
"Or maybe philosophy. It probably starts with a P."
"Wow. All right. You're going to be completely useless to me."
"Aww, what a mean thing to say. You're growing up so fast!" There was a shout from the background. "It's just the kid," Terry called out, voice muffled. "No, I don't have a kid! It's the kid. Jamie. No, I said Jam- Harry Potter! No! Not a hairy painter! Why the hell would I be on the phone with a hairy painter? I said Harry Potter!" There was a crash and the sound of someone scrambling, grunts, and a muffled string of cursing. "No, no, no! You get your own Harry Potter!"
"I'm just going to let you go now."
"No! No, I'm totally here. You have question? I have an answer! Talk to me!"
Harry blew out a slow breath. "What's seven times seven?"
"That's not a question! That's math! Ask another one!"
Harry bit his lip on a giggle. "What's Johnathan's middle name?"
"I'm too drunk to remember," Terry admitted.
"Yeah, you're going to be useless." Harry shook his head. "But what the hell. I have a very general question about Hathorne's wards versus the wards at the USAS."
"Ohh. Nope. I can tell you all about the physical sercur- securt- security in place at HI and the reaction times of the responding school officers and the HTPD and the HT on-site SS, but not the wards. Nope. Not wards. I put up wards, but those are big wards. Not the ones I put up. I put up baby wards. Hathorne's wards are big. Big, complicated wards. Nope, not me."
Harry rubbed his forehead. "That was both amazingly useless and unexpectedly useful at the same time. So there's no one who can tell me about the wards?"
"I don't know. Hey! You! Stop taking my beer hostage! I'm on the phone! I can't negotiation it right now."
"Yes, you can. I'm hanging up now."
Harry frowned. "What? Green? But he blows things up and shoots things."
"Call Green. He can't blow up and shoot dead things every day. It's a real situational needed job. So he's on the USAS security evaluating HI team thing. I bet he knows the wards outside and in and upside sideways."
"One, I'm stealing upside sideways. Two, thanks. That was actually really useful. Three, I'm hanging up now. Four, I love you."
"Four to you, too."
Harry hung up. "Whew..." He looked down at the cat. The cat yawned a yawn full of teeth at him. He ran his ID and dialed.
"Oh thank Oz. You're normal."
"I don' know if I ought'a be insulted or if that was intended to be a compliment."
"And you're incredibly Southern tonight. I haven't heard that much drawl from you in months."
"Happens when I'm drinkin'."
Harry narrowed his eyes. "Are you drunk?"
"Can't rightly say that I am, no. Still pretty early in the evenin'."
"So you intend- you know what, never mind. You're not drunk right now and that's all that matters. So-" Harry was interrupted by a loud cheer in the background. "What was that?"
"I do believe whoever we're supportin' this round just scored a goal touchdown basket."
Harry's eyes narrowed more. "You are drunk, aren't you?"
"Are you callin' me a liar?"
"Goal touchdown basket?"
"I was in the kitchen when you called and I don't rightly know what sport we're watchin' at the moment. I suppose it would behoove me to pay more attention, seein' as how we're drinkin' accordin' to predictions we're makin' and they'll bamboozle me from here to northern Tennessee if I ain't keepin' track. In any case, it could'a been a goal, could'a been a touchdown, might'a been a basket. All I can say with any justifiable authority is that someone's havin' a good night and someone's havin' a bad night."
Harry tapped his ID against his leg. "Riiight. I… Fine. I have a fairly general but specific question about Hathorne's security and Terry says you're the man to call."
"That I am," Green told him agreeably. "Keep yer britches on," he called out. "I'm on the phone." Someone shouted something back. "No, with yer wife! She says to fix the damn dishwasher or she'll turn ya into a dog! Yeah, that's right!" The background clamor suddenly ceased, like Green had closed a door. "I might maybe have an answer. What's yer question?"
Harry took a deep breath. "In the interest of full disclosure, if I ask this question and you suddenly get retarded, I'm going to crawl through this phone and curse you with something terrible and embarrassing."
"Am I allowed to be uninformed regardin' this answer you seek?" he asked slowly. "I ain't no expert on the security by any means, excusin' my double negative."
"Yeah. Sure. You're allowed to be uninformed."
"When I walk through the building doors at Hathorne, the identification scanning magic crawls inside me and wriggles all around. But when I walk from one area of security to another at the USAS, I barely notice the brush of identification scan. Why are the stronger USAS wards not a problem? They feel fairly similar. The effect should be at least vaguely similar. Right?"
"Hang on." Green grunted and there was a glass on glass clink. "When you walk through doors at work, you don't feel nothin', but at school, it bites you in the ass. That's what you're saying?"
"Well... It could maybe be..."
"Just say you don't know so I can get off the phone."
"I don't know the answer-"
"Right. Ya see, I do a fair bit with the general security, threat assessments and arrangin' mock breeches and all that, so what I do know is that Hathorne's wards have a lot of room for exceptions to the schema. Gotta key our people in special to keep track of 'em and all that. And I know that Hathorne's wards are colossally scaled down versions of the USAS wards, which I ain't never touched and ain't never gonna do. So reason being what it is, the USAS wards are a'brimmin' with exceptions to the general schema, too, and I'd be willin' to bet that Magurists are just keyed into the security framework in a different way from the get go, hence you've never experienced invasive identification scannin'."
Harry tapped his ID against the side of the phone. "Green?"
"You've been drinking since we started talking, yes? So, in theory, you've slowly been moving closer and closer to being drunk, or, as I suspect, achieving a higher level of drunkenness?"
There was a moment of silence, then a swish of liquid, a swallow, a clink. "Maaaybe."
"So, what I'm taking away from this is, the drunker you get, the more intelligent you get? How does that even work? No, seriously, how does that even work?"
"Yer askin' the drunk man?"
"Who's used more big words in this one drunk conversation than I think I've ever heard from you, outside of the technical babble you throw at me when you're talking about your field of expertise. Yes."
"Some things, Jamie, you gotta have chest hair to understand."
Jamie stared at his ID picture. His picture made a face at him. "I… You're right. I'm too young to understand this. And it's too late. And it's been entirely too Wednesday night. And I need to talk to someone about how exceptions work so the wards here stop molesting me."
"I don't see that happenin'. That there's some serious fiddlin' with stuff, ya know, and seein' as how the actions of the wards as they stand aren't puttin' you in imminent danger or affectin' your ability to function on a daily basis, yer probably just gonna have to deal with it. But hey, it's good practice for when you encounter intensive wardin' out in the rest of the world."
"I… Damn it. That makes sense. But I hate being molested so much."
"And I hate not bein' able to make things go boom more often for money, but I suck it up and make poisons instead. At least then I'm contributin' to the death count."
"I... have to call Sunny back. You're too drunk and I'm too sober for this conversation. I'll see you Saturday at my game."
"And stop stealing my school spirit! I'm going to need that." As Harry hung up, he could hear Green shouting another "Go Mudcats!" Harry stared at the phone for a moment then checked his watch. It was well past time to call Suntree. As he dialed the number, he shifted his feet and kicked the arm of the chair until magic cooperated and expanded the chair beneath him so he could stretch out his legs. The arm of the chair bumped against the next table.
"Are you drunk?" Harry demanded a few seconds after he heard the phone pick up. "Because I'm not dealing with a drunk Suntree." Harry could feel the silence on the other line.
"Blistered beyond the moon."
"Funny. And that doesn't even make sense. So, did you get an answer?"
"You should pray. A lot."
Harry groaned. "You are drunk, aren't you?"
"I have it on good authority that praying is the best path to resolving most problems of a magical nature."
Harry twisted his pinky finger through the cord of the phone. "I… can't tell if you're having fun at me or if you're serious."
Suntree chuckled. "Both. If you had real belief to back it up, praying actually would present a possible solution, or at least considerable lessening of your problems. But seeing as you don't have the faith-"
"Where on earth would I have gotten the faith? What faith? You realize that makes absolutely no sense, right? I can't just pick that thing up at a store. It's not milk. I certainly have faith that magic is going to screw with me whenever it spots an available weakness-"
"Actually," Suntree laughed, "you're getting off pretty light as far as Magurist madness is concerned."
"That's not reassuring."
"However you want to take it, I have it on equally good authority that the problem you're having with your contract is magic most definitely being beastly because it can-"
"Terrific," Harry groaned.
"-and we can probably do something about that," Suntree finished. "I'm going to speak with a few people tomorrow morning about transferring the restrictive aspects of your healer contract into one of the contracts you've signed with the USAS. That ought to solve your problems, by and large. But to be on the safe side, I'm also going to see if I can have them adjusted to take into account that you're not always in a position to ask permission to look at auras. As I understand it, because the USAS contract is far more intricate in nature and personally very important to you and who you are, it's pretty likely that magic will stop having its merry way with you and simply restrict where restricting is actually warranted."
"And the healers will be cool with that?"
"I'd imagine so. The healer contract you're under is partially a USAS contract, anyway, since you work primarily with Aurors."
"Then that's super cool."
"Yes, I thought it was super cool as well. Almost super frigid, in fact."
"I also took the opportunity to ask about the extreme reaction you had today when you walked through the exterior door, and I believe I have a likely reason as to why it was that severe. You've been working on merging your magic with the magic around you, right?"
"As per instructions from the supertastic Healer Z, yeah. Though, not too much. It takes a lot of focus and peace and happy vibes, and life's a bit hectic around here."
"Then be warned that activity of that nature sensitizes you to penetrating magic like identification scans, so if you walk through a scan unprepared, it'll have a greater impact on you than it normally would."
"That's… good news? I mean, nothing's wrong, but… man, I foresee a hassle in my future."
"You're a Magurist."
"Yes. Yes, I am."
"As for the contract, if all goes well tomorrow, I'll send you a note by lunchtime. I presume you'd like me to arrange the signing of the altered contract for as soon as possible, so when will you be most available?"
"Any time this Friday after eleven will work for me."
"I'll just meet you at the USAS."
"Sounds like a plan, then. I like plans. They're deliciously plan-like."
"Why did you ask if I was drunk?"
"Because everyone else is! I decided to be proactive about the wards, because I was really confused that Hathorne's wards are vicious mean and the USAS wards are super awesome. So I called- lots of people, basically. And, okay, fine, Al wasn't drunk, he was exhausted – and he's mean when he's exhausted, which is news to me and good to know, but largely forgivable – and Tony's apparently – we're not going to talk about Tony, actually; I'm pretty sure I should disavow any knowledge of Tony tonight, in fact. But if I did happen to know one thing about Tony tonight, it's that he's on his way somewhere to get drunk. Then there was Terry, who was absolutely ridiculously drunk, and Green, who I'm pretty sure was drunk off of his ass and just really good at being coherent and freakishly somehow more intelligent-"
"Drunk Wednesday," Suntree interrupted. "You called everyone on Drunk Wednesday. Good job."
"I- On what?"
"On the Wednesday before the full moon, the USAS bars and clubs offer half off all drinks, or a fixed rate for all drinks, or a single bar fee that lets someone drink whatever they want, or whatever other special the management decides to try, and thus there's one Wednesday every month where a good portion of non-essential staff are relatively or completely useless."
"I totally agree on that last part. But what the hell is that all about?"
"First, you're no longer communicating Magurist driven duress, so watch your language. Second, think about the full moon and the impact it has on magical society."
Harry scratched his nose with his ID card. "Well… The full moon plays a part in all disciplines of magic. There are some things you can only do on the full moon, and some things that are strengthened by the full moon. There are things you can only plant or pick or whatever on the full moon. There's definitely a lot of restricted magic that requires the full moon in some way or another."
"Precisely so. In fact, the majority of permits to perform restricted magic are issued for the full moon and the days surrounding, and while that magic is generally completely legal and well thought out, sometimes things can go wrong. Beyond that, you also have illegal magical work that happens from pure foolishness, idiocy, and people not realizing that they're performing illegal magic. Magical law enforcement would have its hands full with just that, but then add in all of the illegal magical work that is knowingly performed, both for good and ill. Illegal activities actually triple on the full moon-"
"Seriously?" Harry sat up a little. "Did you say it triples?"
"Definitely. Mind you, it's not all full moon driven, or necessarily even the performing of magic at all. At least half of the illegal activity that occurs arises from the criminal element being very well aware of the full moon strain on law enforcement and merrily taking advantage of it. There's an increase in everything from petty theft to grand larceny. It's easier to get away with murder on the full moon – law enforcement just doesn't have the manpower to respond immediately and start tracing Apparition and Portkeys. There's-"
"Yeah, but that doesn't sound like Auror stuff," Harry cut in.
"Not in most cases," Suntree agreed. "But we're still law enforcement at the end of the day. In most cases, depending on the severity of the problem, two to five law enforcement officers or federal agents must respond to every alert or call received. That's standard procedure. When you have that much illegal activity occurring at once, even with all available officers in the field, it still puts a considerable strain on law enforcement resources. A USAS agent can take the place of two to three federal agents, which allows more federal agents to assist regional law enforcement, and regional law enforcement can then better assist local law enforcement."
"That part makes sense. Where does the getting drunk and useless come in?"
"Really?" Suntree asked dryly. "Think about the USAS agents you know. While we retrain to deal with civilian oriented problems every two years, it's not what we've signed up to do. In some ways, it's a bit harder than what we typically do. For some agents, it's what they worked very hard to escape-"
"Perhaps a stronger word than I intended, though there is some truth to it. A large number of Aurors have to start out in another branch of law enforcement before they've gained enough experience to be considered by the USAS. The kind of person who wants to be an Auror often finds the other levels of law enforcement to be… monotonous, or restrictive. And, really, you've met Aurors. We're unusual. We can work with normal people, generally, but we're most comfortable with other unusual people."
"And aside from the fact that we're just not used to dealing with general law enforcement activity, we're also dealing with the kind of insanity that comes from the full moon. No one looks forward to the full moon madness. Getting drunk a few days before the full moon helps agents to unwind, release tension, relax, and have a good time, before they have to gear up for a fairly unpleasant night."
"Oh. Yeah, that makes sense. Get drunk and relax so you don't murder the civvies who know not what they wrought."
Suntree was quiet a moment, then he chuckled. "Quite right, Agent Potter."
Harry grinned. "But you've got a problem."
"What happens when the full moon is on Wednesday?"
"Then everyone gets drunk on Screw it Monday, of course."
Harry grinned even more and wriggled his hand out of the phone cord, where it had somehow managed to get trapped up to the wrist. "I bet that's not what you guys really call it."
"You're right. We actually call it Banana Boat Monday."
Harry laughed. "Right. So, what happens if it's on a Tuesday? If it's on Monday, you have to knock back a gallon of potions to recover in time enough to deal with full moon madness, and you still don't feel that great, even if you're not drunk or hung over. Which, hey, seriously, that applies to Thursday, too. That-"
"We don't like to talk about that, actually."
"The irrational arrangement of the full moon day versus the days on which the USAS declares there will be a discounted alcohol night. It's strangely complicated because of the many factors that go into it. Suffice to say, it's either a Monday or a Wednesday, and most often it's a Wednesday."
"So that's why everyone was freakin' useless."
"Yes. That's why everyone was freakin' useless."
"Though Green was freakishly useful, too. And freakishly more intelligent."
"Hey, you didn't hear him."
"No, I didn't."
"Oh, hey, by the way, how much does an attorney make at the USAS?"
There was a moment of silence. "You know all of the questions you were hoping to avoid by bringing that up like that? Answer them."
Harry smiled a little wryly. "I can't just be curious?"
"Okay, I'm not. It just occurred to me that field agents are paid pretty darn well, so it seems really likely that other positions within the USAS are paid pretty darn well, too. But is being paid pretty darn well actually well paid enough to afford Hathorne's tuition, and still have a lot left over for snobby luxuries, too?"
"Pretty much," Harry acknowledged.
"How is this any of your business?"
"It isn't, at the moment. But, okay, so I had lunch with Johnathan Keller and some of his friends today and…" Harry rubbed the back of his neck. "I just have this feeling, Sunny, that at some point Carrick and I are going to talk and…" Harry trailed off as he glanced down. The cat was dragging off his slippers, one in its mouth, the other hooked into the claws of one paw.
"That cat is stealing my slippers!" Harry stared for a second as the cat unhooked its claws from the slipper, then sunk them back in somewhere more secure. "That cat is stealing my slippers cleverly…"
"Both of them?"
"I did just say cleverly."
"It is a cat," Suntree pointed out.
"Hang on. I need to steal my slippers back." Harry shifted to get up. The cat looked up despite being outside of the privacy bubble, fur bristling, and shook the slipper out of its mouth to hiss at him. It sunk the claws of its other paw into the freed slipper and jerked it closer. Harry pulled his feet back up onto the chair. "You know what... those were kind of old-"
"You bought them when school started," Suntree said dryly.
"-and sure, the panda bears on them are cute-"
"You squealed when you saw them and refused to put them in the cart for nearly five minutes."
"-but I'm sure I can find something even better. Maybe something that'll keep my toes warm and mock Geoffrey at the same time."
"Hey, don't drip scorn on me. That leaves stains. You said it yourself: it is a cat."
"So how is Carrick's financial situation any of your business?"
"Oh, come on, Sunny. He makes fun of people for that very thing. If I have to have a talk with him, I need all my ducks lined up. Can we just accept that I'm going to use the information for good and not for evil?"
"His parents are both well respected attorneys working for the USAS. They do make enough to cover the tuition and with some clever budgeting also allow for the outward lifestyle of the well moneyed. That said," Suntree added, sounding slightly amused, "employees of the USAS are given a fifteen percent discount on tuition and other applicable fees at the top twenty schools in the country because of the extensive assessment, warding, security training, and special event support that the USAS provides for those schools. Given that both of his parents work for the USAS, the forgiveness is applied twice for their son."
"Oh. Wow. So, it's not exactly a scholarship, but it pretty much functions in the same way."
"I trust you'll use the information appropriately and discreetly."
"That's my middle name."
"Appropriately and discreetly? Well, that explains a lot. And I thought my parents were odd when they chose Oscar."
Harry's brows went up. "Your middle name is Oscar?"
"It's a very dignified name."
"It's the name of a green Muppet that lives in a garbage can."
"It happens to be the name of an Irish playwright and author my mother adores."
"What? Oscar Wilde?"
"Go to bed, child," Suntree told him fondly. "It's past your bedtime."
Harry grinned. "I love you, too. Talk to you later. And thanks. Seriously. Thanks."
"Of course. Goodbye."
Harry hung up the phone and moved it back to the table, smiling a little to himself. He lingered a moment, wriggling his toes in his socks before getting up. He considered another rescue mission for his slippers, but the cat had reached the door and was turning down the hall with them. No one had noticed. Harry kicked the chair back into a chair shape, then poked at the privacy bubble he'd put up, opening up his aura a little to feel the magic of it deflate like a balloon. There was a little wheeze at the end as the last of the magic folded in on itself. Harry couldn't help but laugh as he made his way through the lounge.
"Yo! Jamie!" One of the girls in the movie watching group waved to him. "Hey! Want to watch the rest of the movie with us? We're only a third in."
Harry glanced at the clock on the lounge wall and shrugged, detouring towards the television. Magic shivered slightly and misted over him as he passed through the sound muffling ward that kept the television noises away from the rest of the room. "Yo, Josie. What are you…? Oh! Hook! I loved this movie."
She grinned and grabbed his hand, pulling him down onto the couch as her older sister shifted over, giving him just enough room to sandwich between them. "Nice socks, by the way," she teased. "Don't you think so, Lori?"
Her sister leaned over and laughed. "Very stylish."
"Very pretty," Josie added, putting the popcorn bowl on Harry's lap and leaning into his side.
"I have a pair almost exactly like that," Lori giggled. "Mine have pink flowers, though, instead of purple."
Harry summoned an ottoman and put his feet up grandly. "They are quite fantastic, I agree. Smashing, in fact."
One of the guys in the group shushed them, glancing over with a fleeting expression that was part glare and part envy for Harry's position.
"Oh, it's on video, for Merlin's sake," Lori said, summoning the remote to rewind. She settled against Harry's other side and stole part of his ottoman as she pushed play.
Harry tossed some popcorn into his mouth and tightened his shields against the strangely similar auras of sugary cotton candy and salty earthiness on either side of him.
Harry turned the manila envelope over in his hands with a small, puzzled frown. The mail office had said his Entertainment Arts teacher was passing it on for someone, so Harry guessed that the squiggle on the front of the envelope was her signature, but there was nothing else on the package indicating who had sent it or what it might be. The security office inspection stamp was the only thing on the back.
There was a burst of laughter as Harry reached the foyer and he paused there, eyes moving from the small group of students clustered by the further staircase to the two paper birds, one green and one white, swooping and dive bombing each other above their heads. Abruptly the green bird smashed into the side of the white, slamming it into the wall, and both tumbled to the ground. At the last second the green bird righted itself and bobbed away unevenly, mostly crushed. Half of the students groaned and the other half laughed.
"Crap. Come on, guys, a good wind could kill my bird. You have to let me fix it, at least a little."
"Nope. You know the rules. Win two more, then you can fix it."
"But it won't- Hey! Jamie! Come fly my bird!"
Harry laughed, tucking the package under his arm as he started up the other set of stairs. "I'm not letting you foist that crippled thing onto me. I'm headed to the library."
Andrew groaned. "But you could totally win."
"Yep. But I'm not gonna." Harry stopped at the landing and leaned against the rail, looking down at them. "One day you have to learn that you can't smash and slam your way through life."
Harry grinned and waved as he turned in the direction of the library. He studied his package again as he walked, turning the squishy manila folder over in his hands, aura sensing extended around him just enough to keep him from walking into someone. The bubble spell inside kept him from feeling out the shape of the contents.
As he walked into the library Harry pulled in his aura sensing again. He wasn't prepared to keep track of the active magic in the library as book searches zinged from one section to the next, shelf-straightening charms randomly flared, and book protection magic hummed in the background. He looked up just as a young woman smiled brightly in his direction, pushed away from a table and made her way towards him. He recognized the blonde, blue-eyed, leggy figure well enough, even though he'd had the pleasure of not running into her until now.
"Hello, sweetie!" she called out, pushing through a group of students and barely glancing back as she knocked a stack of books and papers out of someone's arms.
The bubble of air squeezed itself into one corner of the package in Harry's hands. As she drew closer, he pulled his bag around and slipped the package into the open front pocket, then brushed past her just as she stopped to talk. He dropped his bag and kneeled to help collect the books and scattered papers.
"Working on passive wards?" he asked as he collected heavily highlighted notes.
"Yeah," Lindsay said, glancing up with a shy smile. "It's research to prepare for identification and specification wards. For Defense."
Harry glanced through some of her papers as he slipped them into one of the random folders on the floor. "Sorry about the disorganization. I can't tell what belongs where."
"Oh, yeah, that. Yeah. I'll have to go through it later, but it won't be so bad. I have a sort of coding system."
"That's cool." He sorted through the books and folders he'd piled up and put a book on top, then stood with them. "I'd focus on Kellog first. If you can slog through the self-praise, he's got some pretty good stuff. Plus," Harry continued as he added his collection to her pile, "I heard somewhere that Kellog is going to be a guest speaker in a couple of weeks. Can't hurt to have the extra reading already done."
"You heard somewhere, huh?"
"It happens a lot with me, having ears and all," Harry said with a grin. "I hear things."
She laughed. "Thanks."
Harry eyed the stack of books and papers that almost reached her chin. "Do you need a library bag?"
"Oh, I have one. I was just moving to a private research room and didn't want to shove everything in a bag. Guess I know better in the future…" Lindsay glanced past Harry. "You probably better go see what she wants before she comes over and flings my things all over the library so you start paying attention to her again. Bye. And thanks again."
"I'd like to see her try," Harry muttered as Lindsay scurried away, bending down to pick up his bag.
Harry shouldered his bag and turned. She was practically on top of him. This time she hadn't left destruction in her wake.
When she stopped she struck a pose that showed off her dimpled smile and generous chest, and then she held out a manicured hand, nails long and red. "I'm Athena Knell. But of course you know that. I'm so sorry I haven't had a chance to introduce myself yet, but I've been so busy working on, well, I'm not really supposed to say," she said, flashing another smile. "But I'm sure you needed some time to settle in yourself and try to make friends."
Harry glanced down at her hand and debated for all of half of a second pretending that he had no idea who she was, then decided it'd give her too much room for self-praise. He held out his hand for a quick handshake, tightening his shields for the contact. "Yeah, sure. Harry Potter."
"And now you're settled in, and I have some time to spare, so we should definitely sit down and talk. Come on, I have a table over here."
"Super exciting, really, but I'm actually right in the middle of something pretty really important," Harry lied. "Hence being in the library. To do library things. Instead of being somewhere else less library-like. And then I'm meeting someone. I should go."
"Oh." She paused for a moment, then flashed him a wide, white smile and leaned in close. "I'm sure whoever you're meeting with will completely understand that you stopped to talk to me, Jamie. It's okay. In fact-"
"It's Harry," he interrupted. "One. And two, no. I'm busy."
Her lips pursed for a moment, and then the wide smile came back. "Of course. I'll just take a couple of brief minutes, then. And I can't accept no for an answer because this can't wait. It's only going to get worse. Now, I just want you to know that I'm not saying anything bad about your mom or your friends or anything, because I'm sure they're really doing the best they can, but whoever's responsible for your publicity is-"
Harry relaxed his grip on his bag. "What?"
"Your publicity, dear-"
"I'm talking about your publicity. Whoever's handling it is doing, well, it's not that great of a job, honestly. Oh, don't worry," she assured as Harry began to frown, "nothing bad has happened. Yet. But I've seen it before. Someone suddenly finds themselves thrust into the public eye and their mom or uncle or someone they know steps in to handle the publicity, and everyone thinks they're doing a good job, but it's really something just best left to a professional. Luckily for you, so far the only thing you're suffering from is a lack of publicity, and that's something you can turn around like that," she snapped her fingers, "if you just know the right people. And I do."
"Right. So. Okay, it's very- interesting that you're so concerned about me-"
"Oh, think nothing of it-"
"Very easily done."
"Yes, of course my time is valuable," Athena continued with a laugh, "but I'm always willing to help a new young star in need. And make no mistake, you're a bright new star in need of nurturing-"
"-so I'm stepping up and helping you out. My publicist and I already have it all worked out. Isn't that awesome?"
"Awe is most certainly being inspired at the moment," Harry agreed. "Really? All worked out?"
She took his hand and shifted like she was about to pull him along after her, then seemed to think the better of trying and clasped his hand in both of hers instead, moving a little closer still. Her aura was cloying, over-ripe, and powerfully distracting. "Absolutely. We'll start by going places together in the public eye. Nothing too exciting at first," she said quickly. "Going into town will be more than adequate for your first ventures. We let word get out that we're friends, get people interested, and catch the attention of the press. That's when we'll go out somewhere properly in public-"
"No, that's not going to happen," Harry cut in, pulling his hand free. He gripped his bag with both hands.
"No need to be shy-"
"Believe me, shy is not a problem. I just-"
"It won't be often, of course," she continued brightly. "It's very good to maintain the studious student appearance, and we can't do that if we're always out and about town. But it'll be just often enough that people want to know more."
"It's actually not that easy for me to be out and about in the world at large. You clearly haven't noticed, but I do have a body guard presence-"
"And it makes you look very exciting and intriguing, though a tad hard to approach. But we can work with it. I've made superstars out of less than you."
"Exactly! All right, my people will work out how to handle the public appearances with your people. That's why we hire people, after all. But you should most definitely start planning for my next movie premiere. It's in November, so two months should be quite enough time for us to make you into someone worth noticing. We'll go out to dinner, somewhere charming and sophisticated, but not something that says dating, just the best of friends, and then we'll attend the-"
"I'm not interested," Harry interrupted.
"Right now, yes, but only because-"
"There's a lot out there that's passing you-"
"You have no idea what sort of opportunity you're being handed here." Athena's smile slipped a little. "You can't expect to generate good publicity by doing nothing."
"And I don't. I already have the kind of press exposure I want, and the right plan for increasing it when I wish it-"
"No, no, no. You think you do, but you don't. You'll see once you start doing things with me-"
"Athena, sweetie. I know you want to be respectful, but really-"
She gave a start. Several nearby people glanced over, then away again with great intent. "Yes?"
"I'm not interested. No. Listen. I have gone out of my way to avoid unnecessary publicity and limit my exposure to the press up to this point," Harry told her firmly. "I want to be as normal as I possibly can be for me. I assure you, no one is holding me back. My publicity is being handled with expert care."
"But you haven't had the right kind of press, really. And a movie premiere would be perfect. You'd meet all of the right people. I might even be able to get you a small part in my next movie! Oh, wouldn't that be exciting!"
Harry fixed her with a long, hard look. Athena continued to smile brightly for a few moments, then fidgeted slightly and wilted a little, but it only took a moment for her confidence to return and she fixed him with another dazzling, encouraging smile, reaching out to touch him.
Harry stepped back from her hand. "Miss Knell, I cannot stress enough how uninterested I am in your proposal. Clearly. So I'm just going to remind you that I have things to do and there are far greater considerations than my wants or desires in what I do and don't do publicly. Have a good day." Harry moved around her and made his way towards the bookshelves, ignoring the few sounds of aborted speech that she made as he moved away.
"I'll have my people call your people," she called out at last.
"Yeah, I'm sure you will." Harry turned to follow a row of shelves, glancing back to make sure she wasn't following. For a moment he thought he caught a glimpse of a familiar face peering at him from around another bookshelf, but when he turned to look properly, Ambrose wasn't there. "Huh…"
Harry shifted his bag on his shoulder, pausing to study the package sticking out of the front pocket, absently rubbing his right palm against his pants. After a moment he glanced down at his palm, then dropped his backpack, closed his eyes, and took several long, cleansing breaths. With each breath he pulled his aura sensing in a little tighter, closing his shields around himself, cutting out the world, until he was nearly completely self-contained. He held the state for a moment, feeling strangely small, and then he began to spread his shields out again with each breath until the world was back to normal, easily ignored sensations lapping at the edges of his magic like creeping ocean waves on the beach.
"You okay, Jamie?"
Harry opened his eyes and focused on Sean. "Great. What's up?"
"Grabbing a book for potions. I'm an assistant teacher this afternoon for Professor Jac. I'm also kind of running late, but I noticed you just standing there with a kind of weird look on your face so I stopped."
"Kind of weird?"
Sean shrugged. "It was sort of spaced out and focused at the same time."
"Ah. No, I'm fine. Just dodged listening to Athena Knell talk about how fantastic she is for an hour."
Sean frowned. "Who?"
"Athena Knell? Teenage mega-superstar? She's been the plucky heroine in movies since she was eight or something?"
Sean shrugged again.
Harry grinned. "And you've just made my day. Never change. Except, you know, where you should be changing so you become a real adult one day or something."
"Uh huh. Well, I'm happy to have accidentally made your day, but I've got some brushing up to do so I know what stuff they're teaching in basic potions."
"Level Five potions is not basic," Harry called after him. "Even if it is Applied Potions."
Sean waved vaguely in his direction.
Harry shook his head with a chuckle and grabbed his bag then continued on his way to the Hall of Portraits. He'd barely left the section he'd stopped in when he almost tripped over an elf as they each turned the corner.
"Oh, hey, sorry about that," Harry glanced at the uniform tunic for the nametag, "Kippal." He picked up the small ledger the elf had been holding and handed it back.
She took the ledger and flipped back to the page it'd been on, making a mark with her thumb, and then waved a long finger at him. "Mister Potter shouldn't be blending all over the library," she chided as she tucked the ledger into the large pocket on the front of her tunic, then continued down the aisle, a library cart following after her. The small stone gargoyle perched on one of the handles shook a tiny fist at him.
"Hey." Harry hurried after the fast-moving elf. "Hey, Kippal, wait a second."
She stopped and rested her hands on the top of the ledger, waiting expectantly.
"What do you mean I shouldn't be blending all over the library?"
"Mister Potter is always blended everywhere." She spread her arms widely. "Kippal doesn't know where Mister Potter is when Kippal's eyes aren't looking at him."
"Uh…" Harry's brows furrowed a little. "Wait, do you mean sensing my aura?"
"Sensing youse non-elves. It's how Kippal and other elves do our jobs without Misters and Misses tripping over us at every corner. Except for Mister Potter," she added reproachfully. "Mister Potter is everywhere."
She nodded, ears flapping, then turned and began directing books from the cart to the shelves with decisive gestures. The stone gargoyle hopped to the edge of the cart handle and made a buzzing sound to get his attention, then stretched out its hands towards him in a 'gimme, gimme, gimme' gesture.
Harry reached out to tap the little stone hat on top of its little stone head. "I'm onto you, Steve. I know for a fact I don't have any overdue books."
Kippal turned and gave the cart a little jiggle. The gargoyle crossed its arms and hunched in on itself sullenly. "Mister Potter can tell the collectors apart? And named them?"
Harry laughed. "I call them all Steve." He dug into his pocket for a coin and handed the gargoyle a dime. The gargoyle snatched it eagerly and shook it beside one of its large bat-like ears. Apparently satisfied with that, it tapped the coin against the side of its head, sniffed along the face, then held it out at arm's length to stare at it with a scowl.
"If you don't want the dime…" Harry said, moving to take it back.
The gargoyle hastily crammed the dime into its mouth and swallowed. A moment later there was a change-on-change ting from its belly and the gargoyle grinned widely, rubbing its large round stomach, then held out its hands for more. Harry handed it another dime and watched with a grin as the gargoyle went through the shake, tap, sniff, cram, swallow, and beg routine again.
"As often as people just randomly feed you little guys, I bet the library is pulling in four or five times more than what's actually due."
Kippal laughed, a nearly silent almost squeak, and tugged an ear slyly.
"That's the point, huh?"
"Kippal knows nothing."
"Right." Harry laughed. "Hey, how do you get the change out of them?"
Kippal shook her head. "Mister Potter doesn't want to know."
"I…" Harry nodded. "You're right. Mister Potter doesn't want to know. Though I do want to know what you mean when you say I blend everywhere. Are you talking about my aura blending into the surrounding magic?"
"Mister Potter doesn't know?"
"I knew I was extended out, but I didn't know that I was actually diffused into the surrounding magic or whatever I'm doing."
"And you can't actually sense me?"
The elf shook her head again. "Kippal knows Mister Potter exists. Mister Potter just feels far away and Kippal can't sense where, and then Kippal trips over Mister Potter. Kippal might have been carrying things," she added meaningfully. "Lots of things."
"Huh. I'll work on that."
"Mister Potter should." Kippal reached into her uniform pocket and pulled out a wooden disc with eight equal-sized clock hands on it pointing in various directions, the face completely blank. The hands looked like they were made from toothpick halves. She turned it so the single notch along the edge was at the top, studied the arrangement of hands, then tucked it away. "Kippal has tasks to be getting to and Mister Potter has school doings."
"Right. Sorry. Have a good day."
"Mister Potter will study hard."
Harry chuckled and nodded. "That I will." He left Kippal to directing books back onto the shelves and marking things off in her ledger. As he continued through the shelves to reach the Hall of Portraits, he felt along the border of his aura. It felt normal to him, wispy yet slightly sticky at the edges to filter through the magic that he ultimately noticed. It was thin but substantial and felt distinctly different from the surrounding magic everywhere except the furthest edges, where the line between them blurred. He supposed that feeling it from the inside out was different from perceiving it strictly from the outside.
The shelves ended and the library opened up onto a section of single person tables. He continued beyond that to a hallway that led to the private study rooms, the restricted reference section and, at the end, the Hall of Portraits. He pushed through the Hall's double doors into a room far longer than it was wide. Portraits lined the walls on either side of him, each with a large table-like desk beneath it, two chairs, and cubicle-like partitions separating each desk and portrait into a private conference area. Each cubicle partition had a sign on the top with the professor's name and their areas of expertise. Every four to six desks, there was a desk missing and landscapes and other painted settings of all kinds filled the gap almost from floor to ceiling. Half-height bookshelves ran down the center of the room, most only half-filled with the overflow reference books that didn't fit on the shelf along the back of each desk.
Harry started into the room then paused, turning to the first desk on the right where the ghost of Clarence McKinley Baswell was arguing with the portrait of Clarence McKinley Baswell. Harry tried his best not to grin too much as he made his way over.
"Nonsense, you old fool! Complete nonsense!" The ghost tried to plant his hands on the desk as he glared at the man in the portrait. His hands sank into the desk up to his wrists before stopping. "As usual you're approaching the divisions of magic with a hammer, nay, a sledgehammer. You unnecessarily complicate things by suggesting charms and transfiguration should be a singular category of magic, and worse, you completely destroy the basic principles of-"
"Ludicrous!" The man in the portrait moved into the background of the picture in disgust, beginning to pace the library that had been painted around him. "All of the most illuminated scholars agree that charms and transfiguration are operating on the same principles of magical agency. To remove the divide will remove the limitations-"
"And create a state of chaos and anarchy! The only point to which I will concede, ever grudgingly, with pain in my very heart, is that charms and transfigurations must be given a far stricter set of defining-"
"Which is the entire purpose of my bringing the two together into one, you ignoramus. Why do you never listen? Did you suffer a grievous head injury after I was painted? Were you cursed to ever haunt the world as a Neanderthal? By bringing them together, we can then think of castable magic as a full branch of magic and appropriate subdivisions will arise from the ashes of the old and-"
"How fantastic! How novel! You clearly have been damaged in the years since my last sitting imparted my genius onto you. Yes, completely turn the very foundations of magic on its head, only to divide them once again into transfigurations and charms, as is only inevitable-"
"Only if the rest of the world is as mired in intellectual muck as you," the man in the portrait snorted. "What would emerge would be far more precise subdivisions of magic with far greater encompassing powers. Yes, there would be transformative magic, and of course there will be charms, and there would also be-"
"I think all magic ought to just be put under the umbrella of arithmancy and then subdivided from there," Harry put in with a grin.
Both the portrait and ghost turned their attention to him, wearing identical expressions of confusion that quickly changed into identical expressions of stunned disbelief.
"Did you say arithmancy?" the portrait asked. "Did he say arithmancy?" he asked his ghost.
"He did," the ghost agreed.
"But arithmancy isn't inherently magical-"
"Technically, actually, it does have inherent magical properties," the ghost corrected.
"Yes, of course, but in comparison to other disciplines that actually produce magic, we might as well simply discount it."
"I completely agree." The ghost nodded emphatically. "That's not to say that arithmancy does not have a very valued place in the field of magical study-"
"Oh, I'd never say that." The portrait came close to the frame and leaned on the desk that was painted right at its edge. "But arithmancy is far more a tool of magic, not a means by which magic itself occurs."
"If one were to do anything at all with arithmancy as a whole, it would make far more sense to break it down and make it a subdivision within the various other magical disciplines in which it's so effectively used."
"But that's only if one were given no choice but to break it down." The portrait shook his head. "Arithmancy is far too complex, with far too many subdivisions of its own, with a very rich history and so many cascading theories-"
"But for all its richness and complexity and the boundless base theories that inform so many other disciplines, it could never support being the pillar from which all magic branches out."
"You, young man, need to have a serious talk with one of your teachers if you're that misinformed about arithmancy," the ghost told him seriously. "You are in dire need of basic instruction."
Harry grinned. "Nice to see you two can agree about something. Though, have to admit, arithmancy is one of my strongest subjects. See you later." He turned to leave, a little skip in his step.
"I do believe we've been bested," the portrait said slowly as Harry continued further into the room.
"I do believe you're right," the ghost agreed.
Harry paused as he came to a gap between the desks, stepping closer to study the largest picture on the wall, an inviting library that looked like it stretched forever into the background of the painting. This setting was far more populated than the other half dozen that surrounded it, like the tree dappled spring-time picnic setting directly beneath the library, or above it the gently rippling lake that was so clear the sandy bottom was almost surreal.
One of the librarians noticed him and came to the edge of the portrait, leaning in close. "Are you trying to locate someone?" she asked quietly.
"Oh, no. Just sort of looking. How can the portraits actually read the books painted here?" Harry asked curiously. "I mean, most of them don't have titles or anything."
The librarian smiled. "When a person is painted for a magical portrait, a temporary bond is created between sitter and artist. The sitter's magical essence is slowly absorbed into the ink and then built into an image of them as the painter works. The longer the sitting, the more sessions, the more of the person collected, the more of that person is imbued into their portrait. The same is true of a magical place that has its own magical essence, its own soul, collected experiences, knowledge. All of the libraries painted for the Hall are magical libraries. Many of them are old and full of books that are magical in their own right, magic that becomes a part of the essence as it's collected in the paint. Even more importantly, all of the libraries painted here were done in many sessions."
"Huh. Cool. So all of the settings are magical and that's why people can interact?"
"For most, yes. The others involved a more complicated process."
"Thanks." Harry gave the library a last look then continued towards the back of the room where the defense experts were loosely grouped. He considered settling there, but decided against it and continued to the door at the end of the hall instead, to visit the restricted section of the portrait hall. The portrait monitoring the room looked up from his reading and sized him up as he approached.
"Are you an L6 or L7?" the severe man asked. "Or do you have a note from a member of the staff?"
"Neither. I'm on the list." Harry pulled out his ID and swiped it through the reader by the door, then held it up for the portrait to see.
The man frowned and directed his wheelchair closer to the table at the far side of the portrait where he checked a list. After a few moments of glancing between his list and Harry's ID he nodded and twisted a knob on the desk, then returned to his fireside spot to read. The door unlocked with a click and Harry pulled it open.
The room within was set up like a smaller version of the room he'd just left with partitioned desks, overflow books on shelves down the center of the room, and settings and recreational paintings dividing sections of desks. There were only a few students in the room, though, talking quietly to portraits, and the settings and recreational paintings had a decidedly more dangerous look to them, like the foreboding cliffs for mountain climbing and the deep African jungle that took up almost half of the wall section it was on.
Harry made his way to the back of the room, nodding hello to several portraits and catching a few comments about sacrificial magic as he passed Professor Lovejoy's desk. He stopped at a desk with an empty portrait and put his stuff down, then leaned in to knock firmly on the portrait frame before sitting. He pulled out his package and studied it as he waited.
"Well, look at what the dragon dragged in," a rough voice said.
Harry looked back to the portrait with a grin. "And how are you on this fine day, Auror Beth Bethy?"
The older woman in the portrait snorted and dragged a couch at the back of the portrait closer to the front, then sprawled out. The jacket of her dress uniform was tossed over the back of a chair and her uniform shirt was unbuttoned as much as she could get away with, showing off a hint of cleavage and a long jagged scar that stretched from somewhere near her shoulder down to the top of her chest and disappeared into her shirt.
"Might be a fine fucking day on the living side of the portrait, but I got pinned down by Markson and had to listen to him bray on and on about-"
"How he improved the self defense shield-vests?" Harry nodded. "I made the mistake of asking him a question about that the last time I was in the Portrait Gal and I thought I'd never be able to leave. Luckily, another Auror wandered into his portrait with a bottle of wine and 'accidently' spilled it on the floor."
"We should have a drink to fortunate interruptions," she declared.
"I can't drink. And even if I could, I'm at school, in the library, and it's the middle of the day."
"Eh, I didn't want to move anyway." She collapsed a little more into the couch, tugging her long white braid out from underneath her. "What's that?" she nodded to the package on the table. "Sure as shit can't be a present for me, so it's less interesting. But I'm still curious."
Harry laughed. "I don't know. I got a note this morning with my mail to pick up a package from the front office. I haven't had a chance to open it. My teacher passed it on from someone."
"Passed it on from someone?" she asked suspiciously.
"It passed the security inspection." Harry turned the envelope over to show her the green stamp.
"Carry on, then."
Harry laughed and poked the package with his finger, directing a little needle of magic at the bubble charm. For a moment nothing happened, and then the package made a little sighing sound and deflated. Harry neatly cut the top of the package open with another touch of magic and emptied the contents of the envelope onto the desk. A folded up black T-shirt slid out.
Harry shrugged and picked up the shirt. As it moved a CD case slipped out. "And some music, it looks like."
"The last package I got had a severed finger in it," Auror Bethy said thoughtfully.
"Good? Or bad?" Harry picked up the CD and turned it over. He couldn't stop the grin.
"Good. Really good. Except for the part where I died the next day. But it happens. You've gone all red."
"No I haven't," Harry denied.
"I made a hobby of embarrassing people back when I was breathing. I know red when I see it. Is it from a secret admirer?"
"Not so secret admirer? Secret boyfriend? A crush? Ah." She laughed. "You have got to work on your poker face. So, who's the crush?"
"One of my favorite country artists," Harry said, shaking out the T-shirt. He couldn't stop the giggle. There was a sleek blue dragon wearing a cowboy hat and playing a guitar on the front of the shirt.
"Fierce Pierce Whilen, huh?" Auror Bethy said dryly.
Harry turned the shirt around to find that on the back in fiery font.
"Oh magic save me," Auror Bethy groaned when she saw the front of the shirt. "Yeah, because playing a guitar is so fierce. You want to hear about fierce? I can tell you a story that'll put hair on your ba-"
"He used to be a dragon wrangler," Harry interrupted, putting the shirt down and picking up the CD again.
"Oh. All right, I suppose he can call himself fierce."
"Hey, he signed the insert thingy for me," Harry said brightly. "And this CD doesn't even come out for two weeks."
"Yeah, that's not too impressive. 'To my friend Harry Potter, enjoy the new CD, from-'"
"Actually, he addressed it to Jamie, and it says I should check out song five because he really thinks I'll like it, and that this has three bonus songs that won't be released on the album until the rerelease next year, and I should keep rocking the shoelaces."
"Yeah. When I met him I'd been wearing my sneakers with the enchanted faces laces. They've got smiley faces on them that make faces every thirty seconds or something."
"All right, I guess that's pretty cool."
Harry closed the CD and folded the shirt up, then slipped them back into the envelope. "My mom wasn't entirely impressed with the shoelaces. It'd been on the third day of my birthday party. But it was my birthday, and I'm twelve, and that's pretty much who I am, so they can take it or leave it."
"I say we drink to that."
Harry ignored her. "I actually have a question I can ask you today. Well, I say question, but I mean I actually have something defense related to talk about. Sort of." Harry opened his bag and pulled out a notebook. "Have you heard of my bunny ears?"
She started to laugh. "And seen them. I don't know what Cassle did to piss you off…?"
"It's a bit of a long story involving the repetition of obnoxious farting noises," Harry said into the waiting pause, scowling.
She laughed again. "He always was an insufferable twat. He had them for, what? Three days? They were gorgeous, and not just because they were a fantastically humiliating pink and wouldn't fold down under a hat. They looked incredibly soft. It was especially impressive when he tried to wear a top hat to cover them up and the hat turned pink."
Harry's brows went up. "No one mentioned that part to me. I didn't make that part of the spell."
"You sure? Because it happened. Maybe it was a subconscious focus."
"I'm very sure. That's actually one of the problems I'm having. I have to narrow my concentration down to a very fine point and pack as much power into the spell as possible to make breaking the magic nearly impossible. I don't have any attention or magic to spare for unintentional effects…" Harry sighed then laughed. "Right. Forgot I was a Magurist for a moment. So, that was completely me and not me at all."
She shook her head. "You magies are queer ducks."
"Oh so much… But that's my problem. Not the Magurist thing. That's an ongoing state of altered reality. But it's actually a lot harder to cast that spell than I make it seem, and I've been trying to tweak it to require less effort on my part. Ordinarily I'd bring this to one of my PD's and we'd work it out, but I don't want them to have the key to the spell. I have plans to alter the spell in amusing ways once I'm no longer directing all of my magical power into giving the spell staying power."
"Count me in." She sat up and rubbed her hands together with glee. "Do you have some sort of idea in mind for how you want to tweak it?"
"Seems a bit obvious, really." Harry began to flip through his notebook. "The best way is to open a bit of a channel to the other person's magic. I don't have to super concentrate my magic to achieve permanence because their magic is constantly rebuilding the structure of the spell."
"But by tying the spell into their magic, you're leaving a bigger weak spot in the spell and showing them where it is, yeah," Auror Bethy said, nodding.
"Yeah…" Harry glanced over as the door to the room opened, then looked back to Auror Bethy with an internal sigh when he saw who it was.
"You have the mathematical breakdown of your spell?" she asked, moving to the edge of her seat.
"Yeah." Harry set his open notebook down the desk and pulled out his wand. He tapped the center of both pages then set his wand down right along the spiral of the notebook. There was a shift in the magic around Harry, like it was being sucked in towards the wand, and then both of the pages were projected into the space above the desk.
"Neat and orderly handwriting," she approved. "You wouldn't believe how many students come in with big, important defense projects and show me notes that don't even look like any language, let alone one I can read."
There was a loud snort to Harry's right.
Harry held in another sigh and turned to the young man who'd stopped just to the side of his desk area. "Auren Favor-Freedom," he greeted cheerfully. "How are you today?"
"Working on actual schoolwork," he said shortly. "Something you're clearly not doing because you've been excused from all levels of defense." He scowled at the projection.
Harry turned the wand ninety degrees, deactivating the projection but not cancelling the spell. "That actually answered the question 'what are you doing today?', but I can pretty much guess from your answer that you're not in a happy place. That's really sad. Have you tried chocolate? Or-"
"I was in a pretty good place until I came in here and saw you hogging student resources you don't need."
"Or banana muffins?" Harry snapped his fingers. "You know what? I recommend banana muffins with chocolate chips. Instant happy."
"Does your Wunderkind Harry Potter free defense pass come with a free pass all over the school, too?"
"Do you actually need to talk to Auror Bethy?" Harry asked.
"No, he does not," Auror Bethy put in coldly.
"Because I can totally move," Harry continued. "I can come back later."
"No, you can't," Auror Bethy said. "Because I'm not helping him. He can go wake up Horace."
Harry glanced over at Auror Bethy and decided not to argue with the steely look on her face. He looked back to Favor-Freedom. "You really should call me Jamie. Harry Potter's almost more of a-"
"That's not happening."
"And I wouldn't really say I have a free pass of any kind. I'm still working my butt off in defense. I'm just doing it outside of the classroom. I have trained Aurors as instructors-"
"Yeah, so do I," Favor-Freedom interrupted. "I've had retired Auror instructors since I was ten. I've been the Junior Division Dueling world champion for four years in a row, and before that the Youth Division Dueling champion. I get paid to attend dueling exhibitions all over the world. But they're still making me attend the upper level defense classes here. All four. And you're being scheduled to come into those classes and demonstrate things!"
"Just because you-"
Harry held up a stilling hand and shook his head slightly, silencing Auror Bethy. He could feel her disapproving stare on his back. "It's not really related to my ability versus yours-"
"Yes it is," Auror Bethy interrupted.
Harry shot a warning look over his shoulder, then turned his attention back to Favor-Freedom. "It's really a lot more complicated than that. There're security issues and things related to the style in which I've been trained and making a more efficient use of my time given that I'm still receiving instruction outside of school and… she's shaking her head no to everything I'm saying, isn't she?" Harry asked as Favor-Freedom simply looked more unimpressed.
Favor-Freedom nodded curtly.
Harry glanced around. "You're not helping."
"Excellent. I'm doing my best to be as unhelpful as possible. I like succeeding."
"You know what I think," Favor-Freedom said, mouth thinning into a line. "I think you're completely full of shit. You might be pretty good in defense, but I don't think you're all that good and they're trying to preserve the illusion of Harry Potter."
Auror Bethy burst into laughter. "Oh, that's fucking priceless. Perfection. If that's true, why is he doing demonstrations to your class, huh? If that's true-"
"Auror Bethy," Harry interrupted, "kindly let me do the talking."
"I don't know why you're scheduled for demonstrations or anything else. But I do know that you're getting a free pass, and if I haven't earned it, you sure as hell haven't earned it. I resent my abilities being judged against a standard that no one's even allowed to see." Favor-Freedom brushed past Harry's seat and settled at a desk at the very back of the room.
Harry shifted to face Auror Bethy's portrait again with a sigh.
"Can I curse him?" Auror Bethy asked.
"No, you can't curse- can you actually curse someone?"
"I don't know. But I'm sure as shit up for giving it a try."
"No, you can't curse him."
"What're your PDs doing about that problem?"
"My PDs don't know about that problem." Harry fixed her with a look. "And you're not going to tell them, you understand? And you're not going to tell someone else who's going to tell them. Or tell another portrait who's going to tell them. This is an issue I'm working on. Some people don't like that I'm not taking defense classes, some for more legitimate reasons than others, and I'm going to work it out."
"So promise me you won't tell."
"Do you want me to pinky swear, too?" she mocked.
"Don't be ridiculous. We have no way of linking pinkies. But I know you'll keep your promise if you ever want me to trust you."
She stared at him then rolled her eyes. "Fine. I promise."
"I promise I won't tell your PDs. And I won't tell another painted being who will then tell your PDs. And I won't tell another breathing person who will then tell your PDs. Satisfied now?"
"Immensely." Harry scooted closer to the desk and turned the wand, projecting the pages into the air again. "I've got about half an hour. Let's talk about changing the bunny ears so the recipient's own magic makes them almost impossible to remove."