Disclaimer: Harry Potter and his whole universe belongs to J. K. Rowling and her associates. I'm just having a good time playing with it all, and I - unlike the owner - don't make a penny from it.

A/N: AU after fifth year. This is a bunny that came and bit me and wouldn't let go. It is filled with clichés. What can I say? I like them. It's inspired by many of the Marriage Law/Contract fics out there, only I've actually tried to throw in even more clichés than usually seen. As for why I've even written it? Well... Besides the bunny not wanting to let go, Bobmin says that the Union has made these fics obligatory, and who am I to argue with that? OK, he claims it has to be Marriage Law fic, but I'm sure I can squeeze a law in there somewhere. Also it has allowed me to focus on something other than Connection ch. 3, which I still can't figure out what I'm doing wrong with.

The Mandatory Marriage Contract Fic

Harry Potter was brooding! He had been since he closed the door to Hamish MacDougal's old bachelor pad to walk down to Hogsmeade Station the day before, and the brood was going stronger than ever. Having just eaten the first breakfast of his sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry was slowly walking out of the Great Hall, trying to subtly increase the distance to his former friends who were walking just ahead of him.

Although they didn't know it yet, Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger had been former friends of Harry's since the end of the first week of summer when it became clear that they'd put the Headmaster's communications ban over his well being and mental health for a second time. Only this time they appeared to have made it a complete black-out. That added to the Dursleys' - predictably - very bad reaction to the 'little talk' that they'd been given at King's Cross had Harry reacting completely differently to how the Headmaster expected him to. He packed up his stuff, wished the Dursleys all the worst, gave his minders the slip (well... he confirmed that Dung Fletcher was passed out drunk in the back garden) and went to London.

Once in Diagon Alley he'd hooked up with Hogwarts classmate Morag MacDougal, purely by accident. Harry had been hurrying past the floo grate in the Leaky Cauldron when Morag catapulted out of it and crashed into him. His glib comment of 'finally someone who is flooing as bad as I am' didn't win him any points, but she couldn't really refute it. The evidence was right there. They had never interacted in any way at school other than polite excuses when they happened to be in each other's way in halls and corridors, but it took them less than five minutes to find out that was a mistake on their part.

Upon entering Gringott's he was informed that his godfather's will was to be read the next day, and asked why he hadn't responded to the summons. Morag, after hearing the eruption that followed, had gotten hold of her solicitor-dad and the three of them had then proceeded to have the will read in private, which was Harry's right as the primary beneficiary. A curious Harry had innocently inquired if his parents hadn't left a will, sending half the Goblin Nation into a murderous temper when it was discovered that it had never been read to him, and once read it was clear that the stipulations in it had been disregarded completely. Seeing as it was a high profile case, the Director of Magical Law Enforcement, Amelia Bones, was summoned, and in the end it was agreed that a deeply covert investigation into Dumbledore's actions would commence (Harry happily supplied the names of Aurors and other Ministry employees whom he knew were in the Headmaster's Order, and in return she gleefully sealed all documents regarding Harry's change in status).

Harry then moved to Hogsmeade, renting Mr. MacDougal's cabin from his bachelor days for a year. Here he spent his time practising Occlumency, which he found not only beneficial for retaining-speed and -capacity, but also fairly easy to pick up once he'd been explained how to do it properly. Morag would floo over daily to capitalize on the underage magic waivers Director Bones had secured for them by doing a bit of dueling in the afternoons, although flirting and discovering and exploring each other was significantly higher on their agenda. Clothes did stay on though, if only barely at times.

Although magic took a back seat during their sessions, they did do a bit of it. Having a Ravenclaw explain things to him worked wonders, as opposed to having Hermione show off knowledge to him. One revelation came about when Morag explained the 'Aguamenti' charm that she'd just drenched him with as not being a charm at all. It was in fact a transfiguration, or more precisely a continuous conjuration. That led to Harry experimenting with conjuring other things, resulting in the development of the first true magical, wand based close-combat weapon: A magical Taser, brought about as a continuous conjuration of high voltage electricity. Morag was mightily impressed as she set about working out the theory of the spell, based on his explanations. He'd made another nifty conjuration as well, complete with sound effects, but he was saving that for another time. The Muggle-born and Muggle-aware should appreciate it, he thought.

It was during another impromptu dueling session in early August that the mother of all flukes happened: Morag, in an attempt to dispel a wall Harry had conjured up to hide behind, shot an overpowered 'Finite' at it, but, being off balance, overshot by an inch and hit Harry - who was carefully peering over his cover - square on his scar, sending him screaming to the floor. A couple of hours later when the pain had receded to manageable levels, he dispelled the wall himself - that is he intended to, but he wound up dispelling the space enlargement charm on the room as well. Hamish, who'd been called when Harry keeled over, instantly recognized that something major had happened. So did Harry. It felt like his whole brain had been rewired. A hastily summoned, trustworthy (and generously paid) Healer did a specialized scan on Harry's head, finding residue of an ancient - and severely dark and illegal - leeching enchantment in his scar, which by the way was beginning to finally heal. She also found a host of other stuff wrong with almost all parts of him, which she then prescribed potions to at least partially cure. The three of them put two and two together and quickly agreed that the enchantment was how Voldemort had kept himself alive, and if they could only find him now he'd be easily put down for good, especially since Harry now seemed to have power enough to kill people with a tickling jinx. Well... They agreed on it when they took breaks from cursing themselves for only having him checked for trackers and tracers at Gringott's.

Next morning Harry was just contemplating how his luck seemed to have changed when he got final proof. An owl, unknown to him, arrived carrying a letter, and since he was still deep in thought, he opened it without care. The letter read:

Potter, I don't know what you did, but the Master has been in his chambers since yesterday afternoon, screaming himself hoarse. No Death Eater who wants to live will go near him under these circumstances, since those who've come too near all dropped dead, and nobody will ever believe in his superiority again. Act fast and you'll win.

The Dark Lord Voldemort's house is located twenty yards due south of Little Hangleton Cemetery.

My debt is paid.

The letter was signed in blood, and Harry was speechless for all of ten seconds before he exploded into action. Hamish and Morag were summoned, and their early morning grumblings died in their throats at the sight of the letter. A makeshift plan of operation was quickly agreed on, and as the only one who knew where Little Hangleton was, Harry had a ten minute crash course in making Portkeys, and a quick enchantment later they were set to go.

The 'Epic Showdown' was anticlimactic to say the least. Harry snuck up to the large building, unopposed and undetected. It seemed that Voldemort had so much faith in his Fidelius, he didn't even have a warning ward up. Arrogant wanker! All Harry had to do was to walk in the front door, spend a few minutes locating Voldemort's chambers and then, seeing as he was nothing but a magical construct, shoot a 'Finite' at the incapacitated Dark Lord, who quickly reverted back to an old thigh bone, a hand and a few drops of blood, all of which Harry promptly vanished. No posturing, no squaring off, no heroics. Not even a screaming spectre like in first and second year. Just *POOF* and Voldemort was gone. Anticlimactic. Dead boring in fact.

Strangely enough, nobody did the math when The Daily Prophet reported the sudden deaths of several 'upstanding citizens', most of whom had been cleared of being Death Eaters 15 years ago. When the reports came from Azkaban that several prisoners were found dead in their cells it was thought to be Voldemort's way of keeping them quiet via the Dark Mark, and still nobody put it together. They didn't either when seven Slytherin students from the two upper years spontaneously dropped dead as well, along with two Ravenclaws, a Hufflepuff and three Gryffindors, most of them found wearing black cloaks and white masks. Yeah, Voldemort was right after all. The witches and wizards of Great Britain were sheep!

The rest of the summer saw Harry's trademark scar disappear just like a regular wound would. His eyesight improved to the point where he could ditch his glasses as well. Hamish and Morag theorized that the enchantment in his head had somehow had an impact on his eyes, what with it being so close to them. It might have been another reason but Harry didn't care. He just liked getting rid of them, and Morag liked it too.

The final few weeks also saw a marked improvement in Harry's control of his vastly increased magical power, as well as his ability to keep his thoughts to himself. They also brought about an even larger improvement in his acquaintance with that which made up Morag MacDougal inside and out.

Inside was a somewhat insecure, passionate, temperamental, caring, highly intelligent and - at least with Harry - playful and very forward young woman who was still as uncertain about what she wanted her future to bring as she was when she started Hogwarts five years ago. She spoke in a thick Highland brogue which was made to sound mildly funny by a slight lisp, particularly when she lost her temper. Harry only made the mistake of snickering the first time he was being yelled at though. The resulting stinging hex to the family jewels bloody hurt!

Outside was a witch who was a bit on the short side of average height (that's the polite way of saying it, when one is 5' 1"), who would've been called petite, if it wasn't for some rather spectacular curves. Those she'd been successfully hiding away under formless Hogwarts robes during school terms ever since they started to appear, all too aware that most boys would home in on them rather than the person inside. Outside of school she had no qualms about dressing to show them off though, and she was perfectly happy with Harry's reactions. Aside from the curves there were tanned legs appearing under her customary short skirt ("I have to wear a skirt or dress, Harry. I can't get a pair of jeans that'll fit both my legs and my hips and bum at the same time. I'm too short for that." Harry wasn't going to complain); loads more tanned skin from the waist up, usually evidenced by a cropped spaghetti-strap top or a sports bra; a heart-shaped face with full lips, snub-ish nose (Harry called it 'cute') and a slight dusting of sun-made freckles under black eyes, and on top of it all was long, thick, wavy black hair. Morag herself thought she weighed 6-8 pounds too much but Harry disagreed. He thought she was drop dead gorgeous as she was.

On the last evening of the holiday, Mrs. MacDougal ("If you can call that lug Hamish then surely you can call me Kirsten, Harry.") was brought into their little conspiracy, and over dinner they agreed to keep Voldemort's demise a secret for now. After all, the sure knowledge of him being back seemed to have more liberal heads prevailing in the Ministry, so why pull the the rug away under them to let the bigots in again? Also Harry was vindictive enough to think that with the way Society had treated him, why shouldn't he leave them to stew for some time? Morag liked that thought a lot. After hearing the Prophecy - which made her shiver - Kirsten hesitantly went along with it too and then laughed herself sick when Harry told her how the most feared Dark Lord in several hundred years had met his end.

That night when Harry floo'd back to Hogsmeade, Morag followed him - to 'bid him a proper good night' as she put it. This time the clothes didn't stay on, and when they woke up on September 1st they'd both lost something they couldn't get back. It had been painful, embarrassing and awkward, not to mention a lot sooner than either of them thought anything like that would happen. Neither of them regretted it for a second though, as evidenced by them doing it again – and this time with vastly more satisfying results - before Morag had to go home to get ready for the train ride. Harry would remain where he was, and just catch a ride with the carriages up to the castle when the train arrived.
Seeing that he hadn't received his OWL scores nor the list of possible classes, he didn't really have anything to prepare other than his clothes. He'd checked with Gringott's that his tuition fee had been deducted, so he foresaw fun and games when he got to Hogwarts. His lack of scar and glasses would probably add to the fun, as would his decision not to take any guff from anyone.

True enough, the moment he stepped inside the entrance hall he'd been descended upon by his Head of House, bearing his results (fairly decent but - excluding Charms and Defence - nothing to cheer loudly for) and a summons to come to the Headmaster's office 'as soon as convenient'. It hadn't really been convenient yet, and he suspected it wouldn't be any time soon.

At the feast Harry caused the first minor stir when he seated himself as the last student before the open space left for the firsties, or in other words as far away from Hermione and Ron as possible. A beaming Dumbledore had spewed his usual welcome, warnings and decrees; introduced new staff (Professor Slughorn, a walrus-like, once retired teacher, returning to teach Potions, and Professor Wilson, a young, mousy witch whom he suspected was a morphed Tonks, for Defence); suspended classes the next day 'to help come to terms with the inexplicable deaths of a professor (here Harry had snorted) and thirteen students over the summer', and then he'd made an unexpected announcement:

"Last year," he opened, "a number of students decided that they had to defy the Ministry in order to learn practical defence." He twinkled merrily at the former members of the DA. "They banded together and the Defence Association - or Dumbledore's Army - was born. Under the leadership of Harry Potter they went on to learn so much that the members of the group scored on average two points better than the rest of the school on OWLs, NEWTs and end of year exams in DADA. In fact the 28 members scored nine Exceeds Expectations, eighteen Outstanding and one Outstanding with distinction." The Headmaster paused to allow a deafening cheer. "Since we all need to know how to defend ourselves in these times, and since the group proved the validity of the concept so emphatically, the Defence Association will continue this year as an official school club, dedicated to the study of practical defence, sponsored by Professor Wilson. It will be open to all students from third year up, meeting Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 7 to 9, and like last year it will be taught by our new Assistant Teacher, Harry Potter." The cheer this time was thunderous. Dumbledore gestured for Harry to rise and he stood, calmly waiting for the applause to die down. When it did he spoke:

"Over my dead body!" he stated flatly. Cries of disbelief rang out throughout the Hall. "I haven't heard a single word about this before now, and I haven't volunteered my time. Nobody ever asked me about this, and if they had I would've said no. If anybody want to run it, go right ahead, but I'm not going to be there. I have much more important things to do." Morag shot him a discrete thumbs up when he sat down again.

"Harry?" The Headmaster looked severely displeased. "Are we to understand that you don't care about the lives of your fellow students?"

Harry snorted at the obvious attempt at guilt tripping him. "With a few exceptions, yeah!"

Dumbledore looked like he'd had a heart attack, and various exclamations of shock were heard.

"You of all people should appreciate the need to learn defence, Harry."

"Oh I do, Headmaster, I do. But if you're so concerned about your students learning practical defence, I'd recommend you hire someone to teach them, rather than try to con me into doing it. My free time is my own, and not for you to employ as you desire."

There were a few more attempts to make him change his mind, but he stood firm. He didn't want anything to do with it, and that was that. The atmosphere was somewhat subdued after that.

After the fun at the welcoming feast, he'd made his way to his dorm. A scan revealed several monitoring charms on and around his bed, so he'd gone to the Room of Requirement where he'd wished up a bed for the night. Just too bad he couldn't wish up a Morag as well.

This morning he'd appeared in the Great Hall for breakfast at his usual time, only to be immediately buried in a storm of questions - none of which he'd answered, much to Hermione's annoyance.

Harry had just made it out of the Great Hall when he was impacted by a soft form, making him stagger backwards until he hit the wall. Next thing he knew, a pair of rather strong legs were wrapped around his waist, a pair of arms wrapped around his neck and a set of lips crashed down on his with enough force to make him wince in pain as his lower lip split against his teeth. 'This is wrong', he thought. 'She's too heavy and too tall - not to mention too forceful - to be Morag'. Opening his eyes he was immediately proven right, and he took action. A swift elbow to each thigh dislodged the girl's legs from his waist (and ensured that she'd find walking quite painful for a while), and a hard shove saw her stumbling backwards a few steps until she finally lost her balance and went down in a rather undignified heap. Everything seemed to stop as the people around them took in the situation, and Harry used the opportunity to draw his wand, making the girl on the floor flinch and several onlookers gulp. He just proceeded to heal his split lip though, before homing in on the offender who was slowly getting off the floor.

"Who are you, and what the effing Hell do you think you're doing?" The answer to the first question came to him as he took in the girl's appearance. Just over medium height and slender, with gentle curves and quite long legs for her size, emphasized by the tight jeans and t-shirt she was wearing against the Hogwarts uniform code (regular clothing could be worn in weekends only, and while not a school day, it was a Monday); sandy-blonde curls to just past her shoulders; eyes an undefinable bluish colour, set a little wider than most; an aristocratic nose over plump lips and a slight dimple to her chin to finish the picture. Amanda 'Mandy' Brocklehurst, sixth year Ravenclaw and a dorm mate of his still relatively new girlfriend (who was standing a few paces away, looking positively murderous); second child and only daughter of Wizengamot member and block leader Leonard Brocklehurst, and - most notably - locked in a year-long battle with seventh year Hufflepuff Georgina Westchester for the title of 'The Hogwarts Broomstick'.
"I'm waiting," Harry growled. "What is going on here?"

"I... I..." Mandy stuttered, not really getting anywhere.

"Yes?" Mandy was still trying to get her mind working. "Come on now. Out with it. Why did you find it necessary to jump me? Uninvited and unappreciated I might add. And without even the courtesy of introducing yourself!"

"I... I just wanted to get things started, now we're getting married and..."

"We're getting what?" Harry ground out. Nearby Hermione Granger cringed. She knew that tone, and it never promised anything good. She silently cursed Mandy's lack of subtlety, not to mention her apparent inability to follow simple instructions.

"Married!" Mandy replied, as if talking to a particularly slow child. "The contract. Remember? It was signed yesterday."

"Miss Brocklehurst..." he sighed. "Since I wouldn't touch you even if I was paid for it, and since I've never signed any contract with you, I offer you my personal guarantee that while we might both get married someday, it won't be to each other. Now go away, preferably to the Hospital Wing to have your delusions cured." Mandy looked like she'd been struck, and a general murmur broke out around them.

"But..." Mandy objected in a small voice. "The contract. I... I signed it just yesterday. They s-said that everything was done and that y-you would s-sign it later." She started crying. "W-why did you ask for me if you didn't m-mean it?" she wailed. "What have I ever done to you?"

"I assure you Miss Brocklehurst, that I've never asked for you in any capacity whatsoever," Harry retorted through clenched teeth, desperately trying to reign in his temper. "Now would you please tell me what this contract is you're babbling about?"

"It's the marriage contract my father and the Headmaster have been negotiating for the last month. Professor Dumbledore told me that you had asked for me, and that you'd asked him to negotiate on your behalf."

"Miss Brocklehurst, this is the first I hear about this, and I see several things wrong with it," Harry started to explain, somewhat more controlled now that he was sure, Mandy's only fault in this was being stupid. "First of all, I do not intend to get married in the near future, nor have I stated any wish or preference to that effect. Secondly, I'd never ask the Headmaster to negotiate anything for me at all. I don't trust him as far as I can throw Hogwarts, so why would I? thirdly..."

"He's your guardian," Mandy interrupted, sniffling. "He said so himself."

"No he's not!" Harry dismissed her. "He'd like to be, but that's something completely different, which is part of the third thing that's wrong. He's got no rights at all to make any decisions whatsoever on my behalf. Lastly, didn't his claim that I'd asked for you strike anyone as strange, seeing we've never interacted in any way and don't know each other?" Harry stopped and shook his head. "No Miss Brocklehurst, we won't be getting married, no matter what the Old Goat has told you and no matter what you've signed. You've been conned, although I don't know for what purpose. I don't know how, either. I mean, you're a Ravenclaw! Aren't you supposed to be smarter than that?" Mandy broke down completely, and Hermione decided it was time to intervene.

"Actually Harry, you are getting married," she stated.

Harry spun around and levelled a death glare at her. "Explain!" he snapped, "and that explanation had better be a bloody good one."

She wilted under his glare. "I... I don't think this is the best place for that, Harry," she backpedaled swiftly, her voice weak.

Harry cut her off. "I think it's a brilliant place for it," he said forcefully. "After all it's the place that the broomstick there chose to inform me - much to my surprise and disgust - that I'm marrying her. I'd like to know what you know about that, and I'd like to know how you seem to know quite a lot more about this farce than I do, not to mention that I'd really like to know why you know." The last few words came out as a growl as things began to fit together in his mind. A quick glance in Morag's direction told him that she was piecing things together as well. Unlike Mandy, Morag was a true Ravenclaw after all.

After the predictable round of outraged gasps at Harry's 'broomstick' comment, no matter how accurate it was, hushed discussions had broken out all around the three people in the centre of this bizarre happening. None of them heard any of it though. Harry was completely focused on Hermione, and even more so now, after all his available information on her had joined to tell a story about her that he really didn't like.

Hermione in turn had switched from cursing Mandy to cursing herself, specifically her tendency to butt in with her input whether it was wanted or not. This time it had placed her firmly over an open fire, and she couldn't see any way out of it that wouldn't leave her severely burnt. However, her most pressing problem right now was how to head off Harry's impending detonation of temper, as announced by the staggering amount of raw magic that warped the air around him. Yeah... She really stepped in it this time.

The third side of the triangle - Mandy - didn't have any thoughts that deep to deal with. All she did - and all she really could do - was to bawl her eyes out in the arms of Lisa Turpin, another inhabitant of the Ravenclaw sixth year girls' dorm, after seeing her glorious new reality go down in flames. She tried - and failed - to understand what had happened and why anyone would do this to her. She had never done anything to anyone, and she'd always limited her 'extra-curricular activities' to unattached wizards. She honestly didn't think she deserved this. Okay, she had wondered why Harry had asked for her, and later why he hadn't even been at the signing at least, but when both the Headmaster and her father told her everything was as it should be, then who would she be to doubt her good fortune.

"I'm waiting Granger," Harry barked, only to see her wilt further as she desperately looked around for help. Her reaction not only confirmed everything Harry had just put together, but it told him the rest too. "YOU UNMITIGATED BITCH!" he roared, his magic leaping unbidden to pin her to the spot. "You were in on this all along! I guess your job was to approve of the broomstick on my behalf, and then to keep me in the dark for whatever twisted reason..." She paled. "You've got to be kidding! Was Weasley in on it too?" She paled even further and seemed to physically shrink, and beside her Ron went scarlet. "I don't believe you people! Wait... Did I just call you 'people'? You're not! You're scum of the Earth! Right on par with the Dursleys, Malfoys, Lestranges, and Dumbledore. I think I can even guess your price for selling me out: Head Girl and unrestricted access to the Library. What was Weasleys? Five Galleons and a pair of Keeper's gloves? I think I'm going to throw up!" Ron glowered at that while Hermione's tears started rolling down her cheeks. "Pathetic!" Harry spat. "How utterly pathetic." He sized her up. "Well. Are you going to explain yourself, you worthless piece of trash?"

Hermione tried, she really did, but the sob made it through anyway. Being called that, by Harry of all people, completely destroyed the tattered remains of her self esteem. It had been steadily eroding since she'd been roped into participating in the Headmaster's scheme, but Harry's harsh salvo did away with it completely. She'd been in the wrong from the very beginning, she knew that, but she'd been played by a master. He knew all her buttons and he'd pressed them all, and now she'd lost everything. She breathed in deeply and prepared to lay all her cards on the table. He deserved that much.
She never got any further though. Just as she opened her mouth to explain, a most unwelcome voice interrupted her.

"Miss Granger, Mr. Potter, what seems to be the problem here?" Albus Dumbledore queried. He'd left his office halfway through his Runes-professor's report on the incident and rushed to the scene, guided by the sound of shattering schemes.

"What seems to be the problem, Headmaster, is that your creature here is just about to tell me how it came about that the broomstick over there seems to suffer from the delusion that I'm going to marry her," Harry replied blandly, "and how - when I denied the apparently impending marriage - Granger could tell me that I was indeed getting married." Dumbledore winced and opened his mouth to speak, but Harry wasn't done yet.

"The real problem however, is how the broomstick claims that you told her that I'd asked for her, and that you claimed to negotiate one of those revolting contracts on my behalf and with my knowledge and consent when nothing can be further from the truth. I'm fairly certain that Prefect Granger..." Hermione whimpered at Harry's blatant renouncing of their friendship, "...can't explain that one, given how you tend to prefer keeping your pawns in the dark," Dumbledore winced again, "...but perhaps you would care to explain it to me, Headmaster?" Seeing that he wouldn't get an answer, just as he'd expected, Harry pressed on, his voice thick with sarcasm.

"If that's too much of a strain on your mental capacity, Headmaster, then how about explaining to me just why you felt the need to arrange for me to get married, and why you picked a girl I only know enough about to be sure I'd never touch her with a ten foot pole? And most importantly, Headmaster..." he ploughed on, his voice steadily rising, "most importantly I'd like you to tell me why you felt compelled to do all of this without ever telling me about it, or even have the courtesy to ask my preferences on the subjects, which would have saved a lot of trouble for people since I could then have told you that I'd never consent to a marriage contract of any kind. Those disgusting things should be outlawed, and those who use them ought to be publicly whipped!" the last couple of sentences were almost yelled out, and his magic once again threatened to break free.

"Anyway," he sneered, "no matter what sick reasons you might have, your scheme isn't going to work. I'll get married when I'm good and ready for it, and it won't be to Miss Brocklehurst. Period!" The silence was deafening - at least it was until Dumbledore rallied.

"Miss Granger, Mr. Potter, would you both please accompany me to my office." It wasn't a question, rather a politely phrased order.

"Of course Sir," Hermione turned immediately.

"Why?" Harry asked, suddenly calm and collected.

"E-excuse me?" the Headmaster stuttered, astonished that Harry had the audacity to question him. "What do you mean 'why', Mr. Potter?"

"It's a simple question, Headmaster. Why should I go to your office?"

"Surely you don't think that this ruckus would go without investigation?"

"Yes I did actually, but since you claim to want to investigate, why call up only Prefect Granger and I when Brocklehurst started the whole thing by jumping me out the blue."

"I will deal with that in due time, Mr. Potter."

"I'm sure you will," Harry muttered. "By patting her on the head and then scolding her for telling me something I wasn't supposed to know."

"What was that, Mr. Potter?" Dumbledore asked, more menacingly than his grandfather persona called for.

"Nothing of your concern, Headmaster." Harry wasn't cowed. "I take it, this is a disciplinary matter then?"

"Indeed it is, Mr. Potter. Now come along."

"I'll go to my Head of House's office immediately, Headmaster. I'm sure she'll let you know when you can send Prefect Granger to her," Harry countered. He had a hard time keeping from laughing at the look of shock that spread over the old man's face as he turned in the direction of McGonagall's office.

"I told you to go to my office, Mr. Potter, not Professor McGonagall's."

"I heard that, Headmaster, but Hogwarts Bylaws, as well as the Students' Rulebook and the Code of Conduct, state that disciplinary matters are to be handled by the individual students' Head of House, and only when the Head of House isn't able to handle the matter is it to be brought before the Headmaster. I'm well aware that Professor McGonagall's punishment will probably be exceedingly harsh, seeing as she tends to discipline her students twice as hard as the other two Heads do theirs, but I'm sure I'll manage."

"Don't you mean three Heads, Harry?" Hermione couldn't help herself.

"No Prefect Granger, I mean two," Harry snapped, annoyed at her nosy interruption. "Seeing that the greasy Death Eater who masqueraded as a Potions teacher until this summer only ever gave one detention to a Slytherin that I know of - the one he gave Malfoy two years ago for failing to injure me when he sabotaged my Calming Draught - I can't in good conscience mention the scumbag in the same breath as professors Sprout and Flitwick when the subject is Heads disciplining their own students, and I haven't got anything to judge Professor Vector by yet."

"Twenty points from Gryffindor for disrespecting your professor, Mr. Potter," Dumbledore barked. "Never in my days have I heard a student insult a teacher that blatantly."

"Headmaster," Harry sighed, "you can take every point Gryffindor will earn for the next ten years. Discounting the positive fact that he's dead, it still wouldn't make your Death Eater pet a professor. In order to be a professor you have to be a teacher, and since Snivellus Snape couldn't teach a fish how to get wet, he could never have become a professor."

"This is quite enough from you, Mr. Potter," Dumbledore thundered. "You will remove yourself to my office immediately or you will leave the school!"

"Don't tempt me, Headmaster. You might not like the outcome." Harry paused for a second to think. "Tell you what Headmaster. I'll join you in your office on two conditions: That Brocklehurst joins us since she and you have a lot of explaining to do, and that both our Heads of House are present. It will still be under protest though." Harry caught Morag's brief smirk. She knew perfectly well that Harry would let Dumbledore have the whole load, and that she'd get to see the memory as soon as possible. Everybody else looked positively shellshocked.

"You are pushing dangerously close to the edge, Mr. Potter," Dumbledore growled. "I am not..."

"And I don't give a damn," Harry interrupted, drawing a new round of outrage. "You see, Headmaster..." he continued, contempt now evident in his voice, "...you've made quite a lot of mistakes over the years, and you've consistently refused to learn even the tiniest bit from any of them. The most important one right now is that you've allowed me to learn that you need me much more than I'll ever need you - which is not at all." He paused to enjoy the look of apoplectic rage that flitted over Dumbledore's face, only to be immediately replaced with shock - not to say abject horror - when he realized that Harry was right.

"Therefore, Headmaster, I'll spell it out for you: You can either let me stay or you can expel me. Those are your only options regarding me. Go outside the rules with me, or push me with your high-handed manipulations 'for my own good' or 'for the greater good', and I'm out of here faster than Snape could take points from a Gryffindor for brewing a correct potion." He turned and started for the stairs. "Well, are you coming? I have more important things to do than wasting my time with this." The look he threw over his shoulder told him that Morag was biting her lip quite hard - he'd have to soothe that later - to avoid laughing. It also told him that almost the whole school had gathered in the hall to witness the spectacle, and it seemed that his final shot had left them all in a state of complete astonishment. 'Sheep' he thought as he started up the stairs without waiting for Mandy, Hermione or the professors.

"Would you mind explaining what this is all about, Mr. potter," Dumbledore asked tersely, as they had all been seated in his office.

"Yes I would actually," Harry replied in the same manner. "I believe you and Miss Brocklehurst, not to mention Prefect Granger..." McGonagall did a double take at Harry's name for Hermione, "... are the ones who should be doing the explaining, Headmaster."

"Mr. Potter..." McGonagall ventured tentatively. "Why are you calling your friend 'Prefect Granger'?" Hermione's breath hitched.

"After her ceasing communication with me completely for the whole summer," Harry replied, "and since it appears that she's been working actively against my interests for the same length of time or perhaps even longer, Prefect Granger is most definitely no friend of mine. And since I don't even consider her an acquaintance any more either, I'm addressing her by her title and family name as per the Students' Rulebook and the Code of Conduct, Professor," he finished.

McGonagall was thunderstruck! "Would you be terribly offended if I asked you how this regrettable change came about, Mr. Potter?" she asked.

"I'm not offended, Professor," Harry replied. "However I'm loath to begin an explanation without the full facts which the Headmaster, Miss Brocklehurst and Prefect Granger combine to hold. Without those facts, some of my reasoning will have to rely on educated guesses, most of them brought about by Prefect Granger still being a horrible liar." Harry scowled at the three mentioned.

"I... I see, Mr. Potter." McGonagall turned to the Headmaster. "Albus, I'd appreciate you telling me exactly what is going on here, and I'd appreciate it right now!" Her tone brokered no argument. Dumbledore gave a long-suffering sigh. Harry recognized the tactics and snorted, startling the old man.

"Very well," he sighed. "Since Mr. Potter seems bent on making a large production out of very little, I'll tell you what I can..."

"Don't you dare try to hang this on me, old man," Harry hissed. "No matter what you do, you can't make it look like you have the moral - or any other - high ground on this. You've manipulated yourself into this situation without any pushes from me, so don't go saying I'm at fault here!" Harry was fuming at the old goat's attempt to escape blame, and the air around him crackled with energy. Dumbledore shrunk back in his chair, and McGonagall and Flitwick gaped.

"I didn't say you were, Mr. Potter," Dumbledore tried a comeback, but it didn't impress anyone. This time McGonagall snorted right along with Harry, and Flitwick's expression darkened.

"Yeah, right," Harry mumbled.

"As I was saying," Dumbledore began again. "It is prophesied that Harry..."

"Mr. Potter!" Harry growled. Dumbledore flinched.

"...That Mr. Potter will have a power the Dark Lord has not. I firmly believe that power to be love..." Harry coughed violently. "Is anything wrong, Mr. Potter?" the old man asked, somewhat pointedly.

"You've got to be joking!" Harry sputtered. "If that's the power, then why did you go to such lengths to make sure I never had any idea what it is?"

"I made sure you were raised in a loving family, Mr. Potter," Dumbledore pompously stated.

"You truly are delusional," Harry sighed. "The most positive emotion I ever experienced from those degenerate animals you dumped me with was indifference. If that's your idea of love, then I can almost understand this scheme of yours. But please, continue your fairytale..." he waved airily. McGonagall meanwhile was staring daggers at the old goat.

"I believe the power to be love," he started again, somewhat more shakily this time. "In order for Mr. Potter to discover and experience this power of his, I mentioned to his closest friends the possibility of setting up a marriage for him and presented them with a number of names of girls I thought might be suitable for him. Unfortunately I couldn't involve Mr. Potter himself, since he was, at the time, held incommunicado for his continued safety. Mr. Potter's friends recommended Miss Brocklehurst." He paused to gauge the effect of his words so far - and was disappointed.

"Bullshit!" Harry exclaimed, and pressed on over the admonitions from the professors and Hermione. "At a guess it's true that you mentioned a marriage contract, but only after you'd actually started the process. You only gave Granger and Weasley one name - Brocklehurst's - or maybe hers and the littlest Weasley's, knowing that her brother would veto that, and I was kept in the dark for two reasons: First because I was supposed to be overjoyed and forgive you for last year when you finally pulled me out of that hellhole, and second because I wasn't supposed to know about your marriage fiasco until the last possible moment. It had nothing to do with safety. It never did. Anyway, a marriage contract doesn't ensure love," he sneered. "This particular one, had it ever been executed, would probably have ensured a lot of sex, since my intel indicates that Miss Brocklehurst spends more time out of her knickers than she does actually wearing them." He shot a disgusted look at Dumbledore. "It doesn't really matter though, since this particular manipulation has nothing to do with love. It's all about control." Looking at Hermione he could see that he'd come very close to the truth.

"I'm curious though. Pray continue, Headmaster..." Dumbledore looked decidedly uneasy now that it was obvious that Harry hadn't forgiven him and, more importantly, clearly didn't believe a word he told him. The amount of energy that emanated from him didn't help matters either.

"I approached Miss Brocklehurst and her father to see if they were agreeable to a contract, which I then proceeded to negotiate to reasonable terms with Mr. Brocklehurst. The main clause in it is that it must be executed no later than one year after being signed by the first of its subjects. Miss Brocklehurst signed it yesterday, making the latest possible execution the 1st of September next year, no later than 10.30AM." Deep silence reigned for a few seconds. It was broken by Harry's mirthless chuckle.

"You're nearly as good as Lockhart, Headmaster. His fictions were slightly more believable, but I'll give you points for effort." His demeanour changed in an instant. "I'd like to see that contract of yours right now, Headmaster. Since you've lied and deceived in my name to try and saddle me with that abomination, I believe I'm entitled to see it." His voice was as steely as his face, and Dumbledore had a hard time looking at him.

"I don't think..." he began, but Harry cut him off.

"I don't give a rat's arse what you think, old man. You will show me that perverse document and you will do it right now, or I'll up and leave today and hang the consequences!" Harry's eyes were blazing and the crackling around him intensified. When a number of the Headmaster's little silver devices started melting, he relented.

"Very well Mr. Potter, although I cannot fathom why, since you seem so dead set against it." He rose from the desk.

"Either you're stupid, old man, or you think I am. I want to see just how badly you've tried to screw me over."

Dumbledore pulled out a few pieces of parchment from a shelf and held them out to Harry with a look of supreme disappointment. "Here you are, Mr. Potter." Harry remained motionless. "You wanted to see this, Mr. Potter," the Headmaster pressed. "Please take it."

"You do think I'm stupid," Harry stated flatly. "If you think I'm going to touch that cursed thing when I don't know how many compulsions you've placed on it, you're either delusional or just plain senile. Put it on the table, page by page." Dumbledore couldn't help the annoyed scowl that crept onto his face as he complied. The expression didn't go unnoticed by his professors, who were both rapidly re-evaluating their opinions of the old schemer. Harry waited for the Headmaster to be seated again before he rose and looked the document over. Meanwhile silence reigned in the office.

A couple of minutes later, to the surprise of those present, Harry began to chuckle quietly. "How did you put it, Headmaster? 'Reasonable terms', wasn't it? Would you care to explain to me just how a bride price of 300.000 Galleons - that's around sixty years pay for a mid-level worker in the Ministry, and 150 times the normal price, give or take a few Knuts - is reasonable? No? I didn't think so." Harry shot a foul look at the old man who was busy trying to look at nothing at all.

"Then we have a clause saying that I relinquish control of the Potter votes in the Wizengamot to Mr. Brocklehurst for a ten year period, but I'll still be responsible for the votes cast." He shook his head in disbelief. "You really are a piece of work, old man. How you even manage to look at yourself in the mirror without throwing up is beyond me." The Headmaster still didn't answer. He was being pushed onto the defensive and he definitely didn't like it.

Harry continued to cherry-pick from the document. "Also here's a clause that reserves Mr. Brocklehurst the rights to negotiate marriages for any children we have, with families of his choice." He shook his head sadly. "Here's a good one too: We'll have no say in where to live. Mr. Brocklehurst will pick out a place for us at our expense. I guess that means he has a run-down shack somewhere that he'll sell us for a fortune, and we'd just have to comply. Ooh!" he suddenly exclaimed, "here's a real beauty: The contract is to be consummated within 24 hours of its execution. Failure to do so will forfeit the groom's entire estate to the bride's family!" Harry chuckled mirthlessly. "I'll offer good odds that Mr. Brocklehurst is already trying to decide which impotence potion to spike my drink with." He read on for a while, and then turned to face Mandy.

"I take it you've read this disgusting piece of literature, Miss Brocklehurst?"

"Y-yes of course," she stammered. "I read it before I signed it."

"I see..." Harry was bone dry. "So you're perfectly okay with being rendered a Muggle if this piece of bog roll isn't followed to the letter?"

"I... What!" Mandy paled dramatically.

"I thought so," Harry sighed. "Nicely buried in the section with legalese is a stipulation, activated by signature, that calls for the loss of magic if this isn't carried out exactly as written. Sweet!" His expression turned feral. "I'll suggest you dedicate yourself to the Muggle Studies class, Miss Brocklehurst. Being a pureblood you'll need to learn a lot about your new life within the next year. I'm sure Prefect Granger will be delighted to help you with it, what with being both a Muggle-born and a know-it-all, not to mention partially responsible for you being in this situation." Various degrees of shock were clear on the faces around him.

"Surely you don't want to be responsible for Miss Brocklehurst losing her magic, Mr. Potter," the Headmaster chided. Now that he could push back, his normal condescending tone was returning.

"Of course I won't," Harry snapped, and relief shone on Mandy's face. "You will be the one responsible for that, along with her father. You dreamed up this abomination after all." Dumbledore reared back, and Mandy broke down, sobbing about her life being over. Flitwick wanted to tear Harry a new one, but quickly realized that this wasn't his fault. He was almost as disappointed with Mandy as he was with the Headmaster. For a Ravenclaw to sign something like this, without knowing all the possible consequences and without the other part there to sign as well... That was an embarrassment he couldn't quite swallow. Not for the first time he wondered just how Miss Brocklehurst ended up in his House.

"Prefect Granger," Harry turned to Hermione and shot her an icy glare. "I'd like to hear your reasoning for going along with this, as well as your reasons for keeping it from me." She glanced at Dumbledore. "I see," Harry said disgustedly. "You're so deep in his pocket, you have to have his permission to talk to someone you called 'your best friend' less than three months ago." She teared up.

"Honestly, Harry..." he snorted. "Please, Harry. I..." she sniffled. "The Headmaster's arguments made sense, you know," she looked at him pleadingly, only to be met with a stony face. She decided on a different approach. "Honestly Harry. Knowing you as I do, I know you need love in your life, and the way you are with girls you would never get married if it wasn't contracted," she rushed, looking at her hands. When she looked up at Harry she discovered that it had been exactly the wrong thing to say. The air around him seemed alive and he was clearly straining to contain himself.

"And you were okay with this?" he asked her through clenched teeth, waving in the direction of the contract.

"Y-yes..." came the timid answer. "Otherwise you'd never..."

"Enough!" he hissed. "So you're all about embarrassing yourself over freeing House-elves, but for someone you claim to be a friend being traded like cattle is perfectly alright. Is that so, Prefect Granger?"

"N-no! I didn't..."

"That's what you just said, Prefect Granger," he ground out. "I had to be traded like a common commodity in order to have someone to spend my life with - whether I wanted it or not - so you picked out Brocklehurst. Or rather, you rubber stamped the Old Goat's choice of someone I only know by reputation, and who I wouldn't touch even if she was the last female on Earth." He desperately tried to keep his temper in check.

"Where are my rights and choices in this? What if I'd actually been gay like I know several rumours say, Prefect Granger? Or what if I'd wanted a Muggle girl? After all I've met more of those than I have magical ones. Or maybe I don't want to get married while I'm still a teenager - or not at all. That didn't matter to you, did it Prefect Granger? No, you approved his choice of the Ravenclaw Broomstick because 'I'd never get married otherwise'." Harry moved to place his face just in front of hers. "Or more likely, you approved because you were promised a badge to do so. A badge that I'll fight to the bitter end to make sure you'll never touch." Hermione was crying freely now, right along with Mandy. Harry straightened up, disgust showing in all his features. "Since you know so much more about me than I do, Prefect Granger, would you please enlighten me... How do I go about telling my girlfriend that the wizard she's dating and planning a life with will be a Muggle this time next year?"

"Gi-girlfriend? I... Who? I..." she choked. "Harry. I'm sorry! Please..."

"Not good enough." Nobody had ever seen Harry this menacing before. "I swear to you Granger that I'll do everything in my power to destroy your life to at least twice the extent that you've destroyed mine. Since I'll apparently be without magic before too long, I'll swear it on my life!"

"No!" Hermione gasped as she broke down completely. Meanwhile, Dumbledore had used his reprieve as Harry laid into Hermione to gather his scattered wits and regroup.

"Mr. Potter," he began, his face once again set in the supremely disappointed look that he'd spent so long time perfecting. "You will of course not be a Muggle. Once you've signed the contract and live by the terms in it, there is no risk of losing your magic." His benign little smile at the end revealed that he was feeling on top again. Harry quickly pulled him down.

"As I said, in a year I'll be a Muggle. I have already told you that there's no way I'll ever sign that vile thing, or any other for that matter. I abhor that practice and I'd gleefully flay those who still use them. Anyway, unlike Miss Brocklehurst, being without magic is not that big a problem for me. You've taken great pains for the last fifteen years to make sure that I'm much more at home in Muggle society than I am in yours." As the Headmaster paled, Harry turned to Mandy. "Enjoy your magic while you can, Miss Brocklehurst. You have 364 days left before it's gone." Dumbledore cleared his throat but Harry ignored him and addressed McGonagall.

"Professor, since it seems I'll be without magic a year from now, it'll be rather pointless to learn and practice wanded subjects, wouldn't you agree? Since I'm required to take at least four courses, I'll be taking History, Care of Magical Creatures and Potions, all at basic level, as well as NEWT level Herbology." He turned back to Dumbledore.

"Since you've chosen not to be honest with me, I see no reason to waste any more of my time in this room. Are we done?" Harry made to rise.

"No, Mr. Potter," the kindly grandfather was long gone, "we are not done. We have a lot to discuss." The headmaster turned to the others. "Professors, Miss Brocklehurst, Miss Granger, your presence is no longer needed. I would ask that you keep this discussion to yourselves." Harry snorted.

"Don't worry, old man. I'll relay it to the relevant people myself." Dumbledore glared at him as the rest trooped out.

"Why this anger and rebelliousness, Harry?"

"Mr. Potter!" Harry snapped.

"Pardon. Mr. Potter, then. Why this and why now? We all need to pull in the same direction..."

"That direction being yours of course?"

"Har... Mr. Potter," Dumbledore began in his 'condescending voice no. 1™'. "When you've lived as long as I have..."

"...You go senile!" Harry snapped. "Listen, old man," he continued. "Your way of manipulating everyone else while leaving the bad guys in peace failed completely last time, and it's no better now, even with your specially groomed sacrifice thrown in." Dumbledore's eyebrows shot upwards. "Don't look so surprised, old man. Do you really think I'm so stupid, I wouldn't be able to put two and two together?" he mocked him. "I'm not Lily Potter's son for nothing, Headmaster. I've figured out your scheme, and I've figured out what that revolting contract is about too." He sat up straighter, all business. "Now, do you have anything relevant to talk about at all, or is this just a childish ploy to test how angry I can get and how long it'll take to get me there?"

"Mr. Potter, I need to know where you've been this summer and why you left the safety of your home. A lot of people have given up a lot of their time to help keeping you safe. Running off and placing yourself in danger is hardly a good way to thank them." The Headmaster looked stern, but Harry just rolled his eyes at him.

"You truly are delusional," he scoffed. "You don't need to know where I've been. You want to know, but I'm not going to tell you. You'll find out in time." Dumbledore looked ready to rant, but Harry kept going. "The safety of my home? You've got to be joking. That hellhole was never my home, and I was certainly never safe there. I left because of that, and because your sycophants' little talk with the Dursleys made them take their abuse to new heights, just as you planned.
'A lot of people' haven't given up anything to keep me safe. You've roped in some people to help keeping me imprisoned. Having a perpetual drunk like Fletcher there proves me right. He couldn't keep a flobberworm safe on a good day, much less when passed out drunk like he usually was.
I got the Hell out of there in order to get away from the danger you had deliberately placed me in, and I've been perfectly safe all summer, as evidenced by the fact that you couldn't find me despite the place being unwarded." He smirked at the Headmaster. "Was there anything else?" Dumbledore was fit to be tied. Harry was supposed to be insecure, downtrodden, grieving and desperate for friendship and guidance, and instead he was confident, confrontational and disrespectful. He was ruining everything.

"I summoned you yesterday but you didn't come here. Why?"

"I was told 'as soon as convenient'. It hasn't been convenient yet." Still that insufferable smirk.

"That is taking the wording too literally, Mr. Potter. Where did you sleep last night since you weren't in your dorm?"

"I was going to stay in the dorm, but since I discovered several monitoring charms on my bed..." Harry paused, looking thoughtful. "You do know there are words for old perverts who spy on schoolboys, don't you?" His contempt was plain as day. "Anyway, I found somewhere else to sleep, and if I tell you where, you'll just fill that with your illegal charms too, so I'll keep it to myself." Harry took a deep breath. "You wanted to know why I'm angry? I wasn't when I came here yesterday. I was perfectly content just ignoring those insufferable arseholes who chose to screw me over, just like they did last summer. I only started getting mad when you announced me teaching - something I had neither been asked about, nor volunteered for. I got madder when I found your charms on my bed, and I had enough when the broomstick spilled the beans this morning. It's all your doing, old man, and it will be your undoing. 'I am going to tell you everything'. Bullshit! That didn't last long, did it?" The contempt in Harry's voice was almost tangible. "Now are we done?"

"Yes, Mr. Potter," the Headmaster conceded defeat - for now. "You may leave. Please work with us, Mr. Potter. We only wish the best for you." Harry gave no sign, he'd heard him, as he left the office. Only once he'd left did they both realize, that nobody had asked about the missing scar and glasses.

Harry exited the Headmaster's office in a towering rage, radiating energies left, right and centre. Morag quickly latched on to him and dragged him off to the Room of Requirement where she spent an enjoyable hour having a lot of fun, redirecting those energies into more... erm... worthwhile pursuits. Afterwards, while he was drawing lazy patterns on his girlfriend's warm, sweaty and decidedly unclothed body - as well as greatly enjoying the view - a very mellow Harry had to admit that even the Old Goat might actually be good for something, even if he didn't mean to.

Once the afterglow had wound down to a normal, pleasant feeling, Morag put on knickers, blouse and game face and went into 'Ravenclaw-mode'. She asked for Harry to tell her what was going on, and when Harry had relayed the meeting, the contract - as verbatim as he could - and explained his theories on Dumbledore's reasons and plans, she went silent, looking thoughtful.
A couple of minutes later, Harry was startled out of his musings when Morag first chuckled, then snorted, and finally dissolved into a fit of giggles. Harry really didn't see the joke, at least not until she explained it to him. Once he had digested it all, Morag's scant clothing went flying as he proceeded to thoroughly reward her for setting his world right again. A true Ravenclaw girlfriend definitely came with more advantages than most. Morag greatly appreciated her reward, although afterwards she grumbled a bit about having to repair her knickers before pulling them back on, as well as about some general soreness in her lower regions.

While Morag went off to find a hot bath to soothe her sore bits, Harry went to the Owlery to inform Hedwig that she'd be burning up the air-lanes between Hogwarts and Utrecht for the foreseeable future. She didn't seem to mind but then again, she hadn't had a lot to do over the summer.

Dinner that day brought about another explosive argument when it turned out that Ron had been named Quidditch Captain. Harry argued - quite loudly and angrily - that Katie Bell, as the most senior member of the team, should have had the job, and that he himself should've been second in line for it. Katie denied that she'd been given the option, and Harry hadn't been asked either. He quickly put the facts together and turned to Ron.

"So this was your price for approving Dumbledore's marriage contract, Weasley? I hope you choke on it." Ron just sputtered. "I'm off the team, arsehole. There's no way I'm going to play for a piece of shit like you."

Katie immediately followed his example. Last year's emergency replacement Beaters, Andrew Kirke and Jack Sloper, did too, but they'd probably have been kicked out anyway. Still, Harry and Katie appreciated the sentiment. A furious Ron was left with only himself and Ginny on the team, and Ginny looked like she wanted to quit too. McGonagall alternated between lost looks at her House table and glares that could melt granite at the Headmaster, showing clearly that she'd been muscled into handing Ron the captaincy. The other Houses' teams looked ready to celebrate.

The next explosion occurred a few hours later when Harry was talking to Neville in the Gryffindor Common Room, chuckling quietly at Neville's recounting of Augusta Longbottom's near-stroke when she realized that her grandson had gone to war with Voldemort's inner circle and come out ahead, suffering only a broken nose and a broken wand where by all rights he should've been a puddle on the floor. Hermione demonstrated a remarkable lack of basic understanding, choosing that moment to approach Harry to once again try to convince him that she was sorry. Needless to say, Harry's finishing shot of "No you're not sorry, Prefect Granger, but I'll make sure you will be!" kind of cooled the mood in the room and sent Hermione fleeing in tears.

As could be expected, the whole Potter/Brocklehurst incident quickly became a favourite topic around the castle. As the details leaked out, the students split into two camps over it. One camp spearheaded by Mandy, her best friend Lisa Turpin, and several Slytherin girls who were against everything Harry Potter on general principle, vilified Harry for 'callously sentencing Mandy to a fate worse than death', elegantly disregarding both that Harry hadn't had anything to do with the negotiations, and the fact that Mandy had brought it upon herself by being stupid.

The other camp was championed by the other half of the Ravenclaw sixth year girls' dorm - Morag and her friend and confidante, Padma Patil. Their side was joined by most Ravenclaw and Slytherin boys who all claimed that whether they liked Harry or not, he was in the right on this, and that they wouldn't take being forced into a marriage contract lying down either. Surprisingly enough, this side had the support of most of Hufflepuff as well, most likely because of Hermione and Ron; and a good number of Ravenclaw girls who saw Mandy as the one at fault since she'd agreed to the contract without even talking to Harry first. Gryffindor generally stayed neutral due to the Quidditch debacle (the Gryffindor team now consisted of Ron, Ginny, and the two first years and three second years who were the only ones to turn up for tryouts), and his slamming of Hermione.

A week into the term Mr. Brocklehurst made a big mistake, trying to put the pressure on Harry. He had drummed up extra interest in the weekly Ministerial press conference, claiming he had news of nationwide - perhaps even international - interest. The relevant part of the resulting article in The Prophet read:

During yesterday's press conference in the Ministry, Wizengamot block leader Leonard Brocklehurst came forward with some very special news. In an announcement that is certain to break witches' hearts everywhere, he revealed that an agreement has been reached on a contract of marriage, tying together his daughter, Amanda, currently a sixth year student in Hogwarts' Ravenclaw House, and Harry Potter, The-Boy-Who-Lived, sixth year Gryffindor. He went on to acknowledge Hogwarts' Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore as well as Mr. Potter's long time best friends, Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger, "without whose help and encouragement this agreement would never have been made." He went on to say that "They clearly love Harry very much. I understand he has that effect on people."
We here at The Daily Prophet wish the young lovers all the best in their future, and we remind them that we have extensive experience in covering celebrity weddings.
We were unable to reach Mr. Potter for a comment, but rest assured, dear readers, that we will get one.

Harry had his best laugh since Sirius' death when he'd read that. It would have been a solid political move, had it been true, but now it would cost Mr. Brocklehurst dearly, not to mention make him look like a complete idiot.

He put down the paper and proceeded to ward his magical signature to avoid the avalanche of owls that he was sure to be the target of (Hedwig knew where he was, and would find him regardless). Then he wrote Gringott's and the Ministry to inform them that all communication was to go through his solicitor, Hamish MacDougal; wrote Hamish to tell him to forward his relevant mail through Morag, and told Morag what he'd done.
Once all that was taken care of, he sat down and gleefully wrote a statement - one that completely took Mr. Brocklehurst's announcement apart: He denied having had knowledge of the negotiations, just as he denied Dumbledore's right to conduct them. He also denied having any intentions of ever marrying Mandy, no matter what the cost to him - or her - before he went on to denounce Dumbledore as a malicious old man, hell bent on controlling every aspect of his life which he'd already gone to extremes to make as unpleasant as possible; Ron as a narrow-minded, petty and opportunistic jerk who tried to get as many discounts and as much pussy (although when the statement appeared in The Quibbler, 'much pussy' had been replaced with 'many women') as possible from flaunting Harry's name; and Hermione as a scheming and calculating bitch who knew she needed Harry's name and fame in order to avoid the stigma of her heritage, which would see her becoming at most a research assistant somewhere, having others taking credit for her work. All three, he continued, were perfectly content with sentencing Harry to the contract's described life of near-slavery with a woman he didn't like and wanted nothing to do with. A life he was willing to give up his magic in order to avoid, if that was what it took. He finished by stating that he and his girlfriend were perfectly happy together and that they intended to keep things that way, no matter what any revolting and illegal contract might say.

Luna's eyes glazed over when she read it, and they did it again when he told her it was for The Quibbler exclusively.

Predictably, the statement caused a storm when it appeared in the next week's Quibbler. Scores of Howlers and cursed letters arrived for the three conspirators at Hogwarts in the following days, and Hamish told him that a large batch of cursed mail meant for him had been returned, not surprisingly mostly to members of conservative pureblood families, and thirty-two Howlers had been returned to their makers - two of them to Molly Weasley. He also forwarded a good deal of sympathetic letters, mainly from witches, thanking him for speaking up against forced betrothals and marriage contracts. The only thing bothering him was that he and Morag were still keeping their relationship a secret, but he was working on a plan to change that.

True to form, Halloween came with an experience he'd rather have been without: Mr. and Mrs. Brocklehurst came to Hogwarts to meet with him and Mandy, in order to 'clear away any misunderstandings and get things back on track'. Having to spend three hours with people who simply refused to understand that he wanted absolutely nothing to do with girl, family or contract did nothing to improve his disposition. Mrs. Brocklehurst telling Mandy to inform her as soon as they'd agreed on a date, coupled with Mr. Brocklehurst's parting admonishment of "Look after her, Harry. Our daughter means a lot to us," to which he'd asked why they wanted her stripped of her magic then?, had him ready to throw curses and spit nails. Simultaneously! Once again Morag came to the rescue. So much so that the day wound up being the best - if most exhausting - Halloween Harry could remember ever having.

The young couple's relationship, although still secret, was progressing nicely. Perhaps it did so at a somewhat faster pace than anticipated, mostly due to Morag's forwardness - a trait she only ever displayed with Harry - and an imagination so unrestrained and naughty, it frequently left him breathless - or blushing furiously. Coupled with Harry's curiosity and his urge to explore this new, wonderful feeling that he was almost sure was love (along with the one he was absolutely certain was lust), it made sure they wouldn't grow bored with each other in the foreseeable future.

For the first two months of the term Harry had more or less lived in the Room of Requirement while having Dobby and the MacDougal's Elf, Dahlia, dispose of the dead Basilisk and clean up enough of the Chamber of Secrets to make him a decent room down there. Until he moved into the Chamber, Morag would spend a couple of nights a week with him in the Room, citing their lack of opportunity to be with each other openly. Harry agreed wholeheartedly. If anything he'd have preferred spending every night with her, but Padma could only cover for her so much.

Padma, as Morag's best friend, had been told about their relationship on the first night of term and besides her, only one other person in the castle knew about them: Luna had worked it out pretty quickly. She had intercepted Harry one morning and congratulated him on getting together with Morag, and then gone on to assure him that she didn't think he could do much better than her, and that she'd keep it to herself for as long as they wanted. When he asked her how she'd found out, she replied - blunt as only Luna could be - that it had been really simple: On the mornings when he looked happy at breakfast, Morag was walking funny and she squirmed when seated. Knowing that, she just put two and two together. Harry's blush was one for the record books, as was Morag's when he told her.

Luna's display of loyalty prompted Morag to seek her out and talk to her, and she discovered - much to her surprise - that she genuinely liked the quirky little blonde. Padma warmed up to her pretty quickly as well, so Luna was rarely seen studying alone after that. Other than those two, nobody suspected anything. In fact rumours were spreading that Harry's mystery girlfriend was nothing but a phantom, and that the whole thing was a charade designed to either make Mr. Brocklehurst change the conditions in the contract or to conceal that Harry was gay. Both Harry and Morag found that one hysterically funny.

Harry's few classes gave him a lot of free time, most of which he spent on learning to control the vast amounts of magic he now had available, either alone or with Morag. He didn't understand at first why he suddenly had power that begged belief when scans showed him at just 20% above average. Once again it was Morag's Ravenclaw mind that solved the mystery, although this time it was aided by the full force of Padma's truly frightening intellect, as well as her amazing research ability and a work ethic that would've made Helga Hufflepuff proud:
Harry measured 86 points for magical potential on the Müller-Thurgau scale, where their generation's average for Wizards was 71 (72 for witches). However, much like it was said about human intelligence, most were unable to utilize more than 10-12% of that potential, leaving the score for accessible magical power at around 7,1-8,5 on average. For Harry that number would've been 8,6-10,3. Having had Voldemort's leech draining an estimated 2/3 of his accessible power, Harry's magic had responded by increasing his direct access to his core up to a point where he had as much power available as he would've had, had the leech never been there. Of course that also meant that Voldemort had been leeching readily accessible magic equivalent to 17-20 points on the scale, to add to the subtle drain he'd set up through his minions' Dark Marks - something that ultimately killed them. An impressive amount of magic available for a being whose body didn't contain a magical core. Now however, with the leech gone, Harry was left with access to 30-36% of his potential, allowing him use of magic worth 26-31 points on the scale. That was something like 50% or more above Dumbledore. Both girls stressed repeatedly that he had to make a serious effort to learn how to wield it safely.

A week after his encounter with the Brocklehurst Family he finally moved into the Chamber. Ironically, it coincided with Dumbledore stepping up his demands to know where he slept. It had been noted that Harry spent a fair bit of time with Katie Bell and Neville, so they got their share of professorial pestering too, mostly about Harry's sleeping arrangements, but his lack of scar and glasses as well as his remarkable, physical improvement were frequent issues in the interrogations too (he now stood close to 5' 7" and toned, as opposed to 5' 2" and scrawny before summer and 5' 4" at the beginning of term, all thanks to the potions regimen the Healer had proscribed, and also the exercises which he'd been doing religiously since he left the Dursleys). Katie and Neville both dutifully, and truthfully, answered every question with 'I don't know Professor, I've never asked', much to the interrogator's annoyance, but a source of much entertainment for Katie and Neville. They also both politely refused to ask Harry anything the Headmaster wanted to know.

Harry himself exasperated the Headmaster by truthfully answering 'Hogwarts' when asked where he slept, and 'magic' to everything else, all the while silently daring him to probe his mind. He had tried it the day after Harry's statement appeared in The Quibbler, and Harry, having plenty of intent but still not enough control, had nearly ripped his brain to shreds when he threw him out. As it was, the Headmaster had spent four days recovering.

The mysterious girlfriend was another regular feature in the 'friendly talks', as Dumbledore put it. The answer from Harry's friends didn't change, but he chose to elaborate a bit on that one himself. Not that he revealed her identity, but he explained to Dumbledore that he kept who she was a secret for now, in order to spare her and her family from Dumbledore and his partner in crime leaning on them with tales of Harry's instability, and of the dangers threatening him bleeding over to those around him. A rather disgruntled Headmaster didn't feel a need to talk to him any more that day. Morag generally got a kick out of Harry abusing Dumbledore, and she really liked that one.

Another one, one she liked even more than sticking it to the Headmaster, came about a few days later when Mandy and Lisa began reasoning with her and Padma to bring them around to their point of view. Needless to say they didn't have a lot of success with it, but it became a source of many good laughs when the two crusaders wouldn't take 'no' for an answer.

Having moved into the Chamber, Harry had freed up the Room of Requirement. He took advantage of that by pulling Neville into his training sessions, and while hesitant at first, Neville soon confessed that the aches and bruises were more than worth it for the rapid, and impressive, improvements he got in return.

And it wasn't just his magical proficiency he improved. While he wasn't the timid, chubby little boy any more that he once was, his self-confidence still wasn't equal to his abilities. It had been steadily rising since the Department of Mysteries, but now it soared. With Harry's teaching and encouragement he began to see that he wasn't the near-squib that he'd always been told he was. The real clincher tough, the event that made him not only see but actually believe, was when Harry roped in Padma to do a Müller-Thurgau scan on him. After having been told the average values, and Harry's score as well as Padma's own (66), he all but keeled over when the scan returned an even 100 for him. Padma's and Harry's jaws dropped too, and Padma did the scan again, just to make sure it wasn't a mistake the first time. Never one to accept an unsolved mystery - and Neville's score compared with his lack of proficiency over the last five years in school was just that - Padma began digging into the possible explanations.

When she was told of him being forced to use his father's wand until it broke in the Department of Mysteries, Padma treated a gobsmacked Neville and a hysterically laughing Harry to a passionate rant about what she'd recommend doing to his Gran for forcing him to use something no better than a stick. Pacing in a high tempo, gesturing angrily, with eyes blazing and her voice steadily rising, the usually unobtrusive and soft spoken young witch was truly a sight to see - and something to hear, too. Unfortunately her - normally charming - Indian lilt at some point crossed the border to the indecipherable, so Harry and Neville didn't quite catch the last dozen things the enraged Padma found it reasonable to inflict on a hapless Madam Longbottom. It was probably just as well that way. In the end Neville - at his own volition - caught the near-apoplectic girl and held her close while she cooled down, telling her that he appreciated her thoughts on the matter, but that he really preferred having his Gran in one piece. He did promise to let her know if that changed though. Having held her for a few minutes - and having carefully noted how good it felt doing that - he finally released her with a kiss on her cheek. She didn't seem to mind that a bit.

After digesting the events of the afternoon so far, Neville then mused about how strange it was that one half of a set of twins could get all the good stuff, leaving the other with the dregs, which prompted Padma to reveal that Parvati's magical potential was 15% higher than hers; that she was 1/4 inch taller; a better singer; and that her toes were straighter. All three cracked up, and the good mood was back in place.

Harry and Neville were still supposed to train though, and since Padma hadn't seen Harry cut loose before, she stayed and watched them. She was completely blown away with some of the things Harry could do, as well as with the sheer power he could put behind basic spells. Considering his backstory, she was even more impressed with Neville as Harry coached him into performing magic on a level he'd never thought he'd be able to reach. Padma had a very interesting glint in her eyes when she left for her study session with Morag and Luna.

Another few weeks went by with only the usual annoying demands from the Headmaster; venomous insults from Mandy and piteous looks from Hermione to upset an otherwise perfectly agreeable existence for Morag and Harry. Harry kept practising his control; Morag kept trying - and failing - to keep up with Padma; and together they worked hard on cementing their relationship, aided by Dahlia who popped Morag down to the Chamber every other night. Morag did complain a bit about the secrecy, but Harry told her that he hoped to have that part solved around Christmas as his correspondence with Utrecht seemed to be leading to the desired result. That one earned him a two-hour thank you that left him imitating an overcooked noodle and Morag limping until the next day.

The great entertainment of November was Ron's ill thought-out blow-up at Katie and Harry in the Great Hall, immediately following Gryffindor's record 470 points defeat at the hands of Slytherin. It earned him a thirty points deduction and three detentions with Mr. Filch - for 'swearing, disrupting dinner and generally unseemly behaviour' - courtesy of Professor McGonagall, and two broken ribs and a bruised groin courtesy of Neville in Monday's DADA-class. The Headmaster could barely contain his disappointment when Harry just turned to Ron and politely asked him to demonstrate his bad breath somewhere else, rather than detonating in the expected torrent of bad temper that would've given him the opportunity to intervene.

Morag and Harry had some more private entertainment in the following week when Padma had all but pleaded with Morag to ask Harry if Neville was dating Katie, on the very same day that Neville chose to confide in Harry that the view of the real, unrestrained Padma he'd had in the Room of Requirement had given him a problem: He'd been gathering up his courage to ask Katie out since he liked her a lot and it looked to him like she'd be open to the idea, but now he didn't know which young lady to woo.

Harry adamantly refused to endorse one over the other, but said that he liked them both and that he thought that they'd both be good for him in different ways - Katie being the funny, bright, bubbly and outgoing girl who could bring out the fire in him; and Padma being the caring, studious and - as Neville had seen for himself - passionate girl who could bring out the mature Neville; both of them with several other large benefits besides the main points - just as he'd be good for either of them.

Neville had mumbled something about hating Harry, but Harry had persuaded him to look at it as a positive problem. After all, most wizards their age didn't have to choose which of two of the prettiest witches around to ask out. Neville had to concede there were worse problems than that, not that it helped him much right now.

Later that day, Morag decided to tell Padma that Neville liked her, but that he liked Katie too and was considering asking her out because she seemed more open to it. After that she'd tell Lavender Brown, in the strictest of confidences, that Neville liked Katie but was unsure whether she liked him or not, ensuring that Katie would know within a few hours. Harry's only comment was that he apparently wasn't the only one of the two of them who should've been in Slytherin. Morag just smirked.

November went by and December came along to see another spectacular Ronald Weasley blow-up aimed at Katie and Harry, this time for alleged treason as he'd seen them work with the new Hufflepuff Seeker, Megan Jones.

Back in mid October, Harry had finally convinced Katie that her future in Quidditch was at Seeker rather than Chaser. Not that she wasn't a good chaser, but she lacked 'the Arm', the hard or long shot that could catch a Keeper off guard. On the other hand her technique was almost flawless, she had quick reflexes and she was probably the fastest flier in the school. All desirable traits for a Seeker, and so Harry set out to show her the do's and don'ts of the trade.
After their first couple of sessions, a cautious Megan had approached Harry and asked if he had any tips for her since he wasn't playing any more himself, and he and Katie had invited her to join them, which greatly benefited both girls since they could now fly against each other.

Once Ron had had his tantrum - which cost him another fifty points and a week of detentions while Katie and Harry had been commended for promoting unity among the Houses - Harry had asked the girls if he could bring in the last Seeker in school, he thought had any potential. Since he was - albeit unofficially - the coach, they both agreed to it and expected him to drag Cho Chang into the group, so it took them completely by surprise when he showed up to their next session with third year Slytherin Graham Pritchard in tow. Graham turned out to be the slowest of the three in terms of straight line speed, but he could turn tighter than any of them - even Harry - and his dives looked suspiciously like poorly disguised suicide attempts. They later found out that it wasn't just when playing Quidditch he was like that. Young Graham did everything 110%, as evidenced when he asked the Head Girl - the aforementioned Cho Chang - out on a date on a Hogsmeade Weekend. When his classmates tried to tease him with her refusal, he just said with complete confidence: "Slytherins are ambitious and I'll get there yet. I just need to work on my presentation."

Next Harry roped in the Hufflepuff Beaters and Kirke and Sloper, to get 'his' Seekers used to flying and seeking under pressure. Katie had an advantage here with her five years of game experience, but she'd never tried to be under the relentless bombardments that Seekers had to endure from time to time.

One thing took the other, and by mid December they had 14 people playing two pick-up games per week, with the Seekers alternating at Chaser. Only Megan, Graham and the Hufflepuff Beaters were on their House teams, and it annoyed a lot of people to no end that both pick-up teams looked to be right up there with - if not better than - Ravenclaw, the team that was tipped as the favourites after the Gryffindor team imploded and after half the Slytherin team dropped dead over the summer. The indignation from the House teams reached maximum when someone found out that at least three pro-teams actually had plans to scout the pick-up games. Harry and 'his' players didn't care. They just played, had fun and learned a bunch.

The House team Captains did a fair bit of scouting themselves, and the other three too great delight in telling Ron that of the two pick-up Keepers, seventh year Gryffindor Victoria Frobisher was clearly better than him, and the other, third year Slytherin Malcolm Baddock, would be in a year or so. No, Ronald Weasley - who'd envisioned a year as the celebrated leader of the conquering Gryffindor Quidditch team and the best friend of The-Boy-Who-Lived, with all the benefits attached - wasn't having a good term.

The evening before the Christmas break, Harry was sitting in an out-of-the-way corner in the Gryffindor Common Room. He was in a foul mood, having just come from the Headmaster's office where the old man had tried to order him to stay at Privet Drive over Christmas, or alternatively with 'his betrothed's family'. Harry had informed him several times over the next ten minutes that the Headmaster had no authority over him outside of school (and only very little inside it); that the only way to make him stay with the Dursleys was to kill him first; and that he didn't have a betrothed, although he was contemplating upgrading his girlfriend. When Dumbledore had kept harping on him he'd up and left while promising to file a complaint about him with the School Board.

Now he was sitting in his corner doing just that when Hermione, with her usual, impeccable timing, approached him.

"Harry, we need to..."

"It's Mr. Potter to you, Prefect Granger," Harry interrupted through clenched teeth. "Which Hogwarts related subject to you need to inform me about?"

"It's... I..." she stuttered. Harry raised an eyebrow.

"I take it, this has nothing to do with Hogwarts?"

"No, it's..."

"In that case, Prefect Granger," Harry cut her off, "I'd like to remind you that I've already told you once that I want nothing to do with you outside of school matters. That means, Prefect Granger, that unless it has to do with Hogwarts, and more specifically with the classes I take, I don't want to see you, hear you or smell you. Surely that can't be so hard to figure out for someone of your supposed intelligence? Good evening, Prefect Granger." The glare he sent her way could've melted glaciers.

"Please, Harry," she pleaded, already tearing up. "I only wanted to help. I thought I was doing the best for you."

"Is that so, Prefect Granger? 'The best for me' was a forced marriage to the school broomstick? Someone I only know enough about the be sure that I don't want anything to do with her? What possessed you to think that? And what made you think you had any right to make decisions in my life in the first place?" Harry's temper was on the rise. "Tell me, Prefect Granger, since you thought it in order to trade me like cattle... Would it be equally in order to sell you through a contract forcing you to marry Marcus Flint?"

"That's hardly the same, Harry. He's..."

"...someone you wouldn't touch, even if you were paid for it. Just like Broomstick Brocklehurst is to me. Now take your nauseating hypocrisy and go away, Prefect Granger, and don't ever approach me again unless it's in your capacity as a Prefect!" The air around Harry had started humming and he quickly got up and out of the room, heading for the Room of Requirement to blow off some steam. Sometimes he wondered if all this magic he had was worth it.

Hermione just stood there, finally beginning to realize just how much she'd screwed up. Once the Headmaster had pressed all the right buttons she'd jumped at the chance to help him set up the contract, convinced that Harry would be grateful once he found out about her involvement in bringing about his happiness. She'd been so certain she was right that she never once contemplated how she would react if anyone did the same in her name until a few days before term, and even then she'd tried – unsuccessfully - to justify it to herself while her self esteem and self respect headed downwards, and now Harry had made it abundantly clear that she'd lost. She'd lost his respect; she'd lost his trust, and she'd lost his friendship - and she had lost the future, that could have helped her achieve. No, Hermione Granger would not be having a happy Christmas, and most likely not a happy last 1½ year at school either.

On his way to the Room of Requirement, Harry looked at the Marauders' Map to make sure his path was clear of professors. Currently, Flitwick was the only member of staff on his side, and he really didn't need any admonishments from the rest of them right now. His evening had been bad enough at it was. While looking at the Map he did see something to cheer him up a bit though. In a broom-cupboard on the fifth floor two dots were very close to each other. He smirked. It wasn't that far off the path to the Room.

In the described fifth floor cupboard Neville Longbottom was desperately trying to get his brain to restart, but it stubbornly refused. It might have stopped functioning because of the wonderful girl who was currently attached to his lips, but he wasn't quite sure - just like he wasn't sure of anything else, up to and including his name. All he knew was that if he'd ever suspected that this would be so good, he'd have done something about it much sooner. Pure bliss! - but of course someone had to destroy it by opening the door.

"About time, you two," a familiar voice said over the feminine 'EEP'. "Oh, and thanks. You just won me five Galleons."

"Potter!" Neville growled. "I don't care if you've got more power than Merlin. I am going to kill you for this."

"Don't be such a sour puss," Harry teased. "You were just being kissed - rather thoroughly as far as I could tell - and you can go back to that as soon as I close the door again." The young lady's glare, while highly impressive, failed to make him flinch. "I want to ask a favour from you guys," he continued. "I want you to go to breakfast hand in hand tomorrow, and maybe throw in a kiss just to clarify matters." They stared at him and he turned to the girl. "Come on now. You know just as well as I do that half of those who actually believe that I have a girlfriend think it's you. You two going public will shoot that down. I'll make a public display of my own before too long, but I need a a couple of weeks to make sure, Dumbledore and the broomstick's family can't touch us, and if people see you two together it'll help convince them that my girlfriend is a phantom and that they won't have to do anything about it. Please?" he begged, his best puppy-dog look in place. Neville's smirk was decidedly evil.

"I don't know," he hedged. "We might need some time to think about it."

"Please, guys. I'll throw in lunch tomorrow. If we go to my place instead of taking the train, we can have a few Butterbeers and a talk. You guys can floo whoever you need to tell that you're not on the train. We'll have a good lunch, and then you can floo home without all the fuss at the station. Please?"

"Your place?"

"In Hogsmeade. I'm renting a cabin from my solicitor. I actually lived right under the Old Goat's snout the whole summer. It was brilliant. What do you say? I'll owe you guys."

"Wait a second," Neville said. "How are you going to make it so they can't touch you? Dumbledore and Brocklehurst together can make a lot happen in the Wizengamot. They can force you, Harry." He looked genuinely concerned.

"I know, mate. That's why I need them to think it's all a charade for a little while longer." Harry winked. "By New Year's Day those pompous windbags won't be able to force me any more, the fact that the contract is illegal notwithstanding. The Old Goat had no right - legally, morally or magically - to negotiate it, much less sign it, but in two weeks it'll all be moot. Well, for me at least. Brocklehurst will still be knee deep." Neville got a calculating expression on his face.

"How?" he quizzed. "I've breathed laws and customs my whole life, and I don't see how you can get out of it if the old geezers in the Wizengamot decide to ignore that it's illegal... And they're liable to do that in order to 'preserve our oldest and most important traditions', mind you."

"That's because you think inside the box, mate," Harry replied. "I didn't see it myself until my brilliant better - and smarter and much prettier - half pointed it out to me. I'll tell you the whole tale once my scheme is completed, I promise you. It's so simple you'll either laugh or cry, and the best of it all is I don't have to tell anybody until they try to force the issue. With the public display I'm planning, my guess is that it'll be some time in February," he smirked. "Now, can we make a deal or what? You both know you want to shout it out, so why not give the dogs something to gossip about on the train home?" The new couple looked at each other. When she nodded, Neville turned to Harry.

"Okay, deal." Then he rubbed his hands together. "But don't think we're likely to forget what you said. You'll owe us mate, and now close the bloody door and get lost!"

"Thanks guys." Harry's expression was one of relief. "I won't forget it."

When he turned away after closing the door, he heard Neville ask: "Do you think we should tell him later, we had already decided to go public tomorrow?"

'Damn!' he thought. 'Bloody Slytherins everywhere in this place, except the Slytherin Common Room.' He made a mental note to tell Morag tonight that she owed him five Galleons, and that they had a lunch appointment in Hogsmeade tomorrow before going to Hamish and Kirsten's for the Christmas break.

Next morning Harry made sure to be in the Great Hall early enough to have his choice of seat. If he knew the young lady - and after spending a lot of time with her these past four months he dared say he did - she would make sure that whatever they did had the maximum effect, so he was more than puzzled when Neville came in and sat beside him.

"Erm... Neville mate?" Harry was lost. "Didn't you guys agree to something last night?"

"Good morning to you too," Neville quipped. "And yes, we did."

"Okay, I'm officially stumped," Harry complained. "What are you doing here then?"

"I'm practising," Neville stated.



"Mate... You're making no sense at all," Harry said despairingly. "What are you practising?"

"Being a good boyfriend." Neville's curt statement was belied by the mischievous glint in his eyes.

"Longbottom, am I going to have to pull you out back and be mean to you to get a clear answer?" Neville looked pensive for a moment.

"Uhm... No, that won't be necessary, Potter. I'm practising doing as I'm told like a good boyfriend should - or so she says. I was told to go down here now, and to sit beside you if I could, and that's what I'm doing." Neville looked at the table. "Are you going to quiz me some more or can I start on breakfast now?"

"No, I'm done, mate. Go on and eat. If you eat enough, lunch will be that much cheaper for me."

"I never took you for the cheap sort, Potter," Neville baited.

"Shut up and eat your breakfast, Longbottom. I'm not biting on that one."

"Pity... I have to do something to keep talking, you know. I really want a few kippers, but I'll have to just look at them until I've had my good morning kiss. Aren't you looking forward to when you can get those too?" he asked innocently. "Come to think of it, I'm positive, Brocklehurst would supply a few if you asked her nicely."

"Gah! Go on and spoil my appetite, why don't you?" Harry pantomimed gagging. "And you can stop your gloating already. I got my good morning kisses - and quite a lot more - when I woke up with my lady in my arms," he marked a point in the air. Neville looked dejected.

"Bollocks! I was going to tease..." his speech faded and his jaw went slack when he saw his brand-new girlfriend entering the Hall. She had taken full advantage of it being a non-uniform day and was wearing a mid-thigh-length, gold accented dark green dress with a demure neckline. That neckline was its only demure feature though. The dress moulded itself to her, not just underlining but actually highlighting every curve she possessed, not to mention her awe-inspiring legs which were further emphasized by a pair of dainty heels. Her hair was in a braid with a few golden threads woven in, and drawn around her neck to rest along the side of her breast. She wore a slight touch of make-up, something rarely seen on her. Nobody in the school had ever seen her even remotely like this before. She was dressed to kill, and she was a wet dream walking.

"Dear Mother of everything Holy!" Harry whispered reverently. "She's gone more than all out today!" He threw a glance at Morag and saw she was smirking. She'd had a hand in this! "Brace yourself, Longbottom," he advised, waving a hand in front of his face, "she's definitely making a statement here."

The level of noise in the Great Hall had already dropped significantly when she made her entrance, and when the freshly minted goddess descended on Neville Longbottom, pulled him backwards and bent over and proceeded to snog him stupid, the Hall went deadly quiet... for about five seconds. Then the whole place exploded in catcalls, whistles and cheers. Suddenly everybody talked. "Longbottom - the Squib Wonder of Gryffindor - and Padma Patil!" Well it had to be Padma since there was already one Patil twin sitting at the Gryffindor table, and she had red and gold ribbons in her hair...

Finally, when they were all sure every little bit of sense was sucked out of him, Padma broke the kiss. "Good morning, Lover," she purred, giving him a radiant smile.

"Good morning, Beautiful," Neville panted. He looked her up and down, clearly appreciating what he saw. "Damn!" he grinned impudently. "If this is how you look for breakfast, how can I expect you to dress for a night on the town? And how many bodyguards am I going to need for you?"

She preened. "When we're going on a date, I'll of course dress up for it." She gave him a saucy wink and the three of them cracked up.

"I owe you guys," Harry said earnestly. Then he grinned. "But every male in the castle owe me for having you come out today. Padma Patil dressed to kill is definitely a worthy Christmas treat," he said with a leer, earning himself a swat from the protective boyfriend.

"Oi! This one's mine, Potter. You've got your own." He paused for a moment. "Speaking of which... Are we going to meet her soon?" He didn't notice Padma smothering a snicker.

"I hope so," Harry fibbed. "I've told her about our lunch, and she said she'd try to be there," he said innocently.

Breakfast then commenced with no further interruptions.

Harry shared a carriage to the station with Neville, Padma and Morag. However, since he fully suspected the Headmaster would try something to put him where he wanted him, he'd portkeyed directly to the cabin at the outskirts of town as soon as they cleared the wards. The others would continue to the station where they'd look around for signs of the plot, Harry suspected.

The first clue that something was up came right at the arrival at the station. A much larger than normal number of adult witches and wizards were milling about, and Neville, having seen quite a few Order-members at the Ministry, could point out at least six of the Headmaster's minions. And they weren't there to offer protection against Death Eater attacks, as evidenced by them all looking amongst the students rather than at their surroundings.

Suddenly an Order-member pointed and shouted something, and two adult wizards rushed in and grabbed Michael Corner and pulled him off to the side. Corner, while not a very likeable chap at any stretch (okay, while generally a miserable, irritating arsehole), was definitely no Death Eater, but he did look quite a bit like Harry, so the many adults were most likely there looking for him.

The second clue, or more correctly, the proof, came when their carriage arrived at its destination, and Dumbledore and a big, black Auror - Shacklebolt, Neville recalled - tore open both doors before Neville and the girls had a chance to move.

A lot of shouting and swearing ensued when it became obvious that Harry wasn't there, and the Headmaster turned an unhealthy shade of puce when Padma politely informed him that Harry had left by portkey just outside Hogwarts. Dumbledore demanded they tell him why they hadn't stopped him, and Neville happily obliged:

"First of all, Headmaster, it's not illegal to travel by portkey in this country, even if you're Harry Potter." Dumbledore sputtered and wondered, not for the first time, where the timid, overweight near-squib had gone. He could've used him now.

"Second: We couldn't stop him if we wanted to. Harry has discovered 'the Power he knows not' - no need to gape, Headmaster. I'm Harry's friend and I know the Prophecy, as is my right since it could be about me, and it's never been conclusively proven that it's not." He stopped for a breather and a peck on the cheek from Padma. "Anyway, Harry has discovered the Power and he is wielding it. He's twice as powerful as the three of us put together, so even if we were dumb enough to try to stop him, we would've failed," he announced with a satisfied smirk.

Dumbledore was wide-eyed. What Neville told him boggled his mind - not to mention destroyed his carefully reassembled schemes - but it was consistent with the recent changes in Harry, not least the huge magical discharges that crackled around him whenever he got agitated. Neville swallowed his smirk and continued:

"Third - and most important - Headmaster: Harry is our friend, and even if the first and second reasons didn't apply we still wouldn't stop him. There's no way we're going to help people who are doing their level best to make his life even shittier than it already is." Neville's voice grew even more frigid than the air around them. "Have a nice Christmas, Headmaster. May you be gifted with exactly what you deserve," he finished with his best 'haughty pureblood' look. He turned and held out both arms. "Ladies?" Both girls latched on, and the Headmaster was left to glare at their backs as they walked away from him.

Morag was duly escorted the twenty yards to the train and the new couple bid her goodbye, then left in search of Harry's cabin. As soon as they were out of sight, Morag picked up her trunk and portkeyed home.

Finding the cabin took a bit of time. Well... Kiss-testing every alley they came across while looking for it did, but they eventually made it there.

They spent an enjoyable hour, drinking a glass of Harry's homemade Glühwein and discussing things they normally would only talk about under heavy privacy-wards back at Hogwarts.

Harry had then complimented Padma on both her dress and - with a suggestive waggle of his eyebrows - on what was in it, earning him a swat from Neville and an atomic blush and a threat from Padma.

"You're a dog, Harry! I think there's a young lady who'll be a bit put out with you when I tell her, you've been ogling me."

"Why would she?" Harry retorted. "The way you were dressed up, there was no way any healthy male could not ogle you." Padma blushed even harder. She knew she'd pushed the envelope with her show that morning, but the reactions she'd noticed in the Hall had done her feminine ego a world of good, and Harry just kept adding to it.

"Anyway," he continued, "she knows I'm all hers, and even if she didn't, she's a Ravenclaw. She'd figure it out soon enough. Intelligence has that perk." He turned to Neville. "Seriously, mate. Beauty, smarts, class, passion and style, not to mention incredible legs, and all in one package." He shook his head in pretend disbelief. "If I wasn't firmly spoken for, I'd fight you for her." Neville mock growled and tensed his shoulders. Even if Harry was now approaching 5' 8", Neville was past 6 feet, and thanks to hard work in the greenhouses, as well as his vigorous practise sessions with Harry, his pudginess had been replaced with strong arms and a chest like a barrel.

Harry grinned. "Seriously, mate, don't let her get away. If you do, you'll spend your life being famous as the biggest idiot of the 20th century."

Padma's blush had to be full-body by now. Sure, she was used to being acknowledged, but that was for her mind and for being one half of a set of pretty twins. Now Harry spoke of her like she was some kind of femme fatale - someone men would fight over! Her! Padma, the boring brain-box of the Patil family. Harry's words had as much effect on her as having 100 boys drooling over her this morning had. Her self esteem was well on its way to mimic Neville's. It shot upwards, reaching new heights with every new comment.

Neville just shook his head. "I know I'm not the cleverest guy around, but even I am not that stupid. I intend to hold on as firmly as I can and enjoy that all the lads are envious at me for dating a goddess, and that she's even more beautiful on the inside."

Padma's eyes were suspiciously bright. Harry's words might affect her, but Neville's awe and sincerity was so obvious, she simply melted. Already after two days he could make her believe that she truly had no limits. Just like Morag had told her, Harry could for her.

"Right!" Neville began again. I'm curious about this girlfriend of yours." He paused. "Just a second! You said she's a Ravenclaw, didn't you?" He turned to Padma. "Do you know her?" She just gave him a cheeky smile, then went on to present her 'angelic look'. Neville frowned for a few seconds. They could almost hear the gears engaging. Then he turned back to Harry. "It's Luna! Isn't it?"

"Patience, mate. You'll know soon enough. But why do you think she's still at Hogwarts? A Ravenclaw is a Ravenclaw after all, even after they graduate. Who knows, she could be Penny Clearwater." Harry winked, remembering something about a crush, Neville had had on the pretty Ravenclaw Prefect a few years ago. "It isn't her though, but I never said she was still a student."

"She is though," came a muffled voice from the small entrance hall. Neville almost choked on his wine.

"I know that accent!" he gasped amidst coughs and sputters.

"Hi gorgeous!" Harry greeted as Morag's brightly smiling face appeared 'round the door frame. "Come in and have a glass while I introduce you," he continued with a smile in his voice. Morag giggled.

"You cheeky bugger!" Neville had finally gotten his breathing back under control. "Why let us take her to the train? Why the whole charade anyway?" He turned to Padma. "You knew! And you just let me make a fool of myself." He didn't look too happy.

"Neville, mate," Harry began, but Morag cut him off.

"Neville, you're Harry's best friend and you guys have spent a lot of time together this last term. Dumbledore has been watching you very closely, so we had to be sure you didn't react any differently to me than you've done before, and keeping you in the dark took care of that. We also don't know if you know Occlumency, and since Dumbledore violates people's minds whenever he feels like it, you could've given us away if you can't block it." She looked genuinely remorseful. "We're really sorry, Neville, but we had to keep it as secret as we could, and yes, Padma is one of the two students who knew."

"Who's the other?" Neville asked.

"Luna," Morag smiled. "She worked it out back in September, and no, I'm not going to tell you how." She blushed faintly and Harry coughed.

"She walked in on you guys?" Neville laughed.

"No, but she might as well have. That girl's mind doesn't work like everybody else's, that's for sure, but she's great fun, and she's incredibly bright."

"Okay," Neville conceded. "I can see why it had to be this way. I guess I'll have to work on my shields, won't I?"

"It's always a good idea to practise Occlumency, mate," Harry replied," but there's no need to do it for us. Once next term starts, all of Hogwarts will know about us. But if you put some work into it, you'll find that your memory improves and that you'll pick up new information faster. That's always a good thing." He paused. "And of course, if you get good enough shielding in place we can tell you the big secret - the one that's supposed to stay secret. Consider it an incentive. It's something you will want to know."

"Right," Neville sighed. "Note to self: Get cracking on Occlumency." He scowled at Harry. "I hate you, Potter! I finally learn what I think is the big secret, and then you go and tell me there's one bigger. No fair."

"I can Obliviate you," Harry offered. Padma giggled.

"Uhm... No thanks," Neville declined. "Don't make any extra effort just for me, Potter."


"Yes, please," Neville deadpanned. Half of Padma's sip of wine went down the wrong hole.

"Okay boys," Morag tried to call to order. "I think we need a change of subject now." She turned to Padma who'd finished coughing. "So, what did you think of the audience's reactions this morning?"

"I couldn't believe it," she gushed. "I mean... I know I pushed it a bit... I was really hoping that annoying guy, Creevey, hadn't brought his camera..." Harry perked up.

"Thanks, Padma," he quipped. "That reminds me, I'll have to tell that annoying little shit just how painful it'll be if he ever points that bloody camera of his in my direction again." Then he flushed. "Sorry for interrupting you."

"It's okay, Harry. I'll let Morag deal with you later." Her smirk was of the evil variety. "Anyway, I was shocked at all that drool," she smiled. "I mean... I know I'm pretty - I've been told that often enough - but I'm not used to being ogled like that..." her face lit up. "...Which reminds me. Did you know your man ogled me too?" She stuck out her tongue at Harry.

"Of course I did," Morag ruffled his hair fondly. "I had a prime seat for it, and I can't say I blame him. If I wasn't as straight as they come, I would've hit on you myself. You looked like something out of a wet dream, Padma. Sex on legs!" Padma's atomic blush made a reappearance. "After I saw you get ready, I wasn't surprised that all the boys drooled to be honest. What surprised me was the looks you got from quite a few of the girls. Fawcett and that fifth year Slytherin, whatshername... Hardwicke! The tall blonde. They both looked ready to eat you, and Professor Wilson looked a tad suspicious, too..."

"Eewww!" Padma complained. "I really didn't need to know that."

"...And our illustrious Head Girl looked ready to commit murder. I know you and Cho have never been all that good friends, but I really think she might hate you now, you know. I think she saw that she can't hold a candle to you, and she really didn't like that." Morag stopped for a sip of the warm wine. "There were a few others glaring daggers at you as well, but I think that was for bagging young Mr. Longbottom before they could make a move." Now Neville was blushing. The condition seemed to be contagious today.

"What I'm wondering," Harry butted in, "is why Katie was all smiles. I thought she had a thing for Neville." He looked confused.

"Oh my," Padma sighed. "You don't pay much attention, do you?"

"Well, it's not like I've had a load of things to do this term, is it now?" Harry asked sarcastically.

"Easy now, Potter," Neville came to Padma's rescue. "I talked to her a few days back. She said that after three years of dating disasters she'd set her sight on you as her last hope, so when she realized that the mythical girlfriend wasn't just a myth, she decided to look in a completely opposite direction. It seems your little Quidditch project helped her there, so as of a week ago she's dating Demelza Robins."

"O... Okay." Harry was stumped. "I erm... I didn't really expect that to be honest, but if it works and makes them happy, more power to them." Harry had trouble making the pieces fit. "I know I wasn't the only one to think she had something for Neville. What was that about then?"

"I can take that one too," Neville bounced in his seat, waving his hand in the air like a certain classmate of theirs. "Katie has declared me, and I quote: 'The only male in Gryffindor worth a damn', and then told me she'd volunteered me to be her kid brother."

"I'll have to remember to thank her for that assessment," Harry dryly noted.

"Relax, Potter. It's not like you're much of a Gryffindor these days, is it? You're only ever in the Tower to talk to me or Katie, so most have actually stopped counting you as one," Neville soothed.

Harry snorted. "That's ironic on so many levels, I don't know where to start. I'll tell you guys about it later, once Neville's shields are up to scratch." He ruffled Neville's hair. "So, kid brother. How d'you fell about that?" Neville beamed.

"It's brilliant actually. I've always wanted a sibling and now I've got one. Well, sort of. She's smart, fun and easy to talk to. She even gave me advice to help with Padma."

"Using 'the woman's touch'?" Morag teased. "Smart man, Neville."

"Yeah," Harry butted in. Then he waggled his eyebrows. "I can most definitely recommend a woman's touch." That earned him a swat from both women present. Neville just shook his head ruefully. Harry was undeterred.

"I'm wondering though," he said, scratching his head.

"What are you wondering?" Neville took the bait. "How you got a headache?"

"Naw... I know that already. I just wonder... Katie and Demelza, right? I mean, which one's the boyfriend?"

"HARRY!" three voices groaned. Then Morag continued:

"Keep that up, Potter, and you'll be sleeping on the sofa tonight."

"I could sleep at my own place, you know."

"The sofa, Potter, when I tell you so!"

"Am I ever going to get the last word with you?"

"Of course you are," Morag smiled sweetly. "As long as it's 'yes dear'." Harry just groaned.

"But to get back to your question, bonehead. Why don't you invite them over to celebrate your freedom on New Year's Day? Then you can ask them yourself." Harry perked up.

"Brilliant idea, mo gradh." Morag's head shot up at the Gaelic endearment. "Anybody got a Floo address for either of them?"

"We'll sort that out later," Morag promised. "You promised us lunch and I'm hungry. I didn't eat much this morning. Everything on the table suddenly tasted sugary," she finished with a wink at the blushing Padma and Neville.

Harry managed to avoid more hits in the head during lunch, and a good time was had until Padma and Neville left with invitations for Morag's birthday on Boxing Day, and for Harry's Freedom Party on New Year's. Then Morag rounded on her boyfriend, hands on her hips and eyebrow arched impossibly high.

"Alright, spill! Since when do you speak Gaelic, Potter?" Harry looked sheepish.

"Erm... I don't actually."

"I heard you, Harry. I'm not an idiot, you know."

"I really don't, Morag, but I'm trying to learn how."

"I... Really?" Her eyes were shining. "Why?" Harry snorted.

"Why? she asks." He spun her around, and encircled her from behind. "The woman of my life is a Highlander. Of course I'm going to bloody learn." Morag turned in his embrace, and looked up at him.

"Do you... Do you really mean that?" she asked tremulously, her eyes huge.

"Which part?" Harry asked, slightly confused. He didn't really see what he'd said to get that reaction.

"The part about the woman of your life, leadhead!"

"Of course I do. Why wouldn't I? Do you really think I'd be dumb enough to let you go?" Morag sniffed, then rewarded him with a kiss that transfigured his knees to jelly.

"Who's teaching you?"

"Erm... About that... Heh." He coughed and looked slightly uncomfortable. "My initial plan was to ask McGonagall, but since she's wedged so firmly up Dumbledore's arse it's not even funny, I had to find someone else. I went to Katie and she got me started on some simple stuff until we remembered that Gaelic isn't just Gaelic." He shook his head as he recalled their talk. "Katie's a Lowlander so I had to look somewhere else, and that's where it gets tricky."

"What do you mean? There are other Highlanders around."

"Yeah, but I preferred it to be a Gryffindor since it's still my Common Room up there, so I looked around and I found Natalie MacDonald. It was only after we'd been at it for a few weeks I found out that Clan MacDougal and Clan MacDonald haven't been on friendly terms since Robert the Bruce. I hope you don't mind though. She's really teaching me a lot." She just cuffed the back of his head.

"Of course I don't mind, silly. First of all the clans work differently in the magical world, and secondly Natalie isn't a MacDonald of Clan Ranald. She's a MacDonald of Keppoch and that's an entirely different kettle of fish. We actually - our families that is - both belong to Grand Clan MacKenzie. But that's for later," she hurried on when she saw the expectation in his eyes. She wasn't about to start explaining the magical Grand Clan system to a Sassenach when they were expected at her parents' in an hour.

He frowned. "Okay, but you will tell me about it later!" That wasn't a request.

"Sure I will. If you're making an effort to learn the language, I should teach you the rest too," she smiled. "Now come on. Oban is waiting." She looked thoughtful. "Oh, and don't be surprised when we meet the extended family. Back home I'm not Morag MacDougal. There are so many of us it gets confusing, so there I'm Mhór a' Seumas Bàn - Morag, Pale Hamish' daughter. The younger ones recognize me as my own person though, so to them I'm Mhór Dubh - Black Morag, after my hair and eyes." She broke into an impudent grin. "Consider that a lesson in advanced Highland Gaelic." She spun and disappeared into the fireplace.

"Are you absolutely sure, Harry?"

Harry was in the middle of his most terrifying experience ever. Forget dragons, dementors, fangirls, trolls and Voldemort. No, this was the real deal and Hamish MacDougal was even more terrifying than Molly Weasley in full fury right now.

"Yes Sir, I am." He thought for a moment. "It's funny actually. I hadn't envisioned being in this situation for quite a few years yet, and until last June, the only interaction I'd had with Mhór was apologizing for being in each other's way in the Library, and I don't think any of us had had any thoughts about each other. Now though, it seems my focus is all about finding ways to spend more time with her, and the quality of any given day is determined by how well I succeeded in that."

"I noticed you used the Gaelic form of her name?"

"Yes Sir. Since I realized that the woman I want in my life is a Highlander, I've begun learning. It's slow going though, but I'll get there in the end. I've actually only started using it today, outside of being taught." Hamish looked at him piercingly and he fought the urge to squirm.

"Impressive," Hamish suddenly said. "You're devoted to this. I like it." The piercing look came again. "Can you promise me that you'll always be this devoted, Harry?" The question screamed 'trap!'.

"No Sir, I can't. But I can promise you that I'll always try my best, although I'd much rather give that promise to Mhór."

"Well said, lad. Well said." Hamish crossed the room to reload his tumbler - two fingers of peat smoked Malt - and turned back. Then he turned again and poured one for Harry as well.

"I'll admit, Harry, I didn't think I'd have this talk with you yet. I knew we'd have it eventually, but I think it's awfully early. That said, I'm no fool. I know what she feels for you, and it's blindingly obvious what you feel for her." He made a toasting motion to Harry and took a small sip, savouring the strong taste. "Be good to her, lad, and take care of her the very best you can. She's not only Ciorsdan's and my only daughter - she's all we have. Give me that promise and you can ask her with our blessings." Relief washed over Harry.

"Thank you, Sir. That's a promise I can and will give you." They shook hands. "I can't tell you how much this means," Harry stammered out.

"Och lad, I think I can guess," Hamish smiled, "but don't thank me yet, son. She hasn't said 'yes' yet, and you do realize that if she does, not only will you never get the last word again, but you'll be part of the family, and as such you're required to attend family gatherings in full Highland regalia, right?"

"I can live with that I think," Harry answered.

"When are you going to ask her?"

"Boxing Day. I figured it would buy me an escape if she doesn't like her birthday present." Hamish chuckled.

"Sneaky, lad. I like your thinking. We'll make a decent Slytherin out of you yet."

"Funny how everybody seems to think that, from the Sorting Hat down."

"The Hat wanted you in Slytherin? Why are you in Gryffindor then?"

"I had already met Draco Malfoy. Nothing wrong with Slytherins in general, even though the Old Goat had had his lackeys brainwashing me, but there was just no way I'd endure seven years in the same House as that ponce. Turned out the Head of House hated my guts, too. I take it you're a Slytherin?"

"No, I'm not actually. I'm a Hufflepuff, but Ciorsdan is a Serpent and we actually thought for a good long time that Mhór would be one too, but she's apparently smarter than she's sneaky." Harry shuddered.

"Knowing how sneaky she is, that's actually kind of scary." He chuckled. "Is this your way of scaring suitors off, rather than threatening them?"

Hamish let out a full belly laugh. "I like you, lad. You're going to fit right in, provided she accepts of course. I wouldn't worry too much though. She's really got it bad for you." Suddenly he stopped dead. "I just remembered... What about that contract of Brocklehurst's?"

"That's Brocklehurst's and Dumbledore's problem, not mine" Harry answered with some force. "Mhór and I agree it won't bind me, but no matter if it does or not, I won't touch Miss Brocklehurst and I won't stay in the wizarding community. They've treated me like crap since I came to Hogwarts and I'm fed up with it. Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not giving up magic - just the community that comes with it."

"What about Mhór and magic then?"

"That's for her to decide." Harry took a moment to savour his whisky. "What she wants to do, and where, will always be her decision. I understand she'd like to do some research and experiments on advanced Transfiguration and that'll be fine by me. She'll even have my dad's library to help her. She's been talking about Potions too, but as it is, everything is still in the air, and she's got at least another year and a half before she can start on something." He looked Hamish straight in the eyes. "I'm the one with the grudge and I'll never expect her to have it too. I wasn't brought up in that community and I have no real feelings for it. She was and she has, and I'll never ask her to give up any part of her life to conform to my views." Hamish was both impressed and relieved.

"Have you been taking lessons in saying the right things, lad?" he asked with a glint in his eyes. "Ciorsdan will love you to pieces when I tell her this. Consider yourself warned." Harry mock shivered.

"I will, Sir. I will."

Harry spent much of the next few days at The Pottery in Lancashire, the ancestral home of his family, working with Dobby to get it back into inhabitable shape. It wasn't much that needed doing since the wards had a few things for upkeep incorporated, but a number of things did need repair, or was replaced with things more to Harry's liking.

Unlike most of the soulless 17th- and 18th century manors that many magical families claimed as 'ancestral homes', The Pottery really was just that, and not a faceless manor, meant to flaunt wealth. In fact it wasn't a manor at all. It was a half-timbered, four-bedroom cottage, built on and around the original two-room hut from the ninth century, with a humongous barn-like stone-building standing a good ways from it - evidently the site of both potter's wheel, kiln and storage for the finished goods, from the days when the Potters really were potters. Its most important feature though, at least from Harry's point of view, was that according to the property's ward book the magic around the place gave him the possibility of erecting wards stronger than anything in Britain, Gringott's and Hogwarts included.

Harry's primary concern was getting the Library thoroughly cleaned and catalogued, and having space enlargement charms added to accommodate the extensive collection of priceless books and scrolls that he'd 'liberated' from Voldemort's house. While he was sure he would put a lot of that knowledge to good use himself, his main reason was the image he had of Morag going berserk in there. Ravenclaws prized knowledge after all, and he'd made sure there was plenty here.

Much to his surprise he found that somebody at one time had made the effort to shield the living room from magical interference, and installed electricity to boot. That called for a shopping spree, and a few hours later a full home entertainment centre was in place. Harry idly wondered how Morag would react to that.

Another task was to de-magify Little Crossroads, the small mansion nearby that the Potters had kept for upper-level social gatherings and for representation in the local community of Chorley, where the family had apparently been upper echelon in the past. Since Harry really didn't see any need to keep it, it was going to be sold as soon as all traces of magic had been removed from it. For this task Dobby had brought in a surprise: Trillie, a young female Elf Harry had inadvertently freed when he offed Voldemort. She had been the Lestranges' Elf, but with all members of that family dead, she'd searched out the one free Elf she knew about. Dobby had taken a liking to the young female and a couple of months later they had bonded. Now they were both working their socks off to clear out the place - in Dobby's case literally.

Another property of interest was 12 Grimmauld Place. He'd sent Dumbledore an eviction notice, demanding that he, the Order and the Fidelius all be gone by January 1st. He'd also informed the Old Goat that he'd hold him responsible for any items missing from his house, no matter who had removed them. He was the one who'd given them all access after all. Dobby and Trillie had then sealed up the Library, just in case.

Once Dumbledore and his minions were gone, the idea was to have another Fidelius set up to keep the Order out, and then let the Elves renovate the place, either to sell it or to keep it as a convenient place to stay when in London. He'd have to bring Mhór in on that one.

It suddenly appeared to him that he'd taken to thinking of her in Gaelic too. He'd have to ask her what she'd prefer him to call her in school - besides 'mine'.

He also set Hamish and a bunch of front men to work. He'd been melting Galleons to gold bars, and they were now selling them for Sterling, Swiss Francs, and American and Canadian Dollars. The Potters had been well-to-do and the Blacks had been fairly wealthy, but once Harry had exchanged all his gold for twenty times what the Goblins offered, he'd be filthy rich. He still had trouble wrapping his mind around the figures that appeared at the bottom of the statements he received from various banks.

Suddenly it had been Christmas morning and Harry had been blown away by this new experience, being welcomed in celebrating Christmas with family. Morag's heart broke at his reaction, and her parents were ready to go Dursley-hunting once she'd discreetly explained Harry's teary expression to them.

Harry had been well chuffed with his gift - a small, portable pensieve and three dozen crystal vials for storing memories.

Morag had gushed over hers - a one-of-a-kind, handwritten, twelfth-century tome on advanced human Transfiguration by Bothulf Gryffindor, the last known bearer of the name - before attempting removal of his appendix by suction alone. Her other gift from Harry had her snickering for a while, but the elder MacDougals didn't catch the reference. In the end she had to explain the teddy bear, holding a flower pot, to them: A hairy potter - so now she could cuddle with Hairy whenever she wanted to. Hamish just groaned, but Kirsten at least found it mildly funny.

Their expressions radically changed when they received their own gifts from Harry. Hamish as a solicitor could greatly appreciate the handwritten, unedited (and unpublished) original manuscript of Abraham Lincoln's memoirs, although he was too gobsmacked to be able to vocalize it. Kirsten simply refused to believe her eyes when she uncovered - and Harry unshrunk - the old shield with the first known version of Clan Fraser's (her birth-clan's) Coat of Arms, not seen by a Highlander since Simon Fraser lost it at Culloden. When Morag mouthed 'how?' at him, he just shrugged and mouthed 'Dobby' back at her.

Then the big day was upon them. Boxing Day, the day Morag came of age.

One tradition was the casting of the first legal away-from-school spell, but since she'd had a waiver from Director Bones last summer, it didn't mean as much to her. She did make a production out of casting the contraceptive charm when Harry came in to give her a wake-up call though.

After a rather lengthy wake-up call - followed by an encore in the shower - the two of them finally made it to breakfast. It seemed that MacDougal family traditions called for presents at the breakfast table, but with a party coming up that night Kirsten had unilaterally decided - much to her daughter's chagrin - that presents were not to be opened until everybody were there. In the end she took pity in the almost vibrating Morag though, and allowed Harry to hand over one of the presents he had for her.

Morag didn't believe her eyes when she opened the small box. Inside it was an antique set of necklace, bracelet and earrings, all made from delicate, reddish gold chains, broken every inch by a thin plate with a diamond shaped emerald in the middle of it. The set was beautiful, very tasteful - and probably worth more than her parents' house! She was speechless for what seemed like a very long time - long enough for Harry to start believing she didn't like it - before she let loose a deafening squeal and tackled him to the floor, where she once again tried to suck out his internal organs. She failed yet again, but Harry definitely rated this her best attempt to date.

Kirsten's jaw dropped when she peered into the box, but she quickly collected herself and then she realized where she'd seen the set before. She turned to Harry and whispered:

"Isn't that..."

"My mum's, yeah. At least most recently. It was made for Caitrìona McKinnon in 1808, when she became engaged to Horatio Potter."

"Are you going to..."

"Yeah." Harry looked around for Morag and then pulled a small box out of his pocket. "The missing part from the set," he said. "I hope she'll accept or I'll be in for the bollocking of the millennium once I meet mum again." Kirsten laughed.

"I'm sure she will, Harry. I can't imagine her saying no." She ruffled his hair. "I've already told her I think you're good for each other, and she definitely didn't object. She'll accept, Harry. Don't you worry about that."

Padma and Neville arrived in good time before the party, due to a deal between the girls that Padma would help Morag get all dolled up, like Morag had helped with Padma's 'claiming Neville' look.

In true feminine fashion Padma's first glance was at Morag's left hand, followed by a raised eyebrow at Harry, demonstrating either an unbelievable insight into the inner workings of Harry Potter or a strong desire to see her friends tied to each other in a more permanent fashion.

From that little display she went straight to gushing over Morag's birthday present, again accompanied by an arched eyebrow in Harry's direction. That girl was alarmingly good at non-verbal communication! He was saved by the bell though. Or rather by Kirsten who sailed in and shooed the young ladies away to 'make themselves beautiful', and then unceremoniously handed him and Neville a glass of Malt each before chasing them over to sit in the most out-of-Kirsten's-way corner. There they'd spend some time trying to contain their mirth in between talks about their respective relationships, with Neville doing his best to remember all Harry had to say. He was after all the experienced one of the two. He snorted at that thought, and so did Harry when he told him.

When Morag finally came down wearing a little black dress, heels, her present from Harry and a complicated hairdo, Harry suddenly perfectly understood Neville's reaction to Padma last week. It was all he could do to keep himself from drooling. While he knew objectively that she wasn't a classical beauty by any stretch of the concept, he couldn't think of anybody as beautiful as her, and he was fervently thanking every deity out there for letting her crash-land on him last summer.

The party went swimmingly, with quite a few of Morag's childhood friends joining her extended family in having a good time and in telling embarrassing stories from her earlier days. The only fly in the potion as far as Harry was concerned was Padma's continued barrage of raised eyebrows and disapproving looks in his direction.

After he'd just finished a dance with Morag she did it again, and Harry finally had enough. He knocked back his drink, checked that Morag was occupied, grabbed Padma and hauled her away. Once outside, he rounded on her:

"Time to talk, Padma. Would you please tell me what your problem is?" She took a step back.

"Why haven't you proposed to her?" she laid into him, arms firmly crossed and fire in her eyes.

Harry recoiled. "What business is that of yours?"

Excuse me?" Padma was caught flat footed. "She's my best friend, and I don't want you stringing her along!"

"Stringing her along? Is that what you think I'm doing?" he asked incredulously.

"Yes! She wants you so bad, and she's terrified the Ministry will cook something up to make it illegal for her to accept your proposal. And all this time you're just bumbling along, enjoying yourself and some good sex!" She was fuming. "Have you even thought about her side of it, or at least a little past your dick?" she spat.

"I'll have you know, Miss Patil, that I've thought of little else for the past few months - not that it's really any of your business." He took a few seconds to compose himself. "I've worked my arse off to find a way for us to disregard whatever crap the Ministry will spew without repercussions, and I succeeded a week ago. I've asked and received Hamish and Kirsten's blessings, and I've had the ring in my pocket for three days now." He took a couple of fortifying breaths before continuing, cutting Padma off. "Do not accuse me of stringing along the woman I want to build my future with, when you don't know the first thing about what's going on, Miss Patil." His voice was frigid.

"I... I'm sorry, Harry." She at least looked contrite. "I just want Morag to be happy, and I didn't know..."

"I just told you so, but not knowing didn't stop you from jumping my throat, did it?"

"Please, Harry. I'm sorry. Forgive me?"

Harry kept silent.

"When you've got both ring and blessings," she began again, although with a lot less fire. "Why didn't you propose today? Or tonight? You have the perfect setup right in there."

"Perfect for you perhaps, but not for me." Harry was still cold. "I want it to be special, and private - just between Mhór and me. Something to create a memory that's just ours." He thought for a moment. "And I also don't want it to be loudly announced beforehand, and since you came and started throwing looks at me, you've been about as subtle as your sister on a bad day."

Against her own beliefs and better judgement, Padma rushed to Parvati's defence. "And what's wrong with my sister, Potter?" she growled.

"Nothing," he replied blandly. "She just thinks that 'subtlety' is a Muggle beauty product." Padma looked slightly offended, but Harry continued. "Now, can you lay off the dirty looks when we go in there again, or do I have to go somewhere else?" She bristled, but then thought better of it.

"I'll leave you alone, but you better hope that Morag will have mercy on you if you dither too long, 'cause I won't!" A little of the fire was back.

"You just admitted that you don't know what's going on, and yet you still try to threaten me?" He turned on his heel and went back in.

"You made a major mistake there," a soft voice said behind Padma.

"Don't I know it..." she sighed, turning to face Hamish. "It's just so infuriating. Morag is my best friend, and for a long time she was my only friend. I want her to be happy, and he acts like nothing is out of the ordinary and like he's in no rush with anything."

"...and nothing could be more wrong." Hamish shook his head. "He's been under so much pressure, you wouldn't believe it, and he still is, although it'll be a lot better in a week. He's been acting just as you say, but it's been just that - an act. He's had to keep Dumbledore believing that he could still get some control back until everything was in place, and he's had to keep it up here as well, because he doesn't know all the people here."

"I didn't know." Padma could easily hear how lame that defence was.

"Now you do," was Hamish' curt answer. "And he was right about him proposing, you know. It's solely a matter between Mhór and him, no matter how good friends you and she happen to be, and pushing him is a bloody bad idea." He shook his head again. "Everybody tell me you're the smartest witch I'm likely to meet. Now is the time to prove it and leave Harry alone. Ciorsdan and I know his intentions, and we have every faith he'll make Mhór the happiest girl in Scotland before you're back at Hogwarts." He turned to walk back inside.

"I will," Padma said in a sad voice. "Will you send Neville out here, please? I think I need to talk to him before I come back in."


The remainder of Morag's birthday party went without a hitch, although a few people were a bit puzzled about the somewhat subdued Padma who reappeared on Neville's arm. Morag just wondered what Harry's reluctance to go near her friend was about, but she didn't get an answer.

It was close to midnight now, and Harry and Morag had just walked the last few guests to the edge of the property. Now they were slowly walking back, arms around each other, while Morag mentally played back her best birthday ever. Every few steps she'd glance at the young man she was wrapped around - in more ways than one. She held him as the main reason for this particular birthday ranking as the best, although it certainly helped that her parents had pulled out all the stops for her coming of age.

She thought it was kind of funny - or perhaps 'strange' would be a better word - the way her life had been turned around over the last six months. Up until June she'd been the insecure, overlooked, somewhat nerdy, genderless entity whose name nobody cared to remember. Now she was the girlfriend of Harry Potter (and if anybody had told her that before she torpedoed him in the Leaky Cauldron she would've had them committed to St. Mungo's), and not one to be overlooked. She was confident in her worth as a scholar, and she was convinced of her worth as a woman. She squeezed her man, sighed happily - and almost missed it when Harry set his plan in motion.

"Look," he said, pointing at the sky. "Millions and millions of stars. It's beautiful." She looked up.

"Yeah. It's rare to see the sky this clear," she replied, somewhat absently since she still held on to her musings. When she looked back at Harry, he was down on one knee. Her mind froze!

"Mhór, I realize it's only been since summer..."

She completely forgot how to function. The only thing still registering was an internal scream of 'HE'S PROPOSING! HE'S ACTUALLY ASKING ME! SQUEEE!', which then dissolved into a continuous chant of 'I am not going to cry, I am not going to cry, I am not...'.

Fortunately for her - and for him - her senses came back to some semblance of order around the time he pulled a small velvet box out of his pocket and offered her the ring inside while finishing his unheard speech with a shaky "Marry me please?" Thirty seconds and a blistering kiss later she had the ring on her left hand and was bawling her eyes out into his chest. Squinting a bit, Harry could see Hamish and Kirsten in the same position behind the window they'd been watching from.

Ten minutes later, the four of them were enjoying a glass of Champagne to celebrate the change in the younger couple's status. Harry and Hamish were quietly talking about Harry's plans for The Pottery, and Kirsten was still occasionally sniffling a little while admiring the ring with Morag.

"Harry?" Morag spoke up. "Was this you mum's?"

"Yeah. Well, most recently that is."

"What do you mean?"

"It's 188 years old, Mhór, and you're the fourth to wear it. It was made for Caitrìona McKinnon in 1808, then it was given to Abigail Longbottom in 1887 and to my mum in 1978."

"Wow," she murmured, looking at her new ring with respect. Then she looked back up at him. "I'm not hiding this, Potter!" she said defiantly.

"I wasn't going to ask you to," he replied evenly, "but please consider a few things: First and foremost it'll bring you to the Old Goat's attention. That could make your time in school unpleasant, although Flitwick seems to be on my side so he might be able to keep the worst off your back. Secondly it'll put you and the broomstick square against each other, and it'll bring her allies down on you. Finally it'll make you a target for The Prophet. You'll be slandered and vilified probably as bad as I've been."

"I don't care," she said, fire in her voice. "I really don't care, Harry. I want this! I'm proud of you and I'll be proud to be Mhór Potter."

"Actually you won't be," Harry said with a wink.

"What? You want us to be Blacks?" He shook his head.

"No, although it would fit in with you name around here." He threw her a wink. "'Black Morag Black', wouldn't that be something?" Then he bent down and whispered in her ear and her eyes lit up with equal parts shock and glee.

"You're joking!" she said breathlessly. He shook his head again. "Oh, this is priceless," she laughed. "Half the witches and wizards in Britain are going to wet themselves."

"Not necessarily," he countered. "It'll be my name in the Muggle world, and by extension yours, but you being Mrs. Potter to witches and wizards might improve our chances for some peace and quiet."

"I see your point," she conceded. "Pity though. It would've been the prank of the century."

"Don't worry, Love. It'll come out sooner or later," he soothed. "I mean, we can ward ourselves to London and back, but once we get to procreating it'll be in the Book of Admission at Hogwarts, so it will become public knowledge eleven years after you give birth."

Hamish and Kirsten looked at each other. "Would someone please tell us what you're talking about?" Kirsten queried.

"We're just discussing which family name to use," Morag said dismissively. "Harry happens to have three available, and we'll go with the one people don't know about, except I'll be Mrs. Potter in the Ministry records."


"Because..." Harry's expression was feral, "...it'll ensure chaos when our first child turns eleven."

"But..." Kirsten began, only to be shushed by Hamish.

"We can wait, Ciorsdan," he said softly. "It's not like they're going to hide it from us for that long. I guess we'll know at their wedding at the latest." Harry looked at him admiringly, impressed with the diversion.

"Oh, yes," Kirsten was flustered. "When is the wedding?"

"Mummm!" Morag whined. "We've been engaged for about half an hour, and you've heard all we've talked about except before we came in. We haven't discussed that yet."

"Well..." Harry spoke up hesitantly. "I've got an idea."

"What's that?" Morag asked.

"August 9th," he said. "It's a Saturday."

Morag was puzzled. "Why?" she asked.

"Fitting," Hamish commented.

"Why's that?" Morag asked again. Hamish just arched an eyebrow at her. She blushed as she caught on. "Oh..."

"Yes, oh," he chided gently. "Anyway, you have plenty of time to decide that yet. You'll also have to decide whether it's going to be a magical or Muggle ceremony."

"Muggle I guess," said Harry. "By the time we get to it, I'll probably be persona non grata with the Ministry and half the population, so a magical wedding seems out of the question."

"We can do both," Morag ventured. "No-one said it had to be here." She smirked. "Imagine the reaction in Britain when it's made public that The-Boy-Who-Lived has gone and gotten married in another country and become The-Boy-Who-Quit." Harry looked thoughtful.

"You may be on to something there, mo gradh. We'll have to look into that."

"You know..." Morag mused. "I just realized something." She pulled him close and whispered to him: "I'll have to thank your lights out for this, Potter."

He shot her a crooked grin. "Challenge accepted, MacDougal."

A/N: Hmm... Yes. This was supposed to be a 10-12K words oneshot, but as far as bunnies go, this has been more than persistent. Also, clichés take up a lot of space. I promise however, that ch. 2 will be the last one, stretching from New Year's to summer, possibly with an epilogue of some sort tacked on.

For those who await a new chapter of Connection, I've now written 100K words for it - and deleted them all. It now consists of the chapter header and nothing else. The advantage is, I now know what not to write for it.