Rather obviously, Harry Potter is the property of JK Rowlings. Death and Dream are the property of Neil Gaiman. Harry Dresden and the Dresden Files belong to Jim Butcher. They'd probably smack me around for the damage I'm doing to their creations.

School Spirits

Chapter Eight: Meddlesome Old Wizards

People like to consider themselves perceptive. We like to believe we can stare into a man's eyes and discern truth from falsehood, to shake his hand and determine the strength of his convictions. We like to think we can perceive others as they really are, pierce the masks, the lies, the social conventions and see the truth hiding beneath.

It's just one of countless comforting lies we tell ourselves. Truth is, mostly we're just guessing. It takes years of close proximity, of intimate trust and communication, to even come close to really knowing another person. Unless, of course, you're a wizard.

There's a reason wizards avoid eye-contact, because knowing someone that well is an incredibly intimate act, one that is on par with the understandings between parent and child, between husband and wife. It is intensely personal. And when I soulgaze someone – I learn who they are in a way that is reserved for only the closest family or loved ones. And they know me in return.

People tend to get a little upset when they find a stranger has that sort of insight into their inner workings. The fact that they get to see me the same way doesn't seem to muffle the blow in the slightest.

Two days passed before Hermione spoke to me again. Two days of carefully avoiding her, letting her have time to process what had happened. I kept myself busy and managed a bit of fun - the Twins and I put our heads together, which resulted in Ron spending two days with green and silver snakes for hair until he'd mustered up a real apology to Hermione. He found out early that he had to mean it if he wanted his hair back. I'd pointed the Terrible Twosome in the direction of a few charms I'd found in my father's prankster journals and they'd run with it. I began the slow repairs on my shield bracelet, made an appointment with Flitwick to discuss my education, and spent some time trying to decide what to do about Dumbledore.

He and I had a bone to pick regarding the proper way to handle orphans as well as some notable oversights in his guardianship. Unfortunately, flambéing a Troll couldn't help but result in him taking a much higher level of interest in me than I was comfortable with.

Which basically meant I was going to have to bite back some of my…criticisms, lest he actually take a real interest in my goings on. The Dursley's benign neglect gave me plenty of space and free time to practice, something I suspected would be in shorter supply if Dumbledore was breathing down my neck. He already half-suspected me of dark magic, although I was hoping he'd come around to buying Hermione's story.

I had finally sent off an owl that morning, specifically requesting a block of time over the Christmas holidays to discuss some issues involving my guardianship.

I ran into Malfoy and his two goons as I was coming down from the Owlry.

I sighed as I saw the Blonde Wonder loitering with intent at the base of the stairs. His relative silence since the Sorting had let me actually start to hope he'd simply written me off and moved onto internal Slytherin politics or trying to find relative to marry or whatever it was he did with his spare time.

"Potter!" he shouted as I came down the stairs "I want to have a word with you."

I came to a stop at the base of the stairs – it was either that or run into his bookends. "Malfoy" I said courteously and then nodded to his friends. "Big Minion, Not Quite as Big Minion. What can I do for you three fine gentlemen today?"

I grinned internally as Malfoy shook that off. Apparently Daddy hadn't taught him how to deal with cheerful mockery. Mind you, there wasn't anything wrong with Malfoy that a couple of years of having real life whack him in the head wouldn't fix, but casual racism or magicism or whatever you wanted to call it just didn't sit well with me.

"Potter, I wanted to give you a second chance" he offered magnanimously.

I looked quizzically at him. "A second chance for what?"

"To let me help you, show you the things you need to know. I've asked around – they say you were raised by muggles." He said, practically sneering the word. Stars and stones, he was such a walking cliché. "You need me, Potter" he continued, trying his best to exude an aura of benevolent nobility.

I blinked. "Oh that again. Good lord, Malfoy. We've been over this. No, I don't need you. Look, I don't care about blood purity. I'm not going to care about blood purity. As for Wizarding Culture, etiquette, history – my family has excellent references. Your family features prominently in them, in fact. So no, I don't need your help. As to your politics…"

I pushed past him, muscling aside Not Quite As Big, finishing "They don't interest me. Politics in general doesn't interest me. I'm here to learn magic. Not form alliances, make deals, reform the world, or anything similar." I glared at him. "Seriously, you're barking up the wrong tree."

I heard him shout "You'll regret this, Potter!" as I retreated down the hallway. Bloody blonde was going to be more and more of a pain as time passed, I just knew it.

It was still a bit strange he was even bothering. If I'd been in Gryffindor, I could understand. Those two formed rivalries about anything. If a Slytherin said the sky was blue, there'd be a Gryffindor there offering to fight to the death to prove it was really black – or vice versa. Of course, the Ravenclaws would ask what time of day they were discussing, and what the weather was like and the Hufflepuffs would merely glance out the nearest window, roll their eyes, and go back to secretly running the Wizarding World.

Malfoy's behavior had me scratching my head. Maybe I was underestimating the whole Boy-Who-Lived thing, and I had more clout than just as the Potter heir. Or perhaps he was just trying to take advantage of my orphan status, trying to finally remove the Potters as a political adversary. Or perhaps orders from Daddy?

I could feel a headache forming. I was eleven, for Pete's sake. Couldn't politics wait until I could at least date? No amount of inherited money or power was worth putting up with the amateur theatrics of budding eleven year old Machiavelli's.

I finally shrugged and mentally tabled it. It didn't really matter for the moment. I had it on good authority that it was in poor taste to declare a blood feud prior your OWLs, and I couldn't actually do anything until my majority anyways. I'd just have to put up with Draco's constant nagging. I suspected my Dad probably felt the same about Lucius.

I managed to make it back to Ravenclaw Tower without further incident, answering the riddle with "An egg. That one was in the Hobbit too" and had just settled into my favorite study nook when Hermione plopped down across from me and erected a privacy bubble with a few practiced flicks.

I raised an eyebrow. She was very good at privacy charms. I chalked it up to my good influence.

I closed my book. "Hello Hermione. I take it you'd like to talk?" I asked dryly.

She nodded, biting her lip for a moment as she thought. "Harry, I'm…sorry I ran. It was just" she floundered, looking for words. "Too much, I guess. I didn't expect…that."

I sighed. "No one does. Why do you think I avoid it? I've known about it for years, but I've never allowed it to happen."

She looked surprised. "Never?"

I shook my head. "You experienced it. Would you do that without good reason?"

"No. It was…"

"Intimate?" I responded. "Yeah. You know me better than anyone else in the world, in a sense. There aren't any barriers to that."

"Harry" she said "What I saw…"

I cut her off. "Was me. What you saw specifically - It's different for everyone. For me, I get imagery and metaphors. I've read" I said, fudging the truth a little since technically it was something Dresden had heard "of people who hear a strand of music, a leitmotif for each individual. Others might see a painting or an animal spirit. What I see tends to be highly confusing and difficult to interpret."

That was an understatement. So much of my magic and my personality was shaped by Dresden's that seeing souls the way he did was something I'd pretty much expected. Hoped against, but expected. I didn't tell her that she was very easy to read, being only eleven. The souls of adults tended to be..more patterned by life, for lack of a better term. A deeper texture, which comes only from life and its associated pains and triumphs.

She looked down for awhile and met my eyes. "You meant it, when you said we were friends."

I shrugged, catching the hidden question. "Yeah. That hasn't changed for me."

She nodded. "Me either. I'll keep your secrets, Harry." She smiled impishly. "So now that I'll keep them, I need to learn them. So, tell me what you can…."

So I did. I told her I knew another type of magic, that I was slowly learning it alongside with the Hogwarts curriculum. Which was – true enough. I was learning more each day, starting to put my theoretical knowledge into practical forms now that I was somewhere that random gouts of fire wouldn't attract as much attention.

We spoke for several hours about my magic. She mostly accepted what I couldn't tell her – about how I'd learned, about Dresden – but was very inquisitive about the nature of magic, and deeply interested in the Laws.

At one point, she asked me point-blank "Harry, if the First Law is not to kill using magic…didn't you break it fighting the troll?"

"Yes and no" I said. "It's best to treat the Laws as strictly as possible, but self-defense is acceptable. The backlash from violating the Laws is deeply tied up in what you were thinking and feeling. And at the time, I was feeling like I was going to be eaten alive. At no point was I taking life just because I could."

"Killing in defense is simply a different animal than murder. Magic supports life. It is life, in a very real sense. And then and there, I was acting to preserve life, not to capriciously take it."

"The real catch of black magic, or Lawbreaking, or whatever you want to call it" I said "is more than just the rush of power. Black magic does spiritual damage – it's visible to those who know how to look. Damage that's concentrated in such a way as to make casting that magic again seem more and more right and proper. Warlocks fall so swiftly, because black magic feeds on itself. Once you take that step, once you begin to believe that doing so is right…" I shook my head.

"Warlocks are insane – or quickly become so. The stronger willed ones are functioning and insane, but crazy none-the-less. They have to be. The strength of your magic is the strength of your belief – and black magic gets stronger the more you believe you have the right to go mucking around in people's heads, or altering their form, or killing people on a whim." I stared her straight in the eyes. "To do magic like this, like I do, you have to believe. To kill that troll, I had to believe that setting it on fire was not just something I could do – but should do. That I had the right to make that decision."

I sighed. "It's easier in the heat of the moment. You don't get a more primal and less complicated set of emotions than 'fight or flight'."

"I suppose, were this sort of magic more common, there'd be police or wardens of a sort to monitor it. What I did to the troll would probably have them keeping a close eye on me for awhile." Internally I snorted. They'd be hovering around in the background with their razor sharp swords. Although since it was a troll, they'd probably just classify it as Winterfae and smack me on the wrist for annoying the Winter Court. Getting into the rather dicey details of how magic, black or white, interacted with supernatural beings was something I was avoiding.

"If I had, say, killed another wizard in self-defense they might even have put me on some strict probation – if it was clear-cut. I suspect they'd err on the side of caution though – I can claim self-defense, but it's really hard to tell what someone else was really thinking and feeling." I looked back at her. "Here and now, I've just got you to let me know if I go off the rails. I'm not worried about this, but….it's almost a relief to know someone is there to watch me in case I fall.

We talked a little more, mostly about the laws and the way I viewed magic. I told her about the ritual I'd used to track her, and even explained the handkerchief of sunshine I'd accidentally given her.

She took the fact that I had essentially LoJacked her fairly well. Then again, she was bright enough to realize that all she had to do was take off the bracelet and I couldn't find her.

Everyone was starting to filter out for dinner she asked the question I had been both expecting and dreading. "Harry, can you teach me?"

"Hermione, I honestly don't know. It's a gift, not a skill. You're close to the right age for it to manifest, and I've a few theories on wand-wizardry that might mean you're very likely to have the raw talent. But you certainly can't learn here." I shook my head. "Not using your wand every day, not with this much magic floating around. You need a quieter place, so to speak, to find your initial balance."

I had a theory, one I'd been slowly putting together since entering the Wizarding world. Wizards are tough. They play a sport – for fun! – that involves iron-covered balls pelting people at high speed. They can survive nasty falls, they habitually get cursed or hexed or have magic used on them with no lingering effects.

In Dresden's world, wizards were closer to the supernatural than pure mortals, but they weren't of the supernatural. Not really, and certainly not like the Fae were. They could use magic, but they were only a hair more supernatural than your everyday Joe. It was enough, but the headaches that came with learning to use magic – headaches that took a long time to stop happening – were proof enough that the human body wasn't really well designed to channel magic.

Practicing magic changed the human body a bit – which you could see by the long lifespans wizards in Dresden's world enjoyed and the fact that those who stopped practicing magic, who let their gift fade and vanish, did not enjoy multi-century lives.

But wizards here carried around their own source of magic. Their bodies were unconsciously strengthened by it, healed by it – Dresden healed fast, and was tough – but he'd break bones where I would only have a bad bruise. And the real kicker – I'd never suffered the migraines that were universal to wizards first accessing their gifts. I had chalked that up to just a side-effect of the dreams and the way I learned magic, but what if there was another reason?

I was beginning to think that people like Hermione and I were a solid step closer to the supernatural than Dresden was. We were more innately magical. In which case, she should certainly be able to use magic like I did – if it weren't for the fact that her own internal magic was so much more easily accessible.

Budding wizards in Dresden's world expressed magic under stress – in their early teens. Here? They do it as toddlers. If I hadn't awoken it early, if I hadn't known how to reach it and use it, I'd have gone with my 'natural' gifts rather than training to use the magic around me.

Why pull and shape power from outside, when all you had to do was grasp what was already within you and let it loose?

I focused back on Hermione. "If you have the talent – a big if – the easiest time would be to teach you during the summer when you can't use your wand. Trying it now, even if we had the time, would just be an exercise in frustration. If you want to learn, I'll start putting together some exercises you can start on now and we can get together this summer and see what happens. If nothing else, I can start by teaching you to meditate as well as some of the basic theory."

I grinned at her. "I suspect just learning what I'm doing will take the edge off that insatiable curiosity, at least until you beat down my door on the first day of summer break."

She launched herself at me and about cracked another one of my ribs, before pulling me to my feet and dragging me off to dinner, chattering excitedly all the way.

A few days later I had my meeting with Flitwick, ostensibly to discuss my grades. Given he'd made the point for me to do so right after the Troll Incident, I suspected it was more than just to see how I was settling in.

Speaking of the Troll Incident…something was still bugging me about that. I'd heard the rest of the story from classmates, but a few things simply didn't add up. Starting with how a troll got through Hogwarts' famous wards, but both Quirrell and Snape had generated some serious questions of their own. Quirrell supposedly fainted in the Great Hall yet was there when McGonagall summoned me out from under the troll.

As for Snape – I'd seen him limping as he ran down the hallway towards me. He certainly hadn't hurt himself fighting the troll I'd killed.

And of course the million dollar question was how the troll had managed to get from the dungeons to an upper floor bathroom in such a short time.

I'd bet money it had to do with the third floor. The troll was certainly an excellent distraction and even with Hogwarts' variable geometry Snape and Quirrell could have easily have gotten from the off-limits area to the wrecked bathroom in the time between Hermione's first screams and me almost getting pancaked.

The question, I thought as I knocked on the door to Flitwick's office, was if they'd gone together – or if one had suspiciously followed the other.

"Come in, Mister Potter" echoed through the door, which opened on its own accord. I walked into what had probably started out life as a fairly spacious office. Now, however, it was packed to the rafters except for a small cleared area around Flitwick's desk.

Bookshelves laden so heavily they had to have been magically reinforced covered the walls, and tables and workbenches covered with charmed objects and various magical-looking tools took up the rest of the space. The prosaic filing cabinets behind the desk seemed a bit out of place.

I sat down in the chair in front of the desk and immediately some trick of magic or perspective put me neatly at eye level with Flitwick. I suppose something like that would be required, given his small stature. He was almost my height – but I was eleven. The seventh years towered over him.

"Mister Potter, in most cases these interviews are basically a chance for me, as your Head of House, to determine how you are fitting into Hogwarts, see if you are struggling in any classes and arrange for tutoring or help with any problems you may be facing and generally offer academic advice." He smiled at me, a bit toothily. "You are a bit different. But we should get the formalities out of the way."

"Your instructors indicate you come to class prepared, have a solid grasp of the material, and are reliably in the top half on the practical side. Your theoretical grades are top in your class, and that would normally concern me – good theory and poor practical casting generally indicates a problem, a mismatched wand or partially blocked core for example. However, I have noticed in my class – and Professor McGonagall has confirmed it in hers – that your practical abilities have been improving." He looked up from his notes "Have you had any insights into why you have been struggling? I'd like to know if this improvement will continue, or whether I need to arrange time to see if we can sort out the problem."

I paused, thinking over how much to admit to. "I seem to be a bit more sensitive to my internal magic than most students, Professor." I said. "I've had a real problem with pushing too much magic into things. I can't tell if I'm over thinking it, or if my awareness is keeping me from instinctively using the right amount of magic."

He looked at me in surprise. "Really? You can sense that, at your age? That is quite a rare gift. Can you sense external magic as well?"

I nodded. "I can feel it, yes. I don't get a lot of detail, even under the best conditions, and Hogwarts is so full of magic that it tends to be overwhelming."

He looked delighted, clapping his hands together. "That is a very useful gift, Harry. It takes most wizards decades of training to develop their mage sense, even those born with the talent. I have a few books that might help you sharpen that ability. Feeling fine detail will only come with experience, but I'd be happy to put you to work learning how to do it. It's an invaluable talent in fields like curse-breaking or enchanting."

Flitwick waved his wand and summoned a few books as he continued "At the end of your second year you'll choose electives. Given your grasp of theory and your skill in my class, expect me to heavily recommend Runes and Arithmancy." His eyes glanced down to my wrist, still a bit red from my burns, before continuing dryly, "Something makes me think you'd do well in creating charmed or enchanted objects, Mister Potter."

He grinned at me and I was reminded of Griphook. It was very obvious that Flitwick had the same predatory instincts as his Goblin parent, just tuned in a slightly different direction. I had to squash the mental image of Flitwick stalking, ambushing, and messily devouring fleeing knowledge.

He flipped over the parchment and scanned it briefly. "Your Potions grade seems a bit low; however I am aware that there are some" he paused, searching for a term "small personal issues there." He looked at me closely. "I am aware that Professor Snape requires considerably more from you than from others, in order to attain the same grade."

He drummed his fingers on the desk and sighed. "Professor Snape is a difficult teacher to work with under the best circumstances. He is also a very accomplished potions master. The difficulties you face are not of your own making and I am monitoring the situation. His issues do not stem from anything you have personally done. I have spoken to him on several occasions, although I have stressed that you have not come forward with any complaints. If you have are finding working under Professor Snape too onerous, I might be able to arrange some form of independent study."

I shook my head. "I'll be fine. If things change, I will let you know. As the end result is me learning more about potions than my peers, I find the up-side well worth the down."

He nodded. "That covers your academics. As you are a first-year, there's generally nothing else to cover. In your case, there is one other issue – Halloween."

I groaned inside. I did not want Flitwick probing around Halloween. Accidental magic was a great explanation, since it was so unfocused and chaotic you could explain away inconsistencies, but god knows what sort of forensic charms Flitwick might have run.

He put the paper aside, focusing intently on me. "How have you been sleeping?"

I blinked, shocked. "Um…fine?"

"No nightmares? No difficulties sleeping at all?" He asked.

"No." I said, before quickly adding. "I was sort of expecting them, and maybe I'm still just having a hard time believing it all really happened."

I wasn't having problems sleeping because being eaten by a troll doesn't really rate on the "scary list" anymore. Which is kind of sad, given mine and Dresden's relatively young ages. It's hard to explain that trolls really don't rate after meeting something like He-Who-Walks-Behind.

Flitwick looked at me with genuine concern. "I am surprised you emerged unscathed, Mister Potter. Many adult wizards would have nightmares from such a close call. If you do begin to have nightmares or other issues, please come see me or Madame Pomfrey. Arranging for you to have someone to talk to, in complete confidence, would be the least we could do. A similar offer was extended to Miss Granger, as it would be to any student who witnessed something that traumatic."

He piled up the papers on his desk neatly. "Do you have any questions for me, Mister Potter? Issues you would like addressed? Problems? This interview is confidential."

I started to say no, before deciding to gamble "Actually, there is one thing. Why does a school have an entire corridor off-limits under pain of death?"

Flitwick looked a bit embarrassed. "I'm afraid that matter is confidential, matters of security you understand. I personally took part in locking off the dangerous area from the rest of the school so I can assure you that the area is heavily warded and set to notify staff if anyone is in the restricted area. Actually getting to anything dangerous would require a great deal of deliberate effort, requiring skills beyond that of even most Seventh Years."

He peered over his glasses at me. "The most I can tell you is that there has been a certain amount of construction, and until the area has been restored it is simply not safe for anyone to be there. Do not worry about it, Mister Potter. That area will be as good as new by next school year."

I left a few minutes later, carrying the books Flitwick had summoned and pondering the third floor corridor. Flitwick's explanation just didn't make sense. Had the problem merely been dangerous construction, there'd be no reason to keep it secret. Even wizards understood "big things fall down, crush wizard skull, wizard no think good after."

Claiming it was security related didn't fly either. First rule of keeping secrets: Don't tell people you're keeping something a secret. If they were upgrading the wards on the sly or something similar, they'd have just locked off the area with a plausible excuse – like remodeling. "Secret stuff, don't come near!" is the sort of thing that attracts curious minds.

Honestly, either the brain trust that had thought up this thing didn't have the slightest clue how the human mind worked – or they wanted people poking around, looking for a MacGuffin. If that was the case, I'd happily indulge them. Christmas was coming up, and I'd have two weeks free to explore.

The rest of the term passed swiftly. Before I knew it, it was Winter Break and the castle was practically empty. Hermione left to be with her family while I cheerfully stayed behind. Thanks to a few owls and an enterprising mundane-born Raven, I had gotten my Christmas shopping done early, with the gifts scheduled to be delivered by owl on Christmas day. I got some books for my favorite Slytherins - Modern Methods in Pedagogy and Classroom Management Skills for Professor Snape and How to Win Friends and Influence People for Malfoy. For that critical personal touch I'd gone through all three with a highlighter, a pen, and all the sarcasm I could muster. Tragically I had forgotten to sign the card.

Neville, Tonks and a few others had both gotten the wizarding equivalent of gift certificates. I really wanted to see if Neville could make anything out of some of the seeds in my heirloom Vault, but that'd have to wait until I was of age.

For Hermione I'd gone digging through my Everybook to locate a good book on meditation, and bought a copy via Owl Order. The methods it suggested would be useful for some of the more advanced types of wand magic, or so it claimed – but I knew for a fact that they were useful for learning to marshal and control magic like I did. I'd also very laboriously written out the first two chapters of Elementary Magic into a blank journal.

The book covered the basics of shaping power, the foundation of magical theory needed to work Dresden's magic, with the early chapters acting as an introduction to power and the responsibilities of it rather than a "how-to" manual.

Dresden and his mentor – the man who had written Elementary Magic – had considered magical ethics to be the most important aspect of the whole process. A belief I deeply agreed with, and one that Hogwarts seemed to be lacking. They were big on "dark" and "light" but there was no Magical Ethics 101 or anything even remotely similar.

Writing it from memory was more than a little difficult, but I needed the meditation practice anyways. I didn't have an eidetic memory, but with a bit of magic and a lot of meditation I could fake it at times.

I still hadn't had a chance to explore the third floor corridor, although I had been doing a bit of prep work. I had finally repaired my bracelet, and had managed – with transfiguration and some hard work – to build a set of decent lock picks. Not that I really thought I'd need them – doors here either used centuries old locks I could open with a toothpick or were magically sealed. They were comforting to have, just in case.

I've never been comfortable around locks I couldn't open.

Christmas morning I woke up to find a few packages on my bed. They hadn't been there when I'd gone to sleep, which made their appearance slightly creepy. I poked at them for a bit before finally giving into curiosity and tearing them open. Hermione had given me a new fountain pen – pretty much identical to the one I already used but charmed to draw directly from any ink-bottle I touched it to. Quite thoughtful, although I couldn't help but think she'd done it mostly to stop the random cursing when I spilled ink trying to refill the archaic thing.

On the other hand, months of practice had left me with quite nice handwriting. I could always retire from the Wizard business and open up a calligraphy shop.

I had a nice plant from Neville, apparently the Wizarding equivalent of those impossible to kill cactuses, according to the note. I prodded at it with my wand. It wrapped a few tendrils around it and playfully tugged back. I resolved to look it up in my Extreme Gardening textbook, in case it could be rendered down into useful components, and in the meantime I put it as far away from my bed as possible and resolved to learn how to create wards to make sure it stayed away. Wizarding plants moved too much.

He had thoughtfully had it placed in the pots meant for those living in non-magical areas. Non-magicals wouldn't consider it anything unusual, and there was no chance of it sending out sprouts or seeds or pollen to surrounding areas. We'd covered the Secrecy laws on Herbology in our first class, and it mostly boiled down to "Here's a list of plants you can keep without full-fledged Herbology wards, and here's the type of pot you have to put them in."

Keeping a magical plant or two alive over summer break was a common extra-credit project, and these pots with subtle wards and notice-me-not charms on them made them perfectly legal.

The last package was a bit more…mysterious. There was an unsigned note attached stating that the package contained something of my father's and to 'use it well'. Opening it I found a silvery fabric, smooth and slick to the touch – but which buzzed against my hands, vibrating with power.

It took me about thirty seconds to realize that it was an honest-to-God invisibility cloak. I giddily wondered if it dispelled on attack, before shaking my head and diving into my Everybook for references.

Sure enough, I found it listed as one of the Potter family's most powerful artifacts. The cloak had been working for generations – most apparently lost their enchantments after only a decade or so. I started skimming down the list of observed properties, mouth dry. No sane person would give this to a schoolchild. It did more than merely render things invisible – it cloaked anything beneath it from magical detection. Magically speaking anything under it wasn't there! No tracking charm would work through it; no scrying spell could pierce it.

Stars and Stones - I could walk through most wards with this. It wasn't a cure all – the notes did indicate many known weaknesses – the cloak itself could apparently be spelled with charms, including tracking charms, and anyone under it could still be observed using another sense – smell or hearing, for instance. Some wards would detect the Cloak passing, but not the person under it. It was still a magical object, after all.

I smiled as I noted the Potter Grimoire listed a number of charms the head of the family tended to keep on the cloak – mostly to prevent mischief. In addition to tracking charms, it was often spelled with a rather common charm that made the cloak visible to the charm's caster, suffusing it with a soft glow.

Still, I thought, fondling the soft material – the Everybook stated that most wards looked for wizards or other living creatures, and didn't bother warding against non-Dark magical artifacts, because otherwise they'd be going off with every wizard that passed through them, triggering off of wands, holsters, charmed hats, warming charm imbued socks and other assorted what-nots.

I carefully noted a set of specific diagnostic spells listed on the side, designed to detect the very few wards that tended to trigger off the Cloak. Strangely, even most wards looking for plain old magical artifacts missed it, leaving only a handful of old, rarely-cast and half-forgotten wards that would reliably notice the Cloak.

Some long-dead Potter had speculated that some of the sudden swings in our family's fortune might have been due to a gentleman thief or two in the family and there were warnings about letting anyone know about the Cloak's true properties lest we'd be suspected of every theft in England.

I grinned cheerfully at the silver mass, currently quiescent, then reached over to my potions knife and cut my thumb, smeared my blood onto the cloak and felt its magic bond with me. I focused for a second, visualizing what I wanted, and tapped it with my wand. The cloak switched from barely-there shimmering silver to a deep black, shape visibly altering itself into a plain school cloak.

A few more taps quickly verified its limitations as given in the Grimoire. General cloak shapes yes, in a variety of sizes. Coats, scarves, hats, no. It would take on any colors and patterns, as long as I could visualize them strongly enough.

I resisted the urge to Snoopy dance. It couldn't be lost, couldn't be stolen – recalling it took only an effort of will now that it was bonded to me. It could be loaned away – my father must have handed the cloak over freely or else it would have popped back into the Artifact vault upon his death. As it was, the cloak would have ended up back in the Vault anyways in another year or so – it'd only suffer itself to stay out of Potter hands so long, freely given or not.

My Everybook was silent on who made it, or how, but it was bonded to our line. It'd look just like a rather fancy charmed cloak until I wanted to be invisible. I didn't plan to let it out of my sight.

Of course, there was another downside to my Mighty Morphin' Invisibility Cloak – in its current mode, I had to maintain a small bit of focus when I wanted to be invisible. Not much, but combat under the Cloak was out of the question. Sneaking around? Sure. An ambush? Possibly. But trading spellfire? Not a chance. Even with lots of training, I'd have to force the Cloak to revert to its base form if I wanted to try evocation or thaumaturgy under it.

And then I'd have a big sheet over my head, which would interfere with the aforementioned evocation or thaumaturgy. The cloak was great for sneaking around, even bypassing a large slew of common wards, but was sadly not going to be a case of making dark wizards save versus Cloak or die. Pity.

I snorted to myself. I guess it technically did dispel on attack. Maybe next Christmas I'd get a Wand of Fireballs.

I did resolve to check the Cloak for tracking charms, as soon as I learned how. Like I said – no sane person would give this to a schoolchild, so either a crazy man person gave it to me – or someone who at least had figured out a way to monitor it.

My money was on a certain Gandalf-wannabe, and despite his cultivated air of crazy I'd bet real money the thing was heavily laden with tracking and revealing charms. Hiding under it near him, I would probably stand out in blazing purple, possibly with streamers of pink sparkles. Lord knows I'd have charmed to catch my attention before handing it off to someone else.

I mentally resolved to cast all the Head of House charms on the cloak as soon as I learned them. Just in case I felt like loaning it out.

After donning my spiffy new black cloak, I checked the potion I had been brewing. It was another of the Family magics – a useful potion to determine magical gifts and strengths – and it took forever to brew, despite not being very complex. Most of that time spent making it was letting the potion steep at certain stages, which it could do in the safety of my trunk. Of course, I was bleeding an awful lot in the process – it needed my blood at practically every stage.

I had another step to do tonight, but after that I didn't have to mess with it until spring.

After bleeding a bit more and putting in the first of the snow lilies, I put away my potions supplies and marched off to breakfast.

Boxing Day – rather, Boxing Night – found me wrapped in my invisibility cloak, staring down the third floor corridor. I couldn't imagine using the cloak without properly activating it – I'd have to drape it over my head like a cheap ghost costume. As it was, it just took a few seconds of focused thought and the cloak's magic would swirl around me, hiding me from sight. The view was a little dim, almost like looking through lightly tinted glass – in fact, it felt exactly like a first-class veil.

The theory behind veils was simple enough – you cracked open reality a little bit, and pulled some of the essence of the Nevernever around yourself or whatever you were trying to hide.

You were…more out of visual phase than invisible. Some of the more proficient users could handle sound, scent, vibrations – all sorts of things. Dresden, on a good day, could darken shadows and blur his outline, and looking out of Dresden's veils was like looking through a welder's mask. Of course, the Sight pierced veils like they weren't even there. I'd have to test my cloak sometime….

Shaking aside the thought, I let my senses roam over the Cloak. Its magic was muted, almost shifted, like someone shoving all visible light into the infrared. No wonder most wards would miss it, I thought, they weren't looking in the right place. I bet it'd stand out like the sun itself to anyone – or any ward – looking on the right frequency. Had to be part of the veil, I concluded. I rubbed my hands together in pure Ravenclaw glee – I'd be experimenting with this thing for years, I could tell!

Safely invisible, I moved down the empty hallway. And it truly was empty I thought, after pacing up and down it a dozen times. There was just the single door set into the wall. No tapestries, no suits of armor, not even a painting – just empty stone walls and a door. Strangest of all, I didn't feel a single iota of magic outside the normal wards embedded in the walls.

Even within the cloak, I should have sensed ward boundaries or alarm spells, some sort of magic to alert the staff that students were playing around in the out-of-bounds corridor. The magic Flitwick had assured me was here should have been all over this corridor, buzzing and jolting my senses.

It was dusty up here – no house elves had been cleaning, and I saw footprints in dozens of sizes, clustering around the door – and several deep splotches of what looked like dried blood.

Approaching the door, I pulled on my dragonhide gloves. They were thick leather, designed for Extreme Gardening, and would protect my hands to a decent degree. A quick check of the handle showed the door to be locked. I was about to dig out my lock-picks and open the lock – a child could have picked it, even with the gloves – when I had a sudden thought. Pulling out my wand, I tried the most basic unlocking charm – alohomora.

Hearing the door click open knocked my suspicions up another notch. The door yielded to a simple unlocking charm? The sort you'd use to open a mundane bike lock? The cheapest, most basic trunks sold in Diagon Alley had locks better than that!

I waited, senses straining for any pulse of magic – any alert being sent out, and felt nothing. That didn't mean much. My senses were pretty crude, and I'm sure top-end wards – the sort you'd have guarding the door to a "most painful death" in a school were probably not going to let themselves be noticed by a first year, mage sense or not.

Of course, if you were putting in that sort of security, the door wouldn't yield to a first-year charm either…..

I paused. Flitwick had sounded sincere about warding the corridor. And while I doubted I'd have felt all the alarms and wards, surely there would have been outer layers – layers left deliberately obvious as a warning to students. And at least one layer that students wouldn't detect, but would trip with an audible warning – let them know they were outclassed.

I sighed. Too much of my warding knowledge was Dresden-based. I was making guesses on too-little research on a foreign type of magic. I mentally added "wards" to my never ending list of things to learn and nudged the door open with my foot. I peered inside before quickly slamming the door shut and darting back through the hallway and down the stairs, running as fast I as could.

One floor down, I leaned up against the landing wall, panting heavily. That was a Cerberus! A freaking Cerberus! Something best known for guarding the gates of Hell and they had it in a school!

I slumped to the floor, trying to settle my breathing. All I knew about Cerberi was the whole 'guarding the gates to hell' thing. I didn't really see anything in the room other than the giant three-headed dog, but the room was fairly sizeable. There might have been something behind it, blocked by its bulk.

So we have a big, mean dog in Hogwarts. It can't be the MacGuffin that's responsible for all this idiocy, I thought. There's no rhyme or reason for it. There's a huge forbidden forest they could keep it in, and frankly they have an elective class dealing just with big scary animals. Surely there are places – well warded places – for students to learn about the giant, three-headed hell hound in perfect safety. And even if the third floor was where hell-hound class was, why didn't they just say that? "Stay away from the third floor corridor, for we put a freakin' hell hound there and it finds wizards crunchy."

So if it's not the MacGuffin, it's got to be guarding the MacGuffin. That tracks. They're famous for guarding. The MacGuffin either has to be small enough that I didn't see it behind the dog or there's a door and Tiny there is just the first line of defense. Which begs the question – why? Why stick it here, and not in Gringotts?

My heart rate steadying, I stood and reactivated the Cloak. I mentally noted that panic is not conducive to invisibility and began slowly moving back to my dorms. There'd been a break-in at Gringotts. It'd been in the paper – but the goblins stated that the Vault had been empty. I didn't really think that was true at the time – the Vault being empty, I mean. I believed the bit about a robbery. But what if it was empty?

I answered the door riddle ("They were triplets" – it really needed new material) and walked up to my room. Sitting down, I pulled out a piece of paper and a pen.

Item One: The MacGuffin isn't money.

Gringotts is full of money and if they could break in once they could break in again. If the Vault they'd hit was empty, there's another one right next to it you can rob since you're already there. Besides, if someone had gotten the tip-off that they personally were going to be robbed, they'd have already put their money back under the new security system. Or gotten it insured. Did Gringotts have deposit insurance?

Item Two: The MacGuffin is rare, difficult, or almost impossible to acquire, possibly even unique.

Once again, this goes back to Gringotts - you don't break into a bank on a lark. If they could get it elsewhere, by hook or by crook, they would have. Much easier to break into a shop, kidnap a craftsman, or break into someone's home. Or just mug people for cash.

Item Three: Dumbledore knew – or someone convinced him – that the MacGuffin wasn't safe at Gringotts and it was moved here.

Which lead me wonder "Why here" and not in his sock drawer, under a Fidelius Charm? Even if that charm couldn't be used that way, putting it into the third-floor corridor then drawing an entire castle's attention to it was stupid. There had to have been ways to hide it, even guard it, that didn't require mentioning it to kids.

I sighed. Then again, Dumbledore was fond of the crazy act. Maybe he was doing some reverse psychology ploy.

Item Four: The Cerberus was pretty scary and definitely dangerous, but in the end it's just a great big dog.

The thing about guard dogs is – they might be scary and full of sharp teeth and an urge to rend would-be thieves, but someone trained them. They are not unstoppable killing machines existing only to rend the flesh of the living. They could be trained, poisoned, commanded, and killed. So it's unlikely that it's the only thing guarding the MacGuffin. It's either a first line of defense or a red herring. Even with Hogwarts famed wards, just a Cerberus didn't seem sufficient to stop anyone determined enough to use something like the Killing Curse.

Two words, one dead dog. Someone willing to break into Gringotts could probably bring himself to cast the Killing Curse on a dog. I snorted. It's only a small fine for casting it on animals, and that's if the court doesn't buy 'self-defense'.

Item Five: I saw no signs of wards, alert lines, or responding teachers – and I opened the door. That means either that's not the door leading to the MacGuffin – another red herring, or their response methods are a lot more subtle.

I thought for a bit, then circled Item Five and wrote "Maybe a trap?" next to it. Maybe the MacGuffin was bait for someone.

I didn't like that thought at all. This was a school. You'd have to be either insane or desperate to bait a trap here.

I yawned, petting Zatanna. I had an appointment with Dumbledore tomorrow. I'd need to research Cerebri, and start digging into known wizarding artifacts. The big, one of a kind, "kill for" sort of stuff.

I stifled a smile. I was pretty sure I was wearing one on my back. But the Potters bound those to the family line – one day I might acquire or make an artifact worth going through the effort and expense of binding it. The ritual was probably within my abilities even now and was fully documented in the family Grimoire – although I'd need the Keystone out of the heirloom vault. The last time the ritual was performed was well over a century ago – lovely little shield ring, created by the last Master Enchanter our family had produced. I'd cheerfully maim to get that out of family vault.

The notes on the ritual hinted that it was one the Potters never felt like bothering the rest of the world with. It was the Cloak, and the Potter's desire to keep it safe from theft and harm, that led to the creation of the Keystone and the ritual to bind enchanted objects to our line.

We Potters seemed to have the firm notion that if you made or acquired a potent magical artifact, it should work until about the time the sun burned out and be impossible to lose. Destroyed, maybe – stolen, never.

I got into bed, deciding to come back to the mystery in the morning. As I drifted off to sleep, I wondered who I should bill for all this PI work.

I spent most of the next day curled up in Ravenclaw tower, ignoring the world in favor of my book – like the other four Ravens here over Christmas. I spent part of it researching Cerberi, but mostly I was occupied trying to come up with a list of unique magical artifacts – with very little luck. Between myth, legend, and history, I had dozens upon dozens of possibilities. Most of the ones that actually existed, or had existed, were probably locked in family vaults or kept under lock and key in the Department of Mysteries. I needed a way to narrow the scope of my investigation, but so far I was coming up dry.

I finally closed up my everybook and made my way to Dumbledore's office. Flitwick had stopped by earlier and handed me a note with directions to the Headmaster's office and made a cryptic remark about how fond Dumbledore was of Mars Bars.

After two minutes of begging, shouting, and cursing at the gargoyle, I finally tried "Mars Bars", out of sheer desperation. Stupid wizards, I thought0 as I rode a revolving spiral staircase up into Dumbledore's office.

I idly wondered if he had a bad hip and that's why he couldn't hack ten feet of spiral staircase. On the other hand Hogwarts had seven floors, and I didn't see him using a magic carpet to get up and down them, so maybe it was just to impress us rubes. Or just because someone, sometime, had thought it was cool.

Never underestimate the power of cool.

Dumbledore's office was as flamboyant as the man himself. It looked like a jewelry store had exploded– there were so many spinning, whirring, smoking, burping, belching, and otherwise animated bits of silver, glass, and jewels covering the tables and shelves that it was a wonder he could pull out a book without wrecking something.

Strange as it was, the proliferation of whirring gadgets weren't the most eye-catching thing in the office. That title belonged to the red and gold bird resting on an elaborate perch in the corner, whose black eyes fixed to mine as soon I walked in the door.

It chirped musically, eyes staring into mine and I found myself locked into a soulgaze with a stupid bird. In my defense, I was too shocked to look away in time. It was a bird, for Merlin's sake.

It was….different, even as soulgazes go. I found myself surrounded by flames that didn't burn, didn't hurt, instead giving off deep, spiritual warmth. The flames took the shape of birds, flocking and swirling around me, singing joyfully. They would explode into elaborate fireworks and then reform only to explode again, and I found myself drowning in the sensation of magic and creation, of life and death and rebirth.

I blinked, and suddenly knew the bird for what it was – Phoenix. White magic made flesh, perched in perhaps the last place on Earth I expected to find one – a schoolmaster's office.

The bird chirped again, seemingly satisfied with whatever it had seen, and promptly fell asleep. I was knocked out of my reverie by a gentle voice:

"Ah, Harry my boy. Please sit down."

I jumped. I hadn't even noticed him. Dumbledore, dressed in the lurid and ridiculous robes he seemed to prefer, was at his desk gesturing at the padded seat in front of him. I walked over and sat down, not taking my eyes from the Phoenix.

To Dresden, they were a myth – a symbol of everything magic could be. Admittedly, some thought they were fae of Deep Summer, but Dresden's mentor had seen it, once, and had merely said that the Phoenix – for there was only one in Dresden's world – was something far beyond the ken of wizards, fae, or mortals.

I'd read about them here, and had thought them merely magical birds – rare but not unique. I had been very, very, very wrong. This phoenix may not be the Phoenix of Dresden's world, but it was still a far purer being than any I or he had ever encountered. The fact it tolerated Dumbledore enough to have a perch here meant striking out some of my assumptions about Dumbledore. I was going to have to play this by ear.

"Aw, I see you've noticed Fawkes." Dumledore said with a gentle smile. "He is a phoenix, a rare creature indeed, and has been a companion of mine for decades".

"When did he come to you?" I asked. I had a guess, one that Dumbledore quickly confirmed.

"When I swore to defeat Grindlewald" Dumbledore said, as he reached over to scratch Fawkes' head. "Fawkes appeared to me in a flash of flame, as if to seal my oath, and has remained nearby ever since. Some people refer to him as my familiar, but if anything it would be the other way around."

I nodded, tearing my attention away from the bird. Even with my senses dialed down, I could feel Fawkes radiating magic, pulsating waves of red and gold against my skin. Magic is difficult to describe to the mundane - you feel colors, see smells, hear tastes…the human brain struggles to process the feel of magic through a brain conditioned to have only five senses. Fawkes felt like red and gold, topped with summer solstice, a dash of cinnamon and immortality, against a backdrop of clarion trumpet calls.

It would make perfect sense if you were a wizard. Really.

"Lemon drop?" Dumbledore offered, gesturing to a bowl on his desk.

"No thank you" I said, shaking my head. I didn't trust the candy. Phoenix or not, if I was in charge of a couple hundred kids ranging from scared eleven year olds to hormonally driven teenagers, I'd have darn well laced the candy with something, even if just for myself.

Dumbledore took a lemon drop, popping it into his mouth before leaning forward and peering at me over his half-moon spectacles. He stared for a moment, assessing me, before steepling his fingers. "So, Harry, you said you had" he glanced down at a parchment on his desk "questions for me in my role as your legal guardian?"

Interesting, I thought. I'm "Harry" to him. The rest of the teachers used "Mister" or "Miss" almost exclusively, and I definitely recall him using "Miss Granger". Why the familiarity?

"A number of issues, Sir" I said. "First and foremost, there was the rather informal nature to which I was assigned to my current guardians. Being left on a doorstep? Secondly, I have had correspondence from the Goblins indicated my parent's house has been seized by the Ministry and turned into a historical site. I am wondering who gave them permission for that, or failing that, why you took no steps to arrange for compensation for the loss of property?"

I was watching closely. I saw surprise flicker across his face, very briefly, before he responded "Well, Harry, there were certain magical reasons for the way you were assigned your current guardians. Most specifically by placing you there I could erect certain very powerful wards."

"While Voldemort himself was gone, many of his followers were running free. Some are still free to this day, though they claimed to have been coerced." I saw a flicker of distaste cross his face. "There were few places where you could have been warded so heavily, yet still enjoy a relatively peaceful and normal life."

Ah, crap, I thought. The only thing the Dursleys had going for them, magically speaking, was a threshold and the fact that I was related to them. Every house had a threshold, so Dumbledore was talking about wards based on blood or family. He wasn't going to budge on placement, not without serious pressure. Maybe if I'd actually been abused, but given the current situation of resigned tolerance and his mention of 'followers still free' I was betting I was stuck. There went Plans A, B and C.

And the 'relatively normal' bit – that sounded like a security versus freedom trade-off. I frowned inwardly. He might have a point. Sitting cooped up behind high-security wards or a Fidelius would suck. At Privet Drive, I could wander freely to and from the house. Whatever he constructed must linger on me, even outside the wards.

"As to your parent's house" he continued "I am surprised at your diligence. It does me good to see you are taking such a mature interest in your family affairs. However, you are correct. The Ministry most certainly should have compensated you for the house. I'm afraid I simply assumed they had done so – I have many things requiring my attention, and it is to my sorrow that this was missed."

"With all due respect, Headmaster" I replied "You didn't answer the million dollar question – why did you leave a toddler, unattended, on a porch with just a note? In November? I'm assuming you must have followed up with the non-magical authorities, because I did get 'magically'" I snorted at the term "recorded with them."

Dumbledore looked uncomfortable and even a bit irritated at being pressed. "Part of those 'reasons of magic' Harry. I'm not at liberty to explain precisely. I assure you it was done for the Greater Good, and you were in no danger."

I could feel the capitals dropping into place on 'Greater Good'. I made a mental note to research family or blood-related wards this summer. Something about that setup tugged at a memory…

I refocused and glared at him. "So just 'trust you'? The guy that left me on a doorstep, like a bottle of milk? Not to mention the fact that the Dursley's definitely had issues with my magic, the fact that no one – in eleven years – so much as checked up on me, and last but not least – somehow I wasn't invited to the non-magical orientations, nor did I have a professor do a first contact visit!"

"But you're not muggleborn, Harry!" Dumbledore replied. "Your Aunt knew all of that, her sister was a witch!"

"Aunt Petunia hates magic, Headmaster! She remembered where Diagon Alley was and that was the end of it!" I stared at him. "Something you should have known, if you had checked up on me. As was your job as my guardian"

I waved my hand. "Aunt Petunia is not a squib. I looked it up. Hogwart's own by-laws require a contact visit by a wizard or witch and the orientation, for all students coming from a non-magical household. That can be family, but it's your job as Headmaster to ensure that someone visits."

Dumbledore winced. "I'm sorry, Harry, it's just…"

I cut him off. "I'm the Boy-Who-Lived, surely I knew about all that? Or did you delegate the task to someone who didn't know my living conditions? The entire Wizarding world seems to be under the impression I was raised with a Wizarding family. I wonder how that rumor got started?" I asked with biting sarcasm.

I watched him squirm. I had him off-balance, but it wouldn't last long. I doubted you got to be Supreme Mugwump by collecting bottle caps. It wasn't so much that he wasn't used to tough questions, he just didn't expect them from a kid.

"Headmaster, it's obvious that you haven't been paying attention to my needs over the last, oh, decade. Thankfully I've managed to correct your mistakes, as best I can. The Dursleys still dislike magic, and had you investigated a mere five years ago you would have seen that fear driving them to borderline abuse" I said.

I let him squirm a bit more, before continuing. "Luckily, while I am not particularly loved by the Dursleys, nor feel all that kindly towards them, we reached a peaceful state of affairs. I am sure they would be happy to see the back of me, however…" I let a bit of hope creep into my voice as I trailed off – I wanted confirmation of my suspicions.

Dumbledore interrupted. "I'm afraid living with your Aunt remains the safest place for you, Harry."

Color me shocked. "Since you obviously aren't going to explain the "Baby on the doorstep" maneuver" I said "that leaves us with two issues – my parent's dwelling, and the fact that you are obviously too busy to handle my guardianship."

Yeah, I was betting he wasn't giving that up either. I leaned forward. "As I see it, either the Ministry owes me my house back or another house in Godric's Hollow, of the same size and specifications down the wards – although I'll specify my own Secret Keeper, thank you – or it owes me a great deal of money. I suspect that as 'Chief Warlock' you could probably expedite this, probably before summer vacation. As for the guardianship, I can think of a few people that I would find acceptable."

Dumbledore held up his hands to stop me. "Harry, my boy, I am sorry that I haven't watched you as closely as I should have. I do have someone living in your neighborhood, and she has reported that you seemed happy enough and well-fed, so I have not neglected you nearly as much as you may think. I will happily arrange to be more personally available in the future. If you wish to challenge my status as your guardian, you should be aware that the Malfoys, among others, have close enough ties of blood to make a firm claim. "

He had someone in the neighborhood? I started running through our neighbors as he talked. One name practically leaped out, screaming and waving its arms. Mrs. Figg, the strange lady with the weird fashion sense and approximately a million cats. Kneazle crosses, in retrospect.

As for the guardianship – crap. As inbred as the Purebloods were, probably half of them could make a solid case. And the richest, with the best lawyers, tended to have been Voldemort supporters. I'll take the Dursleys and the color-blind Gandalf, thank you very much, over Malfoy.

Dumbledore continued "As to your parent's home, I will discuss it with the Ministry. I will attempt to get the house returned, with any repairs and warding done at either Ministry expense or my own. If not, I will get a fair market value for it and invest the money in your parent's Vault, for when you come of age. If I do regain the house, I will be happy to take you to visit, but it cannot be placed under Fidelius unless we can both agree on a Keeper, nor could you move there until you were of age."

He paused. "I am not sure how deeply you have researched the Fidelius, but for reasons of magic – having it cast on your property while you are under my guardianship requires us both to implicitly trust the Secret Keeper. We can discuss it when the time comes, but allowing you to specify a keeper I did not trust would cause the charm to fail."

I stared at one of the smoking trinkets, thinking. I could probably get emancipated earlier than he thought – 15 or 16, which may or may not allow me access to my main vault. All in all, I'd prefer the house. I might even swing summer visits and start warding it properly, to keep some privacy.

"I'd prefer my parent's house, Headmaster, to any gold. I was informed that you had their effects gathered after their deaths, for which I am thankful. I see no problems with you warding it under Fidelius until I am of age, as long as I know the Secret and we can agree on a Keeper. I'd prefer to avoid tourists in any case."

Dumbledore smiled at me, eyes twinkling, rather obviously under the impression he'd gotten his way. He wasn't far off. I didn't manage to get away from the Dursleys and I didn't manage to swap him as guardian to someone else. On the other hand, I hadn't expected to and with the matter "settled" in his mind, I'd probably have a bit of leeway in visiting the home to 'connect with my parents' and whatever other excuses I could come up with to avoid the Dursleys during the summers.

"Was there anything else, Harry?"

I paused, before deciding 'To hell with it'. "Actually one thing, Headmaster. Why are you keeping a Cerberus in your school? I've heard rumors from other students…." I trailed off. He probably had my Cloak charmed, but let him think I was fooled. Surely I wasn't the first to poke around there, not with all the footprints, so it'd seem a clever enough gambit.

He cocked his head, looking disturbed. Oops. Crap. He might not have been monitoring my Cloak when I paid a visit. If his wards and alarms hadn't been triggered…

I pushed that aside.

"I'm afraid those are just rumors, Harry. The third floor is unsafe for students, but not because a Cerberus is loose."

I noted the careful phrasing. A chained Cerberus, or one stuck in a room with no monster-dog sized exit would count as "not on the loose", which meant he was technically telling the truth, the old goat.

"So there is no Cerberus in the school?" I pressed.

Dumbledore looked a bit pained. "We occasionally bring in more dangerous creatures for Care of Magical Creatures class, Harry. At times that has included things like a Cerberus. I can assure you that any such creatures are well locked away under Hagrid's care, and that the safety of the students is paramount."

Again, I noted, he hadn't answered the question. However, he'd just name-dropped Hagrid, who wasn't the CoMC's instructor. Mistake or hint?

"Not Professor Kettleburn?" I asked innocently.

Dumbledore looked up sharply. "Hagrid handles the bulk of such duties, while Professor Kettleburn focuses on research and teaching. Hagrid has a way with the larger, more dangerous, magical beasts. Is there anything else you wanted to discuss, Harry? Halloween, for instance?"

I hid a grimace. I'm not having that discussion if I can avoid it.

"I think that's all, Headmaster" I said, standing. "I appreciate you taking time to deal with my problems. I shall keep your offer of further communication in mind. The Dursley's give me a fair degree of independence, so arranging to Owl you during the summers would be no problem."

He smiled at me genteelly, and waved his hand causing the door behind me to open. "I'm glad we were able to resolve this, Harry. I should have an answer about your parent's house by the end of term at the latest."

I looked again at the Phoenix, which gave a cheerful chirp, before launching itself skyward and vanishing in a burst of flame. Cool, I thought, as I nodded to the Headmaster and set off back to my dorm.

I spent the rest of the Christmas holidays researching mythical dogs and exploring the Castle, mostly under cover of my Cloak.

To be honest, I was absolutely abusing the Cloak, wandering the Castle well into the wee hours of the night and trying my hardest to convince whomever gave it to me – I was still betting his name rhymed with "Umbledore" – to 'accidentally' run into me and confirm my suspicions that the Cloak was tagged with some tracer spell.

Actually checking for said tracers was well beyond my ability. Maybe in a few years, assuming the charms cast on my cloak were the common ones and not some obscure or complicated variants designed to be difficult to detect.

From the little digging I'd done, tracking charms and revealing spells had been subject to centuries of the same sort of cat-and-mouse games spy agencies played. Warding too, for that matter. Someone invents a new tracking spell, someone tries to invent a way of finding it, someone improves spell to nullify that new method of discovery….

Obscure knowledge, power, and cleverness were what you needed to play those types of games. I like to think I had the latter, but the other two were going to take some time. If it was Cho Chang tagging my stuff, I could probably find it and get rid of it. Dumbledore? Not bloody likely.

So far, my nefarious plot had yielded nothing but learning that Mrs. Norris was intensely curious about invisible people and that invisibly kicking a cat was a lot more fun than it should be.

My clever plan led me, on the last night before the return of the Hogwarts Express, to an abandoned classroom containing nothing but dust and an ornate mirror. A mirror that I was currently staring at in bewildered shock, not even really aware of my Cloak sliding back to ordinary black as I lost focus.

In the mirror I could see myself standing in Dresden's ratty Chicago apartment, staff in my hand. Dresden was standing behind me; hand on my shoulder, both of us smiling widely. I could see Zatanna and Mister playing in the background.

I didn't even notice myself sink to the floor, tears trickling down my face.

I don't know how long I sat there; staring at the brother I could never have before Dumbledore's voice interrupted.

"I see you've found the Mirror of Erised, Harry."

I tore my gaze from the Mirror. "The what, Sir?"

"The Mirror of Erised" Dumbledore said, gesturing to the letters carved deeply into the golden frame. "It is an old and powerful artifact. Can you guess what it does, Harry?"

I looked back at the carvings, words in a strange language decorating the gold frame, resolutely ignoring the image still playing in the mirror. The name Erised tickled at me. A riddle, I thought, a mirror riddle…. "I show not your face but your heart's desire."

I sighed and scrubbed my face with my sleeve. Wizardry and magic could be a real kick in the teeth at times.

Dumbledore nodded. "Yes. Men and women both have wasted away their lives in front of the mirror lost in their deepest, innermost desires. Not sure if it is real or even possible. The Mirror is not a safe thing, Harry, and it will be moved in the morning."

I turned around to face him squarely. "What do you see, Headmaster?" I asked.

Dumbledore smiled sadly. "I see myself holding a pair of socks, Harry. One can never have enough socks."

I looked into his face, at the sad smile that would have fooled most people and thought Liar.

I pushed myself to my feet. "My apologies, Headmaster. I shouldn't have asked something so personal. I should get to bed before I'm caught out of bounds."

I waited for his nod before grinning cheekily at him. "And thank you for the cloak" before ducking out of the room. I turned invisible and headed back to Ravenclaw Tower. As I got into bed, looking forward to seeing Hermione the next day, I was still debating whether Dumbledore had LoJacked my cloak or whether he'd had wards set on the mirror, but ultimately decided the smart money was "both."

The first weeks back passed quickly, Hermione, Neville and I falling into a steady routine of classes, flying practice, and meditation. Neville had asked to be included – he didn't know why Hermione was learning to meditate but after hearing an off-hand remark about how she found it easier to cast spells with a calm mind, he all but begged to learn.

It seemed to help him a lot – although getting his own wand would do far more, in my opinion. When I had my sensitivity up, I could feel the competing surges as he forced his wand to work. Neville had power to burn, although you wouldn't notice the way he wasted half of it fighting his wand.

The professors had really piled on the work once term started and it wasn't until February that we managed to visit Hagrid's.

"So, campers, what have we learned today?" I asked cheerfully as we sat down in the library afterwards.

Neville piped up. "I learned not to eat anything Hagrid cooks, ever."

I nodded sagely. "You have taken your first steps on the road to wisdom, padawan." I looked at Hermione. "And what did you learn?"

"Well" she said "Obviously whatever's behind Fluffy belongs to Nicholas Flamel. We'll have to research that." She leaned back in her chair, obviously thinking hard. "And I bet whatever is killing unicorns isn't a good thing."

I answered dryly. "I think it's safe to say that unicorn killing probably gets filed under Magic, Blackest. Anything else?"

She grimaced. "I think trying to raise a dragon in a wooden hut is a bad idea."

Neville laughed at that. "You think?"

I patted his back. "You know what they say about dragons, Neville." He looked at me quizzically as I continued. "You don't have to outrun the dragon. You just have to outrun your former friends."

He glared at me. He knew I jogged, and most Wizards seemed allergic to exercise. I grinned back at him.

"The mere existence of Fluffy in the school is worrisome. I talked to Dumbledore about it, and about all I could get out of him was that Fluffy was safe." I said.

Neville nodded. "Hagrid said that all you needed was music to put him to sleep, and you said he was way too big to get out of the room without being shrunk first." He paused. "Although, Hagrid let that slip to us – maybe he accidentally told other people how to calm Fluffy?"

I mulled that over. "Maybe. Thing is music is the classic solution to a Cerberus problem, although I'm not sure I've have the guts to try it myself without outside confirmation. I have no desire to see the inside of a dog."

Neville shuddered.

"If I can interrupt you two boys" Hermione said "We're going to have to do something about that dragon's egg or it's going to burn down Hagrid's place and probably get someone killed."

I waved my hand. "I'll handle it."

Both of them looked at me skeptically. "Seriously" I said "I'll handle it. Consider it a problem solved. If there's any snags, I'll come talk to you."

"And how, Harry Potter, do you plan to do that?" Hermione asked with a huff.

I leaned forward, staring into her eyes, and let my voice drop to a whisper. "Magic." I intoned.

She groaned and smacked my arm.

I grinned at her. I planned to send an anonymous owl to Dumbledore. I had no doubt the man would handle it discreetly – he seemed to have a soft spot for Hagrid, who obviously didn't have a malicious bone in his body.

I snorted to myself. The fact that he'd named a Cerberus 'Fluffy' was an excellent example of how innocent the man was.

"Moving on" I said "to Nicholas Flamel."

Hermione nodded eagerly. "I know I've heard that name before. I've got some books we can start with, maybe Famous Wizards of the 20th Century, and between the three of us we should be able to find him in no time!"

I shook my head. "We won't need to. I know the name. He's famous even to muggles." At her look of skepticism I elaborated. "Nicholas Flamel. Legendary alchemist?" I prompted "Create of the Philospher's Stone?"

I could see the comprehension dawning. "We should double check, but a Philosopher's Stone would definitely be something worth breaking into Gringotts over."

"What's the Philosopher's Stone?" Neville asked.

I shrugged. "Supposedly the height of alchemy, reputed to be able to turn lead into gold and used to brew the Elixir of Life – capable of making you immortal, or perhaps just un-aging. That's the tale the mundanes know at least. I'll double check the Wizarding history but I bet the standard story is not too far off" I said, sitting back in my chair before continuing. "Getting a hold of the stone means limitless wealth and long life – definitely worth braving Gringotts."

"Which" I said "brings up the second point. It's apparently in our school. Whoever broke into Gringotts is going to come here next, if he isn't here already."

Neville looked a bit frightened at that, and practically jumped as Hermione snapped her fingers. "The troll!" She exclaimed. "You think someone let it in!"

I nodded. "Yeah. And I have two suspects - Snape and Quirrell. Snape showed up limping that night, and kept limping for a few days. Either he didn't go to the infirmary to treat it, or whatever caused it was magical and wasn't easily healed. And Quirrell, well – he not only found the troll in the first place, he said it was in the dungeons."

I started tapping the table with my fingers. "He then fainted in the Great Hall, but he arrived at the same time as Snape when we fought the troll. On the fourth floor which is not exactly the dungeons" I continued drumming my fingers, thinking.

"The troll might have come up the stairs, and things were so confused that night that I couldn't really tell how much time elapsed between Quirrell's warning and when he showed up on the fourth floor. I'm having a hard time buying Quirrell's story. But Snape's wound is impossible to dismiss."

Hermione shook her head. "So you think Fluffy bit Snape? Do you think they're working together?"

"I dunno." I replied. "Snape could have followed Quirrell. Quirrell could have followed Snape. I don't even know if it was Fluffy that took a chunk out of Snape – there might be other defenses, or there might even have been another troll. Perhaps it was several trolls that got in, and the teacher's just kept it quiet. Maybe Snape took care of one, although I don't recall seeing anything about troll's leaving healing-resistant wounds. Flat people, yes."

I shook my head. "Too many unknowns. We don't even know for sure if the Stone is here. Still…" I paused a bit, thinking. "My gut says Quirrell."

Neville scoffed. "He's so bloody….useless. He's scared of his own shadow!"

I nodded. "A mannerism which just feels fake to me."

I nodded towards the bookshelves. "Let's go ahead and look up Flamel, see what the Wizarding world has to say about him. There's nothing else we can do at this point, other than keep our eyes open."

As the three of us starting yanking out alchemy references and history texts, I kept prodding at the problem. If the Stone were here – or a trap set – then there would be alarms and wards all over the third-floor, even if I hadn't felt them. If the troll was let in as a distraction that meant someone wanted the staff too busy to respond to alarms. Which meant the would-be thief either felt he needed time to disable them, or he wasn't sure if he could examine them without setting them off?

Taken together, this meant that he was worried that prying would send out an alarm of some sort – probably to Dumbledore.

In the end, the thief had three basic options. If he thought he could disable the alarms without setting them off, then basically he could steal the Stone without anyone knowing until well after the fact. In which case, I'd only hear about it afterwards – if ever. If he couldn't disable the alarms, or didn't want to take the chance – he'd either have to arrange for another distraction – or wait until the staff was gone.

And by "Staff" I meant "Dumbledore". I'd done enough research into recent history to get the feeling that despite his kooky image, Dumbledore was powerful and skilled enough to make mincemeat of 99% of the wizards on the planet. Even Voldemort supposedly stepped softly around the old man.

Flitwick might have been a champion duelist, but Dumbledore had put down Grindlewald with extreme prejudice, and Hogwarts was his. He owned the wards; the Stone was on his turf.

I nodded to myself as I began digging into an alchemy text. The thief, if he had any sense at all, wouldn't make a move without first neutralizing Dumbledore - either by giving him something to distract him, or getting him out of the castle.

So, I thought cheerfully, I have nothing to worry about until someone lets dragons in or the Headmaster takes a vacation.