Knowledge is Useful, but Power is Power

Chapter Three

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"We're supposed to cover curses today," the professor at the front of the classroom said. "I personally don't think it's all that safe to discuss such...distasteful topics with proper young witches and wizards. Indeed..."

Harry sat in his desk and listened. He tried to keep from getting angry at this woman so dismissive of magic and envious of it.

'The common witch and wizard fear power – and adore it.' Harry remembered the opening of that book Dumbledore had given to Hermione. He did find himself quoting from it. Knowing what he did about Dumbledore...what he knew about Tom Riddle...he was more than a bit terrified at what his following a plan approved of by Dumbledore might mean.

Still, he knew he would need power...and need to use it if he wanted to accomplish his single goal: freedom. Freedom from being hunted. Freedom from being wrapped up in political games. Monsters like Umbridge who got into tussles over word choices because it gave their lives some hollow, shabby meaning.

Umbridge. The 'professor' in front of them was a perfect example, one who probably resented being at Hogwarts, at a school where she was supposed to teach magic that she may or may not be able to do herself, to teach students who could be smarter and more powerful than she was.

"Today we will talk about the history of curses, then. Proper history."

Harry looked straight ahead of him. He wished he could sleep if it were going to be a history class.

"The Ministry of Magic, under the greatest Minister of Magic, reformed the Committee on Experimental Charms four years ago. The new committee was responsible for...well, making sure the magic that we teach is safe to teach. In fact, a new series of well-vetted defense books will become available starting this summer. I hope to use these books if I continue teaching at Hogwarts next year."

Harry hoped something terrible would happen to her. It was a bit refreshing to have a new shambling disaster as a teacher every year. He knew where at least some of the trouble in his life would come from. Snape and the new Defense teacher and anyone else who decided to pop in.

"Now, let us talk about the current project of the Ministry, the expansion of the Unforgivable Curses from three to thirteen."

Hermione's hand shot up.

"No questions at this time, Miss."

Hermione put her arm down.

"The late Minister, Minister Fudge, tasked me with steering the committee. It was my recommendation, approved and enthusiastically forward to the Wizengamot, that is currently under discussion. Now the reason that we wish to expand the Unforgivables is that...well, magic can be dangerous."

More of this fear. More of the spreading of fear.

Magic wasn't necessarily dangerous...except to a person so weak as to fear all magic.

As if a determination from a committee could save someone's life in the real world. As if a law ever did more than force a clever person to look for a loophole or exemption and, thus, continue on with whatever it was that the person wanted to do.

"The committee spent two years reviewing all known spells contained in the Ministry Library. Minister Fudge insisted on monthly updates from me, personally. He wanted to understand what we were learning, what our thinking was. You see, he was the finest Minister this country has ever had. He knew what his duty was...and he supported the people who worked for him and with him."

The Ministry wasn't to be feared, Harry realized was the unsubtle message of this professor. It was useful, it was great, it was to be admired along with the people who toiled uselessly in its bowels.

It was so caught up in itself that it was a stunned beast waiting for some predator to come along. It managed to tether Dumbledore...and luck kept Voldemort from destroying the Ministry. But now Harry knew where he would get the information he needed to really understand the place: the consummate insider who stood at the front of the room giving an elegy for her dead patron, a speech that no one cared about except for her.

But Harry was listening now.

Harry found himself very interested in what she had to say.

The weak hid in a mass, clustered around a central figure who it seemed to obey without question. Of course there were people like Constance Pettigrew who joined the Ministry for their own reasons...but her awful reasons and what the Ministry wanted done were a hair's breadth apart. Control, locking down of freedom, reinforcing the strength of the Ministry.

This Umbridge took pride in the years she'd spent doing nothing.

That was how it worked there. Slowly, uselessly. That gave Harry ideas.

He would listen to this newly invigorated Umbridge. She was useless at Defense, but this was the kind of history that would give Harry something to work with. Where, specifically, was the Ministry weakest? What sort of...action (he didn't want to think of an attack)...would humble it fastest?

"What spells are going to be forbidden?" Hermione shouted out, tired of being ignored.

Umbridge looked up from her gauzy recounting of one of her meetings with the late Fudge. Her remembering of the various bits of praise the late Ministry offered her.

"I said no questions."

"But you said that spells were going to be banned."

Umbridge glared at the young witch. "Nasty pieces of magic."

"Which ones?"

"'Which ones, Professor?' As I said, no questions."

Harry could tell both of them were getting upset.

"If you're banning magic, you have to explain why."

"I certainly do not, Miss...Granger."

Could Umbridge have sounded more disgusted at pronouncing Hermione's last name? Harry didn't think it was possible.

"I want to know..."

"Detention, Miss Granger. Tonight at seven thirty. No more questions."

Now Harry found himself angry, roaring angry. He had decided to have a question-and-answer with Umbridge at some point. Now he decided it would be happening sooner...and would be far rougher than he'd planned.

'No more questions.' She wouldn't get away with that for long. Not when Harry wanted her to talk.

"No more questions. The Ministry, of course, doesn't answer questions. We protect the witches and wizards of these Isles. We carefully study the questions that matter and render our thoughtful verdicts. I hope you all understand the value the Ministry brings to your lives. We make magic safer for all of you. We make sure that we aren't exposed to the Muggles. We make sure that everyone leads...happy lives."

Harry didn't think he would enjoy leading the kind of life that Umbridge found 'happy.' Not at all. One look at a fuming, silent Hermione confirmed she possessed a similar perspective.

'No more questions.' That was what the Ministry wanted above all else. Unreasoning compliance. Harry thought there were things he could do to make it very hard for the Ministry to avoid questions. 'No more questions.'

"Now, Cornelius was adamant that we review all the magic that the Ministry was familiar with. Every last piece..."

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Harry went up to Hermione after they both returned from supper in the Great Hall. "Don't go to the detention."

Hermione shook her head. "She is a...teacher."

"You asked a question and she gave you a detention. You should fight this one."

Hermione looked ready to argue with Harry. "I want to," she admitted a moment later. "I really do."

"I want you to stay here. I'm going to handle this for you."

"Harry..."

"I still don't like anyone who has high praise for the Ministry." He couched the whole thing as him playing protector for Hermione. In truth, there was much Harry hoped to discover by having a...conversation with the professor.

"I can fight...I should say, I need to be able to fight my own battles, Harry."

"Well, after today, you can fight all you want. I would like an uninterrupted hour with the Professor."

Hermione always seemed to get some of the truth out of him. She would never just agree and move on. He was trying to do something nice for her...and she still wanted to argue.

"You're not going to..."

"She will walk out of the castle tonight under her own power, I swear."

Hermione almost looked disappointed.

"You're not going to make her..."

Her mind had drifted back to what Harry had done to Barty Crouch Junior, the assassin of the Minister that Umbridge so admired.

"I think she should be gone from Hogwarts. I'll get her to swear an oath to leave. I want to ask her some questions about the Ministry before she goes."

"Two Defense instructors in one year? You're just trying to get out of class."

Harry smiled. He was glad that Hermione had relented. "I'm just trying to make it possible to survive into adulthood."

Hermione nodded. "I'll take a book and go to my bed. No one should notice I didn't leave for my detention."

"Thank you."

"You're such a knight, Harry."

"I'm just a dumb kid."

"Alright. I'm glad you're such a nice, dumb kid."

Harry smiled a moment before he disappeared out of the common room.

That was the first time he'd had much of a conversation with Hermione since before the holiday break. He was glad she'd agreed to let him do this, even if her natural curiosity grated a bit on his skin. She always had to ask one too many questions. He hoped she would never stop doing it. He also hoped it would never drag her into harm.

He knew his motivations were complex. He wanted information, but he wouldn't want Hermione left alone with anyone from the Ministry. God only knew what they thought they could get away with. Stripping a person's free will wasn't enough with their standard package of oaths? Even a woman dismissed from office still sang the praises of the place. Perhaps it was her choice. Perhaps it was a binding on her freedom.

Harry arrived at the Defense classroom and snuck inside. Umbridge wasn't present.

Harry concentrated on extending his magic out, one of the loose hints contained in Uncommon Magics. He could feel people moving around below him. He held the 'bubble' of magic until he felt someone moving down the hallway. He collapsed the bubble and felt like he had just gone jogging for a few hours. His body, his magic ached.

He still had plenty of fight in him, though.

Umbridge opened the door, walked in, and promptly fell to the floor, immobilized.

Ambushing wasn't fair, but it was effective.

He levitated the over-large professor into a chair and bound her in ropes. Then he determined where she kept her wand...and a portkey...and levitated both of them away from her body. The idea of touching her made Harry queasy.

He took a chair and sat opposite of the professor, perhaps ten feet apart. He prepared to perform a kind of magic that Voldemort had told him about...the enforcing of a powerful will on a weak one, the kind of magic that the Imperius curse copied in a formal way. He would cast no spell, but the intent was the same as one of the Unforgivables. Given the earlier discussion of how the Ministry used the Unforgivables as political window-dressing, Harry had no fear of the spell, of the myths built up and accreted around it.

Magic was magic.

He woke Umbridge and before she could scream for assistance, Harry let loose his magic and overwhelmed her. The way lords of old had ensured their vassals were honest and true in face-to-face meetings, the original truth serum, a lord's magic going against another's and beating out the impurities, the duplicities.

"You canceled the detention you had scheduled with Hermione Granger."

"Yes, I did. Thank you for reminding me." In this state of euphoria, the large woman's voice was even more disturbing than normal. It was girlish...and delighted...and inebriated. Umbridge would have been a quiet drunk, Harry discovered.

"You were going to tell me why you came to Hogwarts," Harry demanded.

"I remember now. I came because it was my last option. I had risen with Cornelius through his victories and successes. When he perished – it was the worst day of my life. My career couldn't survive without his. Mr. Malfoy, who had been gracious with me while Cornelius lived, wanted me gone. He offered a position here. He wasn't very nice about it."

Malfoy. Why did so many problems return back to Malfoy? Come summertime, Harry would have to find a way to run into the...irritating wizard.

"You were going to tell me why the late...why Minister Fudge listened to Mr. Malfoy."

"Well, Lucius knew more about the Ministry than anyone else. He always had suggestions. He always knew just the right way to implement his suggestions. He was a very grateful man."

Even when Umbridge was being honest, compelled from her at the cost of her magic collapsing, she thought and spoke in words that lied. Was that the only way to survive a life in the Ministry – to live a lie and find ways to believe it the truth? There were bad people in the Ministry...that was clear enough...but if the once-decent ones were also this warped and corrupted by their terms of service, there might be nothing to salvage.

"You were telling me about Minister Fudge's most important...favors to Mr. Malfoy."

"Oh, that would be a very long list. There was the Triwizard Tournament, perhaps not one of Lucius' better ideas. There were the reforms to the Auror Service, making them more polite when they were out working among witches and wizards..."

"Fudge made the Aurors more 'polite.' Explain that."

"Well, it was a few simple changes in the oaths they swore. Lucius knew just which ones to have modified."

"Gave wizards more rights in their own houses, didn't they?"

"Exactly. That was the reason Cornelius agreed with what Lucius wanted. A wizard should feel safe in his own home."

"What other oaths did Mr. Malfoy ask to change?"

"Many. Far too many to remember. Of course, it wasn't all change. There were quite a few new oaths. Upholding the law, of course, was an obvious one. Before Lucius suggested it, none of the Aurors had to swear to uphold the law, nor the wizards of the Wizengamot. That was an important reform."

With a man like Malfoy suggesting the laws...and then shackling the Ministry to obey them...it seemed less like a reform than a giant mistake.

"Who writes these oaths?"

"Many people. Many departments had staff who could prepare oaths. If you wanted a new Floo connection, you needed to swear an oath. If you wanted to market a new potion, there was one or another oath to swear. Referees for Quidditch games have to swear oaths. All different departments, all different oath writers."

Harry felt sick. The oaths were no longer just meant to bind the powerful. They were meant to bind everyone. As if everyone inside the Ministry was afraid of everything. Magic turned into imprisonment, robbed of anything except its ability to punish. How was this better than having a dozen lord-level wizards running around terrorizing the world. At least the lords could go to war with each other, fall in battle. The way the Ministry was building itself, there was no one who could rebel without tripping or triggering some oath, running up against some dire consequence.

This was the end result of sadists who possessed unlimited fear. They walled up the world and tried to keep everything in, everything out. A good way to perish being doubly trapped.

"The Ministry doesn't like questions."

"The Ministry needn't answer anything."

"What does the Ministry fear?" Harry asked. He realized he'd stopped demanding like a lord and begun asking questions like someone who possessed genuine confusion.

"Disorder."

"What kind of disorder?"

Harry could have slapped himself for asking such an obvious question.

"All kinds of disorder," Umbridge said, proud to be on the side of right.

It exchanged services for oaths, bound up the people it was responsible to. Harry didn't know why the Ministry had the kinds of fears it must. Of course...there had to be more people than Lucius Malfoy creating and exploiting loopholes for their own use.

"How much money did Lucius Malfoy pay to Minister Fudge?"

"It wasn't payment. It was generosity."

If Harry wanted answers he had to follow the same conventions of lying words that lined Umbridge's mind.

"How generous was Lucius Malfoy with Cornelius Fudge?"

"Oh, very much so. Perhaps ten thousand a year."

"What was the Minister's salary?"

"It's been set at one thousand galleons per year for the last three hundred twelve years. No one in the Wizengamot wants to raise it. Requires raising taxes."

Fudge made ten times as much from Malfoy as he had from his official job. No wonder he'd been so obliging.

"There's no law against bribery?"

"There is. The Minister took no bribes."

A large loophole, a very large one. No bribes whatsoever, but one can accept generosity from a friend. Laws and the lying words they rested upon.

But money was an idea. Harry had never considered how the Ministry funded itself.

"How much does an Auror make?"

"A thousand galleons."

"How much did you make at the Ministry?"

"A thousand galleons."

It had to be some kind of odd egalitarianism. Of course people with better titles could ask for bigger...acts of generosity.

"Where does all the money come from?"

"There's the Diagon Alley tax. Everything sold there, or in Hogsmeade, has twenty percent added into it for the Ministry."

More than one galleon of the seven galleons Harry had paid for his first wand had gone to pay for the Aurors who later snapped it. That was certainly a rude bit of abuse.

"And?"

"There's the spirit taxes."

"You tax ghosts?" Harry tried to guess how it would be possible? What happened for non-payment, exorcism?"

"Not ghosts. Butterbeer, firewhiskey."

"Ah."

"The Quidditch fees."

Every time wizards came together, at a match, at a bar, at a shopping area, they supported the Ministry.

"No...no income tax?"

"No."

"No...property tax?"

"No."

Harry nodded, considering.

"When was the last time taxes were added or raised?"

"When Hogsmeade added a second bar. Three hundred years ago."

Harry felt something of the prankster emerging in him. There had to be a grand way to spoil everything just by giving away free alcohol. Would the Ministry collapse if butterbeer became free?

"So the Ministry collects more money if the pubs sell more butterbeer?"

"Yes."

"If people drink less..."

"We don't want the people to drink less. Makes them ask questions. Drunk people focus on getting drunk."

They also, coincidentally, spend their money building up the Ministry.

"How much extra is there in the budget?"

"I don't understand," Umbridge said.

"How much is there left over from the taxes at the end of a year?"

"We always spend all of it. Last time there was extra money, we dug a further two floors of the Ministry. Time before that we built Hogsmeade."

Sounded like it didn't happen all that often. An expensive Ministry with a razor-thin budget and no way to raise taxes...assuming people stopped buying things in Diagon Alley and stopped drinking in the pubs...and stopped paying out for Quidditch matches.

There was the seed of a great idea here.

Harry knew it. He couldn't say what it was yet, but he knew it was there.

"The Ministry confiscates items from the estates of wizards. Why don't you sell what you don't need?"

"We can confiscate, of course. There's a secret law for that. But we can't sell anything without permission from the Wizengamot. That would..."

"Require exposing the open secret." Anyone of any age, McGonagall's age or older, had to know. But no one talked about this Ministry policy. Harry had to wonder how many other secret policies existed. Things people knew about, resented, but never did anything to stop. "I can see why you have to dig more floors. Have to store it all somewhere."

"Very good." She giggled. "Very true."

It seemed this method of controlling a person really did work, but it seemed to have an inebriating side effect.

That gave Harry a more immediate answer to his Umbridge problem.

"I think you have a bottle or two in your room?"

"The last ones I bought at the Ministry. No tax."

Of course they'd exempt themselves, Harry realized.

"I think you should spend the rest of the evening enjoying your fine bottles."

"Yes."

"I think you should wake up remembering nothing of our conversation."

"Yes."

"I think tomorrow you should skip bathing in the morning and come to the Great Hall and start a fight with...Severus Snape."

"I've never liked him."

Harry refolded his magic inside himself. He stunned Umbridge, banished the ropes holding her, and returned the chair he'd sat in to its desk. He'd let Umbridge deal with the chair she had claim over.

He walked to the door, rewoke Umbridge, and disappeared out the door. He stood at the door and listened. Umbridge woke and seemed to fall out of her chair. At any rate, something crashed inside the Defense classroom. He listened and eventually heard steps on the stone floors. Then it was all silent.

He had to imagine Umbridge breaking into her bottles of butterbeer...or Firewhiskey. He hadn't thought to ask. She could be any range from drunk to almost dead by tomorrow morning.

Harry would let chance handle things from there.

He set out for Gryffindor Tower. He had to decide what to tell Hermione the next day. Perhaps he'd just let the breakfast-time show explain everything. Umbridge and Snape fighting. McGonagall forced to end things. Students stunned or laughing or incredulous.

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To Harry's surprise, a week had passed and Hermione hadn't asked what Harry had done to Umbridge. Of course, the young witch had enjoyed the events leading up to Umbridge's sacking. But she never asked. She smiled when she saw the wounds Snape carried, but she didn't ask.

Instead, she began to study with Harry again.

Something had changed in their friendship once more. What it was, Harry couldn't say. He was glad that Hermione was back. He was glad to have another mind to bounce ideas from. He was glad to sit near her again and have quiet little jokes with her. The past was back in the present. It made Harry grateful.

Of course, he was also glad not to have to answer questions.

He had half expected interrogation. The other half of him expected Hermione to be angry that he had intervened. But it was all so different.

He didn't understand girls at all. Least of all Hermione.

She was in the library researching something so Harry felt safe retreating to his room and picking up Uncommon Magics. He didn't read it or the two other books Dumbledore left for Harry in any public area, ever.

Harry had an idea of what to do about the Ministry. After talking to people as diverse as Sirius Black and Tom Riddle and Barty Crouch Junior and Dolores Umbridge, Harry had something of a plan.

The Ministry wasn't just people.

The Ministry wasn't just a collection of bad laws.

The Ministry was a very fragile institution, because of its monetary problems, that used cheap, if not free methods, to keep everyone and everything in line. It wanted no questions because it had no money to answer questions. No wiggle room to change anything it did. No emergency funding when an emergency appeared.

Harry had decided to try to destroy the institution and make the laws and the oaths all irrelevant.

He was no wizarding legal genius, but he guessed that a Ministry fallen apart under internal and external stresses wouldn't be able to maintain its oath and wouldn't be able to enforce its laws.

It was an indirect path to freedom, but a path was a path.

He hated to stick his own neck out and risk having to fight or kill ridiculous people. He would prefer to use his strength to collapse the thing without leaving any trace he was involved.

To do that, Harry realized he need to become an enchanter, encapsulate his magic in objects so that he could perform greater magics even when hundreds of miles away.

Of course, enchanting was about the pinnacle of magic and Harry had a deficient fourth year student's education. He thought Uncommon Magics might have some suggestions.

If only it had an index.

As it was Harry had to improvize. He flipped a page and skimmed it. Flipped and skimmed another. There were chapter headings, of course, but the formal section on enchanting would leave Hermione baffled. There was prefatory material that appeared earlier in the volume he needed to understand before he could unravel what the book wanted to say about enchanting.

His eyes caught this paragraph, "The names of spells and the precise waving of wands are rituals-in-miniature designed to give a witch or wizard external confidence, or confirmation, that their spell will do what it was supposed to do. It is all unnecessary so long as the wizard or witch casting the spell has sufficient determination to make the spell happen. This will-driven style of magical casting was once well used in these Isles, now long since abandoned for the 'new' style of casting."

The words had nothing to do with enchanting, but it was almost exactly what Harry wanted to know.

Rituals. Rituals-in-miniature.

Enchanting was described as ritual work. With runes used in various places and different materials and all sorts of complexity. If it was all about ensuring that someone had the confidence to bring the magic to completion...if that was the only point...

Harry needed to test his idea.

He got off his bed, put his book back in his trunk, and took his collection of blocks off the lower shelf of his bookcase. He sprinkled the wooden blocks on the floor of his room. He tapped one block and tried to push his magic into it. He could feel his magic cling to the block. He did it again and again with other blocks, imbuing seven blocks with different spells.

He moved away from where he put the blocks and waved his hand at the whole collection.

In that moment, the magic he'd put into the blocks, but not allowed free rein, all began to work. Each of the blocks turned clear, each began to expand, each began to elongate upward toward the sky.

What Harry saw was a model of a tower that he'd been trying to get out of his head for more than a month. Tall, clear, graceful. He hadn't been able to do it with the spells that Ron shared with Harry. But this sort of enchanting, where his magic had direct license to make and remake everything it touched...this created the tower of his imagination.

The thing continued to grow. Harry only stopped it once the self-sustaining magic had made the tower taller than Harry if he had been standing.

He stared at it. Shocked that anything had worked.

Shocked that he now knew how he was going to launch his attack on the Ministry of Magic. He was going to become one of those insane wizards who built towers.

A tower that no one would ever be able to forget.

Of course, there were details to consider. If he were very lucky, and if Harry could sneak into the Forbidden Forest enough to test out his ideas, he might be ready by the end of May. Maybe.

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Dinner the first Sunday in April began strangely and went even stranger.

First off, Harry noticed there were extra seats at the Head Table. Including one for Lucius Malfoy.

Second, Harry noticed that Professor Snape wasn't scowling. The look on his face was almost a smile.

Third, Professor McGonagall didn't stand at the beginning of dinner to make any remarks. Lucius Malfoy did.

Harry leaned forward and paid very close attention. Any time something strange happened in this room, it usually forced Harry to do something, like risk his life. The new teachers were always introduced here. The oddities of the year, like a third floor corridor made inaccessible or the presence of Dementors or the launching of a Triwizard Tournament, were formally announced here.

Yes, anything odd that happened in this room usually made itself into something very unpleasant for Harry.

"Excuse me," Malfoy said in an amplified voice. "Quiet please."

He stood and waited and glared, his face never turning toward the Slytherin table, as if the students there should already know what this announcement was about.

"Thank you. I chair the Hogwarts board of governors. Since the late Headmaster passed, the governors have had several spirited conversations about when and how to fill this essential, vacant position at the premiere school for witches and wizards in the world. It wasn't easy to come to a consensus. No one will ever be able to fully...trod the path that Albus Dumbledore started. So it has taken us months to decide how to proceed.

"We thank Minerva McGonagall for serving as Acting Headmistress during this difficult time. Not only has Professor Dumbledore left us, but we've had two vacancies in the post for Defense Against the Dark Arts. A troubling time for us all."

Malfoy smiled. He had pulled something horrible off, Harry realized. Something he considered wonderful.

"It is my distinct pleasure to announce the new Headmaster of Hogwarts. A person with whom you're all familiar. A teacher of exceeding dedication and remarkable skill in his chosen field, indeed, a world reputation as a scholar. Now to add administrator to his list of skills. Allow me to introduce Professor Severus Snape as the next Headmaster of Hogwarts."

The bottom dropped out of Harry's stomach. He was sure that Snape's first act as Headmaster would be to expel Harry.

Harry continued leaning forward as Snape stood to make some remarks. He didn't hear a word that anyone said. If there was anything important Hermione would clue him in, as always.

When the food appeared he ate.

When everyone started to leave, Hermione tugged on his shoulder.

It wasn't until he was out of the Great Hall that he realized he had fresh motivation. What was announced this evening was bad...and good.

Malfoy had done this.

The little politician had done this as a favor or to amuse himself. He'd just installed the worst Headmaster that Hogwarts would ever have...and no one seemed able to stop or derail him.

The people who might have were coopted...or numb...or less than concerned.

At one point when Harry began his fight against the Ministry and its oaths and its grasping ways, Harry had feared he would need to fight them...with spells and worse oaths.

It might be satisfying to tackle someone like Lucius Malfoy, but it wouldn't be enough. Even if Harry took apart the entire block Malfoy controlled...that controlled the Ministry...it would just leave apathy among the people and a new vacuum. He needed to end the somnolescence. He needed to wake people up. They didn't need a parasite like Malfoy. They hadn't needed a man like Dumbledore vested with all the power he had, too bound up to use any of it. They didn't even need a Boy-Who-Lived.

They needed to wake and look and wonder.

It would be infinitely harder to accomplish than to permanently transfigure Lucius Malfoy into a pile of moss.

Harry finally clued into the conversation going on around him.

"...and George are going to be in detention for the rest of their lives," Ron said.

"It's not going to be a happy place," Hermione chipped in.

Neville, who was walking close to Harry, as if he were afraid that something from the shadows might attack him, "I'm not staying. I don't want to be here. My Gran won't hear of it."

Harry listened and wondered.

He also felt bad for poor Neville who had it the worst from Snape most classes.

"At least he won't be teaching," Harry said.

"He'll be hiring the teachers," Neville said.

"Well..."

Harry would have to get moving faster. He was perversely grateful for the fresh motivation. It seemed that every time he slackened just a bit, the Ministry or one of its leading figures did something to reignite the urgency.

Harry put a hand on Neville's shoulder. "It'll be fine." He turned and walked away.

Hermione called out, "Where are you going?"

"An errand I forgot earlier."

"Alright," she said. She would ask later, he hoped.

Their friendship was restored to the point where she would ask some things even if she wasn't already sure of the answer. Since he'd...intervened with Umbridge, things were almost back to normal between Harry and Hermione, he thought. All it took was a reminder that even unremarkable people could be unpleasant, even dangerous.

Hermione required a reminder from time to time about just what this new world was. Enchanting but largely untamed. Bears and big cats rarely roamed population centers nowadays in the unmagical lands where she'd grown up. Here less than a mile from the front gate of Hogwarts were spiders as large as the hut Hagrid called home. There were dragons a couple hundred miles away. There were deadly magical serpents, including a basilisk that had once resided under Hogwarts, everywhere. That left aside the most deadly of all: witches and wizards who meant harm.

"Be careful," Neville said.

Harry nodded. He wondered what Neville knew or suspected. Time enough for that later.

Harry took off at an even, rapid pace. He circled through Hogwarts, looping and winding through corridors until he passed by the entrance to the Headmaster's office. With barely a pause in his step, his hand reached out and touched part of the stone wall next to the gargoyle that protected access to the office. Moments later, stone on the walls, the floor, and the ceiling all began to...stretch. It was as though the stone all decided to melt and aim to fill up the opening that provided access to the Headmaster's office, as though Hogwarts herself objected to the appointment and refused to seat the political designee. That was the impression Harry wanted to leave. Politicians were one thing, but magic was something far greater and more temperamental.

Harry continued on his long, winding path through Hogwarts until he finally stopped in front of the access to Gryffindor Tower. He said the password to the guardian and walked inside. He had a neutral expression instead of the smile that belonged there.

Hermione would never ask about his errand.

The following days made it clear enough, to Hermione at least, what Harry had gotten up to. Neville kept a silly grin on his face for most of a week. Headmaster Snape never even looked at Harry. Who would suspect him of this kind of greater magic?

X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X

Harry set off through the Forbidden Forest once more on a Saturday. It was almost a pleasant day. The preceding three weeks of rain had finally ended and so everyone was outside trying to enjoy the spring before the heat descended in a few months. Or it could be that having Snape as Headmaster drove everyone out of doors.

When Harry set foot in the Forest, he felt eyes on him.

He stopped and looked around. He thought he was quite a ways distant from where he'd encountered Hagrid's out-of-control Acromantula colony. He kept walking and continued to feel someone or something watching him. He didn't hear other movement through the underbrush. Harry angled his path so that it would appear to whoever was watching that Harry merely wanted to escape into Hogsmeade. He'd beg off his errand if he didn't feel the watching end.

Once Harry stepped into Hogsmeade the feeling vanished. The watching ended. Harry kept to the side streets and the alleys as he curved his way toward the Shrieking Shack. He went inside and had a fruitless conversation with Wormtail once more.

The rat was well on his way to insane by now. The terror of wondering what Harry might do, could do to him, had dislodged whatever was left of him. The rat made less and less sense. He was less and less useful.

Harry fed the rat and returned him to his cage.

Harry walked out of the basement into the backyard. There was still a fence mostly in place. It would be enough to cover what Harry needed to do. The last time he was here to speak with Tom Riddle, Harry and the homunculus had come to an insoluble power struggle. Harry wanted information; the ugly little baby wanted the world.

Harry began to crank the bucket left in the well. It felt heavy to him...and deep in the water. It had to be minutes later before Harry got the first glimmer of success. He heard something break the surface of the water. He heard something spitting, like a man pulled out a river after almost drowning. Then Harry heard angry words on the breeze. Horrible words.

Harry smiled.

He turned the crank harder and brought the bucket up to the top of the well.

Voldemort was strapped inside the old bucket, a tight fit. He'd been underwater for weeks. Or had Harry left him two months by now. The information Harry had about homunculi was correct. The magic to create one ebbed slowly. Voldemort hadn't had a gasp of oxygen in months...and he was swearing just fine right now.

Harry kept his hands clear of the tiny hands waving and attempting to grapple onto Harry. He unhooked the bucket from the rope. He set the bucket on the ground and stood over it, so that his head would be the only thing Tom Riddle might be able to see shoved into and secured inside the well-bucket.

"Are you happy to see me?" Harry asked.

A stream of abuse flowed.

"We can put you back down into the well. If you like the cold..."

"What do you want, Potter?"

"Information."

"I want..."

"I don't care what you want. That book I read to you was right about what you are. You can't die right now...but you can feel anger and cold and boredom."

"I won't be put back in there."

"You can't stop me."

"I won't say anything."

"Then perhaps the next time I come looking for you I'll be fifty or a hundred years old. I think I'll buy this old house so that no one tries to knock it down...or block off the well. Indoor plumbing is a lot more convenient, especially with magic."

Harry smiled. This was the kind of negotiating he enjoyed.

"Potter..."

"Yes, Tom?"

"Ask your questions."

"I'll be angry if you lie to me. If you leave anything out."

"Ask your questions."

"Your friend Malfoy..."

"My servant Malfoy."

"He's close with Snape."

"I think Lucius made the potioneer godfather to his little heir."

Harry didn't think he'd ever heard that before. It wasn't just favoritism, then, but also a kind of nepotism. As if Vernon Dursley hired his son and stuck him at the head of the promotions line.

"Lucius had Snape made Headmaster."

That seemed to amuse the homunculus. "I control Britain, then, Potter. I have Lucius and others in the Ministry. I have Snape at Hogwarts. I could destroy it all, so easily."

"Not in your current state."

"I will escape."

"Perhaps. But I'll have handled your people before you can."

"I don't think you could handle that volume of murder. I may have had a small direct army, but I had legions of supporters."

"I've met some of them. But I won't be killing them, if I can help it."

"It won't work then. Prison..."

"No."

"The only way is the way of the torch. Burn them all."

"All of your power brokers seem useful, that's where the power comes from. If I get rid of the middlemen...well, we'll just see what happens."

"The entire world, the very small and the very large, is infested with parasites. There will always be a need for brokers."

"It's worth a test, isn't it? I could be wrong," Harry said, "but I want to know that I'm wrong. Not just guess at it."

"The only way is through war, Potter. War and power and death."

"I suppose that remains plan Zed. But I'll work my way through Alpha and Beta and the others first."

"It will fail."

"You failed. Dumbledore failed. I may fail five or ten or fifty times, but I won't start off with a method guaranteed to fail."

"Only the powerful deserve this magic."

"Hasn't done you much good?"

"I will recover. I will conquer."

"King of rubble and graves, is it?"

"Yes."

"I want to build."

"Build, build what?" The homunculus was amused, mocking.

"Dumbledore, and you, I suppose, thought magic was control. Though you were more interested in magic as power."

"That is what it is."

"I have at least as much strength as you," Harry declared, not bragging.

The homunculus didn't dispute it. Voldemort must remember more of what happened in 1981 than anyone else knew.

"I believe magic is possibility..."

"A hedge witch needs a book of spells..."

"Not everyone can manage everything," Harry admitted. "But I think we accept too little. We don't have an eye for possibilities."

"So, magic is...what...wonder? Whimsy?"

"Yes."

"You can't fight a war with Bertie Bott's."

Harry had to keep a smile off his face. He could imagine fighting a war with bogey-flavored jelly beans. Chemical warfare.

"I don't need to conquer anyone, if my theory is right," Harry said. "I need people to demand more than they're getting. I need them to...put aside the Ministry."

"Oh. Clever. You want to rule from the shadows? Set a bunch of anonymous disposables to war with the Ministry?"

Of course Tom Riddle would take that interpretation of what Harry had just said. It wasn't what he meant. He really did want a peaceful life above all. He had come to realize that he would need peace for all if he wanted peace for himself.

Of course, the Ministry had no particular use for peace, did it? It needed people willing to wear some kind of yoke. It needed crime so that it could hire Aurors...subject to bindings and oaths. It needed people afraid of magic like apparition so that people would sign up for Floo access...and swear Ministry oaths regarding the floo. It needed wizards with a lack of sense so that they'd pay for the Ministry to organize big Quidditch games...and pay for the continued existence of the Ministry through hidden taxes. It needed people worn out or in pain so they'd pay their spirit taxes and come back for more the following day.

"I want people to aspire to better. Is the greatest thing in the land to become Minister of Rubbish Heaps?"

"You'll want someone you can control eventually, Potter. Even during the war, I controlled more than fifty percent of the wizards in the Ministry. I was fighting myself, which amused me sometimes. Useful to know what the enemy will do before the enemy does."

Tom Riddle, the heretic, had wanted to burn it all down. But who would have been responsible, under a Dark Lord, for rebuilding? No one. War upon war upon war. Perhaps fun for someone who enjoyed combat and blood.

Harry laid his ideas out to see if Voldemort would say something that would cause him to pause. To see what his enemies might see, to see how they might react when he began his plan.

Harry took a step away, far from where Voldemort could see him, and knelt on the ground. There were a stone that he touched. A moment later the gray color faded and the stone was clearer than crystal. It began to melt upward, refashioning itself from a flat piece of river stone into a goblet made of crystal. Harry picked it up and stood. He held it over Tom Riddle.

"I'm tired of water. But I am hungry, Potter. You owe me food."

"I don't think it's food you want. I think it's your magic restored to you. That requires a potion."

"You're learning."

"This goblet is empty."

"It's gaudy. Tacky."

"It's enchanted."

Harry had been learning to imbue magic into a creation as he made it. One step transfiguration and enchanting because he believed it was possible.

"What does it do?"

"It's going to restore...wonder, to use your word...to the wizarding world."

"I doubt it."

Harry triggered the enchantment on the goblet. The piece of artificial crystal began to expand. The foot of the goblet turned into a kind of hook. The bell of the glass widened so that the inside was much larger than Dudley's football he never used.

"A Christmas ornament for a gigantic tree?"

"Well, I can make an enchantment do most anything."

Harry pulled out his fake wand so that Voldemort wouldn't see anything amiss. He pointed the wand at the homunculus, levitated the mass out of the bucket, and lowered it into the still growing and changing...goblet. Tom Riddle screamed again once he was encased inside and the crystal grew up and around him, permanently sealing him inside.

Harry pocketed his fake wand once more and began untying the rope from the bucket. Once he had the old knot undone, he tied the rope around the hook-like protrusion from the crystal sphere. It was a kind of ornament, for keeping Voldemort at bay.

Harry pulled his fake wand again and levitated the orb over the well. He canceled the spell and watched the orb drop and splash. It sat and bobbed on top of the water. Harry realized his mistake, trapping an air bubble inside. He'd expected the weight of the enchanted clear stone to outweigh the air pocket. Harry hadn't gotten the proportions quite right.

He forced the enchantment to change paths, begin cutting a few thin channels through the solid crystal so that air could exit and water could enter the center of the orb. Moments later the last protests of Voldemort were blotted out when the orb sunk under the surface of the water.

Harry kicked the old bucket to the side of the badly maintained yard. He'd had this nagging feeling for weeks that the bucket could, in fact, fail as a prison for Tom Riddle, that the tiny baby would eventually get free. That was why he decided to have this conversation and upgrade the prison that housed the homunculus.

Harry looked around, made sure he'd left no presence he'd been here, and went back into Hogsmeade. If someone was watching for him, Harry wanted suspicion to lay with what he was buying in the village...not what was he doing at an abandoned old house.

Harry began his walk back toward Hogwarts. Once he stepped foot out of the boundaries of Hogsmeade, he could feel someone or something watching him.

Another mystery to add to his list.

X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X

An enormous black dog, quite shaggy and long-haired, carried a sack in his jaw as he trod between the trees of the forest near Ottery St. Catchpole.

The dog kept moving upward, higher and higher among the small hills that lay outside of the town. Once the dog reached the highest point he stopped the let the bag fall from his mouth.

A crystal goblet hit the ground and rolled a few feet.

The dog used his nose to right the goblet. A few drops of saliva landed in the goblet.

The dog barked when the ground under its feet began to...shift. Dirt and grasses became harder and cooler. The black dog ran down the hill. It stopped at the trees and turned around, as if it were curious what could be happening.

In the gaining dawn, the dog only had a few moments to wait before it could make out the changes erupting in the land.

The top of the hill remained the same shape, but everything about it had changed. It was no longer dirt and stone. The pinnacle had become clear...stone...crystal. The goblet the dog had brought to the area was still at the top.

As the dawn passed over the crystal hill, the dog could make out brilliant streaks of gold running through the crystal. Also streaks of...of water. At least two springs poked their ways out of the top of the crystal pinnacle. Channels dug themselves for the water to pool before it began it run back down the hill.

The dog waited and watched. It grew bored and almost started to chase its own tail before something new started. The ground of soil and grass and stone began to shake. The dog yipped and ran deeper into the forest, far enough away that the earth didn't shake. The dog turned and watched. Boulders emerged out of the earth. Boulders of solid crystal. There was a ring of boulders. The dog ran around the base of the pinnacle. There were boulders at every point. Then the eruptions ended. A moment later the boulders began to stretch upward, as if stone should live high in the sky, as if it should hang and twirl and never fall to earth again.

The stone that went up stretched very thin...and it did twirl. The dog watched the construction of a tower made of crystal, a tower that seemed so frail and thin and gossamer it should collapse in a faint wind. It didn't collapse, it continued to grow. Veins of gold, veins of silver began to climb inside the crystal walls, imperfections that made the whole seem more perfect. Veins of water climbed and reflected rainbow colors in the gaining light.

The dog ran around the base of the tower. He found just one space where he could enter. A massive arch wide enough for a hundred black dogs to pass under at the same time.

The dog walked inside and stopped. He watched the tower finish building itself. The inside of the crystal tower cooled down and the dog could watch rivulets of water open in the walls...but not fall. The rivers cascading from the inside walls clung to the crystal until they drained in pools waiting at the bottom of the tower.

The dog entered one of the pools and began an awkward paddle. When the dog left the pool, it was dry. The dirt off its coat, the dead leaves stuck on its paws, all gone. The water remained pure and clean and beckoning.

The dog watched the center of the space for a moment. What had been the pinnacle, where the dog had left the crystal goblet, was now entirely enclosed by the tower. The solid crystal of this 'hill-top' now began to carve itself. A room. A desk and a chair from crystal. A complex of offices.

The dog trotted outside the crystal tower and began to make his way deeper into the forest. Eventually the dog stopped and transformed into a messy-haired human. The gray that had flecked the man's head of hair was gone. The lines gouged into his face by cruel circumstances and the harsh passage of years were gone. The wizard called Sirius Black looked twenty. He looked healthy. He was happy.

"Harry did it," Sirius said. "I don't know what he did, but he did it."

The wizard spent a few more minutes examining the tower from a distance. He could feel magic hanging in the air. Wards or something. He hoped that no muggles would stumble across this site. Now that Sirius had helped just a bit in the construction, he would have to get his godson to own up to what he'd done and why.

Sirius apparated away.

X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X

Harry had a big plate of food in front of him. He ate and ate until the Daily Prophet arrived. He paid the owl for a copy and opened it. It must have seemed strange, because Harry rarely read the paper at breakfast, but he didn't let the inquisitive stares slow him down.

Of course the way he was flipping pages would tell anyone he wasn't trying to gather the day's news. He was hunting for some specific piece of news.

Which, by the crumpling of the paper, wasn't to be found.

Harry uncrumpled the paper, folded it, and tucked it to his side on the bench. He continued eating. It was as if his sojourn with the paper hadn't happened.

Different owls brought in the day's mail. A few people paid a knut or two for one of the tabloids.

"Look what Lovegood's 'discovered' now," Seamus said.

Harry glanced toward his housemate. He saw something on the cover of the tabloid that made him smile. He beckoned one of the delivery owls over – how awe-inspiring was magic when it could be used to increase the intelligence of and train other animals, too bad it did little for the smarts of an average wizard. He plunked down his three knuts and took a copy of the newspaper. He glanced at the front of the paper, folded it, and tucked it next to his copy of the Prophet.

"Aren't you going to read it?" Ron asked.

"I had a letter last night. I know what it's about. I just wanted to see a picture. My correspondent wasn't all that descriptive."

Hermione glanced over at Seamus' copy. "What is it?"

"Some kind of tower sprung up on a hill," Seamus said. What he was reading managed to stall him from dipping into breakfast.

Harry had trouble keeping a smile off his face.

Ron even took a look at what Seamus was reading. "That's...that's better than great."

"That's why I wanted to see a picture," Harry said.

"Where is it?" Ron asked.

"Near where you live," Seamus replied to Ron.

"I'm going there the first day we get back."

"What makes you think it will still be there?" Hermione asked. Her head was turned so she could read the front page now that Seamus had continued into an inside page.

"Take a giant to knock that down."

"Not even then," Harry said, very sure of what he said.

"It looks like it's moving in the picture," Hermione said.

"Article said it appears to sway in the breeze," Seamus said.

"I really want to see it now. Of course my mother will probably say no," Ron said.

Harry pulled more eggs onto his plate and three rashers of bacon. He was hungry and content and ready to see what would happen next.

"This article is saying something about Merlin building in crystal," Seamus said. "He'd be a thousand years old."

"He could have left a relic that created something like that," Hermione said, unconvinced.

"Nah. It's Lovegood. If it weren't Merlin it would be blibbering humdingers or something taking the credit."

"Blibbering what?" Hermione asked.

"You should read the Quibbler," Seamus said. "Stretches your mind."

"No thank you."

Seamus laughed and continued reading.

"What are they calling it?" Ron asked.

"Well, this article calls it the Crystal Tower. Who knows if that will stick. Some nutty wizard will turn up to claim credit eventually, he'll have a name for it, I guess."

Harry didn't object to the name Crystal Tower.

To be honest, he was just glad it had all worked.

Sirius hadn't been very descriptive in the letter he wrote demanding more information from Harry.

Next time Harry could slip out of the castle they'd talk. Harry wasn't committing anything to paper regarding this project.

He did enjoy the speculation about Merlin. That was the reason he'd gone for crystal. Weren't there stories about Merlin created a crystal mausoleum for himself or Arthur, depending on who told the story. Harry wanted those associations to echo.

X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X

The fourth floor of the Ministry was deserted again. Three or four times this day Constance Pettigrew had been in the atrium when whole groups of Aurors rushed in or rushed out. As if the world were ending. More of that bunkum with the tower Xeno Lovegood discovered. The fresh rumor was that one of the water springs actually produced a sweet alcohol by the poolful. More than one Auror had come back on duty the previous day completely sloppy, so the story went. She had been in her office yesterday.

Today's series of events were something else. It took some time, but she did finally hear what had happened.

Some drunk witch or wizard had torched the 'National Memorial' where Harry Potter didn't die when You-Know-Who went to kill him. Burned the whole thing down. Even destroyed part of the cemetery where James Potter and his mudblood wife were buried. They'd been friends of her awful younger brother, Peter.

She made the appropriate noises, of course, to the people who told her the day's news. But it didn't matter to Constance.

Yet it seemed to be the most important thing in a decade to everyone else in the building. She had a job to do, a job she had come to enjoy even if it had seemed for a long time to be the worst place they could have banished her. Of course, all it took to enjoy something distasteful was the proper mental attitude.

She took the lift to the Atrium again, preparing to head out to inspect the estate of a dead witch. She believed there were a considerable number of books in the property. An Auror or two should accompany her on such a visit, but she doubt anyone would remember to pay her that courtesy...not when everyone was either out at the Crystal Tower or trying to keep the muggles from discovering a burning house that they couldn't exactly see.

What a mess.

The Obliviators were a rotten bunch, Constance knew. Idiots.

She had come to enjoy inspecting the belongings of the dead. A bit gruesome, more than a bit morbid. But one's necessities became one's pleasures after a while. She did enjoy impounding books for the Ministry, not that she admitted it. She did enjoy refusing people permission to use the Ministry's library. She did enjoy purging the contents of the library.

Magic that no one used was little better than a curiosity. Why keep and warehouse such relics, as useful as keeping a room of broken wands or another of spent portkeys. So much trash, in her opinion.

Constance looked around the Atrium and didn't see any Aurors waiting around. She focused in on the lifts and no one came out of them looking a likely partner for the afternoon's work. She pulled the slip of paper from her purse. The estate was located outside Stafford, near where several prominent wizards maintained their properties.

She hoped for a good haul.

To be truthful, she hoped for illegal books.

There were special provisions that rumbled into place when that happened, special levies the Ministry could make against the gold value of the estate. Enough illegal books in a library and the estate could belong entirely to the Ministry. Of course, Constance had a long-standing compensation scheme to make sure she profited (legally) by what she found.

Even without making a good marriage into a wealthy family, Constance had become quite well-to-do, not wealthy exactly, but she had more gold in her vault now than her entire multi-branch family had ever had before, not that she shared.

She walked to the idiot in charge of checking in visitors to the Ministry and testing their wands.

"Pip, can you call up to the Auror office for me?"

Philip Greengrass looked at Constance and was slow to acknowledge her. As he was with anyone who called him Pip.

"They're busy today, Connie."

"Call up there for me."

Any of the security desk wizards kept a matched set of mirrors to summon help, not that the help would be instantaneous, not that it would protect the security wizard against someone who really wanted inside.

"There was a package brought in for you, did you know?" Greengrass asked.

"Did you tell me?"

"Before I arrived. You and Mace Bottons don't get on, do you?" The implication being that Constance Pettigrew didn't get on with anyone.

She glared at him, not responding.

Philip Greengrass dug around in the bins under his desk. "Here it is. Feels like a book."

Probably an anonymous donation of something illegal...to get it out of an estate before it could be found and taxed. Constance received a few books this way a month. Cost her about eight galleons in prize money every time a book showed up like this. Oh well, better to have the thing than to have someone sell it or hide it.

"Give it here."

Greengrass pushed the package toward Pettigrew. She looked at it then picked it up looking for an identifier. Her name was on it. The rest was anonymous brown paper and twine. Perhaps there was a bookplate inside. That might help her track it back to the estate that would owe the tax. She pulled her wand and cast about the strongest cutting charm she knew. The twine fell to the floor.

"Pick that up, would you?" Greengrass asked.

"I'm the librarian, not the custodian."

She unwrapped the brown paper and let it fall to the floor.

"Pick that up," Greengrass demanded.

"Let me look at this, you fool. It's very old."

Constance cracked the book open. She began to turn the fine vellum pages. A few pages in the pages stuck together. She licked a finger and tried to pull the pages apart. The moisture on the paper had an...unexpected effect.

The paper she touched with her saliva began to flake away, like dust exposed to wind. The infection of the one page spread to the entirety of the book at a rapid pace. Her single swipe of saliva had destroyed an ancient, extremely valuable book.

Constance dropped the book on the security table when what was left of the book began to...leak. The few drops of water turned into a thin trickle. From there the water came in a gush.

Almost as soon as the water touched the floor, the powdered pages of the book that had flown all over the Atrium began to sprout as if they were seeds in some enchanted jungle. The running water began to carve itself channels in the stone floor. Some branching toward the fireplaces to extinguish them, some branching toward the lifts, to flood them. The Ministry of Magic quickly became the only governmental building in the world with a working (and unwanted) waterfall.

Constance turned to run, but Philip Greengrass stunned her before he summoned the Aurors. He wasn't taking the fall for this. Let it fall on some money-making scheme cooked up by the witch from the library. Let her see if her lack of supporters in the Ministry would leave her in good stead.

Her family only controlled the one seat in the Wizengamot. Why Philip could badmouth Pettigrew to enough families in the next day or two to secure any kind of guilty verdict against her. The Pettigrews had long been rather weak although they thought themselves mighty.

Greengrass watched mushrooms pop up on the wet floor of the Ministry. He watched vines climb fireplaces and walls. He watched...things grow out of the stone walls and pop off. Little creatures, a bit smaller than garden gnomes but totally made of stone. Not alive and yet animate.

Some new invention by a witch or a wizard, hopefully not as misbegotten as a basilisk or a snorkack or a chimera.

Greengrass tapped his communication mirror again and upgraded the crisis he was reporting. He also requested more people to respond. They were never going to clean all this up.

Because, to Philip, this resembled something out of one of the tales he'd heard as a child. About the witch who made a house of candy so she could lure in muggle children for her dinner. Or that crazy wizard who made his house from a bubble in a lake. Powerful wizards and witches who were totally insane. A return of the greater magics, unleashing a true tropical swamp in the middle of subterranean London. Someone insane had done this.

Someone insane, yes.

Some protesting what Constance Pettigrew did, how she made her money, her special little cut.

Yes, yes. That would be just how Philip Greengrass would explain everything. He wasn't interested in taking responsibility for this one at all. It would all land on Pettigrew. Let's see her family keep her in her sinecure after this. Philip could think of half a dozen people better suited to serving as Ministry librarian.

Yes, all the better this happened to Pettigrew. All for the great glory of the Greengrass families and its many allies. Let her rot, the old hag.

A colony of the new stone gnomes took up residence in her hair, tugging and pulling.

X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X

Little had changed in the month since Snape was announced as Headmaster of Hogwarts. He hadn't gone on a rampage and started cursing students. He also hadn't managed to break down the 'temporary' wall that kept him out of the Headmaster's office.

That alone kept a careful smile on Harry's face.

Of course it was time to explain himself to his godfather, Sirius Black, but Hermione caught him as he was slipping from Gryffindor common room.

"I'm just taking a walk," Harry said.

"I'd like to take a walk. May I join you?"

Harry could tell that Hermione knew more was up than he'd said. Of course, she knew Sirius and knew him to be innocent of the crimes alleged against him. There was no reason she couldn't come along. In fact, Harry thought it might be nice.

"Do you need anything from your room?"

"No, let's head out."

They kept a companionable silence while they were in the castle. There were a couple hours between the last class of the day and the dinner hour so Harry knew he would have to move quickly to get to Sirius, have a chat, and make it back for his evening meal.

Having Hermione along might complicate things.

"So where are we going?" Hermione asked once they were both out of the castle.

"I know this shaggy black dog."

"How is your...dog?"

Harry liked that Hermione was being careful with her words, even out of doors. "Needy, it seems. I've been neglecting to visit him."

"Lots to confess, is there?"

"Yes."

"Good. I've been cautious about asking. But if you're..."

"It's fine. You can ask," Harry said.

"I'll wait," Hermione said. "I heard about...your house, I guess it was."

"I don't remember it. I don't know why anyone kept it around, wrecked."

"But, still."

"Someone did it to get a reaction," Harry said. "Did it to scare people."

"I don't care about the why," Hermione said. "I just...don't want you to be unhappy about it."

"I expect worse," Harry said. "The powers-that-be are scared."

"That swamp in the Ministry."

"Yes."

"The crystal tower?"

"Yes."

"All the freeze liquor people are hauling out of it. Never been so many drunks in all the world, it sounds like."

"That could be a problem." Harry might have to adjust the rate of alcohol production. For now, he looked at it this way: he was starving the Ministry of its spirit taxes. Even as he put more demand upon the services of Hit Wizards and Aurors. Stress the Ministry hard enough, it might just shatter clean.

"Alcohol."

"That's what I hear."

She could disapprove all she wanted. Harry had a good reason.

"You going to tell me how you did that. I know you didn't leave Hogwarts?"

"Let's talk it over with Old Blacky."

"Your dog. You're going to tell your dog before you'll tell me?" Hermione asked, smiling a bit.

"Just this way. Stories for a pence. Five stories for two pence." Harry trying out a career as a carnival barker.

"I don't have any muggle...err, normal money on me."

"No need right now. But that's how my mind thinks. Normal money. Not the bronze, silver, and gold of what I've got in Gringotts."

Harry disappeared into the brush of the Forbidden Forest. Hermione had to dive in after him.

"Can you...I don't know...feel someone watching us?" Harry asked.

"No."

"Every time I come into this forest, I feel...well, eyes on me."

"Those acromantulas?"

"They'd just try to eat me, not watch me."

"Well, centaurs?"

"Maybe."

"Do you take the same path all the time?"

"No."

"Same schedule."

"Usually a Saturday morning. But the other times vary. Whenever I can get away."

"You have been sneaking out. Now I understand how you did..."

"No. Just wait for the story. I haven't gone any further than Hogsmeade."

Harry indicated the side path they would take and the conversation fell off. Harry was too busy scouting the woods for anything looking his way, anything that might complicate the journey.

It wasn't long before they skirted around Hogsmeade and made it to a cavern in the hills beyond the village. Hermione could, it seemed, be patient from time to time.

Harry led her into the almost round room inside the cavern. He tapped a stone on the floor and it melted into a chair. He sat down and turned to look at Hermione.

"I can't conjure furniture yet. Could you?"

"I didn't conjure," Harry said. "Transfiguration. Go ahead, you know how to do it."

"We've never covered stone to furniture changes."

"You won't hurt anything if you get it wrong."

The perfectionist streak in her kept her from wanting to venture out.

"I won't ever admit if your first attempt fails," Harry said.

Hermione took out her wand and attempted a stone-to-chair transfiguration. She didn't verbalize any spells, but she was so tentative...as she had been back when they'd first experimented with casting stunning spells based on will and power. Those days of studying, of training together, had been good for Hermione. The end of that studying seemed to make her shyer, less confident, less like Hermione.

Perhaps it wasn't just Harry who suffered in those lonely days and weeks. Perhaps Hermione was just as hurt and confused?

Harry watched her first attempt fizzle.

He saw her try again. And again. Her third attempt produced something that resembled a chair. She chose to stop. She sat and tried to find the right balance so she wouldn't topple just off her chair.

"Thank you for not laughing," she said.

"Wouldn't dream of it. You still remember how to cast a powerful reducto."

"Not as strong as yours."

"Strong enough to hurt," Harry said, smiling.

A pop outside the cavern had Harry up and pivoted toward the mouth of the cave. Sirius Black strode inside. "Been waiting long...oh, you brought your friend?"

"I hope that's okay."

"If you wanted a chaperone for a date, you should have asked Remus. Me, I'd be a bad influence," the wizard said. "I'd be handing out firewhiskey faster than you could drink it. A little Potter would spring up ten months later, I'm sure."

Sirius had a wand out and transfigured his own stone into a seat. All three of them sat, quietly. Harry shaking his head. Hermione blushing. Sirius assessing the damage he'd done with a few well-placed words.

"You should have told me about the pool of liquor, Harry. I'd have hung around."

"That was the reason I didn't. A drunk black dog would have gotten a lot of attention, all bad."

"True, that's damned true. So, my no-good godson sends me a package by owl a week ago. In it is a cup..."

"It was a goblet," Harry corrected.

"A cup that I was supposed to take to such a spot at such a time of day. Imagine my surprise when the cup starts some kind of chain reaction that turns dirt into crystal and starts auto-building a tower. I could have been one stranded puppy at the top of the damned thing. How tall is it?"

"I don't know."

"How did you build it, then, if you don't know?"

"It built itself. Went as high as it could manage. What did it look like?" Harry asked.

"I almost pissed myself," Sirius said. He seemed to be hamming things up for Hermione's sake. In front of just Harry, the man wasn't quite so vulgar.

"I'll bet you tried everything to go and do it yourself...before you turned to your broken down godfather?"

"True."

"It sounds like something very similar happened inside the Ministry. I understand there are mushrooms growing up the lifts for three floors. And a waterfall landing in the lowest part of the Ministry that's forced everyone out."

"They can't stop any of it, can they?"

"The bits and scraps I hear? No, they can't stop it."

Harry grinned.

"They're going to be scared," Sirius said.

"I know. My parents' house."

"As a distraction, yes, to get the Ministry's embarrassment off the front page. Get that tower forgotten about. You know how many people have apparated out to look at the thing? How many stick around and spend the day drinking the free hooch?"

"Lots."

"Why would 'they' attack the house where Harry lived?" Hermione asked.

"Harry's behind this, but they don't know that. So they weren't doing it as payback. They were hitting at the biggest targets they could think of," Sirius said. "You're still a symbol of their uselessness in the last war. All the Death Eaters losing to a baby, their Dark Lord reduced to nothing."

"I know," Harry said.

"So, how did you do it?"

"I enchanted the goblet."

"It was a cup. How did you enchant it?"

"I told you I've been working through some different books on magic."

"Yes," Sirius said. "You did. But you didn't say that you could turn a cup into a tower."

"I suppose I could let you read my copy of Uncommon Magics."

"Just explain it," Sirius said.

"I packed into an object lots of magic and lots of intention. The magic knew what to do once it got started."

"But how..."

"Well, there's this book..."

Hermione began to laugh. She caught what Harry was doing. He didn't have the same sense of humor that Sirius did, but he had a sense of humor. Harry was paying back his godfather...not with embarrassment but with frustration.

"You're a wet sod, Harry."

"Most days," Harry agreed.

"What will you do next?" Sirius asked.

"Wait."

"For what?"

"For the scared people to identify themselves."

"How?"

"Some people burned down my parents' home. I expect someone will try burning down or bludgeoning the Crystal Tower."

"You did something to it," Hermione said.

"Maybe."

"Well?"

"Well, what?"

"Exactly," she pushed. "What did you do?"

"I don't know if it'll work. Let's see if it comes to pass."

Hermione shook her head.

"I thought you were going to find a hobby other than waging war against the Ministry," Sirius said.

"All roads lead through the Ministry Atrium."

Harry was fighting a proxy war against the Ministry or some faction that profited from the Ministry. They didn't know that Harry was behind what had happened. Harry couldn't point to a group of wizards and say that they had burned down the Potter Cottage in Godric's Hollow.

But they were fighting on the same plane. Harry to make the Ministry ridiculous, superfluous. The Ministry adherents fought to raise the fear level and make the Ministry relevant in a time of uncertainty. Causing the problem that they would then sweep in and solve. This was a fight to destroy or save the Ministry.

"This isn't violent, yet. But it will be."

"I'm not sticking out my neck. I'm being careful."

"It's not you who will draw blood first, Harry. The people who invested in the Ministry, the people drawing out steep dividends. They are the ones who will protect what they have."

"Malfoy."

"And two hundred other families, at least."

"If the mood shifts, if no one needs them..."

"They'll make themselves needed. They'll make their fees flow."

"I'm not done yet, Sirius. Not at all. This is just the first gesture: flush them out."

"I'm not going to tell you to stop."

"I will," Hermione interjected. "I don't want you to get hurt."

"I would rather be on the offense now, Hermione, than on the defense for the rest of my life. Draw them out, concentrate them somewhere, perhaps attempting to rehabilitate the Ministry that I've almost destroyed, and...handle them."

"Kill them."

"If it comes to it, yes. But I prefer to terrify them. The Quibbler put in mind the idea of Merlin's return. Why not do something to scare them back to semi-lawful ways from outright criminality."

"I don't think they can change."

"They can adapt or die," Harry said. "I will give them one chance."

"Harry," Sirius started to say.

"Say what you need to. I need to hear what could happen, what could go wrong. What's the worst that will happen. Tell me your thoughts so I can get ready."

"I want to help you find another path."

"Which one? Tell me and I'd be glad to try it."

Sirius was quiet a moment. "At least you're being cautious, not putting yourself in the middle. Yet."

"With any luck, never."

"Never build a plan just on luck," Sirius admonished.

"No. No, I understand that. But I can hope."

"Hope is also a bad foundation. If it came down to a shooting war..."

"I'm ready."

"What if they manage to get a lord-level wizard on their side?"

"They would have already if they could have. They've been waiting more than a decade. Now that Dumbledore's dead, they're activating again. They fear the possibility of new opposition, but they're more grateful for the other side to have no leader."

"You'll end up being that leader," Hermione said.

"No, I won't. Not if I don't declare what I'm doing."

"They might try to smoke you out, too," Sirius said.

"The attack on my parents' home should smoke me out. It won't. I don't want to end up dueling these fools. I don't want to conduct raids. I don't want to wait for them to attack me. I want to make people, the average people, wake up."

"It's a fool's dream," Hermione said.

"Well, it's not the whole plan. Just the overture. If it doesn't work...then we get harder."

"We?" Sirius asked.

"I'm not asking you to help. Just for advice from time to time. Make sure you throw out the objections I haven't seen."

"Children shouldn't have to fight these wars."

"Who else is there?" Harry asked.

"People my age."

"No one else sees the problem...or, if they do, they ignore it."

"Be careful."

The next few hours passed in less tense conversations. Hermione, in particular, asked more questions about the enchanting that Harry was doing contra all the advice she knew. He wasn't using runes engraved in a surface. He wasn't doing a recognized ritual. He was just pouring in magic and intention into a magically crafted object, a goblet, a transfigured book. The magic of the object seemed to make it easier for the other magic to adhere and remain. Harry had tried, and failed, to enchant with an unmodified stone he'd found on a path. The magic had just dissipated away.

The chair he sat on in the cave was from an ordinary stone. The transfiguration he'd done might last a day or two. The Crystal Tower he'd enchanted might last a year or ten.

Hermione was shocked when she realized what Harry had stumbled onto wasn't mentioned in any book she knew. It was just an artifact of trial and error, mostly error. An idea and a lot of tests and mostly failed results. Until it just started to work.

Harry and Hermione left the cave an hour before the sun began to set. It had been a long day, exhausting for Harry not the least. His entire plan had been dissected three ways and still expected to sit up and dance.

McGonagall caught them before they made it in the castle. She was most displeased.

"You and your walks, Potter."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Well, come along. The Headmaster has been looking for you for hours. Almost prepared to start hunting for you."

"What's the meeting about?"

"I'm sure I don't know." The Professor looked at Hermione. "Miss Granger, supper begins in twenty minutes. Please wash up."

Hermione looked at Harry before she turned for the stairs.

"Another surprise?" Harry asked.

"I hear things have gone badly for the last woman to spring a surprise on you."

"You mean that librarian?"

"I understand Constance was...dismissed."

"Well, it came too late to save my books." Of course, Harry hadn't revealed that he'd received his books after all. But he could still be publicly bitter about what the Ministry tried, and failed, to do.

"I would keep a civil tongue in your head, Potter. I believe the new...Headmaster is a lot less forgiving."

McGonagall was going to be as valuable as ever. Stating the obvious and offering no help.

"Will you stay for the meeting?"

"If the Headmaster permits."

To Harry it seemed it was long past time for McGonagall to retire. In the last month, her age had really begun to show. Frustration with being passed over. Anger at who the new Headmaster was. She kept it bottled up somewhat, but not enough. Harry didn't expect either of them to return for the following year so long as Snape remained in office.

McGonagall led Harry through the Great Hall and to the anteroom where Harry had once been told about the ordeal involved in the Triwizard Tournament. Now Snape used it as his office, given that the old one had disappeared. The best prank Harry would ever pull...and no one thought it a prank. Yet.

Harry tried to guess at what Snape wanted now.

He found he couldn't think of a thing. There were too many possibilities to narrow in on a handful, to make a meaningful survey.

McGonagall knocked on the door.

"Come in."

McGonagall pulled the door open and stepped inside. Snape looked up, saw Harry with McGonagall.

"Thank you, Professor. Will you oversee dinner tonight this evening? I suspect this may take some time," Snape said, almost channeling the politeness of Dumbledore, but the words came flavored with his own tone of voice.

Harry wondered if there was a manual Headmaster had to follow. This Snape seemed vastly different from the Potions Master from the dungeon. The clothing was dark and austere, but the man's face seemed younger, less worn.

Harry had to wonder if some oath Snape had sworn ended with Dumbledore's death. Or perhaps some new oaths he'd sworn as Headmaster lightened his life in some way, not that Harry could see how giving up some freedom would make him seem a freer soul.

Professor McGonall inclined her head a few degrees, barely an acknowledgment of Snape's request. She turned and left.

A man who had been standing in the shadows emerged. A dirty man, more crabbed and gnarled than even the Durmstrang headmaster had been. He stared at Harry. Harry stared back for a moment. The man wore Ministry robes.

Snape pointed at a chair in front of a desk. "Sit, Potter," the Headmaster said. "It's bad news, the very worst kind."

The man in Ministry garb smiled. A third of his teeth were rotten – or perhaps they were all fine, but the light was playing tricks.

"What happened?" Harry asked.

"Sit down, Potter."

Something horrible had happened, of that Harry was sure. It wasn't Sirius. It wasn't Hermione. What was it? Neither Snape nor the wizard in the garish robes spoke a moment. They let the tension twist. They left Harry in confusion and pain.

Harry prepared for an attack of some kind.

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A/N: Thank you to everyone who downloaded a free copy of my ebook during the promotion I had in June. I hope you enjoyed the story. Information about my original writing projects is available from my website: www . JamesSchubring . com