A Sense of Unease
"Let us look at the situation in what was still known as Wizarding Britain in 1992. As early as that, the spirit that triggers the events to come can already be tasted in the air: fertility rates among pureblood families are on an all- time high (it was not, until then, unusual to see a family with only one heir), games like Squib Trap are just gaining popularity and the press seems concerned to the point of obsession with examples of the muggle world's innate hostility toward the 'unnatural'. One cannot help but wonder if it is not Tom Riddle's formidable powers of mass manipulation that create the instrument of his own downfall."
- From "Cultural Characteristics of the Wizarding Revival" by Pandra Hilliard
October 1992 - March 1993
That morning the Slytherin table was louder than usual, bubbling over with excitement and a pinch of trepidation that earned its students more than a dozen suspicious glances from the rest of their classmates. Harry caught himself glancing up toward the enchanted ceiling of the Great Hall for the tenth time since he had arrived for breakfast and forced himself to stop. Very few of his housemates had been told what to expect that morning and all of them had been warned to keep silent on the matter, but – as was always the case when a large group of children gathered together in one place – it hadn't taken long for the secret to become public to any and all Slytherins. Harry had written to warn his father and godfather so they'd know what to expect and a glance toward Dumbledore's empty seat at the high table told him that the old wizard was aware as well.
The mail arrived in a flurry of hundreds of owls and Slytherin held out its breath. Draco Malfoy was one of the first who got their hands on a copy of the Daily Prophet and he quickly turned its front page toward Harry.
TOM RIDDLE REPLACES UMBRIDGE AS SENIOR UNDERSECRETARY
Earlier this morning, Dolores Umbridge resigned her position as the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic. When asked about the reason for her resignation, Umbridge said only, "I serve the Ministry." On 1 January, Umbridge will head the International Magical Office of Law, replacing Hilliard Hobday, a known supporter of the policies of Supreme Mugwump Albus Dumbledore. She shows enthusiasm for her new position and expresses her desire to maintain the good relations between the British Wizarding Government and the International Confederation of Wizards.
Meanwhile, Tom Riddle takes her place as the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic. Few are surprised by this sudden appointment to such a high ranking position. We remember well how effective Mr. Riddle was in his efforts to keep at bay the followers of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named during the war. Known for his severe criticism of the actions of the Ministry, Mr. Riddle enjoyed enough popularity to be offered the position of Minister for Magic after Charles Potter's glorious defeat of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. To the disappointment of many, he turned it down, saying that he needed to take a break from politics after the war had, finally, come to an end. We are certain that many of our readers rejoice at the news that a man of such talents returns to the Ministry.
"I am grateful to Minister Fudge for the trust he has shown in me," said Mr. Riddle in his acceptance speech. "Twelve years have passed since I had opportunity to serve my people in a time when we had lost touch with honour and freedom and darkness threatened to overtake us from within. But we persevered in our stand for freedom and today we are a thriving community of wizards and witches who have faith in the strength of their hearts and hope for the future. It is to the future generations, to our children, that we owe our efforts to do more than just survive; our efforts to change, to turn Wizarding Britain into a symbol of independence and magical power and to vanquish corruption, ignorance and spiritual stagnation. With the wise guidance of Minister Fudge and the members of the Wizengamot, with the support of the brave wizards and witches who fought for their freedom in the war, I believe that this noble goal is well within our reach."
Harry finished reading the article and an intangible feeling of dissatisfaction formed in the pit of his stomach. "Is it—wise," he asked no one in particular, "for him to start talking about changes the second he's given the position?"
"Maybe he wants to warn us now so there are no surprises later?" Daphne suggested. Not a single person in Wizarding Britain with a brain in their head doubted that Tom Riddle would eventually assume the position of Minister for Magic. There were many who would be content in a position just a few steps below the very top, but Riddle was not one of them. Harry had researched Riddle's background and the results showed that in all matters - from his education to his professional career - the man strived for nothing short of perfection.
All of the Slytherin second-years were sitting at their proper place at the table – higher than the first-years but lower than the third-years – and each of them clutched in his hands a copy of the Daily Prophet. Even Crabbe and Goyle were demonstrating previously unsuspected abilities to read. They stood at Malfoy's left and right, with Blaise Zabini and Millicent Bulstrode beside them. Harry was sitting just across them; right next to Daphne and Tracey. Pansy and Theodore Nott sat to his left. In many ways, this arrangement was a declaration of allegiances, a sign of the current distribution of power among the Slytherin second-years.
"I think he knows what he's doing," Zabini said. "How many wizards and witches have you heard whine about the corruption in the Ministry? Riddle vowing to 'vanquish corruption' would make them support him."
"That can't be good for your family, can it, Draco?" Bulstrode asked sweetly. She had large, square build, black hair and heavy liked to make fun of her for her ugliness but Bulstrode gave as good as she got, as far as insults were concerned.
Malfoy frowned at her.
"Riddle won't do anything to my family," he drawled, feeling the need to reassure the others of his position now that an enemy of his father's former Master had risen in ranks. "Father said he has everything under control. He's not worried at all."
"Strangely, neither is mine," said Theodore. After his mother's death, he had been raised only by his father, same as Harry. He preferred to keep to himself, though, and only rarely joined large groups. He was one of the best students in their year and Harry was surprised to find that he actually liked the boy and did not just tolerate him, like he did many of his housemates.
"H-he doesn't promise to vanquish only corruption," Tracey said in her nervous way. She was observant, even if she rarely summoned up the courage to speak up.
Daphne looked at the article. "Ah, yes, he wants to 'turn Wizarding Britain into a symbol of independence and magical power.' We're already independent, though—does he mean to start a war?" She continued to read. "He also thinks we must get rid of our 'ignorance and spiritual stagnation'… what does he mean by that? Ignorance of what?"
"If he's the one behind all those articles last year," Harry said dryly, "he probably means ignorance of the fact that there's no chance for wizards and muggles to live together."
"Where can I vote for him?" Zabini drawled.
"If he's talking about 'spiritual stagnation'," Theodore said, "something tells me that he won't stop with some small changes in the Ministry."
"I hope he gets rid of the mudbloods," Malfoy announced and Pansy shook her head. "He won't," she said, sadly. "His stupid wife was one."
The discussion continued until they had to leave for their first class for the day. While they were walking Harry felt Daphne's gaze on his back and couldn't help but ask, "What?"
She seemed startled. "Nothing."
"You're looking at me all the time," Harry pointed out. "Why?"
"Well, I don't know if I should say this," Daphne began with uncharacteristic uncertainty, "but you've stopped correcting people when they use the word 'mudblood.' In fact, I don't think you even notice it anymore."
"I just-" Harry said, thinking back. She was right. When had he stopped paying attention? Why had he? "I didn't want to fight a pointless battle, that's all. They're not going to stop using it. And it's just a word, right?"
She looked at him dubiously but kept silent.
History of Magic, taught by the ghost of Professor Cuthbert Binns, was commonly agreed to be the most boring subject in the long history of boring subjects. Most of the students could not listen to more than five minutes of Binns's flat drone without falling asleep and only occasionally waking up long enough to write down a name or a date. The only student in Slytherin who could resist the soporific powers of Binns's voice was Harry, but the man had not even bothered to remember his name. He called him 'Mr. Perkins' and Harry could only shake his head at a history teacher who could not remember the name Potter.
That day they were listening to his lecture on the International Warlock Convention of 1289. Harry found wizarding history in the Middle Ages utterly boring but he knew that he'd have to wait for some time before they got to the modern period, or at least to what Binns considered 'modern' period. He wasn't that far ahead in his reading, either. He had barely lifted his head from his books all summer but the material got more and more complex with each year and he advanced at a much slower pace than he was used to. He didn't have time for reading history anymore, not if he wanted to fulfil his goal of finishing the material of all seven years at Hogwarts earlier than his classmates and spending some time mastering magic a bit more complex than their curriculum allowed.
While his hand mechanically wrote down every word that Professor Binns uttered in his insipid, monotonous voice, Harry found himself thinking about Tom Riddle.
The man's past was certainly impressive enough to warrant the excitement that his return in Britain had caused among the wizarding population. An orphan raised in a muggle world, Riddle was a known supporter of the traditions and the customs of wizarding Britain, a patron of the arts and the genius behind several magical discoveries. When Nobby Leach had become the first muggle-born Minister of Magic in 1962 and declared in his address to the leaders of the Squib Rights marches that wizards and non-wizards could learn to coexist peacefully, Riddle had risen from his seat in the Wizengamot and said: "I have heard alarming rumours that basilisks, acromantulas and manticores do not get along very well, like they are supposed to in the peaceful utopian world we have created in our minds. While we are on the matter of changing nature to suit our ideals, would our esteemed Minister like to share with us his plans to change this appalling situation as well?"
One thing could be said about the man for certain – among the population of Wizarding Britain, he had either enemies or supporters. No one remained indifferent to Tom Riddle. During the war, he had criticized both the Ministry and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, quite vocally at that, and had come out more popular than both of them put together.
That was not to say, of course, that he had come out unscathed. Although it was widely known that Riddle despised muggle influences on wizarding culture and felt only contempt for the muggle world he had been raised in, the one thing that had protected him from alienating the part of the population that thought pureblood supremacy was a load of bollocks had been his wife. A muggle-born woman whose easy smile and honest brown eyes had won her the admiration of most of Wizarding Britain, Marlene Riddle had paid the price for her husband's brave opposition to the Dark Lord. Some claimed that the Dark Lord had done it himself, some said that he had sent his most trusted follower, the feared Bellatrix Lestrange. Either way, the pictures in the article that announced the murders of Riddle's wife and son were a testimony to the mind of a monster. Harry had a hard time imaging the amount of inhumanity and hatred that went into mutilating the bodies of a defenceless woman and a little boy in such a way, muggle-born or not.
Riddle had been crushed. The face in the pictures of him after the murders showed a man who was haunted, a man who had lost everything in his brave stand against injustice. He had not let the Dark Lord win, though, and had persisted in his efforts to bring order to their community. His assistance saved several old families from being completely wiped out. He had saved the lives of Fabian Prewett, Dorcas Meadowes, Caradoc Dearborn and many others. He had forced the Wizangamot to grant him the right to decide the fate of the captured Death Eaters on the spot, to propose laws without consulting the Minister, to negotiate on behalf of the British Ministry with the communities of various magical creatures and beings. Tom Riddle had been the first and only wizard to hold the offices of Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Head of the Department of Magical Transportation and the Head the International Magical Office of Law at the same time. He had been way on his way to become Minister for Magic as well by the time Charlie had defeated the Dark Lord.
"Merlin, Binns speaks like he's afraid we may hear something," Pansy whispered, suddenly interested in the lecture. She stood beside Harry and he was painfully aware of her breasts against his arm when she leaned forward to look at his notes. She smiled and looked at him from under her lashes. "Who were the French wizards who controlled William of Something and fought over the riches of the Templers? I couldn't hear."
"William of Beaujeu," Harry corrected, flushed. Before he could tear his mind away from the warmness touching his arm long enough to answer her question, Malfoy chimed in sleepily from the seat behind them.
"The wizards were Gratien Guilhabert and Ciel Artois. Is that so difficult to remember, Pansy?" he drawled. His expression was smug. "Father says that the only thing you need to know about French politics is that if some Guilhabert says Hungarian Horntails are dangerous, some Artois would say they're the most harmless creatures in the world. Basically the whole history of Wizarding France revolves around the houses of Guilhabert and Artois pulling each other's pigtails over several centuries. They're the oldest and most powerful families there. Almost as old and powerful as the Malfoys, I'd say."
"I know who Guilhabert and Artois are, Draco," Pansy snapped. "I just… couldn't hear clearly." Her cheeks reddened and she quickly turned back to her own notes. They consisted of no more than two sentences. "Who cares about France anyway?" she muttered.
Daphne snorted at the other girl's words and Harry turned to her with a raised eyebrow. Instead of answering his implied question, Daphne wrote something on a piece of parchment and pushed it toward him. 'Pansy doesn't really care who was stealing from the Templers, you know', it read.
'Then why did she ask me?' Harry wrote back. She looked at him as if he was an idiot and shook her head. 'You boys are so slow sometimes,' was all she offered.
After another twenty minutes of Binns's drone, Harry was at the end of his patience. Exciting things were happening in the real world - things he wanted to know more about – and he couldn't be bothered to care about the issues that had occupied wizards seven centuries past. Gratien Guilhabert, Ciel Artois, the muggle kings Philippe IV and Edward I were all long dead and forgotten. He raised his hand. "Professor Binns?"
The ghost lifted his head from his notes and blinked several times in confusion. It was obvious that he had no idea what to do in the face of this unprecedented phenomenon. Harry was willing to bet that at least several decades had passed since the last time a student had raised a hand in Binns's class. "Yes, Mr. Perkins?"
"I wanted to know what you think about the idea of muggles and wizards living together peacefully," Harry asked.
The ghost of Professor Binns frowned at him. "That question has no relation to the discussion at hand, Mr. Perkins," he reprimanded. The unexpected attention of all of the students in his class, however, mellowed him enough to add, "The issue of the coexistence of the magical and non-magical is a very old one."
Several of Harry's housemates asked the man if he meant the Dark Lord's rebellion and he shook his head in annoyance.
"It is one of the greatest tragedies of our kind that the young seem to be always drawn to the illusion of novelty," Professor Binns said. Harry had never imagined that the history teacher could sound anything other than bored and was surprised to discover a hint of passion in his voice. "The young mind prefers the hopes of tomorrow to the teachings of the past. And yet, it is history that is the pillar of our society, the cradle of civilization. History bares the human heart before us and uncovers the workings of our minds, it traces the way our ideals rise and fall, it humbles us with the realization that people long gone used to live with hopes and fears and thoughts no different than our own, with the same self-cantered delusion that their generation is chosen to free our kind from the conservatism and the injustice of the past."
"So you're basically saying that we need to learn history better if we think that this issue started with the You-Know-Who?" Harry asked, just to make sure.
"Yes, Mr. Perkins, that's what I'm basically saying," Binns snapped. "Now we should return to the events that lead to the Convention of 1289-"
"Do you mean Gellert Grindelwald, Professor?" Malfoy spoke up before the man managed to make the class boring again. Binns turned the force of his unimpressed eyes toward him. "No, Mr. Marley. It started way before him."
"But he was the second most dangerous dark wizard in history, wasn't he?" Pansy asked. "Something like the Dark Lord. He killed a lot of muggles."
The ghost looked as if Pansy's definition of Grindelwald made him want to die. Again.
"The rise of Gellert Grindelwald, Miss Parker, is one of the most tragic events in our history," he said in a pained voice. "He reigned over several European countries for more than a decade before his defeat in 1945. He was the reason for the deaths of over sixty million muggles. His goal was the subjection of the muggle world to our own and the creation of a Wizarding Empire that would unite the entire wizarding population of Earth. I'd say that the bloody lesson he taught us has to be remembered better than just 'something like the Dark Lord'." He glanced around the classroom. "But Grindelwald doesn't concern the wizards who lived in 1289 in any way. They were more worried about the popularity of the conspicuous new sport Quidditch and the decline of the Knights of Templar…"
The class sighed and slowly resigned itself to another hour of napping. Harry wrote diligently, his mind far away.
Sometimes, Harry grew so tired of life at Hogwarts that he would have spent the entire year in the Forbidden Forest, had he known a way to do that without causing a scandal and worrying his father to death. His relationships with most of his classmates were strained and, regardless of what he told himself, that made him feel terrible. It took a lot of work to be as good a student as he was - long hours every day spent over dusty books and diagrams, weeks of practicing spells that even older students found difficult. That didn't leave much room for socializing or making friends. The Slytherin second-years were the only people Harry was actively trying to keep as friends, and even that was only because they, more than any other House, could make his life a burning hell if he gave them cause.
Justin Finch-Fletchley, the muggle-born boy he had met at Ollivander's, was trying to convince his housemates that Harry was the next Dark Lord. Michael Corner from Ravenclaw claimed that Harry was the top-student only because he had bribed Snape to give him the answers to their final exams in all subjects, which was ironic because the Potion Master continued to despise his very existence. House rivalry might seem stupid later in life, Harry thought bitterly, but it sure mattered when you were twelve. Rivenclaws disliked him for having perfect grades, Hufflepuffs disliked him for being unfriendly, Gryffindors disliked him simply because he was a Slytherin and Harry wondered why the hell any of them thought they had a right to judge him.
Charlie was faring much better. His easy smile and charm had won his the adoration of the entire student body, with the obvious exception of the Slytherins. Harry could only shake his head. His brother strutted around the school as if he owned it, bragged about his Quidditch talent and lost his House points from rule breaking, but somehow Harry was the one who had ended up with a reputation for arrogance.
"Don't mind them, they just want something to gossip about," Charlie had told him during their last weekly meeting in the library. His brother had given up trying to save him from Slytherin influence and had instead decided to provide a healthy dose of Gryffindor influence every week. "But it wouldn't hurt if you joined the Quidditch team, you know. It'd be nice, playing against someone who can actually fly… Please tell that white-haired little git I said that."
"Stop pestering Malfoy, for Merlin's sake," Harry had warned. "I have to actually live with him."
Charlie hadn't let himself be distracted, though. "Come on, bro, join the team. We'll play against each other, just like old times. It'd be fun!"
"I don't have time, Charlie," Harry had explained with a patient sigh.
He really didn't - he was going over the material for their fifth year. Not only insanely complex but the Professors had outright forbidden him to practice magic so much above the level appropriate for his age group. Now they adamantly refused to help him, or even let him read in class, and the long hours he wasted every day in their classes did very little to improve his foul mood.
Saturdays were Harry's favourite time of the week. Only then he was free to rummage around the library all day without having to care about being late for one pointless class or another. Today was a beautiful, sunny Saturday and the rest of his classmates were outside, but Harry wasn't happy at all. He had spent the entire morning turning various objects into kittens, then repeatedly trying, and failing, to Vanish the kittens. The Vanishing spell was one of the most complex O.W.L. spells and Professor McGonagall had told him to wait until his third or fourth year to try it. Harry hadn't listened to her. He had learned on his own to apply the spell to most vertebrates but hadn't managed to Vanish any mammals yet and was frustrated by his lack of progress.
Needing a break from his stint of failures and not having much time left until he had to be in the Great Hall anyway, he went to return some books to the library. The librarian, Madam Pince, was a thin, impatient woman who defended the place like a hatching dragon her nest. She liked Harry because he was careful to keep her books safe, returned them on time and didn't do any suspicious activities outside of spending monstrous amounts of time studying. Her liking him meant, of course, that she didn't shout at him as often as she shouted at other students.
"Do you have any other books on Grindelwald, Madam Pince?" he asked and pushed toward her the pile he had taken the previous week.
"For you? " she asked. "Not now. Ask again in four years." She paused to check the titles of the books he had taken. "Why are you so interested in him, Mr. Potter? I think that the less you know about that monster, the better off you are."
"It's interesting," Harry said. "Do you know that the articles published now in the Daily Prophet sound like the things Grindelwald wrote during his reign?"
"Is that so?" Madam Pince asked, her voice completely even.
Harry nodded. "Ours are better, though. They talk about the danger muggles pose to us rather than our superiority to them. They talk about their hatred of us rather than our own. That's smarter."
"Everything's signed," the thin woman announced. "Are you taking any other books?"
"From you?" Harry asked. "Not now."
The trouble was, this Saturday he wasn't free to rummage around the library until it closed. Three days ago Daphne had finally taken mercy on him and told him that, "Pansy likes you, silly. I can't believe how slow you are when it comes to those kinds of things."
Harry thought that he had a rather good excuse for being slow – he was twelve. He was also the first of the boys in their year to get himself a date so he couldn't be all that bad. Asking Pansy out, however, had been the single most embarrassing thing in his life; and that was including the time his brother had stolen his clothes and towels from the bathroom and made him walk to his room naked, much to the amusement of Andy and Leo Black. The little tell-tales had even told their father about it and Sirius had made jokes about it for two months. The point was, Pansy hadn't made it easy. She hadn't let him stutter his way out of it, oh no. She had made him say all the words and then burn in a short eternity of hell until she told him her answer.
Harry had taken his revenge by making her promise she wouldn't tell anyone, though. He didn't want the whole school watching him as he made a fool out of himself. Pansy had looked almost offended at first, but then she'd decided that a 'secret romance' was actually a great idea and had agreed to meet him in the empty Great Hall ("Don't be late!") where Harry was supposed to surprise her with some exciting plan for their date. He felt more nervous than he was before an exam - at least Harry knew that he could pass an exam with his eyes closed. This he very much doubted he would live through with both eyes opened wide, his untidy hair almost tamed and a whole day of preparations.
Harry didn't want to have students gawking after his flushed face and nervous gait so he took the longer way to the ground floor. The secluded Charms staircase led him from the library to the Ground Floor Corridor and from there he meant to go to the Training Grounds but stopped short and cursed himself for his stupidity. The Training Grounds were filled with fools wasting their free time to fly around on a broom. Trying to avoid crowds by going there was like trying to avoid getting wet by diving into the Great Lake. He turned back and soon found himself walking along the long and deserted bridge that had to lead him to one of the less crowded areas of the castle.
He was lost in thoughts about his fast approaching first date when he heard it. A scream, then laughter. Insults and crying. Curses. Harry didn't need to wonder what he was listening to. He could recognize those sounds anywhere because they had haunted his nightmares for the last five years, vivid as the first one that hadn't been a dream. He ran toward the source.
All in all, he should have expected it. The articles in the Daily Prophet had done a very good job explaining why muggles posed a threat to wizards and most of the student body had read at least five. The result was now burbling on the stone floor in front of him. He'd just expected that Slytherins would be the first one to do it.
Three of them had surrounded a tiny figure cowering in fear on the floor, looking at him with the cruel faces of people inflicting rightful vengeance on their past tormentor. The only problem was that Harry didn't think the boy lying on the floor had done much tormenting in his life. He was thin and scrawny, with mousy hair and brown eyes. Harry recognized him only because of the camera he was desperately clutching in his hands. The boy was a first-year and one of Charlie's most avid fans. A mublood, too, if Harry remembered correctly.
"What's happening here?" he asked, loudly, just to announce his presence. The answer to his question was rather obvious. They were two boys and one girl, two Gryffindors and a Ravenclaw, older than Harry, with wands pointed at a trembling figure on the floor. A little too late, Harry realized that he should have tried to make more noise before showing up at their scene of crime. Maybe then they would have just run away instead of staying to point their wands at him.
There was a brief moment after seeing him when their faces twisted in horror, but then they took in his green house tie and relaxed. They had mistaken him for his brother. "We're just teaching the little mudblood how to speak properly to wizards, Potter," one of the boys answered. "He told us muggles don't need brooms to fly because they've invented smarter ways of travel called 'aeroplates'. Muggles? Smarter?"
"Have you ever flown on one of those things?" Harry asked him, trying to remember if he knew something about them. "They may be the smarter way."
"He said it almost as if we are the one inferior," the girl persisted. "He shouldn't be talking about wizards that way."
Maybe he just meant the three of you, Harry thought but knew better than to say that aloud. This was one of the rare moments when being a Slytherin was useful for anything other than not losing points in Snape's classes. "How about this? You let him go, go back to whatever it was you were doing before you decided to teach him to respect the ah, intelligence of pureblood wizards, and we all forget about this meeting?"
He wasn't surprised to see them lower their wands and look at each other with hesitation. Less important or not, Harry was a Potter and everyone knew that his father was close to Dumbledore. People wouldn't ignore him if he decided to tell anyone about this. It'd be all over the school in minutes.
The boy on the floor, however, had battered pride, unhealthy dose of courage and a death wish. "Cowards!" he shouted. "You attack only in packs, don't you? Cowards!"
Their eyes told Harry what would follow before their wands lifted again. He could have walked away and left them to deal with the little idiot - Merlin knew he bloody well deserved it for not knowing when to keep his big mouth shut. But the idea allowing a group of older kids to torment a lone, weaker one to Harry felt as uncomfortable as donning the skin of a beast he hated with his whole heart. His reaction was instinctual.
"Expelliarmus," he shouted and, in a jet of scarlet light, the Disarming charm hit the dark-haired one of the boys in the chest. Harry had no time to see where the boy's wand had gone; he was already casting a Shield charm to stop the jinxes the other two had sent toward him. Against two opponents who casted spells one after the other in quick succession, it was almost impossible to regain the initiative but Harry made a good job of his defence. He diverted an impressive Leg-Locker Curse, then a weak Banishing charm and a laughable attempt at Melofors – a jinx that was supposed to transfigure his head into a bumpkin. Harry saw enough to decide that his opponents couldn't be older than fourth-years and most probably didn't spend a lot of time practicing their wandwork. He was aware that he didn't have much time, though. The dark-haired boy was frantically looking around for his wand.
Harry diverted another Leg-Locker Curse from the girl and, not bothering to put up a shield against the weak Ventus jinx that her friend send toward him, he fired a Conjunctivitis curse in her direction. She screamed, dropped her wand and started rubbing her swelling eyes. "You blinded me, you gormless twit," the girl shouted in panic. "I'll get you for this!"
Harry saw the boy he had disarmed point his newfound wand at him but then he was thrown back by a blast of air and the Jelly-Legs curse the boy sent his way missed its target. He landed on his ass on the stone floor and felt a dull pain in his back, but clutched his wand tightly in his right hand. Without taking the time to stand up, he made the two swirling motions of the Tongue-Tying curse and fired it toward the blond boy who had hit him with the blasting jinx. Already the least skilled of his opponents, the git was rendered completely useless.
From the corner of his eyes, Harry saw the dark-haired boy wave his wand through the motions of an unfamiliar spell and fear wrapped its fingers around his throat. He quickly rolled aside to escape whatever it was his opponent was sending toward him. On the ground to his right, where he had sat just a moment ago, had appeared an olive king cobra with the glowing green eyes of a cat. The other boy was smiling and Harry wondered if he found it funny to use a snake against a Slytherin. I guess I should count myself lucky he didn't think to conjure up a kitty, Harry thought dryly and said the incantation of the Vanishing spell in a clear and confident voice, "Evanesco."
His opponent was more skilled than the other two, though. He didn't lose time to send a Full-Body Bind curse his way and Harry jumped to his feet just barely in time to block it. They traded curses, hexes and jinxes back and forth for the next few minutes and Harry was growing anxious that the other two might soon find a way to cancel each other's spells and attack him again. He was thinking of conjuring flames to slow down his opponent when the first-year Gryffindor he was defending decided, surprisingly, to interfere.
The little idiot gave out a battle cry that would have been hilarious in other circumstances and ran at full speed toward his former bully. The older boy, who had just blocked a Jelly-Fingers curse from Harry, was caught by surprise when the first-year crashed into him and they collapsed on the ground in a manner that looked very painful for the one taking the full force of the clash. Harry was not moved by pity, though. He sent a Full-Body Bind toward them and was only mildly pleased when it hit his dark-haired opponent.
"Did they take your wand?" Harry asked the first-year as he helped him shakily come to his feet. The boy nodded and Harry frowned. "That was very… muggle-like."
"I-it was the only way to help," the younger boy said and grinned. "I did a good job, didn't I?"
Harry wondered if he should explain to him that wizards didn't charge at their opponents like monkeys when they lost their wands. There were two reasons for that. First, it was completely idiotic to attack another wizard without any means of protection in case he decided to turn you into a bumpkin or set you on fire. Second, attacking your opponent the muggle way was a humiliating admission of magical inadequacy, worse even than losing your wand. In the end, he kept silent. It didn't matter anymore – what was done was done.
"Yeah, you did," he said and looked at their opponents. The boy he had Silenced was looking at him with bitter hatred in his eyes. His hands clutched his wand tightly but wordless magic seemed to be so far above his level that he might as well have been disarmed for all the good it did him. The girl was crouching down on the ground, hand wrapped around her head, eyes swollen and unseeing. She was trying to say the counter-curse but, blinded and in pain, she didn't have any luck.
"That was amazing! Thanks so much," the first-year said. He was star-eyed and almost giddy with excitement. Harry had to close his eyes when a camera flashed in front of him. "The two of us, you and me, against three of them fourth-years. Isn't that just awesome? Just as expected from the brother of Charles Potter. Can I take your picture next to the three of them? Oh, wait, you don't know who I am. My name's Colin. Colin Creevey. It's an honour to meet you, Harry."
"Likewise," Harry said with reserve. "Whatever else you do, do not take my picture next to them. Snape will give me enough hell for not calling a teacher as it is. No need to add hero pictures on top of that."
Creevey nodded in understanding. "Of course, Harry," he said brightly. "I don't know what happened. I was just talking about stuff and I mentioned aeroplanes and they got all angry. Don't get offended or anything, but I thought the gits are all in Slytherin. I didn't expect Gryffindors to attack me. That's crazy. Thanks again for helping. I don't want to offend you or anything, but everyone's saying you hate muggles and I thought-"
"I do," Harry interrupted the boy's babbling.
Creevey knit his brows. "But you helped me," he said with a nervous laugh.
"Are you a muggle, Colin?" Harry asked.
"No," the boy answered and all traces of excitement and admiration faded from his face. "But my parents are."
"Well, I don't care what your parents are," Harry told him and turned to go, even though he knew that he had already missed his chance for a date with Pansy. Petty and proud, she wasn't going to forgive him anytime soon. "Since you're the one they attacked, you decide what you want to do about these idiots," he said over his shoulder. "I recommend leaving them here until someone comes looking for them. It's less than they deserve."
He didn't find Pansy in the Great Hall. Tracey, who was waiting for him there, told him with an apologetic smile that she had left fifteen minutes ago and was waiting for him in the Study Area. In the Study Area, however, was waiting a scowling and irritated Millicent Bulstrode who snarled at him that Pansy was actually in the Hall of Hexes. At this point, Harry decided that it was beyond stupid to hope that Pansy hadn't told anyone about their date. He dragged himself all the way up to the seventh floor but there he found only Daphne, her eyes filled with laughter. "If you're looking for your date," she told him with a smile that stretched from one ear to the other, "you may want to check the Common Room."
Of course she's in the bloody dungeon, Harry thought. I should have figured that out as soon as she sent me to the seventh floor.
"Why do the three of you let her order you around?" he asked in annoyance when they began their long way down.
Daphne shrugged and looked at him from the corner of her eyes. "I agreed to do this because it sounded like fun," she said. "As for Tracey and Millicent… My dad says that willing subjects are all anyone really needs in order to command. Pansy can order around anyone who lets her."
They walked in silence for awhile. Harry tried to hide his irritation but the cheerful humming of the girl beside him made it difficult.
"She won't forgive you standing her up easily, you know," Daphne said and Harry gritted his teeth. "Her mother's a harpy and her father's always breaking his promises. She hates it when people break their promises. This was supposed to be her first date."
"It was supposed to be my first date too," Harry said and felt his face redden. He didn't care if Pansy forgave him or not. As far as he was concerned, he had made his grand apology when he had wandered like a dog to look for her all around the castle. Pansy was so protective of her friends that he had almost forgotten how capable she was of bringing someone to the ground.
"You poor thing," Daphne said dryly. "Don't lose hope. Something tells me you'll be just fine."
Colin Creevey was just the first of many victims. There was no sudden outbreak of derision toward muggle-borns, no violent clash of cultures, but, little by little, a feeling of distrust toward muggles and their world spread among those raised in wizarding households. An article about the destructive power of the nuclear weapon was enough to cause a slight sense of unease but when it was followed by articles that praised the muggle conquest of space and their astonishing fertility rates, supported by many similar articles every week, it was enough to create a numbing, merciless mood dangerously close to fear. It spread throughout the school, regardless of age or house. Even if they could turn a man into a chair and summon objects from a hundred feet away, the students of Hogwarts were just kids and many of them were starting to get scared.
Then the articles stopped. Barnabas Cuffe was quietly relieved from his duties as editor-in-chief of the Daily Prophet and rumour had it that Albus Dumbledore had personally made sure that Cuffe would never find a place in another newspaper. It didn't matter, though, because the press soon found a new obsession.
He was a fifteen-year-old boy, a nephew of the muggle-born Benjy Fenwick who had been killed and mutilated by Death Eaters during the war. Robbie was the second wizard in his family and had refused to attend Hogwarts when he had received his letter four years ago. In his muggle school he had been frequently bullied because of his bad teeth and effeminate voice and, one afternoon, he had simply lost control. An accidental Blasting spell had knocked two of his classmates hard on the ground, effectively killing one of them. When asked for his comment on the tragic accident, Senior Undersecretary Tom Riddle said, "Robbie is an unusually gifted boy. Had he received a proper education and training, I believe he would have become a fine wizard."
Many agreed. There were rumours that the Wizengamot was discussing making the attendance of a wizarding school, whether Hogwarts, Durmstrang, Beauxbatons or a school even farther than that, mandatory for all children with magical talent.
Harry supported the idea with his whole heart but a small part of him remembered Colin Creevey, doubled up in pain on the ground, and felt a slight sense of unease.