Disclaimer: I'm still trying to form a close relationship with J.K. Rowling with absolutely no designs toward ownership of the Harry Potter universe, but flattery via fanfiction disclaimers that nobody appears to read (damn you!) isn't helping as much as I'd hoped.

Harry Silvertongue

Lesson Four: Altruism

"Of course nobody helped you before, because there was nothing in it for them. There's a selfish reason behind everything that anybody else does."

"What about you helping me?"

"I told you the first day I met you, didn't I? My sister would have been quite unhappy with me if I didn't try to help you out. I'm doing this so she would feel proud of me. And it makes me feel...better. You see? Everybody's in it for something, Harry. Everybody."

Harry was annoyed. Too many people, including Tracey, would talk about Quidditch way too often, though at least Daphne remained just as aloof from that as she did with anything else. Still, Tracey dragged the trio out to the Gryffindor versus Slytherin season opener at the beginning of November. Harry spotted Hermione reading in the Gryffindor stands, and he wished he'd thought of that, too. At least, that is, until the match started.

Then he found himself entranced by the smooth flying of the Gryffindor chasers, Angelina Johnson, Alicia Spinnet, and Katie Bell. The keepers, Oliver Wood and Miles Bletchley for Gryffindor and Slytherin, respectively, were less interesting. Peregrine Derrick and Lucian Bole were enormous and hit the bludgers hard, but they didn't seem to have any strategy. Conversely Harry was impressed by how Weasley Twins made up for their smaller size with teamwork at the beater positions. They'd set up on opposite sides of a target – usually the Slytherin captain, Marcus Flint – and make him almost useless. Flint was dirty, though, and he'd often fly alongside one of the Gryffindor chasers to both try to hit them himself and try to make the bludgers hit them. Graham Montague, whom Harry recognized but had never spoken to, joined Flint and Adrian Pucey at the chaser positions. The three didn't fly as well overall as the Gryffindor girls, but with so much attention on Flint, Pucey had ample scoring opportunities. Wood was a fantastic keeper, though, and blocked more shots than his own chasers even took. The only way Slytherin could score, it seemed, was when Flint or the beaters distracted the Gryffindor keeper.

The seekers, Cormac McClaggen for Gryffindor and Terry Higgs for Slytherin, were pretty much invisible. They just flew in high circles, searching for the snitch. Harry actually spotted it twice in the first hour, but neither of them went for it. It was a long, rough, low-scoring game, and play had to be stopped on several occasions to assess penalties. Harry wondered at the Gryffindor chasers' ability to stay aloft after some of the bludger hits they took. Finally, after nearly three hours, Higgs charged McLaggen, who merely turned toward his opponent instead of assuming Higgs had seen the snitch. In a rather anticlimactic ending to the epic match, the Slytherin seeker swiped the snitch out of the air in a matter of seconds, putting their team on top 240 to 110. Harry thought it seemed quite unfair to the rest of the team that catching the snitch gave Slytherin so many points, since the seekers spent most of the game flying in slow circles while their teammates battled it out.

"You're hooked," Tracey said on their way back to the castle, her eyes alight with excitement. She had screamed in delight when Higgs held up the snitch, and jumped up to hug Daphne and then Harry.

Harry's heart was still beating so fast that he had hugged her back without a second thought. "Am not," he argued, though he slowed down a bit to hide his face from Daphne. He was sure he was blushing at that moment.

Daphne snorted but said nothing.

"Yeah, right," Tracey said for her, grinning wickedly. "It's in your blood, after all."

Harry froze at that. "What?"

"Yeah..." She trailed off and stopped a moment after him, her grin fading. "Your father used to play for Gryffindor. Chaser. His name's on the Quidditch Cup trophy for 1973 and 1975."

Harry's face blanked, eyes going distant.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..." He shook himself back to the present find Tracey peering back at him with a rather pitiful expression.

He put on what he hoped to be a reassuring smile. "It's okay, Tr—" he began, but his breath left him as he was squeezed into another hug. He forced himself to relax and return it, though he was rather uncomfortable. "It's okay, really."

Daphne sighed loudly. "You two finished yet? It's cold out here."

The two jumped apart quickly. "Sorry, Daph," Tracey said. She nudged the other girl as they resumed their walk. "It's not that cold," she muttered.

The rest of the year passed too slowly for Harry's tastes. To try and prove to Daphne that he didn't care that much about Quidditch, he claimed he didn't want to go to the Hufflepuff versus Ravenclaw match the following weekend. To prove that he did, Daphne said she did want to go. Outnumbered, he sighed dramatically and relented. He brought a book, but it was soon forgotten, and she wore a triumphant smirk every time he looked at her for the next week. He finally confided in them that he was planning to try out for Quidditch next year. Tracey squealed with excitement and hugged him. Daphne rolled her eyes and accused them of ruining her fun.

In class, the glacial pace of learning useful things frustrated him; when he asked Professor McGonagall if they'd learn more general Transfiguration magic instead of spells with specific incantations he'd only received an icy glare in return. Charms had picked up a bit, as Flitwick began teaching them animation. Not that he could have animated that suit of armor anytime soon, because apparently making citrus fruit dance a very particular jig is way easier than general animation. Why that particular act had a distinct incantation, Harry had no idea.

Defense Against the Dark Arts seemed to be a misnomer: they mainly studied so-called dark creatures, even though most the things they studied could be defended against by simply walking briskly in the opposite direction. In Professor Quirrell's defense, though, they did learn how to give someone a runny nose. It would have been quite boring if Harry's scar didn't burn in pain so often in there. As a result he was second in their year only to Hermione, who apparently seemed physically incapable of not paying attention in class, even in History of Magic...well, according to Neville, anyway.

That was another thing: Hermione had been avoiding him ever since their overnight stay in the hospital wing. Well, not really avoiding him so much as...not acting like he expected she would. They still sat together in Potions and spoke regularly, but never about that night. To make it even more awkward, on one particular occasion their hands had briefly touched and she jerked her hand away as if it burned her. He normally didn't like being touched either, but Hermione had hugged him. She had hugged him, and he had actually relaxed into it, and he was starting to get used to them, and...maybe even like them! But now...well, her behavior made him feel self-conscious all over again. Daphne and Tracey were no help either; the former simply rolled her eyes and ignored his question, while the latter just said Hermione was being a stupid Gryffindor. He didn't want to ask Neville for the same reason he didn't want to ask the girl in question: he didn't want her to know. It had taken enough time to work up the courage to ask the girls in his own House, and that went quite poorly.

He decided he would just be annoyed with the whole situation, and at Hermione especially, even though he would never confront her about it. If he was curt with her, well, that was her fault.

At Christmas he received his first real presents that he could remember. Of course he had taken the order forms to get gifts for his friends – books for Hermione and Daphne and candy for Tracey and Neville – but it still came as a very happy surprise to find a small pile at the foot of his bed. Unfortunately all of his friends had gone home, but despite how close he had grown to Tracey and Daphne and how much time they spent together, the lack of company didn't bother him at all. It was infinitely better than his prison at Privet Drive, after all, and that wasn't even considering the fact that he could practice magic at Hogwarts. It was further improved by his gifts, including a book on magical creatures with a note from Hermione pointing out the troll he'd defeated and thanking him profusely once again. From Tracey he received a book on Quidditch with a note saying that she'd love to help him pick out a broom and other gear for whatever position he wanted, and that she thought he'd make a great chaser or seeker. Harry chuckled at the thought that that was a nice way of saying he was too scrawny to play beater or keeper. He also got a fancy quill set from Daphne and a wide variety of candy from Neville.

But the most mysterious and, Harry admitted, the best gift was the invisibility cloak from nobody, which he quickly used to explore the restricted section in the Library. Not that he really needed the spell books there – he was still combing the fourth year Defense text, which was when Hogwarts began teaching spells he might have used against the troll. He certainly wasn't going to rely on luck the next time around, after all. But with the Cloak, he could sneak a peek at what books they thought he shouldn't read, so of course he did.

Unfortunately Hagrid spotted Harry when he was on his way to the Forbidden Forest to practice some of those spells, and inwardly he cursed his lack of foresight. First, he'd wanted to avoid causing damage to furniture so an empty classroom was out. Secondly, he didn't want to rely on being invisible too heavily and so kept the almost weightless heirloom in his heavy, visible cloak. But luckily the man had believed Harry's story about coming to the hut for a visit. It turned out Hagrid had a great number of stories of Harry's parents, so the two ended up spending hours together.

"Yeh know, Harry, I woulda invited yeh down earlier, hones'," Hagrid said when Harry finally stood to leave the first night. "I jus' thought, after tha' visit ter Diagon Alley..."

"It's fine, Hagrid," Harry said reassuringly. He knew Hagrid was embarrassed and concerned for what he had said about Slytherin back then. He must have figured Harry would end up in Gryffindor, because the large man had had little good to say about any other House. "No hard feelings, really."

"And after wha' Professor Dumbledore said 'bout yeh...well, yeh're a good lad. It don' matter ter me tha' yeh're a Slytherin, and I know it wouldn'ta mattered ter yer parents, neither."

Harry ducked his head and felt his cheeks burn. He found himself having trouble hiding his emotions around the man. "Thanks, Hagrid."

"Oh, don' mention it," the man said, waving his hands and clearly sharing in the discomfort. "Hogwarts is pretty empty righ' 'bout now, why don' yeh come on back down whenever yeh feel like it? I can whip up summat fer lunch if yeh get tired o' the Elves cookin'."

"I don't think I'll get tired of that for awhile, but I'll be happy to come back down tomorrow," Harry said. Hagrid beamed.

So the Christmas break went: Harry exploring both with and without his invisibility cloak, visiting Hagrid, and visiting the library. Ron was around, as were the Twins, but the former avoided Harry and the latter always seemed to have their heads together as if the rest of the world didn't exist. The other students present were all older and seemed to stick to their study groups, and unsurprisingly many of them were comprised of students from different Houses, just as Dumbledore had mentioned back on Halloween.

Well, except for one particular Ravenclaw who sat well apart from the others. He appeared quite a bit older – sixth or seventh year, perhaps – and mumbled to himself and scribbled furiously in a notebook on occasion. He was extremely unremarkable as far as looks go; Harry knew he wouldn't have remembered the guy's face if he'd been in a crowd, and he was of average height so he wouldn't have stood out. His relatively short brown hair fell lazily atop his head, his school uniform was clean and fit well but was not particularly tidy. It held no prefect badge. So the only unusual characteristic was his behavior. Harry had taken a seat at the Slytherin table near the strange boy during several meals, but the guy had always spoken too low for Harry to hear. He tried to catch the other boy's attention on several occasions, but he never looked up except for one time: when one of the Professors stopped to talk to him. Harry wished he'd been sitting nearer that day.

Then, on the last day of the break, the Ravenclaw unexpectedly approached Harry at breakfast, sitting across the Slytherin table. "Hello," he said without any hint of shyness.

It threw Harry for a loop. "H-hi, er, I'm—"

"Harry Potter," the older boy finished for him. His voice was relatively high-pitched and came out as fast as Hermione's at her most excitable. "First year Slytherin, future Head of House Potter, Boy-Who-Lived, troll slayer," his voice came out haltingly, very quickly yet abruptly punctuated by pauses. He breathed in through his nose deeply as if smelling something. "Disappeared for many years. Arrived here uncomfortable with fame, unheeding of tradition...unexpected."

"Some traditions are outdated," Harry said wryly, suppressing all manner of emotions. Mostly it was confusion at the rather strange behavior that overcame the others. "And I did not kill the troll."

"Would have, though, yes?" The other boy tilted his head questioningly. "Heard the headmaster stopped you just in time."

"How did you—?"

"Neville Longbottom, first year Gryffindor, future Head of House Longbottom, also lost parents ten years ago, very nervous, poor student because of it," the Ravenclaw ticked off in the same halting sentences. "Friend of Slytherin but not unexpected: Longbottom, Potter—" He took a deep breath through his nose again. "—always friends. But I digress. Weasley Twins got the story from him, spread it. Embellished it, though."

Harry was completely thrown off by this guy for so many reasons, not the least of which being he knew about Harry's parents. "Who are you?"

The Ravenclaw frowned. "Forgive me, forgot you've only been here for a three months. Didn't complete initial analysis of full student population myself until end of first year. Didn't do sixth years until April. Martin. Martin Centaurus." Martin gave Harry a quick nod instead of reaching across the table to shake hands.

"What, er...why are you here?" Harry mentally kicked himself for that question. He'd just been trying to fill the sudden silence. "I mean, not many people stay here over the break..."

"My parents are dead, too. Died thirteen years, three months ago." Martin used the same mechanical voice as before, then took a deep breath. "Very sad," he added, not sounding like it was.

"I'm sorry," Harry said, unsure of what else to say.

Martin shrugged. "Not your fault. Not Voldemort either. Found out later they worked at the Department of Mysteries. Likely joining them myself after NEWTs, maybe find out about parents research. Help, maybe, if I have time."

Harry's eyebrows jumped at that. "You want to continue your parents research even though it's probably what killed them?"

"Minor interest," Martin said, waving it off. "Curiosity only, unless it coincides with my own research." He pulled out and spread a roll of parchment that made Harry's eyes glaze over. "Arithmantic deconstruction of Fidelius Charm," he said, gesturing to a section filled with curious numbers and letters. "Emotion-based like the Patronus Charm and the Unforgivables, except it requires trust."

"Trust isn't an emotion," Harry said, brows furrowed.

"Yes! Yes! Exactly!" Martin pointed and waggled his finger excitedly. "Requires emotion that trust engenders. No word in English. Love, maybe, but not between lovers. Not familial love, either. More like...the feeling associated with camaraderie. Safety, perhaps, or contentedness... All imperfect. Impossible to quantify. Need to leave abstract." He pointed to the bottom of the the parchment, which contained a long string of symbols and numbers. "Investigating replacements for certain effects – enchanted objects that manipulate the mind on touch. To encourage the feeling of camaraderie as a first, easier step. To temporarily hold the secret. To split the mind so that one person can perform each piece on his own." He pointed to other sections with different equations to the right of the first ones as he described them.

It sounded slightly scary, but Harry knew so little about magic. So, utterly lost, he merely nodded along until Martin had completed summarizing his parchment. "Why?" He blurted.

"Why? Think of the potential! Fidelius Charm requires caster, Secret Keeper, subject, all separate people. Requires subject's complete trust, complete trust! Too rare, too many paths to failure. Your parents trusted the wrong person. Longbottoms not under Fidelius, possibly failed due to lack of trust. But this, eventually this might skip the caster and Secret Keeper! Sell kits with enchanted objects. Everybody under Fidelius, everybody safer." He pounded his fist several times, and Harry was blown away by how passionate Martin was about this. Then he shrugged. "Make money, too. Fund more research."

Harry almost laughed at the dismissal of wealth, but Will's words echoed in his head.

"Everybody's in it for something, Harry," he'd said. "Everybody."

Harry mentally shook off the advice. It rang hollow the first time, and it rang hollow this time as well. "Incredible. What class is this for?"

"Class?" The older Ravenclaw looked offended at first and started rolling up the parchment. "Not for class, although I may be able to get some credit in Charms or Arithmancy, now that you mention it." As he stowed his research he looked thoughtful before finally shaking his head and waving it off. "Class not important, though."

Harry let out an amused breath. "Don't let Hermione hear you say that."

"Hermione Granger, first year Gryffindor, Muggleborn, unpopular due to enthusiasm for learning, competitive behavior, and pushing her study habits on others." Martin halted his mechanical recitation to scratch his chin. "Better suited to Ravenclaw, perhaps. Nearly troll victim, saved by Harry Potter, probable Life Debt. Friend to Slytherins along with Longbottom as a result." Martin drew in a sharp breath, then pulled out a tiny notebook and scribbled inside. "No. Not result, friends before troll, doesn't make sense otherwise, yes?"

"Yes," Harry said. It was rather odd hearing about himself like that, but he decided it wouldn't hurt anything to set Martin straight. He'd obviously continue building dossiers on everyone anyway. "Hermione and I met on the train and maintained contact despite being in different Houses." Suddenly a thought struck him. "Actually, what can you tell me about Life Debts?"

"Very little, very mys—" Suddenly Martin's eyes bugged out of his head. "May I study yours?"

With the distraction provided by returning students, Harry was able to slip out to the forest to practice. He timed it such that he was leaving under the cover of his new invisibility cloak as the students made their way in. He could have sworn Dumbledore looked right at him, but nobody raised any alarms. By the time he slipped past Hagrid's hut, Harry figured he was home free.

He found a small oval-shaped pool of water just far enough inside the Forest that anything he'd do would be well-hidden. It appeared to be fed by a stream that snaked its way through the wood, coming from the opposite direction of the castle. Judging by the depth of the pond, Harry supposed it somehow connected to the Black Lake as well. It was perfect for the spells he had in mind. After all, the Reductor Curse, Blasting Curse, and Severing Charm are not exactly dorm-friendly spells.

Not wanting to reveal himself completely in case he needed to hide quickly, he stuck his right arm out of the cloak, wand at the ready. "Reducto!"


Frowning, he reviewed what he thought he knew about it; the wand motion, the incantation, the effect. He wished he had the book with him now, just to verify. He tried twice more with different inflections and emphases in the incantation to no avail, but on the third try, he produced a small blue light that struck the surface of the pool like a small pebble. He was so excited by it that his next effort was a dud, but he managed to make it a little stronger with his next three tries. Still nothing that would hurt a troll, he thought, even if it was meant for use against a hostile creature. He turned toward a tree with a thick, dead branch maybe ten feet up.

"Reducto!" The roiling blue ball of energy dug a fist-sized gouge out of the rotting wood, spraying out splinters and moss.

So the Reductor Curse works best with heavy consonant sounds, spoken slowly...for him, at least, and that might only be for right now. He made a note to ask Hermione about this. No, Martin would know better, Harry corrected himself; Hermione would say the textbook is infallible.

It turned out the Blasting Curse was the same way in terms of enunciation, and even though Harry got it faster, he couldn't get as much of an effect. The Severing Charm also required speaking slowly, but it worked better without overemphasizing the D's in "diffindo." Since he was already out here, he figured he'd also try the Stunner and Shield Charm as well. He cursed under his breath when he found that the Stunner worked best speaking quickly. Keeping these things straight would be incredibly annoying. His annoyance was short lived, however, when his Shield Charm leapt into existence – a shimmering, pulsing sphere of blue that, to Harry, hummed with power. It dimmed when his intense focus dropped away, but he didn't care. He reached out to touch it.

"A most impressive Shield Charm, Mr. Potter." Headmaster Dumbledore seemed to shimmer into existence right in Harry's line of sight. "Most impressive indeed." The wizened old man's favorite purple robes fluttered in the gust of wind that seemed to radiate from Harry's hastily dropped Shield.

Reassured by the familiar grandfatherly smile, Harry relaxed from his rigid, ready-for-flight stance. "I'm sorry sir," he said quickly. "I wanted to practice some Defense spells so I won't be so helpless next time, and I didn't want to damage anything in any of the classrooms."

Dumbledore's smile faltered, but at least he didn't seem angry. "I rather hope you'll not encounter such a situation again anytime soon, but I can hardly blame you for wanting to be prepared." He walked over to the tree branch, bent down and picked up some of the debris scattered by Harry's Reductor Curses. "Was this your first time casting these spells?"

"It was," Harry said slowly.

"Remarkable," Dumbledore almost inaudibly, rubbing his hands clean and standing. "I appreciate your desire to avoid collateral damage, but you should know that the classroom walls are warded to absorb such spells. In addition, the desks and other furniture can easily be repaired." He smiled at Harry. "I assure you our fourth years test our abilities in this quite thoroughly."

Harry flushed with embarrassment. That should have been obvious; he'd never seen or even heard of students being escorted outside to practice magic before. Care of Magical Creatures and Flying are the only outdoor lessons, and Herbology requires walking out to the greenhouses. "I'm sorry headmaster, I should have realized that."

"No need to apologize for that, Mr. Potter, the staff would have informed you once you covered a spell that caused the need for such protection." The headmaster's grandfatherly smile faded. "However, I need not reiterate that the Forbidden Forest is forbidden, and for good reason, too. I fear I must take ten points from Slytherin for being out of bounds. Be further warned, however, that a second offense will not be punished so lightly."

Harry's eyes dropped to the ground as his cheeks burned. How that man could make Harry feel so low with such softly spoken words, he had no idea.

"Now that we are past such unpleasantness, ten points to Slytherin for such a magnificent Shield Charm." Harry's head jerked up in surprise to see a pair of twinkling blue eyes just before the headmaster turned back toward the castle. "Now come along, Mr. Potter, I daresay your friends will be rather interested in your holiday." Harry began to follow only to freeze when he realized he was still under his cloak. Dumbledore had seen right through it! But he hadn't said anything about it... "Mr. Potter?" Amusement was plain in his voice.

"You...sent me this, didn't you?" Harry realized it just as he started speaking.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Dumbledore said, smiling broadly. "But I do trust that you won't need to come out here – or to any of the other places forbidden to students – to practice anymore, yes?"

Harry smiled broadly: the headmaster had pretty much just given him carte blanche to use the cloak within the castle. At least, that was the interpretation he would stick with until otherwise informed. "Right."

"Are you sure about this, Harry?" Hermione asked again.

"Of course not," Harry replied smoothly, grinning at the fact that he changed his answer this time. "Why else would I be asking?"

She glared at him, and Neville, walking beside her shook his head with a small smile. "Well, can we trust him?" This was also a repeat question.

Harry sighed. "It's not even a matter of trust. I'm telling you, Hermione, he already knows."

"Ah ha!" She snapped her fingers. "So you have already spoken to him about it."

"No," Harry said, sighing. "Why don't you just trust me on this? You're going to see in a moment anyway."

"But what if he doesn't know? We could get in trouble!"

"Granger," Daphne said, surprising Harry that she would step into the argument from the other side of Tracey. Normally the aloof Slytherin girl's contributions were limited to snorts or scoffing sounds. "Do you really think you're the only ones that went to see what Dumbledore was talking about?"

Hermione's eyes bulged. "We didn't do it on purpose—"

"If you say so," Daphne teased. Harry almost laughed at the indignant huff – predictable banter between his two friends whose personalities seemed so diametrically opposed to one another. "But seriously, you had to have heard rumors in your common room: people claiming to have gone to see what it is themselves."

Hermione ducked her head. "No...not really."

"If you say so," Daphne said again, grinning since the other girl wasn't looking.

"Harry," Tracey said, finally moving on from shooting Hermione dark looks, "how did you get a sixth year to agree to meet with us, anyway?"

"I met him over the break," he hedged, resolutely not looking at Hermione as he said it. "He said he'd be in the unused classroom where we're headed anyway. He called it 'his classroom.'"

"How can he have his own classroom?" Hermione sounded scandalized, and more than a little jealous.

"Er, he explained it kind of fast," Harry said, "but what I got out of it was that most Ravenclaws are more interested in theory, but the few that are more interested in experimentation generally have their own place to do it. Supposedly he got his classroom from another Ravenclaw who graduated."

"That's not fair," she grumbled.

Harry considered asking her exactly what she'd do with her own classroom, but he figured they'd teased her enough as it was. It was too easy, and Tracey could get a little catty if they pushed too far. Thankfully, they had just about arrived, so he didn't have to change the subject. Just as he was about to knock, the door swung open very quickly to reveal a disheveled-looking Martin Centaurus. Behind him was a small room – smaller than any of the normally used classrooms – and it was full of...junk, Harry guessed he'd call it. On one side he thought he recognized a bunch of clearly outdated and broken Muggle electronics, and on the other, things that looked more like the odd magical devices in the headmaster's office. In a moment he realized that they were all just disassembled, and judging by the layer of dust on some of them, Harry figured that some of these had been around since at least the previous 'owner' of this room.

"Potter, Granger, come in, come in," the odd Ravenclaw said quickly, then spun around and walked to what appeared to be a recently cleared out space that had been out of sight behind the older boy. It was neatly partitioned right down the center, and an unsteady-looking table with various whizzing and whirring instruments and messy stacks of parchment stood in front of it.

"Harry, why did he only greet the two of us?" Hermione whispered in the hope that the sixth year wouldn't hear her.

Harry cleared his throat and ignored her. "Hello, Martin. I'm sure you recognize my companions—"

"Greengrass, Davis, Longbottom, yes," Martin said distractedly, tapping several of the instruments with his wand. A small trunk off to one side of the cleared space jumped, causing several of the first years to jump as well. He looked up at the trunk, back at the first years, then whipped out his little notebook that Harry recognized as the one Martin pulled out when he asked questions about Hermione the first time they'd met. "Daphne Greengrass, daughter of Cyril Greengrass, voting member on the Wizengamot and Hogwarts Board of Governors, rare Potion ingredient supplier, yes?"

Daphne was taken aback and breathed in as if to say something.

"Greengrass, Davis – friends before Hogwarts," Martin continued, stroked his chin for a moment as if trying to remember something, then shook his head. "Friends of Gryffindors, unexpected, unlikely if not for Harry Potter. Unpopular with stereotypical Slytherins."

"What are you trying to say?" Daphne's voice was tight, Harry thought it was clear she was only barely reigning her temper.

He cocked his head back. "Nothing, observations only. Could be wrong. Typical Slytherins not really cunning, not really ambitious. Bully younger students, stick to groups of similar-minded people. More like Hufflepuffs, in that respect."

"What?" Tracey screeched in protest.

"Not important, not important," Martin waved it off. "Wasting time. Potter, over here, please, Granger, this side, yes?" He gestured for them to stand on separate sides of the flexible, tan-colored, wood-and-cloth partition, which was tall enough that they wouldn't be able to see one another.

"Wh-what's going on, Harry?"

Martin really could have been a little more circumspect about this, Harry thought with a cringe. He cleared his throat. "Just a little experiment," he said.

"What?" Hermione squeaked. "What kind of experiment?"

"Life Debts," Martin answered, "ancient magic, not well understood. Unwilling test subjects, you see. You want to learn more about it, yes? Advantages, Disadvantages, limitations, adaptations, all uncertain. Wish we had more to study, but have to settle for one." He eyed the other first years thoughtfully. "Could use more than one control group, though."

The other three first years backed up uncertainly, even though Harry was fairly certain they didn't know what Martin was talking about.

"Harry," Hermione said in a partially worried, partially angry voice.

Harry started to sweat a bit. Oh, he could deflect Hermione's anger – he was an expert at that, but in truth he was nervous about these experiments. It occurred to him now that he probably should have asked after some details before agreeing. "Er, Martin, can we talk about our questions first?"

Martin hummed in thought. "Oh, yes, yes, shouldn't take long, yes?"

"Er, right, well," Harry said, trying to gather his thoughts on how to approach this. "Do you remember Dumbledore's opening speech?"

Martin sucked in a deep breath, then started speaking in a deep voice not unlike the headmaster. "'Welcome, welcome to new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin—

"Yes," Harry said, cutting him off and holding in laughter at the rather dramatic impression. "We heard some rumors about the part where he talked about the third floor corridor—"

"The traps, yes," Martin said, nodding.

"Traps?" Harry asked and glanced at Hermione with a slightly smug expression. Her face colored.

"Yes, yes, I've seen the Cerberus and Devil's Snare myself, but I wasn't interested in trying to go further."

"Why not?" Hermione asked.

Martin held out his hands like a scale. "Have my own challenges, known rewards," he said, holding one hand higher than the other, "why would I risk unknown danger for an uncertain reward?"

She flushed, and Harry knew it was because she considered exploring under the trapdoor. She didn't let up. "But what if somebody is trying to steal whatever it is?"

The older Ravenclaw shrugged. "Seems logical, considering the traps. From what I've heard they seem to be designed to let the thief in, but not out. The object must not be too dangerous to be hidden in a school."

Hermione's mouth opened and closed several times before she slumped, looking down at the floor and sighing heavily in defeat. Harry smothered the urge to grin broadly; he'd shown that others knew, and now she wasn't going to press the matter. "I-is this a common occurrence, then?"

"Not to my knowledge," Martin said. "But then, it never occurred to me to ask. Now, come, come. Granger, Potter, pick a side. Doesn't matter which one; switch later." He shuffled them to the partition over Hermione's protestations and despite quizzical looks from the other three first years. Harry deliberately did not meet Hermione's eyes as he chose a spot. Martin then directed Neville, Daphne, and Tracey behind a different partition such that they were out of Harry's sight. Then he bustled back to his spot at the table. "Now, you can't see each other, and I'll put up a barrier so you can't hear each other. Then we'll begin."

Martin scratched out some hasty notes, then tapped one of the mechanisms on the table with his wand and it became deathly quiet. The sensation of deafness unsettled Harry so acutely that he took a step out before Martin held up a sign that indicated the first test was about to start. Harry forced himself to relax as the older boy gestured with his wand in Hermione's direction. A short moment later, she bolted toward the door while he frowned and jabbed his wand in the same direction. With a frown, Harry dashed out until he could hear the others, just in time to hear the door slam behind Hermione. "What—?"

His question died in his throat as he found Daphne trying to hide her laughter, Tracey not hiding it at all, and Neville looking rather red in the face before dashing out after his fellow Gryffindor. Martin was scratching away, shaking his head. "Should probably have started with Cheering Charm..."

Hermione didn't speak to Harry for a long time after that.

"Hello, Quirinus," the serene voice of Albus Dumbledore cut through the tense silence deep in the heart of Hogwarts.

Quirrell spun around and immediately put up his usual mask of incompetence and fear. "A-Alb—"

"And Tom, of course," Dumbledore cut him off.

"Ah," Quirrell said after recovering from a moment of shock. His voice lost the stutter but not the fear. "You know, then."

"Frankly, I'm surprised you gave me nearly an entire year," Dumbledore replied with a hint of amusement. "My efforts to locate and retain a Defense Professor have been rather ineffectual, you see."

"You play a dangerous game with the lives of your students, old man," a slightly muffled voice rasped from underneath Quirrell's turban. The Defense Professor's eyes widened in shock, then he turned and unwrapped his turban.

If the headmaster was perturbed by the sight of Voldemort's face – stretched and cracked like old parchment over the back of Quirrell's head – he didn't show it. His slight smile froze when Voldemort had mentioned the students' lives, though. "Indeed, I fully expected to move against you far sooner. Imagine my delight when the most you could bring to bear was a troll that a mere first year could defeat and a baby dragon that did no more damage than the last time Hagrid left the tea on. No luck with the Chamber of Secrets this time, Tom?"

Voldemort hissed. "That is a betrayal I intend to punish most severely when I regain my form!"

"Ah, a pity, I'm sure," Dumbledore said with a smile. "So, did you find my particular trap to your liking? I added it as soon as the first student broke through the others to find the mysterious red stone that they couldn't seem to remove. We wouldn't them to fail to spread the rumor around, now would we?"

Voldemort's teeth clenched into a furious snarl. "Enough! Kill him, you fool!"

A blast of harsh red light enveloped Quirrell before he could so much as turn around, and he slumped to the floor bonelessly. Moments later, inky black mist seeped from under his head and out from the openings in his robe. His skin paled, then grayed and seemed to stretch. Then it cracked and crumbled, leaving nothing but a pile of ash only slightly lighter than the stone floor on which it lay. The mist spread so thin that it seemed completely dissipated.

"You will never kill me, old man." Voldemort's whisper seemed to come from every direction, like an echo with no source.

"No, I will never kill you, Tom," Dumbledore agreed in a subdued voice. "But once again I must remind you: there are far worse things to face than death."


A new character! Bonus points if you know what character inspired Martin, though it's probably quite obvious if you know the source material. Double bonus points if you get the reasoning behind his full name.

Skipping along... I know there's the whole "show, don't tell" thing, but if I show everything, this story will be way too long. I'm trying to hit the important and/or fun stuff, though.

Let me know what you think!