A/N: Alas, my job has finally decided to start kicking my ass. Expect slower updates, although I'll do my best to post when I can.

On the bright side, this chapter will leave you with quite a few things to chew over. First, watch out for Headmaster Riddle. He's not the same old Voldie you remember, and if you can't quite get a handle on him yet – good! His motivations will become clearer in later chapters, but for now he's a juicy mystery. Second, I've decided to write Malfoy with a bit more depth. In canon, he was only ever a temporary antagonist – a stand-in bad guy whose only purpose was to create angst for the Golden Trio when they were still too young to match up against the big boys like Voldemort and his crew. By the Sixth Book, Harry basically outgrew him, and Malfoy got really angsty but never did any growing of his own. In my world, however, the competition between High Houses is much more cutthroat, and Malfoy has been raised from birth to maneuver among back-stabbing Purebloods. He's a product of a dog-eat-dog world where he's always been expected to come out on top, by any means necessary. That's why I don't think it's necessarily out-of-character to portray him as a complex, cunning character, whose intelligence rivals Hermione's. And if it is out-of-character, well… I like my Malfoy better. The infighting at Hogwarts is going to be a bit more involved this time around.

Lastly, feel free to leave any questions you might have in the reviews. I might not be able to update quickly because of work, but I can usually find time to respond to thoughtful questions. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I don't own Harry Potter

Chapter 5: The Gauntlet

Disembarking from the Hogwarts Express was mass chaos. Harry kept a tight grip on Hedwig's cage as he headed for the exit, trying not to get separated from Ron or Neville in the stream of excited students. After hours on the train, everyone was more than ready to stretch their legs outside.

The older students, who had done this before, swarmed along the platform in a more or less coordinated rush, heading for a set of gates that opened into a dirt road. Harry thought he caught a glimpse of carriages beyond the gates, but then the crowd shifted again and blocked his view.

Harry was about to signal Ron and Neville to follow the crowd, when a loud, familiar voice called out, cutting through the clamor on the platform with ease. It was a voice that had been developed on dozens of battlefields, where officers had to shout over far noisier scenes than this.

"First years, fall in! You heard me first years, get your raggedy, worthless hides over here before I Transfigure you into stones and toss you in the lake!"

A tall, gaunt man with a few days' growth of scraggly beard came pushing through the crowd, his wand casting a bright light that hovered over his head. First years separated from the crowd in order to follow him, though most seemed hesitant to get to close to the bellowing figure. He kept up a steady stream of verbal abuse as he cut a swathe across the platform, until he came to Harry, Ron, and Neville.

Then he paused, rubbing his chin speculatively as a glint appeared in his eyes. "Merlin's beard… you tadpoles get smaller every year. You, with the glasses and the messy hair! Were you always that skinny, or did your Mum just decide that you weren't worth the price of food?"

Neville cowered a bit – just a bit, and Harry was determined to work on that with him later – while Ron bristled in defense of his friend. He opened his mouth, but Harry caught Ron's arm before the boy could say anything that he would come to regret.

So this is how you're gonna play it, huh, Padfoot? Fine – I'll dish it right back.

Harry stared insolently up at his godfather. "I eat just fine, thank you. And I don't know where you get off talking about my hair. Yours looks like it was cut by a blind gnome with epilepsy… sir."

Gasps erupted from the astonished crowd of first years. While locking eyes with Sirius, Harry tried very hard not to laugh. He didn't want to ruin the joke they were playing on everyone. Sirius's eyes glimmered with suppressed mirth, but only Harry knew him well enough to tell – to the rest of the crowd, he looked furious.

Sirius folded his arms. "Congratulations, Mr…"

"Potter," Harry supplied helpfully, wondering how Sirius could keep such a straight face.

"Mr. Potter. You've just broken the record for shortest time at Hogwarts before getting a detention. Report to my office immediately after the Welcome Feast."

"Yes, sir." Harry scowled.

No fair, he thought, annoyed at Sirius for pulling rank. That's playing dirty!

Knowing Sirius, however, the detention would also serve as a way to catch up with his favorite (and only) Godson. And if nothing else, at least Harry could look forward to Ron and Neville's expressions when they found out who Sirius was.

Sirius looked around at the first years watching the scene with various degrees of awe and disbelief. "Why are you all staring like pixies at a potluck? Fall in, pond scum!"

Harry caught Ron's arm and pushed him forward insistently, elbowing his new friend when it looked like he might protest the detention on Harry's behalf. It was brave but unnecessary. Harry certainly deserved a detention for speaking back to a Professor – even he wasn't about to deny that.

As Harry passed by his godfather, Sirius gave him the ghost of a wink. Harry inclined his head slightly. His godfather's familiar face and love of mischief somehow eased the ache Harry had been feeling since leaving home for the first time.

"Hurry up, maggots!" Sirius called out, resuming his course along the platform, first years trailing behind him like rats following the Pied Piper. He brought them to a wooden dock, where dozens of boats were moored and waiting. "Four to a boat, first years! Quickly, quickly! I've fought hordes of mountain trolls more organized than you lot!"

Harry spied an empty boat and went to claim it. Ron hopped aboard next, and then Neville – the clumsy heir to House Longbottom tripped on his luggage and almost went ass-backward over the side, but Harry and Ron each grabbed an arm and hauled the boy back in.

"Thanks," he muttered sheepishly. Ron groaned in mock despair, but smiled to take the sting out of it.

Soon all of the boats were claimed. No one else came to join Harry's boat, so the three friends had it all to themselves. When the docks were completely empty the boats took off on their own, guided by some navigation spell that bore the first years unerringly across the lake.

It was easy to tell when Hogwarts first came into sight – delighted shouts and awed whispers rose all at once and echoed over the water. The castle loomed in the distance, lights blazing merrily from hundreds of windows, glorious and inviting and terribly imposing all at the same time.

Friends be welcome, the castle seemed to say, while its high walls added, and enemies beware.

Sirius's voice boomed out over the lake from the lead boat, abrasive and louder than a bullhorn. "Quit your gawking, maggots! Pay attention, because I'm not going through this twice. Once we reach that castle, you lot will officially be students of Hogwarts. That means you will behave as such. Anyone who causes any trouble and embarrasses me in front of my colleagues will regret it! Understood?"

"YES, SIR!"

"Good. Now, some of you may have heard of the Gauntlet. It's Hogwarts' way of giving new students a taste of what they'll be facing for the next seven years. Some of you may be frightened… that's good. Fear keeps you on your toes. Just stay alert, and you'll get through it in one piece – at least, that's the idea. Every now and again there are… accidents." Sirius sounded entirely too happy about that possibility.

As all three of their parents had gone to Hogwarts, Harry, Ron, and Neville had all grown up hearing stories about the Gauntlet. It was a ritual that all first years went through at the beginning of the Welcome Feast. However, it was a tradition as old as the Gauntlet itself not to tell future students what they would face, so that every first year went through it unprepared. Harry's father had invented dozens of false explanations of the Gauntlet, each one more bloodthirsty than the last. When Harry was a child he had been frightened, but now he was just eager. Neville, on the other hand, looked ghastly and pale in the wandlight as the boats drew closer to the docks.

The winding path up to the castle was like something from a fairy tale. Witchlights danced in the trees, and an otherworldly music accompanied the students' breathless march to the castle entrance. The massive front doors swung inward, giving the first years their first glimpse of the Great Hall.

The vast chamber had a sloped roof enchanted to look like the night sky. From the dim starlight, Harry could see long, rectangular tables arranged lengthwise down both sides of the room. However, the tables were blocked off by two parallel rows of students, all wearing full robes with their hoods up to obscure their faces.

In the near darkness they ceased to be students; rather, they were silent sentinels marking the borders of a path that led directly through to the back of the room. At the end of the passage on a raised platform, almost too far away to see clearly in the dark, stood a row of taller figures with magelights hovering above their heads – these, Harry felt sure, were the Professors. The older students began to chant, and with the multitude of clashing voices it took Harry a second to understand the words.

"Young and smug and stupid, too,

Firsties come a'marching through!

Raw and wet behind the ears,

Still they come to face their fears!

Some kind advice we have to share:

Dumb luck alone won't get you there.

Courage, wisdom, cunning, drive –

With these you'll make it out alive."

The chant died down, leaving a spooky silence. From behind the first years came Sirius' gruff voice. "First years, welcome to the Gauntlet. Your fellow students stand in front of you, defining the path you must follow, the same path they once walked when they were in your shoes. Your professors stand ready to instruct you, but you must first prove your dedication by reaching them. Face your fear – do not let it conquer you. Help your friends – do not let them fail. Prove to us, and to yourselves, that you deserve to be students of Hogwarts!"

As his final words echoed off the walls and faded into silence, the light dimmed even further, so that the students huddled together in total blackness. Harry, Ron, and Neville had linked arms, not sure exactly how to proceed, and glad for the closeness of their friends.

"Well, what are you all waiting for?" Sirius bellowed. "Begin!"

As if on cue, the hall came alive with a roaring, shrieking wind. It flew through the chamber like a living thing, snatching at the hems of robes and pushing against the first years.

"How do we know which direction to go?" Neville yelled, his squeaky voice just barely audible over the sound of the wind. "I can't see a thing!"

"Directly into the wind!" Harry shouted. He was sure that the wind was magical in nature, and also that it was coming from the professors waiting at the other end of the hall. Logically, then, the correct direction was always the opposite of the way the wind was blowing. The three friends started forward, struggling against the gale that made every step a challenge.

From out of the darkness came a slender, silvery thread of light, flying far too fast for Harry to even think about dodging. It hit him right in the forehead, and suddenly he was plunging down through complete nothingness, unable to feel Ron or Neville, hear the roaring wind, or sense anything at all.

He hit the ground with a thud, and found himself somewhere… else. It was dark, but not pitch black, and Harry saw that he was in a forest somewhere. Neville and Ron were nowhere to be seen. Thin bars of light filtered through the treetops, silvery remnants of a full moon far away in a cloudless sky.

Harry looked around and almost jumped out of his skin when he saw a young man right beside him, scanning the surrounding trees warily, wand outstretched in his right hand. "Wha- who are you?" Harry stuttered, scrambling to draw his own wand. But his strange companion paid him no attention – it was as if Harry didn't exist.

About to say something else, Harry cut himself off when a blood-curdling howl rang out somewhere close by. It was full of blind, unreasoning hatred. Harry shivered instinctively.

The mysterious wizard cursed softly. Then he raised his wand, still ignoring Harry as if he couldn't see him, and performed a complex motion with his wand. "Expecto Patronum!"

A mountain lion made of shining light emerged from the wand, drawing a gasp of surprise and appreciation from Harry. He had heard of the Patronus Charm, of course – it was a crucial spell for soldiers on the Border to know, since it was one of the only reliable methods for fighting off Dementors. But Harry had not known that it had other uses. "Get back to Base and rouse all hands!" the wizard rasped. His Patronus sped off immediately, leaving the wizard mumbling brokenly to himself: "I'll hold them off… I have to hold them…"

An alien howl came again, this time answered by several more. The deadly chorus raised goosebumps on Harry's arms. "Are those… wolves?" he asked nervously. Silence was his only response.

A dozen shapes appeared in gaps between the trees, moving faster than Harry could have believed possible. They did not move with the coordination of a true wolf pack, and Harry saw a moment later that these could not be wolves. True wolves would not be that large, nor would their limbs be so disproportionate. But the true giveaway was the twisted gleam of all-too-human cunning in the beasts' eyes. These were werewolves, then – the shock troops of Grindelwald's Dark forces, ravenous creatures with human cunning but lacking human conscience, and practically impervious to pain.

Harry took two steps and turned to position himself directly behind the other wizard, half-forgotten lessons springing unbidden to the forefront of his mind. "Fight in pairs when you can, Harry," said his father's voice. "It's a wizard's greatest weakness that he can only cast one spell at a time, and usually only in the direction he's facing. That's why you need a good man watching your back."

James had never formally instructed Harry in magical warfare – Lily hadn't allowed it, declaring that he was too young – but if Harry was lucky, he could often wheedle his father into parting with little nuggets of advice. James had taught his son quite a bit over the years, in bits and pieces, and Harry had treasured each and every scrap of knowledge as if it had been gold in truth.

Harry had no idea how the hell he had come to be in a forest teeming with werewolves, but if he was going to go out, he would go out on his feet, fighting as his father had taught him.

A werewolf lunged directly at Harry, who screamed defiance and thrust forward with his wand as if it were a dagger. His mind was utterly blank, mesmerized by the grey-brown muzzle full of gleaming teeth that seemed to grow larger by the second. Harry's wand met that snarling maw… and passed through, becoming smoky and insubstantial before Harry's eyes. Then the wolf hit Harry's chest and went through him, and the world became dark once more.

Still screaming defiance at the werewolf, Harry found himself back in the Great Hall. It was pitch dark, but he recognized the screaming wind, and once again he felt Ron and Neville on either side. They gripped him with all their strength, and Harry realized that he had been thrashing around like an eel.

"Easy, mate!" Ron roared.

Harry went limp and forced himself to stop screaming. His throat hurt and adrenaline pumped through his veins. What had just happened? Was that real, what he had just witnessed? Who was that wizard? Harry had no clue, but he found himself hoping fervently that the brave man's Patronus had warned his allies in time.

"I'm-" Harry swallowed, coughed, and then raised his voice so his friends could hear. "I'm ok!"

"What happened?" Neville cried.

"I dunno… but watch out for any silver threads coming at you!"

They forged ahead for a few more steps, until Ron brought them to a halt with a yell.

"What about the others?!" Ron cried out. "What if they don't have anyone to hold on to when a thread hits them? Harry, Neville, can you anchor me? I have to cast a spell."

He had to repeat himself several times before they heard his entire message, but once they did, Harry and Neville set themselves and grabbed Ron around the waist. He took his wand in a two-handed grip and positioned it next to his neck.

"Sonorus!" Ron cried out, and suddenly his voice soared above the shrieking winds, enhanced to an ear-splitting volume, much like Sirius had done on the lake. "Fall in on me!" Ron yelled, managing a decent imitation of Sirius's voice of command. "First years, form ranks! Link arms and form ranks! To me!"

In the howling dark, the first years began to find each other. Small groups of two and three linked arms, first with each other and then with other groups, and slowly they pushed each other forward. Heads bowed and backs hunched against the wind, still the first years advanced, aiming for Ron's bellows.

"Eight to a line," Ron cried out. "Heads down, arms locked! Ready? Right! Left!"

He began to march, with Neville and Harry supporting him so he could maintain the spell. The wind howled with renewed intensity, but the first years held tight to their classmates on either side. Each rank blocked some of the wind for the rank behind, who in turn were there to propel the ranks in front.

More of the silver threads came twinkling out of the darkness, rising and circling before darting towards first years, seemingly at random, plunging them into more of the strange visions. Whenever this happened, the students on either side tightened their grip, supporting the stricken child until the trance had passed.

They made slow, but methodical progress, until one of the threads hit Ron for the first time. His magically enhanced voice cut off, leaving the mass of first years without a guiding voice. Their rhythm suffered, and the gradual forward motion faltered to a stop. As Ron began to trembled in his arms, Harry wondered what horrors his friend was experiencing. But he couldn't do anything about that – what was important was keeping the first years moving.

Harry shouted as loudly as he could: "Right! Left!" His voice was not a fraction of what Ron's had been while using that spell, but Neville heard Harry and joined in. One by one the other students copied them, until a ragged but determined chorus rose above the wind.

Step by step the students advanced. They paused only when the number of students entranced by the darting lights outnumbered the ones in possession of their senses.

Harry suffered through another episode, in which he was forced to watch a wave of Dementors descending from the clouds to overwhelm a small group of witches and wizards somewhere on a mountain ridge. When he regained his senses after that, hot tears traced down Harry's face, and he cursed his helplessness in the face of these visions. The youngest of the Dementors' victims had looked to be only a year or so older than Harry himself.

The Gauntlet seemed to stretch on for eternity, until Harry began to wonder if they were even in the Great Hall after all. Maybe the professors had transported them to some dark, lonely road in the middle of nowhere, and the first years would die here. The excitement Harry had felt about coming to Hogwarts, his determination to restore his family name – those emotions seemed like remnants of a different world.

Then, without warning, the wind died ceased to blow. The first years stopped their chanting and waited. High above their heads, the enchanted ceiling simulated a sunrise, until the Great Hall was illuminated with soft, rosy light. Harry looked ahead, where a row of professors stood on a raised dais mere meters away. Sirius was among them, somehow having passed the first years while they marched in darkness, and his godfather was watching him with mingled pride, worry, and understanding.

Harry couldn't even muster up a smile. He felt weariness that he would have described as "bone-deep," only it was more than that. He was weary in a way that no amount of physical activity should have produced. He felt anger as well, and fear. Grief for the men and women he'd seen, though he didn't know their names, or if they had even existed.

All around him, first years were reacting to the visions they'd seen. Some cried, clinging to their neighbors for strength. Harry didn't blame them. He felt like crying, too, but held tight to his anger instead.

The confused, upset buzz from the first years grew louder, until it was drowned out by a loud cheer. Harry turned to see the two lines of older students clapping their hands and whooping like crazy. Hoods had been thrown back, revealing smiling faces and approving eyes. Maybe Harry didn't feel like he'd done anything in the Gauntlet to be proud of, but the upperclassmen certainly did.

Ron put his wand away and almost fell, exhausted from maintaining his spell. Neville and Harry took his weight between them, until he felt steady enough to stand on his own. Neville caught Harry's eyes, and grimaced as though he'd tasted something nasty.

Harry had to agree. It was… wrong somehow, he thought, to be surrounded by cheering students in this grand chamber with its lights and decorations, when mere minutes ago he had been watching men and women fight and die in darkness. From the contemplative looks on the other first years' faces, Harry wasn't the only one who felt that way.

By the time the applause from the older students died down, the first years had turned again to face the professors. Looking around, Harry saw that, while they were no longer linking arms, the first years still stood in the ranks that Ron had organized. They looked like a regiment on review in front of its commanding officer.

One of the professors stepped forward to an ornate wooden podium carved in the form of an owl with wings spread wide. He was tall, pale, and so angular Harry wondered if his elbows might not cut the podium if they were to accidentally brush it. Sharper still were his high cheekbones, and his eyes burned with a cold fire. He wore authority like a second cloak, and though he spoke softly, every word resounded clearly in the furthest corners of the Great Hall.

"Good evening, students. I am Tom Riddle, Headmaster of Hogwarts. Unlike your peers, I am not about to congratulate you." Riddle paused for a moment, stretching the silence until the air practically crackled with tension. "Remember what you have seen here today. The visions experienced during the Gauntlet are no mere illusions. They are memories, harvested from the minds of men and women fighting to protect our way of life. Some survived the ordeals you witnessed… many did not."

Harry thought back to the first vision he'd seen, of the lone wizard facing off against a werewolf pack. How could he have possibly survived that? And if he hadn't, how could Hogwarts have gained access to the memories of a dead man? It didn't make sense, but neither was it possible to doubt the Headmaster's words. Riddle spoke with cold and utter certainty. Harry's eyes were riveted on the Headmaster, all of his attention fixed on the man. Riddle was like a magnet – no, that image didn't come close to capturing the sheer power of his personality. He was a black hole, drawing in his audience with irresistible force.

"Only the privileged few attend Hogwarts," the Headmaster went on. "But privilege can be intoxicating. It blinds you… it makes you weak and selfish. Those are qualities that I will not tolerate in my students. The next seven years can equip you with the knowledge and skills to make a difference in the world... but not if you cling to a sense of entitlement. I have seen too many witches and wizards go through life expecting others to do their dirty work. 'Someone else will protect me,' they say. 'Someone has to sacrifice, but not me.' Make no mistake… the privileges you all enjoy are bought by blood. If you are not willing to bleed for them, then maybe you don't deserve them. Something to think about, as you begin your lives here at Hogwarts."

A round of applause burst out then, and Harry found himself clapping as hard as anyone. Here was a Headmaster who understood about sacrifice! He wondered if Headmaster Riddle had ever served on the Border – it certainly sounded like he had.

After a moment Riddle raised his hand, and the students fell silent. "Please enjoy the feast. Afterwards, the Prefects will lead you to your dormitories and get you settled in. Welcome, all of you, to Hogwarts. This is a new beginning – treat it as such."

The Headmaster stepped down from the podium amidst another deafening round of applause, and students and faculty alike retired to their tables. Tables were arranged according to year, so the first years remained together. Ron had wrought better than he knew – almost without exception, the students sat next to those they had marched with in the Gauntlet. And as the boy who had galvanized them, given them purpose, Ron was ushered to the front of the table. Harry had never seen such a bright shade of red on anyone's face before, and hoped that Ron wouldn't explode.

At first everyone was rather quiet, no doubt digesting the Headmaster's pointed words, but soon they had other things to digest. A veritable mountain of food appeared on every table, and the serious business of feasting began. Nothing soothed the ragged edges of traumatic memories like good food.

"He's quite a bloke, Headmaster Riddle, isn't he?" Harry mused around a mouthful of venison stew.

"I thought he was scary…" Neville said, eyes still round as saucers.

Ron tore a roll in half, dipped one half in mustard, and used it to wash down a mouthful of kidney pie. "You're right about that, Neville. I heard a few things about him from my dad… he was once a legend on the Border. Started out as an Auror, running covert ops in enemy territory. Rose up through the ranks and took command of a key outpost in the Alps. His troops were loyal to the point of insanity, my dad says. Called themselves the Death Eaters."

"D- Death Eaters?" Neville stammered.

"Yeah. Riddle was going places, and fast. He was even raised to the Serpent caste for acts of valor. But then he retired suddenly, and a few years later the government offered him his position at Hogwarts."

"Why'd he retire?" Harry asked.

Ron shrugged, and spoke around a mouthful of biscuit. "My dad wouldn't say."

It was certainly a mystery, and tantalizing enough to keep the boys speculating for the rest of the feast. After even the most stubborn students admitted defeat and pushed back their plates, the remnants of the feast disappeared. The older students drifted slowly away, while the first years remained in their seats, waiting for the Prefects to lead them to their dorms.

A red-headed boy with a slightly superior air approached Harry's section of the table.

"My brother Percy," Ron groaned, slumping a little lower on the bench. "He's a prat."

Harry snorted, then coughed hurriedly when Percy shot the two of them a severe look.

"Silence, please," Percy announced, though no one else was talking. "First of all, Serpents have their own dorm on the seventh floor. First-year Serpents can report to Marcus Flint – he's over there, the tall boy with black hair – and he'll show you to your rooms."

Neville shifted nervously and whispered to Ron, "Do we have to go?"

"Wait a tic," Ron whispered. "We're going with Harry to that detention first."

Harry felt a warm glow of pleasure at those words, delivered so casually it was as if there had never been any question – of course Ron and Neville would accompany Harry. It was an amazing feeling, and Harry had to fight to keep a smile from his face.

"The rest of you," Percy went on, "will follow me. Badgers, Lions, and Ravens live in the same dorms, separated only by gender. First year dorms are in the dungeon. Each year you move up one floor – it symbolizes your journey to reach new heights of knowledge. Off we go, then."

Harry, Ron, and Neville left the Great Hall with the rest of the first years, but they drifted casually to the back of the pack. They had a detention to attend, after all. They probably could have just informed Percy… but it was more fun to sneak off.

Harry was honestly a little surprised that Ron and Neville were both willing to go to a detention with someone they had only met a few hours ago – not that he was complaining, of course. For a second, Harry wondered what his life would have been like if he had met Ron and Neville years ago. It might, for instance, have been a little less lonely…

Stop that, Harry scolded himself. Moping about and getting all mushy was for girls and sissies, and Harry James Potter was neither girl nor sissy.

What he was, Harry decided a second later, was lucky. Very, very lucky – he could say that at least, without admitting any weakness.

"So where's that rotten Professor's office?" Ron demanded belligerently, after they had separated from Percy's group by oh-so-casually ducking around a corner. "Let's get this over with so I can go to bed. I'm knackered."

"No idea where his office is," said Harry, "but you might not want to say things like that where he can here you. He is a Professor, after all."

Ron looked at him with outrage. "You- you hypocrite! How can tell me to be respectful, when you-" he cut off when he saw Harry laughing. Ron jabbed Harry in the ribs and scowled.

"Um…" Neville said hesitantly, "m- maybe we could ask the portraits? My Gran says they know almost everything that goes on at Hogwarts."

"Capital idea, Neville!" Harry said, after shooting a few mock punches back at Ron. "Brilliant, now we won't have to wander around like light-blinded trolls."

He tried to sound as encouraging as possible, not only because it was a good idea, but also because Harry thought Neville needed a little positive reinforcement. It didn't sound like Neville's Gran had done much for his self-esteem, but maybe getting away from her influence and finding a few new friends could help Neville grow a bit of a backbone. He would need it on the Border – for Harry had decided, without ever really thinking about it consciously, that one day they would all fight together on the Border.

Whether Neville knew it or not, Harry was going to help him become a warrior. If Neville's parents, the Aurors who had impressed even Captain James Potter with their skills, had been alive, Harry was sure they would have done the same.

Neville's idea worked like… well, like a charm. The first painting they approached, of a portly monk sipping wine with a winsome young woman in a revealing nightgown, told them how to reach the staff apartments where Sirius's office and bedchamber were located.

The door to Sirius's office was quite imposing at first glance. Fashioned of cold iron and covered by a deadly thicket of six-inch metal spikes, the door would have been more fitting as the entrance to a prison or a torture chamber than a teacher's office. A wooden sign hung from one of the spikes, with a crudely carved message that read "Beware of Dog."

Harry snorted, then tried to cover by turning it into a cough. Sirius's humor was never very subtle.

"Do you… reckon he really has a guard dog?" Neville asked nervously.

"I guess we'll find out," said Ron, and even the stalwart Weasley looked a little pale, faced with the door's palpable aura of violence.

Suddenly the metal spikes quivered, like a porcupine when it shivers. Then, without either of the boys so much as reaching for the doorknob, the door swung inward. Neville gulped.

"So, the miscreant appears at last… and he brought some allies, I see."

Professor Sirius Black blocked the doorway with his gaunt frame, a terrifying silhouette with a thunderous frown. Then he ruined the impression somewhat by pulling Harry into a bone-crushing hug.

"Come in, come in!" He ushered the three boys inside, chuckling a little at the gobsmacked expressions belonging to Neville and Ron. "Bet you didn't know Harry was my godson, eh?"

Ron looked from Sirius to Harry, who tried to look innocent while failing miserably.

"You poxy bastard!" Ron roared, and the next few minutes turned into an impromptu wrestling match, with Neville and Sirius joining in and switching sides frequently for no apparent reason. Ron eventually got Harry in an arm lock, and Harry, breathless from laughter, tapped out good-naturedly.

"I'm going to skip the detention this time," Sirius said, beaming. "Come have some tea and chat a bit. I'd like a chance to get to know my godson's friends, before the year officially starts and I have to put on my 'teacher hat,' so to speak."

They settled around a small table in Sirius's living room, where he provided them with steaming mugs of tea. "A bit young for Firewhiskey," Sirius mused, "and I'm fresh out of Butterbeer. Still, drink up!"

"So you're Harry's godfather, sir?" Ron confirmed, looking at Sirius with something akin to awe. "You fought with Captain Potter on the Border?"

Sirius smiled sadly, and took a pull from a mug of his own. "That I did. James was my Captain and my best friend. Seven years at Hogwarts and seven more on the Border, and I wouldn't trade one second of the time we spent together."

Sirius regarded Ron over the rim of his mug. "I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess you're a Weasley."

"Yes, sir."

"Damn fine family. Your father's one of the few Government men knows his ass from his ankles."

"Er, thanks… I think."

Sirius laughed. "Yes, your dad's a capital bloke. I taught your brother Charlie, too. Has the makings of a good officer, although I don't know if he'll ever leave those beasts of his. As for you…" Sirius's gaze sharpened. "You were the one who organized the first years, right? You used the Sonorus Charm to get everyone moving in the same direction."

"Er… yes, sir."

Sirius nodded with approval. "Damn fine work. The Headmaster wasn't about to tell you, but that was the best Gauntlet in years. Students normally work out that they need to walk in groups, but it's usually small groups of friends. Just herd mentality, no real teamwork at all… You've got a good instinct for command, Weasley. And if you don't mind me asking, where did you learn the Sonorus Charm? It's fairly specialized, and it doesn't have much use outside of battlefields or public events."

Ron mumbled something inaudible.

"Didn't quite catch that, sorry."

Ron blushed, but spoke louder. "From my Mum. She used to use that spell at the dinner table when we were being too loud. Said she needed the help to be heard over six rowdy boys."

It was a testament to Sirius's maturity that he didn't laugh. Instead, he nodded gravely. "That explains it, then. I'm not surprised you turned out so well, coming from such a… ahem, martial family."

Sirius looked over to Neville, who almost spilled his tea in his rush to look down at his feet. "What about you, son? Identify yourself." He softened the command with a kind smile.

"Neville Longbottom, sir."

Sirius made a pleased sound. "Longbottom, eh? I'm sure you've heard this before, but your parents were some of the best Aurors the empire's ever seen. If you've got half their guts, you'll be twice as good as most of the officers I've trained."

"Don't worry about that!" Harry jumped in. "Neville's as brave as Dad."

"Damn right!" Ron agreed. "He's already faced down one arrogant Serpent prick with us. Outnumbered two to one, and he didn't bat an eye."

Neville looked as though someone had given him a curious gadget, and he didn't quite know what to do with it. He drank some tea to hide his confusion, but Harry noticed that he sat a little straighter in his seat.

"I guess this is what it feels like to be old," Sirius said suddenly, watching the three boys with an expression that Harry couldn't decipher. "I'm looking at you, but I'm seeing the Marauders."

"The Marauders?" Ron asked.

Sirius sighed. "That's what we called ourselves in our Hogwarts days. Me, James, Peter… and Remus. The four of us certainly raised some hell when we were here. Never thought I'd be back at Hogwarts, and teaching no less! Always had Remus pegged as the professor type... but enough of that. Now's not the time for a trip down memory lane."

Harry didn't even bother to ask, knowing from long experience that Sirius wouldn't talk about what had happened to the fourth Marauder. His father hadn't either, even though James had loved to tell of the Hogwarts exploits of Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs. Harry knew that Peter, or Wormtail, had some kind of high-powered job in the Ministry, but he had never met the man. Apparently something had happened years before Harry was born that drove Peter and the Marauders apart.

As for the mysterious Remus/Moony, Harry had no idea what had happened to him. He only knew that Sirius never failed to get that sad, faraway look in his eyes when he talked about him.

Sirius shook himself, much like a dog shakes to dry off, and turned to Harry with the roguish gleam back in his eyes. "I almost forgot… I have a gift for you, Harry. A little something of your dad's."

He disappeared into another room, and came back with a lumpy parcel wrapped in nondescript paper. Harry opened it, and a beautiful cloak made of some kind of shimmery fabric spilled out into his arms.

"Is that-" Neville whispered, at the same time that Ron exclaimed, "An Invisibility Cloak!"

"I always meant to give it to you," Sirius explained, "but I wanted to wait for the right moment. Keep it safe – it was one of your father's most treasured possessions. Got us into more scrapes in Hogwarts than I can recall… but then, it got us out of more than a few sticky situations on the Border, so I'd say it evened out." Sirius paused, and a wicked glint came into his eyes. "And just so we're clear, I don't want to see you using that to make trouble… got it?"

"You don't want to see…" Harry looked from Sirius, who was grinning from ear to ear, to the Invisibility Cloak. Harry's grin grew until it rivaled his godfather's. "Right. I think I can promise you that, Professor."

"Last thing," Sirius said, addressing himself to Neville and Ron. "I see you two are Serpents, which means your dorm is up on the seventh floor. But if you'd prefer to stay with the other first years in the dungeons, it can be arranged. The Headmaster has been trying to abolish the practice of Serpents living apart from everyone else, but the Board of Trustees has stood in his way so far. However, no one can stop a Serpent from moving in with the lower-caste students if he wants. That's what James and I did, in fact – we wanted to stay with Remus and Peter."

"Brilliant!" Ron crowed. "Now I won't have to stay in the same dorm as that bastard Malfoy!"

"Of course that's what we want," Neville said with quiet conviction. "When can we move our things?"

"I'll take care of it," Sirius promised. "You just get to the first-year dorms, and a House Elf will bring you your trunks. You three just focus on getting enough sleep – you've got Introduction to Battle Magic tomorrow, and you're going to need all the energy you can muster."

"Will you be teaching us?" Harry asked eagerly.

"Damn straight," Sirius replied. "And don't go thinking you'll get any special treatment from me… I may seem all warm and fuzzy now, but tomorrow morning I turn into the drill sergeant from hell. I'll be twice as hard on you during Battle Magic as any of the others – that goes for the two of you as well, Weasley, Longbottom. If I catch you slacking, I'll kill you myself."

"Yes, sir!" the three boys cried as one.

They left soon after, speculating about Battle Magic with all the curiosity and optimism of youth. As for Sirius, he ignored his own advice by staying up late into the night, flipping idly through a Hogwarts yearbook from thirteen years ago. Around midnight he poured himself a small glass of Firewhiskey and drank it slowly.

"Oh, James," he whispered, staring at his friend's face in the yearbook. "Harry has grown so much. He has your courage, and Lily's ability to bring out the best in people. I think those two boys would die for him, and he for them… If only you could see him now, you'd be so proud… so proud, James…"

Sirius cried that night – whether from grief or joy, even he couldn't have said.

oOoOo

Hermione had many thoughts after the Gauntlet, most of which she kept to herself. She, like the other first years, had suffered through several of the visions – memories, supposedly – of witches and wizards on the Border.

Possessing a little more insight than most of the first years, Hermione could see how beautifully they had all been manipulated. Those memories were designed to shock them, and Headmaster Riddle had taken full advantage of that shock to deliver his message. It was a masterful bit of propaganda, but Hermione was far from convinced.

Why don't you share memories of children being ripped from their families? She thought resentfully. All of that talk of being willing to bleed for your liberties, but you never mention that not everyone is free, and not all the blood on your hands is actually yours…

Not only that, but how did Hermione know that those memories were even real? Where was the proof?

All Hermione knew for sure was that magic was even more dangerous than she'd imagined. Those floating silver threads had inserted entire memories directly into her mind! Umbridge's warning about erasing Hermione's personality with magic suddenly took on an even more sinister undertone.

If memories, whether real or false, could be implanted into someone's mind, could they also be removed? Hermione could only assume that the answer was yes. The implication was that her thoughts could never be fully trusted… and that was a truly terrifying prospect.

Hermione wanted to share her reasoning with Dean and Justin, but there was no way to ensure that she wouldn't be overheard in the crowded banquet hall. Besides, Hermione didn't want to alarm them for no reason.

And of course, there was always balance. If magic could invade the mind, then magic could also be used to guard the mind from intrusion. Hermione simply needed to learn such magic. Until then, what Dean and Justin didn't suspect wouldn't hurt them. Hermione would figure out how to protect them all.

After the Feast, Hermione lingered with Dean and Justin as they wandered toward the dungeons. They knew they would have to separate soon, since boys and girls slept in different dorms, so they held back from the crowd in order to enjoy each other's company for a little longer. That made it easy for Draco Malfoy and his brutish buddies to confront them – the three Badgers were easy prey, having already separated from the safety of the herd.

Dean surreptitiously edged closer to Hermione when Malfoy appeared, reacting instinctively to the air of menace emanating from the young blond and his thugs. Justin tucked Feather into his breast pocket and puffed his chest out, glaring with admirable resolve at the Serpents.

Bloody, buggering Bubotubers! Hermione cursed, drawing on some of Dean's lessons in Wizarding invective. I can't catch a break with this bastard!

Malfoy took two deliberate steps forward, waving at his – friends, Hermione supposed, although they acted more like bodyguards – to stay behind. For a few agonizing seconds he just watched Hermione, who was unable to read anything except mild curiosity in those narrowed eyes. Without warning or provocation, Malfoy raised his hand as if to slap her.

Dean moved instantly, stepping in front of Hermione while grabbing Malfoy's wrist with one hand. Meanwhile, Justin had already drawn his wand and swung it back and forth between Crabbe and Goyle, brandishing it like a spear to keep two angry boars at bay. Justin trembled violently and his hand shook, but that was perhaps even more frightening than if he'd been calm, at least from the perspective of the people staring down the business end of his wand.

Even Crookshanks was doing his part, though not a single one of the first years noticed – the cat-kneazle cross had somehow circled around, completely unseen, to position himself behind Crabbe and Goyle. Hermione's familiar crouched at the ready, claws unsheathed and teeth bared, ready to deal out serious damage to anyone threatening his mistress.

"What the hell are you playing at?" Dean demanded, wrenching Malfoy's arm painfully before releasing him. He kept his wand out, however, centered on Malfoy's chest.

Malfoy stepped back and rubbed his wrist, actually managing to look amused, of all things. When he answered Dean, he looked straight at Hermione.

"I was curious. At first glance, Miss Granger does not appear to be anything special… yet she is surrounded by knights in shining armor. Three sons of Pureblood Houses jump to her aid on the train – though I suppose I shouldn't count Potter, since his House is in ruins – and now you two. From the looks of you, you're as devoted to her as Gregory and Vincent are to me. That makes me… very curious indeed. What are you hiding, little Badger girl?"

Like Hermione was going to answer that. Talk about a loaded question. Instead, she bowed her head, letting her bushy hair fall over her eyes. "Please forgive my friends," she entreated, allowing a hint of a quaver into her voice. "We're not related, but they see me as a sister. They have more courage than sense, and try to protect me even when I'm in no danger."

Malfoy came closer, ignoring Dean's wand with icy composure. "Is that so?" he said, in a tone dripping with irony. "You don't think you're in danger?"

Hermione was rapidly revising her estimation of this Pureblood scion. Privileged and spoiled he might well be, but he was no fool. Those eyes held a malevolent intelligence that was leagues beyond Umbridge's straightforward cruelty. Hermione felt a bit ashamed that she hadn't realized this back on the train.

Hermione had to change her approach. Simple flattery wouldn't work, nor would her innocent act – Malfoy wasn't falling for it.

"In danger… what do you mean, sir? What danger could there be in Hogwarts?" Hermione asked with mock innocence that only thinly veiled the note of challenge in her voice. Malfoy would catch her sarcasm, she was sure, and hopefully be intrigued without going so far as to view Hermione as a threat.

I'm a shiny little puzzle, Hermione thought, meeting Malfoy's eyes openly now. Intriguing enough to play with for a while, but not important enough to get frustrated by.

Hermione's plan to fly under the radar was falling apart, and the strangest thing was she didn't care. The blood was pumping in her veins, and she felt alive in a way that would actually have been a little disturbing, if she'd thought about it instead of concentrating on her mental duel with Malfoy.

Malfoy grinned, an expression of honest amusement tinged with a hint of anticipation. "I really couldn't say… but I'm sure you could find some danger if you put your mind to it. Come on, Crabbe, Goyle. Our dorm is seven floors up, and we don't want to miss curfew on the first night."

He walked away, but stopped before rounding the corner and looked over his shoulder. "Oh, and Miss Granger…"

"Yes?"

This time Malfoy's smile was just an excuse to show his teeth. "While I appreciate the respect implied by calling me 'sir,' I don't think your heart is really in it. Why don't you call me Draco?"

Hermione's returning smile was so sweet it would have made a bee gag. "Only if you call me Hermione."

"Very well… Hermione."

The Slytherins disappeared around the corner, but Malfoy's soft chuckle echoed off the stone walls and lingered in the air for a long moment before fading away.

With the threat gone – temporarily, at least – Justin put away his wand and hyperventilated quietly. "Just minding our own business… three Serpents… must be crazy… what have I done?!"

Dean walked over to Justin and cuffed him playfully. "You did great, Justin. I'll feel a lot safer when the curses start flying, knowing you've got my back."

Justin blushed bright red, though he snapped at Dean to cover his obvious pleasure. "Don't get ahead of yourself, you crazy bastard. When the curses start flying I'll be running away, like any sensible person."

"Ha!" This time Dean's back-slap almost knocked Justin over. "You don't fool me, you little hero. When the Inferi are rising and the werewolves start to charge, you'll be standing front and center. You're just pretending to be all sensible – when it comes down to it, you're as cracked as the rest of us. And speaking of saying things you don't mean…" Dean turned to level a knowing look at Hermione.

She cringed a little. Dean was just a little too observant for her comfort. "You were enjoying that, weren't you?" he asked.

Hermione played dumb. "What do you mean?"

Dean wasn't buying her innocent act any more than Malfoy had. "Back there, with Malfoy – oh, sorry, I mean Draco. Whatever happened to lying low so no one finds out we're Mudbloods?"

Hermione sighed. "It was an adrenaline rush, that's all. He's smarter than I thought. Lying low wasn't working – I had to change my approach. From now on, we're going to have to adjust our tactics."

"Suits me fine," Dean said with a shrug. "I wasn't all that psyched about licking that greasy bastard's boots in the first place. Things will be more interesting this way."

Justin took Feather out of his pocket and whispered a few comforting nonsense words to his familiar. "I hate interesting," he confided in a stage whisper to his rat.

Sauntering up along the corridor, Crookshanks spat emphatically, as if to say, "Bloody right."