Harry Potter and the Exchange Student
by Christine Morgan
Author’s Note: the characters of the Harry Potter novels are the property of their creator, J.K. Rowling, and are used here without her knowledge or permission. All other characters property of the author, with the exceptions of Becca Morgan and her parents, who are themselves. November 2001. 35,000 words.
For Becca, with love.

Chapter One – A Walk in the Park

       Another summer with the Dursleys was drawing to a close. For Harry Potter, who lived with them, it was both better and worse than the other summers of his life. Better because the Dursleys now knew that it was pointless to try and keep him from corresponding with his friends from Hogwarts, the school for Witchcraft and Wizardry which was Harry’s true home nine months out of the year, and worse because … well, because Dursleys were still Dursleys. 
       Dudley, in particular, was more Dursley than ever. The real trial of the summer came because the nurse at his school, a decidedly Muggle one, suggested to Aunt Petunia that Dudley might benefit from an exercise regime. Dudley, whose main goals in life had always been a.) tormenting Harry, and b.) eating anything in sight, had recently grown so round that he resembled a head perched on top of a big pink beach ball. 
       He hadn’t had the exercise of tormenting Harry in ages, first because he’d been afraid that Harry would turn him into something unpleasant, and then, once the Dursleys found out that Harry was in fact forbidden to use his magic outside of Hogwarts, worried that some wizard friend or teacher who was not so restricted might show up. Dudley had never forgotten, and probably never would no matter how he tried, the time that Hagrid had given him a pig’s tail, or the time that the Weasley twins had tricked him with a tongue-expanding toffee. 
       But the nurse said exercise, and Aunt Petunia was determined to see it happen. Which meant that every morning, rain or shine, Dudley was forced out of bed and into his jogging suit – making him look like a head perched on top of a flannel-covered beach ball – and sent out to do a circuit of the neighborhood.
       After the first few times, in which Dudley cheated and hid behind a hedge on the corner of Privet Drive, Uncle Vernon took matters into his own hands and decreed that he and Harry would join Dudley on these morning jogs to make sure it got done. 
       Harry didn’t mind. He was glad for the chance to get some exercise himself, although he would have preferred being allowed to take his broomstick out for a spin. It wasn’t easy to face a new season of Quidditch, the popular wizard sport, when he hadn’t been able to practice all summer. 
       Besides, it was rather funny, this jogging. Uncle Vernon wasn’t exactly skinny himself, being a big beefy man with jowls and a perpetually red face. He puffed and sweated whenever he ran more than three paces, and by the end of their circuit, he was usually the color of a plum and gasping so hard that he could barely find the voice to yell at Harry.
       As for Dudley, he would have looked more at home bouncing or rolling down the street. Everything jounced and jiggled. The ground shook beneath him, and the first few times, everyone on Privet Drive came out of their beds in fright, thinking it was some early-morning earthquake. He wheezed and complained the whole time, soaked with sweat until his hair was pasted on his round head.
       To their credit, though, they stuck to it throughout that long summer. It might even have worked, if Aunt Petunia hadn’t rewarded Dudley for each successful completion of his daily exercise by feeding him an enormous breakfast of bacon and cheese sandwiches that had been dipped in egg batter and fried in butter, served up with a generous pouring of syrup and enough powdered sugar to bury a mouse. So it was that, by the time Harry’s birthday came around, Dudley had burst out of yet another pants size. 
       Harry’s birthday was an occasion that usually went unremarked in the Dursley household. Until he’d turned eleven, he’d accepted this simply as a matter of course and went on with life. Now, he could count on cards and packages from his friends, which arrived by owl … very late at night, though, because even the mention of the word ‘owl’ these days was enough to have Uncle Vernon grasping at his chest and sputtering. 
       This birthday proved much the same. Hermione Granger, the most dedicated student at Hogwarts, sent Harry a gift case with brand-new quills, inkpots, and scrolls of parchment. Ron Weasley, his other best friend, sent a large and untidily-wrapped package by way of the Weasley family owl, Errol, who fluttered to the windowsill and actually made it inside before pitching, beak-first, onto Harry’s desk where he lay without moving until late the next afternoon. Hedwig, Harry’s own owl, hooted scornfully, but Harry reminded her that if Errol hadn’t done it, Ron’s own small owl Pig would have, and Pig drove Hedwig half mad with his constant hopping about and hyperactive chirping. 
       The package from Ron and family consisted of six Chocolate Frogs (Series II, with mystery cream fillings happily not made by the people responsible for the Every Flavor Beans – when they said every flavor, they meant it; the macaroni cheese was actually quite good, but the mildew-flavor was enough to turn one’s teeth green – and an all-new line of wizard trading cards), a joke wand from Fred and George that produced an amazing array of disgusting noises, a hand-knitted broom cozy from Mrs. Weasley, and from Ginny, Ron’s little sister whose face went nearly as red as her hair whenever Harry was around, a homemade card done in wizard-crayons so that the images in the picture moved. Ginny had drawn, with considerable skill, a Quidditch match with Harry as Seeker swooping down on the elusive Golden Snitch. 
       He also had a card and a box of homemade dragonspice cookies from Hagrid, the Hogwarts gamekeeper. Hagrid, a huge and hairy figure with a heart as big as the rest of him, was a great friend but his cooking left something to be desired; just opening the box of dragonspice cookies caused flames to leap out and singe Harry’s hair. 
       The most eagerly-awaited present was the one from Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black. Sirius had promised him a scrapbook from his own student years at Hogwarts, when he and Harry’s father had been best friends. Harry sat with the large leather-bound book for hours, paging through clippings on Quidditch matches, notes that James Potter and Sirius had passed during Professor Binns’ History of Magic class – arguably the most tedious one at all of Hogwarts, though Harry preferred it to Professor Snape’s Potions lessons – and even a program from a school dance in their sixth year, when Harry’s parents had been voted Most Magical Couple. 
       So, even with the jogging and Dudley’s endless whining, even with Uncle Vernon’s dark looks every time the neighbors remarked on the odd number of owls that seemed to frequent Number Four, the summer passed pleasantly enough. A note arrived from the Weasleys inviting Harry to join them for the last two weeks at the Burrow, their ramshackle but happy home. This was custom by now, and as it spared Uncle Vernon the task of seeing that Harry got to Diagon Alley for school supplies as well as to King’s Cross Station each year, he only grumbled a little when Harry informed the Dursleys that he’d be leaving.
       He packed his trunk eagerly, coaxed Hedwig into her cage, and left the house that was like his prison, his own personal Azkaban, for the pre-arranged meeting place where he’d wait for the Weasleys. This pre-arranging had become necessary after several mishaps and Uncle Vernon quite firmly putting his foot down: Harry could go with ‘those people,’ but he wasn’t going to have them bringing flying cars to his house or popping out of the fireplace or other such nonsense.
       The meeting-place was a park two streets over, and Harry felt a little conspicuous dragging his trunk and baggage on an old red wagon of Dudley’s that he’d salvaged from the closet of the second bedroom. This was ostensibly Harry’s bedroom now, but the closet still served as dumping ground and graveyard for Dudley’s broken or abandoned toys. Once, Harry had ventured to ask how come they didn’t just throw all the junk away, but Dudley had pitched such a fit about losing his favorite things that Aunt Petunia, her lips pressed down to a tiny white seam, told Harry he was a horribly mean and rude boy even to say such a thing.
       The wagon only had three wheels and one of them wobbled, but it held together long enough for Harry to get to the park. There, surrounded by Muggle mothers who’d brought their children to the wading pool and swings, he was struck with a sudden melancholy. The Dursleys had certainly never taken him to the park, although they’d taken Dudley and not only pushed him on the swings but carried him to the top of the slides so he wouldn’t have to climb. 
       Harry’s own parents hadn’t had him long enough for that. He was comforted somewhat by the photo album Hagrid had given him at the end of his first year, as well as memories of the Mirror of Erised and other strange spectral encounters, but it didn’t completely make the ache go away. 
       The nearby clock tower chimed the hour, and Harry pushed those mopey thoughts away and began looking about for the Weasleys. He was never sure what to expect. Mr. Weasley was fascinated by Muggles and had been known to corner strangers on the street, asking them breathless questions about how televisions worked, and what ‘fast food’ meant if it didn’t instantly appear the way conjured food did. Sometimes, he got so caught up in these conversations that he forgot all about other appointments. But surely Ron wouldn’t let him forget about Harry.
       And yet, as the minutes ticked by with no sign of the Weasleys, Harry started to get a little worried. He hoped they’d remembered to come to the park. His mind summoned up all sorts of horrible incidents that could happen if the Weasleys mistakenly went to Number Four Privet Drive again. 
       Half an hour went by. Harry, pulling the wobbly wagon after him, went once around the park in case he’d gotten the wrong bench. He didn’t see the Weasleys, and their hair would have made them impossible to miss even if they’d been dressed as Muggles. 
       No Weasleys. No Ron. Hedwig rustled impatiently in her cage. She, like Harry, was tired of the long confinement of the summer and ready for the carefree fun of life at the Burrow. He was tempted to let her out with a message, to see if there was some delay, but didn’t dare. He was already getting some funny looks from Muggles in the park. 
       Starting to be really genuinely nervous now, Harry went around the park again. He stood on the bench and peered all around at the streets, hoping for a red flash of Weasley hair. Nothing. 
       But …
       The park was usually a fairly busy place, especially on a nice summer’s day like this. Muggles came and went in regular crowds. Except now, Muggles weren’t coming, and Muggles weren’t going. No one was entering or leaving the park, and there was a strange sort of shimmer over where the streets bordered on its tree-lined lawns.
       Having run into enough magic to know it when he saw it, Harry understood right away that a spell was going on. And having also run into enough occasions when someone tried to prevent him returning to Hogwarts, he further understood right away that it was aimed at him. Someone didn’t want him to find the Weasleys, go to the Burrow, and from there to Diagon Alley or Hogwarts. Someone wanted him to have to return, head held low in shame, to Privet Drive and explain to the Dursleys that he wasn’t welcome as a visitor.
       Harry was not about to let that happen. He watched as a Muggle mother, having finally rounded up her children over their protests, started toward the gate of the park. She didn’t act as if she saw the shimmer – to Harry’s eyes, it was now as visible as a curtain made of glittery gold threads in sheer cloth, so that the street could be seen through it but there was definitely something there – and as she drew close to it, the Muggle woman stopped, frowned, turned this way and that in confusion, and then gave in to her children’s pleas to be allowed to play just a little longer.
       A diversion spell, a misdirection spell. For no good reason that they could ascertain, the Muggles inside the park couldn’t leave it, and Muggles on the outside passed right by as if they didn’t notice the park was there.
       Just then, out on the street, Harry saw the familiar flash of red he’d been waiting for. It was Ron Weasley, weaving down the street on a bike that looked even wobblier than the wagon holding Harry’s luggage. His brothers, Fred and George, were with him. So was his father, but Mr. Weasley’s bicycle was the old-fashioned kind with one gigantic front wheel. They pedaled around in seeming agitation. Harry jumped up and down, calling and waving, but even when Ron looked right in his direction, Ron’s eyes passed over Harry without seeing him. 
       The Weasleys were arguing and gesturing wildly. Mr. Weasley unfolded a map from his pocket and consulted it while Fred and George put their heads close together, whispered, and then –
       Harry was astounded. The twins’ bicycles had looked odd to him, and now he understood why. They weren’t bicycles at all but fake cardboard bicycle disguises built around broomsticks. While George rode his at street-level, doing stunts and tricks to distract the Muggles, Fred kicked his off the ground and soared above the rooftops.
       Ron, meanwhile, had wrestled Pig out of a wire cage and was trying to get the small owl’s attention. Pig was far more interested in trying to nip the uncombed strands of Ron’s hair. 
       Harry hadn’t been idle all this time. With the wagon jolting and swaying behind him, he was running for the gate, shouting. But every time he got close, he’d all of a sudden find himself heading back into the park, as if he’d changed his mind or been reversed in step by an unseen force. 
       Frantic now, Harry did the only thing he could think of. He shut his eyes and plunged blindly, hearing by the startled exclamation that he’d nearly run right into a Muggle. The wagon shuddered alarmingly and lurched to one side as another wheel came off. Luckily, the two that remained were both rear ones, so it didn’t tip and spill his things.
       He felt a pressure at his mind, a whisper that he couldn’t quite hear but could still understand, telling him that the park was a perfectly nice place, no need to leave, why not turn around and stay a while? Gritting his teeth, Harry ignored it and felt a tingle as he burst through the shimmering veil. He exploded into the normal street, tripped, and sprawled on the sidewalk with a grunt. 
       Fred Weasley landed beside him, and the Muggles who’d already been looking at Harry did a double-take, then shook their heads as if to tell themselves that bicycles couldn’t really fly.
       “What an entrance, Harry, what an entrance,” Fred said, helping him up and dusting him off.
       The other Weasleys came rushing over, still arguing. Mr. Weasley was waving his map.
       “See there, George, I did not have it upside down, here’s the park, right where I said.”
       “Wasn’t there a minute ago,” George replied.
       “Where’ve you been, Harry?” Ron picked up Hedwig’s cage, which had fallen onto its side. Pig poked his beak through the bars to squeak a hello at Hedwig, but the big white owl fluffed her feathers and turned her head all the way to the back so she wouldn’t have to look at any of them, disgusted with the whole ordeal. 
       “Someone put a spell around the park,” Harry said, coughing as Fred beat the dust from him a little too enthusiastically. Fred and George were Beaters on the Quidditch team, their job being to whack the malicious Bludgers trying to unseat the other players, and both twins were stronger than they looked.
       “A spell?” Mr. Weasley looked around, squinting in a way that made his forehead wrinkle terribly. 
       “Not again,” groaned Ron. “Don’t tell me someone wants to keep you from Hogwarts again.”
       “Well, it’s not going to work,” Harry said vehemently. “I don’t know who it is this time, and I don’t care how good they think their reasons are. I’m so glad to see you, Ron.”
       “Highly irregular,” muttered Mr. Weasley. “I can just pick up the residuals. An Aversion spell, a big one too to cover the whole park. Have to investigate.”
       “Not now, Dad,” said George. “We promised Mum we’d be back for dinner, and we’re going to have to hurry.”
       “You go, boys,” said Mr. Weasley absently. “Tell your mother I’ll be late. I’ve got to get the Ministry out here to have a look at this.”
       “Come on, Harry,” Fred said. While his father wasn’t looking, he squeezed out a dab of Insta-Gloo that instantly stuck Harry’s luggage, wagon and all, to the back of his bike. “I’ll take this, George’ll take Hedwig, and you can ride double with Ron.”
       Harry got on rather doubtfully. It wasn’t the bike; he’d ridden one before when Dudley had flat-out rejected a birthday present, and besides, someone almost as comfortable on a flying broomstick as he was on his own two feet shouldn’t have anything to fear from a bike. What he did doubt was Ron’s riding ability. Despite his secret wish to captain the Quidditch team, Ron rode at a headlong lunge that was somewhere between reckless and suicidal, and tried too often to copy the fancy moves made by Fred and George.
       Once they were out of sight of the park, where Mr. Weasley was waiting by his old-fashioned bike for the Ministry’s experts to Apparate in, Fred and George shared a grin and glanced over, eyes shining, at Ron and Harry.
       “We’ll get in trouble,” Ron said before either of them spoke.
       “Mum hates it when we’re not at the table right on time,” Fred said.
       “If we get caught, you can tell her it was all our idea,” added George.
       “I always do and it usually is,” Ron said glumly, “but that doesn’t stop her from yelling at me, too. My ears are still ringing from the last time she sent me a Howler.”
       “That one wasn’t our fault,” Fred said. “Wish we’d thought of it, though!”
       “Come on,” George cried, and kicked his bike off the ground. “Last one there gets gnome duty!”
       “Might as well,” Harry said, clinging tight as Ron followed his brothers up and out of the secluded street, dodging and weaving among chimneys to avoid being seen as they sped on toward the Burrow.


Chapter Two – News from the Ministry

       The Weasley’s home was as Harry remembered – crowded, cluttered, and full of life and laughter. Ron never believed that he, Harry Potter, the Harry Potter, the great and powerful Harry Potter, was deeply envious of the happy home life that the Weasleys enjoyed.
       The last two weeks of summer passed in a busy blur. Ginny, the youngest Weasley, had improved to the point that she no longer blushed every time she saw Harry, and was even able to talk directly to him without hiding behind her hands. Percy was barely seen, and Mrs. Weasley fretted constantly that he was working too hard, but Percy seemed to be thriving on it. 
       Harry would have been sorry to see his time at the Burrow come to an end if it hadn’t meant that Hogwarts would be next. He could hardly wait to be back in Gryffindor tower with his friends, eating in the Great Hall where the food was far more plentiful than anything he’d ever had with the Dursleys, and soaring over the Quidditch field. He was eager to see Hagrid, and Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall. He didn’t even mind the prospect of another several months of Draco Malfoy and Professor Snape.
       “Wonder who they’ve got to teach DADA this year,” Ron said as they arrived by Floo powder in a fireplace in Diagon Alley. Harry had finally gotten the hang of the stuff, though it would never be his favorite way of getting from one place to another. 
       DADA was Defense Against the Dark Arts, and in Harry’s time at Hogwarts, they’d seen an amazing rate of turnover in professors. Hardly any of them lasted out the whole year, and according to Mr. Weasley, it was getting harder and harder to find anybody willing to take the position because they were all starting to believe it was cursed.
       Diagon Alley was one of the hidden streets in London, a place where wizards and witches could go about their business away from Muggle eyes. Away from most Muggle eyes, that was. Some Muggles did occasionally venture in, like Hermione’s parents. On that twisting cobblestone lane, where the buildings leaned this way and that, most everyone wore robes and pointed hats. The shop windows were full of cauldrons, wands, candles, spellbooks, and the various trappings of witchcraft and wizardry. 
       Despite his lingering concern over who was trying to interfere with him this time, Harry had a fine time in Diagon Alley. He visited Gringotts, the goblin-run bank, to withdraw enough money for his school supplies – this part was always the most painful, because he knew how little money the Weasleys had and wished he could convince them to let him share his wealth, but they were too proud to take gold and silver from him. Harry tried to make up for this in other ways, such as laying in a large store of snacks for himself and Ron, or ‘accidentally’ buying the wrong textbook and then giving it to Ginny while claiming it was easier than going back to Flourish & Blotts and trying to return it. 
       Every year, Hogwarts students received a list of their required supplies and textbooks. Harry glanced over this list, remembering past years when the contents gave them some hints about the instructors. The time Gilderoy Lockhart had gotten the DADA position, for instance, and made all the students buy each and every one of his books. Or the time Hagrid had assigned them a monster book that was quite literally a monster, taking vicious chomps at anyone who tried to open it. 
       This year, the list had no clues as to that. There was the standard spellbook for Harry’s year, a book titled The Advanced Wand and Cauldron Primer, Magicipulation of Inanimate Objects and its companion volume, Magicipulation of Animate Objects, one called Wards for All Occasions that puzzled Harry at first, because he was the Dursley’s ward, but it seemed to be all about defense spells. The last on the list was the only one that made him really stop and ponder.
       “Hermione,” he said. “Have you seen this?”
       Hermione Granger, a Gryffindor girl in the same class as Harry and Ron, and their closest friend since a troll incident on their first Halloween at Hogwarts, came over to him with her arms loaded with books. She wasn’t taking double classes this time, but she had garnered permission from Professor McGonagall to do an independent study project on the Witches’ Rights movement of the late 1600’s and staggered under the weight of four extra books.
       “This one. Wizardry in the New World. What’s that about?”
       “Oh, haven’t you heard?” Ron, his cauldron full of slightly tattered copies from the second-hand section, came up to them. “I’m sorry, Harry, I thought I told you. Dad was going on about it earlier this summer.”
       “Going on about what?” asked Hermione impatiently.
       “The exchange student. We’re having an exchange student at Hogwarts this year.”
       “From Durmstrang or Beauxbatons?” Harry asked, naming the other two schools he knew of.
       “Neither,” said Ron, his eyes wide beneath his red fringe of hair. “From America!”
       “America!” echoed Hermione, aghast. “You must be joking! They’re the Muggliest Muggles of all! Why, they don’t even have a magic school over there!”
       “So that’s what this is about?” Harry skimmed the contents table of Wizardry  in the New World, noting headings such as ‘Shamanistic Rites of Native Peoples’ and ‘Salem: Fact and Fiction.’
       “It’s true,” Ron said earnestly to Hermione, who looked horribly offended. “I heard it from Dad. What’s more, it sounds like the exchange student’s going to be in our year.”
       “Well,” said Hermione, adding a copy of Uppity Witches of Medieval Times to her stack, “ I hope we’re not expected to take it easy on this American.”
       “I wouldn’t expect her to take it easy on anyone,” Ron muttered to Harry, but of course Hermione heard him and tossed back her mussed brown hair to glare at him. She’d taken to copying Professor McGonagall’s glare, and gotten much too good at it, in Harry and Ron’s opinion. 
       “I only mean,” she said haughtily, “that the professors had better not expect us to dumb ourselves down so that the new student won’t look bad.”
       “I’m sure Professor Dumbledore wouldn’t have agreed to it unless he thought it would work,” Harry said. 
       On the street again with their parcels, all tied in brown paper and twine, they spotted their friend Neville Longbottom, another Gryffindor who was being towed along by his formidable witch of a grandmother. Neville managed a wave before he was pulled off in the direction of a basic spell supply shop; he always started a new year with a full complement of supplies and had lost or broken almost all of them by the end of exams. 
       They also saw, and deftly avoided, the pale, sneering face of Draco Malfoy and his Slytherin cronies, Crabbe and Goyle. The three of them were following Draco’s father, Lucius, who swept along with his head held arrogantly high, just as if everyone didn’t know he was a complete Dark wizard gone over into full support of Voldemort – or, as almost everyone but Harry said, “You-Know-Who.”
       One the shopping was done, they had time for refreshing mugs of butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron. Harry looked around hopefully for Hagrid, but there was no sign of the bearded giant this time. Then they were due to head to King’s Cross Station, where the Hogwarts Express would be waiting.
       Getting to the train was always an adventure in itself. Ever since one fateful encounter when the wall that was supposed to part harmlessly and let them through to the secret Platform 9 ¾ had stubbornly refused to part, resulting in Harry and Ron crashing full-tilt into solid brick, Harry had been apprehensive. He went at the wall now wincing, one eye squeezed shut in anticipation of the jarring impact, but his trolley whooshed through just like normal. He’d been half expecting that whoever had been up to magical mischief at the park to strike again here, but he boarded the train without incident.
       The Hogwarts Express was filled with excited students, going from compartment to compartment renewing acquaintances and sharing news. Ron wasn’t the only one who’d heard about the exchange student, though nobody knew anything more than he or she was an American, and that his or her parents were Kertches.
       “What’s a Kertch?” Harry asked cautiously, hoping it wasn’t a nasty term like ‘Mudblood,’ which Draco Malfoy loved throwing around.
       Hermione always had the answer, and this time was no exception. “A wizard or witch who grows up without knowing it and never goes to school or learns how to use magic. Somewhere between a wizard and a Muggle. It’s understandable, I guess, for America. Can you imagine going through your whole life and never realizing you’re a wizard?”
       Harry thought about that and shuddered. Growing up with the Dursleys, living in that cupboard under the stairs for the rest of his life, or at least until he was too tall to fit – Harry, being short and slim, knew that might be a long time coming – and eventually having Uncle Vernon give him a job making drills so that he could keep an eye on Harry forever. Forever.
       He shuddered again.
       “Well, I think it’ll be interesting,” Ron said around a mouthful of cake.
       They’d stocked up on treats from the refreshment cart as usual, iced pumpkin juice and candy and Snapcorn, similar to popcorn except that it snapped without heat and could hit a person in the eye if they weren’t careful. Fred and George wasted no time organizing a contest to see who could catch the most Snapcorn kernels in their mouths. That came to an end when Neville got one up his nose and sneezed for two minutes solid. 
       One other piece of news was circulating on the train, concerning the identity of the new DADA teacher. Harry attended this with particular care, since with his luck, it’d probably turn out to be the very mystery wizard who’d tried to stop him meeting up with the Weasleys. As if he needed another enemy. 
       “Reginald Winterwind?” Hermione raised her eyebrows.
       “Can it be?” asked Ron, wide eyed and teasing. “Someone our Hermione hasn’t heard of?”
       “I’ve heard of him,” she snapped as sharply as any kernel of Snapcorn. “He’s listed in The Who’s Who of Contemporary Wizardry. He was at Hogwarts the year of the big Quidditch Cup scandal. A Hufflepuff, I think.”
       Ron sat up straight, his teasing forgotten. “The year they disqualified Slytherin for cheating? Oh, for a return to those days!”
       “Do you want to hear this or not?” Hermione snapped again.
       “Yes, please,” Harry said, his interest piqued. “Was he a Quidditch player?”
       “No, a referee. They used to have student referees, you know, one from each House.”
       “Right!” said Ron brightly. “I remember now. They stopped that because too many of them were playing favorites, ignoring fouls, that sort of thing.”
       “The story was,” said Hermione, “that Slytherin didn’t have many good players that year but they wanted to win anyway. So they bribed and threatened the rest of the referees into looking the other way when they cheated.”
       “Not Gryffindor’s!” blurted Harry, appalled.
       “Even Gryffindor’s,” Hermione confirmed somberly. “Winterwind was the only one to resist. He exposed the whole thing. It’s said that the entire Quidditch team and every upperclassman in Slytherin got together to hit him with a curse.”
       Absently, Harry rubbed the lightning-bolt scar on his forehead, visible reminder of a time he was on the wrong end of a curse. “He survived it?” 
       “He warded it,” Hermione corrected. “The combined power of dozens of wizards all in one curse, and Winterwind deflected it. Nobody knows how.”
       “That should make him a good instructor, then,” Harry said with cautious optimism. 
       “Except,” said Ron, “I heard deflecting Dark spells was all he could ever do right. Otherwise, he was like Neville. No offense,” he added to the pudgy boy who had overcome his sneezing fit and was now trying to coax his toad, Trevor, down from the light fixture in the ceiling.
       “None taken,” said Neville with a rueful smile. “Maybe it’ll help me finally get good marks in Defense Against the Dark Arts.”
       “I bet Snape must hate this,” Harry said, grinning. “The one who got Slytherin disqualified, taking the job he wants.”
       “It gets better,” Hermione whispered, leaning conspiratorially close. “Snape wasn’t a teacher then, but a student in Slytherin. And so was Winterwind’s own sister! I even heard that she was Snape’s … girlfriend!”
       “No!” gasped Harry.
       “Get out!” cried Ron.
       Even Neville turned and goggled at this bit of news.
       “Snape … with a girlfriend?” 
       Harry’s brain hurt trying to envision that. He could see the Potions teacher quite clearly in his mind, of course he could; Snape’s face haunted his bad dreams even more than Voldemort, it seemed like. Snape, with his forbidding height that he loved to use to tower intimidatingly over the students. Snape, with his lank black hair and his glittering black eyes like chunks of coal. Snape, with his sweeping black cloak and his silky voice and his way of always being right behind you when you were talking about him.
       Chilled by that last, Harry whipped around in case Snape was standing in the door to their compartment, glowering down at them with his cold eyes. The only one there was a Ravenclaw third-year that Harry recognized as one of their Chasers, passing by without giving any indication of having heard. 
       Snape, with a girlfriend?
       “What a scary thought,” Ron said, diving into the pile of treats for something sweet to take his mind back to more pleasant things. 
Harry’s mind wasn’t so easily distracted. He tried to picture what such a woman would be like, and all he could see was Snape with longer hair and a witch’s hat. 
       Hermione, meanwhile, had gone back to speculating how hopeless any American would have to be when it came to magic. She seemed to conveniently forget that she herself was Muggle-born, and hadn’t even known about the existence of wizards and witches until her acceptance letter arrived unexpectedly from Hogwarts. 
       “I’ve been there,” Neville suddenly volunteered. “America, I mean.”
       “You never!” Hermione said, intrigued.
       “Honestly! I have. My cousin married one. An American. So my grandmother took a bunch of the family.” Neville grimaced awkwardly at the recollection. “Florentine – that’s my cousin – told us she was marrying a computer wizard.”
       Harry and Hermione snorted, while Ron listened curiously. 
       “How were we to know?” Neville went on. “We showed up, all of us, my uncles and aunts and everyone. Dressed in our best, you know.”
       They nodded. There weren’t many occasions that called for the use of dress-robes, which tended to be fancy and quite ornate, with full flowing sleeves and trim of gold or silver or multi-thread that changed color according to the whim of the wearer. 
       “Needless to say, everyone got a shock,” Neville concluded. Oddly, he seemed to brighten at this recounting of a large-scale family blunder, for once it not having been his fault. “They went through with it anyway, though. Last transoceanic owl post Gran got, she says they’re doing fine.”
       The train pulled into the Hogwarts station on a billowing breath of steam. Excited chatter burst out as the students rushed into the aisles. Harry caught a glimpse of Malfoy’s slicked blond hair but soon lost him in the crowd, for which he was glad.
       The herd of first-years, looking bewildered, milled about until Hagrid’s great booming voice tolled across the crowded platform, calling them to the docks where the spell-propelled boats sat empty in readiness. It was tradition that the first-years undergo this unnerving journey by water, impressing them with the importance of the occasion and also giving the older students time to get to the castle by other means so that they could be present in the Great Hall when the first-years were ushered in.
       Even over the heads of dozens of students, Hagrid’s gaze found Harry’s. A lot of white teeth surfaced through the untamed black bristle of his beard. He knew better than to hail Harry by name, because the last thing either of them needed was the entire new class whirling around trying to see the famous Harry Potter. He’d gotten enough of that on the train with people making excuses to stop by and gawk at him. It was the same every year, but at least by now the rest of the students had gotten used to him and it was only the youngest ones who went through the awed reaction.
       As Hagrid led them away, Harry joined Ron, Hermione, Neville, and others from Gryffindor. They’d all changed into their uniforms and robes, each with the House patch neatly sewn on the right side of the chest. 
       Ahead, looming on the horizon, was the dark bulk of Hogwarts castle. Eerie lights flickered in the windows, and the towers were shrouded in the mist that rose from the mossy shadows of the Forbidden Forest.
       Harry sighed in relief. He was home.


Chapter Three – A Late Sorting

       The Great Hall at Hogwarts was a single long room, its ceiling enchanted to reflect the state of the night sky. By the time the first years were ushered in to be Sorted, that ceiling had gone pitch black, speckled with stars and the grinning arc of a crescent moon. 
       Candles hung suspended in midair above the four long tables, where the students of Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin sat in boisterous black-robed ranks. The start of a new term was always a festive occasion, an excitement shared even by the spectral silver forms of the House ghosts who flitted insubstantially around, above, and sometimes through the tables.
       At the head of the room, set crosswise to the rest, was the teachers’ table. Harry caught the twinkling eye of old Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster, and they shared a private smile over triumphs and trials past. Madame Hooch, the flying instructor and Quidditch coach, was rubbing her hands together briskly, looking forward to a new season of practices and games. Harry looked quickly past the dour presence of Professor Severus Snape, partly because Snape seemed to sit wrapped in a deep chill that warmed only when he looked at the Slytherins, and partly because he still couldn’t get his head around the idea of Snape liking a girl. Or a girl liking Snape, for that matter.
       The new teacher was present also. Reginald Winterwind still looked like a Hufflepuff student. Although he had to be Snape’s age or close to it, his soft, unlined face could have passed for a sixth-year. He was short, too, not diminutive as Professor Flitwick but nowhere near as tall as Snape, and had a meek and unassuming manner about him. He looked the sort of man who couldn’t speak above a murmur, given the way Professor Sprout, who taught Herbology, had to lean close and cup a hand to her ear when she spoke to him.
       Ron was squirming in his seat, half-rising and peering about and fidgeting until Fred Weasley accused George of putting magical itching-powder in Ron’s robes.
       “I was looking for the American,” Ron explained when Hermione hissed at him to sit down and hold still. “But I can’t see --”
       “For goodness’ sake, Ron,” she said, “how could you tell one apart in this mob?”
       “Well, there’d be a cowboy hat, wouldn’t there?”
       “Surely you don’t think all Americans are from Texas!” Hermione said.
       Harry laughed. His gold plate gleamed invitingly in front of him. Months of deprivation at the Dursleys had left him with a hunger that not even two weeks with the Weasleys and gorging on sweets on the train could fill. He was looking forward to the moment when Dumbledore would signal the beginning of the feast and the platters would fill by magic with all manner of delicious edibles.
       But first, the Sorting. Professor McGonagall had lined up the first-years and a hush fell as she brought out the battered old Sorting Hat. She placed it on a stool, and wonder dawned on the faces of the young students as the hat stirred, a mouth opened in it, and it burst into song. 
       Then, one by one, she called each child up onto the stool and set the hat upon his or her head. The hat considered, sometimes short, sometimes long, before announcing in a loud clear voice the name of one of the four Houses. Harry wondered what would happen if the hat couldn’t decide, or what they’d ever do if a year came in which one of the Houses received no new students. That would complicate things. But the Sorting Hat seemed to have it all well under control.
       A batch of thrilled-looking Gryffindors joined their table, accepting back-claps and handshakes and warm greetings. A babble of expectation arose as everyone reached for forks or spoons or goblets, ready for the feast. 
       Professor Dumbledore rang his spoon against the side of his empty crystal glass. He stood, a stooped but powerful figure, the most wizardly-looking wizard Harry could ever have imagined with his wine-colored robes and his magnificent long white hair and beard.
       “Welcome to another year at Hogwarts,” he proclaimed, beaming out at them. “I’m pleased to have you all with us, again or for the first time. I know you’re all hungry, but if you’ll bear with me a moment longer, I have some announcements to make.”
       As Dumbledore went through the usual business about how the forest was off-limits, and introduced Reginald Winterwind, Harry felt a prickling chill as of eyes upon him. Almost against his will, he made himself look toward Snape, sure that Snape would be glaring hatefully at him as if he thought Harry were somehow responsible for Winterwind being given the DADA job instead. But Snape’s attention was fixed on Dumbledore. To Harry’s consternation, it was Professor Trelawney who was staring fixedly at him. 
       The Divination teacher was a slight birdlike woman with a vast cloud of moonlight-colored hair, and dark mournful eyes behind huge glasses. She instructed the students in tea-reading, crystal-gazing, astrology, and the like, and never missed an opportunity to predict Harry’s gory death.
       He shivered and hoped she wasn’t about to start that up again.
       “And one final matter,” said Dumbledore, smiling benignly, “the final one, I promise, because I can hear your stomachs rumbling even from here. We’re quite pleased to have another new student with us this year.”
       Here, Ron perked up and began scanning the room for cowboy hats again, while Hermione gave him a look.
       “An exchange student from America,” Dumbledore went on. “I expect you to extend every courtesy that you would to one of our own and join me in giving a warm Hogwarts welcome to Miss Rebecca Morgan.”
       Scattered applause broke out, scattered because everyone in the room was straining to see over the heads of everyone else. The doors at the back had opened again, and Hagrid was bringing in a girl about Harry’s age. She wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat, to Ron’s disappointment and Hermione’s smug told-you-so, but had on plain black robes and a hat just like the rest of them. The only difference was that where a House patch would have been, she had a small pin in the shape of a red, white, and blue flag.
       She had hair similar to Hermione, light brown and a bit unkempt, though no one in all of Hogwarts (except, of course, for Hagrid) could rival Hermione’s hair for wild bushiness. Rebecca Morgan looked fairly nervous, and Harry didn’t blame her. He remembered what it had been like when he first walked into this Hall with everybody staring, and then they’d also had an entire class of other first-years. To come in alone like that really took courage.
       And then, everyone saw what was perched on her arm, and the polite applause turned to a universal gasp of astonishment. Now Harry could see why Hagrid was grinning like a fool.
       A tiny dragon rode on Rebecca’s left forearm. It was silver as a brand new Sickle, with a long arched neck, a long coiled tail, and wings that folded against its back. Its red eyes sparkled like rubies as it raised its head high to return all the amazed, curious stares.
       “It can’t be,” hissed Hermione. “Dragons are illegal!”
       “But it’s a dragon, all right,” said Ron. “Do you think Dumbledore knew?”
       “Of course,” said Harry.
       Similar statements were being uttered all around the room. When Rebecca Morgan reached the front and climbed the steps to where Professor McGonagall was waiting, the little dragon reared up and flapped its wings, which were silvery but thin membranes of skin through which they could see the candlelight shining. 
       “Although not a first year,” Professor McGonagall said, ignoring the little dragon as it settled back onto the girl’s arm with a chirruping hiss, “we still must determine which House Miss Morgan will join.”
       She held up the Sorting Hat, and Rebecca sat down apprehensively, stroking the dragon between its wings to soothe it. At a throat-clearing “Ahem,” from McGonagall, she shook her arm and cast the dragon skyward. Everyone watched, Hagrid most intently of all, as it sprang into the air and flew over them, circling, coming to rest on one of the enchanted roofbeams to give the illusion it sat on nothing but night air.
       The Sorting Hat happily repeated its song and Professor McGonagall lowered it onto Rebecca’s head. On a first-year, the brim would slide down over the eyes, but it fit this older student passably well. 
       Harry noticed that Professor Trelawney was now watching the new girl with the exact same expression of dread she’d had when looking at him. He forgot all about it, though, as the hat strongly cried out, “Gryffindor!”
       He joined the rest in cheering as the flustered American girl went where she was pointed, and slid onto a seat at the end of the table. She was immediately surrounded, not only by Gryffindors but by people leaning over from other House tables too. 
       Dumbledore rang for silence again and got it with a little more difficulty this time. “I suspect,” he said, still wearing that benign smile, “that most of you are coming at Miss Morgan from all sides with questions about her pet. Let me assure you, I have not forgotten England’s ban on dragons. I consulted with the Ministry of Magic on this and it is our conclusion that Miss Morgan’s pet, being a drake, is not in violation of the law.”
       Hundreds of people asked “what’s a drake?” in the same breath. Dumbledore chuckled.
       “A drake,” he said, “is a dragon in miniature. That fellow up there --” here he raised a hand ceilingward and the silver creature warbled as if in reply, “—is as big as he’s going to get. He also cannot breathe fire. Drakes are tamable, trainable, and their claws and teeth are no more dangerous than those of a cat or an owl.”
       He waved for silence again, as now everyone was wanting to know where they could get one. 
       “That, I’m afraid, I cannot answer. They’re not native to England and are found primarily on the western coasts of the Americas. Now, with that settled, let the feast begin!”
       A clap from his wizened hands, and the tables were laden with everything from piping-hot soup to freezing-cold ice cream. Utensils clattered as everyone dug in with a will. At the end of the table, Harry could hear his classmates chattering excitedly with the new girl, heard her say that she usually went by just Becca, that she was from a place called Seattle, and that her drake’s name was Quicksilver.
       Then, someone eager to impress her tugged on her arm and pointed at Harry, and Harry heard his own name mentioned. What came next was incredible.
       “Who?” Becca asked, cocking her head. “Harry Potter? Who’s that?”
       Dumbstruck silence fell at that end of the table. Every wizard-born person grew up hearing how Harry had miraculously survived Voldemort’s attack, and once he’d come to Hogwarts his exploits had only increased the myth. Even the ones with Muggle parents were soon told all there was to tell about Harry Potter. The only wizard he’d ever known who hadn’t been told the whole story was himself. 
       “I am,” he said in reply to her last question. 
       People scooted out of the way. Somewhat bewildered, Becca nodded to him. “Hi.”
       “Don’t they teach you anything in America?” Hermione asked. “Why, my parents are dentists and I didn’t know the first thing about wizardry until I got my letter, but by the time I was on the train to Hogwarts, even I’d heard all about Harry.”
       “My mom’s a writer and my dad runs a game store,” Becca said. “They were always kind of weird, but since there’s not much real magic where I come from, nobody knew just how weird. I’ve been trying to catch up.”
       “Show her the scar,” urged Colin Creevey, one of Harry’s most ardent fans whom he just could not seem to shake. 
       Colin and his camera, and his push to start a Hogwarts school newsletter or, even better, a yearbook … between him and Ginny, really, Harry was almost refreshed to meet someone who didn’t know all about him. But, because half the table was now seconding Colin’s suggestion, Harry sighed and pushed up his bangs in a gesture that had become very familiar. Underneath the straight black hair, the zigzag of his scar stood out against his skin.
       Becca regarded it and looked suitably impressed. “That must’ve hurt. Mine’s just a birthmark, yours is neater, but it’s still kind of cool.” With that, she flipped her hair back from the left side of her face. Around the corner of her eye, very faint, was a rosy patch. “Mom calls it a stork bite.”
       Nobody seemed to know what to say to that. Here was someone, one of their own schoolmates, who not only didn’t recognize Harry Potter or his scar, but apparently didn’t care! Harry, though, liked it. He’d had enough of people falling all over themselves because of something that had happened when he was too young to remember, and it was nice to finally meet someone who was willing to get to know him for who he was.
       Harry grinned broadly. “I guess it must have hurt,” he said, referring to what she’d said about the scar. “I was just a baby.”
       “Well, do you have a proper wand at least?” Hermione asked Becca.
       “Oh, sure.” She brought out a case, which held a wand that wasn’t an Ollivander original but was still a serviceable 8-inch length of reddish-brown something with a carved grip on one end and a chunk of rough purple crystal set into the tip. “Chestnut, with a wyvern tendon inside. This is amethyst.”
       Mollified considerably by this show of knowledge, Hermione fell into a conversation with Becca about wands, the availability of magic items and school supplies in America, how hard she’d found it to do her shopping, and so on. 
       Ron, across from Harry, wiped his arm across his forehead and whispered, “Whew!”
       Harry winked in response. If Hermione had taken it into her head to not like the new girl, the next several months would be a living hell. If they got along, however, that would make things much easier. Especially since they’d probably be in the same dorm. Harry’s only worry was what would happen if Becca proved to be as good at magic as Hermione, who’d grown quite comfortable with her status as the smartest and hardest-working student in Hogwarts. 
       The feast went on, platters replenishing themselves as soon as they were emptied, pitchers of iced pumpkin juice floating down the table to refill goblets. Quicksilver descended from the beam to the Gryffindor table, making them once more the envy of the other three Houses – everyone was captivated by the drake. Soon, Quicksilver was trotting happily from one person to the next, accepting tidbits of food and tentative pettings.
       Over at the Slytherin table, Draco Malfoy was heard to make several loud, snide remarks about how Gryffindor just attracted all the freaks these days, a definite decline in the quality of the school. First Muggle-loving wizards like the Weasleys, then Mudbloods and near-Squibs (meaning Hermione and Neville), and of course Potter, the king of the freaks. Now Kertches, too. It didn’t look good for the future of wizard-kind, he stated. With every word, he kept his challenging eyes fixed on Harry, daring him to do something about it. 
       “What’s his problem?” Becca asked Harry, probably seeing how Harry’s jaw was clenched. 
       Had he thought he would be so glad to get away from the Dursleys that he wouldn’t even mind seeing Malfoy? That was always a lot easier said than done. Just a few words out of Malfoy’s smirking mouth made Harry long to put his fist through it. 
       “What makes you think he just has one?” countered Ron.
       “That’s Draco Malfoy,” Hermione said imperiously, as if the name tasted bad. “Don’t listen to him.”
       “It is funny, though,” said Fred Weasley just as loudly as Malfoy, “how Gryffindor with its freaks can regularly whip the bloody pants off Slytherin with its snobby purebloods.”
       That almost brought Malfoy up and over, but Crabbe and Goyle had stuffed themselves into a stupor and Draco wasn’t about to take on a whole table of Gryffindors by himself. He subsided, muttering and shooting nasty glares at them. 
       When no one could possibly eat another bite without risk of exploding, the candles dimmed and strengthened, dimmed and strengthened. This signal brought the prefects to their feet, gathering the first-years around them while the upperclassmen left. Becca hung back, unsure what she was supposed to do, but Hermione beckoned.
       “Gryffindor tower is this way,” she said, and went on to explain about the shifting stairs, the secret doors, and the portraits. When they came to the Fat Lady, Hermione stepped forth to show how it was done and announced the password – “chalcedony!” – in a clear voice. 
       The picture, frame and all, swung aside and they entered the Gryffindor common room with its wide fireplace, deep chairs, and long tables. Many staircases curved up into the walls, leading to the specific dormitories. Their luggage had already been brought. Once again, Harry and Ron were in with Neville, Dean, and Seamus. It made Ron wonder.
       “Say, Harry. What do you suppose they did for the girls’ dorm? There are already five girls in our year.”
       “I expect they just put in another bed,” said Harry. “We can ask Hermione tomorrow.”
       “Fancy a game of chess?”
       “No, thanks.” Harry was full and happy after a long day, and ready for bed. He changed into his pajamas, said good night to the others, and climbed into his four-poster bed, settling with relief into a mattress and pillow a thousand times more comfortable than the hard daybed in his room at the Dursley’s.
       His last thought before falling asleep wasn’t how Hermione and the new girl were getting on, nor was it about what his class schedule might be, but, oddly, of Professor Trelawney and the grim look in her dark, hollow eyes. They followed him down into sleep, haunting him and filling his night with unsettling dreams. 


Chapter Four – Turtle Teacher

       Classes began the following morning, and the moment Harry awoke, he knew it wasn’t going to be the best of days. First, he couldn’t find his books. They had been in the trunk, packed away still in their wrappers from Flourish & Blotts, but when he opened the trunk, they were gone.
       Unwilling to believe it, he tore everything out. Clothes, Series II trading cards, and leftover candy went flying in all directions. The case of quills and ink that Hermione had given him for his birthday was still there, and the scrapbook from Sirius, but every textbook was gone.
       “Come on, Harry, you’ll miss breakfast,” Neville said, his hair still wet around the edges from his morning dunk that passed for a washing. 
       “My books!” Harry exclaimed, waving at the now-empty trunk.
       “Nowhere! That’s what’s the matter!”
       By now, this had attracted the attention of the other boys. Ron peered over Harry’s shoulder.
       “They’re gone, all right.”
       Harry looked fiercely at each of them to see if they were in on some prank. But he saw only innocent confusion in their eyes.
       “I can’t show up in class without my books,” he said. “What’s first?”
       “Potions,” Ron said sourly. “With Slytherin.”
       “Oh, no,” Harry groaned. “Snape will kill me. And it would just have to be in front of Slytherin, wouldn’t it?”
       “What could have happened to your books?” Neville wondered. “I’m always losing mine, which is why Gran bought me this satchel.” He held up a truly awful tartan bookbag with brass clasps shaped like faces. No sooner had his hand closed around the handle than the faces animated.
       “Don’t forget your books!” they screeched like raspy hinges.
       “They were here!” said Harry sharply. “I didn’t lose them. Someone must have …”
       He stopped, remembering the park. His unseen adversary must have struck again, somewhere between Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. 
       Ron knew just what he was thinking. “Kind of a funny way to strike out at you, though, isn’t it?”
       “Isn’t it?” Harry grabbed his other school supplies. “I’ll lose points for not having my books, and how am I supposed to do my homework?”
       “Here, I know!” said Seamus brightly. “Ravenclaw doesn’t have Potions until this afternoon, double with Hufflepuff. Borrow a book, and you can switch at lunch.”
       “That might work,” Harry said. “But I’d more like to have mine back, and know who took them.”
From below came the sounds of other Gryffindors stampeding out of the secret door. Feeling very unsettled without his books, Harry tagged along with Ron at the rear of the line. 
       They came to the Great Hall for breakfast, seeing that Becca and Hermione were already there. They both seemed in good spirits, and both noticed Harry’s downcast expression at once. The revelation that he’d lost his books – “Not lost!” Harry protested uselessly – horrified Hermione. 
       “You simply have to take better care of your things, Harry.”
       “I didn’t lose them,” he said for what felt like the hundredth time. His appetite was gone, his stomach a shrunken sack. Every time he thought of the long flight of narrow steps to the dungeon, and Snape’s response when he heard, it got even smaller, until it was a miserable little knot. He pushed eggs and toast around his plate, nibbling.
       “So tell the teacher,” Becca said. She was eating a bowl of cereal, not porridge but crunchy colored rings in milk, and one look at the kippers had made her wrinkle her nose. Quicksilver, on the other hand, found fish a perfectly acceptable dish for breakfast. “Tell Professor McGonagall.”
       “Oh, he couldn’t,” said Ron. “She’d rip him to pieces.”
       “Better than getting ripped to pieces by every teacher,” Becca said reasonably. “At least once she was done, she’d probably give you a note.”
       Harry looked at Professor McGonagall, stirring her tea and nodding as she listened to Professor Dumbledore. “Worth a try, I guess.” 
       Conversation waned as owls swept in with the morning post. Letters and parcels rained down into the students’ hands. As usual, Neville received a large box of everything he’d forgotten. Ron’s copy of the Daily Prophet fell smack into Harry’s uneaten eggs, with the headline reading: “Aversion Spell Baffles Muggles.” He snatched it up.
       “Listen to this! It says the Ministry analyzed the spell and it was a short-term, set up just that day. It must have been there to stop me, I just know it!”
       He and his friends pored over the rest of the article, but the Ministry didn’t have any suspects and were officially writing it off as an accident, although it would be kept in the active file.
       “Accident,” scoffed Hermione.
       “It says they’re still investigating,” Ron said defensively.
       When the meal was done, Harry gathered his nerve and approached. “Professor? Could I have a word, just for a minute?”
       “With the first class of the new term about to begin?” she inquired. “Whatever could be so important, Potter?”
       “My books … they’re gone.” 
       This brought her to a halt.
       “I had them in my trunk,” Harry rushed on, “but now they’re gone.”
       “I wouldn’t have expected carelessness of you, Potter.”
       “It wasn’t him,” came a voice, as Becca Morgan stepped up.
       McGonagall’s trademark glare, turned to its lowest wattage, fixed on the American girl. “Is that so, Miss Morgan?”
       Becca was undaunted. Guts like that, Harry thought, it was no wonder she’d been Sorted into Gryffindor. “I think someone’s got it in for Harry. And me, too.”
       “What?” Harry turned to her in astonishment.
       “I got this.” She held up an envelope that had been delivered by owl. A plain piece of paper was inside, written on with bold black ink. It read: Stay away from DADA if you know what’s good for you. Tell Potter too. Or else.
       “Stay away from DADA?” Harry read. “But why?”
       Professor McGonagall was not amused. “We don’t take kindly to pranks at Hogwarts, Miss Morgan.”
       “It’s not a prank!”
       “I’m well aware that in your pre-testing before Professor Dumbledore agreed to this exchange student business, the subject that gave you the most difficulty was Defense Against the Dark Arts. But trying to duck out of a class and avoid something that’s going to challenge you is not the way we do things here. I don’t know what you were taught in your American schools, but at Hogwarts, we face our challenges bravely, and if we fail, we do so with good graces.”
       With that, she passed them in a swirl of emerald-green robes, and Becca stared after her, open-mouthed. “I … she thinks … I didn’t! Okay, maybe the Defense Against the Dark Arts test was hard, but I’m not trying to get out of it!”
       “I believe you,” said Harry. “Someone wants to keep us both out of that class.”
       “But why? I never even knew who you were until last night.” On her arm, Quicksilver hissed, upset, his tail lashing like a whip.
       “Maybe we can find out this afternoon.”
       “What’s this afternoon?”
       “Divination,” Harry said.
       They hurried down to Potions, where Snape took a point from Gryffindor for each of them for being late, and another five for Harry not being prepared. He knew it was just Snape being heartless, but if each of his teachers did that, he could put their House into the negatives by suppertime. 
       After that, the Potions lesson went downhill. Neville had some trouble crushing his springworms, since every time he pressed one down to crush it, his spoon would slip and the springworm would bound high into the air. One sailed up and over and slithered down the back of Hermione’s robe, and her resulting squeal made Ron jerk, spilling his nearly completed potion onto Dean Thomas, who promptly became as insubstantial as any ghost and sank through the floor. 
       His panicked, muffled, ghostly yells for help drifted up to them, and Snape finally had to take a potion himself to go fetch him back. Later, shaking, Dean told them that Filch wasn’t lying about how they used to give detention in a torture chamber. He’d seen it, he said, skeletons on the rack or hanging from manacles, still in the rags of moldering robes. 
       The day could only improve after that. Professor Flitwick didn’t mind the absence of Harry’s book, since the Charms teacher primarily used them for standing on. Professor McGonagall, still tight-lipped over what she believed was Harry’s carelessness and Becca’s prank, mellowed somewhat when the two of them were first to successfully Transfigure their chairs into small, prancing horses. They even outmatched Hermione at that one, when her horse still had a cushion in place of a saddle.
       The last class of the day was Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Harry could tell Becca was as nervous as he was. They hesitated at the door.
       “I guess we don’t know what’s good for us,” Becca said. “What do you think it meant by ‘or else’?”
       Harry shook his head and shrugged. With no other choice, they went in and took their seats. Professor Winterwind was already there. His smile kept flickering on and off like a broken neon sign. He had a box on his desk, and once everyone was settled, reached into it and brought out a turtle.
       A ripple of disappointment crossed the room. This was Defense Against the Dark Arts, of course, and in previous years they’d learned about some really frightening, dangerous things. A turtle … that was even worse than the time Gilderoy Lockhart had sprung a bunch of pixies on them. 
       “No, no, no,” Winterwind said when someone voiced this opinion. “The turtle is our lesson. Our role model. Watch what happens when he’s threatened.”
       He put the turtle, which was about the size of a tea saucer, on the desk and clapped his hands smartly right in front of its nose. The turtle reacted instantly, tucking its head and limbs into its glossy green shell. 
       “You see?” asked Winterwind.
       The students glanced around at each other, unsure what to say.
       “The turtle,” Winterwind said in exasperation, “uses his shell to shield himself from any danger. No matter the threat, his response is the same. He draws in and hides. Watch.”
       The little green animal had emerged cautiously, but when Winterwind held a wizard photo of a crocodile in front of it, the poor thing once more retreated.
       More glances were exchanged. They understood his point, but no one knew what to do with it.
       “The turtle will be our example,” he said. “I’m going to teach you the Great Ward. Does anyone know what the Great Ward is?”
       Hermione, who had been looking bored beyond belief, suddenly sat up straight with her eyes dancing. Her hand shot into the air.
       “Miss … um …” he paused and consulted a seating chart. “Granger.”
       “A Great Ward is a blocking spell impervious to any sort of magical energy. It takes the form of a visible sphere surrounding the caster or the subject.”
       “Very good. Now, the key to casting a Great Ward isn’t in the strength, but the speed with which it’s done. A Ward that comes up too late is of no good to anyone --”
       Her hand was still up.
       “Yes, Miss Granger?”
       “Um … pardon me, Professor, but shouldn’t we learn the Lesser Ward first?”
       Winterwind smiled feebly and laughed a shaky, tittering laugh. “Ha-ah-ha, what’s this, you mean you haven’t?”
       “No,” said the class.
       “Oh, oh dear, that is a complication.” He chewed on the ball of his thumb, his eyes darting around as if seeking escape. He laughed again. “Hah-hee-ha, but really, looking around, I see such an intelligent, advanced class, I think we can skip that and get right to the good stuff, don’t you? I think you can handle it, don’t you agree?”
       Hermione frowned, but the rest were loudly assuring Professor Winterwind that they were indeed ready to tackle the harder spell. He seemed incredibly relieved to hear it, and proceeded to instruct them in the basic casting motions of the Great Ward. It consisted of clenching one’s fist in just the right way, which Winterwind said was critical. He moved among them, evaluating and correcting their fist clenching.
       Harry spent the entire class in an agony of expectation, sure that something hideous was going to happen at any minute. Nothing did. By the time the final bell of the day rang, he had demonstrated to Winterwind’s satisfaction that he could clench his fist properly – better than Ron, who kept holding his as if aching to pop Draco Malfoy in the eye, or Neville, who kept putting his thumb on the inside, or Lavender, who Seamus teased made fists like a girl. Lavender, unamused, showed him that she could use her fist to perfectly good measure, whether made like a girl or not. Seamus, his nose bleeding, had to hurry off to see Madame Pomfrey before dinner.
       “How’d you like that?” Ron asked when they were at the table. “A turtle. That’s going to be his whole idea of defense, you know. Duck and cover. We’ll spend the whole term practicing that spell, see if I’m wrong.”
       “I don’t think you are,” said Hermione. “Reginald Winterwind is famous for his Great Ward. That’s well and good, but we shouldn’t be jumping ahead like that. And what about Counterspells? Better to Counter a Dark spell than just deflect it and let it go bouncing off who knows where.”
       “What are you talking about?” asked Harry.
       “Watch,” said Becca. 
       She took a bowl that had one last crescent roll in it, removed the roll, and flipped the bowl upside down before it could magically refill. Munching on the crescent roll, she asked Neville to pass the olives. He gave her the dish and she plucked one out, holding it up.
       “It’s an olive,” said Ron.
       “No, it’s a Dark spell,” said Becca. “And the bowl is you, with your Great Ward up.”
       “That’d be a pain,” he said, tapping on the bowl. “I couldn’t see a thing.”
       “Which is one of the problems with the Great Ward,” said Hermione. “Once you’re inside, you’re cut off. Can’t see, can’t hear, can’t anything, until it drops.”
       Becca rolled the olive between her thumb and forefinger. “Okay, here comes the big bad Dark wizard with a curse. Ready, Ron?”
       She threw the olive at the bowl hard as she could. It struck the bowl, bounced off, and hit Harry on the chin. He recoiled as it fell into his lap and from there to the floor. Quicksilver darted after it, proving how he got his name as he was a blurry silver streak. He reappeared a second later, chewing.
       “Well, but I’m safe, right?” asked Ron.
       “Yeah,” Becca said. “But what about Harry?”
       “I’m a goner.” He took a bite of bread.
       “Noooo, Harry,” came the doleful tones of Professor Trelawney from behind him. 
       He nearly fell out of his seat trying to spin around and back away all at the same time. The Divination teacher was right there – a trick that usually belonged to Snape – and she was brimming with tears as she looked at him. Harry tried to swallow the wad of bread that had stuck in his throat. At first it wouldn’t go down and he thought that this was it, the death she’d been waiting for, he was going to choke on a piece of bread here in the Great Hall and she wanted to get a ringside seat as he turned blue. Then he gulped it down.
       “Sorry, Professor?”
       “You poor, dear thing,” she said sorrowfully. “You’ve glimpsed something of the dark times ahead, haven’t you? I wasn’t going to say anything, since I know what a terrible burden foreknowledge can be – oh! how I know it! – but as you’re already aware, I thought it might help for you to know.”
       “Know what?” Ron asked, for which Harry could have cheerfully kicked him.
       “Pain! Misery! Suffering!” moaned Professor Trelawney. 
       “Perfect,” said Harry. “How am I going to die this time?”
       “No, my poor Harry, you don’t understand. It’s not you that will be stricken. It’s you --” she looked from him to Becca, “—and you, poor girl, who will bring the suffering on another!” Here, she was about to break down completely, tears welling in her eyes. “I tried to warn her! I tried to do the right thing, but sometimes the future is set and cannot be changed. Oh, alas!”
       By now, half the room was watching, and Professor McGonagall was hurrying their way in hopes of quelling a further outburst. But Trelawney, with a huge watery sigh, wheeled and dashed off in a jangle of gypsy beads. 
       “What was that all about?” asked Becca. “Is she for real?”
       “Yeah,” said Harry thoughtfully. “But she usually overreacts.”
       “She looked pretty serious this time,” Ron said.
       “It’s all so silly, though,” Hermione said. “Don’t listen to her. If you did, Harry, you would have been dead six times by now.”
       “Right,” Harry said, though the nagging doubt remained


Chapter Five – Open House

       Despite Professor Trelawney’s dire predictions, life at Hogwarts got into its normal routine. Harry’s lost books turned up when a message arrived from a shopkeep in Diagon Alley; while cleaning, he’d found a brown-wrapped parcel on the highest, dustiest shelf in his store. Luckily, the shopkeep was a friend of Leonilla Blott, and the bookstore proprietress certainly remembered Harry. 
       Neither the shopkeep nor Harry could explain how the books had gotten there. Harry hadn’t even been in that shop, which sold basic school supplies. Thanks to Hermione’s gift, he had all he needed. It remained a mystery, but a relief because he no longer had to scramble to borrow and return textbooks from other students.
       Quidditch practice began while the weather was still fair, and Harry delighted in speeding around the field chasing after the golden Snitch. Between that and homework, his days were very full, and the distractions of the Gryffindor common room only added to it. 
       As it turned out, Ron Weasley finally had some competition. Becca Morgan was nearly his match when it came to wizard chess, once she’d gotten used to the way the pieces were alive and dealt rather brutally with each other. Further, she devised a card game using the trading cards that came in each Chocolate Frog, with cunning rules that were simple enough to learn in one sitting but complex enough to fascinate the entire dorm. 
       By Halloween, a sort of Wizard War fever had seized Gryffindor. Honeydukes, the candy shop down in Hogsmeade, had never done such a business in Chocolate Frogs before as everyone tried to complete their sets to build the best possible winning deck. Only Hermione was able to resist, claiming she had better things to do with her time. 
       She was probably right, because quite a bit of homework was left undone. Eventually, concerned by what she was seeing, Professor McGonagall popped in unexpectedly one evening and caught half of her House engrossed in the game. Becca, pale but brave, stood forth and confessed to it being her fault, clearly braced to get in trouble for it.
       Professor McGonagall looked steadily at her for a long time, then astonished them all by asking if Becca could teach her how to play. Only when midnight arrived and Nearly Headless Nick drifted through on his routine haunt and was startled to see so many students still up and a teacher sitting with them, did McGonagall snap out of it. She declared that from then on, homework had to come first, and if she caught anyone up playing cards after bedtime, she’d personally see to it that Gryffindor lost fifty points. 
       Not long thereafter, though, the Weasley twins came in snickering, to report that they’d just been in a secret passage with a peephole into the teacher’s lounge, and there they’d seen four professors playing a lively game with decks of their own. 
       Halloween was always a remarkable occasion at Hogwarts. Hagrid outdid himself every year by growing progressively bigger pumpkins, and this year he had a dozen that were bigger than his cottage. Too big, in fact, to fit inside the Great Hall and still leave room for the people. So he carved them with an axe instead, and lit them with ever-fire, and for the rest of the autumn twelve monstrous glowing faces leered from the edge of the Forbidden Forest. 
       Lessons proceeded normally. Snape continued to be lenient with the Slytherins and harsh on the Gryffindors, particularly Harry and his friends. Reginald Winterwind was finally satisfied with the way everyone in class was making a fist for the Great Ward spell, and moved on to the proper pronunciation of the command word, “Avertus!”
       The first Quidditch match of the season pitted Gryffindor against Ravenclaw. Harry and the rest of the team donned their colorful Quidditch robes and waited, brooms in hand, for the game to begin. It was a crisp, beautiful fall day, the sky a bright blue that seemed to go on forever. The stands were packed, banners waving in Gryffindor red and Ravenclaw blue. 
       Madame Hooch brought out the game balls, her black and white robes flapping around her. She set them into play and the game began. As Seeker, Harry’s only jobs were to keep his eyes peeled for the tiny golden spark that was the Snitch, and to avoid being knocked out by the Bludgers. 
       There were many things he loved about Hogwarts, but this was at the top of the list. Nothing could be grander than the swift speeding of a broomstick, the challenge of evading the Bludgers, the thrill of the chase, and the victorious joy of catching the Snitch in his hand. 
       This time, he and the Ravenclaw Seeker were both right on the Snitch, and being so close to the pretty Cho Chang was almost enough to distract him from the game but he knew his team was counting on him. As they were both reaching, Cho’s fingers just grazing it, Harry snatched it into his fist. Rather than look cross, she smiled in acknowledgement of a well-played move, and Harry blushed so brightly he thought his face might catch fire. One of these days, he hoped to gather the courage to speak to her for more than two sentences at a stretch. 
       With a Gryffindor win under their belts, the team was all swagger and reacted with smug pleasure when they heard the next game would be against their rival House, Slytherin. It was well known that Slytherin was tired of losing to Gryffindor, tired in particular of losing to one Harry Potter – especially as his nemesis, Draco Malfoy, was their Seeker and Harry’s opposite number. Slytherin played hard, and they played dirty, and half of any game against them was being on the lookout for treachery.
       The most exciting bit of news came later that week, when Professor Dumbledore announced that Hogwarts would be holding an Open House for the first time in a decade. Their relatives would be invited to come and spend two days, seeing what the classes were like, eating in the Great Hall alongside them, and joining them in the stands to watch the Gryffindor-Slytherin match. 
       The house-elves were busy all week cleaning the Guest Tower so vigorously that dust puffed out the windows and the sounds of sweeping could be heard all through the castle. Owls left in droves carrying the invitations, and returning with the replies. 
       Needless to say, the Dursleys did not write back to say they would be coming. Harry could just see Dudley visiting Hogwarts. He wished he did have some relative who could come. Sirius, for obvious reasons, wouldn’t dare. He didn’t really have anyone else. Malfoy, whose mother and father would most certainly be in attendance, missed no chance to gloat. That is, when he wasn’t busy being irritated that the doors of Hogwarts were even opening to Muggles like the Grangers and Kertches like the Morgans.
       Of all the students, Becca and Hermione were probably the most excited and for just that reason. Most of the rest had at least one witch or wizard in the family who’d studied at Hogwarts themselves, but for the girls, it was a perfect chance to show their parents what the magical world was all about. Hermione didn’t even get mad when Malfoy said that the only reason her parents were coming was because they planned to check everyone for cavities. 
       The teachers would be having visitors too, which surprised Harry and then made him feel embarrassed at his surprise. Of course, teachers had families. They had to have somewhere to go over the summer. With the exception of Professor Binns, the ghost who taught history, they had lives outside of Hogwarts. 
       “Sure,” Ron said when Harry mentioned this. “For all we know, Dumbledore’s got a wife and fifteen kids. And maybe there’s a Mr. McGonagall. Or Snape’s mom will come, could you just see it!”
       The appointed day arrived. The Guest Tower was sparkling clean, as were all the dorms and common rooms. Halls that hadn’t been dusted in ten years now gleamed with polished wood. Even the portraits were spruced up and excited. Peeves the poltergeist, who would have liked nothing better than to dump a bucket of worms onto someone’s aunt or break the floor under someone’s uncle, was rounded up by the other ghosts working in rare unison, and banished to the third-floor corridor for the day. 
       Classes for the day were cancelled, although the teachers would spend the school hours in their classrooms to talk to visitors. After breakfast, the students all flocked to the wide grassy lawn that sloped down toward the village. They could see the clouds of steam that marked a special run of the Hogwarts Express, rumbling to the station.
       Hagrid, in a new jacket as red as dragon’s blood, a yellow belt that could have gone around any three normal people, and the biggest boots anyone had ever seen, was sent to meet them and escort them up in a carriage made from one of his giant pumpkins. Someone – Harry was betting McGonagall – had conjured up a team of winged horses to pull it.
       The orange carriage rolled to a stop. Hagrid got down from the driver’s seat and opened the door, bowing until the end of his bushy beard brushed the tops of his new boots. “Welcome ter Hogwarts, ladies’n’gennlemen!”
       The first ones out were witches and wizards, resplendent in their dress robes. They poured out in a chattering throng, fanning through the crowd of students – also in dress robes – to find their sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, or siblings. Then came a few hesitant faces, looking warily at the vast castle. 
       Harry recognized Hermione’s parents, having seen them before in Diagon Alley. They acted like they felt very out of place but were determined to make the best of it for Hermione’s sake. She raced to them, seizing each by the hand and talking a mile a minute. 
       The last ones out were Becca’s parents. While the wizards and witches had smiled in fond nostalgia at the sight of Hogwarts, and the Muggles had seemed mostly unsure or even scared, Mr. and Mrs. Morgan couldn’t have been more delighted with the castle, the surroundings, the owls flying in formation overhead. They hugged Becca so much that it made Harry a little jealous. In fact, there was a lot of hugging going on and none of it for him, until Mrs. Weasley came over after greeting her children and embraced him, too. 
       Draco Malfoy’s parents and the other pureblood snobs stood apart, not deigning to mix with the Muggles. Harry hadn’t seen them emerge from the carriage, either, and guessed that they’d Apparated here rather than share the same train. Dislike made Harry’s mouth taste sour. 
       Professor Dumbledore didn’t have a wife and fifteen children, as Ron had suggested. Incredibly, his mother was here, the oldest witch Harry had ever seen. She was thin as a twig, like she might blow away in a good wind if not for her heavy purple robes weighing her down. Snape had no visitors and stood as silent and dark as a crow among sparrows while people moved all around.
       There were many flamboyant and striking guests, but if prizes were being given out, the blue ribbon for flamboyance would have to go to Neville Longbottom’s grandmother. She was very tall and very regal, with her hair swept up in a braided bun studded with jewels. Her robes were a rich red sewn all in silver and gold in patterns of moons, stars, and suns. She held a staff that was as tall as she was, gnarled but polished wood ending in a real mummified dragon’s claw that grasped a smooth crystal ball as big as a Bludger. Her face was hard and stern, like something that primitive tribesmen might carve in the side of a mountain and worship as a goddess. 
       She was surrounded by Longbottoms, and it was no wonder that Neville had sometimes thought he was in the wrong family. They all radiated power and confidence, while Neville, in their midst holding a squirmy and unhappy Trevor in both hands, looked like he had to go to the bathroom. 
       “Harry!” called Neville, somewhat desperately. “Come and meet my Gran!”
       Harry obligingly started to go over, but Mrs. Longbottom pinned him with a look so cold it was like icicles had shot out of her eyes. Harry stumbled over his own feet and came to a clumsy halt.
       “We’ll see your room now, Neville,” she declared without taking her icicle eyes off Harry.
       “Um, all right, Gran.” Neville looked questioningly at Harry, but Harry was as puzzled as him and could only shrug. 
       He watched as the Longbottoms, some of them seeming as mystified as he and Neville, went off toward the castle and Gryffindor tower. He might have stayed there all day if Becca hadn’t come up with her parents in tow. 
       “Mom, Dad, this is Harry. He’s in Gryffindor, too.”
       Plenty of the other students had either brought their relatives over or pointed Harry out, and it had been the same old thing – “look, it’s him, it’s really him, Harry Potter!” But once again, his reputation hadn’t preceded him as far as Becca’s family was concerned. Her father, mustached with a fedora and a discreet eye-and-pyramid pin in his lapel, shook Harry’s hand. Her mother, on the heavy side but with quick, knowing eyes behind her glasses, smiled at him.
       “There goes Potter,” he heard Malfoy say. “Slumming with the Kertches.”
       “That’s just Draco,” Becca said loudly to her parents. “Every school’s got a bully, and he’s ours.”
       “Uh-oh, now you’ve done it,” Harry said as Lucius Malfoy took long, purposeful strides toward them. 
       “Pardon me,” he said coolly, “but did you call my son a bully?”
       “Yeah,” Becca said fearlessly. Her smile was sweet but devilish at the same time.
       “Do you think that’s wise?”
       “Wise or not, it’s true,” Harry heard himself say, as if his mouth was running of its own accord. 
       Lucius Malfoy sniffed at him. “I expected better of you, Potter. You, at least, have a half-decent ancestry. It’s a shame you choose to make so little of it.”
       “A pleasure to meet you, too,” said Becca’s mom. “I guess it’s true what they say, isn’t it? The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
       Those near enough to hear – and everyone who was near enough to hear was certainly listening – snickered. The elder Malfoy flushed crimson and stalked away, snarling darkly under his breath. If half the magical community hadn’t been watching, Harry didn’t doubt that things might have gotten pretty ugly just then. He was sure he and Becca would pay for it later when Draco Malfoy caught up with them, but for now it was worth it.
       “You know Hogwarts better than me, Harry,” Becca said. “Can you show us around?”
       “This is,” her dad said in the most rapturous tone Harry had ever heard, “the most incredible place. I wish I’d gone to a school like this.”
       He really meant it, too. Everywhere Harry took them, the Morgans went crazy over the castle and the furnishings and just couldn’t get enough. When they reached the library, Harry thought they’d need Hagrid to come and carry Becca’s father out by force.
       It all made Harry feel a little better. They joined up with the Weasleys and the Grangers in time for lunch. The Great Hall had been expanded somehow, the tables so long that they seemed to go on forever in order to make room for everyone. After, they toured the classrooms and talked to the teachers. The Morgans managed to even thaw Snape slightly when they admired the dungeon for its gloomy, oppressive atmosphere.
       “Yes, isn’t it?” he nearly purred, and preened a little as if it had all been entirely his doing. 
       The afternoon was spent with a trip to Hogsmeade, the wizard village. Hermione’s parents were as uncomfortable here as they were in Diagon Alley, but the Morgans had a splendid time. They nearly lost Becca’s father again in a bookstore, and her mother bought a bagful of souvenirs. Then it was time to go back to Hogwarts for dinner, and the families retired to the Guest Tower to rest up for the next day’s big Quidditch game. 
       Harry and Becca were on their way back to Gryffindor tower when Ron, out of breath, ran up to them. He was so winded he could barely talk, picking at their sleeves and gesturing frantically.
       “What?” Becca asked. “Is someone in trouble?”
       “Huh,” Ron said, shaking his head. “Winner …”
       “What?” Harry asked.
       “Winterwind. Sister. You gotta come see.” Without waiting for a reply, Ron rushed them back the way he’d come. Once he got his breath back, he spoke rapidly. “Dad’s off quizzing the Grangers and Mom went with Ginny to her room to let down the hems on her uniform skirts. I left my bag of toffees in the DADA room and wanted to get it before Fred and George could do anything disgusting to it. But when I got there, she was there. Talking to Winterwind.”
       “His sister? Not the one Hermione said was Snape’s …” Harry couldn’t even bring himself to say the word.
       Ron bobbed his head. Rather than speak, he put a finger to his lips for silence. The three of them slowed to a fast tip-toe sneak, sidling up to the corner where the corridor leading to Winterwind’s classroom branched off.
       “… really would appreciate it,” Reginald Winterwind was saying. “I’m afraid I’m just not going to be able to do it alone.”
       “Reggie, dear,” said a woman, “you know I’m always glad to help when it comes to the Dark Arts.”
       They came out of the classroom and as Winterwind locked the door behind them, Harry had a good chance to look at his sister. Back when he’d first heard about Snape possibly having a girlfriend, and tried to imagine what she’d look like, all he could think of was a female version of Snape. 
       She had black hair like Snape, but where his was lank and oily, hers was lustrous and fell in waves to her waist. She had pale skin like Snape, but where his was sallow, hers was white as a snow-sculpture. Her lips were deep red, as were her eyes. In a robe that was really more of a clinging gown than a robe, and a gown that gave the impression of having been made from silvery black snakeskin at that, she could have stepped right from the pages of Gilderoy Lockhart’s vampire book. 
       “Thanks, Phiddie,” Winterwind said.
       “Don’t call me Phiddie.” The humor left her voice, her tone all frost and steel now.
       “I’m sorry. Giddy, you know. With relief. This position means a lot to me. I’d hate to lose it.”
       “We won’t let that happen.” She moved toward the corner, not walking but gliding as if her feet didn’t touch the ground. “It’s a great honor to teach at Hogwarts. I wouldn’t want you to disgrace our family by botching it.”
       “They’re up to something, see?” hissed Ron. “I knew it.”
       “They’re probably in league with --” Harry began, and Becca jabbed him in the ribs and cleared her throat.
       He turned, and his heart plunged down an elevator shaft that had opened up in his middle. Snape was right behind them, while his name was still trembling on the tip of Harry’s tongue.
       “Spying, Potter?” Snape asked with his own brand of bitter glee. “You shouldn’t be down here at this hour.”
       Before any of them could think of something to say, the Winterwinds rounded the corner. Snape froze. 
       “Why, Severus Snape,” Winterwind’s sister said. “Fancy meeting you here.”
       “Ophidia,” Snape said. 
       She blinked at him, a long slow blink that made her lashes seem like curling spider legs. “I only just arrived, a bit late, I’m afraid. But if you’ve the time, I’d love to get together and chat.”
       “Perhaps you’d join me at the Quidditch game tomorrow?” he asked.
       “That would be perfect.” Again, the thing with the eyelashes. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it? You’re looking well.”
       “You are …” Snape drew a deep breath. “Lovely as ever.”
       “Oh, Severus, you flirt,” cooed Ophidia Winterwind. She flicked her fingers against his cheek as she glided past him. “Until tomorrow.”
       She hadn’t even noticed the three thunderstruck students, and as he rotated in place to watch her go, apparently Snape had forgotten all about them too. Because what he did next was something that Harry would have sworn on his parents’ names that he never would have seen.
       Snape smiled.


Chapter Six – Foul Play

       Hermione didn’t believe it when they told her that Snape had actually smiled. She believed it even less when they admitted, grudgingly, that smiling made the Potions teacher almost handsome. What fascinated her, though, was their description of Ophidia Winterwind. She hurried to the library first thing to look her up.
       The rest of them, in the meantime, stuffed down a quick breakfast in a Great Hall bubbling with talk about the upcoming game. Harry and the rest of the Gryffindor team ate quickest of all and were the first ones to leave their table. At the door, they ran into the Slytherin team. They were all grinning in a way that made Harry’s skin creep. Malfoy looked especially pleased with himself.
       “Feeling good, Potter?” he asked snidely. “Enjoy it while you can, because they’ll be carting you off of the field on a stretcher today.”
       “We’ll see about that, Malfoy.”
       “You might as well forfeit now,” the Slytherin captain told them. “Save you looking bad in front of all the relatives.”
       “That won’t bother Potter,” Malfoy said. “He hasn’t any.”
       “Well, then,” said the captain, “we’ll have to settle for making him look bad in front of all his Muggle friends.”
       “Laugh it up,” Fred Weasley told the Slytherins. “We’ll accept your apology later.”
       “Accept this,” growled a Slytherin Beater, making a rude gesture.
       Fred bridled and stepped toward him, but George held him back. “Save it for the field, brother.”
       “Care to put some money where your forked-tongue mouth is, Slytherin snake-boy?” Fred asked hotly.
       “Tsk, tsk, Gryffindor,” the Slytherin captain said. He was another Flint, Byron, and they all looked as if a troll was lurking somewhere in the family tree. “You know wagering money’s not allowed. How about this? When we win, you lot have to launder all our Quidditch robes. By hand, mind you. No magic, no help from the house elves.”
       “And when we win,” Fred said, “you’ll have to put underpants on your heads and sing the Gryffindor House song tonight at dinner.”
       “Done!” They shook on it, over the dismayed grimaces of the rest of the teams.
       “Now it’s even more important we win,” Alicia Spinnet, the Gryffindor captain who’d taken over from Oliver Wood, said as they continued on to the locker room. “I’m not spending my evening elbow-deep in Slytherin laundry.”
       Harry didn’t so much care about that. All he wanted was what he usually wanted – to beat Slytherin and increase Gryffindor’s chances for the House Cup. He got into his red robes and joined the others, broomstick in hand, as they proceeded onto the field.
       Temporary bleachers had been set up in addition to the regular stands, allowing seating for all the guests. It made the field seem like a huge stadium, and the noise of the spectators was increased to a rumbling roar reminiscent of crashing surf. Harry swallowed. That made for an awful lot of people to be watching them.
       Alicia must have read his mind. “It’s not so bad,” she said cheerfully. “The professional players see crowds ten times this size, and they do all right. Just stick to the game and you’ll be fine, Harry.”
       Harry scanned the stands, seeing Ron, Hermione, and Becca struggling to unroll a large sign that read: The Snitch can’t hide from Harry! in bold lettering. They were surrounded by their families and Hagrid, bulking large among the smaller people. Most of them in that section waved Gryffindor pennants. Each visitor had been offered a program booklet outlining the Quidditch rules and naming the players and their positions, for the sake of the Muggles who’d never seen the game before. Now they were rustling those programs irritably, impatient for the start of the game.
       Madame Hooch finally appeared, moving slowly instead of with her ordinarily brisk stride. She whistled the teams to attention and the whistle sounded weak and half-hearted rather than the sharp shriek they were familiar with. The teams kicked off, Seekers soaring high above the rest of their teammates to have the best vantage point for the appearance of the Snitch. Madame Hooch tossed the Quaffle and blew another lukewarm blast, and the game was on.
       Right away, Slytherin came out swinging. The players usually tried to pace themselves, because there was no way of knowing how long a game might go. It all depended on the Snitch and the Seekers. Sometimes the Snitch would be caught before a single goal was scored, sometimes it could flit around and hide itself for an hour or more. But the Slytherins launched a brutal series of offensive plays, Beaters beating the Bludgers hard toward the other team, Chasers flying too close to their opponents, bumping broomsticks, flapping the sleeves of their robes in the other team’s face. In less than five minutes, Slytherin had scored forty points to Gryffindor’s ten. 
       Draco Malfoy, the other Seeker, hovered high like Harry, but he wasn’t content to wait in one place watching for the Snitch. He zipped this way and that, sometimes passing right in front of or right under Gryffindors, making them veer to avoid a collision. To stop him, Harry suddenly dove as if he’d seen the Snitch, and Malfoy at once set after him in hot pursuit. 
       As he swung low and banked steeply near the bottom of the stands, Harry saw Madame Hooch swaying on her feet. She was trying to follow the action above, but as he flashed by, Harry noticed that her face was turning a sickly green.
       He called out, but just then Malfoy caught up with him and slammed his elbow into Harry’s side. Distracted by Madame Hooch, Harry slipped and lost control of his broom. It sped straight toward the stands. Yelping, he pulled up hard and skimmed over the heads of the crowd as they ducked and shouted and waved their fists at him. 
       Harry came around in a tight circle just as Slytherin scored another ten points and Madame Hooch collapsed in a flurry of black and white cloth. Everyone saw that, the audience shooting to its feet. 
       “And the referee is down!” Lee Jordan cried from the announcer’s booth. “Hold the game! Hold the game, I say!” Lee thrust his fingers in his mouth and blew, and the screeching whistle brought all the players to a halt, made the spectators stuff their fingers in their ears, and from Hagrid’s cottage, Fang the boarhound howled in counterpoint.
       Madame Pomfrey was first to reach Madame Hooch, simply Apparating from her seat to the grass, where she knelt beside the stricken referee. Dumbledore joined her an instant later, while the Gryffindors and the Slytherins touched down nearby. A concerned babble came from the crowd, everyone leaning and trying to get a better look. 
       Nobody knew what to do as Madame Pomfrey checked Madame Hooch and spoke to Dumbledore in tones too low to hear. Dumbledore nodded and straightened up, looking around at the stands. 
       “Ladies and gentlemen, guests, students, teachers,” he proclaimed in a carrying voice. “It seems our coach and referee, Madame Hooch, has been taken ill. There will be a short delay while we move her to the infirmary.”
       “A delay?” asked Flint, his eyes hard with slyness. “Shouldn’t we call the game?”
       Harry sucked in a breath. So that was it! They’d done it! He was even sure he knew how, the answer hitting him like a slap to the face. He sprang back on his broom and sped toward the locker room entrance, hunching low to avoid taking off the top of his head on the underside of the doorjamb. It was tricky work flying a broom down the narrow hall, but he did, and took the corner so fast that his robes whipped out to the side. 
       The door to Madame Hooch’s office was dead ahead. Harry stuck out a foot, hoping it wasn’t locked because if it was, he was about to splatter himself all over the place and probably break his broom. But it wasn’t. His foot kicked it open so hard that the door bounced off the wall and came back, but by then Harry had zoomed into the middle of the room and jerked to a stop. 
       Hooch’s office was a mess, with spare brooms hanging on hooks on one wall, a rack of Quaffles, another of Bludgers clamped down to keep them from going wild, a broken goal propped against the window, and the chalkboard and wizard’s chalk that she used to diagram plays. A shelf held books like Quidditch Through the Ages, 1001 Little-Known Quidditch Facts, Broom Handling Basics, and The Wizard Sports Book of World Records. The desk was tucked in the corner as an afterthought, buried under papers. 
       Playing Quidditch was hard enough, she’d told them. But refereeing it, trying to keep track of all the action, was even harder. Before each game, she always had a nice mug of Alert-Ade, a drink designed to heighten her sight and concentration so she didn’t miss a thing.
       A mug sat on the desk, with a little bit of a fizzy liquid still in it. Harry sniffed and recognized Alert-Ade. But the smell wasn’t right. Bitter, somehow. 
       Harry grabbed it and ran back to the door. He was on his broom before he’d fully cleared the frame, streaking toward the field while trying not to spill the contents of the mug. 
       Madames Hooch and Pomfrey were both gone, but Dumbledore was still there, talking to the audience, assuring them that everything was going to be fine.
       “I’ll have more information as time warrants,” he said. “For now, Madame Hooch’s health is the important thing. I’m sure she’d want the game to go on as planned.”
       “We can’t play without a referee!” Byron Flint protested. “You have to call the game. Let the final score stand.”
       The Gryffindor team yelled in outrage at this. 
       “The game can’t end until the Snitch is caught!” Alicia said firmly. “Those are the rules. If the game’s cancelled, the score is nullified.”
       “They’re only saying that because they were ahead,” Angelina said. The Gryffindor Chaser was holding her broom like she wanted to smack somebody with it. “If we’d been leading, they’d be singing a different tune.”
       Harry approached Dumbledore with the mug. “Professor?”
       “Just a moment, Harry.” Dumbledore motioned the arguing players to hush. “The game will continue,” he announced. “We’ll have a five-minute break and resume shortly. All players please report to your locker rooms. All spectators, now might be a fine time to avail yourselves of the refreshment table.”
       There hadn’t been a refreshment table, but now there was. House-elves, all wearing little paper hats with the school crest printed on the front, capered around it hawking juice and snacks. “Snapcorn! Get your Snapcorn!”
       “But, Professor,” Harry tried again as the rest of the team trudged toward the locker room. “I found this in Madame Hooch’s office. I think it’s been tampered with.”
       Dumbledore took the mug, sniffed it, and his eyebrows drew together fiercely. “Thank you, Harry. I’ll see that Madame Pomfrey is aware of this at once.”
       “Has it been poisoned, sir?”
       “Leave this one to me, my boy.”
       His tone brooked no dispute. Harry slowly steered his broom back to the Gryffindor team entrance, craning his neck to look at the Slytherins. They were clustered together, grumbling and shooting dark glances at Dumbledore. Lee Jordan suddenly started chattering brightly about the history of Quidditch and the past performance of the various school teams, no doubt prompted by Professor McGonagall. Once back in the locker room, Harry told his teammates what he’d found, and they all scowled furiously. 
       “It’s the Slytherins,” said Fred Weasley. “They must have done it. Did you hear how eager they were to call the game and let the score stand? Did you see how hard they played to get those points? And they always get the best marks in Potions, too.”
       They waited anxiously until the five minutes were up. When Dumbledore had Lee Jordan ask for everyone’s attention, they filed back onto the field and were greeted by the astonishing sight of Professor Reginald Winterwind standing beside the headmaster, in ill-fitting referee robes that had probably come from Madame Hooch’s closet. He was fingering the whistle that hung on a silver cord around his neck, and was all flushed and flustered.
       “Thank you for your patience,” Dumbledore said. “I’m pleased to announce that Professor Winterwind will take over as referee for the remainder of the game. Thank you, Professor. If the players will take their places, please?”
       “Winterwind?” Angelina said dubiously. “The one who only knows that single spell?”
       “He’s got experience,” Harry said, and told them quickly what Hermione had found out. 
       “Looks like the Slytherins aren’t too happy,” said Fred in great satisfaction.
       Winterwind blew the whistle, and the game was on again. The former reckless abandon with which the Slytherins had played was absent now, though they remained as aggressive as ever. Malfoy didn’t waste time trying to distract the other players but watched for the Snitch with fearful intensity. Harry was not about to let him get it, not about to let Slytherin win after the unfair stunt they’d pulled. It was the most despicable form of cheating he could think of.
       At least, until one of the Slytherin Chasers threw a packet of something that puffed twinkly red dust into Alicia’s face. It was quick, barely noticeable, and when Alicia reeled back pawing at her eyes, it only looked like she’d gotten the sun in them. The Quaffle scored another goal, but Reginald Winterwind’s whistle screamed.
       “Foul. Slytherin, illegal use of magic, ten point penalty!”
       The Slytherin fans in the stands booed, and the team looked so dangerous that for a moment Winterwind paled beneath their combined hateful expressions. He held firm, though, and Lee Jordan waxed ecstatic as he announced the point reduction. 
       Gryffindor scored again and again, and soon it was tied at 80 to 80. Harry still hadn’t spotted the Snitch. He saw Angelina whiz past with the Quaffle, going for a goal, with a Slytherin on her tail. The Slytherin player dove under her, came up, and reached out to grip the leading end of his broom in a funny way. His lips moved. 
       The Quaffle popped out of Angelina’s grasp, startling her. A Slytherin Beater, waiting for just that moment, whacked the Quaffle with his stick and sent it careening the other way. It came right at Harry, who’d sunk a bit to try and see what had happened. Rather than duck or dodge, he pivoted his broom in mid-air and hit the Quaffle back to Angelina. She caught it as neatly as if they’d planned it.
       Harry grinned triumphantly as she scored, bringing Gryffindor into the lead. A moment later, Draco Malfoy collided with him out of his blind spot and quick as a snake, scattered a handful of scorpion-ants onto Harry’s robes. 
       The fast, mean-tempered little bugs swarmed up Harry’s arm and down his leg, their pincers digging at him even through the cloth. They skittered toward his unprotected skin with their jointed tails flexing eagerly and drops of venom glistening on their barbed stingers.
       Trying not to scream, Harry shook his arm and flailed at his robe in hopes of dislodging them. It partially worked; a few fell but they dropped right toward George Weasley as he went after a Bludger that was bearing down on Katie, another Chaser. They missed landing on George by inches, but that didn’t solve Harry’s own problem. One had reached his hand and stabbed the stinger deep.
       Biting his lip against the pain, Harry shot away from the rest of his team and tried to shake the scorpion-ants off. The one that was on the back of his hand, he squashed by smacking his own hand against the broomstick, almost breaking his bones. 
       Something tickled at the side of his neck. He slapped at it wildly and earned a sting in the palm of the other hand, but flattened the scorpion-ant into brown paste. More were on him, all over him, and he realized his broom was veering crazily all over the field. To make matters worse, he spied a golden glimmer and Malfoy closing in.
       Another shiny object, much larger and silver and not shaped at all like a Snitch, landed on Harry’s leg. He nearly fell off his broom in alarm, thinking it was another Slytherin trick, but it was Quicksilver. The drake trilled cheerfully at Harry and went to work chomping scorpion-ants in his jaws. 
       “Thanks!” he said, and went after Malfoy.
       The Snitch was performing its usual antics, dancing around teasingly out of reach, darting all about. Malfoy didn’t even see Harry until Harry, laying flat on his broom, passed over him close enough that the wind of his passage messed up Malfoy’s hair.
       Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Malfoy grip his broomstick in that same strange way he’d noticed the Slytherin chaser doing, just before Angelina lost the Quaffle. He heard Malfoy’s low utterance of “Leviosa!” just as Harry’s hand was about to seize the Snitch.
       The Snitch popped up like a champagne cork. As Malfoy soared after it, Harry saw a wand stuck to the side of his broom, probably held there with Insta-Gloo. They’d done it during that five-minute break, he realized. Madame Hooch always checked the brooms before a match to make sure no one had been tampering with them, but no one had thought to check again before the game resumed.
       Outraged, Harry pursued. His hands, both of them, ached abominably and were starting to swell. If this kept on, he wouldn’t be able to maintain his grip, let alone get hold of the Snitch. He had to end this now.
       Malfoy saw him coming and swung at him. They’d gone so high that the other players were red and green specks, and they couldn’t make out individual faces in the crowd. The Snitch frolicked tauntingly above them. 
       In a desperate lunge, Harry launched himself off his broom as if he meant to jump over the moon. At the height of his leap, he grabbed the Snitch in his puffed, painful hand. Its wings fluttered and it jerked as it tried to free itself, but he held it tight and landed on his broom again, neat as could be.
       Dimly, Lee Jordan’s amplified voice bellowed, but he sounded horrified rather than pleased. “The Snitch has been caught! Game over, but Slytherin wins!”
       “What?” Harry looked at the scoreboard. The Snitch was worth one hundred and fifty points, but while he and Malfoy had been chasing it, Slytherin had regained their lead and extended it, until the final score even with the Snitch was Slytherin 310, Gryffindor 300. 
       “Hah!” jeered Malfoy exultantly. He dove past Harry to meet his teammates, who were cheering and clapping each other on the back as most of the crowd booed. 
       Harry caught many a look of hurt and disappointment from the Gryffindor fans, and from Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws too because everyone would rather see Slytherin trounced. He descended glumly and settled onto the grass, his hands throbbing and swollen like water balloons. 
       Winterwind’s whistle split the air. He commanded the Slytherins to stop where they were as they were about to leave for their locker room. They looked like they might disobey and go anyway, but obeyed. He went to them and inspected their brooms, peeling off one wand after another that had been Glooed to the hafts. The audience booed and hissed. Winterwind’s next act was to pat down Draco Malfoy and produce a box from a Knockturn Alley vermin shop, the source of the scorpion-ants. 
       “Multiple fouls for Slytherin. Illegal use of magic, illegal modification of game equipment, interference,” he said. “Thirty-point penalty.”
       “WA-HOOOO!” Lee Jordan drowned out the eruption of cheers from the stands. “And in a last-minute decision, Gryffindor wins after all! Just going to show that cheaters never prosper, and virtue is its own reward! What a game! Ladies and gentlemen, what a game!”
       The Gryffindor team blinked at each other, hardly able to believe their ears. Then, with a whoop of joy, Angelina hugged Harry and they were all over him, rubbing his head, smacking him on the shoulders, everybody talking at once. Harry tried to join in, but lances of pain were shooting up his arms and his hands were turning a vivid shade of red. 
       People were pouring out of the stands, running across the grass. In the confusion, only Harry saw the Slytherin team bunch together, and then chant and point all as one.
       “Professor!” Harry yelled.
       He never knew if Winterwind heard him or reacted on his own, but the next thing anyone knew, a dome of bright light bloomed around the substitute referee. It discolored in a black blotch where the spell hit it, and several feet away, a witch burst into flames as the spell bounced off randomly into the crowd.
       “Aquaris!” cried two voices together. 
       A glowing pitcher of water appeared in the air, and upended over the burning witch, dousing the fire with a sizzle of steam. 
       Everyone stopped where they were, silent and shocked. Harry looked for the source of the voices and found, not to his surprise, Becca and Hermione standing side by side, wands in hand. They grinned at each other and gave a high five.
       The Slytherins, shifty-eyed with guilt, were trying to slip away and lose themselves in the crowd when Dumbledore arrived, very much not amused.


Chapter Seven – The Grim Fate of Neville Longbottom

       Harry spent the next couple of days in the infirmary, along with Madame Hooch, the scorched and drenched witch, and a Ravenclaw who’d gotten hurt falling down a flight of steps in the rush as the spectators mobbed the playing field.
       The time passed pleasantly enough except for the nasty-tasting medicine he had to drink every few hours to chase the scorpion-ant venom out of his system. His friends visited as often as it was allowed, bringing him the news, and even Dumbledore stopped by.
       The Slytherin team had not only lost the game but, because of their attempt to cast a spell on the referee, been disqualified for the rest of the year. Two of them were expelled – regrettably, Draco Malfoy wasn’t one of them – and the rest had been given detention and had to spend the next month scouring out the sewers under the supervision of Mr. Filch. In light of this, Fred Weasley magnanimously offered to waive the wager, and didn’t make the Slytherins sing the House song with underpants on their heads. They seemed to regard this as small consolation. 
       Even Professor Snape had been disciplined. Ron couldn’t wait to tell Harry about it once he found out, but Snape had gotten in trouble for giving students after-hours access to the Potions classroom, which was where and when the poison that had felled Madame Hooch had been made. 
       Snape had denied all knowledge of it and Dumbledore apparently believed him, but it had been a blow to Snape’s pride all the same to be assigned to the duty of organizing all the Hogwarts files, which dated back hundreds of years. This task kept him so busy that he was hardly ever seen except during class, and for once he didn’t seem to blame Harry for his troubles. For once, in fact, his anger was directed at the Slytherins. Not so much for what they’d done but for getting caught. 
       The only blow to Gryffindor came a few nights after Harry had been released from the infirmary and allowed to go back to the dorm. He and Ron were playing wizard chess and others in the room were engaged in a multi-player game of Wizard War, when the portrait of the Fat Lady swung open in response to a sniffled, sobbed password and Neville Longbottom came in crying.
       This brought everything to a halt.
       “Neville?” Harry asked. “What’s the matter?”
       Even Trevor the toad looked miserable, as Neville took him out of a pocket and set him on the table. Neville blew his nose with a honking sound, and looked around at them with tears streaming down his face. 
       “I’m being transferred,” he said, and sniffled again. “Transferred out of Gryffindor.”
       An immediate outcry greeted this.
       “No!” Ron bumped the chessboard in his hurry to rise, knocking pieces over. They laboriously got up and moved back to their proper places. “Why?”
       “It’s my Gran,” Neville said. “She wants me in Hufflepuff.”
       “You were Sorted into Gryffindor,” Harry said. “We all saw it.” As he spoke, he remembered how long the Sorting Hat had taken to decide with Neville, though, and might have finally done the equivalent of a coin flip.
       “Can your grandmother really do that?” asked Seamus.
       Neville nodded. “I’ve just come from Dumbledore’s office. She’s been after him ever since the Open House, sending him letters, wanting to have meetings. You don’t know what she’s like when she sets her mind to something. She thinks I’ll do better in Hufflepuff.”
       “I don’t see why,” Ron said. “It won’t make your grades any better.”
       “That’s not helping, Ron,” Hermione said. “And this isn’t about grades.”
       “Well, there’s got to be some reason,” Becca said, giving Neville a box of tissues. “Didn’t she say anything?”
       “Yes.” Neville scuffed his feet and couldn’t meet any of their eyes. “She thinks … she thinks … that Gryffindor’s a bad influence on me.”
       “What? Never! That can’t be!” several students said at once.
       “It’s true.” Now Neville was so studiously not looking at Harry that Harry instantly knew this was somehow his fault. “She says there’s too many daredevils here, too many risk-takers and rule-breakers, and that it’ll give me ideas. When do I ever have ideas?”
       Ron started to say something and Hermione kicked him in the ankle. “What did you say, Neville? Did they even ask you?”
       “Well, I couldn’t very well tell Gran she was wrong, could I? Disagree with her? She hates that. Once, my Uncle Roger contradicted her, and she made him sleep in the attic for a year.”
       Harry, who had slept in a cupboard under the stairs for the first eleven years of his life, sympathized. But that didn’t help Neville’s plight. “You’ve friends here, Neville. Doesn’t she understand that?”
       “Not that there’s anything wrong with the Hufflepuffs,” another boy added at once. “They’re all right and everything.”
       “But it’s not easy being plopped in with a bunch of new people,” Becca said. “I know that better than anyone. I was scared half to death when I came to Hogwarts. You’d all started out together and gotten to know each other. How would it be for Neville, suddenly being thrown in with the Hufflepuffs? Sure, he’d know them from class and stuff, but it’s not fair to take him away from his friends. From his House. The speech I got from McGonagall said that your House was like your family. You can’t just switch families.”
       “You don’t have to convince us, Becca,” said Hermione. “We all understand. It’s Neville’s grandmother and Professor Dumbledore that don’t.”
       “I can’t believe Dumbledore would do it,” Harry said. “Or McGonagall. I wonder if they asked her what she thought.”
       “It wouldn’t matter,” Neville said, sinking into a chair. Trevor hopped onto his knee and looked up at him with bigger, sadder eyes than any toad should ever have. “Once Gran’s made up her mind, there’s no going back.”
       “You’ve got to stand up to her,” Becca said. “I mean, jeez, Neville, you’re old enough to have some say in your own life.”
       “She only wants what’s best for me, really. And she’s taken care of me ever since my parents … since my parents couldn’t anymore. It’d be awfully ungrateful, after all she’s done for me.”
       “What’s best for you?” Ron snorted. “That’s what they always say, sure, but what they really mean is what’s most convenient for them.”
       “No, honestly,” Neville said. “She thinks I’ll get in trouble if I stay here. Poke into things I shouldn’t. Make enemies. ”
       “Act like me, in other words,” Harry said, remembering the cold glare Neville’s grandmother had given him at the Open House. 
       Neville mumbled, “Uh-huh.”
       “But that’s ridiculous” Hermione burst out. “Harry’s not dangerous!”
       “He’s gotten us into it often enough,” Ron said.
       “Thanks, Ron.”
       “And there was that time you petrified Neville, Hermione.”
       “Shut up, Ron,” Hermione said, blushing. 
       Neville heaved a huge sigh. “So it’s settled. I’m to gather my things and meet the Hufflepuff prefect tomorrow. This is my last night here.”
       “That is so totally unfair!” Becca said. “Nothing bad is going to happen to you.”
       “She just wants me to be safe.”
       “She just wants to keep you under her thumb,” Becca countered. “Believe me, I know the type. Control freaks. Like my mom.”
       “Your mom?” Harry asked. “She seemed all right.”
       “Yeah, until you butt heads with her over something.” Becca laughed ruefully. “Then, let me tell you, it’s look out below and take no prisoners. I should sic her on Neville’s grandma.”
       Neville looked flatly horrified. “Please, Becca, don’t!”
       “Oh, don’t worry, I wouldn’t. It’s not like my folks can Apparate over here. They have to fly on a plane.”
       Ron snickered. “And didn’t my dad have tons to ask them about that!”
       “What are we going to do about Neville?” Hermione broke in. “That’s what we should be thinking about.”
       “What can we do?” Dean Thomas shrugged. “We all like Neville, but --”
       “Maybe Harry could do something,” said Colin Creevey. “Dumbledore will listen to him.”
       Ginny Weasley jumped up and down excitedly, clapping her hands. “That’s the best idea yet!”
       “No, it isn’t,” Harry groaned. “It’s because of me that she wants Neville out of here.”
       “It’s all right, everyone,” Neville said. He was crying again, but through the tears looked absurdly touched that his friends would be sticking up for him so. “I’ll still see you at meals, and in Hogsmeade, and places. We’ll still have some classes together. Don’t worry about me.”
       They talked about it until lights-out, leaving their various games unfinished, but no one could come up with a plan that would change the iron-clad mind of Neville’s grandmother. Harry heard Neville tossing and turning far into the night, muffling his sobs in his pillow. He suspected that no one in their room got much sleep, but nobody wanted to intrude on Neville’s grief and so they all lay in uncomfortable silence. 
       The next morning, Neville packed his trunk and shuffled down to breakfast. His last meal at the Gryffindor table was full of patches of silence interspersed by the occasional stab at cheery chatter, and Neville’s face was long as a wet weekend. When the dishes vanished, Professor McGonagall put a hand on his shoulder. Her smile was sad but kind.
       “I’m sorry to see you leave our House, Neville,” she said quietly. “I’m sure your loyalty will be as much a credit to Hufflepuff as your stalwart courage was to Gryffindor.”
       The rest of them sat with heads down, hardly able to stand it as Neville got up and went with the Hufflepuff prefect. He’d been excused from morning classes to get settled into his new dorm and learn a new password that he’d have forgotten by lunch, Rememberall or no Rememberall. 
       The first half of the day dragged by. All of the Gryffindors were too conscious of Neville’s empty chair to concentrate on their lessons, so much so that Harry and Ron forgot to tether their stirge in Care of Magical Creatures and the long-beaked bird got away, last seen winging its way out the window and off toward the Forbidden Forest. 
       Lunchtime arrived, and when Neville came in he automatically went to sit at the Gryffindor table. He turned bright pink, stammered something, and shuffled over to sit with the Hufflepuffs. They were a friendly enough bunch; it wasn’t like Neville had been transferred to Slytherin; but he still looked glum.
       Herbology after lunch was with the Hufflepuffs, so Neville got the chance to tell them about his new room, trying hard to sound optimistic. He didn’t fool any of them.
        After Herbology was Divination. Harry’s best efforts to get Professor Trelawney to tell them what she’d meant by her cryptic remarks to himself and Becca back at the start of term had met with failure. She’d just shake her head and cluck her tongue and congratulate him for being so brave in the face of such certain, looming tragedy. 
       So it went, as the year moved on toward Christmas. As usual, Harry would be staying at Hogwarts rather than returning to the Dursleys. He’d had enough Christmas mornings watching Dudley open dozens of presents while Harry got one if he was lucky, and being given the turkey neck for his dinner. Becca was staying too, since it cost so much to fly back and forth. Once again, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were using the holiday to visit their oldest sons, but this time Ron, Fred, George, and Ginny would be going with them. 
       The last week of classes before the break was an easy one, with all of the teachers except Snape relaxing and not giving quite so much homework. 
       After months spent perfecting their fist-making and the speed with which they could utter their command words, nearly all of them had managed to cast a Great Ward at least once in Professor Winterwind’s Defense Against the Dark Arts class. He promised them that they’d finally test their abilities before they went their various ways, and most of them thought it was high time. Harry was beginning to suspect Hermione was right – his reputation regarding that one spell was good, but it seemed to be the only one he could cast. 
       “Do you think it’s a conspiracy?” Ron asked as they were on their way to class on the appointed day. “That we keep getting nutcases for professors in this one?”
       “What are you going on about?” Hermione looked like she would have liked to protest and stick up for Gilderoy Lockhart, but in the end he’d been proven a nutcase too, so she didn’t have a leg to stand on. “Why would it be a conspiracy? For what?”
       “A conspiracy by Dark wizards,” Ron said, with exaggerated bugging eyes. “We never get taught properly, and then, pow! We’re defenseless.”
       “Oh, come on,” Harry said. 
       “I think it’s more that the only people who could really teach Defense Against the Dark Arts were those who knew about the Dark Arts,” Becca said. “And Dumbledore doesn’t want to hire any Dark wizards.”
       “He’s already got one,” Harry said, and quickly looked around. He was getting too jumpy. It wasn’t like Snape was there every time!
       Nor was he there that time. They got to Winterwind’s classroom and he promptly divided them into pairs. Ron and Hermione wound up together, and Harry was teamed with Becca.
       “Now, then,” Winterwind said. “As we all saw at that regrettable, regrettable Quidditch match, one problem with a Great Ward is that while it’s top-notch protecting the caster, it’s a bit hard on the bystanders.”
       Harry could tell he wasn’t the only one remembering that witch bursting into flames. Hermione sniffed scornfully. She was getting worse about that, about criticizing teachers. As if the more she learned from books, the more she thought she automatically knew more than anyone else. He hoped it didn’t get her into trouble one day. 
       “Thus, we’re off to the target range. Don’t forget your cloaks.” With that, Winterwind pulled on his own thick green cloak and led the way. 
       The Hogwarts target range was usually used for practice of attack spells, like lightning bolts and fireballs. It consisted of three long alleys with eight-foot-high walls and was on a lower floor just above Snape’s classroom, not quite dungeon but certainly deeper than basement. Targets could be hung at the far end, but today there were none. Professor Winterwind ushered the first three pairs of students into alleys, and raised his voice so they could all hear him.
       “It’s very simple,” he said. “You all know how to Ward, and I’m assuming you all know some variety of spell that can be used on another person. Take turns. One casts, one Wards.”
       Hermione raised her hand.
       “Yes, Miss Granger?”
       “What sort of spells should we be casting on each other?” She wasn’t able, or didn’t try, to keep the skepticism from her voice. 
       “Whatever you feel most comfortable with. The object of the lesson is to see how well your partner Wards.” He went to a lever and threw it, which caused a fine smoke to whirl through the room. “This smoke will make all magical energy visible, so those of you watching be able to see the deflection. Mr. Potter, Miss Morgan, you’re up.”
       Harry looked at Becca and she looked back at him, and he saw an impish gleam in her hazel eyes. 
       “What are you thinking?”
       “Nothing,” she said with such innocence that he was tempted to Ward himself already. “You want to go first?”
       “No, ladies first, go ahead.”
       “Ready?” At his nod, she brought out her wand, thought for a moment, and grinned fiendishly. “Amphibius Morphus!” A beam of swampy green flew at him. 
       Harry clenched his fist. “Avertus!”
       A bubble of gold light formed around him. He couldn’t see anything except the inside of it, but when Becca’s spell struck, he saw the dent and the discoloration. Then he heard a startled cry, and opened his fist. 
       The swampy green had bounced back right at Becca, and it looked brighter and faster, as if it had gained strength. She cast a quick Ward herself, and disappeared inside a ball of light as purple as the amethyst at the end of her wand. The green line rebounded toward Harry, now thick as his arm and fast as a Snitch. 
       He Warded. It was flung right back at Becca. Evidently she realized, as Harry did, that they could be stuck table-tennising the confounded spell all day as it got more and more powerful, because rather than Ward, she threw herself flat and it passed over her.
       Unfortunately, when it did that, it screamed out of the target range and right into the watching group of their classmates. Some of them dove for cover, Professor Winterwind among them. Others tried Wards of their own, and Harry and Becca watched, aghast, as the spell caromed from one to the next, increasing speed, like a pinball. 
       Finally, almost too fast to be seen, it bounced right out the open door and into the hall and was gone. Slowly, carefully, the class came out of hiding and lowered their Wards, looking around to see that everyone was all right. 
       The croaking noise came from the hallway. Becca covered her mouth with her hand, eyes huge. She and Harry bumped into each other running for the door, pushing past everyone else. The spell she’d cast had been a Transfiguration one, person into frog. Sure enough, there was a small, hopping creature on the stone floor.
       “Oh,” said Harry. “It’s only Trevor.”
       “But look,” said Becca, pointing. 
       Because there, beyond Trevor, was a frog. A particularly pudgy and confused-looking one, sitting on top of a bathroom pass from Snape’s Potions class, which the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws had downstairs right this minute. 
       Hermione elbowed in between them and gasped as she saw what they saw. “It isn’t … it can’t be …”
       “It is,” Harry said. “It’s Neville.”


Chapter Eight – Mysteries and Mistletoe

       Madame Pomfrey was startled when the entire DADA class burst into the infirmary, Harry in the lead carrying the plump frog that only a few minutes before had been Neville Longbottom. Becca was on his heels with Trevor in her pocket, a development which Quicksilver, riding on her shoulder, seemed to take with some jealousy. 
       The infirmary was empty except for the nurse, who was sitting back with a nice cup of tea when they all came in. She was on her feet in a flash, looking them over for injuries. Harry thrust the frog at her and everyone tried to explain at once.
       “… Transfiguration spell …”
       “… bouncing around …”
       “… tried to get out of the way …”
       “… Great Ward, but …”
       “… didn’t know anyone was out …”
       “… terrible accident, simply terrible!” That last was Professor Winterwind, wringing his hands and looking distraught.
       “Hush, hush, enough!” cried Madame Pomfrey. She held up the frog Harry had given her, slid her glasses down her nose, and peered at it over the top of the frames. “This is no ordinary frog.”
       “No, ma’am,” Harry said. “It’s Neville.”
       “Mr. Longbottom?” she asked.
       The frog croaked dolefully. It looked silly hanging there, Madame Pomfrey’s fingers clamping it under the forelegs so its little round belly drooped, and its long, spindly legs with their flippered feet dangled. 
       “It does rather look like him,” Ron said helpfully.
       “Oh, dear,” murmured Madame Pomfrey. “A very strong spell did this to him.”
       “Ah. Ahem. Yes,” said Professor Winterwind. He laughed a tremulous laugh, the same one he’d used when Hermione asked him if they oughtn’t learn the lesser Ward spells before moving on to the Great Ward. “I think I can explain that. Unforeseen. My oversight. A problem with the Ward, you see. It deflects the energy but strengthens it.”
       “And that spell bounced around a lot before hitting Neville,” Hermione said. “It must have gone off six or seven Wards, getting stronger each time.”
       “How’d you know that one anyway?” Dean Thomas asked Becca. “We weren’t due to learning any people-Transfigurations until January.”
       “We’d kind of been reading ahead at night, Hermione and me,” Becca confessed. “I always used to do that with my regular school.”
       “All right, all right,” said Madame Pomfrey. “It’s best if you all left. I’ll see what I can do for poor Mr. Longbottom, but someone will need to inform his House teacher and deliver this note to whatever class he’s currently missing.”
       She gave the note to Harry, and he couldn’t help but think that she was singling him out on purpose because she knew he’d have to take it to Snape and tell Snape what had happened.
       “I’d best go talk to Professor Dumbledore about all this,” Professor Winterwind said. “Oh, he’s not going to be pleased. Miss Granger, if you’d be so kind as to tell Hufflepuff? The rest of you are hereby excused to the library. No sense going back to class just now.”
       As they filed out, Becca fell in beside Harry. “What are you doing?” he asked.
       “Coming with you. It’s more my fault than yours, so if Professor Snape’s going to yell at anybody, it should be me.”
       “You don’t have to do that.”
       “It was my spell.”
       He couldn’t really argue with that. Becca had left Trevor in with Neville, but carried the bathroom pass that had been found in the hallway. They descended the increasingly dark and gloomy steps until they reached the dungeon level, where they could smell potions brewing and hear the simmering bubble of cauldrons.
       They reached the door and took a deep breath together for courage. That turned out to be a mistake, because they sucked in lungsful of the stinking potion fumes and both went into coughing fits. The door, slightly ajar, was yanked the rest of the way open.
       “It’s about time, Mr. Longbot – Potter? Morgan?” Snape’s hands, like claws, fell upon their shoulders. “What’s the meaning of this?”
       Behind him, in the classroom, they could see the various Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs turning to look, all of them with cloth masks covering their mouths and noses to protect them from the foul smoke rising from their cauldrons. 
       Harry was coughing too hard to say anything sensible, so he waggled the note in Snape’s direction. Becca did the same with the bathroom pass. Snape released his pinching grip on their shoulders and took the two items, slipping the bathroom pass into the sleeve of his robe and unfolding the note. 
       “I see,” he said in a clipped way. “And just how did this happen?”
       Putting a handkerchief over her face so she could breathe, Becca explained. Harry kept quiet, or as quiet as he could when his chest kept lurching with suppressed coughs. Snape listened broodingly, his black eyes glittering. For some reason, the news of Neville’s misfortune seemed to please him. He smirked rather blatantly while Becca was speaking.
       “Well,” he said when she was done. “Even the great Harry Potter makes mistakes, doesn’t he?”
       “It was my spell, sir,” Becca said. Harry wanted to elbow her, but Snape was between them and he couldn’t reach. Snape hated being corrected, especially by a student.
       This was no exception. His eyes narrowed and there was no telling what he might have said next if the bell hadn’t rung at that very moment. From inside the classroom came a sudden clamor of happy voices and the scrape of chairs. Not just the bell, not just the last bell of the day or the week, but the last bell before Christmas! 
       Excited students stampeded out the door. Harry and Becca were caught in that tide and went with it, away from Snape. None of the Hufflepuffs or Ravenclaws had heard their quiet conversation in the hall, because nobody mentioned Neville. As they reached the corner, they got out of the press of bodies and took shelter in a niche behind a statue of an executioner, grinning at each other with relief over their escape. 
       When the hallway had cleared some, they ventured out and headed for the stairs, only to stop fast when Harry saw someone coming down. He acted on impulse, pulling Becca behind the executioner again and saying, “Shh!”
       Ophidia Winterwind floated down the stairs as gracefully as a ghost, although considerably more substantial. She trailed her long, red-tipped fingers along the banister, smiling in approval at the cobwebs, the leering gargoyles and bat sculptures on the walls, and the ever-flame torches flickering in their rusty iron holders. 
       “Isn’t that Winterwind’s sister?” whispered Becca. “What’s she doing here?”
       “Maybe she’s here to see Snape,” Harry replied. “Come on.”
       They crept to the corner and peeked around just as Ophidia’s voice drifted lazily to them. She was at the doorway to the Potions classroom, poised there with one hand high on the doorjamb and the other on her hip. “Good evening, Severus.”
       From within the room came the sudden clatter of crockery and a crash. “Ophidia? What … what a surprise.”
       “I do hope I’m not interrupting. Class is over?”
       “Yes. Yes, just tidying up. They’re slovenly little monsters.”
       “I’ve come to spend the holidays with my dear baby brother,” she said. “Only he didn’t seem to be in class. You wouldn’t happen to know where he’s gotten to, would you?”
       “As a matter of fact, I do.” Snape’s voice sounded sourly amused. “He let his students test their Great Wards today.”
       “How bad was it?”
       “A passer-by was turned into a frog, but that was the extent.”
       “Oh, dear. Reggie, Reggie, Reggie. I’m really amazed that Dumbledore hired him. Whatever was he thinking?”
       “That is an excellent question,” snarled Snape.
       Ophidia Winterwind moved into the room, and Harry and Becca inched closer. Harry would have given anything for his Invisibility Cloak right then, but it was up in his dormitory, at the bottom of his trunk. 
       “They must have been desperate. Everyone’s heard about the troubles Hogwarts has been having keeping a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Do you know what I think their problem is?”
       Harry and Becca reached the doorway and poked their heads around. Ophidia and Snape were at the front of the room, him methodically pointing his wand at the shards of broken crockery from the pot he’d dropped, her leaning against the edge of his desk. 
       “They keep looking too far from home.”
       “I don’t know what you mean.”
       “Come now, Severus, of course you do. Everyone knows. You’re perfectly qualified to teach DADA, and it’s positively shameful the way they keep passing you over. Punishing you for things that happened years ago. My word, they kept Hagrid on after he was turning all manner of grotesque monsters loose in the castle. And let’s not forget that scandal with Minerva McGonagall! Your …” She pursed her lips thoughtfully while trying to come up with a word, and Harry was both fascinated and revolted by the hungry way Snape watched her. “Your indiscretions, shall we say, were far less than either of theirs.”
       “Kind of you to say, Ophidia, but you and I see things in a somewhat different light, don’t we?”
       She tossed her hair. “One could say that. But it really is most unfair, Severus. You’ve proven yourself again and again. What more do they want from you? Blood?”
       Her smile when she said that was very wide, revealing teeth that were white and straight and looked, although Harry hoped it was just a trick of the shadows, extremely pointed. Snape laughed, but his laugh had a rather nervous quality. 
       “I’m sure that Dumbledore --”
       “Oh, don’t stick up for him. It’s so boring, and you’re not fooling me. How you put up with the way he treats you, I’ll never know. It isn’t that much to ask, you’d be splendid at the job, but what does he do instead? Continually hires dunces and oddballs. And Gilderoy Lockhart, by Voldemort!”
       Harry about leapt out of his skin, hearing her use the name as an oath like that. Becca yanked him back from the door in a hurry. 
       “What’s got into you?” she hissed. “They’ll hear!”
       “Anyone with half a brain,” Ophidia Winterwind went on, “knew that there was no way he could be anything but a fraud. All those empty-headed witches fawning over him. The others were no better. At least Quirrell knew what he was doing.”
       “I’d rather not talk about that, if you don’t mind.”
       “Quirrell? Why? Because you got in the way of his plans and thereby hindered the Dark Lord? I still don’t know why you did it.”
       “I had my reasons. The Sorcerer’s Stone was too dangerous, even for Lord Voldemort. You weren’t one of us anyway, so I’d just as soon you kept your opinions to yourself.”
       “Don’t be cross with me, Severus,” she crooned. “You know my heart’s in the right place.”
       “But I question your loyalties and your ambition. Not to mention your methods. Why are you really here, Ophidia?”
       “To visit my brother, as I told you. I had a feeling he’d get himself in trouble. He even asked me to come in as a guest lecturer after the holiday, did he tell you?”
       “No, he didn’t. I wouldn’t have thought you’d consider it. Your memories of Hogwarts can’t be all that pleasant.” 
       “You’re not talking about James, are you? My word, Severus, I’ve been over that for ages! Just because I liked him first and that tart stole him away from me is no reason to carry a grudge.”
       Hearing his father’s name come out of this woman’s mouth gave Harry a chill. 
       “Pointless, too,” Snape said. “As they’re both dead.”
       “Besides, what I felt for James was never serious. Just a crush, a silly schoolgirl crush.”
       “What about what you felt for me?”
       Becca, next to Harry, was making gagging motions. Harry would have been doing the same except that he was deeply troubled by the idea that Ophidia Winterwind had known his parents. 
       “I don’t know what you mean,” she said to Snape.
       “Were you using me to make Potter jealous?”
       “Severus,” she chided. “Why don’t you leave this mess for later and come up to dinner? Most of those ghastly little brutes will be on their way to the train station by now. We can discuss this more over a nice glass of eggnog. ‘Tis the season, you know.”
       Harry weighed their chances of making it back to the concealing executioner unseen. If Snape knew they’d overheard this of all conversations … he signaled frantically to Becca and they scurried for cover, making it just as Snape and Ophidia Winterwind came out of the Potions classroom and he closed and locked it behind them. She had her hand tucked in the crook of his arm and they walked side by side down the hall, passing within inches of the hiding students without seeing them. 
       “Guh-ross,” Becca said when they’d gone. “I thought for a minute he was going to kiss her.”
       “Those were my parents she was talking about,” Harry said. 
       “Weird, isn’t it? To think they had lives before they had kids. But come on, we’d better get out of here before Filch finds us.”
       They took the long way to make sure of not running into Snape in the halls. All over the castle, the decorations were magically appearing. Garlands and wreaths, ornaments, swags of evergreen, Yule logs in every fireplace. Half of the portraits were wearing Santa hats. From the kitchens came the aromas of roasting turkey, pies, and spiced cider. Long strands of lights, tiny and twinkling in red and green, strung themselves through the air. They could see snow falling, fluffy white flakes of it, outside the windows. 
       Dozens of people rushed by, shouting good-byes and Merry Christmases, promising to see each other next year. Harry and Becca arrived back in Gryffindor tower just as the Weasleys were coming out with their somewhat shabby overnight cases.
       “There you are!” cried Ron. “Thought Snape decided to chop you up and boil you into something. What took so long?”
       “I’ll have to write you about it,” Harry said. “How’d it go with Neville?”
       “Dunno,” Ron said. “We were in the library. Hermione’s probably still there, looking up all the ways of turning a frog back into a human. If old Neville was a prince, Becca here might have to kiss him to break the spell.”
       “Ha, ha,” said Becca. “I’m not kissing Neville no matter what he is.”
       “Hurry it up, Ron,” urged Fred. “I hear Hagrid.”
       Everyone could hear Hagrid. They could probably hear Hagrid in London. He was bellowing from the front lawn where he was waiting with the sled to take people to the station. The wagon was harnessed to four owl-bears, which Hagrid had found abandoned in their nest and raised up himself, and in the spirit of the holidays he’d put fake antlers and red foam noses on each of them. 
       Hermione blew past so fast she might have been flying, gasping out, “Nothing yet, maybe you can look it up while I’m gone, Harry, though I’m sure Madame Pomfrey will be able to fix him right up. This sort of thing probably happens all the time. Though with the spell intensified, who knows? Got to dash. Have a good time, everyone, Happy Christmas!”
       Although the Weasleys had gotten a head start, Hermione was back with her bag and her coat and scarf before they’d gone halfway down the hall. This was due in part to Ron still trying to ask Harry what had happened down in the dungeon, and Ginny hesitating like she wasn’t sure if she’d forgotten something or not. The decorations that had been spinning their magical way through the castle reached Gryffindor tower, and the Fat Lady giggled from her portrait as her frame was festooned with gold garland. She pulled on a Santa hat, picked up a wrapped gift, and bustled off to some other portrait, leaving the secret door standing wide open.
       “You’d better go,” Harry said. “Happy Christmas!” He started to step through.
       “Wait, Harry!” The words seemed to pop out of Ginny before she could catch herself.
       Harry, half in and half out of the common room, looked back. Ginny ran to him, her cheeks turning red, her eyes sparkling. She pointed above his head.
       “What?” Harry looked up. There, right over him in the doorway, was a sprig of something green with white berries, tied in red ribbon. 
       “You’re under the mistletoe,” Ginny squeaked, and before Harry could move, she’d thrown her arms around him and given him a big kiss. Stunned, he could only stand there blinking while she ran back to her brothers. They could barely call out their good-byes, they were laughing so hard.
       “Who put mistletoe here?” Harry hopped out of the doorway, wiping his face and grimacing. “Whose brilliant idea was that?”
       Becca, bent double with mirth at the whole thing, sobered enough to say, “Maybe it was Professor Snape. Maybe he’s hoping to catch Ophidia Winterwind under it.”
       “Very funny.”
       The castle gradually quieted as those going home departed. Those who remained got cleaned up and dressed for dinner, but before the first course was even served in the festively-decorated Great Hall, the doors banged open and Neville Longbottom’s grandmother stormed in.


Chapter Nine – The Human Howler

       The matriarch Mrs. Longbottom looked no less impressive now than on the other occasions Harry had seen her. Perhaps more so, because he’d never seen her in the full fury of a rage before. He cringed. Becca, not even needing to be told who she was, did likewise. They hunkered low in their chairs at the mostly-empty Gryffindor table, wishing for spells that would make them invisible or able to slip quietly from the room. Even the potion with which Dean Thomas had had a mishap back at the start of the term would have been good. 
       “Why, Mrs. Longbottom,” began Dumbledore, rising from his seat. “A pleasure to --”
       “I demand to know what you intend to do about this fiasco,” she said, acidly and without preamble.
       “I presume you are referring to Neville’s unfortunate … accident,” Dumbledore said. 
       A few of the students tittered, Professor Winterwind hid his head in his hands, and Harry and Becca sank lower, studiously avoiding every gaze except each other’s.
       “Accident?” she spat. “You call this an accident? A shamefully flagrant piece of negligence! A malicious prank!”
       “There may have been negligence involved,” admitted Dumbledore while Winterwind seemed to be imitating Harry and Becca and sliding lower and lower in his chair. “The door to the room should have been properly shut and secure, I grant you that. However, it was an easily-understandable mistake.”
       “Look at my grandson!” she barked, fanning her hands. A shimmery wedge-shaped window of light appeared above them, showing a slightly distorted but otherwise clear view of the hospital wing and of a bed, in which lay something roughly the size of a newborn baby but quite a bit greener, wartier, and slimier. “Your nurse, whom I was led to believe was capable, informs me that this is the best she can do.”
       Harry stared at the lumpy Neville-thing, feeling sick.
       “Madame Pomfrey is attending the situation as best she can,” Dumbledore said. “True, that is the best she can do for now, but she assures me that Neville will gradually revert to his fully human form within a matter of weeks.”
       “That isn’t good enough,” Mrs. Longbottom said. Her eyes flashed like sparks struck from flint. “We happened to be having a very important family gathering over the holidays, relatives coming from all around the world, and this … this mess … is entirely unacceptable! I will have something done, and promptly.”
       Professor McGonagall stood beside Dumbledore. “Undoing a Transfiguration spell of this nature cannot be rushed, Mrs. Longbottom. For Neville’s sake, we must be patient.”
       Ignoring her with magnificent disdain, Mrs. Longbottom advanced on the high table. Most of the rest of the teachers watched her come with the same frozen fascination they might have had if they’d seen a tidal wave or a tornado bearing down on them. Snape was concealing a cynical half-smile behind his hand, sharing it only with Ophidia Winterwind, who looked as though this was all being put on as entertainment for her benefit. Hagrid’s eyes widened above his great shock of a beard, perhaps expecting the oncoming witch to draw her wand and start sizzling lightning bolts around the Hall. Professor Trelawney’s habitual expression of sad foreknowledge was deeper than ever. 
       “I specifically requested Neville’s transfer to another House in hopes of avoiding just such an incident as this,” Mrs. Longbottom said sternly to Dumbledore. “How many times since the term began have I written you, expressing my concern? Each time, you brushed me aside, and now look! Look at what’s happened! I told you that if my grandson remained in Gryffindor, something terrible would happen. I had it on good authority!”
       “That’s right,” murmured Trelawney. “I warned her myself. I had to. I knew it probably wouldn’t help but had to at least try.”
       “But you couldn’t be bothered,” Mrs. Longbottom said, with nary a break, as if the Divination teacher hadn’t spoken. “You told me to put no stock in predictions, and that disrupting the balance of a school House was never undertaken lightly! Well, what do you have to say now? If you put no stock in predictions, Headmaster, then clearly you put little stock in the qualifications of your teachers. A fact that has never been more apparent than with the recent string of blunderers you’ve hired to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts! A competent instructor never would have let this happen!”
       Winterwind was shaking all over. Madame Hooch, seated next to him, reached out to give him a consoling pat on the shoulder and he jumped like he was being attacked. 
       “Now, Charlotte,” said Dumbledore placatingly, but got no further.
       “Don’t you ‘now, Charlotte,’ me, Albus Dumbledore! You know me far too well for that!” She was right in front of him now, only the table separating them, and wagging her finger in his face. 
       Hagrid started to get up, and she stopped him with such a look that the towering gamekeeper dropped meekly into his chair. Harry was astounded. He’d known Hagrid for years and knew that Hagrid loved nothing better than confronting the fiercest of monsters face to face, never seeing the danger that was so apparent to everyone else. When it came to a creature of this nature, though, he was as helpless as any of the rest of them might have been in the clutches of the largest spider in the Forbidden Forest.
       “I hardly think this needs airing in front of all the school,” Professor McGonagall said.
       Again, it was as if she wasn’t even present.
       “What’s been done? What’s been done, I ask you? Has the teacher been disciplined? What of the students directly responsible for my grandson’s condition?”
       Here, Harry and Becca would have given anything to be under the table, but half the people were looking at them, everyone at the Slytherin table with unconcealed glee. 
       “Have they been sent home in disgrace?” Mrs. Longbottom wasn’t shouting, wasn’t roaring, but her voice rang throughout the Great Hall so strongly that it seemed to make the roofbeams shake. Quicksilver, wanting no part of this, slipped away through the door to the owlery although the drake was not terribly welcome by the feathery messengers. “Are they in detention? Have they been restricted to their dormitories to think on their actions?”
       Dumbledore opened his mouth and Mrs. Longbottom ran right over him. She whirled, the hem of her robe flaring like a bell, and leveled that same accusing finger at the Gryffindor table.
       “No!” she cried out. “There they sit! Stuffing themselves on cookies and cider as if they haven’t a care in the world!”
       As it happened, the food hadn’t even appeared yet and neither Harry nor Becca had much of an appetite. But they both flinched as guiltily as if she’d caught them with their mouths crammed full of sweets. Miraculously, everyone seated near them had managed to slide, scootch, or inch away, so that they were alone at the middle of a long expanse of table, and might as well have had a spotlight pinning them in harsh brilliance. 
       “While Neville,” she went on relentlessly, “lies in his bed of pain, his every movement agony, able to eat nothing but pureed flies and drink nothing but swampwater!”
       “We didn’t mean to!” The words exploded out of Becca’s mouth like kernels of Snapcorn, surprising her as much as Harry. “It was an accident, it was!”
       “How dare you speak to me without permission!” Mrs. Longbottom drew herself up to her full height, which was still nowhere near Hagrid’s but because he was in his chair and she was on her feet, made her look nineteen feet tall. 
       “But she speaks the truth,” Dumbledore said. “It was indeed an accident.” Behind the gold frames of his half-moon spectacles, his eyes were full of reassurance for them. 
       “I’ve had my objections to certain ways in which this school has been being run for quite some time now, Dumbledore.” Her attention returned to him, but Harry thought he’d always feel her stare, and would have rather been back in the Chamber of Secrets eye to eye with the basilisk. 
       “Charlotte --”
       “I’ve kept my peace until now but it hasn’t been easy, oh, no, it hasn’t been easy at all! From Neville’s first year, he’s been regaling us all with stories of the escapades of young Harry Potter here. While I can’t say I’m surprised that James and Lily Potter’s son would be a scamp and a rules-flouter, I am shocked that you’d allow it to go on this long. Shocked! What’s more, you’ve rewarded it! I’ll never forget Neville coming home at the end of that first year, so puffed with pride he nearly floated, to tell me how he had secured the House Cup for Gryffindor. When I asked him how, he told me, still proud of it, that you, you, Albus Dumbledore, had personally awarded him ten points for fighting!”
       “That’s not how it was!” This time, it was Harry’s turn to have the words burst out unexpectedly, and to make matters worse, he jumped up from his chair. “That’s not how it was at all! Neville got those points for being brave! For being willing to stand up to us when …” He faltered as he realized there was no way to make this sound good.
       “So I’ve been aware of this from the beginning,” Mrs. Longbottom said. “I’ve said nothing, hoping it would get better, but it’s only gotten worse. The Chamber of Secrets, consorting with criminals from Azkaban … the list goes on and on. Believe me, I have nothing but the highest regard for Mr. Potter’s early deeds and for taking a stand against the Dark Arts, but he simply is not aware that not everyone is as well-protected as he is! That others, impressionable others, will watch him and get the wrong ideas, trying to emulate him. Wanting to be just like him, when most are simply not suited for such a life! It’s directly because of him that my grandson is in the state he’s in. Whether this incident was accidental or not, the climate of permissiveness surrounding Harry Potter is what ultimately led to it.”
       Snape, to Harry’s dismay, was nodding as if he’d felt that way all along. Professor McGonagall was fuming so visibly that no one would have been shocked to see smoke coming from her nose and ears. Professor Trelawney had her head down and was either crying or laughing. Professor Winterwind was slumped, defeated. Hagrid was grumbling into his beard, probably wishing he had Fluffy or one of his other pets here to sic on Mrs. Longbottom. Fang the boarhound would have taken one look and fled in the opposite direction, whining with his tail between his legs. 
       Professor Dumbledore arched his eyebrows. “Perhaps you’re right, Charlotte.”
       “The circumstances of Mr. Potter’s various and heroic deeds have led to a certain attitude of understanding not always extended to most students. However, I would hardly call it permissive.”
       “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.”
       This was finally too much for Hagrid. “Here, now, yeh can’t go talking teh him like that! Nor talking ‘bout Harry like that, either. Yeh’re making him out ter be some hell-raiser who don’t care fer anything but what he can get away with, and that’s not right! Everthing he’s done, he’s done trying ter help someone and do what’s right, even if it’s dangerous. Not fer his own glory, so get that right out of yer head too! I’ve been at Hogwarts fer over fifty years and I’ve seem them come and go, and I’m telling yeh that if more did emulate Harry, there’d be a lot fewer Dark wizards in the world and that’s a fact!”
       Touched as he was by this vehemently heartfelt speech on his behalf, Harry was mortified too. Couldn’t he ever be just Harry? He didn’t feel all that special, never had. That was what he liked best about Becca. Although by now she’d heard all the stories many times, going back to his confrontation with Voldemort when he’d been only a year old, she still acted like he was just Harry. So did Ron and Hermione and most of his other friends, but they’d all needed quite a while to get used to it.
       “Enough, thank you, Hagrid,” said Dumbledore. “Charlotte, I do understand your reasons and your concerns. I assure you, I would much rather that circumstances had given us a peaceful, placid few years here at Hogwarts. But the world is neither peaceful nor placid now, and I for one have been most grateful for the help of Harry Potter, his friends, and indeed all of our students in seeking to protect this school and those within it.”
       “Yet you allow reckless spell-flinging and fail to punish the miscreants,” she retorted. “You ignore legitimate warnings. I will have satisfaction! Since I was unable to prevent this myself, I insist that there be fitting consequences. And if you won’t provide them, I shall.”
       Harry gasped. “Unable to prevent … it was you! You were the one who cast the Aversion spell at the park!”
       She spared him a steely, glittering glance.
       “And you took my books!” Harry added. “I saw you that day at Diagon Alley! You were going into the supply store where they were found, just as I was coming out of Flourish & Blotts!”
       “Is this true, Charlotte?” inquired Dumbledore. 
       “Yes, it is.” She didn’t back down or look ashamed in the least. “I would never stoop to harming a fellow wizard, even a student, without more pressing cause than this, but I did hope to discourage him. I hoped that if he stayed away from Hogwarts, or was held back or otherwise hampered by the missing books, Neville would be safe.”
       “This is highly irregular,” scowled Dumbledore, holding out a hand to halt the livid Professor McGonagall. “Why didn’t you approach me?”
       “When those means failed, I did. Letter after letter until the feathers were all but worn off the wings of my poor owl.” She held herself stiffly, chin high. “You know for yourself what your response to all of those letters was. Finally, as a last resort, I decided that the only way to help Neville would be to get him out of Gryffindor entirely. For all the good that did, it turns out.”
       “But how did you know something like this would happen?” blurted Harry, and knew as soon as the question was out. He looked at Professor Trelawney. “You told her!”
       “I did,” she confirmed with a heaving sigh that guttered the candles in front of her. “I foresaw it over the summer holiday and though I knew it wouldn’t change a thing, felt I had to warn one of my dear friends.”
       “We play wizard bridge,” Charlotte Longbottom tossed out absently, as if irritated by being referred to as anyone’s ‘dear friend.’
       Dumbledore motioned for quiet, which was hardly necessary as, except for a few whisperings and the occasional snicker, the Hall was utterly still so as no one would miss a word. Even the silvery, glowing forms of the various ghosts had drifted in, drawn by the commotion. 
       “I’m sure,” Dumbledore said, “that the students involved are most deeply sorry for the part they played in these unfortunate events and will tender their apologies to Neville personally.”
       Harry and Becca nodded so fervently they were lucky their heads didn’t come unhinged like that of Nearly Headless Nick. Mrs. Longbottom was looking like she was about to go off on another rant and say she didn’t want them anywhere near the hospital wing, or around Neville, ever again for the next hundred years, but she held her tongue for a change.
       “However, as it was an accident,” Dumbledore continued firmly, “I hardly think detention is necessary. Nor do I think that my contacting the Ministry of Magic in reference to that Aversion spell is necessary. Unless, Charlotte, you feel otherwise?”
       For a moment, Harry thought she was going to tell him to do it, that she’d take on the Ministry of Magic and claim she was only doing what she had to in defense of her family. But she grudgingly inclined her head, allowing Dumbledore to go on.
       “As for Neville, I’m terribly sorry that he won’t be able to join you for Christmas, but I promise you, he will have the best possible care here and should be back to normal by the start of classes. But I am going to request that you allow him to return to Gryffindor. At a time like this, a young fellow needs the support of his friends.”
       Mrs. Longbottom made a face like she’d just bitten into a sour-milk flavor Bean. Before she could reply, Professor Trelawney piped up with an amazingly hopeful lilt. “The worst is past,” she said brightly.
       “Very well,” Mrs. Longbottom said. “Neville may return to Gryffindor.”
       A cheer rose from the scattered students at that table, quickly subdued as they caught themselves and realized this was no time to be making a lot of noise. 
       “But!” she added, “if anything else happens to him, anything for which these bad influence classmates are responsible, I shall have no recourse but to withdraw Neville from Hogwarts entirely.”
       Harry gaped. Things happened to Neville all the time. He brought most of them on himself, but Harry was sure that all the blame would be pointed at him instead of Neville from now on. He would have protested, if he’d thought it would do any good. All he could do by speaking up now, though, would be to make things worse.
       “I understand,” said Dumbledore gravely. “Will that settle everything to your satisfaction, Charlotte?”
       “Well …” she said thoughtfully.
       “Wait,” came a shrill voice. Professor Winterwind coughed. “Wait. Please. I think it would help enormously, on all accounts, if I resigned.”
       “It would be the least you could do,” said Mrs. Longbottom, sounding magnanimous.
       “Here, now,” Professor McGonagall sputtered. “Resign? Reginald, why? We’ve all agreed it was an accident.”
       “But it could have been avoided,” he said. He couldn’t look any of them in the eye. “I am so very honored by your trust in me, Professor Dumbledore. I only wish it had been warranted. I’m not the wizard you’ve believed me to be. I’ve Warded some Dark spells, I’m good at that, I’ll admit … but what the students have been saying is true. It’s the only thing I know. And I don’t even know how I know it!”
       “Yer not making any sense, man,” said Hagrid gruffly.
       “I was a terrible student,” Winterwind said. “But somehow, I’ve always been able to Ward. It’s more like a … like a knack than anything I ever learned. Since it’s all I really know, with any confidence, it’s all I could try to teach. And look what it’s done. These promising young witches and wizards deserve better. None of this would have happened if I had been able to teach them Counterspells, or other defenses. I’ve been misleading you all. I’m no professor. Please, Headmaster Dumbledore, accept my resignation.”
       “I am distressed you feel this way, Reginald,” said Dumbledore. “Are you certain?”
       “Yes, sir. Yes, I am.”
       Madame Hooch exhaled in a disbelieving snort and said to Hagrid, in what was probably meant to be an undertone but could be clearly heard, “Bad enough we lose one every year, but this is the first time one’s only made it to the halfway point!”
       Winterwind flinched. “I hate to leave you in the lurch, sir, midway through the term and all, but if I stay, I’ll just be doing more harm than good.”
       “I’m sure,” broke in Ophidia Winterwind with a slow smile at Professor Dumbledore, “that someone else on the faculty would be willing to take over the DADA lessons for the rest of the year.”
       Snape sat up straight and brushed his lank hair back from his sallow face. His look of hopeful innocence would have been out of place enough even had he not been the head of Slytherin House, from whence all the most notorious Dark witches and wizards sprung. It was as if he was trying very hard to project the mental image of a golden halo shining above him. 
       Dumbledore and the other members of the faculty exchanged a long glance. Hagrid was shaking his head in short, sharp jerks. Professor Flitwick fidgeted, as if he was afraid that they might ask him to take on the additional duties. McGonagall, whose antipathy toward Snape had grown stronger as the rivalry between Slytherin and Gryffindor deepened with each passing year, took a breath and then held it, probably holding back several words on the subject as well. Madame Hooch rolled her eyes, mouthing, “somebody’s got to do it!” The others just looked back and forth, troubled.
       “At the moment,” said Dumbledore at last, “I’m reluctant to burden any of our professors with such an addition to their workload. Defense Against the Dark Arts is a highly challenging, demanding class that would require the full-time attention of a teacher.”
       “Phiddie could do it,” said Reginald Winterwind all of a sudden. “She’d be right cracking at it, that she would! Miles better than me! Not that that’s saying much. But she would be really good.”
       “Why, Reggie! That’s so kind of you to say,” said Ophidia. “Really, it is. But, well … I’m hardly … oh, I couldn’t! I’d be so flattered even to be considered, of course …”
       Snape’s eyes had gone totally black. He looked at her as if she’d planned this all along, to grab the Defense Against the Dark Arts position right out from under him as cleverly as Harry caught the golden Snitch. 
       “I remember you,” Professor Flitwick said. “Slytherin … Head Girl, too, weren’t you?”
       She dimpled at him, and the tiny gnomish fellow nearly fell into his soup tureen, where he surely would have drowned had it been full. “Yes, Professor.”
       The Slytherin table had fallen under an expectant hush, all of them leaning forward eagerly. 
       “And Reggie had asked me to come by a time or two as a guest speaker,” she said, toying with a lock of her ebony hair in a show of modesty that made Becca sniff scornfully.
       Professor McGonagall now looked as though she’d rather have Snape after all, but Dumbledore wasn’t watching the urgent signals she was waving at him. He studied Ophidia intently, as she shifted sinuously under his gaze and lifted her red eyes, like pools of dark blood, to him.
       “I’ll have to give this matter a good deal of thought,” Dumbledore said. “As a point of curiosity, however, Miss Winterwind … if the position were offered, might you be interested?”
       “I’d be delighted to help out, Professor Dumbledore,” she said demurely. “And I’d understand, of course, that it would be a stopgap measure until you could find someone better-suited.”
       Harry’s spirits had improved a bit once he and Becca understood that they weren’t going to be punished for their role in Neville’s misfortune after all. He’d even begun looking forward to dinner, with a little wakening pang of hunger in his stomach. Now, though, he felt like everything inside of him had been replaced with solid ice.
       “Well, then,” said Dumbledore, apparently pleased. He looked out at the students as if only now remembering they were all still there. “We’re a bit overdue for dinner, aren’t we? Charlotte, perhaps you’d like to join us for the feast?”
       Mollified by Winterwind’s humble resignation, Mrs. Longbottom swept her robes around herself and took the unoccupied chair that had appeared by magic at Dumbledore’s side. Food filled the platters, a reduced amount given the scant occupancy of the Great Hall, but what it lacked in amount it made up for in quality. A splendid banquet was laid out before them … and Harry could barely eat a bite.


Chapter Ten – Night School

       It wasn’t the best Christmas break Harry had ever known, but then again, it wasn’t the worst. 
       He had friends to exchange gifts with now, which was a huge step up from living with the Dursleys, and there were sleigh rides to Hogsmeade, caroling from door to door in the wizard village, and sledding on the hill. 
       But on the down side, he and Becca felt compelled to pay daily visits to Neville and were thus privy to the grotesque changes Neville was suffering through on his way back to humanity. He had to eat hugely to keep up with the demands on his body, and as he spent that first week on a diet of flies and other insects, visiting at mealtimes was especially trying. 
       About midway through, when Neville had reached the approximate size of a seven-year-old child and had human features emerging haphazardly through his froggy visage, Becca had a terribly hard time keeping a straight face. When Harry asked her what was wrong, she told him.
       “It’s just that … did you ever see ‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad’?”
       “No,” Harry said. “What’s that?”
       “It was one of my favorite videos when I was a little kid,” she explained. “Disney. Half was ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ One of our cats is even named Ichabod. The other half was from ‘The Wind in the Willows.’”
       Harry grinned in recognition. “Oh, sure. I’ve read that one.”
       “I know it’s mean, but poor Neville … right now he looks exactly like Mr. Toad.”
       “That is mean. Better not let his grandmother hear you say that.”
       “I wouldn’t!” Her face was solemn, her eyes huge. 
       Neither of them had any desire to ever cross Mrs. Longbottom again. She said all was forgiven, when she deigned to speak to them on her own not-infrequent visits, but there was a coldness about her that said while it may be forgiven, it was most assuredly not forgotten, and if she had her way, it never would be forgotten. By her, or by Neville, either.
       Neville, to their vast relief, didn’t blame them. Or Professor Winterwind, whose resignation he received with distress because he’d felt something in common with the ex-instructor. He didn’t even blame himself except to credit it to his ordinary brand of clumsy bad luck that always seemed to put him in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. 
       Without Ron or any of his roommates around, the nights were long and quiet in the Gryffindor dormitory. Harry wasn’t used to not having the sleep-sounds of anyone else around him. Even back at Number 4 Privet Drive, he could hear Uncle Vernon’s snores rattling the windows, and the sad creak of Dudley’s bed every time his porky cousin tried to roll over. 
       He was up late one night, putting off going to bed because he was in no hurry to lay there wakeful straining his ears for some noise, and flipping through the scrapbook Sirius had given him when his eye was caught by some notes that his father and Sirius had swapped during one of Professor Binns’ endless history classes. 
       In Sirius’ bold, dark script: You’ve got to do something about O.
       In James Potter’s neat handwriting: What do you mean? It’s settled.
       Sirius: Not from where she’s sitting. I’ve seen her look at you and L.
       James: So she’s a little jealous.
       Sirius: You don’t know much about girls, do you, my friend? (This was followed by a doodle of a rather wry-looking smiley face).
       James: Lily’s teaching me all I need to know.
       Sirius: It’s not L. you need to worry about. O.’s not done with you two yet. Can see it in her eyes.
       James: She knows she’s not my type, and I’m not hers. It’s got nothing to do with Lily.
       Sirius: Maybe you don’t think so, but mark me, O. does. Haven’t you heard the saying about Hell and a woman scorned?
       This disturbed Harry. He hadn’t but glanced at it before, feeling a touch uneasy reading about his parents’ early romantic days. But now, after what he’d overheard between Snape and Ophidia Winterwind, he had a pretty good idea who O. was and it bothered him to think that there was indeed some truth to what she’d been saying.
       She hadn’t been around over the rest of the break, having gone back to her home outside of London to gather her things. Professor Dumbledore had offered her the temporary job of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. His urgent ads in the Daily Prophet hadn’t garnered a glimmer of interest, especially on such short notice. 
       The decision had, if Harry was interpreting snippets and looks by the rest of the faculty correctly, been a controversial one. Professor McGonagall in particular was incensed, and as Snape was none too pleased himself, it made them allies of a sort. That in itself was nearly enough to stand all of Hogwarts on end. 
       It got so that two days before the rest of the students were to return, Dumbledore had to call a special staff meeting to address the matter. Harry, giving in to the curiosity that had been both his bane and his best weapon, donned his Invisibility Cloak and hid in the darkest, most unused corner of the teachers’ lounge to listen.
       He was sure by now that Dumbledore had to be aware of his presence, even cloaked. After all, it had been Dumbledore to give him the magical item in the first place, and he knew all that went on within the castle walls. If he noticed Harry’s silent presence, though, he gave no sign. He was perhaps too otherwise occupied.
       Opinions on the Ophidia Winterwind issue seemed divided strictly down the middle. The male teachers all got a faintly besotted look every time her name was mentioned, while the female teachers bristled like cats. Even Professor Binns, who according to rumor still hadn’t even quite come to the realization that he’d been dead for a long, long while, roused from his habitual doze to remark on what an excellent student she’d been, truly excellent, and deuced pretty, too.
       Only Snape seemed conflicted. He was both bristled and besotted, if Harry was any judge.
       Dumbledore settled things by reminding them that this was merely a temporary appointment until a more permanent arrangement could be found. Here, the wizards mostly groaned unhappily, while the witches looked grimly pleased. 
       By the time everyone else arrived on the Hogwarts Express, Neville was his old self again. The last few days had been possibly the most disconcerting of all, since he’d looked mostly like a boy except for when his throat would suddenly puff out and he’d utter incredibly loud croaking noises. He still had barely-noticeable webs between his fingers and toes, but Madame Pomfrey assured him those would fade soon.
       The news about Reginald Winterwind leaving and his sister taking his place had made the papers. Curiously, Harry noted that while the articles included wizard photographs of him, there were none of her. Given her more highly photogenic qualities – when he said this to Becca, she shook her head and said, “You, too, huh? She’s going to have every boy in this school wrapped around her pinkie finger.” – Harry was puzzled by the omission.
       Ron and the rest arrived back in an excellent mood. The Weasleys had had a wonderful vacation abroad, though with the unreliability of the foreign mail, their postcards arrived three days into the new semester. All of them were sunburned and peeling, and Ginny was heard to bemoan loud enough to bother Moaning Myrtle, the girl’s bathroom resident ghost, about how she’d sprouted more freckles than ever from the hot Mediterranean sun. 
       Hermione, who had contrived to get the wizard paper delivered even to her parents’ Muggle home, had been following the story keenly. She jumped straightaway on Harry’s remark about the lack of photographs.
       “There aren’t any of her in the Who’s Who of Witches and Wizards, either,” she said. “Or in any of the Hogwarts albums. It really is a shame that they don’t do a yearbook, you know, I think Colin might be onto something with that.”
       “Yeah, I wish I’d have one to take home with me,” said Becca.
       This startled Harry, who had forgotten that Becca would be leaving Hogwarts after exams. Well, they all would, but she’d be returning to America and not coming back. Despite her strong accent and the strange modern-Muggle things she’d gotten in her Christmas parcel, she had come to seem like one of them. This sidetracked him for a moment but he returned to Hermione’s point.
       “Why not, I wonder? When she’s so --”
       He caught himself, but not before both girls had squinted suspiciously at him. And Ron, scratching fitfully at his peeling sunburn, was no help.
       “Gorgeous?” Ron supplied. “I tell you, no one’s going to miss a day of Defense Against the Dark Arts this time around!”
       “Night,” Hermione said smugly.
       “What?” Harry, Ron, and Becca asked together.
       “Isn’t it obvious? She doesn’t photograph, she’s never out and about before sunset – they’re rescheduling DADA to after supper and giving us a study hour during the day, hadn’t you heard? – and haven’t you looked at her?”
       “Oh, yeah,” said Ron, winking extravagantly.
       Hermione swatted him. “I’m serious! The white skin, the red eyes, the teeth? My parents are dentists and I know an unnatural bite when I see one. Plus, she’s registered as an Animagus, but I think it’s a false listing because isn’t it too convenient that she can turn into a bat?”
       “You’re saying she’s a vampire?” asked Harry, incredulous. 
       “Would they … they wouldn’t hire a vampire to teach school, would they?” Becca asked. “I thought that was what Defense Against the Dark Arts was all about.”
       “Wait a minute!” Harry cried. “She was at the Quidditch match! She was there with Snape! And it was broad daylight. So how could she be a vampire?”
       That stumped Hermione, who couldn’t come up with an explanation. They finished unpacking and hurried down to dinner together, where all of Gryffindor was greeting Neville and welcoming him back. He was blushing at all the attention, though the Slytherins were quick to ask him if he’d eaten many bugs lately.
       School got back underway, and as the first weeks passed, Harry was unaccountably troubled by something that he couldn’t fathom. It wasn’t like the prickles he’d felt before when someone was watching him, and not even Professor Trelawney was doing much of that anymore. She was evidently sure that the crisis had indeed passed for once, and that Harry was no longer in imminent danger of getting himself or someone else killed.
       That, he finally figured out, was the problem. On the previous occasions when he’d had some unknown enemy, it usually took all year to fit the pieces together and solve the mystery. But Neville’s Gran had confessed to the Aversion spell and the missing books, and for once, miraculously, no one was trying to kill Harry. No shadowy plots were unfolding around him. No servants of Voldemort; the Dark Lord had been conspicuous by his absence. 
       Why, he didn’t even have his usual war with Slytherin, since they’d been disqualified from Quidditch for the remainder of the year. It meant more games for the rest of them as Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff vied for the championship. In previous years, the other two Houses had been quick to support Gryffindor, knowing that Gryffindor was the team with the best chance to beat Slytherin, and nobody wanted Slytherin to win. But with them out of the picture, the rivalry between the remaining three heated up.
       Hermione had been right about one thing. Their schedules had been rearranged to accommodate a nighttime DADA class, with a study hall in the slot it had normally occupied. Ophidia Winterwind was never seen at breakfast or lunch, but was always present at dinner. 
And now that the idea had been put into Harry’s head, he watched her intently to see if she actually ate. It looked like she did, but never very much, and what was in her goblet could have been wine. It was very dark, and very red, though.
       When it came to teaching, even Hermione had to admit that the new Professor Winterwind knew what she was doing. 
       “Well, she’d have to, wouldn’t she?” Ron countered with a shrug. “If she is one and all.”
       “A vampire?” Becca still wasn’t decided.
       “A Dark witch,” Ron said. “She’s like one of the Series II Chocolate Frogs, really.”
       “How so?” Becca, still sensitive about the Neville incident, was touchy when it came to anything having to do with frogs.
       “Tempting,” said Ron, “but with hemlock filling.”
       “The only good thing about this,” said Hermione irritably, “is that at least now you pay attention in class!”
       “We’d just do well to all stay on our toes,” Harry said. 
       Though as the weeks went by and lessons were strictly normal, he started to catch himself thinking that he’d be glad of some sort of plots or other distractions. He’d gotten so used to them that normal life at Hogwarts was almost dull by comparison. It did mean a lot less time spent in the infirmary, though. 
       He was also braced for Ophidia Winterwind to single him out, perhaps remark on having known his parents, perhaps try to get back at them a generation removed for whatever slights she felt she’d met at their hands. None of that happened. She treated him much as she did the other students, particularly the boys, upon whom she doted while tolerating the girls. Hermione had quite a bit to say about that, and even more to say about the way the boys went all glassy-eyed, as if they were hypnotized by the teacher’s mere presence. 
       Harry finally took it upon himself to come right out and ask Professor Dumbledore about these things that stayed on his mind. Given Harry’s impressive record, the Headmaster’s door was always open to him, and he welcomed Harry into his office.
       “And what can I do for you this fine spring day, Mr. Potter?” Dumbledore asked.
       “Well, sir, I don’t mean to nose around,” Harry began diffidently.
       “Every time you do, it seems that it is to Hogwarts’ benefit,” Dumbledore said with a kind smile.
       Emboldened, Harry made a half-smile. “Thank you, sir. I was wondering … it’s about Professor Winterwind …”
       “Ah,” said Dumbledore. “Ophidia Winterwind. Quite the, shall we say, unusual professor.”
       “Is she a vampire?” Harry just threw it out and waited to see what would happen.
       Dumbledore didn’t look particularly surprised, but mulled it over thoughtfully all the same. “A vampire. What makes you ask that, Mr. Potter?”
       He outlined all of Hermione’s reasons, feeling a little silly standing here in a patch of warm sunshine filtering through the smoked glass window of Dumbledore’s office. On the walls all around him, portraits of previous headmasters dozed dustily in the sun. 
       “I see,” said Dumbledore, and he sounded amused. “For the record, then, and you may repeat this to all of your inquisitive friends, Ophidia Winterwind is not, in fact, a vampire.” He paused. “Not in the accepted sense of the word.”
       Harry’s brows knit. “The accepted sense?”
       “Never mind that last. While she does project a certain image, I guarantee that no one needs to start wearing garlic collars to bed at night.”
       Remembering the rancid garlic smell that had followed Professor Quirrell about, Harry was glad to hear it. He couldn’t quite do what Dumbledore wished and ‘never mind’ what he meant about her not being a vampire ‘in the accepted sense of the word,’ but he did have another question.
       “She knew my parents, didn’t she?”
       “Yes, Harry. They were students together. Although in different Houses, of course.”
       “Of course,” Harry agreed automatically. “Was she … my father … I …”
       Dumbledore smiled gently. “If it will set your mind at ease, to my knowledge she and your father went to one dance together, a Halloween ball in Hogsmeade. One dance, Harry, no more.”
       “Did my father dump her?”
       “Are you asking if Ophidia Winterwind might, as Professor Snape does, harbor a grudge from those olden days?”
       “I guess so, yes,” Harry said with a little laugh to show he knew how silly that sounded.
       But Dumbledore didn’t laugh with him. “I suppose it might be possible. Unlikely, and I doubt it very much, but possible.”
       His worried feelings must have shown, because Dumbledore clapped a paternal hand on his shoulder. “Don’t let it trouble you, my young friend. As I said, I doubt it very much. It appears, in fact, that Professor Winterwind is doing an exemplary job. I’m even thinking of asking her to stay on for next year!”


Chapter Eleven – Uncle Vernon’s Mistake

       The end of the school year was always the saddest of times for Harry because he knew he’d have drag himself through a summer on Privet Drive and would be cut off, except for the letters and occasional phone call from his friends, from the entire wizarding world. 
Exams came with their usual fervor of last-minute studying. The games of Wizard War had tapered off as everyone buckled down and got serious about passing with good marks. Hermione turned in a thick thesis on her independent study project about the Witch’s Rights Movement and it was so well-received that she single-handedly earned Gryffindor a hundred points and secured them the House Cup yet again. 
       Professor Ophidia Winterwind was so zealous that she’d managed to squeeze an entire year’s worth of Defense Against the Dark Arts into half that time, and they also all still knew how to cast a Great Ward into the bargain. Dumbledore did make good on his intention to offer her the job full-time, and she did not hesitate in accepting. This didn’t set well with Snape, of course. Harry had occasion to overhear the two of them in the corridor as he and Ron were on their way back from a long studying session in the library.
       “… would never do that to you, Severus,” Ophidia Winterwind was saying, and without even seeing her they could tell she was pouting.
       “You could have refused.”
       “But you heard Dumbledore. He wasn’t about to put the extra work on any of you. He’s right, too. It is a very challenging class.”
       “I’ve been teaching Potions for years. I could do it in my sleep.”
       “I believe you.”
       “And why, why did you take him up on the offer to continue on the staff?”
       Her voice dropped to a breathy whisper. “Why? Don’t you like having me around?”
       “That isn’t the point, Ophidia. Or you could have offered to take over Potions, if you were so eager.”
       “Severus, do you remember how I did in Potions class? I was never very good at it, especially compared to you. My water-breathing potion nearly cost me my life, and as for my fire-proofing potion … some things don’t bear thinking about. You’re the clever one with that subject. I could never fill your shoes.”
       They passed by, unaware of Harry and Ron, who were becoming quite adept at finding hiding places in the many alcoves and behind the many statues and tapestries that Hogwarts offered. 
       “She plays him like a harp,” Ron said, not without some admiration. 
       “Hermione can’t stand her.”
       “Girls can get so jealous.”
       “We weren’t much better when it came to Lockhart,” Harry reminded him.
       “I was never jealous of him,” Ron objected. “I thought he was a git.”
       All too soon, exams were done and everyone had to pack and say their farewells. The seventh-years graduated in great ceremony, preparing to leave school for good and go out to get jobs. Some would be opening shops of their own in Diagon Alley or other wizard places, some planned to apply to the Ministry of Magic, still others meant to travel abroad and learn about magic in other parts of the world.
       That last morning at breakfast, one final feast before they all boarded the train, the owls swept in with the mail and one of them swooped low over Becca to drop a thick envelope into her hands. Harry recognized the various transoceanic runes on it, having seen them on all the letters and parcels she got from her parents. Quicksilver settled onto her shoulder and poked his head inquisitively into the envelope as she was trying to get it open.
       “Psst,” she said, pushing his head away. “Psst, oh, it hardly ever works on the cats and it doesn’t work on you either. All right, all right, let me look.” 
       She tilted the envelope and a packet of drake treats fell out. Quicksilver seized it eagerly up in his clever little forepaws and tore it open, munching happily, as if he hadn’t been working his way through an entire dish of sausage and eggs. 
       “Letter from Mom and Dad,” Becca said. “They’re coming to London to meet me at the train station, and then we’re going to vacation around Europe a little. Mom’s always wanted to go to Austria.”
       “If you’re near Romania,” Ron said, slathering jam on a piece of toast, “stop by the dragon preserve and say hi to my brother Charlie.”
       “They also say …” Becca’s eyes got big. “Oh, wow!” At once, she shredded the rest of the padded envelope until a smaller, creamy white one came into view. It had been written on in rich silvery ink and the broken seal was wax with an emblem on it of a pyramid. 
       “What is it?” asked Hermione.
       “I got in! They accepted me!” Becca cried, waving the single sheet of parchment. Harry almost took the corner in the eye, and snatched it from her hand. 
       “Dear Miss Morgan,” he read. “We are delighted to inform you of your admission to the Sterling Academy.”
       “What’s the Sterling Academy?” Ron asked. Out of habit, he looked at Hermione, but she shrugged and looked just as curious.
       “It’s a school, a prep school,” Becca explained. “In upstate New York, I think. You were wrong, Hermione, to say that there aren’t any magic schools in America. The Sterling Academy, well, it’s not totally magic-focused like Hogwarts, but sorcery is part of the curriculum.”
       “Why didn’t you get in before?” Hermione asked.
       “They wouldn’t take me before. It’s very exclusive. Illuminati-run. Even though Dad’s a member, they still insist that you have to have a scholarly or practical magic background. Except that when there’s nowhere to learn it … kind of like how you can’t get a job unless you’ve got experience, and you can’t get experience without having a job.”
       “A year at Hogwarts has got to be a good enough magical background,” Harry said. “Congratulations, Becca.”
       “This is great! I was afraid I’d have to go home and go back to regular school, which would be boring after Hogwarts! They say the Sterling Academy has a couple of ghosts, and even some real live gargoyles.”
       “That’s splendid,” said Hermione. “You’ll still write to us, won’t you?”
       “You bet!” Quicksilver, picking up on her excitement, bumped his nose into hers and made a high trilling noise. She petted him. “We’re going to the Sterling Academy, Quicksilver! I couldn’t take a drake to ordinary Everett High.”
       “And you get to tour Europe, too,” Ron said enviously. 
       “You just did at Christmas,” Harry pointed out, envious himself. “And you’ve been to Egypt. I’m the one who’s never been anywhere.”
       “Why don’t you come with us?” Becca suggested. “My parents wouldn’t mind. We’re going to Rome because Dad wants to and the Black Forest because Mom wants to, and my grandparents are on sabbatical in Russia so we’re going to stop and see them too. It’d be a blast!”
       “I couldn’t,” Harry said. “It sounds pretty expensive.”
       “Oh, pff,” said Ron. “You’ve got the money.”
       “In wizard cash, sure,” Harry said, thinking of the big vault at Gringotts. “What good will that do me in the Muggle world?”
       “Gringotts can change it into any currency you want,” Hermione said in her know-it-all manner. “There’s a shop on Diagon Alley, too, that can provide you passports and travel papers to anywhere.”
       “See?” grinned Becca. “Not a problem.”
       “Except for the Dursleys. They’d never let me go.”
       “I thought they knew by now that standing in the way of your plans was a bad idea,” said Ron, grinning himself as he remembered the times the Weasleys had fetched him from Number Four Privet Drive. 
       “You could at least ask,” Becca said. “All they can do is say no.”
       “And lock him in the cupboard,” Hermione added. “And starve him. You have no idea how awful these people are. Most Muggles don’t have any idea about magic, but they know too much and they actively hate it. They’d keep Harry chained in the attic if they didn’t know we’d all come break him out.”
       “Just think,” said Ron. “A few more years, and you won’t have to put up with them at all. You’ll be free and can go anywhere you want. Assuming, that is, you survive Hogwarts. But since nobody’s tried to kill you this year, I’d say things are looking up.”
       “Thanks, Ron.” Harry finished his breakfast just as the doors opened and Hagrid announced it was time to go. 
       The red and black train was waiting at Hogsmeade Station, house-elf – or would they properly be called train-elves? Harry wondered – baggage handlers waiting to help them load their trunks. Although the platform was crowded with students, Harry had no trouble making out the sleek blond head of Draco Malfoy. And wonder of wonders, instead of looking to cause trouble for others, Malfoy and his two thugs, Crabbe and Goyle, were having a heated argument of their own. Harry elbowed Ron and they looked on, snickering, as the three bickered among themselves.
       “She likes me best,” Goyle, who had an unnervingly deep voice for his age, said firmly.
       “No, she likes me, I told you!” Crabbe whacked him on the upper arm, not quite a punch but not far removed.
       “You’re both fools,” sneered Draco. “She told me, specifically, how much she was looking forward to seeing me next year.”
       “You can’t be her favorite,” Goyle grumbled. “You’re already Snape’s.”
       “Oh, how revolting.” Hermione and Becca had caught up with Harry and Ron. “They’re talking about her, you know.”
       “It’s absurd,” said Ron.
       “I’m glad to see you’re finally showing sense.”
       “That’s right. I’m going to be her favorite.”
       It wasn’t often Hermione was at a loss for words. She settled for giving Ron an utterly disgusted look and hurried onto the train to find them a compartment. 
       Several hours and a lot of Chocolate Frogs and boxes of Snapcorn and cups of iced pumpkin juice later, the train pulled into King’s Cross Station at Platform 9 ¾. 
       Harry had another glimpse of Malfoy, looking very disheveled and sporting a fresh bruise, and surmised that the argument had only gotten worse. When he also saw Crabbe, whose entire head had been Transfigured into a sort of sluggish, squiddish monstrosity oozing slime from a mass of tentacles over where his mouth should have been, and Goyle never got off the train at all but was found by a porter unconscious and stuffed onto an overhead luggage shelf, he knew Malfoy had gotten the better of the fight. 
       Mrs. Weasley was waiting for her younger children, meeting them with hugs and bustling around fussing over how much they’d all grown. She said hello to Harry and Hermione as well, reminding them of their traditional visit at the end of the summer and their joint shopping trip to Diagon Alley, and then the Weasleys were on their way.
       Hermione’s parents felt more comfortable waiting in the station proper rather than plunge through what looked like a solid wall to get to Platform 9 ¾. Harry and Becca followed her through, spacing it so that they didn’t attract too much Muggle attention when they appeared out of seemingly nowhere. The Grangers were on time, and with more hugs – it felt decidedly awkward to be hugging Hermione, even more than it had been to be kissed by Ginny at Christmas – and good-byes and promises to write, Hermione was gone.
       Harry looked around for Uncle Vernon, who usually came alone to pick him up. He didn’t want to expose Aunt Petunia or Dudley to any more of this upsetting business than he had to. Every time, Harry thought that this would be the time Uncle Vernon wouldn’t show up. He’d leave Harry to find some other way back to Privet Drive, and in his bleaker moments, Harry imagined arriving to find that the house had been sold and the Dursleys moved far away. While this would have been a fantastic stroke of luck for him, he wasn’t sure what he would do then unless it was to barge in on the Weasleys for the entire summer. 
       Uncle Vernon was nowhere in sight. Becca’s parents were, though, coming toward them waving, with luggage of their own on trolleys. Quicksilver had vanished, which was probably for the best, since Harry was getting weird enough looks by virtue of having Hedwig in her cage strapped to his trunk.
       As it turned out, the Morgans were catching another train in a couple of hours. They invited Harry to come to the café and have a bit of lunch, something solid to counter all the junk food they’d gorged on. As they ate, Harry kept an eye out for Uncle Vernon, tensing every time he saw a portly man bulling his way through the crowds.
       And then, there he was. Ruddy-faced and out of breath, his hands stained with grease. He saw Harry sitting in the café and came up to him, looking very disgruntled.
       “Had a blowout,” he grunted. He took in the Morgans, and some of the lines in his face smoothed out as he saw how non-peculiar, how mundanely Muggle, they looked. 
       Harry made the introductions. Some instinct urged him not to mention that Becca was a fellow student from Hogwarts, so he made it sound as if they’d just struck up an acquaintance here at the station. More lines vanished as Uncle Vernon heard the pronounced accents of the Morgans, clearly identifying them as Americans. He’d made the same presumption that Hermione had: Americans being the Muggliest Muggles of them all. 
       “About time you met some decent folks,” Vernon muttered to Harry, and took Mrs. Morgan up on her offer to sit down and join them for a cup of tea. “Good, solid, dependable, un-freak-ish types, these.”
       Becca nudged Harry under the table and showed him what looked like a thick bracelet on her arm. It was Quicksilver’s tail, wrapping her wrist and extending up the sleeve of her blouse, which lay perfectly flat as if the drake’s body were curled in some magical pocket. She raised an impish eyebrow as if to ask if she should drag Quicksilver out of hiding and give Uncle Vernon a real shock.
       Harry signaled her not to, because the last thing he needed was Uncle Vernon having a heart attack right in the middle of the train station. He nearly dropped his spoon a moment later as Mrs. Morgan, who’d been detailing their vacation travel plans, quite smoothly mentioned that Becca’s Aunt Kathy was supposed to have come with them but had to change her plans at the last minute, and so they had an extra set of tickets.
       “It would be a shame to waste them,” she said. “Would you mind if we gave them to your nephew? He told us he doesn’t have any plans for the summer.”
       “Hum, well, that’s very kind of you,” said Uncle Vernon. “But …”
       “Oh, I know. We’ve just met, we’re total strangers, and here we are wanting to steal Harry away for three weeks. I’m sure your family already had plans.”
       A slow, cunning light dawned in Uncle Vernon’s beady eyes. Harry could just see the wheels turning in his head, the abacus beads sliding as he did the math. Three weeks now, plus the usual two he spent at the Burrow, and that was a big chunk of the summer in which the Dursleys wouldn’t have to put up with Harry. No owls in the night. No disastrous dinners when Marge came to visit. Harry could be well out of his hair for a good while.
       “Nothing pressing,” he said. “Nothing pressing at all. A generous offer. It’d do him good to spend some time in the company of regular people.”
       “Regular people?” repeated Becca’s mother with just the right air of quizzical concern. “What do you mean by that?”
       Uncle Vernon coughed and rumbled. “Nothing, figure of speech, pay it no mind.”
       “Maybe we should see what Harry thinks,” said Mr. Morgan.
       “I think it’d be grand,” Harry said, and didn’t have to fake the gratitude and excitement he felt. “Thank you! I won’t be any trouble.”
       “I’d like to believe that,” mumbled Uncle Vernon. 
       “Looks like it’s settled, then.” Mr. Morgan shook hands, first with Harry and then with Uncle Vernon. “Here’s a copy of our itinerary if you need to get in touch with us.”
       Uncle Vernon put the piece of paper, unlooked-at, in his pocket. Harry couldn’t imagine any circumstance, including a death in the family, that would lead him to try to contact Harry anyway. With the onus of his orphan nephew lifted, however temporarily, a lightness seemed to have come over him. He got up with a spring in his step, flat tire forgotten, and looked like he could skip all the way home to tell Aunt Petunia the good news.
       “Regular people,” Mrs. Morgan said again, aggravated, once Uncle Vernon was gone. “Talk about an insult.”
       “He just doesn’t know you like we do,” her husband teased.
       After a whirlwind-fast trip to Diagon Alley to swap some Galleons for Muggle money and pick up a passport at the Ministry of Magic’s branch office, and hiring post-owls to send off with letters to Ron, Hermione, and Hagrid right away so they wouldn’t bother writing him at the Dursleys for a few weeks, Harry found himself on another train, this one headed for the coast and the wide world beyond. 


The End

Coming Soon – “Harry Potter and the Fifth House,” in which a new first year is Sorted into a House that isn’t Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, or Hufflepuff. What’s in the mysterious West Tower, and what’s the secret about the students who live there?

2001 / Christine Morgan / http://www.christine-morgan.org / christine@sabledrake.com