Harry Potter and the Fifth House
Christine Morgan
christine@sabledrake.com / http://www.christine-morgan.org

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. 53,000 words. January, 2002. Adult situations, mild sexual content and violence. 

Chapter One – Aunt Marge’s New Look.

          It was the hottest summer in recent memory, and the small house at Number Four Privet Drive was all but unbearable from the heat and the humidity. Harry Potter hardly noticed. He’d spent most of the summer away, touring the continent with some new friends he’d made during his previous year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Not that he let on that he’d met them there. As far as Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia were concerned, Harry had gone vacationing with some nice, bland, mundane Americans.
          Muggles, in other words. That being the wizarding-world term for non-magical folk. Harry had spent the first several years of his life as a Muggle, with no idea that there was any other way to be. He’d never known about his parents, or the Dark wizard who’d killed them. All of that had been revealed to him on his eleventh birthday.
          Everything that had seemed so new and novel to him then was now familiar, and muchly missed. His life at Hogwarts was far preferable to that of Privet Drive. True, he had to share his bedroom at Hogwarts with four other students, while the small second bedroom he occupied here was entirely his own, but he would have gladly given up all that privacy for the freedom and understanding of his wizarding peers. 
          By now, Harry was used to magic and fantastic things. He’d encountered dragons, basilisks, hippogriffs, phoenixes, trolls, unicorns, half-giants – one of his closest friends, Hagrid the gamekeeper, was in fact half-giant – elves, centaurs … the list went on and on. He’d foiled more than a few evil plots and been in mortal danger more times than most boys his age. He’d witnessed the death of a friend (rival though that friend had been), helped a convicted-but-innocent criminal escape from unjust justice, and generally led a life the likes of which the lonely child who’d slept in the cupboard beneath the stairs for so long could never have imagined.
          Which wasn’t to say that Harry’s life was easy now. He still had to endure the summers with his aunt, uncle, and cousin Dudley. None of them liked him, a sentiment that Harry wholeheartedly returned. Aunt Petunia despised Harry because he was her sister’s son, her sister the witch, the freak. Dudley, his cousin, hated Harry with a selfish spitefulness that stemmed from Dudley’s spoiled, piggy nature. And Uncle Vernon …
          Well, Harry had never been sure exactly why Uncle Vernon loathed him so. It couldn’t be the added expense of having been forced to take in his wife’s orphaned nephew; Harry had survived on hand-me-downs and leftovers. If anything, the Dursleys got a free servant in Harry, for when he was living with them he’d worked like a house-elf. It was something else that offended Uncle Vernon. Something about Harry and the very fact of his being a wizard. Just why that should bother Uncle Vernon even more than it did Aunt Petunia was a mystery to Harry. Unless it was because Vernon Dursley, being a plodding and unimaginative sort, just couldn’t cope with anything out of the ordinary.
          And things had been plenty out of the ordinary with Harry around. His earliest, unconscious uses of magic had led to various inexplicable events in his younger years. Then, once Harry had been accepted at Hogwarts, the events had gotten slightly more extreme. The time Hagrid had given Dudley a pig’s tail, for instance. Or the time that Dobby, a house-elf of Harry’s acquaintance, had ruined an important dinner party.
          Or, most of all, the time that Harry had blown up Aunt Marge. Marge Dursley was Uncle Vernon’s sister, a large and solidly-built woman with a hard face and harder manner. Her disdain for Harry and her remarks about his shiftless, good-for-nothing parents had finally made him boil over. He hadn’t meant to cast a spell. But in all honesty, he had to admit it hadn’t entirely been an accident either.
          That incident, the blowing-up of Aunt Marge, was one that lived more clearly in Harry’s memory than in anyone else’s. The Ministry of Magic had come on the run, reducing Aunt Marge from her parade-balloon size to her normal (though still substantial) girth, and had smoothed everything over in her mind and the minds of the Dursleys with a few minor, judicious Memory Charms. 
          So it was that only Harry really remembered what had happened that day. The rest of the family remained vaguely uneasy about Aunt Marge’s last visit, aware that something had gone amiss but nobody was all that sure what. Harry was certainly unwilling to remind them. He lived in dread of Marge’s next visit.
          She hadn’t been to see her brother in quite some time. Not since the blowing-up business, as it happened. The following year, she’d written to say she was taking her holiday somewhere else, at a spa in Sweden. This had occupied her ever since. But all good things did not last.
          The letter informing the Dursleys of her plan to come calling arrived on a day so hot that the streets seemed sticky from melting tar. Dudley was most miserable of all, carrying as he did all those extra pounds. His every effort at losing weight – well, Aunt Petunia’s every effort at forcing him, since Dudley would slack on his exercises and cheat on his diets and generally make life so hellish for all of them that she lost the heart to press further – had proved fruitless. Dudley, the same age as Harry, was four times as heavy and had to have special chairs now because he’d broken half the furniture in the house.
          Maybe that was another reason he had to hate Harry, a reason that had become more pronounced recently. As a child, Harry had been small and skinny, and Dudley had been able to beat up on him. Now sixteen, Harry had shot up a few inches and put on some weight, not a lot but good lean muscle that was well-toned by his hours of diligent Quidditch practice. 
          Harry was taller than Dudley now, with long legs that could have easily outrun his cousin. Not that he had to. Dudley never gave chase anymore, and even if he had, Harry was confident enough that he would have stood his ground, faced Dudley down, and given back as good a thrashing as he got. Or better. 
          Although he had grown up some and filled out, Harry was otherwise markedly the same. He had the same unkempt black hair, the same vivid green eyes behind the same glasses, and as always, the same lightning-bolt scar on his forehead. The only real difference about his face was that he’d lately been noticing a fine black fuzz on his cheeks and chin, enough to necessitate shaving once a week. 
          He studied himself in the mirror sometimes and had finally concluded that while he was never going to be ruggedly handsome, he wasn’t exactly homely, either. Dudley, whose flat face was surrounded by jowls and chins and topped with a ludicrous crop of yellow curls, had taken to glaring at Harry all the more resentfully lately.
          Aunt Petunia was all in a dither when Marge’s letter arrived. She always went all-out trying to impress Marge, always fretted that it would never be good enough. She seemed to live in fear that Marge would sniff and scoff and make remarks about how Vernon could have done better. 
          “Says here she’s bringing a friend for dinner,” Uncle Vernon said as he perused the letter, frowning in his ponderous way. “A gentleman friend.”
          A dish smashed on the floor as Aunt Petunia whirled away from the sink. “A what?”
          “A gentleman friend,” Vernon repeated in a tone that said he couldn’t quite believe it himself.
          Dudley snorted, sounding uncannily like the pig that Hagrid had intended to turn him into. Harry kept, with great effort, an even expression and went on coring apples for a pie that Aunt Petunia wished to bake. But inwardly, he was as boggled as the rest of them. Aunt Marge had never come across as anything but a solidly spinster aunt, and the very idea of her with a gentleman friend was as absurd as …
          Harry cut off that line of thought, for most of the absurd things he could think of had already happened to him. In a world where even Professor Severus Snape could have a girlfriend …
          Thinking about that made him grow a little warm. He cringed at the same time, as if he could actually hear Hermione’s cutting remark. She didn’t trust Ophidia Winterwind, who had taken over halfway through their last term as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. It was Hermione who got them all thinking Professor Winterwind was a vampire, an opinion supported by the way she looked and the fact that she only conduced her classes at night while hardly being seen during the day.
          And there was the curiously coincidental matter of the jar of blood-flavored lollipops she kept on the corner of her desk …
          Forcing his mind back to the present, Harry listened as Uncle Vernon read aloud choice bits from his sister’s letter. It had gotten delayed at the post office – one of the drawbacks of using conventional post services and not the speedy, reliable delivery of owls, but Harry knew better than to say such a thing in front of everyone – and the crux of it was that Marge was due to arrive the very next day. 
          Aunt Petunia clutched at her heart when Uncle Vernon announced the specific day and time. She flung a worried, warning look at Harry. 
          “Is she certain she wants to?” Aunt Petunia asked anxiously. “After what went on last time?”
          Except that none of them could exactly recall just what had gone on last time. Harry busied himself with the apples and tried to look innocent, hoping that the Memory Charms held. 
          “It’s going to be fine,” Uncle Vernon announced. He glowered at Harry. “Won’t it, boy?”
          “I don’t see why it wouldn’t, uncle,” Harry said.
          “He’d just love for something to go wrong,” said Dudley. “He’d love to pull one of his pranks on us right in front of her.”
          By the way he covered his mouth as he said this, Harry knew Dudley was thinking of the time he’d eaten a jinxed toffee and his tongue had puffed up like a party favor. Seeing that no one else was watching him just then, Harry stuck out his own tongue at Dudley. His cousin’s eyes narrowed until they almost disappeared in the folds and bulges of his cheeks. 
          The rest of the day passed in an endless torrent of chores. The house had to be cleaned top to bottom, the guest room aired out. Aunt Petunia was in an agony of propriety, wondering whether Marge was going to expect her gentleman friend to stay the night, and if so, where he was going to sleep. She expressed her concerns in a loud hissing whisper to Uncle Vernon, something about not wanting to provide a bad example for the boys. Uncle Vernon told her that she was being silly, that of all people on earth, his sister Marge was the last one to engage in any sort of inappropriate behavior. 
          Dudley didn’t have to lift a finger. He spent the day parked in front of his computer, pretending to be playing a space adventure game but really, whenever his mother was out of the room, surfing for dirty pictures. 
          Uncle Vernon had gone off to work, after giving Harry a stern shake of the finger and a glare, which wordlessly reminded Harry of the rules that must be followed around Aunt Marge. For starters, she had been told that he was a student at a reformatory, a lie that Marge was all too willing to believe. 
          That left Aunt Petunia and Harry to do the cleaning and the cooking. More than once, Harry was sharply nostalgic for Hogwarts, where all the meals were made and the tidying was done by a veritable army of happy house-elves (happy despite his friend Hermione’s efforts to convince them they were being shabbily treated). 
          He also thought about all the times he’d seen Mrs. Weasley, mother of his other best friend Ron, go about her housework with a few flips and waves of her wand. He contemplated sneaking his own wand out and making short work of the chores. He was old enough now that the Restrictions for Underage Wizardry no longer strictly applied, so the Ministry wouldn’t come knocking … but he could just imagine Aunt Petunia’s shrieks if she walked into the kitchen and found him casting cleaning spells on the pile of breakfast dishes.
          Somehow, he got through that long, tiresome day. He was so exhausted that he didn’t even object when Uncle Vernon came home and told him that it would be best for all if Harry spent the evening in his room. They didn’t, Uncle Vernon claimed, have adequate seating space or place settings. Not with Marge bringing a friend and all. Harry didn’t want them to set a table with mismatched plates, did he? Or make someone sit on the rickety kitchen stool?
          Harry, knowing full well who’d be forced to perch on the stool, was almost glad to oblige. He agreed to remain upstairs, where he planned to study quietly. He wasn’t even expecting any owls from his regular pen-pals – Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, or Harry’s godfather Sirius Black. 
          Aunt Petunia nagged Dudley into leaving his computer long enough to change into his best clothes, or at least the best ones that still fit with only a minimum of button-straining gaps all down the shirtfront. Harry was allowed to make himself a plate of food, not the elaborate meal he’d spent all day helping Aunt Petunia prepare, but leftover macaroni cheese and some bread. He was in the process of pouring a glass of milk to go with it when he glanced out the window and saw a taxi pulling up outside of Number Four Privet Drive.
          Harry watched as the back door opened and a woman stepped out. His first thought was that the taxi had the wrong house. Then he heard Aunt Petunia’s disbelieving squeal from the front room, and blinked, looked again, and concluded that the woman really was Aunt Marge.
          Uncle Vernon’s sister had always rather unfortunately taken after him, the family resemblance strong. She was big, thickset. Marge the Barge, Dudley sometimes called her, and when he’d been overheard saying it, he’d claimed he was only repeating what Harry had said first. This turn of affairs resulted in Harry spending an entire weekend closed in his cupboard with no lights on. 
          Marge the Barge … not anymore. The woman emerging from the taxi was still tall, but her girth had changed dramatically. It was still a figure that would be called ‘full,’ but her waist was indented for the first time Harry had ever known, and her hips and bosom actually looked like hips and bosom rather than geologic formations. Her tailored suit was far more flattering than the awful tweeds she had previously been fond of. Her hair was styled. She was wearing makeup. 
          Amazed, Harry stayed at the window even though he was supposed to be on his way up with his re-heated macaroni cheese. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the spectacle of this new and improved Aunt Marge. He wouldn’t have thought anything could shock him more.
          But then a man got out of the other side of the taxi, and came around to direct the driver as the luggage was removed from the trunk. The man was dressed in a snappy blue suit with a shiny silver tie, his blond hair blow-dried and combed, everything about him as normal and respectable and classy. It was his smile … the one that had won the Witch Weekly Most Charming Smile contest five times running … that riveted Harry to the spot. 
          Aunt Marge’s gentleman friend was none other than Gilderoy Lockhart.


Chapter Two – Memory Unbound. 

          Harry couldn’t possibly remain in his room after this surprise. But he couldn’t very well just march into the dining room either. He contented himself with sitting on the stairs, silent, his plate balanced on his knees as he listened keenly to the conversation.
          Aunt Petunia kept coming back, like a circling fly, to the same thing. She couldn’t believe it, how had Marge done it, what was her secret? Marge explained at length, while snubbing the bacon-wrapped roast and the potatoes in cream sauce and most of the other courses that Harry had slaved over for the best part of the afternoon.
          “It wasn’t long after my last visit,” Marge said. Her voice was much the same, Marge-the-Barge’s blaring claxon. “Pass me that salad, Dudley, if you’re not going to eat it. No, heavens, no, that dressing is loaded with calories. I’m strictly on a health-food diet now, you see. Vegetables. Lean meat. Whole grains. You should consider it, Vernon. Does wonders for the bowels.”
          A tittering laugh, nearly as devoid of rationality as the last time Harry had heard it, came from the throat of Gilderoy Lockhart. The one-time wizard celebrity, author of many books, and ex-DADA teacher at Hogwarts, was acting as if he’d never been anything but a Muggle, and a daffy one at that. Harry hadn’t heard anything of him since he’d been carted off from Hogwarts, victim of his own backfired Memory Charm – a living example of why you should never use another wizard’s wand, especially a second-hand old one that had already been broken and ill-mended with Spell-O-Tape. As far as Harry knew, Lockhart had ended up in St. Mungo’s Hospital. His presence here was as bewildering as it was amazing. 
          “You know I’d never had any complaints about my figure before,” Marge was saying. “It was simply never a concern of mine, never an issue. But after that last visit, I suddenly realized how much I’d let myself go. I was grotesque. I felt like a dirigible, as if I might just bloat up and float away at any moment. It disgusted me. More, I couldn’t even remember what made me let myself get so big. I’ve been having such problems with my memories these past couple of years, don’t you know. That’s how I met Gil, here, but that’s another story.”
          Gil? Harry’s eyebrows went up. 
          “At any rate, there I was, feeling big as a house and ashamed of it. So I enrolled myself in the spa, and lived for eight months on sprouts and bean curd and kelp. I took up walking, swimming, and eventually bought myself one of those standing bicycles. Lost ninety pounds so far.”
          “My word!” marveled Aunt Petunia.
          “That’s quite incredible, Marge,” Uncle Vernon said.
          “I still have forty to go,” she said.
          “Now, now,” came the voice of Gilderoy Lockhart, and it was him, unmistakable, Harry would have known him anywhere. Hadn’t he sat through a whole term of listening to that man go on about himself and his fabulous exploits? None of which, as they’d found out, had really been his doing at all. “Don’t go letting yourself waste away to a stick, my dear.”
          “Oh, Gil.” And Aunt Marge giggled like a schoolgirl.
          Harry put aside his macaroni cheese, having lost his appetite. He wished he could go down there and ask what Gilderoy Lockhart thought he was doing here, but didn’t dare.
          “It’s really most impressive,” said Aunt Petunia. “I hardly recognized you. This spa … doesn’t it sound wonderful, Dudley?”
          “Sounds horrid,” came Dudley’s bored voice. “You’d never catch me in a place like that.”
          “But, Duddy-wuddy,” wheedled Petunia, “look how well it’s worked for Aunt Marge. Your teachers say --”
          “I don’t care what my teachers say,” snapped Dudley. They had, as Harry well knew, been sending home notes of concern about his size and his health for a long time, and Aunt Petunia’s every attempt to curb his eating or encourage exercise had ultimately met with failure.
          For a brief, merry moment, Harry imagined how much better life on Privet Drive would be if Dudley were indeed shipped off to Aunt Marge’s miracle-spa for eight months.
          “So,” said Uncle Vernon gruffly. “What do you do, Mr. Lockhart?”
          “I’m in advertising,” came Gilderoy Lockhart’s reply. 
          Harry bit back a snicker. That was true, at least, though self-promotion might have been a better choice of words. 
          “How’d you two meet?”
          “That’s what I was about to tell you,” said Aunt Marge. “I mentioned I’d been having some troubles with my memory. Little lapses, you know. Spots of forgetfulness. So I joined a support group for people with similar troubles. Gil’s a recovering amnesiac.”
          This time, the snicker escaped and Harry had to muffle it by pressing his forearm over his mouth. That was putting it lightly. When they’d brought Lockhart up from the Chamber of Secrets, he hadn’t even known his own name. 
          “Oh, I say!” gasped Aunt Petunia. “Amnesia?”
          “Total and utter amnesia,” Lockhart said in a carefree manner. “I hadn’t a clue who I was or what I did for a living. Luckily, some kindly ladies took me in and cared for me while I pieced my life back together. I may never fully reclaim my past, but I think building a future is more important.”
          Harry’s mirth faded as a strange thought came to him. He’d been going on the assumption that Lockhart was here on some pretense, pretending to be friends with Aunt Marge in order to get close to Harry. Throughout their entire acquaintance, Lockhart had connived to get their photos taken together, and it wouldn’t have surprised Harry if Lockhart wanted them to go on tour together or something. But now it occurred to him that if Lockhart’s amnesia were that total, he might have forgotten everything about being a wizard.
          From the dining room, he could hear the sounds of Aunt Petunia clearing the table. That was one nice thing about his exile – she couldn’t very well make him clean up. 
          “I’m not done yet,” Dudley protested. 
          “You have to save room for pie, Duddkins,” Petunia said.
          “I’ll have room.”
          “Gracious, Dudley,” said Aunt Marge scornfully. “You really should take better care of yourself. Look at the boy, Vernon. Your wife is going to indulge him right into an early grave, which he’s digging with a fork and a spoon.”
          This pronouncement stunned the table. In previous visits, Aunt Marge had always expansively complimented Dudley, saying how much she liked to see a solid and substantial young man with a hearty appetite. She’d often use those occasions, too, to toss an insult Harry’s direction and call him skinny, reedy, or scrawny. Dudley made a bleat of shock through a mouthful of food, and Aunt Petunia stammered incoherently.
          “Come now, Marge,” said Uncle Vernon. “Dudley’s a growing boy, that’s all.”
          “He’s an overstuffed Christmas goose,” Marge proclaimed. Her chair scraped back as she rose from the table. “Let’s go in the parlor, Gil, and give Petunia a chance to clear. Then we’ll all have tea.”
          Harry stood as quietly as he could, the stairs giving the faintest of creaks. He crept backward up them with the innate grace he’d honed by lots of practice sneaking about Hogwarts when and where he wasn’t supposed to. He’d gotten so that he could pass pretty well unnoticed even without having to resort to his Invisibility Cloak.
          Shadows on the wall. Harry reached the landing at the top of the stairs and paused, peering down for a look. He only got a brief one, showing him Aunt Marge’s profile – hard and uncompromising as the carved figurehead of a ship – and the impeccable grooming and twinkling eyes of Gilderoy Lockhart. Neither of them so much as glanced up the stairs. They were followed a moment later by Uncle Vernon, who was rather red in the face. 
          Aunt Marge picked up without missing a beat. “Really, Vernon, you should do something. Take a stand. That boy needs discipline. You’re not doing him any favors letting that woman coddle him to death.”
          “Oh, now, really,” began Uncle Vernon.
          “After all, you handle that other one well enough. That spindly nephew of hers. He’s not about, I hope?”
          Spindly. Harry rolled his eyes.
          “No, no, not at all,” Uncle Vernon said. “He’s away.”
          “It’s the saddest thing, Gil,” Marge said, with the air of one imparting a great confidence. “My poor brother here, burdened as he is with the responsibilities of his own job, home, and family, got stuck with a shiftless orphan to boot. And not one of your charming orphans out of Dickens, either. This one’s an ungrateful, peculiar little brat.”
          Uncle Vernon cleared his throat. “Marge …”
          “I’m only slapping down the cards, Vernon. It’s hardly your fault. I know you’ve provided a good, stable home for the boy. By rights, he should have grown up normal. But you can’t overcome genetics. Blood always tells, that’s what I say. Petunia knows her sister was a bad egg, and as for that Potter, hmf!”
          “Potter?” queried Gilderoy Lockhart. 
          “It’s no wonder that son of theirs ended up in reform school,” Marge went on. “There’s something not right about him, Vernon, I’ve always said so.”
          “We’ve been over this before.” Uncle Vernon sounded nervous and no wonder; Marge might have forgotten the circumstances leading up to her blowing-up, but he hadn’t. 
          “Potter,” mused Lockhart.
          “That awful scar, too,” Marge said. “It makes him look like the very devil. Should be a pitchfork, or three sixes in a cloverleaf like in that movie. Honestly, Vernon, if ever there was a boy to turn to black magic or witchcraft, that’s the one.”
          Harry, had he been down there and allowed to take part in their conversation, would have objected fiercely at that point. From the very day he’d come to Hogwarts, he’d been determined not to be tempted into the Dark Arts. He could have done, it would have been easy enough to get into Slytherin and befriend Draco Malfoy … surely even Snape would have softened toward him if he thought that the son of his old rival was ripe for corruption. But he was of Gryffindor! His pride stung at the accusation.
          “Scar?” Lockhart’s voice was tremulous. “Magic? Witchcraft?”
          Uncle Vernon laughed an anxiety-laden laugh. “Figure of speech, Mr. Lockhart. I’ll admit, the boy is an evil-looking creature, but hardly … we’d never permit magic in our household … even if it were real … the very idea!”
          “It would be just like him, though,” said Aunt Marge, very darkly. “I should hope, Vernon, that if there was even the slightest indication --”
          “Marge!” he barked. “We do not speak of such things in this house.”
          Harry blinked. He shook his head. Funny … that had almost made it sound like Aunt Marge did know something about magic after all. He’d always been under the impression that Aunt Petunia was most eager to keep that unsavory aspect of her family’s history a secret from her husband’s relations. Hence the story about Harry’s parents having died in a car crash, the same one that allegedly gave him his scar. It would hardly do to tell how they’d in fact been murdered by the worst Dark wizard since the Black Court of Count Douglas Tyrrell. 
          “Do you know, the most extraordinary thing is coming to me?” said Lockhart. “I think I’m beginning to remember …”
          “Oh, no,” whispered Harry, a sudden churning in his stomach that had nothing to do with his half-eaten dinner. 
          “What’s that, Gil?” asked Aunt Marge.
          “Harry Potter, wasn’t it?”
          “My wife’s nephew,” Uncle Vernon said. “But think nothing of it. He’s --”
          “Why, yes!” Lockhart cried. “It’s all coming back! My goodness, and look at me … dressed like a Muggle! I say. How unflattering. Whatever did I do with my wand?”
          “Wand?” choked Vernon and Marge in unison.
          At that moment, Aunt Petunia ushered Dudley in from the dining room with orders to “make conversation with your aunt while I dish up the pie.” Dudley waddled past the bottom of the stairs, not noticing Harry on the landing. His round shadow stopped in the doorway to the living room as Aunt Marge spoke.
          “Gil, whatever are you saying?”
          “Didn’t I tell you? No, I couldn’t have when I’ve only just remembered it myself. Marge, dear, isn’t it splendid? I’m a wizard!”
          In the hush that followed, molecules could be heard to decay. It was broken by the thick sound of Uncle Vernon swallowing, and Dudley’s craven whimper. 
          “You’re a what?” Marge asked icily.
          “And not just any wizard!” Lockhart announced with all the old familiar vanity and pride. “I am Gilderoy Lockhart, author of Magical Me and numerous other works! Have you got a quill? I’d be happy to autograph a copy for you.”
          “What?” shrieked Marge, drawing Aunt Petunia in a rush from the kitchen with suds on her hands. 
          Harry covered his eyes. He was sure that this was somehow against the Ministry’s rules. Should he do something? What could he possibly do that wouldn’t make things worse? 
          “So you’re the famous Harry Potter’s family!” Lockhart crowed. “Capital to meet you! Simply capital. He’s quite a marvelous young man, you know. We’re very close. I was one of his instructors for a time, and, dare I say, a close confidante and personal friend. Marge, dear, you should have told me!”
          “You’re a … you’re a …” she couldn’t finish.
          Dudley could. He bleated, “Wizard!” at the top of his lungs and swung about, lumbering for the stairs with a tread that made the foundations shake. He was instinctively covering his backside with one hand – well, trying to; it was like trying to cover a sofa with a handkerchief – and his mouth with the other. He clomped up the stairs without watching where he was going, craning his neck back over his shoulder. Consequently, he nearly ran right into Harry.
          “Boo,” Harry said softly.
          “Augh!” Dudley backpedaled, lost his footing, and bounced down the stairs like a big ball of nutty-putty. He hit the floor, jolting the house again, and lay flat on his back. 
          Distracted by this, Harry had lost track of what was going on in the living room. Even as Dudley landed, Gilderoy Lockhart was driven backwards into the entryway, shielding himself with both arms as Aunt Marge beat at him with a spray of daisies that Aunt Petunia had picked just that morning. Their stems were broken and nodding crazily every which way. Petals and leaves showered down on Lockhart’s hapless head. 
          “Not the face, not the face!” he cried. 
          “Out!” thundered Uncle Vernon. “Out of my house!”
          “This is hardly any way to treat a guest!” Lockhart protested.
          Marge snatched up a furled umbrella from the umbrella-stand by the door and beset him with it. “You filthy, lying, treacherous …” She went on in that vein, emphasizing each word with another whack from the umbrella, and as her anger intensified, she resorted to using words that Harry had never before heard spoken in the Dursley house.
          Neither had Aunt Petunia. She had rushed to Dudley to try and help him up, a losing battle if ever there was one, but as Marge unleashed the vilest epithet yet, she uttered a wailing scream and fainted. Lockhart promptly tripped over her and landed on Dudley’s considerable padding. But actual physical contact with a wizard did what no amount of tugging by his mother could ever have done – Dudley bounded to his feet so fast he might have been on springs. This propelled Lockhart straight at Aunt Marge. She screeched and thrust the umbrella at him. It popped open and one of the spokes nearly put out Lockhart’s eye.
          Uncle Vernon was roaring and snorting, like a maddened bull. Only the fact that the entryway was so crowded prevented him from getting to Lockhart and pummeling him. Even with a wand, Lockhart would have been next to defenseless; without one, he didn’t stand a chance. 
          Yelping, he swatted aside the umbrella and fled for the door, leaping nimbly over the unconscious Aunt Petunia as he did so. Marge chased after him and Uncle Vernon went after her. Maybe he was hoping to stop this before it turned into a complete spectacle before the eyes of all the neighbors, or maybe he was hoping to land a few punches of his own. Harry suspected the latter. A wizard without a wand? A wizard who couldn’t fight back with his foul magic? That had to be hard to resist. Since he couldn’t take it out on Harry without fear of either retaliation or the wrath of Harry’s godfather, Lockhart would make an acceptable substitute. 
          Dudley ran the other way. He reached the door of the cupboard under the stairs, which had been turned into a closet since Harry’s relocation to the upstairs spare bedroom. Dudley wedged himself through the door and stuck like a cork in a bottle. Harry could only see, from his angle, the back half of Dudley sticking out. 
          Harry did not move. He wanted to run after and see what became of Lockhart, but knew that would only be begging for trouble. He stayed where he was, amused by the grunts and struggles as Dudley tried to either force himself the rest of the way into the cupboard or pull himself back out. 
          It wasn’t long before he heard Marge and Vernon returning. Lockhart might have only been as clever as the average flobberworm, but he was fleet of foot when his life or his precious looks were in danger, and even confused, he would have easily outdistanced the Dursley siblings.
          Marge was sobbing in between heaving gasps for breath. As they came in and Uncle Vernon closed the door (and threw all the bolts and wedged a chair in front of it for good measure, as if Lockhart were coming back with an army), she kicked at the discarded umbrella furiously. 
          “How do you like that? I finally meet a decent man and he turns out to be one of them!” With another curse, she stormed into the kitchen and, by the sound, started sloppily devouring the pie that Aunt Petunia had been about to serve. 

Chapter Three – The Snake and the Bat.

          Somehow, although he hadn’t done a thing and hadn’t even been seen, it was all Harry’s fault. Uncle Vernon made that plain to him in the wake of the business with Gilderoy Lockhart and Aunt Marge. It was all Harry’s fault.
          His protests of innocence fell, as usual, on deaf ears. He hadn’t even let on that he’d listened, because that would have been taken as an admission of guilt. Instead, counting the days until summer’s end, Harry had resignedly accepted the blame. 
          He was dying to know what had happened to Lockhart afterward. And before, for that matter. Where had the erstwhile celebrity been these past few years? Why hadn’t the Ministry done something before now?
          These, like many other questions simmering in Harry’s mind, seemed destined to go unanswered. The one that interested him the most, though, had to do with the notion that Aunt Marge had apparently known about wizards all along, even if she hadn’t tipped to the fact that Harry was one until that disastrous dinner party. He’d hoped to hear more that night, especially once she finished the entire pie and went to work on Uncle Vernon's cognac. But he had been confined to his room until the following morning, when a hungover and very wretched-looking Aunt Marge left alone in another taxi.
          The days dragged. Harry passed some of the time by writing letters to his friends, especially making a point of asking Hermione if she knew what was up with Lockhart. He tried to phrase this in a way that didn’t make it seem like he was taunting her; at one point, she’d had a crush on him. But carefully as he phrased it, her first few replies contained many acerbic comments about the way the male students were now reacting to Professor Ophidia Winterwind. 
          Eventually, though, Harry persuaded her he was in earnest. She wrote back and included a few clippings from the Daily Prophet, the wizarding world’s newspaper. Apparently, Lockhart had signed himself out of St. Mungo’s a few months previously, against medical advice. Ministry operatives were supposedly on the lookout for him, but as he was considered harmless, he was a low priority. 
          That all changed shortly after Lockhart left the Dursley house. He was detained by Muggle authorities when he went running through the streets of London, waving a stick and shouting that he was a famous wizard. Luckily, the Muggles thought he was merely a madman, and he was finally returned to St. Mungo’s, under more careful observation this time. 
          As for the other burning question, Harry didn’t even know how to go about asking it. He couldn’t see himself approaching Uncle Vernon to inquire just what, when, and how long Aunt Marge had known about wizards. He suspected that it had something to do with Uncle Vernon’s disproportionate dislike of all things magical, which was a tantalizing idea. Overhearing a loud argument between Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia one night, which included her demanding of him, “why didn’t you ever tell me, Vernon, me of all people, you know I would have understood!” only made Harry more intrigued.
          He was, though, apparently doomed to disappointment. No further disclosures were made by the time summer wound to a close. Often, Harry spent the last week or so visiting the Weasley family at their charmingly ramshackle house, the Burrow, but given that he’d already had a holiday and that Mr. Weasley was so bogged down with work, that custom was skipped over this year. 
          Harry planned to meet his friends at Diagon Alley, the hidden street in London where they bought their school supplies, and go from there to catch the train that would take them all to Hogwarts. He had secretly unblocked the fireplace and covered it with a spell of illusion, so that he could make use of Floo powder with the Dursleys none the wiser.
          Floo powder was never going to be as convenient as flying by broom, but as far as Harry was concerned, it beat using a Portkey. He’d had limited experience with Portkeys, but the last time, when he’d been yanked by surprise into the clutches of his mortal enemy, Lord Voldemort, had soured him on that method of travel. 
          To make sure he didn’t disturb the Dursleys, he left late at night. He used his wand to start a small, magical fire that required no wood. With his trunk packed, Hedwig caged, and everything in order, he flung the packet of powder and stepped in after it, saying, “Diagon Alley,” as he did.
          A whirling, flickering, sooty blur became his world. Moments later, he was spat out into the smoky warmth of the Leaky Cauldron, an inn and tavern on the border between Diagon Alley and conventional, Muggle London. As it was late, only a few patrons were about. Harry’s arrival didn’t go unnoticed, and as usual he was recognized, but most people had finally gotten used to seeing the legendary Harry Potter in person. He went up to the innkeeper and asked for a room, and stowed his belongings. 
          Though it was late and he was tired, the excitement of being back among wizards and witches had revitalized Harry. He decided to go for a walk before trying to get to sleep. The night was mild and pleasant, lit by a nearly-full moon that sparkled in the leaded-glass windows of the many curious little shops. The narrow, winding street was all but deserted. Hard to believe it would be crowded with students the very next day.
          Harry was just about to turn back, thinking that a nice hot butterbeer would be the perfect thing before bed, when a fast-moving shadow caught his eye. It sailed across a patch of moonlight on the marble wall of Gringotts, the goblin bank. Something about that image, the perfect black shape of a bat on silver-white, for some reason sent a shiver through him. 
          He quickened his steps, came to the corner. The shadow of the bat descended, wings beating, and abruptly swelled. Harry stopped short. The shadow grew and changed until a very feminine silhouette stood where it had been. He couldn’t see the source, the body that cast the shadow, but he had a pretty good guess who it was.
          “You said midnight,” hissed an unfamiliar male voice.
          “I’m here, aren’t I?” countered a woman. 
          As Harry suspected, it was Ophidia Winterwind, her voice like silk and dark chocolate. Hermione had told them that Ophidia was registered as an Animagus, with the power to turn into a bat. However, Hermione speculated that instead, Professor Winterwind was a vampire and her Animagus registration was a false cover. She couldn’t be swayed from this, even when Harry had relayed what Professor Dumbledore had said. Not a vampire … in the accepted sense of the word. What that meant, Harry had yet to figure out. 
          What he did know was that she had at one time been interested in his father, but James Potter had been too in love with his future wife Lily to care … and that Ophidia’s name had also been romantically linked with, of all people, Professor Severus Snape’s.
          “Do you have it?”
          “Of course.”
          Harry edged closer. His instincts were good when it came to knowing something dodgey was afoot. Most people might have taken that as a clear sign to get away before getting caught, but he believed in knowing what was up. 
          He peeked around the corner. There, at the mouth of Knockturn Alley – and it did look like a mouth, with crooked shingles like snaggle teeth framing a hungry opening – stood Professor Winterwind. Her pale skin nearly glowed in the moonlight, which lent a frosty blue sheen to her long black hair. Her robe, which looked more like a gown made of snakeskin, shimmered. Harry couldn’t see her ruby-pool eyes, as she was turned away from him, facing a man who stood in the deep shadows of Knockturn Alley.
          The man was only barely visible, as a shape in the darkness. Harry could only make out his height and the imposing breadth of his shoulders. And his hand, reaching out to accept something that Ophidia Winterwind was holding out. His arm was sheathed in faint scales, and his stubby fingers ended in blunt, curved claws. His hand shook with barely-restrained eagerness.
          “Before I give it to you,” crooned Ophidia, lifting whatever she was holding a ways away from him, “I want to hear your oath.”
          “Give it to me, you promised.” He lurched closer to her, and as he did, Harry saw something terrible – beneath the hem of his robes, the man had no legs. He had, instead, a muscular coil of tail like that of a giant serpent. 
          “I did, in exchange for what you promise me.”
          “I do, I swear, now let me have it. It’s mine!”
          “Your oath, or I’ll dash it to the stones.” She stepped back, raised her arm as if to do that very thing. Harry caught a quick glimpse of the object in her hand. It was the size of a Snitch, triggering an immediate surge of interest in him, but rather than shiny and gold with wings, it was mottled, like an egg, and greenish. 
          A wild urge seized Harry – to whip out his wand, cry, “Accio!” and summon the egg-like thing to him. To see what it was. To find out what was going on. Instead, he stood quietly and watched.
          “In errands three,” muttered the man grudgingly, “I’m bound to thee.”
          A flicker of tiny colored sparks greeted this, spinning briefly between the two of them. A spell. 
          “And you know what those errands are?” she asked sweetly, tossing her head so that her hair rippled and danced. 
          “Yes, yes, now please! Give it to me!”
          “You are bound by your oath. Fail to fulfill, and what is done tonight shall be undone.”
          “I know. I understand.”
          “Very well.” She dropped the egg into his outstretched, clutching hand.
          He grasped it and uttered a low groan of triumph. His arm withdrew into the shadows and Harry had the impression of him cradling it in both hands, hunched over. A terrible, sick laughter rang from him. It turned without warning into a howl of pain.
          Ophidia Winterwind watched avidly. Harry could see part of her face now, full scarlet lips curved in a slight smile, a cheekbone sharp as a blade, the long fringe of her lashes. The brief twinkle of teeth, quite pronounced teeth. 
          From the alley came sudden, horrible sounds. Wet, fleshy, ripping sounds. The howling of the unseen man turned into a series of hoarse, choking coughs. 
          Harry ran. He didn’t mean to, but his feet were moving before his brain could come up with a better idea. And he didn’t run away from the hideous noises that might have been the sound of someone being violently dismembered and disemboweled; he ran toward them. 
          She turned all the way toward him. His running steps faltered as those blood-red eyes fixed on his green ones. “Harry,” she purred. “How good to see you.”
          He came to an unsteady halt. “Good to see you, too, Professor Winterwind,” his mouth said, quite independently of his mind. 
          “Whatever are you doing out so late?” She glided toward him in that way she had, that way that made it seem her feet did not touch the ground. That way that made her hips roll so alluringly. Her smile widened, and yes, he could see her teeth. Especially the long, sickle-shaped, pointed canines. 
          Yet he wasn’t afraid. A delicious calm settled over him. He lowered his arm, wand hanging at his side. The gristly popping and grinding noises from Knockturn Alley seemed very far away and of no great importance. 
          “Just … walking,” Harry said.
          “Looking forward to classes beginning?”
          He nodded.
          “Yes …” she breathed. “I’m looking forward to having you this year, too.”
          It was like being under the Imperius Curse. His mind was in a fog, and his body acted like it was totally under the control of someone else. He found himself extending a hand toward hers, without meaning to, and he twitched when she clasped it. Her flesh was cool and white as alabaster.
          Harry tried to speak but all at once he couldn’t formulate English anymore. 
          “Such a handsome young man,” Ophidia Winterwind said.
          He closed his eyes. As soon as he did, he imagined her leaning toward him, baring her fangs, angling toward the side of his neck. Any moment, he’d feel the velvety press of her lips and then the icy piercing pain … no. He concentrated, and spoke without looking at her.
          “What are you doing to him? The man in the shadows?”
          With that, his feeling of entrancement vanished. He was able to open his eyes and look squarely at her. And rather than the flash of guilt he expected, he saw only an honest surprise and concern.
          “Helping him, Harry. He was under a curse, which I’ve now broken. Isn’t that right?” She directed this last question at the alley.
          The man emerged. The scales Harry had seen on his arm were gone, as were the claws. He walked upright on two legs. Normal. Human. 
          “It worked,” he said. The hissing quality was gone from his voice.
          “You see, Harry? No harm done.”
          “I … I’m sorry, Professor.” He felt abashed, ashamed. Had made a fool of himself. 
          She smiled, this time with no sign of fangs. “It’s late, Harry, and I’m sure you’ll have a busy day of it on the morrow. Go, and get some rest. I’m sure you’re very, very sleepy.”
          The next thing Harry knew, he was at the door of the Leaky Cauldron without being entirely sure how he’d gotten there. His walk had a dreamlike quality of unreality about it, the odd angles of the buildings seeming to stretch and contract, the sheen of the moon in the windowpanes giving them the aspect of eyes. He was incredibly drowsy. 
          The downstairs common room was empty now, and lit only by the banked bed of coals. Harry shuffled to the stairs and climbed them, yawning as he went. 

Chapter Four – Another Orphan.

          He woke to a banging on the door, and Ron Weasley’s voice saying, “No answer; he must have gone out.”
          “Someone would have seen him,” Hermione’s voice replied. “You know he can’t go anywhere unnoticed.”
          “Some people have all the luck,” Ron muttered. 
          Harry roused himself, groggy and wincing at the clear light streaming through slats in the shutters. His head gave a sickly thump as he sat up. 
          “Ron,” he called, his throat dry. “Hermione. I’m here.” He swung his legs out of bed and found his glasses. 
          “He’s still in bed, the sluggard,” Ron said.
          “Harry, it’s nearly ten,” called Hermione. “You were supposed to meet us at Flourish and Blotts first thing this morning to buy our books.”
          Harry squinted at the clock. True enough, it was almost ten, His head felt stuffed with wool and his eyes were grainy. A peculiar taste coated the inside of his mouth and made him suddenly desperate for his toothbrush. 
          “Give me five minutes,” he said. “I’ll be right down.”
          The mirror tsked at him as he leaned close, squinting at his reflection. “No wonder, staying out half the night,” it chided him. 
          He ignored it, washed, and brushed his teeth. Didn’t need to shave because he’d done so just yesterday, as the smooth skin and healing nicks attested. He wet his unruly hair, combed it into submission – knowing that it would be unruly again before an hour was up – and got dressed.
          Five minutes later, he was downstairs in the bustling common room of the Leaky Cauldron, where he just had time to wolf down a few pieces of toast before Hermione dragged them out to do their shopping. 
          The summer had wrought changes in his friends, too. Like Harry, Ron had shot up a few inches, except in Ron’s case it was a matter of too many too soon. He was gangly as a scarecrow, his bony wrists jutting well beyond the length of his sleeves. His bright red Weasley hair was the same, but the straggling moustache Ron was endeavoring to cultivate was new. It crouched on his upper lip like a thin caterpillar. 
          Hermione, Harry was mildly disturbed to notice, had grown in different directions. Their first few years at Hogwarts, only the fact that she slept in a different dormitory was any reminder that she was a girl. Not until the time she’d come dressed up to the Yule Ball with Viktor Krum had he and Ron really been aware of the difference. Now, it was impossible to miss. Her flyaway brown hair framed a quite pretty face, and when she turned scoldingly to brace her hands on her hips at what was taking them so long, she bounced in ways Harry hadn’t associated with Hermione Granger before. 
          “We’ve got a new instructor this year,” she said as they joined the throngs of excited Hogwarts students filling the streets. 
          “No!” Ron cried, aghast. “I thought she was staying on! Oh, it’s not fair, it’s bloody unfair.”
          “Not her,” said Hermione impatiently. “She’s still on.”
          “Is she ever,” Ron said in relief.
          “I saw her last night,” Harry blurted. He rubbed his temples. “Just for a minute.”
          “What did she look like?” Ron leaned eagerly toward him. “Was she still … you know … vavoom?”
          Hermione clucked her tongue and rolled her eyes. “In case either of you are interested, it’s a new Muggle Studies teacher we’ve got this year.”
          “Yeah, yeah,” Ron said. His attention was all on Harry.
          “There’s not much to tell,” Harry said. He related what had gone on the night before, having witnessed Ophidia Winterwind’s Animagus transformation, and the conversation she’d had with the scaled man in the alley. “I don’t know what she gave him, but it was like he’d been under a hex and whatever she gave him dispelled it. She said she was looking forward to the start of term.”
          “Aren’t we all!”
          “Some of us for better reasons than others.” Hermione swept through the door into Flourish and Blotts, her class list held tight in one hand. 
          Harry and Ron shrugged at each other and followed. The interior of the bookstore was cluttered and crowded, and they had to wait quite a while to purchase their new textbooks. Hermione grumbled something about how there wouldn’t have been such a line if they’d come early as planned, but Harry didn’t catch most of it and refused to feel guilty. He’d gotten to sleep late, and he’d been very tired. What of it?
          As they left, their cauldrons loaded down with copies of The Standard Book of Spells: Grade 6 and the others on their list, they ran into Ron’s sister Ginny. Literally; she collided with Harry and pulled away with a blush and a giggle. 
          Ron glowered. “Hullo, Ginny.”
          “Hi, Ron, Harry, Hermione.”
          An awkward silence fell. At the end of last year, Ginny Weasley had made it onto the Gryffindor House Quidditch team, as a Chaser. Ron, having also tried out but not been chosen, took it badly. His twin older brothers Fred and George, now graduated and working hard to make a go of their joke shop, had been steadfast Beaters. Ron’s secret dream, known only to Harry and the Mirror of Erised, had been to become captain of the team, winner of the cup, Head Boy, and so forth. His progress toward that dream had been sadly unsuccessful, and to have his little sister breeze through the tryouts was a bitter pill to swallow.
          Harry felt awkward around Ginny for other reasons, mostly because she was always so awkward around him. She’d had a terrible crush on him for years, but when it came to noticing that his friends were girls, he was worse off with Ginny than even with Hermione. 
          “Get out of the way, Potter, you’re blocking the door.”
          The familiar sneering tones of Draco Malfoy brought instant fists to Harry’s hands. He turned. On the train from Hogwarts at the end of term, Malfoy and his cronies had been on the receiving end of some messy Transfiguration spells. All the damage had been repaired, but clearly Draco hadn’t learned to keep his distance. Or else his pride wouldn’t let him.
          Except there was a new person in Draco’s usual crowd. In addition to Crabbe and Goyle – a pair of thick-bodied and thicker-witted thugs whose fathers, like Draco’s, were high among Voldemort’s supporters – and Pansy Parkinson, who was wearing too much make-up and hanging on Draco’s arm like a gangster’s moll from an old movie, there was a tall boy Harry didn’t recognize … although something about him seemed familiar. 
          This newcomer had to be seventeen or eighteen at least. He was much more powerfully built than Crabbe or Goyle, and his eyes were watchful and cold. If he was of Slytherin House, like the rest of his companions, Harry couldn’t remember having noticed him before. 
          Maybe it was the addition of this big, formidable friend that gave Draco the bravado to confront Harry like this. He must have figured that the new guy would give the others pause. 
          Tension prickled in the air between their two groups for a moment, but then a colossal explosion blew out the window of Ollivander’s wand shop. Sparks and rockets of fire shot into the street. People ducked for cover, some casting quick warding or defensive spells. When all was quiet again, a bare patch had been cleared on the cobblestones around a small boy. He looked to have been flung backward out of the shop. Lazy curls of smoke rose from his body and the wand in his hand was fading slowly from white-hot to a dull amber glow.
          “Another Mudblood trying to make like a proper wizard,” said Pansy, cutting her gaze at Hermione. “There really should be stricter laws.”
          Harry pushed past them, letting the Slytherin bunch enter the bookstore. He moved through the crowd – most of them were chuckling and shaking their heads now – and reached the boy just as Mr. Ollivander himself came out of his smoking front door.
          “No, no, that one won’t do,” he said to the semiconscious boy. With a deft, hurried motion, like someone flicking away a stinging insect before it could do harm, he pinched the wand from the boy’s hand.
          “You all right?” Harry asked.
          The boy coughed and opened his eyes. They were an unusual shade of blue-violet, and dazed. He had dark blond hair and his clothes were shabby and ill-fitting. “What happened?”
          “A simple mishap,” Ollivander said kindly. He smiled at Harry. “Sometimes finding the right wand takes a bit of trial and error.”
          Harry helped him up. “You’re a first-year?” He asked because the boy could have passed for eight or nine, not eleven, the usual age for new students at Hogwarts. 
          “I got this letter and this list,” said the boy, showing Harry a familiar style of envelope written on with familiar green ink. It was addressed to “Mr. Jeremy Upwood, Eighth Bed From the Window, Second Floor, Northrup Home for Orphaned Boys, Farnsworth.”
          “A Muggle orphanage,” Hermione said quietly, and Harry knew she was thinking the same thing he was. Jeremy Upwood wouldn’t be the first to come from that sort of background. But there was nothing at all reminiscent of Tom Riddle in Jeremy’s perplexed, pink-cheeked face. 
          “Are you getting on all right?” Harry asked. 
          Jeremy stared goggle-eyed at a trio of passing witches, cackling hags identical except for the color of their hair. From there, his eyes moved to the display of owls hooting on their perches outside of the exotic creature shop, and then to a waddling goblin scurrying by on bank business. He looked even more lost and bewildered than Harry had when he’d suddenly been thrust into this world, and at least then Harry had had Hagrid to guide him and explain on the way.
          “It’s all for real, isn’t it?” Jeremy held up his list. “And I’m really going to need all of these things. A cauldron and all.”
          Hermione thumped on the side of hers. “We’ve all got them. Don’t worry. It isn’t as strange as it seems. I was raised Muggle too, and didn’t know about any of this until I got my letter.”
          “Me either,” Harry said. “You’ll catch on.” 
          A delicate thought came to him, a subject he was always hesitant to bring up around the Weasleys, but Ron had drifted over to gawk at the Skyblazer, a new broom in the window of the sporting goods shop, and Ginny was headed inside to pick up a pamphlet on Chaser techniques.
          “Do you have enough money?” he asked Jeremy.
          “I think so. There was a fund left from my mum and dad, which the orphanage couldn’t touch. Was to pay for my schooling. So when the letter came, they turned it over to me and showed me the door. I guess they were afraid. Didn’t believe it, or didn’t want to.”
          “How long ago did your parents die?” Hermione asked gently.
          “When I was a baby,” Jeremy said. “In a car crash.”
          Harry jerked as if jabbed with a pin. He’d been told something similar about his parents, and look how that had turned out. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask Jeremy if he’d been left with a scar from the so-called crash, but just then he sensed someone watching him. He took a casual look around. 
          The tall, older boy who’d been with Draco Malfoy was leaning against the wall in front of Flourish and Blotts. He had his arms crossed on his broad chest, and his eyes glittered beneath low, dark brows. When he saw Harry seeing him, he didn’t even look away or pretend his gaze had happened upon them in passing. He tipped his hand at Harry in an insolent way, and a hard smile raised one corner of his mouth.
          “Who’s that, do you know?” Harry murmured to Hermione. She had been going over Jeremy’s list, pointing out to him the various shops he’d want to visit.
          “I’ve never seen him before,” she said. “Certainly not with Malfoy.”
          “He must be a Slytherin, though. He’s got the look.”
          She nodded. Ron came back, puffing and flushed with excitement. “They’re having a raffle,” he announced. “For the Skyblazer. I put my name in. But Harry?”
          “Yeah, Ron?”
          “Don’t buy any tickets, what do you say? Let my luck have a chance for once.”
          “Sure,” said Harry. “I’ve got my Firebolt, anyway. It’s a few years old, but I’d be willing to bet it’s still the fastest broom on the market.”
          “Oh, they’re going to start talking Quidditch in a minute,” Hermione said. In the past, she’d been able to ignore them by talking about other things with Ginny, but now that Ginny was a Chaser, as far as Hermione was concerned all three of them were helpless.
          “Thanks for your advice,” said Jeremy. He dusted himself off and marched toward Ollivander’s, where Mr. Ollivander stood waiting for him with a pleasant, though moderately apprehensive, smile.
          “See you at school,” Harry called after. Had he looked so small and alone the first time he’d gone into that shop? The wand that had chosen him, with its core of phoenix feather, rested in his pocket. He wondered what Jeremy would wind up with. 
          Ginny, to Ron’s disgust, entered her name in the raffle for the Skyblazer too. She insisted, when he complained, that she had to have a decent broom, that Fred’s old Cleansweep Seven might have been fine for him but she was a Chaser, not a Beater.
          “Rub it in, why don’t you?” Ron said bitterly.
          Lugging cauldrons filled with books, quills, various noisome and icky ingredients for Potions class, they finished their shopping and got a table in the shade outside a delicatessen. Harry always missed wizardly fare when he was with the Dursleys. Once, on one of the rare occasions that Uncle Vernon had taken the family to dinner and permitted Harry to come along, he’d made the mistake of asking the waitress for pumpkin juice, and almost had to spend the rest of the evening sitting alone in the car. 
          They ate sandwiches and sipped juice and waved to their various classmates when someone familiar went by. Harry nearly choked on a bite when he saw Cho Chang, the girl he was secretly – or not-so-secretly – interested in. Cho was a seventh-year now, and Harry knew that if he didn’t ask her out this time, he’d never have another chance. 
          But how could he? Two years ago, Cho had been seeing Cedric Diggory, the Hufflepuff Quidditch captain and one of the champions chosen to participate in the Triwizard Tournament. He’d died in the course of that, murdered by Voldemort in a fate surely meant for Harry instead. Nobody had ever come right out and said that it was all because of Harry that poor Cedric had been there in the first place, but Harry’s own guilt was worse than any amount of blame from others. 
          Last year, Harry had stayed far away from Cho, respecting that she was in mourning for Cedric and wouldn’t want anything to do with the one responsible for his death. He was glumly realizing now that a year probably wasn’t enough, that ten years might not be, that he may as well write Cho off entirely. It wasn’t as if she’d ever seemed to return his interest, or shown anything other than politeness toward him.
          He sighed into his glass, stirring ripples on the surface of the pumpkin juice. Funny … at the time of the tournament and the Yule Ball, the idea of having to ask a girl to go with him had seemed like the most daunting and awful task he’d faced. Now, though, he kind of liked the idea. Girls were, well, nice to look at.
          Of course, his and Ron’s brilliant treatment of Parvati and Padma Patil had probably done them in. They’d virtually ignored their dates, and word of it was all over Hogwarts. All over Beauxbatons, too. Harry’s chances of getting either of them, or any other girl in his year, to go out with him were roughly equivalent to his chances of making friends with Professor Snape. 
          Thinking this made him look at Ginny. She would go to a dance with him, of that he hadn’t a doubt. But she was Ginny. Ron’s little sister. It would be like going with his own sister, if he had one. And as for Hermione …
          Harry gave up. Girls might be nice to look at, and plenty of them might be good friends and clever and funny and all, but the business of asking them out was just too much trouble. 


Chapter Five – Murder on the Hogwarts Express.

          King’s Cross Station was a buzzing hive of activity. Muggles rushed to and fro, nearly all of them in a hurry. Even so, some were startled from their own business to notice the admittedly unusual sight of four teenagers pushing carts piled with distinctly un-Mugglish luggage. None of their carts had cauldrons, or caged owls, or cloth-wrapped shapes that were still recognizably broomsticks. 
          Ginny’s broomstick wasn’t even wrapped. She wanted all the world to see the gleaming handle and sleek twigs, and the sharply-angled lettering like script made from lightning that read ‘Skyblazer.’ 
          Harry and Hermione had accompanied the Weasleys back to the Burrow for a final dinner the night before they were due to leave for school. Fred and George came over too, and as they were in the midst of regaling everyone with funny anecdotes from Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes – their mother, Mrs. Weasley, listened to these with a firm scowl of disapproval pasted on her features – a large brown owl came swooping in through the kitchen window and dropped the Skyblazer squarely into Ginny’s hands. A congratulatory note from the proprietor of the shop had been tied to the handle. 
          Nothing would do after that but for Harry to break out his Firebolt, and for the two of them to practice out back. They took turns dive-bombing the gnomes that infested the garden, scaring them into sight for Hermione’s cat Crookshanks to chase. Ron’s owl, Pigwidgeon, flapped and fluttered madly all about, wanting to play and trying to keep up with the zipping, darting broomsticks. Hedwig, Harry’s snowy owl, ruffled up her feathers and hunched her head down into them, and her expression was as patiently exasperated as Hermione’s own.
          Ron was purple with indignation. When Harry had first gotten his Firebolt, a present from his godfather, Ron had been all over Harry to let him have a ride. But when Ginny offered him a turn on the Skyblazer, he sniffed and stalked inside, and slammed the back door so hard that it sent the gnomes bounding in new directions.
          He kept Harry up until nearly midnight with his tossing and turning. Every so often, he’d rise up, punch his pillow, and snarl something under his breath. Harry didn’t know what to say. He felt bad for Ron, shown up by his own sister, but it was nice to see Ginny so happy for a change. She’d had a bad first year at Hogwarts what with the Chamber of Secrets and all. He figured Ron would get over it. 
          They got up at the crack of dawn to leave for the train station. The Burrow seemed oddly empty now that Fred and George had a flat in town, upstairs of their joke shop. Mrs. Weasley still made more food than was needed at meals, and bundled up a big bag of leftovers for them to have for lunch. Nobody wanted to hurt her feelings by mentioning Harry’s usual habit of treating them all to goodies from the snack trolley.
          While they were waiting for their turn to surreptitiously approach the entrance to Platform 9 and ¾, Harry caught himself stealing glances at Hermione. She was dressed up for the trip in a skirt-and-sweater combination not all that different from ones he’d seen in years past, but it was really remarkable how shapely her legs were, and how fascinating the contours the sweater followed.
          He had to consciously quit looking at Hermione, though, when out of the corner of his eye he caught Ginny looking at him with a suspicious furrow to her brow. Last thing he needed was for her to get all jealous … or worse, say something to Hermione. There had been that nasty mess with Rita Skeeter two years ago, and he’d sooner be eaten alive by scorpion-ants than go through that again.
          Making a big show of deliberately looking elsewhere, Harry saw a cart with a trunk on it, and just barely sticking up over the top, the dark-blond head and frightened violet-blue eyes of Jeremy Upwood. He was rolling his cart aimlessly back and forth, staring first at the sign that read “Platform 9” and then the one that read “Platform 10,” and was on the verge of tears. 
          “Jeremy!” he called. “Over here.”
          “I can’t find where I’m supposed to be,” Jeremy wailed. “The ticket says --”
          “It’s all right,” Hermione assured him. “Just watch how we do it. Here, Ron, show him.”
          “It’s easy-peasy,” Ron said. “Watch.”
          He checked to be sure no Muggles were paying particular attention, then purposefully pushed his cart straight at the brick wall dividing Platforms 9 and 10. As he reached it, the wall wavered and he vanished through.
          Jeremy’s mouth was hanging open. Harry grinned. Things that were old-hat to him now were new again when he saw them through the eyes of someone else. 
          “See?” he said, as Ginny and then Hermione went. “Nothing to it. Here I go.”
          His vision blurred briefly as he passed through the illusory wall. Sometimes he wondered what would happen if a Muggle accidentally blundered against it. Would the wall know, and reject them? Or would the Muggle suddenly be standing where Harry was now, in front of the shining scarlet train?
          The leading edge of a cart slammed into Harry’s ankles and almost knocked him over. He jumped out of the way. Jeremy Upwood was there, gaping in amazement. Harry grinned at him and winked, then went to where Hermione was waving to him. 
          He lost track of Jeremy in the crush of people all loading their luggage and boarding the train. He spotted Ginny chatting with Dennis Creevey, younger brother of Harry’s admirer, Colin. Since Dennis had also made the Quidditch team – Beater – at the end of last year’s tryouts, Harry hoped Dennis would be more likely to get to know him as a person now, and less of an idol. 
          The Hogwarts Express pulled away from the platform with a bellowing hiss of steam, and picked up speed as it chugged out of the station. Harry settled into a compartment with Ron and Hermione. Ron was slumped by the window, wearing a sulky look, and Hermione already had her nose buried in The Standard Book of Spells: Grade 6. Harry couldn’t help being intrigued by the way her skirt had hiked a little bit, exposing a pretty knee.
          Someone rapped at the doorframe of their compartment. Neville Longbottom, whom Harry had had a hand in turning into a frog last Christmastime, stuck his head in. He’d recovered completely from that ordeal, and while Harry would never be on Neville’s grandmother’s list of favorite people, she had quit trying to have Neville removed from Gryffindor House. 
          Neville, of all of Harry’s friends and classmates, had changed the least. He was still pudgy and round-faced, still with a perpetual worried look that said he knew things were going on around him and was trying his best to comprehend. 
          “Do you know who’s come back to Hogwarts?” he asked breathlessly, plopping onto the seat beside Hermione. Harry had sat next to Ron, the better to keep stealing peeks at her knee. 
          “Professor Lupin?” Harry knew it was too much to hope for, but still …
          Ron roused from his sulk. “The girls from Beauxbatons?”
          Neville shook his head at both of them. “Fyren Grimme!”
          Harry was blank, but Hermione looked up from her book and Ron rocked back in his seat. 
          “No!” said Ron. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
          “Who’s Fyren Grimme?” Harry asked, mentally kicking himself for once more being behind the times and not knowing all he should about the wizarding world.
          “Didn’t Professor McGonagall mention him?” pondered Hermione. “I seem to remember something in one of her Transfigurations classes … oh! When we were first-years, and she was telling us why we wouldn’t be allowed to practice any human Transfigurations until fifth or sixth.”
          “I heard about it from Fred,” said Ron. “Fyren Grimme was a year behind them, but everyone knew he was going to be trouble. Slytherin, of course. Had Dark wizard written all over him.”
          “You say that about everyone from Slytherin,” said Harry.
          “Am I wrong?”
          “Well …”
          “Anyway,” Neville went on breathlessly, “they finally got the spells undone on him and now he’s back.”
          “Hang on,” said Harry. “That was how many years ago? And it took this long? When you were a frog, Madame Pomfrey had you back to normal in just a few weeks.”
          “Don’t remind me.” Neville made a face, perhaps recalling what it had been like to live on a diet of pureed flies.
          “I thought he was expelled,” Hermione said. “That after he partway Transfigured himself, he went mad and bit some students.”
          “It only had half to do with Transfiguration,” Neville said. “Gran told me that he was trying to turn himself into an Animagus, and something went wrong.” He went somber. “And she told me that if I ever tried …”
          “He did,” said Ron. “Bite some people, I mean. That’s what Fred said. I wouldn’t think Dumbledore would be in a hurry to let him back. Are you sure, Neville?”
          “I’m sure,” said Neville. “I passed by a bunch of Slytherins on my way to the bathroom and Malfoy was introducing him around. He’s enormous. Well, not like Hagrid, but big. Like Marcus Flint, Harry, do you remember him?”
          “How could I forget?” said Harry dryly. Flint, the captain of the Slytherin team, had been a huge, mean bruiser who’d been held back and had to repeat a year, and taken out his anger about it on the Quidditch field as well as the bodies of the opposing team. Something struck him. “Say … is he about so tall, dark haired, shoulders like this?”
          “That’s him,” confirmed Neville.
          “That’s the one we saw outside Flourish and Blotts,” said Ron. “Blimey, he was a big one. Tough-looking, too. Fyren Grimme and Malfoy, talk about a match made in Hell. I bet Malfoy’s already poisoned him against you, Harry. Better be on your toes.”
          Just then, as if on some horrible cue, the lights snapped off, plunging them into darkness. Total darkness, for at that moment the train was in a long tunnel. 
          A spate of screams and startled outcries erupted. Harry bit back an alarmed exclamation of his own. The last time something like this had happened, dementors had been aboard. 
          He pulled out his wand, the words Expecto Patronus poised at his lips. First would be the chill, the awful bone-deep chill, like tendrils of icy mist wrapping stealthy fingers around his insides and slipping into his marrow. Then the voices, his mother’s desperate pleas, his father’s last stand, their dying shrieks. 
          “Lumos,” said Hermione. A glow lit the end of her wand. 
          The frightened commotion elsewhere on the train died out as others did the same. Soon the eerie flicker of wandlights was visible all up and down the corridor. No dementors appeared. The train rushed from the tunnel and afternoon sunlight poured in through the windows.
          “What was that all about?” asked Ron as the overhead lights came back on too.
          He was answered by a fresh scream, this one full of horror and very close. Harry and Hermione were quickest to the door, Neville stumbling over Crookshanks and treading hard on Ron’s foot so that the two of them didn’t sort it out for several seconds.
          The snacks trolley was angled crossways in the corridor. The witch who managed it was standing in the doorway of another compartment, staring down and now screaming through her fingers as she covered her face. A gaggle of students surrounded her, elbowing each other and going on tiptoe and trying to see in. 
          Harry shoved through them. A surprising number gave way the moment they saw him, his reputation acting like an invisible wedge clearing him a path. Hermione came along in his wake, and they reached the witch.
          “What’s the matter?” Harry touched her on the shoulder.
          She turned to him, her face the color of curdled milk, and pointed.
          The compartment at first glance looked empty, unoccupied. But there was something on the floor … a small and crumpled something … 
          “It’s Jeremy!” gasped Hermione.
          Harry squeezed past the witch in the doorway and dropped to his knees. Jeremy was face-down, one arm bent behind him so that the tiny hand was palm-up and curled as if begging for help. 
          “Jeremy? Jeremy, answer me.”
          The boy didn’t move. He was still, so still, and it didn’t look as though he were breathing. Harry looked up at Hermione. She was chewing her lip in anxiety and agitation. Behind her, the news was being passed from one onlooker to the next. 
          Carefully, gingerly, Harry took hold of Jeremy and rolled him onto his back. Jeremy was limp and cold. His eyes were wide, glassy, like jewels the color of twilight. Unseeing. 
          “I think …” He didn’t want to say it because saying it might make it true.
          Hermione said it for him. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
          A whispering gasp, like wind through tall grass, stirred through the crowd and ended all other talk. The witch moaned and covered her eyes. 
          “Someone’s got to do something,” Harry said.
          But they were all looking at him, as if expecting him to do something. Even Hermione made a sort of ‘well, hurry it up’ gesture at him. 
          He still had his wand out, prepared as he’d been to deal with dementors. Now he pointed it at Jeremy and said, “Ennervate!”
          Light streamed from the end, but pooled uselessly around the body. If he’d been sleeping, even if he’d been unconscious … Harry grimly shook his head at Hermione. 
          “He’s not wounded. What …? Was it …?” she trailed off. 
          “I don’t know.” Harry sat back on his heels and ran a hand through his hair. He rubbed the faint roughness of his scar under his palm and wondered if he would have felt anything had someone gone and used the Avada Kadavra Curse on poor Jeremy. The only other times he’d been around when that spell had been cast, it was by Voldemort. But this wasn’t the Dark Lord’s handiwork. Harry surely would have felt that. 
          Bedlam was taking over the train, a near-panic spreading like wildfire among the students. Harry didn’t know what to do. When the dementors had come, Professor Lupin had saved them and cured the worst of the residual chill with chocolate. The trolley was right there within arm’s reach, but what good would chocolate do for Jeremy Upwood now?
          Hermione had come to similar conclusions because she was holding a thick bar, turning it over and over in her hands. “Isn’t there anything we can do?”
          “You’re the book-smart one,” he said dismally. “Don’t you have any ideas?” When she shook her head, he looked up at the witch. “What did you see?”
          “All the lights went out,” she said. “Someone came out of this compartment, pushed by me, nearly knocked me over.”
          “Who was it?” demanded Hermione.
          “Couldn’t see. Might’ve been a man.”
          Harry’s initial impulse was to look around for Draco Malfoy, as he recalled the Slytherins’ snide remarks about Mudbloods, Muggles, and stricter laws. But any suspicion aimed at Draco quickly vanished when Harry saw him, rumpled and trying to straighten out his clothes, emerging from the tiny, one-person lavatory with Pansy Parkinson behind him. Pansy, too, was rumpled, her make-up smudged. 
          Malfoy’s face was flushed and indignant, as if all of this had interrupted something he really hadn’t wanted interrupted, and he wasn’t a good enough actor to be counterfeiting those emotions. Further, when word reached him that there’d apparently been a murder on board, his look of surprise was entirely genuine.
          The conductor, a wizard in dark red robes with shoulderboards trimmed in gold braid, and buttons all down the front with raised images of the Hogwarts crest, pushed into the compartment. He blanched as he saw Jeremy, but gathered his wits and motioned people back, sliding the door shut. Harry saw Ron, craning to peer over the heads of the crowd, and then Ron was gone as the door thunked home. 
          The snack-trolley witch, inside with Harry and Hermione, collapsed onto the nearest seat and began sobbing with her head in her apron. The conductor knelt opposite Harry and, not without a grimace and a hesitation, grasped Jeremy’s outflung wrist and felt for a pulse.
          “Nothing,” he said. “The lad’s gone. What did this to him?”
          “We don’t know,” Harry said, and explained how they’d been in their compartment when the lights went out, and then heard the witch’s screams. 
          “Shouldn’t we cover him?” Hermione took a folded blanket from one of the upper shelves and shook it out. Harry caught the other end and together they lowered it over Jeremy. He made such a small, pitiful lump.
          Then, from beneath the blanket, Jeremy hitched in a shuddering breath. His hand, which hadn’t been covered, spasmed as if grabbing at thin air. 
          Hermione voiced a thin shriek and sprang back. Her bottom hit Harry, and the backs of his knees hit the edge of the seat. He landed sitting, with Hermione in his lap and her skirt flipped most of the way up her thighs, but thoughts of her legs were as far as could be from his mind. He scrambled out from under her and whipped the blanket off of Jeremy.
          Those violet-blue eyes shifted to look at him. Their color was clouded, twilight sky viewed through a thin veil of cloud, but alert. He sat up.
          The snack-trolley witch pealed a scream like a siren and bolted for the door. She fought wildly with the conductor, tore free, yanked the door open, and burst out into the still-crowded hallway. Her sudden arrival set off new outbursts of panic.
          “What’s going on?” asked Jeremy Upwood in a faint, strained voice. 
          The conductor’s mouth opened and closed, opened and closed. 
          “Jeremy?” asked Harry cautiously. “How do you feel?”
          “I’m fine.” But he didn’t look fine; he looked pale and drawn, and there was a greyish underhue to his complexion that reminded Harry of something that he couldn’t immediately place. 
          The boy got up, unsteadily. The doorway was a wall of faces and wide, astonished eyes. He uncomfortably averted his face from them. 
          The conductor reached out for Jeremy’s wrist, perhaps meaning to assure himself that he’d simply felt in the wrong place for a pulse. Jeremy edged away, tucking his arms around himself. 
          “I’m fine, really I am,” he insisted. 
          “I guess he must be,” Hermione said, with doubt coloring her tone. “What do you think, Harry?”
          “I think … we ought to just let it be,” he said, telling her with a look that they’d talk more about it later. 


Chapter Six – The Green-Eyed Monster.

          The rest of the journey passed with a hectic, dreamlike strangeness. A story somehow got around that Harry Potter had brought back a boy from the dead, and reactions ranged from whisperings-behind-the-hand as he passed to Colin Creevey’s enthusiastic, puppy-like cavorting.
          “How’d you do it, Harry? Gosh! I thought no magic could raise the dead. Gosh! I wish I hadn’t packed my camera in my trunk. If you’d wait right there, I’ll go get it, won’t be a minute, and if I could get a picture of you and the boy …” Colin had finally gotten permission to put together a school paper, though some thought the only reason Professor McGonagall had finally agreed was so he’d hush up and give her a moment’s peace. 
          Harry winced. He could just see himself plastered on the first page of the first-ever issue of the Hogwarts Happenings. And as bad as it would be for him, it would probably be a million times worse for Jeremy Upwood. Nobody needed to start off their school life with that kind of attention, as Harry personally knew all too well.
          He managed to duck Colin by saying he really had to talk to Hermione about something, and escaped back to the compartment he’d been sharing with her and Ron. When people kept dropping by on all sorts of pretenses, Harry’s only recourse was to dig out his Invisibility Cloak, put it on, and sit quietly by the window. From then on, whenever the door would slide open and someone’s head would poke in, whoever it was would see right away that Harry wasn’t in there, and leave after mumbled apologies to Ron and Hermione.
          Jeremy was, luckily for him, spirited away to the conductor’s office to ‘recover from the ordeal.’ Ron had done a little asking around, but nobody seemed to know who’d been riding in with him, or who the person that had bumped into the snack-trolley witch might have been.
          “Malfoy,” Ron said. “It had to have been Malfoy.”
          “I don’t think so,” Harry said, and told them why.
          Ron goggled. “You don’t mean they were …”
          “It wouldn’t surprise me,” said Hermione loftily. “All the girls talk about Pansy Parkinson.”
          “Do they?” asked Ron. “What do they say?”
          He and Harry had shared an unspoken fascination with what girls talked about ever since their third year, when all of the girls had been called away to a ‘special assembly’ and all the boys sent out to play wizard golf one fine spring day. Hermione had returned from that assembly with a smug glint in her eyes. As if anybody needed more of a knowing look. 
          Hermione didn’t answer. She smoothed her skirt demurely, a motion which drew Harry’s eyes to her legs again. They were really quite spectacular, he was beginning to understand. Not that he would ever say such a thing to her. Besides, he’d had the odd feeling for some time now that there was something between her and Ron, something that all their bickering tried to mask. Thinking that made him feel unaccountably envious and sad. Cho Chang’s image danced briefly into his head and quickly out.
          The train arrived at Hogsmeade Station beneath a sky in which the first brilliant pinpricks of stars were beginning to appear. The students, all dressed in their robes now so that they resembled an earthbound flock of crows fluttering busily about, disembarked and struggled to organize their luggage. 
          “’Ullo, Harry!” boomed Hagrid’s deep, gruff voice. 
          The huge figure waded through the crowd. Some gave him a wide berth – the news that Hagrid was half-giant, and Dumbledore’s liaison in forging an alliance with that fierce race had made many people think that his jovial, bearish exterior really hid a bloodthirsty menace. Not that Hagrid couldn’t be fierce if angered … but he was slow to anger and really just a great marshmallow at heart, especially when it came to his fondness for horrific monsters that no one else in their right minds would have gone near without a full suit of armor, every defensive spell known to wizardry, and a wand the size of a battering ram. 
          Hugging Hagrid wasn’t so much a matter of sharing an embrace as it was of being nearly hoisted off one’s feet and shaken like a rag in a dog’s jaws. Harry endured this with good humor, as did Ron. When it came to be Hermione’s turn, though, Hagrid hesitated awkwardly and ended up sort of patting her on the shoulder. He harumphed into his beard and mumbled something about how grown-up they all were getting.
          “What was that all about?” Ron asked as Hagrid turned to bellow his summons for the first-years, who would join him on the traditional boat-ride across the lake. 
          “I don’t know,” said Hermione, but she looked like she had a fair idea. Harry, glancing once more at her figure – mostly concealed now by the loose flow of her robes – and thought he might have a fair idea too. 
          “Heard yeh had a bit of trouble on the way,” said Hagrid in a rumbling undertone. “Yeh all fine, then?”
          “We are,” said Harry. “But there’s a boy who might need to see Madame Pomfrey straight away, even before the Sorting.” 
          He indicated Jeremy, who was standing a ways removed from the rest of the first-years, all the rest of whom were clustered close together as if for shared courage in the face of this massive, wild-haired man. In the pale lights of the station, Jeremy looked wan and very pale.
          “I’ll see to it,” Hagrid said. He clapped Harry on the shoulder hard enough to stagger him, then collected his young charges and led them away in the direction of the lake. 
          The remaining students rode up to Hogwarts in magical horseless carriages. As always, the sight of the castle’s many turrets and gleaming windows woke a feeling of freedom and joy in Harry. Those halls, passages, towers, and rooms were his home. Not that he knew them all. His father had, as had James Potter’s friends, at least well enough to devise their enchanted Marauder’s Map. But a few instances of corridors that no longer led where the map claimed they did, plus the way the staircases of Hogwarts liked to move of their own accord, led Harry to believe that the map might have become slightly outdated in the years since his father had been a student. 
          They climbed down from the carriages, trusting that their luggage would find its way to their rooms. This was one of the many tasks of the house-elves, who persisted in their cheerful servitude despite all of Hermione’s best efforts as a union agitator, despite the proud example displayed by Dobby. Hermione hadn’t quite given up her aim of seeing house-elves with fair wages and benefits, but even her indomitable will was hard-pressed to deal with an entire race of elves who could barely conceive of, let alone want, that kind of help.
          “This is always my favorite part of the year,” said Ron as they waited outside of the Great Hall for its mighty doors to open. “The feast.”
          “Honestly, Ron, you’d think your mother starves you,” Hermione said. “It’s Harry who has to live on scraps all summer.”
          “I’ve nothing against my mum’s cooking,” Ron protested. “But she never makes as much as we want. It’s magic, isn’t it? Free. But whenever we say anything about wanting a bit more, she’ll trot out that old clunker about starving wizards in Africa and how we should be grateful for what we have. None of that here. We can eat until we split.”
          “What a lovely thought,” she said.
          Harry hid a smile. Hadn’t he just been thinking that Mrs. Weasley cooked enough food for an army, acting as if all of her children were still living and eating at home even though nearly all of them now were off with places and jobs of their own?
          The doors opened, and they filed into the Great Hall. Ranks of candles hung suspended between the floor and the star-strewn darkness of the enchanted ceiling. The golden dishes on the four long tables sparkled with the promise of the feast that Ron was so eagerly looking forward to. At the head of the room, the staff table was already surrounded by the teachers. Harry spotted Dumbledore’s shining silver hair and beard the moment he crossed the threshold. 
          Murmurs eddied among the students as they saw Professor Ophidia Winterwind seated between Professors Snape and Flitwick. This was the first time in most of their recollection that they’d actually begun a year with the same Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher they’d had at the end of the last year. Many of the murmurs were colored with appreciation (from the male students) and sniffs of jealousy or spite (from the females). Harry, having just seen her a few nights ago, was struck once more by her ominous, alabaster-and-obsidian beauty.
          Ophidia was chatting gaily with Professor Flitwick, flicking her long lashes and pursing her lips and generally flirting so outrageously that the diminutive Charms teacher was bright pink and barely able to sit still. Snape, on Ophidia’s other side, was regarding this with a flat, humorless demeanor that did nothing to soften the sour, miserly lines of his face. 
          “Is it just me,” Ron whispered as they took their places, “or do they look different? The witches, I mean. Look at Sprout.”
          Professor Sprout, who taught Herbology, was a plump little witch whose hands and clothes were usually dirty from gardening. Now, she was as well-scrubbed as a newborn infant, and in place of her comfortable jumper, she was wearing a yellow robe sewn with green leaves and vines. 
          “And Madame Hooch,” Hermione added with some wonder.
          The Quidditch coach, a stocky and tough woman with hair nearly as defiant as Hermione’s, was similarly attired in new, fashionable robes. She even, though it was hard to tell from here, looked to be wearing a touch of eyeshadow. 
          Harry looked from one teacher to the next. He saw other small changes, nothing big, but overall it added up to a sweeping sense of peculiarity. Everyone, wizards and witches alike, were done up much smarter than usual. They were all talking more vibrantly, their gestures more animated. As if each of them wanted to be sure he or she was noticed. Even Dumbledore was resplendent in robes of deepest purple, and his pointed hat was especially tall and straight. 
          Madame Pomfrey was not in attendance, and Harry took that to mean she’d been called away to see to Jeremy. Hopefully, the boy would be all right … and hopefully, Harry would have a chance to talk to Dumbledore or somebody about what had happened on the train. 
          The only unfamiliar face at the staff table was a man who looked to be in his sixties, though Harry knew that sort of thing counted for little among wizards. He was portly, with grey hair that was balding on top but made up for it with the most massive muttonchop sideburns Harry had ever seen. Which was to say, they were the only muttonchop sideburns he’d ever seen on a real person, outside of the moving portraits that filled the castle halls. 
          Except … the man was unfamiliar, but there was something about him that made Harry wonder if maybe he had met him before. He leaned toward Hermione to ask if she knew, because she always did.
          At that same moment, though, Hermione had been leaning toward him to ask him something, and their faces ended up so close to one another that their heads nearly bumped. She gasped, and blinked, and Harry was fascinated by her eyes. Velvety brown with a sheen like honey, and the pupils so large and dark that he imagined he could see through to the inner, secret Hermione. He’d never been this close to her, not like this, and for a moment forgot entirely about what he’d been going to say.
          She, too, didn’t speak. All around them the Great Hall was full of the noise of their classmates settling into their seats, and no one else seemed aware of the two of them. Or so Harry thought until Ron, across the table, flicked his golden goblet with a fingernail and it chimed like a bell.
          Startled, Harry drew back and Hermione did likewise. She busied herself with her napkin, folding and re-folding it. 
          A silvery peal of laughter rose from the staff table. Ophidia Winterwind, in response to something that Snape must have said, put her hand on his upper arm and briefly tipped her head against his shoulder, then shook a finger at him as if he’d been a naughty boy. 
          Professor Flitwick immediately launched into a witty story of his own, puffing up and speaking perhaps more forcefully than necessary. Professor Sprout tugged at Dumbledore’s sleeve, making him look away from Ophidia and at her instead, and as she began to talk quietly to him, she made a point of fluffing her curled hair in a disconcerting manner.
          “They’re jealous,” Ron concluded after observing some minutes of this interplay. “She’s got the whole staff worked up. Look at that. Did you ever see the like?”
          “Nonsense,” said Hermione. “Don’t be silly.”
          “I swear, it’s true, look at them,” said Ron. “All the witches dolled up, trying to compete with her, all the wizards spruced up, trying to compete for her. It’s plain as day.”
          “I’ll admit, she’s pretty,” Hermione said. “But to think that the teachers … to think that even Dumbledore …” 
          Her voice lost strength, because just then Dumbledore arose, and as he stood proud and commanding, they didn’t miss the way his eyes darted to his right and then, seeing that Ophidia was watching him with rapt adoration, he stood even straighter and held his head high so as to present his most striking profile.
          “See?” hissed Ron as an expectant hush fell over the room.
          “Yes, I take it back, you’re right,” Hermione whispered.
          The side door opened on silent, stealthy hinges and Hagrid crept in. It should have been impossible for a man his size to make his way unnoticed to his seat at the end of the table, but most everyone else was distracted by the doors at the end of the Great Hall opening once more to admit the first-years. 
          Professor McGonagall led the procession. Her robes were midnight-blue and sewn with tiny silver stars, obviously new and flatteringly tailored. She wore a matching silver necklace made of small interlocked stars. And either she was a whiz with cosmetics or she’d been sneaking sips of a Youthening Potion on the sly, but she looked at least ten years younger than Harry remembered. 
          This change was not lost on the other students. For the first time, more eyes were fixed on McGonagall than on the nervous line of first-years behind her. At the end of the line was Jeremy Upwood, still very pale but evidently all right because Madame Pomfrey – in a new, crisply white nurse’s robe – was bringing up the rear. 
          McGonagall marched to the front of the room and spun with a grand flair. This was her moment, everything about her proclaimed it, and she meant to make the most of it. She made a grandiloquent beckoning gesture. 
          Hooves clattered on the floor. A beautiful golden horse, so graceful that Harry’s first impression was that it was an adolescent unicorn, pranced forth. It was bearing a shapeless, tattered hat on its back in place of a saddle. As it reached Professor McGonagall, the horse reared up, hooves flashing prettily, and let out a loud, musical nicker. 
          She snapped her fingers. As the horse came back down, it changed seamlessly into a stool. The hat, the Sorting Hat, was resting upon it, unchanged.
          Scattered applause broke out but was stifled quickly as a rip in the side of the hat opened, and began to move like a thread-edged mouth. A cracked, amused, and actually not-quite-sane voice rang out:

                              Appearances can be deceiving
                              A cover doesn’t make the book
                              They say that seeing is believing
                              But they don’t know how deep to look

                              For truth is hidden deep inside
                              Like a story in the pages
                              What is within, you cannot hide
                              My fine and new young mages

                              I am old and torn and plain
                              I may not look like much
                              Yet put me on and I’ll obtain
                              The truth with just one touch
                              Oh, I am called the Sorting Hat
                              And what that name espouses 
                              Is how I can in no time flat
                              Determine all your Houses

                              So step right up and try me on
                              To see where you belong
                              In Slytherin if ambition
                              And cunning craft are strong

                              Be Gryffindor if courage
                              Is where your heart excels
                              Or Ravenclaw if knowledge
                              Will help you learn your spells

                              Or is your heart of Hufflepuff
                              Faithful, pure and true?
                              I think we’ve waited long enough
                              Come up; there’s much to do!

          The first-years looked amazed and delighted by this novelty, a talking hat, and it helped some of them get over the anxiousness of the Sorting. The rest of the students clapped politely for the Hat, which nodded its point this way and that as if in acknowledgement of their praise. Ron surmised that the Hat spent all year thinking up each new song and lived for this one moment of glory.
          Professor McGonagall instructed the first-years to come up when each was called, and then once a House was declared, to go and sit with their classmates. The students already seated shuffled around a bit to make sure the empty chairs were visible.
          Unrolling a long sheet of parchment, Professor McGonagall called out the first name. A thin girl named Alison Appleby climbed the steps, sat gingerly on the stool as if she feared it might collapse and spill her to the floor, and waited with eyes squeezed tightly shut as the Sorting Hat was lowered onto her head.
          The Hat considered for a moment, humming to itself. Harry remembered from his own experience that Alison would probably be hearing the Hat’s musing aloud in her head, as it sifted through her psyche and judged by what it found there. Her tension was evident in her knotted fists and the quiver of her chin, just visible beneath the brim of the overlarge Hat.
          “Ravenclaw!” the Hat announced.
          Cheers and applause exploded from that table. Alison, looking shaky with relief, hopped down and scurried over. Professor McGonagall called the rest one after another. 
          By virtue of alphabetical order, Jeremy Upwood was last. He climbed the steps slowly, and when he turned to sit on the stool, his eyes swept the room with a strange, shadowed emptiness that touched Harry with a chill even from yards away. Jeremy was awfully pale, as if he was about to faint, but his features were composed.
          He was small for his age, smaller even than the Creeveys, and the Sorting Hat plopped all the way to his shoulders. Then it shivered, and went rigid, and for one horrible instant Harry thought it was going to shout out Slytherin. He glanced that way, saw Malfoy with his usual entourage plus Fyren Grimme.
          Time spun out like an endless thread. The waiting hush turned into a restless fidgeting rustle. At the staff table, a few concerned looks were exchanged. Professor McGonagall took a step forward, perhaps meaning to lift the Sorting Hat off Jeremy. 
          Before her hand got there, the Hat cleared its throat – not that it had a throat, but that was the sound it made.
          “Battenby!” it cried. 
          And now the silence, disturbed before, was utter and complete.

Chapter Seven – Charon and Dursley.

          Professor McGonagall lifted the Sorting Hat from Jeremy Upwood’s head. Hers was the only movement in the Great Hall until Dumbledore slowly rose from his chair. This acted as a signal to the room, and all at once everybody was talking. 
          Hermione didn’t even wait for Harry and Ron to ask. Leaning forward, eyes bright, she said, “There’s nothing about this in Hogwarts, A History! Though there was a mention of a wizard named Battenby, Cyril Battenby, who was a contemporary of Godric Gryffindor. Apparently, Battenby drew up the original plans for the school, but died before construction was begun.”
Dumbledore shot a golden burst from his wand to get everyone’s attention. Harry saw Jeremy standing beside the stool, his eyes wide and scared. Professor McGonagall was looking down at him with an odd mixture of pity and what seemed to be unease. 
          “Minerva,” said Dumbledore, “would you kindly summon Professor Charon?”
          McGonagall nodded curtly and left via the side door, carrying the stool and the Sorting Hat with her.
          “Who’s Professor Charon?” Ron asked, low.
          “I’ve never heard of him,” replied Hermione.
          “If you’ll all please be so good as to settle down,” Dumbledore called above the babble, “I have a few words to say before we begin the start-of-term feast. But first, young Mr. Upwood, while we clear up this confusion, please have a seat. Anywhere will do.”
          Jeremy was frozen in place, until Harry jerked his head in a come-here gesture. Relieved, the small boy hurried to the Gryffindor table. People he passed turned to stare quizzically. Jeremy sat, and offered a shaky smile in gratitude at finding a few friendly faces.
Ron started to question him, but Harry kicked his ankle under the table. No sense badgering the kid; clearly, Jeremy didn’t know what was going on either. Unless the Hat had said something to him … Harry started to ask a question of his own and was in turn kicked by Hermione. 
          Dumbledore launched into his traditional speech, informing new students and reminding old ones of the various rules of Hogwarts. When he mentioned that the West Bailey was off-limits, Harry noted raised eyebrows among some of the teachers, as if this was news to them, too. The West Bailey was one of the oldest parts of the castle, used for little now except storage, and right away Harry’s interest was triggered. What could there be to be found in the West Bailey worth making it forbidden?
          During the bit where Dumbledore told them that all third-years and above were allowed scheduled weekend visits to Hogsmeade, the door opened again and Professor McGonagall came in. She was walking quickly, nervously, and kept peeking back over her shoulder as if she thought the figure behind her might suddenly go for her neck. 
          Harry didn’t blame her. A chill swept over him as dark form entered the Great Hall. Had he just been thinking about dementors on the train? Here was a man just as hooded and cowled, wearing robes of a black so dark they seemed to suck in the glow of the candles, so that no light actually fell upon him but was absorbed some inches from his body. He walked in a perpetual dim shadow, and a cold draft was in his wake. His height rivaled Hagrid’s, but he was cadaverously thin, and when his hands slid from his sleeves, they were white and long-fingered and bloodless as bare bone.
          The new arrival brought those hands to his hood and pushed it back, so that the fabric collapsed in a lifeless billow onto the narrow rack of his shoulders. The face thus revealed was so like a skull that stifled cries sounded here and there about the room before the students realized that his pure-white hair was cropped close to the scalp and his skin was drawn tight against the hard planes beneath. His eyes were the pink-red of an albino, set deep in hollowed sockets. 
          “You sent for me, Headmaster.” He made it a statement, in a voice that was at once both ghostly and echoey. 
          “Yes, Professor Charon, I did. Thank you, Professor McGonagall.” 
          She dipped her head slightly in acknowledgement and retreated to her place at the staff table. Dumbledore came around from behind it. 
          “We have a new student for you,” Dumbledore said.
          Beside Ron, Jeremy trembled. 
          “Is that so?” murmured Charon. “A new student for Battenby House? Where?”
          “Mr. Upwood, if you would join us?” 
          Gulping, Jeremy got up. He sent a brief look of appeal to Harry – help me!, that look said – but they all knew there was nothing to do but obey Dumbledore.
          As Jeremy approached, Charon folded his long hands into the voluminous sleeves of his robe and studied him. “Yes, Headmaster. He is one of ours.”
          “It’s all right, son,” Dumbledore said, putting a kind hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. “Professor Charon is Head of Battenby House. You’ll be welcome there.”
          “Come with me,” Charon said. “I’ll lead you to the others.”
          No one spoke. No one stirred. The drop of a pin would have been deafening. 
          Professor Charon wrapped his long bony fingers around Jeremy’s wrist and guided him. They did not head for the door, but toward the wall nearest to the Gryffindor table. Harry held his breath, half-expecting that they’d disappear through it just as everyone did at the magical barrier at Platform 9 and ¾, but instead, the wall itself fogged and faded.
          It was as if the Great Hall was even bigger than it seemed. As if there was room in it for yet another table full of students. But no candles illuminated this add-on, and the only light came from some unseen source of misty blue-white that made Harry think of the cold flame that had issued from the Goblet of Fire. 
          Then he saw them. A double row of people, hard to get a clear look at through the foggy, semi-transparent wall. They were in robes, with crests in the usual spot, but the crests were not in a design he knew. They were applauding silently, their mouths open in cheers that went totally unheard. 
          Jeremy’s lined, worried face smoothed out. A tentative spark of hope lit his eyes. He stopped dragging his feet and pulled ahead of Charon, slipping from his grip. He reached the wall and passed through unhindered. 
          The students nearest him crowded around, greeting him. As Jeremy took his place among them, the blue-white light brightened briefly. 
          Harry wasn’t consciously aware that he was moving until he heard Ron and Hermione urgently whispering for him to stop. He did so, right in front of where the solid wall should have been. 
          Odd things about the students leapt out at him. Their hair, and what could be seen of their clothes beneath the uniform robes, varied widely through what looked like many centuries of fashion. They were all so pale, as if they hadn’t seen the sun in ages. 
          The crests on their robes were in black and silver, and where Gryffindor had its proud lion and Slytherin its sly snake, those of this mysterious Battenby House had a black-winged bat. In fact, the effect of the crest took him right back to that night outside of Gringotts, the moon-painted wall and the black silhouette. Deja-vu washed over him.
          Jeremy looked back, and despite what seemed to be the standard happiness at meeting all his new classmates, there was a strange and awful desolation in his eyes. Harry almost called out, but caught himself. None of the Battenby students acted as if they were aware of him, and he realized that he couldn’t hear their voices at all, though by the way their mouths were moving, they had to be speaking. 
          “Harry Potter, isn’t it?”
          He first thought one of the Battenby students had spoken. But it was Professor Charon, who had come up beside him and was examining him with a detachment that made Harry even less comfortable.
          “I understand you’re partly to thank for this,” Charon went on.
          “Excuse me, Professor?” 
          “Fear no evil, Potter. Fear no evil.”
          With that, saying nothing more and giving no other hint of explanation, Professor Charon moved by Harry and through the spot where the wall should have been. It snapped back into solid existence as soon as the trailing hem of his robe had crossed. The other table was gone. The students were gone. And so was Jeremy.
          No one else appeared to have noticed the verbal exchange, though many people were watching Harry as if they thought he was about to do something weird. Some of the Slytherins, Fyren Grimme among them, had even half-risen to see across the crowded Great Hall. Abashed, Harry hastily returned to his seat beside Hermione.
          “Did all of you see that,” he asked, “or am I losing my marbles?”
          “Saw it,” said Ron. “Spooky, wasn’t it? Who are they, d’you reckon? I couldn’t see that great, but they looked … well, our age and about. But we’ve been here six years now and I’ve never heard anybody Sorted into that House before. I don’t get it.”
          “I apologize for the interruption,” Dumbledore said. “And for the delay. If the rest of you are feeling as hungry as I am, you’ll be glad for me to say what I have to say and get it over and done with, so that we might eat.”
          “Hear, hear!” a few voices called good-naturedly. 
          Already, the incident with Jeremy seemed like something that had happened long ago, or was of no consequence. Harry felt in himself a nudge to let it go, forget about it, not important, pay it no mind. He steeled his thoughts against it.
          Dumbledore showed no signs of explaining. He merely picked up his speech where he’d left off, informing them of the specific dates of the Hogsmeade weekends and reminding them that the House Cup was once more up for grabs, as it was the start of a whole new year and all points were level-peggy. At this, the Slytherins gave off a low growl, no doubt determined to win back the honor that had been theirs so many times before Gryffindor had risen up and wrested it from them. 
          “In conclusion,” Dumbledore said, “I have a new staff member to introduce. Most amazingly, it is not our latest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher --” 
          Here, a wave of laughter went through the room, and a lot of heads turned toward Ophidia Winterwind. She dimpled demurely but contrasted it with a smoldering look, ruby eyes fringed by long lashes. It was the sort of look that made every male in the room feel sure she was looking right at him and only at him, a look rich with dark promise and affection. The girls and women muttered like faraway thunder. Harry saw Pansy Parkinson give Draco Malfoy a hard dig in the ribs.
          Ophidia finally brought the force of her smoldering look to bear on Dumbledore, and astonishingly, he preened beneath it just like any of the schoolboys. 
          “Instead,” he said, struggling to find the thread of his speech, “we are joined this year by a new Muggle Studies teacher. As some of you know, Professor Atherton took a leave of absence at the end of last year to get married; until she returns, the spot will be filled by this gentleman.” 
          He waved to the man with the ruddy face and grey muttonchop sideburns. The man got up, bowed, and smiled. Dumbledore met Harry’s eyes in a manner that suggested something of significance and also a touch of regret, as if he’d wanted to do this some other way. 
“If you’ll allow me to present Professor Edward Dursley.”
          Harry jumped up, banged his knee on the underside of the table, got his feet tangled in the hem of his robes, and went down with a jarring crash full on the floor in between the rows of seats. Face flaming, having now made a fool of himself twice in as many minutes, he scrambled back to a somewhat dignified posture. No one else except his friends knew why he’d reacted so, which meant that the rest of the room was once more acting like Harry had gone mad. 
          “Thank you, Professor Dumbledore,” Edward Dursley said. He addressed the students. “I do hope you’ll all take it easy on me while I get the hang of the place. I stand before you as living proof that an old dog can learn new tricks; I never had the privilege of attending this fine school, and am deeply in the Headmaster’s debt for giving me this chance. I hope that my qualifications – half a lifetime spent living as a Muggle – will serve me, and you, well in the course of this … course.” He chuckled weakly at his own joke. 
          “I’m sure you’ll find a warm welcome here, Professor,” said Dumbledore. “And now, with no further ado, let the feast begin.”
          At once, the tables were laid. Empty platters and bowls filled with food, re-filling once they were emptied. Harry was almost too stunned to eat.
          “It’s a coincidence, isn’t it?” said Ron through a mouthful of half-chewed bread. “Dursley. Can’t be the same Dursley, can it?”
          “I think it is, has to be,” Harry said. “When I first came in I thought there was something familiar about him. Looks a bit, just a bit, like Uncle Vernon. But it’s crazy!”
          “I saw the way Dumbledore looked at you,” Hermione said. “He probably wanted to warn you before, but there wasn’t really a good time.”
          Ron swallowed. “What I don’t see is how it can be the same. You would have known, wouldn’t you, Harry?”
          “The way they are about magic? They’d have never told me.”
          “I think you’re about to get the chance to ask,” said Hermione. “He’s coming this way.”
          Edward Dursley was walking toward their table. He had a watch chain looping to the pocket of his robes, and under them he wore what looked like a charcoal-colored business suit. A banker’s suit. With a tie. 
          “Pardon me,” he said. “Harry? Just wanted to say hello. I’m told we’re related … by marriage, at least.”
          He held out a hand and Harry shook it. Edward Dursley had a businessman’s handshake to match his suit – firm, dry, and efficient.
          “I was just wondering about that,” Harry said. “Are we?”
          “If I’ve got the facts of it, your mother’s sister is married to my son. Imagine! My son, guardian of the Harry Potter.”
          “You’re Uncle Vernon’s father?” goggled Harry.
          Edward Dursley took the seat that Jeremy had briefly occupied. He dished up a plateful of food with a heavy hand on the serving spoons, and that in itself gave testimony to his lineage. “I’m sure he’d never acknowledge it. The old ‘I have no father’ bit, that’s how it likely is with Vernie and Margie.”
          Ron snorted pumpkin juice out his nose at that. Hermione smothered her giggles in her napkin. 
          “Vernie and Margie,” Harry repeated, awestruck. 
          “Came as quite a surprise to me when I heard about you,” Edward said. “But then, I imagine it must have come an awful shock to Vernon when he found out his nephew was one of us. He hates all things magical, you see.”
          “I know,” said Harry. “But I never understood why it bothered him so much. I mean, my mother was Aunt Petunia’s sister, so it wasn’t like I was his blood kin.”
          “No, that was my fault. I’m afraid that my being a wizard must have hardened his heart all the more against you. Terribly sorry about that.”
          “How did it all happen?” Hermione asked.
          He helped himself to a heaping mound of mashed potatoes and drowned them in a small ocean of gravy. “We Dursleys have been rock-solid Muggles for centuries, but a few here and there down the line have had run-ins with magic. Never good ones. Had a great-great-great-grandfather somewhere back there who was a witchhunter. Others of the family had the bad luck to encounter the Black Court. So, when I turned up a wizard, and got my letter inviting me to Hogwarts, my parents refused to let me come.” 
          “Mine were shocked,” Hermione said, “but they were happy for me once they got used to the idea.”
          His face darkened. “Mine were not pleased, oh, no, not pleased at all. Thrashed me for it. As if my father thought he could strap the magic out of me. In a way, he did … I forced it all out of my mind. Made myself forget. Did what he wanted. The family used to own a steel mill, Harry, did you know that?”
          Harry nodded. Uncle Vernon didn’t talk much about his past, but on occasion he did reminisce fondly of days long before he’d been born, when the Dursley name was well-known and respected, and the Dursley fortune was no hill of beans. He never said just how or why the family had gone from owning a mill to, as Uncle Vernon did now, selling drill-bits for someone else, but it was obvious he yearned for those bygone years. 
          “So I went to Muggle school, to university, and to work. Vice-president of the business, under my brother. Got married, settled down. But all the while, it was in the back of my mind. Building up. Like water behind a dam. We moved house, and I found that letter stuffed way down in a chest that my mother had forbid me to open – I wouldn’t  have dreamed of doing so if she hadn’t been five years dead by then. The letter from Hogwarts. It brought everything back. I looked at my life. Had a job that made money but was dull as dirt. A wife, two children. A perfectly respectable, ordinary, boring life.”
          “And you gave it all up,” Harry said. On a hunch, he added, “You told them. Told them you were a wizard.”
          “I couldn’t deny it any more. I wanted the things I’d missed. The chance to do magic, real magic … to get out of that rut. To do something wild and fantastic. A mid-life crisis, I suppose they’d say, but instead of buying a sports car or having an affair, I took up magic.”
          “That must’ve gone over like month-old milk,” said Ron.
          Edward Dursley nodded. “Did it ever. My wife threw me out that very day. If I hadn’t gone, she might well have brained me with throwing every dish in the house. My brother fired me. I lost everything. But I still had my magic to sustain me. Was able to get taken on as an apprentice, no easy task for a man in his forties with a Muggle upbringing, I can tell you.”
          “That’s really impressive,” Hermione said. “You’re a self-made man, a self-made wizard.”
          “Thank you, young lady. I only wish I’d handled it better. Things were much harder on Mildred and the children. My brother saw to them for a while, but the steel mill closed, and then a heart attack carried him off before he was fifty. So they were on their own. I wrote them a couple of times but the letters came back unopened.”
          Harry had a better grasp now of Uncle Vernon’s hatred and distrust of all things magical. He’d said something once about having grown up poor and never wanting Dudley to lack for comfort, never wanting to leave Aunt Petunia scrabbling to make ends meet. He was a great believer in insurance, in sound investments, in nest eggs and saving for a rainy day. And, of course, he abhorred wizards because he felt his father had abandoned them. 
          Of all the people in the world Harry never would have expected to feel sorry for, Uncle Vernon was high on the list. Not as high as, say, Dudley or Draco Malfoy, but on there all the same. Now he did, and it was a highly uncomfortable sensation indeed.


Chapter Eight – Art Appreciation.

          The unbelievable news about Uncle Vernon’s father, plus the advent of classes, should have been enough to distract Harry from thinking about Jeremy Upwood, Professor Charon, and the mysterious Battenby House. 
          But it didn’t. Oh, everyone else seemed to have forgotten it entirely … Ron and Hermione only remembered when Harry reminded them. It was almost as if – and he supposed it might not be beyond the realm of possibility – that some spell was in effect. Clouding their minds. Making everyone who had witnessed the strange events suffer a sort of Memory Charm. Affecting all of them, but apparently not Harry.
          He wondered if his ability to remember somehow tied in with his ability to resist the Imperius Curse and his luck at withstanding other spells. Wondered if he should try to get an audience with Dumbledore. He was being eaten alive by questions. What held him back was the notion that Dumbledore might have been behind, or at least aware of, the spell, and might not take well to knowing that it hadn’t worked on Harry.
          For the time being, he did his best to think of other things. There was a whole new season of Quidditch practice to look forward to, and at their first meeting in an overwhelming vote, the rest of the team chose Harry to be their new captain since Alicia Spinnet had graduated. He wasn’t sure if he was up to it, but was honored by their faith in him and determined to try. 
          The composition of the team had changed drastically since Harry was first made Seeker. All of the rest had been older than him, and most had graduated and moved on. He was very pleased with the performances of both Ginny Weasley and Dennis Creevey. Ginny, on her new Skyblazer, was a whirlwind of red and gold as she pursued the Quaffle. And Dennis, small but tough, proved to be able to whack a Bludger farther than any other Beater in the school.
          If Quidditch kept Harry busy and sent him to bed most nights with aching muscles, it was only a drop in the bucket compared to the workout he got in a new class he’d signed up for this term. Magical Combat, also taught by Madame Hooch, was only open to sixth- and seventh-years. 
          They would be learning various magical defenses such as creating invisible shields against projectiles. Harry wondered if that could be applied on the Quidditch field, thereby sparing him a bruising from the Bludgers, but the spell required such concentration that he knew he couldn’t do that as well as keep his eye on the Snitch). They would learn to momentarily make their hands and arms hard as iron, for blocking a blow or delivering one. They studied spells to increase their strength and agility – under the effect of one of these, Harry became dizzyingly quick – and spells to strike at a distance with unseen fists of force. The classic attack spells – fireballs, lightning bolts, jets of scalding water, daggers of ice – were included in the curriculum too. 
          Ron was in Magical Combat with him, as were Neville, Dean, and Seamus. Of the sixth-year Gryffindor girls, only Parvati took that class and seemed to find great delight in trouncing and humiliating Harry and Ron most of all. She claimed she didn’t still hold a grudge over their neglect of her and her sister Padma (who was in Ravenclaw, and luckily the Magical Combat course had Gryffindor doubled with Hufflepuff), but after a session of repeatedly blocking what would have been viciously low hits from Parvati, Ron swore that she was still in a snit.
          Hermione disdained that class, believing that magic was meant for knowledge and doing constructive things, not beating people up. She was carrying a heavy course load, not so heavy as the year in which she’d had to resort to a Time-Turner just to make it to every lesson, but she still had half again as much homework as Harry and Ron. She had decided on a challenging triple major of Charms, Transfigurations, and Thaumaturgical Engineering, with a split minor of Arithmancy and Care of Magical Creatures. Her paper on house-elves was so well done that, despite its obvious editorial slant, it was published in the quarterly journal of the English Witches Association. 
          Just listening to her talk about her classes gave Harry a headache. Since Quidditch wasn’t available as a major, he went with Defense Against the Dark Arts and Magical Combat, in both of which he had been getting extensive extracurricular experience anyway.
          Ron couldn’t make up his mind. His grades were adequate but average. He didn’t shine in any particular subject, and didn’t do abysmally in any either. He and Harry would never earn top marks in Potions, not as long as Snape was teaching, and Divinations wasn’t regarded by either of them as worth any serious time. 
          Mr. Weasley was after Ron to major in Muggle Studies, the better to follow in his footsteps and take a job at the Ministry of Magic. Ron was against it, partly because his older brother Percy was already working there and after suffering Percy the Prefect, Percy the Big-Head Boy, Perfect Percy, for so long, Ron wanted to do something else. He just didn’t know what. 
          The work was harder than in previous years. They were getting near to taking their O.W.L.s, and it was past time to buckle down. A lot of students who’d been coasting and socializing their way through school were suddenly becoming aware of this, so the atmosphere in the sixth-year classrooms was much more studious and intent.
          Gradually, though, as the novelty of the first week wore off and things got down to serious business, Harry started noticing things. Out of the corner of his eye. Half-heard when his mind was elsewhere. Sensed in some intangible way that he couldn’t describe. 
          Presences. He detected presences around him. Not the ghostly, spiritual sort that would send Professor Trelawney into tremulous rapture at a Manifestation. Not the chill wind of a dementor, or the amiable nearness of one of the castle ghosts. Not even Peeves the Poltergeist, who could never quite be described as ‘amiable.’ This was something else. Something new. 
          Weirdest of all was the feeling that they’d always been there, but he just hadn’t noticed before. 
          He mentioned this to Hermione one afternoon in the library. She was deep into a book, as usual, but raised her head to listen. Strands and straggles of hair fell across her face, she had an ink smudge on one cheek and a bit of feather stuck to the corner of her mouth from the quill she’d been chewing, and the way she was bent over the book gave Harry a hitherto unsuspected and entirely incredible view right down the front of her blouse. It was almost enough to make him forget what he was saying. 
          “Maybe you’re not looking right,” she said.
          “Huh?” Harry flushed guiltily, but of course she wasn’t talking about what he was looking at now
          “The Potion of True-Sight,” she said. “It’s supposed to let you see that which is normally unseen.”
          Tantalizing prospects danced in Harry’s thoughts and he banished them. Surely that wasn’t the purpose of the potion, to look through girls’ clothes. He concluded that somewhere along the line, he’d developed a dirty mind. Maybe it was just part of being sixteen.
          Hermione sprang up (ruining his view) and vanished into the stacks. While she was gone, Harry tried to go back to his studies but heard conspiratorial voices and muffled laughter from a corner of the library. His roommates, Ron among them, were crowded into that concealed nook, away from the prying eyes of Madame Pince, the librarian.
          “Look at this one,” he heard Seamus Finnegan say, and then there was a stifled spate of whistles and noises like “wuh-ho-ho!”
          Ron, looking around to check and make sure they were unobserved, saw Harry and beckoned. Hermione still wasn’t back, so Harry got up, marked his place, and went to see what they were doing. 
          The boys were huddled around a large book that Seamus was holding. It was open to a photograph of a shapely witch in pointed hat, corset, garter, stockings, and high-heeled, high-buttoned black shoes. Because it was a wizard photograph, she wiggled her bottom and pursed her lips at them.
          “What are you doing?” Harry asked. “Where’d you get that?”
          “From the Art section,” Seamus snickered. “It’s works of art, all right! Look at this next one, but don’t drool on the book.”
          He turned the page and showed them a witch in a see-through gauze dress. She was holding the skirt well above her knees, and leaned over so that her breasts nearly tumbled out the deep neckline. They couldn’t see everything, but they could see quite a lot. 
          “Turn to the next one,” urged Ron, his eyes alight.
          Seamus did, and as one they all went, “wow!” so loudly that they then cringed and waited to be discovered, chastised. But luck was with them. Madame Pince must have been elsewhere in the library.
          The picture was of a nude woman lying on a fur rug, her body wrapped lovingly around a broomstick in a way that suggested it wasn’t flying that was on her mind.
          “What is this?” Harry asked, marveling. 
          “Enchantresses, The Photos of Cliffton Stratford,” Seamus said. “You know, the famous nude photographer.”
          “You mean like in Squire magazine?” Ron grinned. “Fred and George had a subscription to that, but they only got one issue before Mum found out. She hit the roof.”
          “Those are pornography,” said Seamus. “This is art.”
          “What’s the difference?” said Dean Thomas. “A naked witch is a naked witch.”
          “Pornography is evil,” said Neville breathlessly. “My gran says it turns nice young boys into brutes and anyone caught looking at it should have their you-know taken off with tinsnips.”
          This pronouncement brought them all to wincing silence for a moment. Then Seamus asserted again, “This is art.”
          “You ever seen one?” Dean asked.
          “What, pornography?” Ron made a face. “No, like I told you. Mum got ahold of it before any of us had a chance for a peek, and threw it straight in the fire.”
          “A naked girl!” said Dean, exasperated. “In person, for real, not just a picture.”
          “Yeah, sure,” boasted Seamus. “Lots of times.”
          “Like when?” Dean challenged.
          “Well … have you?”
          “Once,” said Dean with a lascivious smile. “My cousin Polly. We were on holiday at the beach, and she snuck out late one night to go skinny-dipping. I saw her coming back to the house, bare as the day she was born.”
          “This lucky bloke’s seen hundreds,” Ron said, taking the book from Seamus and flipping through it. “What I’d give to have his job.”
          “I don’t think Hogwarts offers that as a major,” Harry said, laughing.
          “Should say not,” said Seamus. “He was expelled from Hogwarts thirty years ago.”
          “For what?” Dean asked. “Taking naked pictures of girls?”
          “I don’t know for sure, but there was some sort of scandal, all right.” Seamus reached over Ron’s arm and turned to the ‘about the author’ paragraph at the back. “See? ‘Despite his interrupted schooling, Cliffton Stratford went on to complete his education elsewhere.’ He was expelled.”
          “Turn back,” Ron said, snatching the book away. “I saw something.”
          “I’ll bet you did,” chuckled Dean. “Botties and bubbies as far as the eye can see.”
          “Take it easy, Ron,” Harry said.
          “Oh, sure, that’s fine for you to say.” Ron blurred through the pages, image after image of nude witches flashing by. “You’ve got that Invisibility Cloak, it’s not like you couldn’t go into the girls’ changing room any time you wanted.”
          “Cor!” said Seamus. “Have you, Harry?”
          “No!” he cried. “Of course not.” He could have smacked Ron for blabbing, too … he’d been careful to keep that cloak a secret from all but a few friends, though some probably suspected. 
          “Bloody hell,” said Dean. “I would. Lend it to me, what do you say, Harry?”
          “Not a chance!”
          “Here!” cried Ron, so loudly that they had to hush him. He jabbed his finger at the page. “Her. That one. Know who she looks like?”
          The image was of a witch in what looked like a naughty outfit inspired by a school uniform. Her blouse was open all down the front, her skirt hiked in back to reveal wispy underwear, and she was leaning sideways on the edge of a desk with her long legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles. 
          She held a supple switch, the sort that some of the classrooms still had on display as mementos of the days when discipline had been handled by other methods than subtraction of House points. Mr. Filch the caretaker would have dismissed the switches as sissy punishments, fondly recalling the days of racks, iron maidens, and involuntary Transfigurations. 
          “Saucy!” Seamus ogled her. “A shame we don’t have teachers like that! She could switch my backside any time at all!”
          “But look at her,” Ron said. “Look close.”
          “I look any closer, my eyes will fall right out of my head,” said Dean. Neville, leaning over his shoulder, said nothing but his eyes bulged so that they might fall out at any minute.
          Ron tapped the picture again. As it moved, the witch slapped the switch meaningfully against her palm and re-crossed her legs. “Call me crazy, but add forty years or so and what do you get?”
          “An old naked witch,” said Seamus. “Why would we want to do that?”
          Harry blinked, looked, blinked again. “I say, Ron …”
          “You see it too?”
          “See what?” demanded Neville. 
          “It is crazy,” Harry said. “But she could almost be a … a young McGonagall.”
          “What are you looking at?”
          When Hermione spoke, they all jumped and whirled around. Ron slammed the book so fast he crushed his thumb in it and yipped in pain. He hid it behind his back and they stood, a human wall with guilt writ large upon their faces. Hermione read that guilt and her eyebrow went up. 
          Harry didn’t know about the others, but his dirty mind insisted on trying to put her in that book, Hermione with her skirt hiked and her blouse open. Then, suddenly, he thought that the others were envisioning just that, and wanted to spin around and punch them all. How dare they! 
          “It’s a library,” said Seamus in all innocence. “What do you think we’re looking at.”
          She said nothing, just gave them more eyebrow.
          “It’s homework,” Neville tried, his words coming out in a squeak better suited to a pinch-mouse. 
          “Homework,” she said.
          “Sure, that’s right, homework,” they all blathered.
          “For what class?”
          Five different answers spilled out. They shared around a grimace, and then Ron stuck out his chest and got all huffy and said, “Well, and who appointed you assistant librarian, anyway? It’s none of your business.”
          “Fine,” she said curtly. “Harry, do you care at all about this potion I just went and looked up for you, or would you rather stay here and study art?”
          He felt like his cheeks might burst into flame, they were so hot. Meekly, without a word, he shuffled toward Hermione and then followed her back to the table where their books were spread. She slammed the new one down on the tabletop with a crack like a gunshot, drawing a stern scowl from Madame Pince. 
          “How long were you there?” Harry asked, not really wanting to know.
          “Long enough. Honestly, I don’t know what it is with you lot. Naked pictures. What next? Those horrible spanky-governess books from the high shelf in the Victorian Literature section?”
          It was Harry’s turn to make with the eyebrow and Hermione’s turn to blush.
          “So I heard, anyway,” she finished lamely.
          “Don’t be mad,” he said. “We were just looking. It’s not like it did any harm.”
          “It’s degrading. What are normal girls supposed to do when all the boys are so obsessed with pin-ups and supermodels? You get to expect everyone to look that way, and then we’re not good enough.”
          “Trust me, Hermione, you’d be good enough,” Harry said. “You’re as pretty as any of those naked witches. In clothes, I mean, because I haven’t seen you … uh …” 
          He suddenly heard himself, heard the stupid things that were coming out of his mouth, and shut up fast. He closed his eyes and waited for the explosion. What would she do? Clout him over the head with the heavy, musty book she’d just brought back from the Potions, Elixirs, and Unguents section, that was his first bet.
          When he wasn’t clubbed senseless, or poked with the sharp end of a quill, Harry risked opening an eye. Incredibly, Hermione didn’t look half so mad, looked almost flattered judging by the pleased little smile she wore. 
          Rather than push his luck, Harry pointed at the book. “Did you find it?”
          “Yes, the recipe’s in here,” she said, sounding like she wasn’t quite all the way composed. She cleared her throat and smoothed back her hair. “Yes. The Potion of True-Sight. You squeeze a drop into each eye, and it will show you things that can’t normally be seen.”
          “Like someone in an Invisibility Cloak?” Harry asked. He thought again of Ron, saying that with it, he could sneak into the girls’ changing room any old time, and turned red again.
          Hermione didn’t notice, or, if she did, didn’t ask. “Probably. I bet Snape has some on hand.”
          “Yeah,” said Harry glumly. “Once he found out I had that Cloak, he would. But I can’t just ask to borrow some.”
          “I didn’t say you should,” she said pertly. “We can make it ourselves. It’s easy, and we’ve already got everything we need.”
          “Thanks, Hermione. You’re swell, you know?”
          “I didn’t do anything. You could have gotten the book yourself.”
          “But you knew about it, and you’ve always got good ideas. I like you.”
          He froze. What he’d meant to say was “I like that,” but it hadn’t come out quite right. 
          Hermione was very still.
          “Uh …” he said.
          “I better go,” she said, gathering up her stuff. “Got an Arithmancy quiz tomorrow and I need to go over my quadmagic equations.”
          “Listen, Hermione, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say --”
          She smiled at him, a quick smile, there and gone like a distant flash of lightning. She started to leave the table, then turned back. “I like you, too, Harry.”
          Then she was gone.

Chapter Nine – Lady of the Evening. 

          Whether she truly was a vampire or simply averse to daylight for some other reason, all of Ophidia Winterwind’s Defense Against the Dark Arts classes were held at night. An extra period was set aside during the day for study hall, giving the students a chance to keep up on their homework. 
          One evening in October, shortly before the first Hogsmeade weekend, Professor Winterwind arrived to class late. She glided to the head of the room, swept her cascade of inky hair back from her alabaster face, and scanned them all with eyes like twin dollops of blood. 
          “There has been news, dire news,” she said. “The Dark Lord is stirring again.”
          Dire it was, but hardly surprising. Harry had been braced for this moment since the end of his fourth year, when he had been victim of a gruesome ritual that had helped bring Voldemort back from a horrible half-life. He had summoned his faithful Death Eaters to him and essentially declared his intention to wage war on the rest of the wizarding world. 
          Dumbledore had been working ever since to rally the forces of good against him, though most of this work had been done as quietly and behind-the-scenes as possible. What hampered Dumbledore the most was that many wizards, including a large percentage of the Ministry of Magic, flat-out refused to believe any of it. Harry’s testimony had been discounted as the ravings of a troubled child, and the death of Cedric Diggory was still regarded by some as a dreadful accident. 
          At Hogwarts, though, the truth was known and generally believed. It made things most touchy, especially when it came to the Slytherins. Harry had personally witnessed the appearance of the fathers of Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle among Voldemort’s Death Eaters. 
          But nothing was done about this … Lucius Malfoy had, upon being questioned by Dumbledore, freely admitted that yes, he had once been a Death Eater, and yes, he had answered the Dark Lord’s call that fateful night, but he had done so out of fear for what might happen to his family if he refused. That, he said, did not make him a current supporter of the Dark Lord. And surely no reasonable person would blame the son for the past misdeeds of the father, would they? Draco hadn’t done anything worthy of expulsion, had he? 
          Lucius Malfoy was so smooth a talker, so devious a debater, and a man of such influence in the community that nobody was prepared to refute this. He might not have been able to lie his way past a Truth Serum, but neither could he be forced to take one unless accused of some crime. So, while everyone knew that he was still high in Voldemort’s hierarchy, not a thing could be done about it.
          This led to Draco and his friend strutting about with even more arrogance than they’d shown in the past. It all infuriated Harry. The legal system among wizards was nearly as senseless and confusing as the one among Muggles.
          When Ophidia Winterwind announced that the Dark Lord was stirring again, Draco smiled that smug little smile that made Harry so earnestly want to punch his teeth out. 
          Voldemort had disappeared after his resurrection, vanished from sight. What little Harry knew of his plans were vague – to gather his forces and strike alliances with other races such as the giants, and the dementors. Dumbledore had taken steps to contact the giants himself, offering the hand of peace. As for the dementors, Dumbledore had as little use for them as did Harry himself. They were fell, evil creatures that would gladly go with Voldemort, whose reign of suffering would allow them access to the sadistic cruelties they cherished.
          No one knew what else Voldemort might be up to … at least, no one who was willing to come forth and say so. But now, looking at that smug little smile, Harry was more sure than ever that Lucius Malfoy knew, was involved, and doubtless shared the information with his precious son.
          “Agents of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named have been sighted all across the country,” Professor Winterwind said. “Signs of their sorcery has been found in several graveyards. It is suspected that, failing to ally with the giants, the Dark Lord has turned his attention to necromancy.”
          Hermione shuddered. She wasn’t alone. Half the class did, by no means all of them girls, and the rest (with the exception of Malfoy and his bunch, of course), looked deeply troubled.
          “In light of this,” Ophidia went on, “I think we’ll dispense with tonight’s planned lesson --” they had been practicing spells of aura-reading, which would supposedly let them determine a person’s mood and intentions by the shifting patterns of emotional energy around them, though of course they had also been shown ways to cloak their auras or even project false ones, the better to confuse one’s foes, “—and concentrate on the best ways to identify and deal with the living dead. Can anyone name a specific type?”
          Shudder though she might, Hermione’s hand was first up as usual. “Zombies,” she said.
          “Very good, Miss Granger.” Ophidia spoke coolly. “Zombies … reanimated corpses. They have no memory of their former lives but exist solely to obey the will of their Master. They are nearly unstoppable – even dismembered, their severed parts will keep creeping and clutching. Anyone else?”
          “Ghosts?” ventured Neville.
          She smiled warmly at him, the warmth that was almost always present when she was addressing one of the boys but absent around the girls. “Not quite, Mr. Longbottom. Ghosts are stranded souls who have passed on and returned, bound to the place of their death or by some unfulfilled onus.”
          Pansy raised her hand. “Skeletons,” she said with a sneer at Hermione.
          “Not so fast, Miss Parkinson.” Ophidia sounded amused. “A skeleton is nothing more than a zombie from whom the last vestiges of flesh have rotted.”
          “Ghouls,” said Draco.
          “Excellent, Mr. Malfoy,” the professor purred, and Pansy bristled with jealousy. “Ghouls are generally not brought into being by the application of any external magic, but rise on their own. They exist by feeding on the flesh of the dead. While they are not bound to any Master, they can be swayed by promises of carnage.”
          “Vampires,” snapped Pansy, although she hadn’t been called upon.
          “Vampires?” echoed Ophidia with a low laugh. “The ignorant do refer to them as the living dead, while the learned know that vampires are among the lucky few who’ve attained immortality. Even if their bodies are destroyed, vampires never fully leave. Their spirits remain, and can, under the proper circumstances, come back in new bodies.”
          Ron raised his hand. “What about shades, or wraiths? I heard they’re not really ghosts.”
          She favored him with a smile that nearly made Ron melt from his seat into a heart-shaped puddle of goo on the classroom floor. “Cleverly deduced, Mr. Weasley. Shades are neither alive nor dead, existing in a twilight world only slightly removed from our own. A world that is sometimes almost close enough to see, or touch. Like the discorporate spirit of a vampire, a shade can for a time inhabit the body of another, speaking through that other’s lips, acting through that other’s hands and body, but only for short whiles and not without great cost to both.”
          They spent the rest of the lesson discussing the more rare and exotic forms of the Undead – mummies, ghasts, and so on – as well as means of best confronting or disposing of them. Salt, Ophidia Winterwind told them, was sometimes good against zombies; its cleansing properties reacted strongly with their undead flesh. Silver’s mystical properties often made it a valuable weapon against many magical creatures. So, too, were cold iron, ash, fire …
          Harry spent much of the time until the bell with a terrible image in his mind – Voldemort, on a black steed, at the head of an army of relentless walking corpses. The more they slew, the more raw material there would be, ready to rise up and walk. Fallen foes would be changed to allies. 
          But it was what she’d said about the shades that nagged most at him. When everyone else collected their things and left, he told Ron and Hermione he’d be along directly, and lingered behind.
          “Yes, Harry?” She had taken the lid from the jar of blood-flavored lollipops on her desk and tilted it his way. 
          “Oh … no thanks,” he said.
          “Suit yourself.” She unwrapped one and licked it so sensuously that he almost forgot what he’d wanted to ask.
          “Um … ahem … I was wondering … about shades.”
          “Were you?” Her lips parted and she slid the deep red bulb between them.
          “This … twilight world,” Harry said, inwardly telling himself to concentrate, damn it, concentrate. “You said sometimes it seems very close to ours. Close enough to see.”
          “Or touch,” she said, savoring the word ‘touch’ as if it, too, were a succulent treat. 
          “Or touch,” Harry agreed. 
          His mouth was dry and his pulse was thumping in his ears, beating on the sides of his neck. Where the carotid artery was. He found himself remembering a paper they’d once been assigned on vampires, and how most of them had gotten a key fact wrong – vampires didn’t go for the jugular; they craved the bright, oxygen-rich arterial blood. Could she see his pulse throbbing? Could she hear it? Was she tasting room-temperature blood-flavored candy and imagining a jet of liquid hot and pumping from the source?
          Ophidia twirled the lollipop against her lips. Some of its dye – or was it made from real blood? – had come off on them and made them redder than ever. “That is what I said, yes.”
          Harry could barely remember or care what they’d been talking about. He was very conscious that they were alone now, that due to the lateness of the hour none of the other classrooms were occupied, that everyone else was on their way back, or already ensconced in, their House dormitories and common rooms. 
          “Shades!” he nearly shouted. 
          Her amused scarlet eyes twinkled like jewels. “Yes?”
          “You said they were close enough to almost be seen and touched. Can they really be seen?”
          “By some,” she said. “Some are more sensitive, more aware. Some can perceive the shadow worlds that lay so close to our own. Are you thinking of that boy?”
          Boy? Boys were the last thing on his mind … he was thinking of girls … no, women, this woman, this moonstone and obsidian goddess with eyes that seemed able to look right into his soul. 
          “Jeremy,” he said, dragging the name out as if it was snagged on something. “Yes. When he was Sorted …”
          “Once again, Harry, I’m impressed. You don’t mind if I call you Harry, do you?”
          “No, not at all.”
          “Harry.” Whenever she said his name it was as if her voice curled, like warm smoke, down deep into his vitals. “You’re a most remarkable young man. The rest of your classmates have forgotten all about that incident, haven’t they? As strange as it was, they’ve forgotten.”
          “You think that he became a shade. That he died under unusual circumstances and came back somehow.”
          “Yeah!” Harry nodded vigorously. “He did die, then? We thought so, Hermione and me, but then he woke up … he seemed all right, but not all right …”
          “He woke as a shade, yes, you’re right. As has happened to perhaps a hundred unfortunate students over the years. They couldn’t remain among the living, nor could they fully join the dead.”
          “So they go to Battenby House,” Harry said. Then he frowned. “But Moaning Myrtle, the ghost in the bathroom, she died and stayed where she was.”
          “A different situation. Shades … well … they don’t usually come back on their own. Someone has to help them.”
          “I don’t understand.”
          “What happened on the train? The boy was found, apparently dead? What then? Did anyone try to revive him?”
          “I did,” said Harry. “I cast an awakening spell on him. I didn’t think it would help, I knew he was dead, but …”
          “But it was enough. You must have cast your spell as he was still on the threshold of death. It brought him back, but not all the way. You, Harry Potter, were the author of his transformation.”
          Harry gaped at her. He had lost all interest in the seductive promise of that lollipop being curled around and caressed by her tongue. The thought that he had done that to Jeremy … doomed him … damned him … it was horrible. 
          She replied, as if she’d read his mind, “Some might argue that you did him a favor, Harry. He is still, in a way, alive. He is among others of his kind. And he might, one day, be fortunate enough to return to a warm, living body.”
          “But only for a while, you said.” He rubbed his scar, and wouldn’t have been surprised if it hurt. Bringing a poor little boy partway back to life … that was an act as cruel as anything a Dark wizard could have done. 
          “There’s still much about shades, and about Battenby House, that you don’t know, dear Harry. They have the means to come back. All the way. Time passes on a different scale for them, but they grow and age as you do. They attend classes, as you do. And when they’ve completed their education, those who’ve done well are given the chance to live again. That is Cyril Battenby’s legacy to his House. He was a shade himself, but he was an old man when he crossed that border. He thought it was unfair that children should be robbed of their future, and wove great spells to ensure that they would have the opportunity to reclaim the lives that they’d lost.”
          “How?” Harry asked in a hoarse whisper.
          Ophidia Winterwind raised her eyes to the ceiling. By her distant expression, she was not seeing the cobwebs and roofbeams but something else, something altogether wonderful. “The Soulstone. Can you imagine, Harry, a crystal sphere filled with the mist and light that is the very essence of life? Life force, Harry, contained within a gem of unparalleled beauty. When the students of Battenby House have attained their potential, a measure of that life force is given to them, and they are alive again.”
          “Dumbledore said there was no way to bring back the dead, not fully,” Harry said. “When Cedric died. Because if there had been --”
          “He was not a shade. The Soulstone can do nothing for those who’ve fully passed into death. If only it could, we could have back those we’ve loved and lost. That would be a great thing indeed, wouldn’t it?”
          “Yes.” He was thinking of his parents, their lives cut so brutally short by Voldemort’s evil. Such violent deaths, such senseless deaths … he still didn’t know why. Why had Voldemort wanted to kill him? He’d only been a baby, just a year old, how could he have possibly posed enough of a threat that Voldemort would seek out and destroy an entire family because of it?
          “But for those who are in the twilight realm, the Soulstone represents hope, a second chance,” she said. “This boy, this Jeremy … when he has grown and learned, he may win back his life.”
          “I wish I could talk to him,” Harry said. “Tell him I’m sorry, explain what happened. And …” he felt his eyes widen. “And ask him who attacked him! Someone did, on the train. Someone murdered him. He was confused at first, but he must remember. Professor, lately I’ve been seeing things, or thinking I have. At the fringes of my vision. Could I be seeing this twilight realm you talked about?”
          “I should think it’s very likely. You were close to them during the Sorting. You spoke to Professor Charon.”
          “He said I was partly to thank!”
          “There, you see? A vital connection was forged between you and young Jeremy. I shouldn’t wonder that with just a bit of help, all would become clear to you.”
          “Hermione thought maybe a Potion of True-Sight …”
          “She’s quite the intelligent young lady. Why not try it, and see what you will see? Now, not to chat and run, but I have a late dinner date and must beg you to excuse me.”
          “What? Oh … sorry.” A spark of envy flared in his heart. He almost asked who she was having dinner with, but couldn’t do it for fear she’d say it was Snape. “Thanks.”
          “Anytime.” She smiled her special melting smile at him and his stomach did a happy little flip-flop. “Let me know how it goes, and if I can be of any more help, you have but to ask.”
          She turned to leave, affording him a view that was almost as nice from the back as it was from the front. Everything swayed. 
          “Oh … Professor?”
          Slowly, languidly, she turned to him again. “I think, Harry, that we needn’t be student and teacher after hours. Why not call me Ophidia?”
          “Ophidia.” He sampled the name, and it was like dark chocolate on his tongue. “What about Professor Charon?”
          “Oh, I hardly think you know him well enough to be on first-name terms,” she laughed. 
          “I mean … is he a shade?”
          “No, certainly not.”
          Harry grinned ruefully. “Sorry. That was a dumb question.”
          “Not at all.” She began to glide down the corridor, and paused at the foot of the stairs to look back over her shoulder. “He’s a ghoul.”


Chapter Ten – A Rat in Ron’s Clothing.

          Saturday morning dawned grey and rainy, but no one was going to let the weather interfere with their visit to Hogsmeade. Word had gotten around that the Broomstick Boys were appearing at Madame Rosmerta’s tavern that night, and nearly every girl in Hogwarts was giddy with the chance to see the band live and in person.
          Hermione was not one of them. “Their music isn’t even that good,” she sniffed, as Lavender, Ginny, and Parvati argued about which Broomstick Boy was the cutest. 
          Harry had told her and Ron about his conversation with Professor Winterwind. He chose to leave out the part about how she’d invited him to call her by her first name, since he knew that would send Ron into foaming fits. Hermione had gathered the ingredients they’d need for the True-Sight elixir, and they planned to brew it up after their return from the village. 
          Hogsmeade was in the midst of Halloween preparations. Jack-o-lanterns had begun to appear on doorsteps and windowsills, more black cats than usual roamed the cobblestoned streets, and someone had strung fake jump-spiders on trick cords that would drop down on the unwary and then wind back up. At sixteen, Harry found he had lost some of his childhood enthusiasm for gluttony on sweets, consequently spending less at Honeydukes than he had previously done. 
          Dean Thomas got chased out of a newsstand and roundly scolded by a witch when he tried to buy a copy of Squire; she called him a filthy-minded wretch and flung a bucket of water over him “to cool your nerves.” Dean, embarrassed but undaunted, said that he’d be sure to take a few sips of an Aging Potion next time. 
          Electing not to try to cram into the Three Broomsticks for the concert – the building was already so full that some fans had overspilled into the yard – Harry, Ron, and Hermione headed back to Hogwarts early. Ron was in a glum mood. 
          “What’s the matter with you?” asked Hermione as they climbed the wide front steps. 
          “It’s just not fair, is it?” he grumped. “Girls always say they want to meet a nice bloke, polite, intelligent, fun to be with … but try to ask one out and she’d rather go be all screaming-wild over six guys all named Lance.”
          “One of them’s named Joey,” Harry pointed out. 
          “Shut it,” said Ron. “You know what I mean.”
          “Who’d you ask out?” Hermione asked. 
          She sounded moderately irked, and it occurred to Harry in a dismal, doomed sort of way that she did like Ron too … he’d suspected as much all along from the way they bickered … and the most awful thing in the world would be for them to get caught in a triangle. But that was just what was happening. It could only be bad for all three of them. 
          “No one,” barked Ron. “Knew it would be a wasted effort, didn’t I?”
          “Well, who’d you want to ask?”
          “Nobody in particular. Just thought it might be nice to have a date once in a while. Life’s not all school, you know. Not that you’d ever believe it.”
          “I do so believe it! School just happens to be very important right now. It’s why we’re here, after all. If all I cared about was my social life, I could have gone to one of those snobbish finishing schools like Queensgate, majoring in small talk, fashion, and artful flirting.”
          “Sounds dreadful,” Harry said.
          “Thank you, Harry, yes, it does.” She stepped up to the portrait of the Fat Lady and said, “Hobnob.” 
          The frame swung out and she crossed into the common room. It was deserted. As they came in, the fire bloomed to life in the hearth. The younger students had all either gone to bed already or were down in the Great Hall having dessert. 
          “Saturday night,” Ron said, looking around the empty room. “And what’ve we got planned? A raucous evening of chess.”
          “You could have stayed for the concert,” Hermione said. “Anyway, no chess … we’ve got a potion to mix up.”
          Ron threw himself into an overstuffed chair. “This is just bloody wonderful. What am I supposed to do while you two are on that? Study, I bet you’re going to say.”
          “It couldn’t hurt and it might help,” she retorted.
          “Maybe I’ll go to the library,” Ron said. “Study some art.”
          Harry winced and made a throat-cutting gesture. Too late.
          “Art, oh, yes, the museum-quality work of Cliffton Stratford,” she said acidly.
          “How’d you … blimey, Harry, why’d you tell her?”
          “I didn’t, don’t look at me.”
          “The man is a piece of disreputable trash,” Hermione stated. “He got kicked out of Hogwarts, you know.”
          “We know,” said Harry.
          “But do you know why?”
          “Got a guess,” Ron muttered.
          “He was having an affair with a teacher!” 
          Clearly, Hermione had intended for them to be just as shocked and appalled by this news as she evidently was. But with visions of Ophidia Winterwind dancing in their heads, neither of them could mask their reactions quickly enough. Then Ron’s mouth became an O.
          “Maybe it was her!” he said to Harry.
          “Get out,” Harry replied, uneasily.
          “Are we going to mix this potion, or would you rather go ogle some more dirty pictures?”
          “Oh, fine,” Ron said. “I’m going to go upstairs and read. Have fun.” He stalked off, and climbed the curving spiral stair leading to the dormitory.
          Harry and Hermione went to work on the potion. It was more complicated than they’d first thought, and their fellow Gryffindors began trickling back in long before it was complete. The group from Hogsmeade returned all in a rush, voices high and excited as they talked about the concert. Lavender and Parvati were hugging each other and giggling, telling anyone who’d listen that Joey Mack, the lead singer, had looked right at them and winked. Eventually, people began drifting off to bed.
          “There, I think it’s done,” said Hermione. “Want to test it?”
          “I don’t know if there’s anything to see, but might as well.” Harry removed his glasses, making the room go blurry around the edges, and tilted back his head. He lifted an eyedropper full of the murky blue-grey potion. “It’s not going to burn, is it?”
          “How should I know?”
          “If it strikes me blind and eats the eyes out of my head --”
          “If it does that, I’ll go fetch Madame Pomfrey myself, oh ye of little faith.”
          “Okay, okay. Here goes.” He squeezed the dropper, and a blue-grey drop welled out, hung suspended, and then splashed directly into his open, staring eyeball. His lids squeezed reflexively shut. He could feel a stinging, tingling sensation spreading across his eye. 
          “The other one,” Hermione said. “Or you’ll be all crooked. And not too much. I read about a man who overdid it and gave himself permanent x-ray vision, and it drove him mad.”
          “Are you sure that wasn’t an old movie?” He did the other, and sat up again blinking. Both eyes were watering, and when he wiped them, blue-grey streaks came away on his fingers. 
          He looked at Hermione. She appeared the same as always. So did the room. He wasn’t sure whether it had worked or not, since what would there be to see in here? Then he noticed that Jill Taylor, a third-year girl known to be on the stingy side, had a bag of Invisible Ice-Pops on her lap, and was casually tucking one into her mouth while pretending to scratch her nose. 
          “I think it’s working,” he whispered to Hermione. 
          Then he noticed Ron. Ron, sitting in a corner and not talking to anyone. Ron, getting up when Lavender and Parvati did, and following them across the room as they headed, still giggling and hugging each other, for the staircase to their dormitory. He was walking on tiptoe, as if …
          “Good,” said Hermione. She stretched and rolled her head, her neck making little crackling noises. “I think I’m off to bed. Good night, Harry.”
          “Wait!” His hand shot out and caught her wrist.
          She fell into her chair again. “What?”
          “Shh.” He watched, hardly able to believe his eyes, as Ron crept up the stairs behind the girls. There was no doubt in Harry’s mind as to what Ron was doing, but he was clueless as to what to do about it. If he told Hermione, she would hit the ceiling. If he yelled out, the secret would be given away, and so far he’d managed to keep it so that only a few of his friends even knew of the existence of the Invisibility Cloak. 
          “Harry, what is it?”
          “Don’t go up there just yet.”
          “Why not?” She looked in the direction he was looking, saw nothing but Parvati and Lavender moving around the central pillar and out of sight, and looked back. “Why not, Harry? What do you … oh, no. No, no, no.”
          “Hermione …”
          “Is it Ron?” Her voice started to rise. “Is it?”
          “Shh!” Harry hissed desperately. “Yes, it is, all right, it’s Ron. But don’t --”
          “Don’t what?” She dropped to a hiss herself. “Harry, he’s going to peek at them while they undress! He’s … you haven’t been doing that all along, have you?”
          “No! Hermione!”
          “Have you?”
          “No, honest. I wouldn’t do that.”
          “But you’ll lend your cloak to Ron so he can.”
          “I didn’t! He must have gotten it out of my trunk.”
          “Well, do something.”
          “What? Barge up there after him? Parvati would fry me on the spot, or kick me into next week.”
          “Then give me that potion.”
          “What are you going to do?”
          “I’m going to take care of this,” she said sharply, and squeezed drops into her eyes. She blinked rapidly, and got up. “The nerve of him, really. And you, Harry!”
          “I didn’t do it! I didn’t know. You have to believe me.”
          “Maybe you’d better start locking your trunk, then.” With that, she spun on her heel and stalked for the stairs.
          Harry lowered his head into his hands and waited. He was amazed that Ron would do this, not only spy on the girls but borrow the Invisibility Cloak without asking. On the other hand, he was a little impressed by Ron’s audacity. It was a gutsy thing to do, even by Gryffindor standards. Stupid, maybe, but gutsy. 
          A minute or so later, a melody of screams came from upstairs. Screams and cries of “Eeeeek!” Then a large, scrawny rust-colored rat came scuttling down the steps, Lavender Brown hot on its tail. She was wearing a short nightie in a color that matched her name and was beating at the rat with a towel. Parvati was right behind her, in loose flannel drawstring pants and a cropped shirt that left her midriff bare; she had one finger blazing like a brand and was shouting at Lavender to get out of the way so she could have a clear shot.
          The rat leaped from the bottom step. By now, everyone in the common room was on their feet and others were rushing down other staircases to see what all the fuss was about. Parvati pointed and flame leaped from her finger, scorching the rug and missing the rat’s pink tail by inches. The rat scurried frantically under furniture as people jumped out of the way or tried to grab at it. Hermione stood midway down the steps, where she had a good view. Something silvery and rippling was draped over one arm and she was grinning devilishly. 
          “A rat!” Lavender was shrieking. “A horrid, nasty, smelly rat was in our bedroom!”
          Several of the girls cried out squeamishly. They were clambering onto tables and standing on chairs to get off the floor. 
          What happened next would have made Harry extraordinarily proud of his Quidditch team if he hadn’t been so worried about Ron. Dennis Creevey swung a bolster pillow as if he were going after a Bludger. The rat flipped up and over, and Ginny Weasley caught it, pivoted, and fired the rat end over end toward Margaret Broughton, their Keeper. But rather than block the goal, Margaret brought up a trash can and the rat went straight in with a sound like a gong hit by a cloth-wrapped mallet. 
          Margaret turned the trashcan over fast, so that it was resting upside-down on the floor with the rat trapped inside, and braced her foot on top. She was a big girl with masses of dark hair and a strong, thickset body that nonetheless possessed speed and agility; if Hagrid and Madame Maxime had a daughter, Harry thought, she might look quite a bit like Margaret.
          “Got it!” she crowed. “Ten points Gryffindor!”
          Some of the girls were still hopping skittishly from one foot to another. The room was noisy with a clamor that only ended when the portrait hole opened and Professor McGonagall rushed in with face cream and her tartan bathrobe on. 
          “A rat, Professor McGonagall!” Lavender cried. “It was in our room!”
          “Miss Brown, Miss Patil, you’re hardly dressed for the common room. The rest of you, please settle down while I get to the bottom of this.” 
          Harry looked at Hermione, whose expression of vindictive pleasure had been switched for one of worry. They’d been right there when McGonagall had torn into Mad-Eye Moody (or the fellow who’d been impersonating him at the time) for using Transfiguration on a student. 
          “I’ll take the rat outside and let it go,” Harry said. “Poor thing must have wandered in.”
          “Thank you, Potter,” said McGonagall absently. She was giving a steely eye to Parvati and Lavender, until they ran back upstairs to put on something more modest. 
          Everyone else was talking at once, offering suggestions as to how the rat got in – it had followed them from the village, that was the most popular theory, drawn by the smell of the Honeydukes goodies most of them had been bringing back. Harry was able to get over to Margaret without drawing undue attention. 
          Someone had been working on signs to wave from the stands during next week’s scheduled match against Hufflepuff. Harry took a sheet of cardstock that read “Go, Go, Gryf--” on it, and slid it under the trash can. Holding it carefully, listening to the scrabble of claws and the thump of the rat’s body against the inside, he carried it to the portrait hole and out. To make sure McGonagall didn’t come out unexpectedly and catch him, he went all the way to the boys’ bathroom before turning the rat loose.
          “Ron, you idiot,” he said to it.
          The reddish rat twitched its nose at him. 
          “Well, now what?” Harry thought of his wand, which was sitting on the table next to the Potion of True-Sight. A lot of good it did him there. 
          The door opened and Hermione peeked in. She was shimmery around the edges, the same way Ron had looked. “All clear?”
          “All clear. You can take the cloak off.”
          She did, though she kept it near in case someone else came in. “You could have taken your time getting out the portrait hole,” she said crossly. “It nearly shut on me.”
          “Sorry. Are you going to change him back? I forgot my wand.”
          “I’m tempted to leave him that way,” she said, glaring at Ron. “After what he did.”
          “Be hard to explain.”
          Hermione sighed. “True. All right. Stand back.”
          Harry moved away from the rat. Hermione pointed her wand at Ron – he crouched, shivering, as if she might sizzle him with a lightning bolt instead – and said, “Revertus!”
          At once, Ron Weasley, in human form again, was sitting on the bathroom floor. His hair was standing out in all directions and the bruises from the brilliant triple-play by Dennis, Ginny, and Margaret were beginning to show. Before he could speak, Hermione thrust her wand in his face.
          “If you ever, Ron Weasley, pull a stunt like that again, I will leave you that way. And I’ll tell McGonagall, too. You’d probably be in detention for the rest of your natural life. I ought to. I ought to tell her about that book in the library, too. If she knew about that …”
          “Well, why don’t you then, since you’ve gone and appointed yourself the moral guardian of the whole school?” Ron shot back.
          “Because we’re supposed to be friends!” Her voice ricocheted off the mirrors and around the tiled walls. “Though the way you’ve been acting, Peeping Ron, I don’t know why! Parvati and Lavender are our friends too. You have no right to do that to them. If I were you, I’d think very carefully about what’s more important to you.”
          She threw the Invisibility Cloak at Harry and left, and probably would have slammed the door behind her if it hadn’t been on one of those special hinges that made it wheeze shut instead. For a long moment, neither he nor Ron said anything. Her footsteps faded away. 
          “Bugger,” Ron finally said. “Now I know how Scabbers felt.”
          “Yeah, you’re lucky Crookshanks wasn’t around. Ron, what were you doing, are you crazy? You knew what potion we were making.”
          “I didn’t know you were going to bloody go and test it right then, did I?” His eyes flashed angrily, then dimmed into a gleam. “Besides, it was worth it.”
          “You … you really saw them? With nothing on?” Harry glanced at the door, knowing that if Hermione could hear this conversation, she’d Transfigure them both into the lowly worms that they were and feed them to the owls. 
          “Almost. They were down to their knickers,” Ron confided. “Lavender wears ones with the days of the week sewn on, little-girl knickers, but Parvati …” He rolled his eyes in lewd appreciation. “Black, lacy, and thin as a politician’s promise.”
          “We shouldn’t even be talking about it,” Harry said.
          “Yeah, why am I telling you? Let Hermione come up there and turn me into a rat and you didn’t even warn me. What kind of a friend are you?”
          “The room was full of people. What was I going to do? Yell for you? And … talk about friends … you didn’t ask to use my cloak. Had to rummage through my things to get it.”
          “Right.” Ron looked wretchedly ashamed. “Sorry. I was a rotten blighter. Maybe she was right to turn me into a rat. It’s what I’ve acted like.”
          “Well, don’t do it again.” Harry stuffed the Invisibility Cloak inside his shirt. He picked up the trash can to return it to the common room. “Guess we’d better say that you were in the bathroom, if anyone asks. It won’t be a lie.”


Chapter Eleven – Promises. 

          Harry tried the Potion of True-Sight Monday, in Muggle Studies class. He had signed on for it partly because he was still dumbstruck by the fact that Uncle Vernon’s father was a teacher at Hogwarts now, partly to keep Ron company, and partly because he thought it would be an easy way to get high marks. 
          While the wizard-bred purebloods like Draco Malfoy struggled to understand concepts such as airport security and the Euro, Harry dripped the blue-grey elixir into his eyes and waited for it to take effect.
          He nearly yelled aloud. 
          The twilight-realm, as Ophidia Winterwind had called it, was all around him. The classroom contained extra desks interspersed among the regular ones, and at most of these desks sat students who looked transplanted from half a dozen different times. There was a boy sitting unseen in front of Ron who could have stepped straight from the pages of a Shakespearean play, and a girl practically overlapping Malfoy whose high collar and prim hairdo spoke of the Victorian era.
          Right there. They were right there, amid them and among them, and nobody had the slightest idea. Had probably always been. Right there. Nobody knew. 
          It gave Harry the willies. They were sharing the same space. Who knew what they might have witnessed? Overheard? Seen?   Unnerving to think that times when he’d thought himself unobserved, he might have been surrounded. As if panes of one-way glass were all around.
          If they could see and hear Professor Dursley, Harry reckoned – as they seemed to, since they were attentive to his lecture – they must be able to see and hear the other students, although these shades of Battenby House acted as oblivious to them as vice versa. 
          “Is something on your mind, Mr. Potter?”
          Harry twitched, thinking one of them had addressed him, then remembered where he was. “Nothing, Professor, sorry.”
          “This subject matter may be old hat to those of us raised among Muggles,” Dursley said, “but since you’re in this class, I suggest you pay attention.”
          “Yes, sir.” He picked up the newspaper clipping on his desk, from an ordinary London daily. They’d each been given a clipping to read and do a report on. Harry’s involved a pair of vacationers who’d gone missing in the countryside Saturday, and were believed to have been the victims of foul play. 
          Malfoy chuckled, which drew Dursley’s eye to him. “Something you wish to add, Mr. Malfoy? I’ve noticed you’re not following the lecture as closely as you might, either.”
          “Well, it doesn’t really interest me,” Malfoy said, slouching in his seat and adding, “Sir,” in a tone that oozed insolence. 
          “One might inquire as to why you signed on for it, then.”
          “I thought we’d be learning useful things about Muggles. Their weaknesses and all. As if being Muggles wasn’t weakness enough.”
          “You speak of them as though they’re our enemy,” Dursley said. 
          “Aren’t they? And don’t they say, know thy enemy? Easier to crush them that way.”
          “Anyone who is making the mistake of thinking Muggles are our enemies is grossly in error,” Professor Dursley said, addressing them all while staring coldly at Malfoy. “For one thing, they outnumber us by millions to one. Those aren’t good odds for starting a pissing contest, young man. For another, you may think they’re weak and useless because they have no magic, but their technology can do things that even our best spells cannot. For a third, I’d hope it should be plainly evident to all that our worst enemies come from within.”
          “So there, Malfoy,” said Ron hotly.
          “I should have figured you’d chime in, Weasley. Your family’s packed with Muggle-lovers. That must be why they put up with you sniffing around that Mudblood, Granger. But better be careful. Potter’s apt to steal her away from you.”
          Both Harry and Ron were on their feet, fists clenched. Malfoy rose more slowly. Crabbe and Goyle followed suit, as if they were marionettes tied to the same set of strings. The rest of the class looked on with varying degrees of apprehension and interest.
          “That’s quite enough, gentlemen,” declared Professor Dursley. “Take your seats. Now, Mr. Weasley.”
          “Sit down, Ron,” Harry urged. 
          “As for you, Mr. Malfoy, I’d recommend you watch your tongue. I’ll not have that sort of language used in my classroom.”
          “Oh, right,” said Malfoy. “That shoe fits, doesn’t it? I almost forgot. But then, it should hardly come as a shock to anyone that Dumbledore would hire a Mudblood as a professor, after the other riffraff he keeps around here.”
          Ron and Harry were both up again, but Professor Dursley was quicker. His wand flicked, and a twinkling thread spun out and sewed glowing stitches through Draco Malfoy’s lips.
          “I said that’s quite enough, Mr. Malfoy,” said Dursley. “Don’t bother to sit. You’re going to the Headmaster right after class, and those stitches will come undone only when you’re prepared to tell him exactly what you just said in here.”
          Draco’s jaw worked, but he couldn’t open his mouth and only muffled grunting noises came from him. Crabbe and Goyle exchanged an uncertain look, then plunked into their seats when Dursley’s gaze fell upon them. 
          Malfoy was going a lovely shade of plum as he fought to wrench his sewn lips apart. He settled for shooting venomous glares at Dursley, Ron, and Harry before stalking to the door with his robes flaring around his legs in a flourish he’d copied from Snape. He slammed the door hard enough to shake dust loose from the ceiling beams.
          “Now, then,” Dursley said pleasantly enough. “Where were we?”
          “That Malfoy,” Ron said bitterly, once class had ended. He slammed his books down, perhaps imagining that he was slamming them into Malfoy’s face. “Wish they could leave his mouth sewn shut.”
          Harry didn’t really have an opportunity to apply more eyedrops, so he joined Ron and the river of people in the corridor. Every now and then, he’d catch a glimpse out of the corner of his eye, pale forms hurrying along with the other students on their way to the next class. But each time he looked right at them, they disappeared. 
          Harry found it hard to concentrate in Transfigurations, as he couldn’t help wondering if they were surrounded by shades again. He kept wanting to look around, and fidgeted until Hermione kicked him in the shin. 
          “Furthermore,” Professor McGonagall was saying, “you’ll find that it … what are you looking at that’s so fascinating?”
          At this sharp whipcrack, Harry could have leapt out of his skin. But McGonagall wasn’t talking to him. She was talking to Seamus and Dean, who both made an effort to project shining haloes over their heads while simultaneously crumpling and stuffing sheets of parchment into the pockets of their robes.
          “Mr. Finnegan, Mr. Thomas. Perhaps, since whatever you have there is clearly more interesting than this lesson, you wouldn’t mind sharing it with the entire class.”
          “No, thanks, ma’am,” said Dean, who had gone fishbelly white. His adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “That’s all right.”
          “It is hardly all right, Mr. Thomas. Bring it up here right now.”
          “I’d really rather not …”
          “I thought I spoke clearly, Mr. Thomas. Five points from Gryffindor, and it’ll be ten if you don’t have that in my hand by the time I count three.”
          Like a man going to the gallows, Dean pulled the wad of parchment from his pocket and took it to Professor McGonagall. She tapped it with her wand and smoothed out the creases. 
          Then she went white. And fainted.
          Amid the bedlam of shouting students, Harry got to her first. She had fallen halfway atop the sheet of parchment. He heard Hermione ordering someone to go get Madame Pomfrey, Ron importantly telling everyone to stand back, give her air. 
          The parchment was an advertising flier, the sort of thing that might be stuck in the window of a shop to promote an upcoming event. This one was for a wizard arts-and-crafts gallery in Hogsmeade, but what instantly captured the eye was the photocopied picture of a Cliffton Stratford portrait. It was the witch in the modified school uniform, the one holding the hickory switch. The one Ron thought looked like a younger McGonagall. 
          Underneath, the script read: 

Thirty Years of Beauty – the Works of Cliffton Stratford
An exhibit spanning the artist’s career, from classics such as ‘The Headmistress’ (seen above) to a sampling of his newest works. Prints, postcards, table-books, and original pieces will be available for sale as well as for bid in a silent auction. 
Exhibit runs November 10th through January 1st, at Laidley and Huntington’s Fine Arts Gallery.
Join Cliffton Stratford in person at a reception on the evening of November 9th from 7 to 10 PM. Refreshments will be served and autographs will be available.

          It was nearly an hour later when Dumbledore asked – in a tone that brooked no debate – the five Gryffindor sixth-year boys to stay back a bit after the bell. 
          They were alone in the otherwise empty Transfigurations classroom. Dumbledore had dismissed the rest even before Professor McGonagall had regained consciousness, and her he’d dispatched to the care of Madame Pomfrey. The remaining boys were so used to seeing her in a position of complete control and authority that they hadn’t known what to do when she started shaking and sobbing and had to be led out by the school nurse after Dumbledore gave her his personal oath that he would take care of this mess.
          “Not a word,” Dumbledore finished, looking at each of them in turn. “On your honor as Gryffindors.”
          They didn’t look or feel very honorable just then. The five of them – Harry, Dean, Seamus, Ron, and Neville – stood with their eyes downcast and their feet shuffling. 
          “Yes, sir,” mumbled Neville, who looked about to cry.
          “Have you told anyone else about this?” Dumbledore tugged his half-moon spectacles partway down his long nose and peered at them over the tops of the rims. “Other classmates?”
          “No, sir,” said Dean. “The fliers, I got those by owl post this morning. Signed up on a mailing list in the art gallery.”
          “Yes,” said Dumbledore dryly. “I understand you lot have developed a sudden interest in art lately.”
          Seamus opened his mouth, changed his mind, closed it again.
          “That book will be removed from the library,” Dumbledore said. “It was apparently donated, no doubt by Mr. Stratford himself. It should never have been permitted in the first place.”
          “That’s censorship, that is,” Ron said sullenly.
          “I prefer to think of it as prudence, Mr. Weasley.”
          “It was really her, then?” asked Dean. The charred wisps of curled paper and a dusting of ash were all that was left of the fliers, which had been incinerated by a well-placed burst of fire from Dumbledore’s wand. “I can’t believe it.”
          “Shut up, Dean,” Harry said. “We just agreed not to discuss it.”
          Dumbledore sighed. “However, as you’re old enough, I suppose some form of explanation is in order. Thirty years ago, Professor McGonagall had just joined the Hogwarts staff. She had been a brilliant student, far ahead of her years intellectually but unfortunately, rather unfamiliar with social interactions. Cliffton Stratford was a sixth-year at the time, your age, but extremely worldly.”
          Disgruntled and a little insulted at that, Dean, Seamus and Ron muttered under their breath. Neville was staring at Dumbledore as if he couldn’t believe his ears. 
          “They had,” Dumbledore said, curtly, as if he didn’t like having to talk about this, “an … unprofessional relationship. When it was found out, Mr. Stratford was expelled and Professor McGonagall very nearly lost her job. It was decided that she should be put on probation instead. Her performance of her duties since has been exemplary and I want to stress that neither I nor the Ministry hold this one past lapse against her. Nor should you. It would, however, harm her greatly if the full truth were known.”
          “Then what’s up with this Stratford?” Harry asked. “Why’s he going around putting her picture in his book, and in art galleries?”
          “I’m afraid that he always resented his expulsion from Hogwarts and sees this as a mean, petty way to take his revenge. He’s spent the intervening years building up his reputation as a photographer, starting with the various periodicals but finally having made enough of a name for himself to warrant this book, and this exhibition.”
          “We can’t let him get away with it,” said Harry. The memory of McGonagall, who had always been firm but fair with them, and the way she’d looked – shaken and on the verge of tears – as Madame Pomfrey led her from the room, burned in his brain. “Something’s got to be done.”
          “I assure you, Harry, it will be,” Dumbledore said. “Now, I’ve kept you over and made you late for lunch. Do I have your solemn promise that what we’ve discussed does not leave this room?”
          They agreed, and the trust he was showing in them – he could, after all, have resorted to Memory Charms and erased the entire incident – left them feeling strangely proud and more determined than ever to make him never regret his decision.
          They went to lunch. Halfway through, Harry thought suddenly that what if the room hadn’t been empty? What if some of the shades, who apparently took their classes unseen alongside the rest of them, had still been lurking about? The news would be all over Battenby House in no time … 
          He shook his head. That was silly. Even if they had, even if it did, he was the only one who could see them unless someone else tried using a Potion of True-Sight. And even should someone else try that, the shades weren’t much into gossip. They had other things on their minds. Like being dead, and existing in a shadow-world between this one and the next.
          Hermione wasn’t at lunch. Lavender said that she’d stayed in the hospital wing with Professor McGonagall. “Teacher’s pet,” she added with a sniff. 
          The news that McGonagall had fainted, though, that made the rounds right quick. Harry was glad that they had the class double with Ravenclaw; the Slytherins were having too much fun gossiping even without having personally witnessed it. At the staff table, the mood was subdued. Hagrid wasn’t there either, though he did poke his head in at one point and give Dumbledore a quick series of signals and gestures, the meaning of which eluded Harry. 
          Harry decided to try the potion again, just to see Battenby House in full numbers. He applied the drops of the potion. 
          When his eyes adjusted, he involuntarily rocked back in his seat. The wall was gone, just as it had been on the first night of school. He could see the long table, the shades gathered around it, and Professor Charon sitting a ways apart from them at a small round table of his own. His plate was laden with a joint of some sort of meat that looked a bit like pork but more like …
          No. All the food at Hogwarts was created by magic, the work of the battalion of house-elves in the kitchens, but he couldn’t see them summoning up a nice joint of corpse. Professor Winterwind had probably been joking when she said he was a ghoul. Dumbledore was greatly tolerant – former Death Eaters, half-giants, werewolves – but even he would have to draw the line at real man-eating ghouls.
          But it sure did look like …
          The addition to the Great Hall was lit by that same eerie blue-white light that reminded him of the Goblet of Fire. Looking around, he spied the source and his breath caught in his throat. 
          There it was. The Soulstone.
          It was the size of a Quaffle, perfectly round and smooth. The sphere was indeed filled with mist and light, as Ophidia had described. He fancied he could see shapes within it. Faces. 
          The Soulstone hung suspended in mid-air above a pedestal of silvery prongs that flared outward from a central base. It rotated slowly, like a planet. 
          Someone was waving at him. He tore his gaze from the Soulstone and saw Jeremy Upwood. Aware of him, in a way that none of the others seemed to be. Harry waved back. 
          “I’ll help you,” he promised silently. “Somehow, I’ll help.” 
          Magical Combat was just after lunch. Madame Hooch outfitted them all in padded, enchanted cloth armor that would discolor if struck by an offensive spell, and divided them randomly into teams for a version of Capture the Flag. It was exhausting, and the Gryffindors dragged themselves to Potions on legs that felt full of ground bits of glass.
          Somehow, they got through it. Malfoy, who could normally be counted upon to make some cutting remarks, was in a darkly ominous and silent mood, still embarrassed by what he’d suffered at the hands of Professor Dursley. If he’d been assigned detention or lost points as a result of his meeting with Dumbledore, no Slytherin was letting on.
          Snape was impatient – not that he ever was patient, at least when it came to Gryffindors – and kept checking the hourglass as if the class couldn’t go by fast enough for him. When it was nearing the time for the bell to ring, he ordered them to clean up, be quick, quit dawdling, what were they majoring in, sloth? He all but shoved them out the door, barking, “I’ll take care of it, just go!” when Neville spilled a full jar of twinkleberry leaves on his way out. 
          “What’s got up his nose?” Ron wondered as they went into the hall. “Hot date?”
          “Good guess,” Harry said as he spied Ophidia Winterwind descending the staircase. 
          She moved through the crowd in the opposite direction like an eddy of black water, and nearly caused several accidents as the boys tried to turn and watch her go by.
          “Some have all the luck,” Ron said. “Look at her. What does she see in him? I don’t get it, Harry, I really don’t. It’s all girls either nuts over a bunch of useless pretty-boys in leather pants, or they go for the likes of Snape. What’s he got that I don’t?”
          “Come on, Ron, she’s twice your age.”
          “I want to see what they’re up to.”
          “We can’t go spying on Snape again.” Harry reflexively looked over his shoulder, sure that the door which had closed in their wake would be open, and Snape would be right there with his yellowed teeth bared in a sneer. The door was still closed and he exhaled in relief. 
          “Just for a minute.” Ron pulled him behind an executioner statue that provided a deep well of shadow as a hiding place. “I’m never going to get a date if I can’t figure out how they do it, how they charm girls.”
          “Snape? Charm? You’re feverish.”
          “Can’t deny she fancies him.”
          “I don’t think so,” Harry mused. “More like she’s playing him.”
          “Oh, and I suppose you think she fancies you.”
          “I’m not that much a fool. But you’ve seen how she is.” He was in a whisper now, the hallway emptying and Ophidia gliding nearer. “She flirts with everyone, even Flitwick, even Dumbledore. She’s got half the Slytherins wrapped around her finger. And then there was that man I saw her with in Knockturn Alley.”
          “The snake-man,” Ron said skeptically. “Are you sure you didn’t dream that?”
          “I’m sure. Now, shh, or we’ll be caught.”
          They fell silent as Ophidia, in her clinging black snakeskin gown, tapped on the door. It opened at once and Snape was there with twinkleberry leaves stuck to the hem of his robes like a sprinkling of fairy-dust. He did not look as pleased to see her as he should have if they were indeed meeting for a hot date.
          “Hello, Severus,” she crooned. “I got your note, and came as soon as I woke up. You wanted to see me?”
          “Yes, Ophidia. I wanted to know what’s the meaning of this.” He pushed a piece of parchment at her. “What are you doing signing overnight slips for my students? I am still Head of Slytherin House, last I checked. Or have you snatched that out from under me, too?”
          “Severus,” she chided. “I thought you were over being cross about my getting the DADA job.”
          “That’s not the point,” he said.
          “I’d hate for you to be jealous of me.” She swayed closer, and in an artful move that Harry couldn’t help but admire, took his wrist and whirled along his arm, curling it around her as she went. She finished up standing with her back pressed against him and his arm snug about her waist, her head tipped back against his shoulder so she could gaze up at him with those ruby eyes. “I’d much rather we put this silly rivalry behind us and were … friends.”
          “Ophidia …”
          “There’s no reason why not. You know how I feel.”
          “I do?”
          “Tell me.” She wriggled her bottom against him. “How do I feel?”
          Snape’s jaw quivered and he ground his teeth. “I don’t want to play your games.”
          “No games, Severus. Not with you. I promise.”
          “No games? Then explain to me what you’re up to with my House.”
          “It’s just an extra-credit assignment,” she said. “I had no idea you’d be upset.”
          “The Head of House is responsible for all the students of that House. You should have come to me. If something happens on this errand you’ve dreamed up, I’m the one who will have to answer to Dumbledore.”
          “I can handle Dumbledore. Besides, it’s all for a good cause.”
          “Perhaps you’d tell me just what you’ve got in mind.”
          “And spoil the surprise?”
          His lips quirked. “Spoil it, do. Your surprises aren’t always pleasant.”
          She twisted – he had not, despite his protests, removed his arm from around her waist – so that she was looking up at him, their  faces only inches apart. “Won’t you ever trust me, Severus?”
          “Trust isn’t in our nature.”
          “You might have, once. When you wanted me to become a Death Eater, and wear the Dark Mark with you.”
          “That was a long time ago, and you know I’ve rejected the Dark Lord’s cause.”
          “But don’t you see? I’ve always been opposed to him. I know a way to stop him. I’m so close, Severus! I almost have everything I need. With a little more help, I can do it, I know I can.”
          “Do what? Ophidia, you can’t think to go up against the Dark Lord. You were never powerful enough.”
          “I’m well aware of that. But hasn’t my real gift always been in getting others to do the hard work for me?” She batted her eyes at him and smiled a coy little smile. 
          “That’s undeniable. And it’s just what I think you’re trying to do now.”
          Ophidia inhaled a deep sigh, which inflated a considerable part of her anatomy against Snape’s thin chest. Ron stifled an envious sigh. 
          “There is a drawback to my style, I’ll admit,” she said. “I flirt, and I seduce, for my own purposes. When I’m in earnest, no one believes me.”
          “Are you trying to say you have genuine feelings for me? I know you too well, Ophidia.”
          “I don’t think you know me well enough.” She grasped his hands and drew them to her bottom, and pressed her hips against him. “We could get to know each other so much better …”
          “You think distracting me like this,” said Snape in a constricted voice, “will make me forget that you went over my head?”
          “Maybe I just think it’s long overdue, and something we’ve both wanted for a long time.”
          He seemed to be having trouble breathing, and Harry found that he could empathize. So, too, could Ron – he was gasping like a landed trout. 
          “You’re using me,” Snape said.
          “Then return the favor,” she said, and kissed him. 
          It proved the end of Snape’s resistance. He groaned against the fullness of her mouth like a dying man and clutched her to him. Ophidia hooked her leg around his hip, the skirt of her gown falling away along its long side slit, revealing pale thigh above the tops of her smoke-colored stockings. Her garters, Harry cataloged with something akin to delirium, were silver clasps in the shape of snake-heads. 
          “If they do it right here,” Ron choked, “I’m going to go mad. Seeing her … that’s one thing … but Snape? It’ll strike us blind.”
          Harry agreed, but what could they do? If they were caught now, it would be detention for sure, possibly expulsion, and not beyond the reach of probability that Snape might just murder them on the spot.
          But they were spared both the sight and the consequence of trying to sneak away. Snape, coming up for air with his normally sallow face flushed to an almost human hue, managed to utter the words, “Not here … quick … in the classroom,” before plunging into another kiss. 
          They backed into the room and Snape freed one arm long enough to slap at the door and set it moving on its hinges. It creaked nearly to, though through the gap that remained they could see Ophidia’s gown fall to the dungeon floor in a black snakeskin puddle. 
          “Now,” Harry said.
          Ron needed no prompting. They crept out as fast as they dared and rushed for the stairs.


Chapter Twelve – Midnight Rendezvous. 

          “That was just nasty,” Ron said as they rushed, late, to the Gryffindor table. “Snape of all people. Yuck. I’d rather catch my parents doing it.”
          “Doing what?” Hermione asked.
          Ron’s face went as red as his hair. “Nothing,” he mumbled.
          Just then, dinner was served. Harry and Ron had only just made it, and of course there was no sign of the teachers they’d been spying on. Probably naked on Snape’s desk by now … Harry grimaced at the mental picture. 
          Conversation at the table centered mainly around the health and well-being of Professor McGonagall, who was not present either. True to their words, none of the sixth-year boys voiced what they knew. Hermione, Harry saw, looked thoughtful and secretive. 
          Later, as they returned to the common room, Ron yawned and stretched, making an exaggerated show of it. “I’m all-over aches from Magical Combat class. Going to get a hot shower, and then bed.”
          “Hang on,” Harry protested. “What about tonight?”
          “Tonight?” Hermione marked her place in the book she’d just opened. “What’s up tonight?”
          “Oh, come on,” groaned Ron. “Can’t we sneak out some other time?”
          “Will one of you please tell me what’s going on?” demanded Hermione sharply.
          “It’s Professor Winterwind,” Harry said. Seeing that suspicious tilt begin at her eyebrow again, he hurried on. “She’s approved an overnight pass someone in Slytherin, and I want to know what they’re up to. Did it without Snape’s permission, and everything.”
          “That’s funny,” she said. “As we were going in for dinner, I heard Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson talking, all hushed, about some meeting tonight in the garden.”
          “Should have known,” Harry said, oddly disappointed – he’d expected better of Ophidia Winterwind than to be in on anything with Malfoy, though there was no earthly reason why he should have; she had been a Slytherin too, and if even Snape didn’t trust her …
          “Well, I’m game,” Hermione announced, closing her book entirely. “When do we go?”
          “Huh?” said Ron. “Who said you were going?”
          “Who said I wasn’t? And never you mind anyway, Ron Weasley. You were just going on about how worn out you were.”
          “I only want to know what’s happening,” Harry said. “I can go alone if nobody else wants to.”
          “I just said I would, didn’t I?” Hermione said.
          “I’ll pass,” said Ron. “It’s been too long a day already.” 
          “We can’t go yet,” Harry said to Hermione. “I don’t think they’ll head out while everyone else is still up. Might as well get a little homework done first.”
          “Suit yourself,” she said, returning to her book. “It’s about time you started paying more attention to your schoolwork.”
          “I get by.”
          “Getting by won’t amount to much when it’s time for your O.W.L.s,” she said. 
          “Well, g’night, then,” said Ron. They returned the sentiment and he wove a path through the other Gryffindors, about half of whom were studying and the other half of whom were playing either wizard chess or wizard war, a card game legacy from the previous year. 
          “How’s McGonagall?” Harry asked after a while. “Lavender said you stayed with her through lunch, but I didn’t hear you say anything about it at dinner.”
          “She’s upset, and no wonder.” Hermione looked somberly at him. “I suppose you know what made her faint.”
          “Do you?”
          “She told me.”
          “Dumbledore doesn’t want us talking about it. Word of honor and all.”
          “Yeah, same here. I promised.”
          Somehow, although the exchange didn’t convey much in words, it conveyed a lot in meaning, and Harry nodded, willing to leave it at that. He was surprised that Professor McGonagall had confided in Hermione, for whether she was or wasn’t teacher’s pet (as Lavender also said), it was still hardly the sort of thing one might think a teacher would confess to a student. 
          “I’ll tell you one thing, though,” she added in a whisper after a while. “He’s going to answer for it.”
          “Mm-hmm. Dumbledore sent Hagrid to Hogsmeade, to bring him up here so they could give him a good talking-to.”
          Harry remembered Hagrid’s absence from lunch, and the way he’d poked his head in to signal Dumbledore. “Poor bloke. I don’t envy him being caught between the lot of them.”
          “Poor bloke nothing! He deserves whatever he gets, the sneak. Using someone’s personal, private pictures like that. I hope Dumbledore has Hagrid pull his arms off. See him use a camera then.”
          Such venom from Hermione was unusual, and Harry wasn’t sure what to say. He settled for a noncommittal grunt and went back to his studies.
          The common room gradually emptied. Harry had gone upstairs at one point long enough to get his Invisibility Cloak from his trunk – he kept it locked now, hating to have to do it but knowing that if Ron gave in to temptation again, the girls might kill him next time. Ron had already been snoring. 
          When all was quiet, Harry and Hermione slipped out of the portrait hole and covered themselves with the cloak. They had to huddle very close together, and Harry found himself exceedingly conscious of the strawberry scent of Hermione’s shampoo, and the occasional warm brush of her shoulder against his. It made it hard for him to concentrate fully on their mission.
          They worked their careful way down the staircase. The Slytherins slept in a dungeon dormitory, which probably contributed to their gloomy or mean ways. Being closed away in the dark and the dank, with barely any windows and the whole great oppressive weight of Hogwarts castle seeming to bear down on them would do that to a person. 
          Harry didn’t know the exact way to the dungeon, but he and Hermione staked out a spot where they’d have a good view of all the approaches. They didn’t have to wait long before two dark-cloaked shapes came stealthily down the corridor. As they passed through a patch of moonlight falling in from a high arrowslit of a window, Harry saw the white-blond hair of Draco Malfoy, as expected. 
          Draco and Pansy eased open a side door and went out into the cool October night. Waiting a few moments to give them a head start, but not too long lest they get out of sight, Harry and Hermione followed.
          The two of them, barely visible against the blackness of the grounds and sky, chose a path that went from shadow to shadow but otherwise headed steadily toward the greenhouse. Harry was close enough to see Draco take out his wand and unlock the door.
          “The loft,” Hermione whispered, her breath pleasantly tickling Harry’s ear.
          “Good idea.”
          They went around back. The window-walls of the greenhouse were humid and fogged, the indistinct shapes of plants pressing here and there against the glass. At the rear of the long building was a ladder leading up to a door, which gave onto a loft that ran half the length of the greenhouse. It was where Madame Sprout kept sacks of fertilizer, spare pots and tools, and other brick-a-brack. 
          The ladder was too narrow to let them climb together, so Hermione went first with Harry right behind her. The Invisibility Cloak couldn’t cover all of him. An observer might have done a double-take at the sight of a pair of disembodied legs going up one rung at a time. 
          Inside, the air was warm and moist, redolent with the earthy, green smells of plant life. The twinkleberry bush, from which Snape had gotten the fresh leaves they’d been using in Potions that afternoon, shed a dim, shifting light that cast everything else into monstrous shadows. 
          What with the strange lighting and all, Harry almost walked right into Crabbe before realizing that the hulking figure wasn’t a stack of barrels draped with a dropcloth. He froze, Hermione blundering into him, and put his hand over her mouth before she could ask what was the matter.
          Guiding her, he inched away. There was Goyle, too … the pair of them lurking in the dark like thugs in an alley. Not speaking. Not moving. Looking down with identical greedy expressions and a sort of greasy gleam in their eyes.
          Harry and Hermione moved with painstaking silence as far from them as they could. If they thought they could have gotten back out unnoticed, they would have gone, but it was a clear wonder that neither of the brutes had heard them climbing in. Whatever was going on below had fascinated them. 
          “Slower,” said Draco Malfoy from somewhere beneath them. “Yes. Like that.”
          Beneath the translucent silkiness of the cloak, Hermione looked quizzically at Harry. Together, they crept to the edge of the loft and peered down. 
          They couldn’t see Malfoy, but his shadow was cast onto the floor by the twinkleberry bush. His shadow, and a short, somehow bent and bulgy one that Harry couldn’t identify. Then he understood. It was Pansy’s shadow, and she was on her knees. On her knees in front of Malfoy.
          His guess was confirmed a moment later with her peevish, whining voice. “You never do me like this.”
          “So?” Malfoy sounded annoyed.
          “So it’s not very fair. I do it for you. It’s supposed to be reciprocal.”
          Barely more than breathing the words, Hermione said, “I think we made a mistake. This has nothing to do with Professor Winterwind. This is …”
          “Yeah,” whispered Harry, wrinkling his nose. 
          “How about a shag, then?” suggested Malfoy with a sneer. “That’s reciprocal.”
          “I don’t know, Draco,” whined Pansy.
          Crabbe and Goyle, their tongues practically hanging out, leaned over to see better. If they didn’t watch out, they’d fall and crash right into the soil-filled planters of henbane and cinquefoil. Harry would have bet anything that Malfoy knew they were there, and Pansy didn’t. A fresh dislike for Malfoy shot through him. Not that anything low and disgusting from Malfoy could have surprised him anymore.
          “We have to get out of here,” hissed Hermione. 
          Harry couldn’t have agreed more. He would have sooner been back in the dungeon spying on Snape.
          “What’s there to know?” said Draco. “You’re my girlfriend, aren’t you?”
          “Of course, but …”
          “So are you going to or not? I can always find some other girl who will.”
          “Don’t say that, Draco!”
          “It’s up to you, Pansy. Make up your mind. I haven’t got all night.”
          “Okay, then. I will. But not here.”
          “Why not?” Now Draco sounded fiendishly eager. “We’ll just throw down those empty burlap sacks …” at a swipe of his wand, a pile of them spilled over and spread across the floor. 
          “Now,” Harry said, and began edging away. 
          But Crabbe and Goyle, keen to see, had moved. They had the invisible Harry and Hermione cornered against the rail of the loft, and to make matters worse, one of Goyle’s big feet was on the cloak. 
          He could see Hermione’s wide, alarmed eyes and tried to soothe her with a smile. He couldn’t even whisper because surely, as close as Crabbe and Goyle were, it would be heard. Below, cloth rustled and Pansy mewled something about not being sure she was ready for this.
          “Too late now,” said Draco. “Or do you want everyone to know what a tease you are?”
          Harry thought that if he yanked hard on the cloak, it might unbalance Goyle and make him fall over the edge. But the risk of exposing some part of himself or Hermione was too great. He suddenly knew that if they were found up here, it would be the worst fight yet. There wouldn’t just be hexes thrown back and forth, but combat spells … and if he lost, Draco would probably kill him outright. 
          But – and the thought was so horrible his mind almost couldn’t complete it – they might have something else in mind for Hermione. The atmosphere in here was charged with lust. He could all too easily imagine Draco giving Hermione to Crabbe and Goyle, and in that instant he could have fried the lot of them on the spot.
          By the bleakly horrified look in Hermione’s eyes, much the same thoughts were going through her head. Harry groped for her hand and squeezed it, trying to reassure her. As long as they weren’t discovered, they’d be all right. It just meant having to stay where they were. 
          They could close their eyes to the scene below, but they couldn’t close their ears. It seemed to take forever, though later, when Harry checked his watch, he found that the entire session had lasted a mere matter of minutes. The wet slap of flesh, Pansy’s initial pained complaints that turned into encouraging groans and gasps (and ended in a petulant bleat of complaint when Draco evidently finished before she was done), Draco’s own harsh commentary (“You like that? Move your arse, bitch, there, that’s the stuff. Oh, yes, you love it, don’t you, you little slut?”) and the heavy breathing of Crabbe and Goyle were awful to hear. 
          The worst part was that, as gross as it was, there was something darkly exciting about it. Harry’s pulse was beating, his hands had gone sweaty, and lewd pictures – like those from Cliffton Stratford’s book, say – kept dancing through his mind.
          But finally, it was over. Pansy apparently wanted to talk about it after, but Draco didn’t care to bother with conversation. They left, and moments later Crabbe and Goyle went out via the ladder.
          “Did you see what they were doing?” said a pale and shaken Hermione once the greenhouse was silent again.
          “I didn’t look. Did you?”
          “Not them. Crabbe and Goyle.” She looked like she might throw up. “They were … never mind, it’s too vile.”
          Harry could guess. He’d heard those sounds too, the fleshy rubbing sounds of boys taking matters into their own hands. It was a noise he was familiar with from long nights in a dorm where five of them slept, and sometimes when one thought all the others were asleep … but he wasn’t about to tell any of that to Hermione.
          “Let’s go,” he said. “I need some air.”
          The air was indeed very welcome. Crisp and cold with a hint of the nearing winter, it seemed all the fresher after the damp and biological scents of the greenhouse. At the bottom of the ladder, they stopped and drew deep breaths, the Invisibility Cloak slung over Harry’s shoulder.
          “It wasn’t them,” Hermione finally said. “We were wrong. What a mistake, oh, I can’t believe they did that!”
          “Doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Harry. “Malfoy is scum.”
          “And that we had to be right there hearing it …” She shuddered. “Let’s walk for a while, Harry, because if I tried to go back and sleep now, I’d probably dream of it.”
          They walked, down by the lake which was inky and rippling whenever the giant squid surged past. The water lapped at the shore. They passed Hagrid’s cabin, its windows dark but for the muted burnt-orange glow that told of banked coals. Fang the boarhound was probably splayed out in front of the hearth, snoring just as gustily as Ron had been. 
          Extending into the lake was the dock where the Durmstrang ship had been moored during the Triwizard Tournament. Harry and Hermione went out to the end of it and sat, feet dangling. 
          “It’s certainly not like in the books,” Hermione said pensively after several quiet minutes had passed. Minutes in which her mind, like Harry’s own, seemed to have inevitably drifted to the scene they’d just witnessed. 
          “What do you mean?”
          “That. Sex. Not much like I thought it would be.”
          “D’you think about it?” Here was something that hadn’t really occurred to him. He knew boys did, sure, nearly all the time once they turned fifteen or so, but girls?
          “Sure, I do,” Hermione said, with a giggle that was half a sigh. “I’ve read all about it.”
          “What did you call them? Spanky-governess books?”
          This time, the giggle was only a quarter-sigh. “Not those. Well, not just those. Medical books. Anatomy. Things like that. And my mother reads a lot of romance novels. You know the sort?”
          “Yeah,” said Harry. He’d seen them before. Covers with pictures of women whose dresses seemed about to slide off their bosoms, men with no shirts and pants so tight you could have counted the coins in their pockets. “Aunt Petunia reads them sometimes. But I didn’t think there was anything in them except kissing, and then it’s the end of the chapter.”
          “Some of them,” Hermione said. “But some are racy, really racy. Though not as much as those horrid letters in Squire magazine, the ones that always start out ‘Dear Squire, I never thought this would happen to me …’ and go on to tell about twin blondes or something.”
          Harry was absolutely flabbergasted. “You read Squire?”
          “No! Ick, why would I?”
          “Then how do you know --?”
          “Well, I did see a copy once. The cartoons were kind of funny, actually. But all that stuff, the books, those letters … I think they just give everyone the wrong idea. False expectations. I know when I was a little girl, I always used to daydream about what my first kiss would be like, and look how that turned --”
          She stopped, coughed, and found the piling at the end of the dock suddenly of great fascination. Harry was flabbergasted again. And jealous, far more than he ever would have suspected.
          “Was it Viktor Krum?”
          “It’s really not all that --”
          “Did you go and visit him that summer? I thought you decided not to!”
          “I didn’t! My parents weren’t about to let their fourteen-year-old daughter go off to Bulgaria to meet some eighteen-year-old. It’s not as bad as if I’d wanted to run off with a middle-aged man I’d met over the Internet --” as they were both Muggle-raised, she knew he’d know what she meant by that, “—but they still said no.”
          “When … was it at the dance?” He didn’t know why he was torturing himself like this.
          Hermione sighed a sigh that was no giggle at all. “It was just before he left. No big deal. It wasn’t at all like I thought it would be. He was scratchy with stubble and his lips were too wet and his nose nearly dislocated mine.”
          Oddly, or perhaps not, this pleased Harry. “Well, what did you think it would be like?”
          “The way it is in the books, I guess.” She gazed off across the rippling black water. “That I’d be standing there with a handsome boy, and he’d gently take me by the shoulders or the upper arms and turn me toward him. That I’d see it first in his eyes, the intention in his eyes. And then he’d touch me under the chin and raise my face toward his as he leaned in. It would be gentle at first, his lips just brushing on mine, but then we’d be overcome and he’d pull me close as I put my arms around his neck …”
          She broke off, laughing. “Oh, stop, listen to me, I sound silly. Never mind. We’d better go back before we’re missed.”
          “Probably should.” Harry got up, and as Hermione stood up too, he couldn’t help himself.
          He took her gently by the shoulders and turned her toward him. She looked up, puzzled, and then must have read it in his eyes, the intention in his eyes, because hers widened with comprehension. He touched her under the chin and tipped up her face, and brushed his lips tenderly on hers. 
          The sensation was electrifying. Harry trembled, suddenly wanting to crush her against him and seal her mouth with a deep and exploring kiss. If he did, she’d probably slap him and push him into the lake to cool off –
          He was just thinking that when Hermione, with a soft cry, threw her arms around his neck. Startled, he took a step back and they both almost went into the lake, but he recovered and pulled her close and kissed her just as deeply, just as exploringly, as he’d wanted to. The breeze blew her hair in feathery wisps against his face. 
          They parted slowly, unsteadily. Harry could not believe what he’d just done, nor how much he’d liked it. Worth a slap, if she decided to slap. Worth a dunk in the lake, even worth the pneumonia that would surely result.
          “Oh,” Hermione said in a small, stunned way.
          “Was that … was that all right?” Harry wasn’t sure if he was asking her opinion on the quality of the kiss or whether it was all right he’d presumed to do it at all, but either way, her only answer was a starry-eyed nod. 
          Out in the lake, the squid surfaced with a splash, and they both reacted like people wakened abruptly from a dream. All at once it was hard to look at Hermione, and Harry’s face felt hot. His lips still tingled. 
          “We, um, we should go back,” he said in a hoarse voice that was barely his own.
          “Right,” she said in a voice that was similarly light-years from her usual.
          They said nothing more, perhaps because neither of them quite trusted themselves to speak, as they left the dock and headed for the castle.


Chapter Thirteen – The Tombs. 

          Harry woke Tuesday morning with the feeling that something was very badly wrong.
          Of course there was! He’d kissed Hermione! And liked it, too. 
          The events of the entire previous day and night came back to him. What with everything that had happened, especially in the greenhouse and after, was it any wonder he felt out of sorts? As if the whole world were ever-so-slightly off-kilter? Everything had changed. 
          He dragged himself through the process of washing and dressing, doing his best to avoid meeting the eyes of his fellow students. They all seemed a bit off too, snapping at each other over inconsequential things. Probably upset themselves by yesterday’s conversation with Dumbledore. The knowledge that the witch in that picture really was McGonagall had to have worked on their brains in the wee hours. 
          As they went down to breakfast, it became plain to Harry that everyone was not quite right. Hermione, he could understand. She could only glance at him for a moment, the memory of their kiss shining in her eyes, before looking away. 
          And Ginny … with the unformed telepathy that he was beginning to believe all girls possessed in some measure, Ginny was regarding him and Hermione with a hurt and angry suspicion. 
          All that would have been understandable. It was when he factored in how all the students, the teachers, and even the portraits in the hall and the occasional drifting ghost, were curt and cranky that Harry started to wonder what was up.
          Something was missing.
          Something was wrong. 
          Hagrid wasn’t at breakfast, and that only added to Harry’s disquiet. 
          The arrival of the morning owl post didn’t make things any better. Several people at Harry’s table, including Hermione, received copies of the Daily Prophet, and the front page was taken up with screaming headlines: Dark Lord Strikes Scottish Cemetery, Dozens Disinterred. The story accompanying the headline went on to say that in the boldest move yet, agents of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had frightened a Muggle gravedigger into a heart attack, dug up all the graves, and presumably raised the occupants as the undead. The Ministry was hard at work convincing the Muggles that it was a case of pre-Halloween pranksters, nothing more. It was, the paper added, the third such incident this fortnight.
          Harry watched Snape closely as the Potions teacher read through the paper. Snape’s expression was unreadable, yet unpleasant nonetheless. As it was daylight, there was of course no sign of Ophidia Winterwind. Harry remembered what she’d told Snape. That she had a plan, some way to stop Voldemort. That had been just before she’d turned on the charm and the two of them had retreated into the classroom, so no more information had been forthcoming. 
          Resolving to try and talk to her after Defense Against the Dark Arts tonight, Harry choked down the rest of his food. The eggs and toast had gone tasteless, his mouth soured by that newspaper article.
          The meal period trudged irritably on. Many times, Harry had the feeling that someone was standing near him, trying to get his attention. It wasn’t until he was pushing away his half-finished glass of orange juice that he slapped himself in the forehead and applied more drops of True-Sight.
          The twilight world of the shades swam into being in front of him, but it was different. Something had changed. It was dark, for one, what light from the Great Hall that filtered thinly into that realm seeming only to emphasize the darkness.
          Jeremy Upwood was right at Harry’s elbow. He wore a pleading, mournful look.
          “Hi, Jeremy,” Harry said. It came out almost a question, as he didn’t even know if they’d be able to hear each other. 
          Hermione shot him a quick glance, divined what was going on – the blue-grey smears around his eyes probably clueing her in – and struck up a discussion with Colin and Parvati to distract the rest of the table from him. 
          “You have to help,” said Jeremy. His voice was a dim and distant echo of its former self. “Please, Harry. You’re the only one who sees, the only one who knows.”
          “I want to help,” he said. “What can I do?”
          “It’s stolen.”
          “What --” He needn’t finish. The silvery prongs that had held the Soulstone now supported only empty air, explaining the absence of the blue-white radiance that used to illuminate the Battenby table. 
          “Someone came last night,” said Jeremy. “He took the Soulstone away. Harry, it was him. The one who … the one who killed me.”
          Harry’s blood chilled to ice water. “Do you know who he is?”
          Jeremy’s pale head shook side to side, but his twilight-blue eyes never left Harry’s face. “But I know where he took it.”
          “Can you get it back?”
          Again, the slow, solemn shaking of the head. “Only the living can trespass in the realm of the dead.”
          “You sound like your professor,” Harry said, remembering how Professor Charon had uttered the cryptic ‘fear no evil’ to him. “What do you mean, the realm of the dead?”
          “The tombs,” said Jeremy. “He took it to the tombs.”
          The Marauder’s Map had shown the tombs, catacombs even lower than the dungeons. Harry had asked Hermione about it once, wondering who’d be buried there.
          “Anyone who’s everyone,” she’d replied. “There aren’t any great wizarding cathedrals like there are for Muggles, so most of the great wizards and witches of the past were buried here. I’ve heard that some still are. Important people.”
          The obvious question had gone unasked because Harry couldn’t stand to hear the answer. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know where his parents were buried, or visit them if he found out. He had beheld their visages in the Mirror of Erised, heard their voices courtesy of the dementors, and come face to face with their ghostly echoes in his last battle with Voldemort. That was far more than he’d ever expected.
          Now that he thought about it, he also remembered some of the ghosts, Nearly Headless Nick and Moaning Myrtle chief among them, making reference to the fact that they were glad ghosts weren’t bound to the location of the body because it would get boring down in the catacombs. 
          “Why did he take it there?” he asked Jeremy now. “And how come you can talk to me, and not anybody else?”
          “We’re bound together, Harry. Because you were there. Because you raised me, made me what I am.”
          He flinched. “I’m really sorry about that, honestly I am. I didn’t mean to.”
          Jeremy shrugged wistfully. “It beats being all the way dead, and it beats being at the orphanage.”
          “I want to help. Tell me what I need to do.”
          “Find the Soulstone. Bring it back.”
          “Any hints on how? What about Professor Charon? Can’t he ‘trespass’ down there?” Thinking of Charon’s dining habits, Harry wished he hadn’t even brought it up. 
          “He went last night when the theft was discovered,” Jeremy said. Blatant fear radiated from him as surely as the flickery light of life force had come from the Soulstone. “He never came back.”
          “Does Dumbledore know?”
          “I don’t know.”
          “All right. I’ll go down there and have a look.”
          Jeremy’s smile of relief was the last thing Harry saw as the potion wore off again. He gradually became aware that, Hermione’s chatter aside, some of his classmates were still giving him odd looks. Breakfast was over and the first bell rang, summoning them to their daily routine.
          Which posed Harry an awful dilemma. He couldn’t very well cut class, but if the Soulstone and Professor Charon were missing, he didn’t want to waste time. He wavered for a moment, torn.
          “What’s up with you?” asked Ron.
          “Trouble. Something I need to do.” He looked at Ron and Hermione. “If Binns asks, if Binns even notices I’m not there, cover for me, would you?”
          They agreed, though reluctantly. At least the first class of the day was History of Magic, and experience had taught them that they could pass notes, doodle, read, or even sleep without Professor Binns saying anything except to go on with his seemingly endless lectures on the passing of various Ministry laws, the faerie convention of 1886, and so on. 
          When everyone else filed out into the corridor, and split off to take the various routes to their classrooms, Harry lagged behind and veered off to Gryffindor Tower. 
          Peeves the Poltergeist was playing darts halfway up the stairs. His target seemed to be Mrs. Norris, which to Harry was a mixed blessing. Peeves was a pain, but if any creature within Hogwarts deserved getting turned into a dartboard, Mrs. Norris would come in high on his list. Maybe even in the top five, right behind Malfoy, Snape, Crabbe, and Goyle.
          Unfortunately for Harry, Peeves was easily distracted by the appearance of a new target. The next thing Harry knew, four darts were whizzing toward him. 
          “Defende Missilus!” he cried. Magical Combat coming in handy. The spell bloomed around him, invisible but there, and caused all of the darts to veer off course by the barest degree necessary to leave him untouched. He felt the breeze of their passage.
          Peeves squalled in outrage, sensing he’d been cheated. “Think you’re so good against darts, eh, Potter?” came his cackle. “Let’s see how that spell holds up against a piano!”
          The staircase above him was swiveling, making gritty grinding sounds as it did so. Looking up, Harry saw the leading edge of a grand piano poised and inching out over the drop. It would flatten him like a cartoon character.
          He started to lunge up the stairs, but while his attention had been occupied on the staircase above him, the one he was on had also decided to play tricks. Two more steps would have sent him off into space, to plunge fifty feet onto the marble floor below. 
          Spinning the other way, he ran down the flight of steps just as the piano teetered and fell. It hit the stairs above and behind him with a terrible din – wood splintering, the abused twanging of strings, all clatter and crash and cacophony. And then it began to roll.
          Unevenly, more of a tilt-and-slam-and-tilt-and-slam, but it was swapping ends as it rumbled down the stairs after Harry. Desperate, he jabbed his wand back over his shoulder and shouted, “Pugnatis!”
          A bolt of energy shot from his wand. It hit the piano a split second before the tumbling, splintery mess would have rolled over Harry and squashed him into the stairs. Instead, some other mass hit him, something light and crackly and smelling of dust and ink. Although not as heavy as a piano, the sudden deluge of paper in rolls and paper in sheets was enough to knock Harry sprawling. He fell face-down on the landing, covered in paper.
          He rolled over and sat up, and looked at what the piano had become thanks to his Transfiguration spell. It had been replaced with an approximate mass of sheet music, everything from beginning children’s lessons to entire concertos. 
          Peeves had disappeared, probably rushing off to find someone to report this mess to in hopes of getting Harry in trouble. Deciding not to be here when Peeves got back, Harry shook himself free of the pile of music and hurried to the nearest accommodating staircase. 
          His Invisibility Cloak was secured in his trunk again. It was getting a lot of use this month. Pulling it on, he couldn’t help but think of how it had been to be huddled so close to Hermione under here. He fancied that he could still smell a hint of her strawberry shampoo caught in the cloak’s fabric.
          The halls were empty by the time he got to the ground floor. From the various classrooms came the drone and murmur of school in session. Harry headed down, passing Snape’s dungeon and the lower, unoccupied chambers where they came for lightning-bolt practice (and where he’d once been partly at fault for turning Neville into a frog). 
          The passageway leading to the tombs was black as Voldemort’s soul. The light at the end of Harry’s wand did little to push back the hungry, encroaching shadows. The air was so cold it seemed liquid, and congealed around his lower legs in a layer of mist. 
          But someone had been down here recently. Some of the hinges had fresh scrapes in age-old rust, and oil was still wet and glistening upon them. The bronze door handles, caked with verdigris, were shaped like wraiths in flowing shrouds, their arms stretched up and bent back over their elongated heads. Their eyes and mouths were open in stretched ovals of spectral doom.
          “Nice,” Harry said to himself. “Very nice. Welcoming.”
          The handle felt slick and skinlike beneath his hand. As if, should he squeeze it, the door would come awake and raving like a pinched beast. He depressed the latch and pulled very carefully.
          More mist, and a cold draft, swirled out around him. Patterns formed and dissipated in the low-hanging fog. Beyond was a darkness so total it might have been the empty space between stars. His wandlight was pitiful and inadequate in the face of such a darkness.
          He stepped inside, and was immediately struck by a vision of the door swinging shut, latching, locking, trapping him in here with the dead. For there were dead, he could feel them if not see them. Rank after rank of coffins, set into wall niches or atop stone biers, and in the oldest sections there would be crumbling skeletons that had been buried in nothing but winding cloths. 
          Harry lowered his wandlight to the floor and searched for something with which to prop the door open. The fog hid any helpful items from him, so he settled for wadding up his Invisibility Cloak and wedging it in the gap. It would end up damp and dirty, and any lingering scent of Hermione’s shampoo would be replaced by the gravemold aroma of this place, but it would have to do. 
          Shivering – and telling himself it was only from the chill in the air – Harry moved deeper into the tombs. The small, shaky sphere of his wandlight showed him a scene very much like that which he’d expected. Coffins, biers, niches. Some with plaques on which names, dates of birth and death, and inscriptions could be read. He didn’t want to look too closely. Suppose he were to see his parents’ names? Their death was real enough to him already, had always been real. He didn’t need any more reminders. 
          Nor did he particularly need to be down here in what was essentially a graveyard. He’d had enough of that after being captured by Voldemort. The memories of that horrible night were never far from him. Cedric dying … killed by Voldemort with no more caring or effort than one might take to swat a fly. Death always seemed closer in such places, with the visible trappings of it as far as the eye could see.
          Swallowing and feeling a dry click in his throat, Harry moved further into the crypt. The niches in the walls were four or five high, the biers crowded close so that there were only the narrowest paths between them. Paths it was impossible to walk without now and then bumping or brushing against the cool, slick stone. Some had raised stone effigies atop them, witches and wizards reclined with their arms crossed on their chests, some with wands held the way Egyptian mummies held ankhs. He recognized a few from portraits in Dumbledore’s office. Past headmasters. Still moving in the pictures, usually nodding and napping but giving the impression of life. While here, they were frozen and irrevocably dead. 
          Blue-white light shone on a section of wall ahead. Harry, who had been on the verge of giving in to his nervousness, steeled himself and continued his stealthy creeping among the biers. He followed the light into an older section of the tomb. The coffins here looked very old indeed. Centuries old. 
          The light’s source seemed to be coming from a chamber beyond this one, accessible through a stone archway. This archway was held up by columns shaped into statues. The one on the left was a skeletal figure with a hood and a scythe. The one on the right was some sort of bird-woman, with feathered wings folded close against a nude body and a wickedly-curved beak. The stones of the archway were inlaid with runes. Most of the letters were worn away or obscured, and Harry could only read the last bit. It read: God Grant They Lie Still.
          He doused his wandlight and moved carefully forward. Now he could hear rustlings, and a muffled noise that sounded like someone trying to speak through a gag. It set his nerves on edge. Still gripping his wand, he sidled along the passage. It ended in another archway, with a massive iron-bound oak door that stood wide open. 
          The room beyond was a nightmare of angles that didn’t add up. The floor was sloped upward toward the downhill corner, the ceiling soared in a drooping Turkish dome, squatting stone imps and looming gargoyles cast monstrous shadows, and the coffins in here were not only padlocked but many were bolted to the floor with metal straps, or as wrapped in chains as Marley’s ghost. Some of the niches in the walls were smaller, holding sealed urns and jars that Harry was sure contained cremated remains.
          There were torch sconces along the walls, all of them bronze demons and devils. The torches in them were unlit and ancient, ready to crumble at a touch and so warped from the constant moisture of the atmosphere that if lit, they’d probably smolder out sick plumes of smoke but shed no light. The blue-white beacon that had guided Harry here came from the Soulstone. 
          The glowing sphere was suspended near the middle of the room, in a rusted crow’s cage that could have come right from Filch’s beloved torture chamber. Beneath it, the floor had been cleared bare. A double pentagram was sketched in stark white chalk on the stones. Unlit candles rested at each of the five outer points. Between the two thick lines of the pentagrams were designs and symbols in other colors – red, yellow, a burning bile green. These were nearly phosphorescent, emitting their own strange light into the blue-white glow of the Soulstone.
          Two figures, naked and bound, lay at the center of the inner pentagram. They were gagged and awake. Their eyes were fixed in dread on the slowly-swinging cage above them. Two urns also sat within the pentagram, positioned just above the heads of the helpless captives. Both were of black ceramic glazed in a translucent red like a veneer of blood.
          The two people were in their early twenties, a man and a woman, neither of them anyone Harry knew … or did he? He’d seen them somewhere before, and would probably be able to remember if his head weren’t so filled with other thoughts, so distracted by the scene before him. This was Dark magic at its Darkest. Necromancy. The pentagram was used in the summoning of spirits or demons. Sacrificial victims laid out for some hideous ritual.
          He had to get them out of here. As he moved toward them, the nearer, the man, saw Harry and looked at him with frantic fear. As if Harry was no ordinary-looking teenager … well, ordinary-looking for a Hogwarts student, in his black robe with the Gryffindor crest, and a wand held tightly in his hand.
          “It’s all right,” Harry whispered. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
          The woman, craning her neck to see over the man, made pleadingly hopeful sounds from behind her gag. As Harry came closer, twisting to avoid touching any of these biers even more than he had the other, he suddenly knew where he’d seen them before.
          The man’s eyes widened in terror. Looking not at Harry now, but past him.
          The gnarled tip of a wand touched Harry at the base of his skull. 
          “A force bolt here,” hissed a low voice, “and your head would fly clean off, Potter.”
          Harry felt as cold and immobile as any stone effigy. 
          “Put down your wand,” the other commanded. “Nice and slow.”
          His arm extended out to the side. Harry reviewed Summoning Charms in his mind. He deposited the wand atop a chain-wrapped coffin, the lid of which was cracked as if something in it had beat so furiously against the underside that it had very nearly split apart. 
          A hand snaked out, in every sense of the word. It was covered in fine overlapping scales, the fingers tipped in claws. The long and nastily supple arm was draped in the loose sleeve of a black robe identical to Harry’s own. Except that, if he could see the patch sewn on the chest, it would be the green and silver of Slytherin. 
          It all made sense now. Harry could have kicked himself for not seeing it sooner.
          “You won’t get away with this, Grimme,” he said, and was proud by how even and sure he sounded. 
          “You of all people,” Fyren Grimme replied, almost amused, “should be on our side in this matter.”
          Harry risked a half-turn, enough to let him see the massive seventh-year. Grimme had resumed the form he’d worn when Harry initially saw him. Half man, half serpent. His legs had fused into a muscular, scaled coil. His eyes were lidless and vertically slit. A quick black tongue flecked testingly through his pebbled, greenish lips. 
          “On your side? Kidnapping Muggles for sacrifice?”
          The two vacationers, whose pictures he’d seen in the clipping that Professor Dursley had given him on Monday morning – was that only yesterday? – had subsided into blank stares of horror. Huge silent tears spilled from the woman’s eyes. 
          “Stopping the Dark Lord,” said Grimme.
          “Stopping him? Now why don’t I believe you?”
          “You’re in no position to take that tone, Potter.” Grimme propelled himself closer with a smooth flexion of his coils. He thrust Harry’s wand up his sleeve. 
          “I thought she cured you,” Harry said, backing up a step. But warily. He didn’t want to set even the heel of his shoe across the boundary-lines of that pentagram until he knew what spells might be on it.
          Grimme hissed again, and his eyes flared dull yellow. “It wore off. I’ve been promised another.”
          “For a price.”
          “There’s always a price. What of it? At least I got something in exchange for my services, Potter. Unlike you. You did your bit for free.”
          “What are you talking about?” Harry’s stomach rolled with vertigo.
          “I killed the boy. You brought him back.”
          “I don’t know what you mean. What does this have to do with Jeremy?”
          “One more shade was needed.” Grimme’s fangs, not vampire fangs but wicked needle-thin cobra fangs, flashed as he grinned. Clear serum – poison – was oozing from them. “One last bit of life force to bring the Soulstone to full power, or power enough to do the job. I couldn’t have brought him back. It had to be done by someone of good heart and good intentions.”
          Harry remembered the odd, detached feeling he’d had on the night he’d seen Ophidia Winterwind and Fyren Grimme in Knockturn Alley. He remembered how he’d gotten back to his room by autopilot, and how slow he’d been to awaken. 
          “She mesmerized me,” he said in dawning realization. “Programmed me to try and revive whoever you killed, even though I knew it was too late. But what does she want the Soulstone for? Why was it so important that there be that much life force?”
          “I told you,” said Grimme with an impatient darting of his tongue. “To stop the Dark Lord. That’s a goal I think you should appreciate more than most.”
          “If it involves killing innocent Muggles, how can I possibly appreciate it?” Harry cried. “That’s doing Voldemort’s work for him!”
          “Omelets and eggs, Potter,” rasped Grimme harshly. “Can’t make the one without breaking the other. A few Muggles now to save all of them later … you do the math. Besides, who ever said they were going to be killed?” He shook his hairless, scaled head. “On the contrary. They’ll live, oh, yes, they will. Forever.”
          “I’m not letting you do this,” Harry said. “Whatever it is, I’m not letting you.”
          “Don’t be a fool. I spent five years like this. Five years. As a freak. Even my own family couldn’t stand to look at me. I won’t let you, or anyone else, prevent me from having my true body back.”
          With that, he reared back. Flaps of skin on the sides of his neck fanned out into a hood. He spat a clear stream at Harry’s face.
          Harry dove, rolled, and as he came up to his knees thought that he was getting pretty sick of this. Spooky dark places and snake-monsters … first the Chamber of Secrets and a basilisk, or Voldemort’s graveyard setting and Nagini, and now this. 
          “Accio Wandus!” he called. 
          But Grimme anticipated him, and had pressed his arm hard to his torso, pinning Harry’s wand inside the sleeve of his robe. Grimme jabbed out his own wand and the force bolt with which he’d threatened to blow off Harry’s head shot from the end, a brilliant bullet of swampfire green edged in silver. 
          Harry dove the other way. The bolt struck a bier and left a crater. Cracks spread out in a slow network, with a grating sound. Chunks fell away. Harry scrambled on hands and knees as the entire bier disintegrated. The coffin atop it hit the floor and bone dust puffed out. 
          It was a game of chase, and hide-and-seek then. Harry kept a few steps ahead of Grimme, taking refuge behind caskets and gargoyles while his foe slithered after him. Sometimes he’d spit, sometimes he’d loose another force bolt, and once a fine rain of venom landed on Harry’s robes. They immediately began to steam and erode. He couldn’t have been out of them quicker if a willing naked girl had been waiting for him – ludicrous thought though it was to be having at a time like this. 
          In chasing him, though, and enjoying it with all the zeal of any hunter, Fyren Grimme wasn’t being so mindful about holding his arm just so. Harry popped up, shouted, “Accio Wandus!” again, and yelled wordless triumph as his wand sped out of Grimme’s sleeve and into Harry’s waiting hand.
          As Grimme whirled, hood framing his face like a fan, Harry sent a jet of flame straight at him. The snake-man twisted just enough to escape with a long scorched patch, but then the battle was on in earnest.


Chapter Fourteen – Bitten.

          If Fyren Grimme had been expecting an easy victory, he was disabused of that notion in the first five minutes. True, Harry only had a few weeks’ worth of Magical Combat classes under his belt, but he was almost as apt a pupil in that as he was at Quidditch. And the old adage held true – in a race between fox and hare, who’ll run faster? The hare … for the fox is only running for his dinner and the hare for his very life. In this case, it was a snake rather than a fox, but Harry supposed it would do.
          They had taken temporary refuge on opposite sides of the crypt from each other. Harry, panting and pressing gingerly on a swelling knot on his cheekbone where a ricocheting rock had nailed him, was crouched behind a bier calculating his chances of getting to the door. Each time he calculated, he felt all the more despondent.  
          The glow of the Soulstone was augmented now by a sullen orange glare that had sprung up as a result of fireball and flame jet spells. The old wood did not burn in a lively fashion, smoldering much as Harry believed the ancient torches might have done, but here and there the trailing ends of shrouds leaked out, and these caught quite well. 
          The only portion of this room thus far undisturbed was the pentagram. Grimme’s evident reluctance to break or cross the lines was as great as Harry’s own, lending him more reason to believe that some fearsome spell was marked by those broad chalk strokes. It meant he couldn’t try to rescue the Muggles, but it also meant that it would be harder for Grimme to make hostages of them.
          Across the way, he could hear Grimme’s muttered, pained curses. Harry’s last attack, a lightning bolt, had seared through Grimme’s robes and left a long charred streak on his reptilian lower half. Neither of them was unbloodied.
          It felt like midnight down here. Harry knew that wasn’t so. He could still taste the orange juice from breakfast. He should be sitting in History of Magic between Hermione and Ron right now, nearly dozing in the dusty patch of sunlight falling through the high windows as Professor Binns lectured endlessly. 
          Instead, he was down here in this black pit of the dead, and more than a little fed up with himself. Brave old Harry Potter, rushing off on his own to set things right … when was he going to learn? The world would not end, Hogwarts would not come crashing down, if once – just once – he would stand back, take a breath, think it through, and go to the proper authorities. 
          Too late for such ruminations. He heard the scrape of scales on stone and lunged out from behind the bier just as Grimme’s wand loosed a volley of force bolts. These were aimed not at Harry himself but at the coffin, blasting it back. Harry’s heel was clipped as the six-foot box slammed down where he’d been. It did not so much break as detonate, shards of wood spraying out like shrapnel. The resident of the coffin was reduced to a jumble of bones, covered in slats and splinters, and the whole entwined with heaps of chain. 
          Grimme was advancing. Harry threw himself flat and fired off a force bolt of his own. It skimmed past Grimme with a hair’s breadth to spare, when it should have hit – the shielding spell! Harry cast one of his own, and Grimme’s next shot parted his hair but did not touch him.
          Uttering a glottal roar that would have done credit to an alligator, Grimme rushed Harry. His claws sliced the air. 
          Harry made it to his knees and flung an arm in front of his face. The defensive spell turned it briefly hard as steel, chipping one claw and making the rest glance harmlessly off. Jumping up the rest of the way, Harry drove his shoulder into Grimme’s midsection. 
          Fetid breath coughed out. Grimme doubled over. As he did, though, this brought him within striking distance and his fangs plunged deep into the meat of Harry’s upper arm. The pain was white-hot and horrendous. Grimme’s lower jaw unhinged and came forward with gruesome eagerness. A second burst of pain screamed along Harry’s arm as the row of sharp bottom teeth dug in. One wrench of his head, and Grimme could pull away a gory semicircle of Harry’s flesh. To complete the fun, Harry could already feel poison pumping like molten lava into his bloodstream.
          Harry made a fist, concentrating as well as he was able with his arm feeling as though it were melting off from the shoulder. An invisible glove of power formed around his hand. He swung, and the sensation was one of incredible boosting
          The invisible fist hit Grimme where his ear normally would have been, where there was only a small hole in the scaly side of his skull. Grimme was driven sideways. His teeth and fangs ripped out of Harry and drew a scream. 
          He could see shreds of his white uniform shirt caught in that pointed ivory maw. Blood was running freely to his wrist and from there dripping onto the floor. 
          Grimme, dazed but still moving, straightened up and held his head as if to steady it. Harry, left arm hanging limp at his side, could have pressed his attack or made his escape. 
          He chose escape, knowing that Grimme’s poison was being pumped briskly through him with each rapid thud of his heart. He ran for the door, shouting something incoherent to the Muggles still bound in the pentagram. Something about how they needn’t worry, he’d be right back. He was going numb. Numbness was a relief from the pain but horrifying in its own right. His arm already might have belonged to someone else for all the use he could get of it. And a tingling tide was washing out from the site of the wound. Across his chest and back. Up his neck.
          Stumbling, his throat feeling like it was closing to a pinhole and a high-pitched humming in his ears, Harry got out of the smaller chamber. He was pelting toward the archway as fast as his legs would carry him when he saw movement ahead. 
          No, it was just his own shadow, cast wildly on the walls by the light of the Soulstone. It wasn’t the statues flanking the entrance coming to life to get him.
          Behind him, Fyren Grimme roared again. Not an alligator this time but a dinosaur, some ferocious meat-eater fresh from the primordial swamps. The rasp-slither of his tail was louder as he gained.
          Harry made it through the archway, unbothered by the statues that stood to either side. But now he could not see, the darkness stretching out in front of him. The numbness had reached his jaw.
          His right arm was still functional. He raised it, and his wand, and the light that poured forth was enough to make him squint. He charged between the biers, eyes fixed on the slice of darkness that marked the door he’d propped open. 
          A coffin was resting on the floor right in front of him. He’d seen it before, polished ebony kept so scrupulously clean that he’d wondered if the house-elves made regular forays down here to tidy, too. It poked up from the low-lying mist like a dark island.
          A force bolt hit Harry square in the back. He had let his shielding spell lapse somewhere along the line. The numbness dulled the pain but it was still like being walloped with a Bludger. Harry was pitched forward toward the coffin. 
          He tried to turn his helpless lunge into a leap, thinking that if he could just clear it, he’d have a straight shot for the door.
          The lid opened as he leaped.
          His shins cracked hard against the edge. His fall-turned-leap became a graceless somersault. The mist provided no cushion to the stone floor. Every bone felt jarred loose. Harry’s teeth came together hard enough to crack a walnut. 
          The mist billowed over him, veiling his vision with white. His wand had flown free in the landing and was still giving off light somewhere to the right of him. A broken groan rattled from his lips. 
          Movement, a shape near. Grimme?
          Stepping out of the coffin as lithely as a dancer was Ophidia Winterwind. A simple shift of sheer black silk covered her from sternum to knees, belted by a scarlet cord. A velvet pouch hung from this cord. In the snowy pallor of her face, her eyes burned like embers. 
          Harry wanted to get up, but none of his limbs were obeying him. He dimly wondered if he’d snapped his spine and paralyzed himself when he hit the floor.
          She stood over him, and at a wave of her hand the mist over his face parted and swirled away. 
          “Oh, poor Harry,” she said. “You’ve been bitten.”
          To his surprise, his voice worked. “I know what you’re up to. I know what you did.”
          “You might have some ideas, dear boy, but you’re mistaken. Here. Let me help you.” Ophidia held out one carmine-tipped hand. 
          “Stole the Soulstone,” Harry said, or tried to. It was as good as a tongue-twister. 
          “For good reason. Take my hand, Harry.”
          “The poison will finish you in seconds, unless you accept my help.”
          “Don’t care,” he said. The numbness had reached his tongue now, making it feel thick and puffy, like it did after a trip to the dentist. His words came out slurred. 
          She stepped over him with one long leg and stood a-straddle, hands on her hips. “Stubborn creature, aren’t you?”
          Grimme scraped and slithered nearby, but she waved him off. 
          “Killed Jeremy,” Harry said with an increasing slur. “Stole the --”
          “All will be made clear to you.” Ophidia knelt, and lowered her body onto Harry’s. Her breasts pushed on his chest, her thighs bracketed his, and a slow, rich smile played about her ruby lips as she peeled away the tatters of his shirt. 
          Harry jerked, thinking crazily that this was what almost every warm-blooded male in Hogwarts had been dreaming of, and now that it was happening he had rarely been more terrified. 
          “Don’t thrash so,” she said, amused. “I’m trying to help you.”
          Her tongue slicked her lips, and then she opened her mouth. The twin crescents of her fangs glimmered. 
          “No,” Harry said mushily. 
          “Someone must suck out the poison.” 
          She lay full atop him, pressing her face to his upper arm. His blood smeared over her chin and cheeks. He could feel nothing, but he could hear the revolting sounds. Sucking and lapping. A blunt pressure that was probably truly needling pain as her fangs pierced him. 
          A vision came to Harry then, so clear that he would have mistaken it for a memory except he had no such memory in his head. An alcove between two buildings. Himself, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, lost in a fog of hypnosis as she writhed against him. Her breath cold on his neck, her lips warm. And then the pain, brief but sweet, so sweet, and the heat unspooling through his veins as he gave himself over to her, surrendered … 
          Then it had been over. Too soon. Leaving him aching and unfulfilled. Hurt. Confused. Wanting more. Wanting all. To give until he was drained, to be hers for all time. But he was denied. Left needing. And in that vulnerable state, her whispering, insidious voice curling into his mind like the very mist in which he now lay. 
          She rose from his prone body and wiped delicately at her lips. It was a useless gesture – her face was wet with his blood and drips of it fell onto the white expanse of skin, pooling in the hollow of her collarbone and then trickling into the valley of her cleavage. Her eyes were glowing now, radiant as jewels.
          Harry could not move. The numbness had been leached from him, the scalding poison gone. Grimme’s ghastly bite had faded to a pinkish ring of scars, healed not by phoenix tears but by Ophidia’s saliva. But he could not move. He was leaden, frozen with horror. And morbidly fascinated with that one trickle of blood, running down, down …
          “I could have killed him,” Grimme snarled. His tail lashed the mist, roiling it. 
          “That’s the last thing I want,” Ophidia said sternly. “Harry Potter is our ally.”
          “Never.” He tried to say it strongly but what came out was a faint murmur that even he could barely hear. 
          “The enemy of our enemy, and all that,” she continued. “He’s faced Voldemort twice now and earned a draw … think of what he could do once Voldemort is stripped of his powers. He will be such a force for good as this world hasn’t seen since the days of Godric Gryffindor himself. No Dark wizard will be able to stand against him once the Dark magic is no longer theirs. This young man will be a paladin for the White, Fyren. He’ll be legend. Moreso than he already is.”
          “But what about us, then?” complained Grimme. “We’re still Dark wizards.”
          “There are many colors of darkness, many shades of black,” Ophidia said, nearly sang. “In the struggle between good and evil, there must be some balance. One side is truer by its opposition to the other. Voldemort does not serve Dark magic for the sake of the Dark. He uses it for his own ends. He’d just as soon have gone with white magic if it would have won him the prize he so cherishes.”
          “You’re … mad,” gasped Harry.
          She looked down on him with sympathy and something horribly akin to love. “No, Harry. I see more clearly than anyone. Even Dumbledore, bless his wise old head. He has served the White all his life, but he and those like him have lost sight of it. They’ve been muddled by well-meaning dolts such as those at the Ministry. They claim their purpose is to regulate magic fairly, but they’ve become so bogged down in petty rules and foolishness that they’ve lost any real power. That’s why they can only hinder Dumbledore in his efforts against Voldemort. And too many wizards follow their example. They’re afraid to act lest they get in trouble with the Ministry, oh alas, oh alack. It is wizards like you, Harry, and like me, who will set the world to rights. No quibbling over rules and bureaucracy. Action, Harry. That’s the key.”
          His strength was returning to him. In fact, he felt as whole and healthy and full of vigor as if he’d just been released from a week’s bed rest in the hospital wing. But at the same time, he felt unutterably foul. She had bitten him, insinuated her will into his mind, gotten him to do her bidding. Worst of all, he’d liked it. Liked having her lips on him, her teeth in him, her body tight and warm against his. It filled him with a black excitement. 
          He tried to fight it off as if it was the Imperius Curse. Suggestion was more powerful than command, seduction stronger than control. His soul felt dirty and violated.
          “Don’t look at me so, Harry,” she wheedled. “I’m sorry for the … covertness? Underhandedness? Well, whatever … I’m sorry if my methods distress you. I’m sure that once you’ve given me the chance to explain, you’ll agree. Whatever our pathways, our destination and goal are the same.”
          “I don’t think so.”
          “No? Wouldn’t you like to see the threat of Voldemort and his Death Eaters removed forever?”
          Warily, knowing it was a trap, he nodded. 
          “And war, Harry, think of war. There’s one brewing now and you know it. The Dark Lord is raising the dead, making himself an army with which to overrun whatever pitiful resistance Dumbledore can drum up. Now, don’t bristle so … I have nothing but the highest regard for his abilities. It’s the abilities of the rest of the wizarding world that makes me wring my hands in despair. They won’t want to fight until it’s too late.”
          He nodded again, because in his gut he knew it was true. Dumbledore’s efforts to get the Ministry to listen had met with indifference or hostility, and most people seemed perfectly happy to ignore the very real danger. She was right. They wouldn’t want to organize and fight until they believed it was happening, and they wouldn’t believe that until Voldemort was laughing victoriously over their heaped and smoking bodies.
          “There was nearly war fifteen years ago, Harry,” Ophidia said, putting her hand on his shoulder. It was cool, and until she touched him he hadn’t realized he had made it to his feet. But he was standing, leaning against a bier to be honest, but standing. “Do you know why there wasn’t?”
          “Because of me.”
          “Because of you.” Her hand moved, tracing the scar, and it was like she was stroking a nerve ending that ran all through his body. “If not for you, Voldemort would have gathered his followers and unleashed devastation all around. Untold lives would have been lost. But he was stopped. His plans were shattered. Help me stop him again.”
          “I don’t trust you.”
          “I hear that quite often, actually. That’s all right. I’m not asking for your trust. Only your help.”
          “It’s the same thing.”
          “If we don’t act now, he will come. He’ll come with an army of the Undead at his back, and he won’t quit until the ground runs red with blood. People will die. Needlessly. Your friends, Harry. Families will be torn apart. Everything that we have, everything that wizards like Dumbledore have worked so hard to build and maintain, will be smashed asunder.”
          “I’m not denying that Voldemort has to be stopped,” Harry said. “But your way is wrong.”
          “Haven’t you ever heard of fighting fire with fire?” she chuckled. “No, pardon me, this is hardly a time for humor. Let me show you what I intend. You’ll see. It’s the best way, Harry. Maybe the only way.”


Chapter Fifteen – The Black Court.

          Harry stood in the chilly crypt, thinking to himself that this was the sort of thing better done at midnight. Not, as a peek at his watch confirmed, still an hour shy of lunch. 
          He must have been missed by now, and by teachers less oblivious than Professor Binns. But there was a tendency where Harry was concerned for the instructors at Hogwarts to turn something of a blind or benign eye to his doings. He got away with more than every other student in the school combined, a fact that sometimes caused him a good deal of distress and embarrassment. He’d never asked to be famous, certainly hadn’t set out to become a hero. 
          And sometimes, it really did have its drawbacks. Such as now. Here he was, in a good deal of trouble, and nobody knew where he was. Worse, in all likelihood nobody was even worried enough about him to wonder. He couldn’t rely on the sort of last-minute rescue – or deus ex machina, even – that had gotten him out of his previous perils. 
          “You can’t do this,” he tried one last, desperate time. “They’ve done nothing to you.”
          “And I have nothing against them,” Ophidia Winterwind assured him. “They are serving a greater purpose, that’s all.”
          The topic of their discussion, the Muggle pair still lying bound and gagged on the hard stone floor, regarded them with blank and uncomprehending stares. The terror that had filled the woman’s eyes was drowned in a sea of bewilderment. The man drifted in some state between shock and catatonia, as if the events had finally ripped his mind free of sanity. 
          Above them, the Soulstone glowed and shifted with cool fire. The candles at the points of the pentagram had been lit, adding their own flickering red flames to the tableau. Fyren Grimme, who had plaintively asked Ophidia for the permanent cure to his affliction and been sweetly told that he’d have to wait until the ritual was complete, was off to one side with his scaled face snarling. 
          “That belongs to Battenby House,” Harry said. “The life force is meant for them. You told me so yourself.”
          “I did, and it is … but there is not enough in the Soulstone to restore the shades. There is, however, enough for my purpose. The Upwood boy had great vitality. We could hardly have chosen a better to open this way for us.”
          “It’s theirs!” cried Harry. “If you use it for this, they’ll never be able to come back!”
          “Harry, Harry,” she said, shaking her head. She reached to comb her fingers through his unruly black hair, but he jerked his head away. She pouted briefly. “Life force is a marvelous thing, Harry. It dwells within each of us, and it continually regenerates. Parents give a portion of their own into their unborn children, and regain what was lost. So, you see, what I take from the Soulstone today will eventually … to use a Muggle term … recharge.”
          Ophidia had taken his wand. When Harry made a halfhearted move, knowing that even if he got it he’d never be able to fight them both despite having been healed of the poison by her awful, wonderful bite, she chided him and put it into the pouch at her belt. The pouch was far shallower than the wand was long, but the eleven inches of holly with its core of phoenix feather did not poke through the bottom. It vanished as if the pouch were deep as a well and he knew it would be useless to try and summon it.
          She was wielding her own wand at the moment, which was supple ebony. It traced mystic sigils in the air. They hung there in red strokes of flame. Ophidia walked around the pentagram, and each mark she made in the air was a mimic of one inscribed in chalk on the floor. When she had completed the circle, the hanging symbols both brightened and diffused, and settled down to sink into the stone. The chalk marks came alight, outlining the pentagram in fire. 
          “The jars,” Ophidia said, gesturing to the sealed black urns that rested by the heads of the captive Muggles. “Can you guess what they contain, Harry?”
          He couldn’t, nor did he particularly want to. She told him anyway.
          “Four hundred years ago, the wizards of England were led by one man. Count Douglas Tyrrell, alternately called Douglas the Terrible, and Black Douglas. Does that name ring any bells?”
          “The Black Court,” Harry said. “But he didn’t lead the wizards. They cast him out. Killed him. He was a Dark wizard.”
          “The history that they teach you in school is often rather biased,” she said. “I could tell you the whole story, but why don’t we let him speak for himself?”
          She raised her wand above her head in both hands, and invoked the words of a lengthy and complicated spell. Harry shouted, hoping to distract her concentration, but to no avail. 
          The Soulstone wavered and began to dim, its light lowered by an unseen rheostat. 
          A spectral glow formed around the urn nearest the Muggle man’s head. The waxen seal of it cracked and fell apart in brittle slivers. The lid wobbled, shook, and began to twirl. It was like watching a spun coin revolve down onto a table, except in reverse. The lid tipped up and up until it was spinning on edge, then flipped into the air like a tiddlywink and hit the floor, where it broke.
          Corpse-grey mist exhaled from the open top of the urn. It spread out searching grey pseudopods, making Harry think of the giant squid. 
          This sight brought the Muggle man back from whatever far place in which he’d taken refuge. He recoiled from the ectoplasmic mass floating above him, and his chest heaved with panicked breath. Air whistled in and out of his nose.
          The mass separated, branched, and dove into the Muggle’s wide-open eyes, gasping nostrils, and ears. In a matter of seconds the entire insubstantial substance of it had vanished into the man’s head. 
          His back arched. His throat swelled with what had to be a horrible, larynx-splitting scream. He was touching the floor with just the back of his head and his heels, his body a bow. 
          “No!” Harry yelled. “You’re killing him!” He ran toward Ophidia, but she brought him to a halt with a single commanding look. 
          The man shuddered and went limp, eyes rolled back, lids jittering spasmodically. Then they popped open, dark and full of awareness. He yanked at the chains that held him and the chains snapped as if they’d been made of paper. The man arose and drew the gag away.
          He showed no signs of his former fear. His mouth was a cruel slash, one eyebrow sardonically slanted.
          “My Lord Count,” Ophidia said, inclining her head to him. “Welcome.”
          Harry hadn’t thought he could go any colder. “Black Douglas?”
          “If you’ll but spare me a moment, my lord,” added Ophidia, “I’ll restore your lady to you.”
          “Please do.” It was a rollingly rich voice, a confident voice. And, Harry was certain, absolutely not the natural voice of the body standing before them.
          Ophidia repeated her spell. The other urn began to undergo the same effect. 
          The Muggle woman, having seen what befell her companion, thrashed in her chains and tried to get away, but when she touched the glowing lines of the pentagram she jerked away as if burned. Another grey mass rose from the urn and flowed into her through her eyes, nose, and ears. She, too, screamed soundlessly and went first rigid, then slack, and finally stood unencumbered beside the man. 
          “My Elsbeth,” Douglas Tyrrell said, extending his hand. “We live again.”
          “Is this the best we could get?” said the woman huskily, looking down on the bare Muggle body with a wrinkle of distaste. 
          Harry reeled. Ophidia had told him that shades could temporarily inhabit living bodies, but somehow nothing about this brought shades to mind. Jeremy and the other students of Battenby House that he’d seen hadn’t struck him at all similar to these two.
          What, then, did that leave?
          He knew as he looked at Ophidia Winterwind. “Vampires.”
          “Very good, Harry! If we were in class right now I’d award Gryffindor ten points for the correct deducement.”
          “You raised vampires!” He rubbed his neck in memory of that Knockturn Alley bite, the one he’d mistaken – because she’d fogged his mind into it – for a shaving nick. 
          “Fyren,” Ophidia said. “The pentagram.”
          He slid forth in eager obedience and snuffed out the candles. The lines of power faded back into chalk, which Fyren then scuffed with the muscular weight of his coils. Douglas and Elsbeth Tyrrell stepped out of the broken spell, moving tentatively in their new bodies. Above them, the Soulstone was dark and empty, a glass ball containing nothing but shadows. 
          The situation had gone from bad to markedly worse. Harry backed up, but there was nowhere to run. Grimme was between him and the exit, and a single glance from Ophidia would be enough to ensure her charm spell held him in check. 
          “The Black Court,” said Ophidia in satisfaction. “Four hundred years ago, Harry, they ruled the Dark wizards with a firm hand. No one could perform Dark magic without the express permission of the Black Count and his Countess. He controlled it all. He regulated it all. If someone displeased him, that someone ran the risk of losing all power. Don’t you see now what I intend? The beauty of it?”
          “Sure, I see it,” Harry said. “You’ve brought them back thinking they’ll snatch control of all Dark magic away from Voldemort and his Death-Eaters.”
          “And instead, we get them!” He pointed at the two, who glared hotly at him. “Their reign was one of absolute terror and control. You think, you honestly think, that they’ll be better than Voldemort?”
          “Harry, my dear Harry, this is hardly a case of better-the-devil-you-know! Count Douglas was a wise and just ruler.”
          “And a vampire.” 
          He had seen the subtle changes taking place in the possessed Muggle bodies. Douglas Tyrrell was two inches taller already, his chest and shoulders broadening. His skin had paled, nowhere near Ophidia’s alabaster hue but getting there. His hair had deepened toward auburn. Elsbeth, though, had gone dusky, an olive complexion with an ashen undertone. She was shorter, wider, a fleshy Rubenesque nude with a mane of curly dark hair. In both of them, the eyes had gained a reddish cast and the lips had pushed out as the teeth beneath reconfigured themselves. 
          “A real vampire,” Harry amended. He was understanding it all now. “And that’s what’s in it for you, isn’t it, Ophidia? You’ve always wanted to be one. That’s what you’re all about. The look, the Animagus power, the blood lollipops, the fangs. How’d you do it? Biting me, enthralling people, how’d that work?”
          “Very, very good, Harry,” she said softly. “That would have earned fifty points. The fangs are Transfigured, hollow. The left contains a Healing Potion, the right a mixture of Hypnosis and Pheromone elixirs. Don’t tell Severus; he thinks I’m no good with Potions. It was true when we were in school together, but I’ve improved greatly since then.”
          The Count and Countess had completed their changes. All they needed were the blood-red robes and black capes with the high fan-shaped collars, and they’d be exactly as Harry remembered from illustrations in textbooks and histories. They were examining themselves and each other, not paying particular attention to the others, but by the posture of Black Douglas’ head, Harry knew he was listening. 
          “So what now?” Harry asked. He felt more naked than ever without his wand, not that it would have done him much good even if he could have gotten it back from its resting place down the front of Ophidia’s gown. “Seize power?”
          “I think first a bit of catching-up might be in order,” Ophidia said. “They were killed in the traditional method four hundred years ago. A stake through the heart, decapitated, and then burned. Only the swift actions of one of their most loyal followers – a Winterwind, if I do say so myself – prevented their ashes from being scattered into running water. That would have been the end of them. Their ashes were preserved instead, sealed into those jars and hidden here. I’ll need to bring them up to date on all that’s happened since. By then, it should be night.”
          Here, Elsbeth scowled. “You raised us by day, you foolish wretch?”
          “You need not fear sunlight here,” Ophidia said, sounding nettled. “We are deep below the castle.”
          “Be that as it may,” said Douglas with a placating gesture to his wife, “there is still the matter of our Hunger. We cannot hunt by day, and we cannot last until night without sustenance.”
          Ophidia’s expression was one of sheerest rapture. “Which is why, my lord, I offer myself. I have always craved the un-life of the vampire. I have drunk of blood --” here Harry rubbed at his neck, and his arm, and felt his stomach slide greasily around. “—and I have brought you back for twofold reasons. Firstly, that you’ll take your rightful place and put an end to a plague of verminous Dark wizards. And secondly, that you’ll accept me into your Court.”
          “You ask much for one small service,” said Black Douglas, but by the way he was looking at Ophidia, it was clear he wouldn’t have minded at all taking a nice deep bite of her ivory-smooth throat. 
          Elsbeth didn’t miss it either, and her scowl turned thunderous. “It does seem that there is much more we need to know before we agree to anything, husband. And there’s still the matter of my appetite to consider.” 
          At this, she sent speculative glances over Harry and Fyren Grimme, and returned to Harry. Grimme was fidgeting, obviously wanting to remind Ophidia of her promise and get the cure that would restore him to his human form, but realizing this was hardly the time for such interruptions. Harry himself would have been downright glad of an interruption … anything to get that avaricious, frightening gaze to shift elsewhere. 
          “You wish one of the boys?” inquired Douglas of his wife.
          “The reptile looks far too … cold-blooded,” Elsbeth said. “You know I don’t care for gazpacho, darling husband mine. I’ll have the brunette. He’s got an aura about him that promises a most enticing feast.” 
          Ophidia started. “My lord, my lady, no … he’s not a part of the bargain. He is to be among your opposite number. Can you not see that the power of the White Court is all around him?”
          “Which is but another reason to deal with him now,” Elsbeth said, taking a step toward Harry. “Before he attains it. Paladins are best when they’re unripe.”
          “I brought you back!” cried Ophidia. “Is this the thanks I get?”
          “What did you expect?” Harry shot at her. “You raise the leaders of the Black Court, and think they’ll play fair? They’re as Dark, as evil, as Voldemort or any of the others!”
          Douglas chuckled with a warmly mocking tone. He had somehow gotten next to Ophidia without seeming to move, and he placed the tips of his fingers under her chin to lift her face toward his. He tilted her head, which exposed the long line of her neck to him. “Don’t fret, pretty one. Half your bargain is made.” 
          His lips – which were not vermilion but a rusty black – peeled away from his fangs. The fangs themselves were nothing like Ophidia’s. These were snaggled hooks, streaked with yellow, and the top pair were met by a bottom pair that rose from the lower jaw. 
          Elsbeth Tyrrell was right in front of Harry. She was a short woman, the top of her head coming level with his nose, but this meant that she was looking straight ahead at the pulse throbbing under his jaw. Harry had run out of room for backing up. 
          “Ah … no, wait,” Ophidia said, interposing her hand between herself and Douglas’ nightmare grin. “There’s perhaps some things left to explain …” She was doing her best to back away from the vampire, circling around toward Harry. 
          “We must be fed,” Douglas said to her. “You raised us. Are you not responsible for us?”
          Second thoughts showed in the taut, anxious frown that knit her ebon brows. But her questing eyes locked into Douglas’ burning ones, and the tension began to seep slowly from her. Harry saw her fall into that piercing stare the way one might fall into sleep, unprotesting. 
          Except, with a quaver to her voice, she said, “Fyren … stop them.”
          “Give me what’s mine and I will,” he hissed.
          She fished into her pouch, her arm sinking nearly to the elbow in a bag that looked no more than four inches deep. “I … yes …”
          “No,” Douglas said calmly. 
          He pulled her hand back out. Something snagged on the interior of the pouch and turned it inside-out as her hand emerged. An amazing amount of items spilled/bounced/clattered to the floor. Quills, vials, blood-flavored lollipops, Harry’s wand, scraps of parchment, lipstick, jewelry, an old-fashioned pocket watch, a hairbrush, a jar containing something mottled and swamp-looking. 
          Then everything happened at once. 

Chapter Sixteen – Dissolution and Resolution.

          Fyren Grimme dove for the jar with a low, needing cry. A similar cry came from the lips of Elsbeth Tyrrell, as she darted her head sideways at Harry, mouth opening wide. Crooked, vicious fangs came at him. Douglas curled an arm around Ophidia and yanked her into his grasp. Ophidia’s head fell back, her hair a midnight waterfall, her throat vulnerable. 
          And Harry? What did Harry do while all this was going on? He was not idle. As the cold, loathsome breath of Elsbeth doused his skin in a clammy residue, he ducked and pushed away from the bier he’d been pressed against. He knocked the jar away as he went for his wand. It skittered and rolled, glass making brittle clinking sounds on the stone. Fyren wailed in fury, his claws closing on empty air.
          Wand in his fist, Harry turned and was driven to his knees by a scrabbling figure. Elsbeth was on his back. She had him by the hair and was pulling his head until he could only see the chaotic arches and moldings and vaultings of the ceiling above. Corners meeting at wrong angles. A ring of gargoyles leering down. Then all was obscured as the hungry vampire-woman leaned over him.
          He bent and twisted, losing a handful of hair clear to the scalp. She struck again. He got his arm between them, shouting a spell almost as an afterthought.
          The result was most gratifying. His forearm went hard as iron, and Elsbeth’s grotesque assortment of teeth broke apart on it. A stinging hail of enamel pelted Harry’s face. 
          Ophidia Winterwind screamed. It was high and shrill and sustained, a silver spike of a scream that went through flesh and vibrated in bone. Vials that had fallen from her pouch shattered in sympathetic response. The jar, which Fyren Grimme had just scooped up, did likewise and his hand was filled with shards and the preservative slime in which the mottled egg-sized object had been contained.
          Something else shattered, gritty bits of crystal raining down on Harry from above. 
          Harry spun toward Ophidia and saw her limp in Douglas’ embrace. The Black Count’s mouth was poised just above the artery as he paused to savor the moment and lick his lips. 
          A bowl-shaped fragment of the Soulstone fell past Harry’s face on its way to the floor. He caught it with the reflexes of a Seeker, though it was many times the size of a Snitch. He balanced it on one hand, half a sphere with a rim of diamond points. 
          An impulse seized him and Harry did not question it. “Reparus!” he called, and tapped the crystal bowl with his wand.
          A storm of flying glass flew all around him. He stood at the center of it, unscathed. The sound was scratchy and brittle as the Soulstone reassembled itself into a perfect ball. But it did not stop there. Harry was shaken like a leaf in a gale as a wind was sucked into the Soulstone. It was as if he held an airless vacuum in his hand, a black hole, one that would draw in everything around it. 
          Magical force buffeted the chamber. Grimme, his robes whipping in the tumult, barely noticed as he raised the dripping egg with the mottled greenish shell to his face. It was crusted and spined with glass, but that did not stop the snake-man from stuffing it whole into his mouth.
          “Noooooo!” shrieked Elsbeth, and launched herself at Harry. She had continued to change, becoming hideous and haglike, a  sunken-cheeked Nosferatu from her rapacious hunger. 
          Even as she jumped, Douglas dropped Ophidia – Harry saw her fall like a sack of laundry – and cried out a “Noooo!” of his own, this one aimed more at his wife. 
          Too late. She passed near the Soulstone and a gaseous mist erupted from her body. From her very skin. She voiced an agonized cry that seemed to come from an impossible distance. 
          Light was filling the Soulstone. A blue-white cloud coalesced at its heart and grew.
          Elsbeth staggered back, arms crossed in front of her face. Her metamorphosis went wild. Her skin paled, darkened, smoothed, wizened. The Soulstone continued to drain the stolen life force from her, and with a pop that drove Harry’s eardrums into his head, the ectoplasmic mass that he’d seen before suddenly exploded from her mouth. The body of the Muggle woman, her former self once more, collapsed in a dead faint. 
          The mass surged toward Harry, taking on the aspect of a demonic face that was all mouth and smoke-teeth and holes like eyes. He couldn’t let go of the Soulstone, could do nothing as it swept toward him in a banshee howl –
          A streak whizzed past Harry and into the mass. It did not pass through but carried the pinned and writhing essence of Elsbeth Tyrrell across the room, where it hit the wall and was seemingly stuck there. Stuck by virtue of the arrow, with a shaft of ash and head of cold iron, impaling it through the center. 
          The Black Count unleashed a terrible cry, harrowing his face with his hooklike fingernails. 
          The shapeless mass for an instant resembled a woman. Then amorphousness returned, and with it solidity. A sickly lump was nailed to the wall by the arrow. It dried, flaked, and fell away into dust, leaving the arrow at the center of a dark and sinister stain.
          Harry held the Soulstone aloft. “Now you, Douglas Tyrrell!” His voice did not sound quite like his own, but he attributed it to the deafness and ringing in his ears, and the rushing noise of the wind. 
          The glare he got was pure, distilled hate. He couldn’t help but flinch from it, and in the moment of his flinch, Douglas raced straight for the wall. He altered as he went, turning smoky and transparent. The old myths – wolf, bat, body of mist. The Black Count streamed toward the fissured wall, meaning to escape into it.
          “Helios,” came a weak whisper. Ophidia Winterwind, clinging to consciousness by a thread, leveled her wand at the wall. 
          Sunlight, dazzling and hot, banished the artificial night of the subterranean chamber. Harry’s eyes gushed water, squinting painfully. In that unrelenting noonday brightness – and this was not the day as it might be outside right now, not the clear but cool sun of October; this was a July in the desert – the crypts and gargoyles were robbed of their spooky malice and could have been props of a carnival haunted house. 
          Heat roared through the room. Harry saw Ophidia’s snow-white skin redden and blister. But the fleeing misty form of Douglas Tyrrell twisted like a rag in midair. A ghastly, unearthly screech sounded. Abruptly, the body of the Muggle man reappeared. He was like a man in the throes of a seizure, a man in the electric chair. More energy streamed into the Soulstone, and another ectoplasmic mass was ejected from his mouth like a clot of grey vomit. 
          This clot shriveled and began to smoke in the stark magical sunshine. In moments, there was naught but a spill of dust, fine as powder, and another charred mark upon the floor. The Muggle man crumpled. 
          The sunlight winked out, casting Harry back into darkness illuminated only by the glow emanating from the now-full sphere balanced on one outstretched hand. Then the wind of the Soulstone ceased. The humming of power that had trembled up Harry’s arm faded to a low quiver. 
          He gasped a breath, surprised that he was there to do so, and slowly surveyed the room around him with eyes that were still dazzled and seeing streaks and spots. 
          Fyren Grimme was on the floor, contorted and groaning like someone suffering horrible cramps and pains. Blood leaked from his torn mouth. Ophidia Winterwind, sunburned but unblemished by bite marks, sank in a swoon amid the litter from her pouch. The Muggles were alive, if only barely, judging by the sporadic rise and fall of their chests. 
          He nearly dropped the Soulstone. 
          Three figures stood in the doorway. The one who had spoken, Hermione, was looking at Harry like she’d never quite seen him before. A species of awe was in her gaze. Ron, to her left, was blinking and amazed.
          And standing between them, lowering a crossbow and blowing a strand of lank black hair out of his eyes, was Professor Severus Snape. 
          “Huh?” Harry said. His befuddled mind couldn’t seem to summon words. 
          “Well, Mr. Potter,” Snape said. “Saved the world already, and it’s not even Halloween.”
          Harry was still speechless.
          Hermione ran to him but stopped a yard away. “Harry?”
          He realized how he must look. His robes were gone, only a few scraps of cloth remained of his shirt, he was covered in blood and dust. He probably looked more like Sirius Black in Sirius’ most disheveled, fresh-from-Azkaban state than he did his father in that moment. Further, he was holding a crystal that pulsed and cycled with cold radiance. Ron and Hermione might be in awe, but Snape seemed to regard him with what Harry almost took for a grudging respect. Or maybe it was merely the shine of the Soulstone in Snape’s dark eyes. 
          “I’m all right,” he said. 
          His body belied the words, as he commenced with a shivering that once again almost tipped the sphere from his hand. He gave his wand to Hermione and cradled the Soulstone in both hands, ever-so-carefully lowering it to a depression in the floor. Then and only then did he let himself shudder in earnest as the reaction set in. 
          “You must be freezing,” Hermione said. She hastily stripped off her own robe and threw it around his bare shoulders. 
          “What happened?” Ron finally asked. “What is all this?” He peered suspiciously up at Snape. “And how’d you know, anyway?”
          “I would suggest, Mr. Weasley,” said Albus Dumbledore as he appeared behind them, “that you do try harder to use a more proper tone when addressing a professor.”
          The passageway was filling with people, many of whom hesitated before filing into the chamber. Madame Pomfrey checked first on Fyren, then joined Professor Dursley in taking charge of the unconscious Muggles. Snape passed his crossbow unconcernedly to Ron and went to Ophidia Winterwind. He stood over her with his eyes briefly closed in what surely seemed to be genuine grief. 
Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and Professor Charon came toward Harry. The Head of Battenby House looked much the worse for wear. Hermione tried to coax him into sitting down, but Harry’d had enough of talking to Dumbledore from chairs or hospital beds.
          “I’m all right,” he told her again.
          “When you didn’t come back …”
          “Hermione, it’s okay.”
          “Why don’t you let me be the judge of that, Harry?” asked Dumbledore. He bent, picked up the Soulstone, and held it out to Professor Charon. The Soulstone made weird St. Elmo’s Fire frolic along the rims of his half-moon glasses as Charon took it. “In the meantime, Orcus, I believe this belongs in your care. Harry, Professor Charon has related his story to me – we found him sealed into one of the spare coffins.”
          “Which brought back unsavory memories,” muttered Professor Charon. “Grimme caught me by surprise, struck me from behind. I only revived when I heard the sounds of your battle.”
          “So, Harry,” said Dumbledore. “I’d like to hear your side of it. Tell me everything, if you don’t mind.”
          Swallowing, Harry began. He started with what he now remembered from Knockturn Alley, spoke of Jeremy on the train and what he’d seen with the Potion of True-Sight, mentioned what they’d discussed in Defense Against the Dark Arts, glossed over just how he’d gotten the idea that someone from Slytherin House was up to some extracurricular activities on behest of Professor Winterwind, said nothing whatsoever about the late-night trip to the greenhouse and what had happened after – Hermione, he noted, was looking down and blushing and well aware of what he was not saying – and moved on to Jeremy’s revelation about the stolen Soulstone and what he’d found when he’d traced it here. 
          “I see,” Dumbledore said. “Severus? What’s your part in this?”
          “When I saw these two,” Snape said, indicating Ron and Hermione, “sneaking off toward the dungeons instead of heading for lunch, I made it my business to follow and question them. Once I heard their suppositions, my worst fears were confirmed.”
          “Are you telling me that you knew what Miss Winterwind was up to?”
          Miss Winterwind. Harry didn’t think that Dumbledore’s choice of words was an accident. He was normally quite proper about referring to professors as professors. Oddly, although she’d gotten him into this mess, tricked him, lied to him, and damn near gotten him killed and/or turned into a vampire, he caught himself feeling sorry for her. 
          “I did have some idea, but I’d been under the impression it was something she was researching, as a possibility. Not something she intended to attempt so soon.” Snape crouched and gathered Ophidia into his arms. “I’d known of her fascination with the Black Court, and thought it was for obvious purposes. I also knew she had always been opposed to the Dark Lord. When she found a way to combine the two …” 
          “And Grimme?” McGonagall asked. “I remember the day he Transfigured himself, and how badly it all went wrong. What did she give him to undo the spell? What, when none of our methods worked?”
          “An echidna egg,” Snape said. “Steeped in a mixture of Polymorph Potion, and mercury for reversal.”
          McGonagall sucked in a gasp. “Echidna eggs and mercury are toxic!”
          Snape nodded. “Precisely why we never tried that remedy on Mr. Grimme ourselves. The risk was too great. Apparently, he felt otherwise. Enough so that he even agreed to a geas that bound him to perform three tasks for Ophidia.”
          “Killing Jeremy Upwood,” Harry said, “Kidnapping the Muggles, and then stealing the Soulstone. But the effects wore off, and he was changed back.”
          “So,” guessed Hermione, “to get another dose, he had to agree to help her with this ritual?”
          Snape nodded again. Curled against his chest, her lashes sooty on her cheeks, Ophidia Winterwind looked small and innocent as a child. He held her effortlessly, and stroked her hair in an absent manner as he heaved a sigh. “There you have it, Professor Dumbledore. All the facts of her little conspiracy.”
          “What … what will happen to her?” Harry asked. “She did, at the end, change her mind. She cast the sunlight spell that destroyed Black Douglas.”
          Dumbledore raised a hand to quell him. “I am going to have to consider this matter very carefully, Mr. Potter. Both she and Fyren Grimme have committed serious crimes. We may be able to undo some of them – how are the Muggles, Madame Pomfrey?”
          “A little banged up,” the nurse said, “but otherwise unharmed.”
          “Memory Charm should soon set them right,” added Professor Dursley. “I’d be happy to oversee getting them back where they belong.”
          “Very good,” said Dumbledore. “Minerva, what about the vampires?”
          “Finished,” Professor McGonagall declared.
          “And you, Professor Charon, have the Soulstone once more in your custody.” Dumbledore looked evenly at Harry. “So most of their deeds are undone … but a boy is still dead, Harry. And there were abuses made on your person, as well.”
          Hermione held Harry’s hand tightly. He smiled at her, grateful for her caring. 
          “I’m fine, really. It’s Jeremy I feel worst about.”
          Professor Charon spoke up. With his face underlit by the glow of the Soulstone, he looked more cadaverous and strange than ever. “That too can be remedied in time. With this. He will progress rapidly through Battenby House, I think, and should have his chance to rejoin the world of the living. It is not as if he is truly dead, so it is not as if he is truly murdered.”
          “What are you all saying?” blurted Ron. “That you’re going to let it go? Let them get away with it? Come on! After all they’ve done? So it can be fixed, that’s grand, but that doesn’t make it like it never was. You can’t slap them on the wrist or sit them in the corner and tell them not to do it again.”
          “Mr. Weasley is very right,” said Dumbledore. “Consequences are certainly in order. For Mr. Grimme, it’s safe to say we’re all aware of how persuasive Miss Winterwind can be. Further, acting as he was out of desperation to end an intolerable state of being, I feel that he should not be held wholly to blame for his actions. Nonetheless, that which explains a behavior does not necessarily excuse it, and he shall be given detention for the rest of the term, and lose all Hogsmeade privileges.” 
          “And the echidna eggs?” McGonagall asked. “You can’t expect to continue treating him with those.”
          “Would you have that be a fitting punishment?” Dumbledore asked. “Consign him to that monstrous state forever? Not even I am so strict, Minerva.”
          “You’ll poison him otherwise!”
          “We merely need to explore the ramifications of this cure that Miss Winterwind devised. I’m sure that with the expertise of those such as Madame Pomfrey and Professor Snape here, we can come up with something that will do the job without harming the boy. It is, however, likely to be a long, tedious process. Not without its unpleasant moments and potentially painful side effects. And that, I think, should be punishment enough.”
          “What of Ophidia?” Snape asked. 
          Dumbledore ran his hand along his silvery beard thoughtfully. “It seems, Severus, that we’ll be needing someone to take over teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts for the rest of the year.”
          Snape’s face tightened and his eyes flashed. “Oh, really.”
          “On such short notice, that duty might need to fall to one of the other professors. I hardly have time to advertise for the job. What do you say?”
          A long moment stretched out. Dumbledore was offering the opportunity Snape had coveted for years, and here was Snape not leaping all over it. His expression was torn, tormented. 
          “It seems to me,” Snape said at long last, and not without difficulty, “that in the past, Professor Dumbledore, you’ve been willing to give new teachers a second chance and not hold their impulsive indiscretions against them.”
          McGonagall drew herself up as if about to protest, glanced at the students, and said nothing.
          Snape, not even looking her way, went on. “We have all done things in the course of our lives and the course of our careers that we regret. We’ve all had occasions when we’ve been tempted, or misled, or failed to see the error of our ways. You have been most accepting of our stumbles and weaknesses. As no … no lasting harm has been done, won’t you extend that same second chance to Professor Winterwind?”

Chapter Seventeen – A Hero’s Reward.

          Dumbledore’s office was hazy with dust motes, and smelled comfortingly of leather-bound books, old parchment, and the lingering echo of a previous Headmaster’s pipe smoke that not even decades could entirely chase away. 
          The room was spacious enough, but seemed crowded already by the amount of furniture in it and the portraits taking up every available inch of wall space. When several people were added, the room took on an apparent dimension no greater than the cupboard under the stairs where Harry had spend the first eleven nights of his life. 
          Elsewhere, Hogwarts was getting ready for the evening’s festivities. It was Halloween. The Great Hall was decorated, there was to be a scavenger hunt and other games, and as a special treat, a large supply of Potion of True-Sight had been laid in. On this night of all, the barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead – and the twilight realm between them – grew thin. Any student who wished could apply the drops and see with his or her own eyes the shades of Battenby House. 
          The previous few days, since the events in the catacombs, had passed in a flurry of gossip and speculation. Everywhere that Harry went, he was resigned to being pointed at and whispered about again. No one knew precisely what, but no one doubted that he’d somehow saved them all from certain doom. Fyren Grimme fared somewhat worse, as word of his detention got around. But the chief topic was Ophidia Winterwind, whose classes had been temporarily taken over by Snape while she was put before a disciplinary review board.
          Today’s meeting was to announce the final decision of that board. Since it had concerned him rather personally and directly, Harry had been invited to sit in and hear Dumbledore’s judgement. Ron and Hermione were allowed to attend as well, having witnessed the final outcome.
          Ron still couldn’t get over what Snape had done. “He had it right there in the palm of his hand,” he said nearly every time they were alone. “And he gave it all away. I can’t believe it.”
          “He might still have his chance,” Hermione said. “Dumbledore may decide to dismiss her anyway.”
          “But with Snape arguing for her …” Ron shook his head. “It’s amazing, it really is. The job he always wanted.”
          “Or the woman he loves,” Hermione said. “I think it was very noble of him.”
          “So do I,” Harry said, though the concepts of Snape and nobility still didn’t jell well inside his head.
          Be that as it may, it wasn’t up to Snape. It was up to Dumbledore, and they took their places in his dusty office. The various other professors similarly took their spots, and at last Dumbledore came in. There was a young woman with him, and it took Harry several seconds to recognize her. He heard Ron’s stifled cry of surprise, and Hermione’s.
          The woman was Ophidia Winterwind … and yet, it wasn’t. She was still tall and slim and curvaceous, but in high-collared robes of plain black she hardly looked the same at all. Her skin, once healed of the horrible sunburn, had settled on a more normal fair tone rather than the pure alabaster white it had been. Her hair was unchanged, but her eyes were altogether different. Not red anymore, but ordinary brown, sad and soulful. 
          Most of all, the intangible aura of promise and danger and sweet seduction that had surrounded her was absent. She was to all intents and appearances a normal woman. Pretty, yes, even beautiful … but humanly ordinary. 
          “After reviewing all of the information,” Dumbledore said once he’d greeted the assembly, “I offer the following solution. Ophidia Winterwind shall be kept on as a professor at Hogwarts, on five years’ probation. She will give up all the dark glamours with which she surrounded herself. Her classes will be conducted during normal school hours. She shall be subjected to periodic and random aura readings to assure her continued good faith. A single infraction will result not only in her immediate dismissal but a full investigation by the Ministry of Magic. Is this acceptable?”
          Professor McGonagall did not look overjoyed. In fact, she looked most troubled. Possibly, thought Harry, she was remembering a time when she’d been brought before such a review board herself. After some hesitation, she nodded.
          So did Snape, and the others. Lastly, Dumbledore turned to the penitent herself with a raised eyebrow.
          “Yes, Headmaster,” she said in a low voice. “I agree to your generous terms. You have my deepest apologies. You all have.” 
          There was more that was said, but that was the crux of it. When the meeting was done, Harry, Ron, and Hermione headed slowly down the hall, marveling over how different she’d looked. Hermione was smugly satisfied by this. 
          “Now all you boys won’t be drooling so much,” she said.
          “I wonder about Snape,” said Ron. “Think he’ll still like her? She’s not nearly so … so … well, malicious and delicious.”
          “Ron, you’re a pig,” sniffed Hermione. “You honestly are.”
          “I’m just saying!”
          Harry glanced back. “Shh. Doesn’t look like they’re having any problems.”
          Behind them, having lingered to be among the last to leave the room, Snape was walking with Ophidia Winterwind. 
          “Come on,” Harry whispered.
          “Not more eavesdropping,” Hermione complained. “Won’t you ever learn your lesson?”
          “We learn more this way than in class,” Ron said.
          “I’ll say,” said Harry wryly. “Not always what we want to learn either.”
          Hermione shared his thought and made a face, clearly remembering, as he was, what they’d heard and seen in the greenhouse. But the siren song was too great to deny, and they slipped into a nearby office and closed the door all but a crack. 
          “I will fully understand, Severus,” Ophidia was saying. “I’m not the same now.”
          “Not outwardly, perhaps.”
          Her breath was almost a sob. “I lived that way for so long that it wasn’t only outward. I wanted it so much that sometimes I started believing it was true. Now, what am I? Nothing special.”
          “You were always special,” Snape said, and in the darkened room Ron mimed gagging. “You still are.”
          “And you … what you did for me … Severus, I know what that must have cost you. Why, you’ve wanted that job as badly as I wanted to be a real vampire.”
          “But when you had your chance,” he said, “you realized other things were more important. So did I.”
          They moved out of earshot after that. Harry exhaled a disgruntled sigh. “It’s getting harder to hate him all the time.”
          “I think he feels that way about you, too,” Hermione said.
          Ron snickered. “So Snape gets a happy ending. Who’d’ve thought it? Let’s go see if they’ve posted the lists for the scavenger hunt yet. I may not know the castle as well as Fred and George did, but I’ve got to have a pretty good idea.”
          They went down, and the list was indeed posted. As each student touched the parchment tacked to the wall beside the doors into the Great Hall, a perfect copy peeled away into his or her hand. People were already rushing around and chattering excitedly, trying to plan the best way to collect owl feathers, werewolf howls, ghost fingerprints, green bedroom slippers, dragon scales, dried ink bottles, and the like. 
          “Want to team up?” Ron asked, brandishing his list. 
          “It’s not for me,” Harry said. “Sorry, Ron. I’ve gone chasing around Hogwarts looking for weird items often enough lately. I’m just going to go down and say hi to Hagrid, see how he made out with Stratford.”
          That was the other news, its true ramifications known only to a select few. On the day that Professor McGonagall had fainted, Dumbledore had dispatched Hagrid to find Cliffton Stratford. The gallery had subsequently cancelled the upcoming exhibition of his photographs. True to his word, Dumbledore had seen to it that the book was removed from the school library, and possibly arranged to have all copies confiscated as well; Harry wouldn’t have put it past him. 
          As for Stratford, he’d been turned over to Hagrid along with instructions to take him for a little nature walk into the Forbidden Forest. That tantalizing hint had been the last piece Harry had heard, and until now he’d been too busy to pay Hagrid a visit.
          “I’ll come with you,” Hermione said. “I haven’t seen Hagrid in ages.”
          “Oh, come on,” said Ron. “There’s fifty points in it for the House of the winner. Aren’t you going to do your part for Gryffindor?”
          “I got thirty points for Gryffindor just the other day, when I aced an Arithmancy test that no one had ever completed before,” she said. “I’ve done my part.”
          “I’ll concentrate on the next Quidditch match,” Harry said. 
          “Fine, but don’t expect to share in my glory when I win,” Ron said, and off he went.
          Dusk had come early, creeping over the grounds in velvet shadows. The pathways were lined with jack-o-lanterns, a host of skeletons (not all human; most of them had been gleaned by Hagrid from the Care of Magical Creatures archives and museum) hung from the trees, and giant spiderwebs possibly woven by the horse-sized children of Aragog caught dew and glimmered in intricate design.
          Hagrid’s cottage was dark. Knocking got no answer, and when the door proved unlocked, Harry went inside. “Hagrid?”
          No one was home except Fang the boarhound, and a sabertoothed kitten that Hagrid had recently adopted. The kitten, tawny-brown with enormous teeth depending from its upper jaw, was already as big as a cocker spaniel. Hagrid had, in the same spirit that led him to name a gigantic three-headed dog Fluffy, named the sabertooth Mittens by virtue of its two white forefeet. 
          A note was on the table, held down by a paperweight of a tarantula in amber. Harry read it while Hermione played – carefully! – with Mittens. 
          “Have gone to a costume party with Olympe,” Harry read. “At the Three Broomsticks. Back late.”
          “A costume party, he and Madame Maxime?” Hermione laughed. “What in the world could they possibly disguise themselves as?”
          “Good question.” He replaced the paperweight, studying it for a moment because he could have sworn the tarantula had moved. “What now? I guess we could still catch up with Ron.”
          “Let’s go down by the lake instead,” she said.
          “Um … all right.” 
          Neither of them spoke as they walked down to the shore, then out on the dock. Harry’s heart was beating fast with a curious blend of trepidation and excitement. 
          She stopped, and turned to face him. “Harry, I’ve been thinking about this a lot since … well, since that other night we were out here.”
          “Were you?” The seesaw of his emotions tipped toward trepidation. Was she going to slap his face, call him a bastard?
          “You kissed me.”
          “Did you like it?”
          “What? Of course I liked it!” He faltered. “Why? Didn’t you?”
          The night hid most of her blush, and her voice was almost too quiet to hear. “Yes. But it surprised me. I didn’t think you were interested in me that way. I thought you and Cho …”
          “I’ve had a crush on her, you mean?” He chuckled a little. “And Cho, unless we’re on the Quidditch field, barely knows I’m alive. There’s never been anything real there, Hermione.”
          “What happened, then? Why me?”
          “I don’t know. You’re a great friend, always have been … but somehow, all of a sudden, I must’ve started thinking that maybe there was more. Started seeing what I should have seen before, how pretty you are and all. But then I also thought that, well, you and Ron …”
          “Ron, don’t ask me about Ron, I like him well enough as a friend and all but sometimes he drives me so crazy, infuriates me, that I just want to hit him … but the books say that something like that can be an indication of a hidden attraction … oh, Harry, I don’t understand any of it. All the books in the world can’t prepare you for the real thing, not when it comes to boys.”
          “Hey, there’s no how-to book for dealing with you girls, either,” he said with a grin. “But, Hermione … would you go out with me?”
          “As in, on a date?”
          “A date, yeah. Dinner. Next Hogsmeade weekend. The Golden Gryphon.”
          “Harry, that place is really expensive!”
          “That doesn’t matter. What do you say?”
          “Well … yes, all right. I’d be happy to.”
          “Great!” Harry felt a large, and probably goofy, smile break over his face. He shoved aside all thoughts of what Ron or anyone else would say. He had a date. “So … now what?”
          “If I remember right,” she said seriously, “now I’m supposed to rush off and tell all my friends and we’ll squeal and giggle and whisper behind our hands whenever we see you.”
          “Really?” Harry said, aghast. 
          She smiled. “No! Other girls, maybe, but that’s not me.”
          “I’m glad.”
          “But if you want, you can kiss me again.”
          “Another joke?”
          “No joke. You just can’t call me your girlfriend yet. Since we haven’t even had our first date and all. But a kiss would be nice.”
          He moved closer to her, clasped her hands in his, and leaned down to kiss her.


The End.

page copyright 2002 by Christine Morgan / christine@sabledrake.com