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Harry relaxed a bit as he and Ron talked about safer topics: Charlie and Bill’s careers, the attempted break-in at Gringotts, and, inevitably, Quidditch. Hearing his friend talk about their favourite sport was like coming home again after a long journey, and Harry didn’t have to feign a happy smile.

He was caught completely off guard when Draco Malfoy, along with his bodyguards Crabbe and Goyle, entered the compartment.

Mentally kicking himself for dropping his guard, Harry had tremendous difficulty controlling his rage. The blond ferret before him directly contributed to Dumbledore’s death. There was no proof one way or the other whether Draco participated in the Hogwarts Massacre, but the cruelty of some of the wounds inflicted on Ginny’s body made Harry wonder. It was all he could do to stop himself from pulling out his wand and obliterating the Death Eater in training.

“Is it true?” the boy asked, eyeing Harry. “They’re saying all down the train that Harry Potter is in this compartment.”

“That would be me,” Harry replied in a low voice.

“This is Crabbe and Goyle,” Draco said, gesturing at the two hulking boys. “My name’s Malfoy, Draco Malfoy.”

As Ron coughed, Harry growled “I know who you are.”

Draco glared at Ron. “I can see you’ve been hanging out with the wrong sort. Some Wizarding families are better that others, and you don’t want to make friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there,” he said coolly, extending his hand.

Harry just glared. “The wrong sort? You mean like former Death Eaters who bribed their way out of Azkaban? You didn’t want to help me when we were in Madam Malkin’s, but now that you know my name everything’s changed. I’ll make my own friends, thanks.”

Draco’s eyes widened like he’d been slapped and an angry flush rose from the collar of his robes. “You’d better watch what you say, Potter, or you’ll end up like your parents. I can see how hanging around with a Weasley would degrade your manners though. They’re a poor excuse for family, and I do mean poor.”

Ron sprang to his feet as Harry’s fist crashed into Draco’s jaw. Crabbe and Goyle just stared in shock as Draco fell backwards into the corridor. The two hulking boys reached for Harry but Goyle let out an explosive breath as Ron charged into him, driving the top of his head into the larger boy’s stomach and knocking them both to the ground.

Crabbe’s meaty hand engulfed Harry’s shoulder, spinning him around. Harry went with the motion and locked his hands around the boy’s wrist before he could even begin to throw a punch. Still turning, Harry crouched down as the boy’s arm was stretched across his shoulders. A moment later, Harry jerked forward and the larger boy was pulled off his feet and landed in the middle of the compartment with a loud thud.

He spun toward Goyle just as the enormous boy was trying to pin Ron underneath his bulk. He stiffened in agony when Harry kicked him hard in the lower back, right over the kidney.

“Let him up before I break your skull,” Harry hissed. Goyle flinched again and unwrapped his hands from around Ron’s neck.

“Should have known you’d fight like a filthy Muggle, Potter,” Draco snarled from the doorway. He was standing again, but clutched at his jaw with one hand. The other hand held a wand.

“If you want to escalate things to that level, go ahead,” Harry said in a soft voice. His wand was still in his trunk, but he didn’t really care. “I’ll even give you the first shot.” He stared directly into the pale boy’s eyes. “Just remember that you have a choice to make of what to do with your life. And also remember that I was a baby when I destroyed your father’s master. Choose wisely, Draco.”

Draco’s eyes were wide as Crabbe and Goyle dragged themselves out of the compartment. He stood there, unmoving, as the door slid shut again.

Harry turned and helped Ron to his feet. The red-headed boy was rubbing at his bruised neck as he sat down again. “Blimey, Harry, where’d you learn to do that?”

“Read it in a book about Muggle martial arts. I can loan it to you if you like.” Harry neglected to mention some of the combat training his older self had received from the Order of the Phoenix. Ron had been his sparring partner for years.  This time around, he’d like to get a head start on training like that if he could.

Ron nodded eagerly as Hermione pushed the compartment door open again. “What’s been going on in here? You weren’t fighting with those boys, were you?” she asked.  “You’ll be in trouble before you even get to the school!”

“Hermione,” Harry said in a long-suffering tone that made him feel nostalgic for some reason, “we didn’t start it. Draco Malfoy came into our compartment and insulted both our families. He started it, and we finished it, all right?”

“Seriously,” Ron added. “My dad’s told me about the Malfoys. They supported You-Know-Who during the war, and then turned around and said they’d been bewitched. Dad said that Malfoy’s father didn’t need an excuse to go over to the Dark Side.” Ron frowned for a moment. “Hermione, be careful around Draco. You said your parents were Muggles, and the Malfoys think people like you shouldn’t be allowed at Hogwarts.”

“That’s perfectly ridiculous,” Hermione said crossly, glaring at Ron.

Ron looked down. “That’s what my dad says too.” He coughed. “I mean, he thinks the Malfoys are ridiculous for saying that.” His face was getting redder by the minute.

“My Mum was Muggle-born,” Harry said, trying to help Ron out of the hole he’d dug, “and she was Head Girl when she finished school.”

“Really?” Hermione gasped as her eyes widened.

She looked so surprised that Harry frowned. Then it dawned on him. He and Hermione had talked about many things, but her drive to excel in her studies was such a part of her nature that he never questioned it. He knew it stung her when Malfoy and others would call her a Mudblood, but Harry wondered if she drove herself so hard because she felt she had something to prove.

“Well, I was raised by Muggles, so I’m practically Muggle-born too.” Harry smiled. “We ought to all study together and pick Ron’s brain.”

Ron looked alarmed when Harry mentioned brain-picking, but reddened when he noticed Hermione eying him speculatively. “I don’t know that much, really,” he said. “Mum won’t let me practice at home, not even cleaning charms or anything.”

“Ron, it’s not the spells, it the little details, like how do you heat water for tea? Is it a spell, or do you have magical appliances to cook with?” Hermione reassured him. “Think of it more like… one of those Muggle Studies classes I’ve read the second year students can take, only in reverse.”

“Ginny said she’d help me too,” Harry said quietly. “We can compare notes as well.” He knew he wouldn’t be able to hide his letter writing from his dorm-mates, so best to get it out in the open now.

Ron looked at Harry, frowning, but he didn’t say anything.

“Goodness,” Hermione said. “I forgot. The conductor said we’d be getting there soon. You’d better get into your robes!”

“Yes Ma’am,” Harry said, chuckling. Somehow Hermione’s bossiness didn’t bother him nearly as much this time around.

~+~

Harry couldn’t resist breaking into a huge grin when Hagrid asked him how he was doing. “He rescued me from the Dursleys and told me I was a wizard!” he explained to Ron. He wasn’t going to keep any secrets he didn’t have to. Harry already felt guilty enough about the way he was manipulating things. He was deep in his thoughts as they made their way down to the lake. Remember the things Ron told you after Hermione died. He missed her so badly, his only regret was that they took so long to realize how they felt. There’s no way he could have loved her so much in the future and not feel anything for her in this timeline. I’m just going to… help things along a little bit. When everything is settled, I can always tell them everything and give them the option of hexing me. Maybe I am playing God a little, but I can’t just do nothing and let things happen. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. Besides, we’re going to need every advantage if we want to stop that ghoul before he starts killing everyone.

Harry’s thoughts cut off as they rounded the last bend and saw Hogwarts, perched on the mountain above the lake, lights glimmering from every window. His heart climbed into his throat and he felt like crying. Seeing the old castle, unburned and whole, was like finding another long-lost friend. Harry heard the sound of water drops pattering on broken stones, echoing out of his memory. He vowed that he would never let that happen again. Not to the first place he’d ever felt at home.

He was silent as he boarded the boat with Ron, Hermione, and Neville. The chubby boy looked nervous and afraid, nothing like the confident and grim-faced young man he’d left in charge of the DA. I as good as killed him, Harry thought to himself, I owe him too. “Longbottom…” he whispered.

Neville looked up from his frightened contemplation of the black waters of the lake.

“You parents are Aurors, aren’t they?”

“Er, yes, well, they were…” Neville muttered, his voice trailing off. “I live with my gran now.”

Harry hated to remind Neville of his parents in St. Mungos, but he needed to forge a connection here. “Sorry, Neville, someone… I think someone mentioned that your parents were friends of my parents.”

Neville looked up, startled. “Gran says they were pretty popular.”

“Well, I don’t have any magical relatives, so I’m glad I got to meet you, Neville. Any idea where you’ll get sorted?”

“Not-not really,” Neville stammered. “I’m amazed I even got a letter.”

“Well, the three of us are hoping for Gryffindor. I hope you get sorted there too.”

“I’m not that brave,” the round-faced boy whispered miserably. “I’m even terrified I’m going to fall into the lake.”

“But you’re still here,” Harry reminded him. “Being brave isn’t not being afraid. Being brave is being afraid and going ahead and doing what you have to do.”

Neville looked thoughtful, but didn’t disagree. Harry eased back in his seat and looked around. Ron was gazing out across the lake at the cave they were approaching, but Hermione was looking at Harry and frowning slightly. Harry began examining the cliff face they were approaching.

~+~

Everything after that proceeded as anticipated. Minerva McGonagall was the same as he remembered. A good heart, but scary as hell – he missed her nonetheless. At least this time around he’d try to do a better job in her transfiguration class.

He stood nervously with the other first year students, not wanting to join in the speculation about exactly how they’d be sorted into their houses. He didn’t trust himself not to reassure his new friends, and Hermione was standing right next to him, mumbling spells under her breath. If she was getting suspicious of him, the last thing Harry needed to do was draw her attention again.

Finally, they were led into the Great Hall, where the Hat was ready with this year’s new song. One by one, they were called to be sorted. Harry closed his eyes for a moment and made sure his Occlumency shields were up.

When his name was called, Harry ignored the cries from the older students. That was getting bloody old the first time around, he mused disgustedly. He sat on the stool and pulled the Sorting Hat over his head with some trepidation.

“Well, well, well, what do we have here?” a small voice asked in his ear. “I can sense you’ve already been sorted, but that’s impossible because I’d remember sorting the last of the Potters.”

I imagine you would, Harry thought sardonically.

“Yes, yes. So how did you… interesting.”

Harry strengthened his mental barriers as much as he could, but whatever the Sorting Hat was doing wasn’t interacting with his Occlumency at all.

“It isn’t often I run into something I haven’t seen before, Mr. Potter. I see another Hogwarts, and another Hat. One you were forced to destroy.”

Sorry, but I didn’t have time to do it any other way. I had to do it quickly before Voldemort realized it was a trap, Harry admitted. He still had some lingering guilt about destroying the hat in his original timeline, even though what he just said was the truth.

“No, I see the other Hogwarts was gone, and so its purpose had fled as well. Your plan is an audacious one; you seek to meddle with the workings of Fate itself.”

Well, I had literally nothing left to lose, Harry thought bitterly.

“True. I wish you well in this endeavour. Never fear, I will keep your secrets. The more who know the greater the risk.”

Thank you. Er, would it be possible to ask for one small favor?

“What favor is that?”

Well, Hermione was already sorted into Gryffindor, and I know you’ll put the Ron and his sister there as well. But there is a new student next year named Luna Lovegood. She’ll be sorted into Ravenclaw, but she’ll have a pretty bad time of it. She’ll become a good friend, but I think the harassment from her own house was not a good thing for her. Could you possibly put her in Gryffindor where I can keep an eye on her?

“I see what you remember. I will allow this, unless she is completely opposed to your house, which I doubt will be the case. Matchmaking is at worst the most minor of sins, Mr. Potter, but are you prepared to deal with the consequences of your meddling?”

It’s what I came here to do.

“Very well. Though I must congratulate you on a plan worthy of the most cunning Slytherin; I had best send you on to your future friends in GRYFFINDOR!”

Harry slumped as the Sorting Hat shouted the last word, and the table under the red and gold banner erupted in applause. He swept the hat off his head and placed it gently on the stool. He gave it a gentle pat on the brim as if to say thanks and ran over to the all too familiar table.

He shook Percy’s hand with enthusiasm and laughed at the twins’ cheers. He barely caught his breath before his eyes strayed to the High Table. He smiled faintly at the familiar sight of his professors, and tried not to think about the broken bodies pulled from a shattered Hogwarts. He swallowed convulsively when he saw the headmaster’s brilliant blue eyes twinkling through his half-moon glasses. Harry frantically shoved all his strength into reinforcing his Occlumency shields again, and that had the desired calming effect.

Harry wrenched his gaze away just in time to hear Ron sorted into Gryffindor. He abruptly stood up and started clapping, making his palms sting as he gave vent to his emotions. The twins joined him in standing a moment later, and surprisingly, so did Percy. Another moment later Hermione and Neville, who was only now recovering from the shock of being sorted into Gryffindor, stood as well, clapping and cheering. Soon the rest of the table joined in as well.

Ron’s face was almost purple by the time Percy shook his hand in an overly formal manner, but he was beaming when his brother showed him to his seat.

Harry hadn’t been to a Hogwarts feast in almost fifteen years. After Dumbledore’s typical abbreviated speech, he dug in with enthusiasm. He was determined not to be a scrawny little runt forever this time around. He was so happy to be there that he was hoping he didn’t accidentally levitate the whole table. Harry actively concentrated on his happiness. He didn’t want to look around at his classmates, most of whom would meet terrible deaths. If he was going to do what he needed to do, he had to find a way to deal with his grief. He’d been alone for much of his early life, and the last year in his old life he’d been totally bereft of friends. This would be easier if he had someone he could talk to… someone to talk about what was really going on. His short conversation with the Sorting Hat made that abundantly clear. He’d just have to wait.

And maybe write a lot of letters.

As everyone grew full and dessert was served, Harry helped himself to a generous serving of treacle tart and listened to the buzz of half-remembered conversations around him. When he glanced up at the High Table and saw Professor Snape glaring at him past Professor Quirrell’s turban, Harry felt a subtle probing at his Occlumency shields. It faded after a few seconds and he continued eating his dessert without being interrupted by a burst of pain from his scar.

Things were looking up for Harry Potter.

~+~

From the partially burned sign by the street, the building used to be a Muggle orphanage. Now it was a charnel house, reeking of wood smoke and burnt flesh. The three of them flew over on their brooms as soon as they saw the Dark Mark glowing balefully in the evening sky over Manchester.

Hermione, with Ron’s help, overcame her nervousness about flying, and they tore across the night sky as fast as their brooms could go. For all the good it did them, they could have walked.

The Death Eaters were long gone by the time they got there, Apparating away to safe houses and pureblood mansions alike. They left nothing alive.

Still forms littered the lawn. A few of the more quick-witted children had tried to escape through windows or fire exits. Some appear to have jumped. All had been cut down by curses, Death Eaters probably laughing at their efforts to escape the flames.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione stood, rooted in shock and horror. The memories of the Hogwarts Massacre were still fresh, but this was even worse. At least someone had been able to fight back before. These children, some as young as four or five were completely helpless. Wizards and witches drunk on the power of Dark Magic tortured and murdered them for no purpose other than satisfying their own sadistic urges.

Ron and Hermione clung to each other, and Harry could hear one or both of them sobbing quietly. He stood there numbly until his eyes were drawn to a flash of red.

A breeze generated by the roaring flames stirred the hair of a little girl, no more than ten or eleven. Bright red hair spread out like a fan on the ground around her head, and glassy eyes stared up into infinity. Harry had a sudden urge to close them, but couldn’t move his feet. He knew those eyes would prove to be brown. She looked just like Ginny had, all those years ago, lying on the cold stone floor in the Chamber of Secrets. But this girl wouldn’t revive when he killed Tom Riddle’s diary. She was dead forever, just like his Ginny…

Harry threw back his head and screamed. He brought up his wand in both hands, holding it almost like a sword. He doesn’t even remember shouting an incantation before a massive bolt of lighting erupted from the end of his wand. Harry was blown backward off his feet, the tip of his wand smoking, as the Dark Mark was wiped from the sky.

~+~

Harry woke up with Ron shaking his shoulder hard enough to make his teeth rattle. He blinked and sat up. Neville, Dean, and Seamus were all gathered around his bed as well. Harry blinked for a moment before he realized he’d had a nightmare, and evidently woke everyone with his screaming. “Oh hell, I’m sorry, guys,” he said miserably.

“Do you always have nightmares like that?” Ron asked in a quiet voice.

“Some-sometimes,” Harry admitted shakily. “I’ve had them on and off for a while.” Like over thirteen years.

“Is it because of You Know Who?” Dean asked quickly.

Ron shot him a furious glare, but Harry answered. “Yeah, it is.”

I’m going to need to ‘learn’ silencing charms first thing, Harry noted grimly. After reassuring Ron several times that he was okay, and that he didn’t need the school nurse, the other boys eventually returned to their beds.

After a while, Harry got up and padded out to the common room. Fortunately, everyone else appeared to be asleep, preparing for the first day of the new term. Harry looked around at a room that had been such a fixture in his life at Hogwarts. He had to hurry through here last night, claiming to be tired to hide his reaction.

His eyes began to prickle, so Harry walked over to one of the deep-set windows and looked out across the darkened grounds. I had no idea it would be this hard, Harry mused. It’s just so… difficult… to see all the things I lost, and not show any emotion whatsoever. Merlin, this is going to be a long year. He grimaced and leaned his forehead against the cold glass. After a moment he crept up to his dormitory and retrieved parchment and a quill from his trunk. There was little chance of sleep for him the rest of this night, so he sat down at the table nearest the fire and began to write.

‘Dear Ginny,’ he began.

Harry chronicled the train ride, the sorting ceremony, and most of the feast before dawn began to creep over the mountains. The steady scratching of quill on parchment was like a balm for his nerves. By the time he heard people stirring in the dormitories, he felt oddly calm, like he’d been drained of his excess emotions. He blotted the half-full page and placed it on the stack with the rest. Somehow writing it down helped almost as much as talking about it, with the added bonus that he could choose his words with care. He had to remind himself more than once that this was a much younger Ginny than he remembered, one who barely knew him – though he planned to change that as quickly as possible. For now, he would do his best to get to know her again, and let her see the real Harry Potter. If that didn’t get her completely past her initial shyness, well, he’d cross that bridge when he got to it.

Harry folded the stack of parchment and carried it upstairs with him. His roommates were just starting to awaken, so he quickly shoved the partially-completed letter into his bag and went to take a shower.

~+~

The first week of classes was the same maelstrom of confusion he remembered. While Harry knew his way around a lot better than the last time, he also had to be careful he didn’t display a suspicious degree of familiarity with the castle. Harry reacted to his teachers’ introductions much the same as he did before, with one exception. Flitwick falling off his chair during the roll call still brought an embarrassed smile to his face, one that Ron shared this time. He was able to meet McGonagall’s eyes a little better this time around, but Quirrell was as nervous and distant as before. Harry sighed, but he knew there was nothing really to be done for the Defense professor. His fate had been sealed in Albania when Voldemort possessed his body.

Snape was another matter entirely. Harry checked his Occlumency barrier for the fifth time Friday morning as they descended into the dungeon where the potions lab was located. At least the note from Hagrid asking him to tea that afternoon gave him something to look forward to. He stayed silent as he set his things on the table and prepared his parchment for taking notes. He looked up without flinching when the potions master swept into the room.

As before, the man started in on him during roll call. “Ah yes, Harry Potter. Our new – celebrity.”

This time, Harry ignored Malfoy and his cronies. He locked gazes with the man as soon as he looked up at the class. Those black eyes were as cold and dark as he remembered, but this time he could detect the subtle thrust of Legilimency, probing at his shields. Harry maintained his barriers, but allowed a patina of uncertainty and doubt to creep through. Those were emotions he had in abundance, and would be less suspicious than a total lack of presence. The Occlumency books he’d read after Sirius’ death in the Department of Mysteries claimed that some people were born with a natural gift for the art, and were almost impossible to read beyond basic emotional reactions.

A crease appeared between the professor’s eyebrows as he held forth on the intricacies of potion making. It was his only reaction to being blocked out of Harry’s mind. For his own part, Harry had to struggle to remain impassive. Knowledge that his father’s nemesis had been rifling through his mind from day one angered the boy beyond belief. He snapped out of his quiet fuming when the man fired a question at him.

“Potter! What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”

“Draught of Living Death, sir,” Harry fired back with no hesitation. The silence in the class was palpable. Even Snape blinked. Harry remembered five years of the hateful man’s potion classes, a much better year with Slughorn, and he’d even gone through his books again in the last week of August, just for this moment.

“Where would I find a bezoar?” the man snapped. He also stepped up his Legilimency, battering at Harry’s shields.

“Inside the stomach of a goat,” Harry replied evenly. He tried not to cringe at the memory of Ron almost dying from the poisoned mead.

“What is the difference between monkshood and wolfsbane?”

“Nothing sir, they are the same plant. Muggle botanists call it aconite.”

“What is the most popular use of armadillo bile?”

“That would be the Wit-Sharpening potion,” Harry replied frowning. That was a potion on the fourth year syllabus.

“Frozen ashwinder eggs?”

“Er, love potions, professor.”

“Powdered moonstone and syrup of hellebore, Potter. What potion uses both ingredients?”

“That would be the Draught of Peace, sir.” He wouldn’t forget botching that one in his fifth year, not any time soon. Snape was trying to trip him up with much more advanced material than Harry could possibly know. The fact that the boy still knew the answers must be driving the man mad. Harry knew he was being a little indiscreet, but he couldn’t help himself.

“Pomegranate juice?”

“Strengthening solution, sir.”

“When must fluxweed be gathered to be useful for potion making?”

“During the full moon, sir,” Harry replied. Snape’s face was darkening and the class had gone utterly silent, save for the scratch-scratch of Hermione’s quill as she quickly scribbled notes.

“What are the uses of ginger root, Mr. Potter?”

“I believe it’s also used in the Wit-Sharpening potion. Oh, and it’s good in Chinese stir-fry.” That got a quiet cough from Dean Thomas, who Harry remembered was Muggle-born.

That got a furious glare from Professor Snape, who continued to fire questions at Harry for more than fifteen minutes. Harry had a steadily worsening tension headache, but managed to answer each question in turn. Finally, the professor appeared to have grown tired of his game.

“What are jobberknoll feathers used for?”

“I believe that would be memory potions, sir.”

“Like the one you took before this class, Potter?” the professor snapped. “How else do you explain your encyclopaedic knowledge of potion ingredients? Decided to show off in front of your peers? Grab a little limelight?”

“Not at all,” Harry responded coolly. “I just read a bit ahead after I got my books.” He paused for a moment. “It’s not like this is really hard, is it? You just get the ingredients together and follow the instructions.” He shrugged. “Just like cooking, isn’t it?” he asked innocently.

Harry had to hold himself rigid to keep from wincing, both at the look on Snape’s face and the sudden furious thrust of the man’s Legilimency. Harry’s barriers still held, which no doubt infuriated the man even more.

“Of all the insufferable-” Snape exploded. “Damn Potters! Out! All of you! And one hundred points from Gryffindor for your bloody cheek, Potter!”

Nobody questioned this; the students just grabbed their bags and ran, most of the Slytherins as well. When they got back to the Gryffindor common room, most of the first years were pale with shock. Their class had lost a hundred points during the first week, and they did not want to face the older students when word got out.

Harry was gratified that no one directly blamed him for that fiasco, but he was furious at Snape all over again. He angrily pitched his bag into one of the squashy chairs and began to pace, hands clasped behind his back and cursing like a sailor under his breath. He jerked and spun around when someone touched him on the shoulder.

Hermione flinched back. Behind her, Ron and Neville watched him apprehensively.

Harry took a deep breath and blew it out. “Sorry,” he said.

The bushy-haired girl waved that off. “How did you know all those things?” she asked impatiently.

Harry blinked. Trust Hermione to be more concerned with this, rather than the house points. “Well, after I bought my books, I was stuck at home with the Muggles and had nothing to do, so I read a lot. Potions was the easiest thing to study, since I wouldn’t be tempted to do underage magic.”

She brightened at that. “So you spent your summer studying?”

“A good bit of it, yes. Not like I had much choice, but I wanted to make a good start. Look where that got me…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ron said. “Fred and George told me that Snape hates all the Gryffindors. He takes points from them all the time for no good reason. All my brothers hate the greasy git,” he continued, looking thoughtful “except maybe Percy. He gets along with all the professors.”

“I doubt any of your brothers lost a hundred house points in one go,” Harry said dubiously.

“Maybe not,” Ron agreed. “But I think you just gave Fred and George a new goal.”

Hermione made an exasperated sound while Harry shook his head. He sank down on one of the couches and held his aching head. Just sitting there letting Snape pound on his mind without retaliating was more exhausting than he thought it would be. He looked up when Neville sat down next to him.

“Harry,” the boy said, a little hesitantly, “are you all right?”

“I’m fine, Nev,” he replied, and cursed himself for slipping and using his friend’s nickname, one that wouldn’t be coined for several years yet.

Neville looked at him a little funny, but then got a very determined expression on his face. Harry felt his stomach flip over when he saw the boy set his jaw and frown, seeing the ghost of the friend who stood beside him in the Department of Mysteries.

“Harry, he had no business docking you points for answering his questions, let alone taking so many. I’ve heard so many stories about the potions teacher at Hogwarts that I was a little afraid about taking his class. Now I see he’s just nothing more than a childish bully. As far as I’m concerned he can dock all the points he wants, it doesn’t stop him from being a sorry excuse for a wizard,” Neville declared.

“Neville!” Hermione exclaimed.

“You were there, Hermione,” Ron said.

“Yes, well,” Hermione dithered, “but you still shouldn’t talk about a professor that way.”

“That is correct, Miss Granger,” Professor McGonagall said as she entered the common room. “Now would someone like to explain why Professor Snape just entered the staff lounge on the brink of an apoplectic fit?”

Harry honestly expected everyone to point McGonagall his way and groaned silently. His head was pounding like it wanted to burst. Instead, Ron, Neville, and even Hermione moved toward their head of house, all talking over each other and denouncing Snape’s behaviour. Harry felt a warm glow in the pit of his stomach as his friends rushed to his defence.

“Students, please! One at a time,” Professor McGonagall finally said. The three of them looked at each other and Hermione spoke up again, giving a quick summary of how Snape threw them all out of his classroom and docked Harry one hundred points. “Is this true, Mr. Potter?” the stern professor asked when she was done.

He nodded slowly, still rubbing at his temples. “And something is giving me an awful headache, worse than I can recall ever having.”

Harry didn’t miss the flash on concern in his head of house’s eyes. “The headmaster requests your presence in his office. If your headache persists, I will accompany you to the infirmary for a pain-relieving potion.”

Harry sighed and followed her through the portrait hole.

When they arrived at the headmaster’s office, Snape was already waiting with Dumbledore. As he and McGonagall sat down, Harry could feel mental fingers probing at his shields. The ‘touch’ was much softer than Snape’s battering ram approach to Legilimency, and Harry guessed it was probably Professor Dumbledore’s curiosity getting the better of him. He winced, clapping his hands to the sides of his head and the fingers immediately vanished. Harry looked around blearily. “Er, sorry,” he muttered, “I have a really bad headache.” He didn’t miss the glance the headmaster shot at the potions teacher.

“That’s all right, Harry,” the old man said in a soothing voice. “Did that perhaps contribute to the disruption that occurred during Professor Snape’s class this morning?”

“No sir,” Harry said firmly, ignoring the easy way out the headmaster had offered him. “My headache didn’t start until part way through the lesson, when, er, Professor Snape started in on me.” He ignored the venomous glare the potions master shot at him. Instead, Harry stared into Dumbledore’s twinkling blue eyes and wished he could tell his former mentor everything. He felt a feather-light touch on his shields and twitched in his chair, blinking.

“Headmaster, the behaviour of this spoiled Potter brat is outrageous! He should never-“

“Severus,” Dumbledore said softly. “Harry, would you care to explain what happened during the class?”

“Yes, sir, I’d like to do that. Do you have one of those Pensieve things? I heard two of the older students talking about how they use them to take testimony for wizarding courts.”

“I believe I can lay my hands on one, but wouldn’t it be simpler to just tell us what happened?”

Harry nodded. “I suppose so, but I thought it would save time. You see, I plan on filing a formal complaint with the Hogwarts Board of Governors, so-”

Harry did not get to complete his sentence. He felt the battering ram again, coming from Snape’s direction, slamming furiously into his Occlumency shields. Harry stiffened, arching his back. He reinforced his shields to full opacity as he slumped back in his chair, eyes rolled up in his head, apparently unconscious.

“Severus!” Dumbledore barked. Harry, relying on hearing alone now, had to stop himself from jumping. He’d never heard Albus speak so sharply before.

“This brat is hiding something from us, headmaster, and I intend to find out exactly what it is!”

“Albus, this is outrageous,” Minerva exclaimed.  “I will not have one of my students attacked by a professor! What did you do to him Severus?”

Harry was surprised to hear Minerva defend him so vehemently after only knowing him for a week.

“Minerva,” Dumbledore’s voice took on a soothing tone. “What just happened was not Severus’ intent.”

“Then what, pray tell, just happened?”

“Mr. Potter, it appears, is a natural Occlumens. Although untrained, he instinctively shields his thoughts and memories. It is a very rare talent, though perhaps it is a consequence of what happened to him that night. He apparently reacted to our colleague using his Legilimency in a very unfortunate manner.”

“Using his Legilimency?” Minerva hissed.  “Severus Snape, you’ve been invading the minds of students? Of MY students?” Professor McGonagall’s voice rose into a shriek that raised the hairs on the back of Harry’s neck.

He almost felt sorry for Snivellus. Almost.

“There is another possibility, headmaster,” Snape said coldly, ignoring the other professor. “The Dark Lord was a skilled Occlumens as well as Legilimens. It is… conceivable… that he took refuge within Potter’s body when the curse rebounded back. That would explain the boy having shields neither one of us could penetrate.”

“I don’t think Tom Riddle would be content to live quietly in a Muggle household for the past ten years, Severus,” Dumbledore stated calmly. “I also highly doubt he would consent to being sorted into Gryffindor.”

Harry had to suppress the urge to laugh and give himself away.

“If it will make you feel better though…” Harry heard sounds of movement.  “Old friend, were you able to see into the boy’s mind when you sorted him?” Dumbledore asked the Sorting Hat.

“Oh yes,” the Sorting Hat replied in a smug voice.

Harry’s blood ran cold.

“Occlumency, or any other kind of mental barrier, means nothing to me once someone willingly places me upon their head.”

“Excellent! That is as I thought it would be,” Dumbledore sounded pleased. “And I take it there were no invading mental presences?” he asked.

“Oh no, no invaders at all. Nothing between his ears but Harry James Potter.”

Harry was pretty sure he hadn’t imagined the smug undertone in the Sorting Hat’s answer.

I definitely need to find a way to extract the Horcrux without destroying the hat. If they thought I might be Voldemort in disguise, there would be no way I would be allowed to go free until after they’d gone through my memories with a fine toothed comb. I owe it a big one.

“Now, if you two are quite finished with accusing my student of being a Dark Lord, I’d like to know what happened in that class that gave Severus the right to deduct one hundred house points.”

Harry never knew his head of house had such a sarcastic sense of humour, but he loved her for it. He let out a low groan and tried to sit up.

“Harry,” Dumbledore said in a concerned voice. “It might be best if you went and visited Madam Pomfrey. You clearly aren’t feeling well, and we can always continue this discussion later.”

Harry allowed himself to be hustled out of the Headmaster’s office. Snape’s eyes still bored into him, but he kept his Legilimency in check. Harry decided to let the issue of the formal complaint to drop for right now. McGonagall’s unexpected vehemence in his defence made him want to alter his approach. She slowed her usual brisk pace to match Harry’s.

The second floor main corridor was deserted, as most of the students were still in their classes. Harry cleared his throat. “Professor McGonagall?”

She looked over at him, her lips still pressed into a thin line. “Yes, Mr. Potter?”

“Thanks for going with me, er, up there. It was good to have someone on my side.”

She looked down at him, a little curiously. “Staff members do not take sides, Mr. Potter. You are my responsibility as a member of Gryffindor.”

Harry nodded thoughtfully. “Professor Snape knew my father, didn’t he?”

Professor McGonagall stopped dead in her tracks and stared at him. “How did you know that, Mr. Potter?”

“Well, when Professor Snape was screaming at me, he said ‘Damn Potters’, and I don’t have any brothers and sisters, so that would almost have to mean my dad, right?”

“That’s very observant of you,” she said quietly. “I suppose since he brought it up himself, it’s his own fault. Yes, he knew your father. They both attended Hogwarts in the same year, but they did not get along well at all. It isn’t very appropriate, but I suppose some animosity has carried forward because of that. You would do well to rise above it as best you can.”

“I suppose I should,” Harry said thoughtfully. “I don’t think you are overly fond of Professor Snape either, are you?”

“Mr. Potter, my personal likes and dislikes are none of your business. Now, we should be getting you to the infirmary.”

“I’m sorry, professor, but I just wanted to ask your advice on a decision I need to make.”

She looked at Harry curiously, but did not speak.

“Professor Dumbledore obviously doesn’t want me to present a complaint to the Board of Governors. I think an account of what happened this morning would raise some serious questions about whether that man should be allowed in a classroom. The question is will it create more problems than it solves if I get him sacked?”

McGonagall’s face broke into a concerned frown. “What, exactly, in your own words, did he do?”

Harry sighed. “Well, after a smart remark about me being famous, he started firing questions at me, asking about all kinds of potions ingredients. Every question I answered just made him angrier. Finally after a while he blew up and accused me of using a memory potion. When I explained that I’d read ahead during the summer, and it was a lot like my aunt’s cookbooks, he just exploded again. He screamed at me, ordered everyone out of the potions laboratory, and docked Gryffindor one hundred points.”

The transfiguration teacher couldn’t hide the appalled expression on her face.

Harry shook his head. “The man is a professional educator, and yet he lost it – completely lost it – in front of a room full of eleven year olds. That doesn’t sound right to me.”

Minerva sighed. “No, I suppose it doesn’t. Mr. Potter. Harry. I don’t agree with what he did, but I’m not sure he can be easily replaced. There are not many Potions masters who are willing to teach younger students who are not apprenticed directly to them. Professor Snape does have a lot to teach, at least to those who can deal with his… personal issues. It would cause a major disruption for many students, some of whom are preparing to take their OWL and NEWT examinations, if he was to be fired at the beginning of the term and no immediate replacement was available.”

Harry frowned. “I don’t want to hurt other students. I’m just worried about how much damage a man like that can do if he’s left where he is.”

“If you wish, I can make some inquiries and see if there is someone available to replace him.”

“I’d appreciate that professor,” Harry said, cracking his first genuine smile of the morning.

“Good. Now let’s get you to the infirmary so you can join your classmates in time for lunch.”

Harry thought back to his career counselling appointment in his fifth year, when Professor McGonagall backed him to the hilt against Umbridge. Although from the beginning she’d presented this stiff, formal image, he realized now that she really had been on his side all along.

He just hadn’t figured it out.

+++++++++++++++++++

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