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That evening Neville received a hero’s welcome in the Gryffindor common room, which rather embarrassed him. Percy, however, proved to be the exception to the rule. The Weasley prefect seemed to revel in his role as the official killjoy and began berating Neville in front of everyone. This earned Percy some mutinous glares from his housemates, which he ignored.

As Harry watched his friend wilt under Percy’s tirade, he finally snapped. “Right!” he snarled as he jumped to his feet and grabbed a handful of Percy’s robes. “You and I need to have a little talk, right now!” With that he dragged the taller boy toward the portrait hole.

Percy was a good bit larger than Harry, but when he began to resist, Harry sank down into a deep front stance and continued driving forward. Between Harry’s lower centre of gravity and some unexpected leg strength, the prefect was yanked forward off balance. Out in the corridor, Harry brought them to an alcove and spun toward Percy, releasing his rumpled robes.

“All right,” Harry said coldly. “You don’t like me. That’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But when you start taking it out on my friends, your license to be an utter prat gets revoked. Do I make myself clear, Percival?”

“You don’t tell me how to do my job, Potter,” Percy snapped. “Longbottom committed assault in front of the entire school. That sort of conduct is unacceptable for anyone.”

Harry sighed disgustedly and shook his head. “Did you ever stop to ask why Neville lost his temper? Do you even care? Or has your self-righteous furore driven the last vestiges of logical thought from your head?”

Percy started to open his mouth, but stopped. He frowned and crossed his arms, glaring down at Harry, waiting.

“Let me tell you a little story, Percy, that started shortly after my parents were murdered,” Harry said in a flat voice. “A group of Death Eaters raided the Longbottom house. They were trying to find out about just what happened to Voldemort because they didn’t believe that he’d just disappeared.  The Longbottoms were highly respected Aurors, and the Death Eaters reckoned that they knew what was really going on. They used the Cruciatus curse on the Longbottoms until they were driven completely out of their minds. They’ve been in Saint Mungo’s long term care ever since. Neville visits them every so often, but as far as anyone can tell, they don’t even know that he’s their son.”

Percy’s face had gone pale as he heard this, but his expression also grew puzzled. “What does this have to do with what happened today?”

“The Death Eaters, who were captured and sentenced to life in Azkaban,” Harry continued, “were led by Bellatrix Lestrange, Draco Malfoy’s aunt on his mother’s side. This morning, when Draco was taunting Luna, he decided to throw in a crack about Luna not being able to talk because she’d lost her mind. Only he was staring at Neville as he said it.” Harry nodded in satisfaction when he saw Percy’s shocked, angry expression. “Exactly -- in your parent’s day, he could have legally challenged Draco to a death duel for making a comment like that.”

Percy took a deep breath. “I - I was not fully aware of the circumstances. Neville still needs to control his temper in the future, but I will admit that in this instance he was most seriously provoked.” There was an implied apology in his words.

Harry nodded. “I knew you wouldn’t have come down on him if you knew all the circumstances.” It was a rather backhanded compliment as well. He paused and then stuck out his hand.

Percy frowned for a moment, and then shook it. “I need to talk to Professor McGonagall. You’d better get back to the common room before curfew.”

Harry nodded and walked back to the Fat Lady’s portrait. When he returned, he found everyone still gathered in the common room, talking excitedly. The twins had set up a betting pool based on, among other things, how many times Harry was going to hex Percy. When Harry returned alone, money immediately began changing hands. He growled as soon as he understood what was going on. If Percy got wind of this, any progress they’d made would be lost and he’d become even more difficult to deal with.

As he walked over, he noticed the couch was full and began looking for an empty chair. Confrontations of any sort tended to leave him a little drained. It was possible that the non-violent types were even worse, since there was no physical release for his muscular tension. Luna appeared to notice Harry’s predicament because she stood up from her seat between Ginny and Neville.

“Hey,” Harry objected, “you don’t have to-” He shut his mouth when Luna smoothed her robes and then flopped down in Neville’s lap. “Never mind – Luna, thanks!” Harry suppressed a grin at the expression frozen on Neville’s face. As he sat down, Harry noticed Ginny was stifling a giggle as well.

Harry scratched his head and tried to organize his thoughts. “Look, Percy and I have come to a bit of an understanding. So let’s not do anything to muck it up, yeah?” He addressed that mainly toward the twins and Ron, but he noticed Ginny nodding as well, a small smile on her lips. He looked around and noticed most of the Gryffindors were drifting away to attend to their own schoolwork, now that the excitement seemed to be over. “Since we’re all here, we should also, er, practice our homework, you know.”

With that, they all pulled out a book, but soon their eyes were closed rather than open as they began their Occlumency exercises. Harry tested each of them, noting their progress. Ron was a bit steadier and even Ginny was beginning to show some resistance to him. Hermione was frowning and turning her head slightly from time to time, so it seemed like she was testing their friends as well.

Harry had given some thought to what he would do as his friends began to master Occlumency. He could tell them everything individually when their defences grew sure. But the people who were still somewhat open would likely feel excluded to some extent. While those feelings might motivate them to work harder, Harry was loath to do anything that would make his friends feel uncomfortable around himself or each other. There was also the likelihood that they would feel betrayed when they discovered the truth about him and his manipulations. Bad enough if they decided that they didn’t want anything to do with him after that, but to lose them one by one as he told them would be worse. It would also make it harder for them if half of them suddenly hated Harry and couldn’t tell the rest of them why.

Besides, it also delayed the inevitable and gave him a little more time with them. After all he’d been through, was a little more time so much to ask?

Harry shook his head to clear it of morbid thoughts. They’d still be alive, and that was why he’d come back, wasn’t it? Better Ginny married to Michael Corner or Dean Thomas than lying in that ruined courtyard, tortured to death because of his stupidity. Better to see Ron and Hermione married and making their own lives than dead following Harry on his fool’s crusade. Luna and Neville might even have a chance together in this timeline, provided he didn’t screw things up too badly. Even if he died taking Voldemort with him, he’d leave behind a much better and happier world. The important thing was making sure the prophecy was fulfilled with Voldemort’s destruction. Whatever happened after that would happen. His part would be done and he could rest.

Harry sighed and leaned his aching head forward on his palms as he planted his elbows on his knees. He knew his thoughts were spiralling downward out of control, but sometimes he just got so damn tired of it all. The wheels of fate could grind just as finely as those of justice.

He was about to get up and leave when Ginny put her hand on his shoulder. He jumped a little and turned toward her. She pulled her hand back, but her eyes were questioning. How did she know I was upset? Harry wondered, but he just shrugged and gave her a lop-sided smile. He settled back on the cushions as she closed her eyes again. Harry took a deep breath. Clearing his mind was seldom this hard.

~+~

The articles about Sirius continued, though they were starting to become less frequent. The Ministry was refusing to divulge any details, and requests by members of the press to interview either prisoner were denied ‘for security reasons’. The reporters were prowling for blood, but the Ministry was still stonewalling them.

Harry and Hermione researched the possibility of simply hiring a lawyer to file an appeal on Sirius’ behalf. They were a little shocked at how primitive the appellate system was in the magical world. They couldn’t find any clauses that guaranteed a convicted prisoner access to legal counsel. At one time, a wrongly-convicted wizard could challenge his oppressor to a duel to obtain legal redress, but the repeal of the duelling code closed this avenue.

Hermione had to elbow Harry to break him out of a pleasant daydream involving challenging Fudge to a formal duel and kicking the spineless politician’s arse in exchange for Sirius’ freedom.

The Wizarding legal system seemed to assume that there was no way they could make an error and convict the wrong man. Of course, with all the magical means that existed to get at the truth, it would be difficult for them to get it wrong - provided the accused actually got a day in court. Apparently the de facto imprisonment of Sirius Black was a rather unusual precedent in Wizarding law. That made the powers that be even more culpable for his imprisonment. More importantly, they would likely go to even greater lengths to avoid admitting their error.

“It might be easier to start researching jail-breaks,” Harry finally said with a groan one afternoon.

He was a little shocked when Hermione looked thoughtful rather than immediately yelling that he wasn’t funny. “I’m starting to wonder if there is a legal means of doing this, if people in the Ministry are going to hold him completely incommunicado,” Hermione pondered.

“I’m worried that they have something else planned,”  Harry muttered.

He thought he might be able to introduce some of what he’d overheard in a way that wouldn’t garner suspicion. “I’ve been thinking about other reasons people might want Sirius locked away. He’s now the last of the Blacks, and there is a considerable family fortune being held in trust while he’s in Azkaban. He has a cousin, Nymphadora, who’s an Auror, but her mother was formally disinherited before she died. His cousin Bellatrix is in Azkaban as well, but his other cousin Narcissa is Draco’s mum.”

Hermione’s eyes went wide. “So if he dies in prison, Narcissa and the Malfoys would receive the Black inheritance?”

Harry nodded. “They might be afraid to do anything overt to kill him, but between the cold and the Dementors, Azkaban is not a healthy place to be. If he died of something like that, it wouldn’t raise as many questions, would it?”

Hermione got a sick look on her face. “Harry, that’s horrible!”

“Would you honestly put it past people like Draco’s family to bribe the Ministry to guarantee they got his money?”

Hermione looked like she was on the verge of tears as she shook her head.

Harry felt like a heel for asking Hermione to waste her time on the fruitless search, so he and Ron got together with the twins a few nights before her birthday and sent the fourth year students off to Hogsmeade. Harry provided a small stack of galleons and Ron provided a dire threat that he would personally thrash the two of them if her gift was pranked in any way, shape, or form. Neville was walking by and offered to help with the thrashing – his pounding of Malfoy had given the formerly shy boy a little bit of a swagger when he walked. That of course disappeared when Luna was around. She seemed to make him very nervous for some reason.

The twins winked mysteriously and disappeared soon afterward. Harry knew they were using the Marauder’s Map and the secret passage into Honeydukes, so he wasn’t really worried about them getting caught. He didn’t really want to loan them his invisibility cloak. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get it back and letting those pranksters know about it was like showing a pyromaniac where the napalm and matches were stored.

He and Ron were a little nervous as they waited for Fred and George to return. Sometimes their sense of the appropriate was a bit - off. When they waltzed into the common room, their grins made Harry’s stomach drop. One of them nonchalantly tossed a small box to Ron.

“There. Now let’s see if we’ve earned a beating, oh brother of mine,” Fred chirped.

“Perhaps we should step back so we’ll have a bit of a head start,” George said dramatically.

Harry’s fears proved unfounded as Ron fumbled the box open. Inside was a golden locket in the shape of a book. It opened to reveal a small mirror and a place to fix a photo. Harry had made a copy of the group shot Colin took of all of them and shrank it down until it fit into the opening.

“Does ickle Harrikins think we need to sleep with one eye open tonight?” Fred asked.

Harry smiled as Ron closed the locket and replaced it in the box. “No, you two have done quite well. I’m almost sorry I doubted you.”

“Always do the unexpected, Harry, that’s something George and I learned from the Marauders,” Fred said in sage-like voice.

“The Marauders?” Harry asked curiously.

“The marvellous, multi-talented pranksters of yesteryear, my good man,” George explained in a grand voice. “They attended Hogwarts long before us, but their legacy remains and Fred and I are proud to uphold their traditions of pranking excellence.”

“Do you know who they were?” Ron asked.

“No,” Fred said shaking his head. “Just their nicknames, Prongs, Padfoot, Moony, and Wormtail.”

Harry was tempted for a moment to just tell them that one of their heroes was locked up in Azkaban and then stand back. On the other hand, the Ministry might need that prison again some day.

Ginny and Luna made a card to go with the gift that all of them signed. Ron and Neville felt like they should have contributed more, until Harry pointed out the key role their dire threats played in keeping the twins from buying a locket that turned into a rubber chicken.

Of course, Harry wasn’t above manoeuvring things so that Ron was sitting next to Hermione in the common room when Harry nudged the boy and passed him the box with the card.

Ron looked horrified when she opened the locket and promptly burst into tears. He hesitantly patted her arm and assured her if she hated it they could get her something else – he was sure the twins had kept the receipt. Ron yelped when she suddenly grabbed him around the neck in a tight hug.

She let him go after a couple of minutes, sniffing and wiping at her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said shakily. “You must think I’m mental.”

“No,” Luna said. “You’ve just never had friends before, have you?”

Hermione’s head snapped to the side and she stared at the blond-haired girl.

Luna looked back at her, cocking her head to the side. Harry noticed her right hand was resting on Neville’s forearm. “It’s not hard to guess. I never had any friends before I came to Hogwarts either. Harry seems to have gathered a lot of interesting people together, hasn’t he?”

Harry blinked and swallowed. This Luna was a little more perceptive, or perhaps she was just more open with her perceptions. “Maybe I just recognize quality folk when I see them,” he replied in a swotty tone of voice. Everyone laughed at that and Harry felt his stomach unclench.

“Well, I do appreciate this - all of you,” Hermione said as she abruptly let go of Ron and flushed. “I - I did have a few friends at school - before - but they only seemed interested in having me help them with their homework.”

“And we know how you hate helping people with their homework,” Ron teased.

Hermione snorted and looked away. “I suppose you want to finish that transfiguration essay on your own then?” she asked tartly.

Ron shrugged. “I’ll muddle through.”

Hermione’s head snapped back around and she stared incredulously at Ron.

Ron looked her square in the eyes and responded in a very matter-of-fact tone. “If you have any doubts about whether we’re just being nice to get help, then I’d rather you didn’t help me.” It was one of the calmest and most mature things Harry could remember this version of Ron ever saying.

Hermione had a stricken look on her face. “Ron, I didn’t mean it, not seriously. I was just teasing you back.”

Ron shrugged and smiled faintly. “I know, but I didn’t want there to be any doubt either. You don’t have to buy our friendship, you know.”

Hermione just stared at him. Eventually Harry got a little uncomfortable and turned away, coughing discreetly.

After dinner the next day, Ginny cornered Harry in the hallway outside the Gryffindor common room.

“That was very nice what you did,” she said.

“What I did?”

“I know Ron couldn’t afford that locket,” Ginny said, slouching into a don’t-try-to-fool-me posture.

Harry shrugged, a little uncomfortable. “I supplied the galleons, Ron and Neville ‘persuaded’ the twins to go pick it up with no funny business.”

“But you organized this.”

“Well, she’s been spending a lot of time on legal research for Sirius,” Harry explained

Ginny nodded. “And then you made sure Ron gave it to her.”

Harry grinned, a little sheepishly. Trust Ginny to pick up on that.

“Why are you trying to fix Hermione up with my brother, of all people?”

Harry’s heart skipped a beat. He wondered how transparent his manoeuvring was. How long until everyone else started noticing? How long until he was forced to answer some very uncomfortable questions. Harry fidgeted with the neck of his robes, trying not to imagine a noose. “Ron isn’t that bad,” he said, playing for time.

Ginny frowned up at him. “It’s not that, I mean, you two are the smartest out of us. I was just wondering why you didn’t - well -” she trailed off, embarrassed to state the obvious conclusion.

I can’t believe I’m having this conversation, Harry mused as his face burned hot and cold.

“Well I hear you and Luna are doing quite well,” he replied.

Why did I just say that? He wondered.

“I like Hermione just fine -- as a friend - but we, er, both tend to worry. A lot, you know. Ron’s good for that.”

“Yeah, he never worries about anything except Quidditch,” Ginny agreed, rolling her eyes. She looked left and right down the corridor. “Well, we better get in there before people wonder what happened to us.” With that she grabbed Harry’s wrist and led him toward the Fat Lady’s portrait.

What the hell was that all about? Harry wondered, flustered, as she gave the password.

~+~

A week later, Sirius Black was in the news again. The Ministry reported that the man had somehow escaped from Azkaban, probably by resorting to the darkest of magic.

Harry sat, stunned, as he read the Daily Prophet.

…This only shows that the man is truly guilty of the crimes he was charged with,” said a senior Ministry official, “and this will hopefully put those ridiculous rumours to rest.”

Harry read the rest of the article, which was basically a re-tread of the recent history of the case. The slant of the article was that as hopes for his release faded, the dark wizard grew desperate and broke out on his own by means of some heretofore unknown magic.

Harry stared down at his plate, lost in thought as the others read the story.

“Well, at least he’s out, right Harry?” Ron asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

“We only have their word for it,” Harry whispered.

Hermione frowned then gasped. “You think they ‘disappeared’ him?”

Harry nodded.

“They what?” Ron asked.

Hermione gave Harry a worried look before she answered. “I did a report on Latin America when I was in Muggle school,” Hermione explained.  “People who disagree with the government tend to disappear – no records, no arrests, they just vanish in the middle of the night.  Most of them are killed by their own government.”

“The Ministry wouldn’t do that!” Ron gasped, horrified.

“Ron,” Harry said wearily, “you said yourself Draco’s dad paid a lot of bribes and was able to stay out of Azkaban. How many people do you think he murdered as a Death Eater?”

“Harry,” Ron hissed, “Dad works there! They wouldn’t - they couldn’t…”

“I don’t think the whole government is corrupt, Ronald,” Hermione said patiently, “and I don’t think Harry is saying that either.”

“But I’m not going to trust blindly if I can help it,” Harry insisted. “I don’t think Mr. Weasley would disagree with that attitude either. Remember how suspicious he was about Auror Shacklebolt being sent to Italy?”

Ron nodded, but his face was still troubled.

“Harry, he might really have escaped too,” Hermione said. “We are making some assumptions here.”

“But why would he escape when people are finally asking questions about his case?” Neville asked.

“We don’t know that he’s even aware of that,” Harry said. “I haven’t been able to see him after that first meeting.” The first time around, it took the realization that Wormtail was travelling to Hogwarts with Harry to get Sirius to risk his soul and try to slip past the Dementors. And with the knowledge that Peter was an Animagus, the guards would be more suspicious of a large dog that suddenly appeared.

Harry walked through the rest of the day in a haze of fear, doubt, and worry. The worst part, of course, was his utter helplessness to do anything about the situation. What the hell was the use of travelling back to the past only to have to watch things get screwed up again in newer and more dramatic fashions? Sirius’ death in his previous life seemed to herald the beginning of the dark days. Was it going to happen even sooner this time? Had all his meddling only accelerated the process? Was the entire magical world in each time line little more than a pile of oil-soaked tinder, waiting for any excuse to catch fire?

Was fate some vindictive harridan that resented his meddling? Was she going to respond by making things go to hell even faster this time around? For the first time in a while, Harry began to entertain the possibility that he really might lose. He wondered if there was any way he could just take his friends and leave the country, maybe emigrate to the United States or Australia… some place they’d never heard of Voldemort or the damn Prophecy. Of course it would be almost impossible to persuade all the Weasleys to leave the country. Not to mention Hermione’s parents, Neville’s Gran, and Luna’s father. Could he leave Hagrid and the Hogwarts staff to their fates? Did the students outside of Gryffindor not deserve to escape their fate as well?

In short, Harry was well and truly trapped.

Damnation.

That night, Harry’s Occlumency exercises did little to quiet his mind. His dreams decided to play a medley of some of his subconscious’ greatest hits. He watched Cedric and Sirius die And then Dumbledore. He watched Hermione step in front of a curse meant for Ron; he watched Ron do the same for himself. He watched Hogwarts burn and Ginny die, which was the cruellest of all - he hadn’t been there, to his eternal shame, and he couldn’t possibly have memories of that horror - but his subconscious decided to fill in the blanks. He saw her torn and battered body lying on the ground, writhing as Draco cursed her. The harsh glow from his wand cast his features in demonic relief as he lowered himself onto her…

Harry awoke to find himself in midair, having sprung from his bed. The canopy ripped loose and was flying across the room as the duvet burst into flames. Harry bit off his scream of rage as he realized he was beyond the silencing charms placed on his bed. He barely managed to tuck his shoulder under as he fell and rolled into a crouch in the middle of the room.

Harry rose shakily to his feet and grabbed his wand off the bedside table. A wave and a muttered charm restored the duvet, and another re-attached the torn canopy. His pyjamas were soaked with sweat and Harry felt like he’d just run a marathon. It took over half an hour under the hottest shower he could stand before the shaking in his hands even started to abate.

Hours later, Harry drove them mercilessly on the morning run. When he sparred with Ron, he nearly cracked his friend’s ribs when he was sloppy with a block. The boy glared at him as he tried to get his wind back.

“You trying to kill me, Harry?”

“You should take this seriously. It might save your life some day,” Harry growled.

Ron frowned. He expected Harry to joke back, not snap at him. “You want to tell me what’s bothering you?”

“I can’t, Ron, not until you learn how to maintain your Occlumency and not let it slip every time you get bored.” Harry’s voice sounded both weary and irritated at the same time.

Ron flinched back like he’d been slapped and Harry abruptly felt ashamed of himself.

“I’m sorry, mate. I had a very, very bad night. But I shouldn’t take it out on you.”

“Better me than the girls, Harry. I, at least, won’t hex you for it.” He cuffed Harry on the shoulder and they resumed sparring.

Ron’s remark reminded Harry of something though. He cut the martial arts practice short and led them back out to the lake at a quick jog.

Soon they were standing on the shore as Harry gathered a small pile of stones.

“All right. We’re going to work on some slightly more serious spells than you’ll see in Lockhart’s classroom. The cutting charm is call ‘Diffindo’, and you use it with a whipping motion like this,” he said as he demonstrated. “Visualize a very sharp wedge of force emanating from the end of your wand. Now, to start, we’re going to practice just casting it into the water near the shore. The merpeople are out in the deep water, so we won’t risk hurting anyone. Any questions?”

“Is this what you used to kill that troll?” Ron asked.

“Yeah. Its hide was pretty tough though. I had to wait for Neville to get it to open its mouth before I could really hurt it.” Harry replied as he noticed Hermione frowning.

Harry had to demonstrate the wand motion a couple of times for Ginny and Luna before they were confident they had it down.

After that, as Harry led the count, they practiced casting the spell at the unresisting water. As the spells discharged into the surface of the lake, small plumes of water shot into the air. Harry noticed that his spells were creating noticeably larger splashes than the others, so he began focusing less and less when he cast.

Once they were all comfortable with the spell. Harry began tossing rocks into the air in front of them as he counted. At first, none of them could strike a small, moving target. But with practice, they improved. Ginny was the first to strike a glancing blow. Then Hermione pulverized the next, followed by Ron and Neville scoring a simultaneous hit. Luna squinted fiercely, but still had problems connecting as the others improved.

When Harry ran out of rocks, Ron and Neville helped him gather more. Hermione, however, was talking to Luna and pointing toward the Quidditch pitch. “Luna,” she asked, “how many of the goal hoops can you make out from here?”

Luna frowned at Hermione. “You can see the hoops?”

Hermione nodded and held up her fingers in front of Luna’s face. “I want you to watch my fingers and tell me when they start to get blurry.” She began to back away from the younger girl.

When she was about twenty feet away Luna spoke up. “All I can see now is the hand, not the individual fingers.” She held up her own hand. “You can see my fingers from there?”

“Quite easily,” Hermione replied. “It appears you are a little nearsighted.”

“Oh,” Luna said tonelessly. “I was hoping I could hold out for farsighted.”

“Well,” Hermione continued like she hadn’t heard anything, “that would explain why you were having so much trouble with the moving targets, but can still read fine.”

Hermione prevailed upon Harry to end the practice so they could have an early breakfast. After they showered and ate, Hermione dragged Luna off to Madam Pomfrey before the first class period began. At lunch time, Luna was sporting an elegant pair of silver wire-frame glasses that framed her pale blue eyes. The first year witch was frowning as she began eating.

“It may be a little uncomfortable at first, but Madam Pomfrey said that should pass,” Hermione reassured her.

“I think they look rather unattractive,” Luna said as she fiddled with the string of butterbeer corks around her neck.

“Harry’s got glasses and he looks all right,” Ginny quickly reassured her.

Luna stared across the table at Ginny, cocking her head. “Harry is a boy. It’s all right if he looks unattractive.”

Harry opened his mouth to say something but stopped, as he didn’t have a clue as to what he could say in response. Ginny surreptitiously patted his leg under the table. Harry turned toward her wondering how he could express that he didn’t care if his glasses made him look unattractive, but finally just gave it up as a bad job all around.

Luna turned toward Neville, who appeared to be doing his best to stay out of the whole discussion. “What do you think? Do these glasses look unattractive?”

Neville frowned and swallowed. “I think they look very nice on you, Luna,” he said sincerely.

“Oh,” Luna said. She shrugged. “That’s all right then.” She patted the nervous boy on the arm and began eating her lunch. “At least it might be easier to spot a crumple-horned Snorkack if father gets the chance to travel this summer.”

~+~

Harry appreciated the distraction his friends provided him from his worries, but his sleep grew increasingly disturbed. They added spell-casting drills to their daily routine and began getting up half an hour earlier. Harry showed them a variety of nasty curses and hexes, all of which were potentially lethal or capable of knocking someone down and keeping them down.

As they worked together, Harry became increasingly aware of the difference between spells he cast and those his friends cast. It was especially apparent when they were casting Reducto spells into the surface of the lake. His friends’ spells were throwing up geysers of white water at the point of impact. The largest of these was over six feet tall, but Harry was matching it even while he was withholding most of his power.

He was pondering Healer Stanhope’s words about his MaRI test results when he started counting out loud again. Their volleys set off another set of geysers each time he counted. Evidently Ron had been trying to say something because he suddenly grabbed Harry’s shoulder. Startled, Harry accidentally pushed all his magic down his arm into the outstretched wand.

The wood bucked hard in Harry’s grip and the light that flew toward the lake seemed to be almost a solid mass. There was a loud thump as a column of water two feet wide and over thirty feet tall exploded upward from the surface of the lake. Harry barely had time to close his eyes before they were drenched with cold, fishy-smelling water. Someone let out a squeal and he was sure he heard a fairly vile curse or two.

When he’d knuckled the muddy water out of his eyes, Harry saw stunned fish begin floating belly up in the agitated water. He turned toward Ron, who was blinking rapidly. Hermione looked shocked, but Ginny was red-faced from holding back either laughter or tears.

Ron finally found his voice. “I was going to ask if we were about done. I wanted to make sure I had time to take a shower before breakfast.”

“I think Harry saved you some time there,” Ginny said before she sank to her knees, laughing uproariously.

~+~

Harry nervously scanned the Daily Prophet each morning at breakfast, but the only word his daily ritual yielded about Sirius consisted of vague rumours and alleged appearances in the unlikeliest of places. Harry had yet to read a “Black Sighting” that didn’t sound like a complete hoax.

On the other hand, Molly wrote that Aurors had stopped by The Burrow several times, supposedly to interview her and Arthur. However, they seemed to be more interested in looking around the house than talking to anyone. Molly also saw several new faces in the village when she went to do her shopping.

Harry was also interviewed by several Ministry officials at the school, though Professor McGonagall insisted on attending these meetings in her capacity as his head of house. Though he didn’t think it truly necessary, Harry was amused to observe the quelling effect his stern protector had on the Auror who was evidently assigned the role of ‘bad cop’. It certainly didn’t help when Minerva reminded the man that he’d gotten much lower marks in her classes than Harry.

After they left, Harry thanked her politely and informed her that if she ever wanted to hold a workshop on how to discreetly intimidate people that she could easily fill the Great Hall. Professor McGonagall’s thin lips did not curl when she raised an arched eyebrow, but she did say “Indeed,” with a hint of warmth.

October brought damp and chilly weather, forcing them to bundle up for their morning exercises. Hermione found a water-repelling charm in the library that made her extremely popular with her classmates.

Harry was especially grateful for her discovery as he returned from Quidditch practice the first weekend of the month. The new brooms were the only bright spot in the day. Oliver’s enthusiasm was not dampened by the elements, and so he drove them mercilessly. Harry was secretly amused to note that they were practicing just as hard as they had in his previous reality, when they hadn’t won the Quidditch Cup his first year.

He did try and talk his friends out of escorting him to and from practice, but Ron was having none of it. Ron was convinced that Draco and his cronies were just biding their time. Harry would have argued that he was going to extremes, but he knew that in the future that sort of thinking would be necessary, so he bit his tongue.

As they re-entered the castle, Harry saw Nearly Headless Nick drift by muttering to himself and the Boy Who Lived remembered the events that led to him attending the Gryffindor house ghost’s Deathday Party.

Having no great desire to smell a lot of rotting food, or obtain proof that Mr. Filch was a squib, Harry stopped dead in his tracks and quickly cleaned himself using the Scourgify charm. Harry nodded toward Mrs. Norris, who’d just rounded the corner, and directed his friends to clean themselves up before the cantankerous caretaker caught up with his cat. He directed a few cleansing charms at the water puddled on the floor as well.

When Argus rounded the corner, he found a lot of slightly damp students standing on a suspiciously clean section of flagstones. The bitter old man heartily disapproved of any sort of cleaning magic as effeminate and dishonest. Cleanliness should only be obtained by hard work, he claimed, and didn’t hesitate to punish anyone he found using spells to speed things up. He really despised house elves, Harry knew, no matter that their efforts were the only thing that allowed Hogwarts to function as it did. Fortunately, the man’s lack of magical ability also made it difficult for him to punish anyone when the offence didn’t happen right in front of him. So he merely scowled as he brushed past them.

They all laughed about the close call during dinner that night. When asked what had tipped him off, Harry said he saw Mrs. Norris watching them enter the Great Hall out of the corner of his eye.

Ron growled. “That mangy beast tries to get everyone in trouble. I’d like to give her a good kick if she ever stopped moving close by.”

“Ronald!” Hermione sniffed. “I thought having your own cat would give you a little more empathy for other peoples’ pets.”

“Crookshanks can’t stand Mrs. Norris either, Hermione. He gets along fine with the village strays, but every time he sees her he starts snarling - probably because she’s Filch’s narsty ickle spy.”

Hermione just sighed and shook her head. It was hard to disagree since Crookshanks did go out of his way to warn Mrs. Norris from coming anywhere near the Gryffindor tower. The kneazle-cross was several times the size of the other cat, so the warnings were quite effective, making Ron’s familiar very popular with the twins and other housemates.

The Halloween Feast was quite spectacular. Hagrid’s pumpkins had grown enormous, and Professor Flitwick had proven to be quite an artist when it came to carving absolutely terrifying visages into the rinds. After a couple of first year Hufflepuff girls fainted dead away when a life-size giant’s head snapped at them, Harry concluded that animating the jack-o-lanterns had been just a bit over the top.

Of course Harry wondered if the frightening decorations were the sole reason Luna was holding onto an even more nervous Neville’s arm.           

The food was incredible, of course, but Harry found himself losing his appetite. Worrying about things he had no control over was a singularly useless occupation. Harry knew this. But he couldn’t stop himself from stewing about his godfather. He sat there staring at his plate for a few moments, and then jumped when a fork deposited a slab of rare roast beef on the plate, followed by a wedge of steak-and-kidney pie. He frowned at Ginny, who was matter-of-factly loading his plate with all of his favourite dishes.

“Starving yourself isn’t going to help anyone,” she whispered tersely. If the others even noticed what she was doing, they gave no indication of it.

“I know,” Harry said, sighing. “I’m just…”

“You’re worried about him. But Harry, you’re not Merlin. If you find a way to help him, I’m sure you will. But until then, you need to take care of yourself. If you run yourself into the ground, you might get the opportunity to help him, but be unable to act on it.” She said this very calmly as she cut up her steak.

“How did you get so smart?” Harry asked in an amused tone.

“I cheated.”

Harry blinked. “You cheated?”

“I wrote Mum. She’s rather good at lecturing people.” Ginny cocked her head and looked at him sidelong. “Would you rather hear it from me now, or get an overdose of it when we go home for holidays?”

“Er, from you.”

Ginny nodded and smiled. “Good answer, Potter.”

It’s rather frightening¸ he mused as he ate his dinner, how well she can read me. Was she always this perceptive? And was I just too incredibly stupid to notice?

~+~

The day of the match against Slytherin was damp and muggy, which Harry supposed was an improvement over the ‘pouring water out of a boot’ rain that had dominated the previous month.

Harry ate a modest breakfast before going out to get suited up. He wasn’t nearly as bad as he used to be, when he often couldn’t eat at all before a match, but he still felt vaguely nauseous when the adrenalin started to flow.

“All right, we’ve got an absolute parity of brooms,” Oliver told them during his pre-game pep-talk. He ignored the fact that Harry was still mounted on his Nimbus Two Thousand, since the Two Thousand and One wasn’t that big an improvement and he was intimately familiar with the quirks of the broom he’d flown for over a year. “We’ve trained harder than anyone,” Oliver continued, ignoring the grumbles that followed that statement. The fact of the matter was that he’d driven the team mercilessly since the day they received their new brooms. “And we want it worse than they do,” he growled and then turned toward Harry. “You made some big claims about beating Malfoy to the Snitch,” Wood growled. “Now you need to make good on them. Get the Snitch or die trying!”

“No pressure, Harry,” Fred said, winking. George rolled his eyes and made a face behind Oliver’s back.

Harry cracked his knuckles in an overly dramatic fashion that had the twins chuckling. “The Snitch isn’t in question. What I want to see is if I can make Draco piss himself before I catch it.”

Oliver stared at him for a long moment before echoing Harry’s feral grin. “Right. Good lad! Now let’s go, Lions!” he roared as he led them out onto the pitch.

Without Dobby’s rogue Bludger to distract him, Harry made sure Draco had a very long afternoon. The Slytherin seeker zipped around the pitch a few times, calling Harry ‘Scarhead’ and showing off his new broom. Harry supposed he also wanted to intimidate the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw players they’d be facing later in the season. According to the grapevine, those houses were less than pleased about the Slytherins and Gryffindors receiving new brooms. Professor Flitwick was working toward cutting a similar endorsement deal with Comet, while Professor Sprout was lobbying the Board of Governors to have the Quidditch matches played on a standard set of brooms provided by the school itself. Harry didn’t really care what happened, as long as Slytherin didn’t have an overwhelming advantage.

Draco’s broom was only marginally faster than Harry’s, and the blond Seeker quite obviously couldn’t handle it well at full speed. Harry demonstrated this by diving just past the Slytherin player and then flipping over him in a quick barrel roll. Draco couldn’t stop himself from flinching back as the red-robed figure flashed past and around him. Harry hauled back on the shaft of his broom and kicked it into a standing stall so he could smirk at his furious counterpart.

“Already frightened, Malfoy? Money not doing you a lot of good up here, is it?” he sneered.

He supposed he was pushing things a little, but the vision of Draco torturing Ginny would not leave him alone. While it was technically possible that something like that had happened, it was more likely just his own fears and frustrations that were torturing him through his nightmares.

Harry’s expression suddenly became very keen and he spun his broom and pushed it over into a dive, flashing under Draco in an instant. The Slytherin Seeker didn’t hesitate and followed Harry in his sudden plummet. Harry waited until he was about to strike the turf when he hauled back on his broom with all his might, veering to the side as he pulled out of the suicidal dive. Blades of grass made a whirring sound as the toes of his shoes skimmed through them. Even sweeter sounds were the sudden thud and tumble as Draco hit the ground and bounced into the air.

“Oh, that’s got to sting!” Lee Jordan announced over the enchanted megaphone. “A picture perfect Wronski Feint by Potter and a wonderful example of why little rich boys shouldn’t try to buy their way onto the pitch by Malfoy. Er, sorry, Professor,” the boy concluded, though he didn’t really sound that sorry to Harry.

Ron later told him that Professor McGonagall didn’t look all that irate, either.

Draco shakily took to the air again and Harry began circling him in a distinctly predatory fashion. The circling also meant that Harry look could past the boy and search for the Snitch in every direction without being obvious.

After Angelina scored a goal, making it seventy to thirty, Harry saw a flash of gold near the Slytherin goals and took off after it immediately. Draco, wary of another feint, was slow to follow him. The roar of the crowd soon disabused him of that notion and he began pushing his broom for every scrap of speed to try and catch his nemesis.

Harry cursed as he dodged a Bludger from one of the Slytherin beaters. The Snitch passed behind the goal posts and disappeared again. Harry glanced behind him as he flattened his dive until he was just skimming above the turf. Draco was obviously pushing his broom for all it was worth in an attempt to catch up.

Pulling back sharply on the handle, Harry engaged the braking charms and let the uneven drag flip the broom over onto its back as it slewed sideways. Letting go with one hand and unhooking a foot, Harry splayed his limbs and dropped into a rough ‘Starfish and Stick’ - right in Draco’s flight path.

Draco didn’t even have time to yell as he jerked his speeding broom into a sharp turn to avoid Harry. Directly colliding with the opposing Seeker when not in pursuit of the Snitch could get Draco thrown out of the game if Madam Hooch were so inclined. Unfortunately, he couldn’t manage a completely flat turn. His right toe dug into the turf, and at the speed he was travelling - an instant later the Malfoy heir was tumbling across the pitch in a blur of silver and green robes.

Harry hauled himself back up onto his broom, just in time for a Bludger to glance off his hip and send him spinning. The Slytherin beaters were closing in with blood in their eyes. This made sense, because if the Snitch appeared while Draco was taking a dirt-nap, they had no prayer of winning.

The sensibility of their actions did nothing to deter Harry’s anger though. As soon as he got his broom back under control he shot up toward the Slytherin beaters, going almost as fast as the broom could go. The one on the right, Jiles Derrick, was closing in on an arcing Bludger, bat poised to strike. Harry gritted his teeth and shot almost directly toward the thick-set boy. As the beater closed in on the Bludger and cocked his arm back to hammer it with his enchanted bat, Harry veered off at high speed.

Derrick got a nasty grin as he struck the iron ball with a resounding smack. He waited until Harry was right next to him to maximize the damage. When Harry saw the boy’s arm begin to move, he opened the broom up the rest of the way, gaining a tiny increase in speed.

This was enough to make the Bludger brush the back of Harry’s robes instead of staving in his ribcage. There was a nasty crunching sound a moment later though. Derrick’s partner, Bole, was directly in the path of the hard-struck Bludger, and it nailed the boy dead-centre in the chest. Bole flew backwards off his broom and plummeted toward the ground before someone caught him with a levitation charm.

There was a short time out while Bole floated to the ground. Harry could see Hermione had her wand out now, and was carefully lowering the boy toward an extremely sour-looking Severus Snape. Harry carefully repressed a smile. Would Snape be forced to give her house points for this?

After a short examination, the Potions Master stated that Bole had broken ribs and possibly a fractured sternum. Gilderoy Lockhart offered to help; using a charm he’d performed ‘dozens of times.’ Harry felt a touch of dread and tried to find a spot to land nearby. If the inept buffoon masquerading as a Defence Professor removed the bones in Boles’ chest, the boy could easily suffocate before they could get him to the castle.

Lockhart was brushing off the boy’s team-mates and rolling up his sleeves when he suddenly froze. Snape had placed the tip of his wand in the hollow underneath Lockhart’s jaw.

“My student will be attended to by an accredited healer or medi-wizard. You, Professor Lockhart, are neither of those and I will thank you to put away that wand.”

Lockhart froze in place, and then cautiously stepped back. Harry let out a relieved sigh. Snape removed his wand and gestured at the prone student. Bole’s body slowly lifted into the air and followed Professor Snape as he walked toward the castle. After they left, the Defence Professor blustered a bit about how the man was ‘obviously distraught’ over his student’s injury.

The game soon resumed, but Derrick’s confidence was shattered after knocking out his team-mate. Fred and George dominated the Bludgers and pretty much stifled the Slytherin Chasers while Katie, Alicia, and Angelina ran up the score. Draco was hurting from his two turfings and flinched every time Harry swerved towards him. Finally, Harry saw the Snitch near mid-field and began to slowly drift in that direction. Draco was still quartering the pitch and checking near the Gryffindor goal posts when the shout went up from the crowd.

Harry was barely ten feet away when someone in the stands noticed the Snitch hovering near the ground. Easing forward as Draco hauled his broom around in a desperate bank, Harry neatly plucked the Snitch out of the air. The final score was three hundred twenty to ninety in favour of the Gryffindor Lions.

As the pitch erupted in cheers and shouts, Harry was half afraid OIiver was going to kiss him as the team landed at mid-field. Fred and George hoisted Harry up onto their shoulders to spare him such a fate. Harry found his friends standing on the bleachers and waved to them. Ron’s face was nearly purple and Ginny’s wasn’t far off. Luna had an odd smile on her face while Neville’s eyes were fixed in a glassy stare pointed somewhere off in the distance. Hermione looked like she was about to pass out from laughing, and Harry abruptly decided to look away. He probably didn’t want to know.

He did notice that Marcus Flint was standing over a red-faced Draco Malfoy, shouting as he repeatedly jabbed a thick finger into the smaller boy’s chest. Harry imagined Draco was getting a sound reaming for his failure to deliver on pretty much everything he was supposed to do today. How very sad for him.

~+~

The agent-in-place carefully folded the letter he’d received. Among the veiled insults and threats were some very specific instructions. Things were not progressing as they should and he was to ascertain why.

As he lay back on his bed and stared up at the canopy, he pondered his options. He had a fair idea of the source of the difficulties, but direct action was out of the question at this time.

Or was it?

Setting this up would be difficult, but not completely impossible. It was rather like Wizarding chess. You had the pieces, you had the board, and you had an objective. Everything moved according to the game’s rigid mathematics. The trick was to set up the pieces on the board in such a way that achieving the objective wasn’t just possible, but inevitable.

Inevitable was good, since the consequences of failure didn’t really bear thinking about. Not if he wanted to maintain his sanity, anyway. Some games have higher stakes than anyone can imagine – both good and bad.

The first thing to do was to gather the pieces. His current helpers had proven themselves to not be up to the task, especially given the opposition they were facing. They’d failed him for the last time. That was another lesson he’d learned the hard way.

He would now need some very specialized allies to make his plan work, but he knew what inducements he could offer. There were some inducements that his unwitting ally would never refuse. And that was a valuable lesson. No matter how hard and controlled someone may be, there was always a key that would unlock them. Everyone wanted something - or someone.

The letter hadn’t specified a timeframe, but the boy knew that sooner was preferable to later. On the other hand, later was better than never, wasn’t it? The objective was visible, and the steps leading up to it were obvious. It was the beginning and intermediate phases that were hazy and ambiguous. Of course, that was the hazard when one planned things out in such a way.

He would need time to work out the earlier stages, and in all likelihood it would take considerable time to complete them as well.

That being the case, he needed to act soon to guarantee he had as much time as possible. In this case, too much was far better than not enough, wasn’t it? He fingered his wand and began planning the first of many, many steps.

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

Author Notes:

Still no disclaimer – if you’ve read this far, you know why.

Plot discussions and individual Q&A will be addressed on my yahoo group (viridian_dreams, see my author profile for the link) A lot of interesting discussions are taking place there as well.

Thanks for reading!

-Matthew

 

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