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Drunkard's Walk VIII:
Harry Potter and the Man From Otherearth

by Robert M. Schroeck



4. Gee, Mr. Wizard, What Are We Learning Today?

...[W]hen it comes to stuff written about magic, 99.9% of everything is crap.
— P.E.I. Bonewits, Real Magic

Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater.
— Gail Godwin

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams.
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever, it seems.

— Arthur Machen, "Dreamer's Ode"


Slytherin House
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
7 September 1995

Dear Father:

Thank you for your replies this week, and please thank Mother also for the cakes and pastries. My yearmates and I enjoyed them greatly.

I regret to say that, like you, I have little new or of value to report. I have noted that Professor Sangnoir has taken a personal dislike to me, but it does not affect his teaching; he does not single me out for humiliation in his classes, nor does he assign me arbitrary point deductions and detentions. At least he is as even-handed with Light-aligned students; I can find no bias at all in his rewards or punishments...

Hogwarts, Great Hall. Tuesday, September 3, 1995, 7:51 AM

On the second day of classes, Harry spent the early part of his breakfast brooding over the events of the previous evening. Seamus Finnegan, whom Harry had thought of as a friend, if not to the same degree as Ron or even Neville, had clearly bought into every accusation and insult the Prophet had slung at Harry over the summer. Now Seamus regarded Harry as a liar and a madman and maybe even a threat to his safety.

"Hullo, Harry Potter."

At the sound of that dreamy greeting, Harry turned away from his brooding to find the strange Ravenclaw girl from the Express standing behind him, still wearing her radish earrings and the necklace of butterbeer corks. He struggled for a moment to remember her name, taking in her dirty blonde hair and gray (almost silver) eyes before it came back to him — Lovegood, Luna Lovegood.

He turned completely around on the bench to face her. "Good morning, Luna."

She tilted her head, her wide eyes not quite resting on him in a way that reminded him uncomfortably of the Headmaster's "precautionary measure". "You had Defence yesterday," she said flatly.

Harry glanced to his side, where Ron simply shrugged. "Yes, I did," he said after a moment.

She tilted her head the other way, her gaze shifting to somewhere past his other shoulder in the process. "What does Professor Sangnoir know about blue-tailed eyebiters?"

"Um." Harry craned his neck to look back at Hermione, who also shrugged.

"He mentioned throwing salt at one," she offered, "as an example of the kind of thing we wouldn't be learning."

Luna's gaze now not-quite-rested on Hermione, and she nodded slowly. "Of course not. Salt is useless against eyebiters of any variety." She tilted her head back in the first direction, and Harry was struck by the irrelevant thought that she looked like the world's slowest metronome. "Daddy's done an extensive study of the genus oculomordus," she confided before turning and walking back to the Ravenclaw table.

Baffled, Harry watched her until she sat down, then turned back around to his breakfast. Next to him, Ron shook his head. "Mental, that one," he muttered.

Unlike dinner's rigid seating plan, once the school year began the arrangements for breakfast at the high table varied from day to day. There were a few constants: Albus's throne always remained at the center, Minerva was always to his right, and Wilhelmina always sat in the doublewide at the far end past her. But beyond that, though, it was catch-as-catch-can, and one's morning dining companions frequently shifted, even before the term formally began and the individual instructors' schedules were taken into account.

I liked that, as it meant my morning conversational partners were not restricted to Sybill and Severus (or, as I had privately labeled them, the Dip and the Grump). Of course, it also meant that I was sometimes at Rolanda's mercy for an entire meal, but I quickly learned that if I timed my arrival properly, I could usually avoid spending up to sixty full minutes trying to ignore her passes and pinches.

This morning, after another rousing plunge through the castle stairwells, I was seated between Filius and Pomona and enjoying myself thoroughly.

"So, Doug," Filius asked as he scooped scrambled eggs onto his platter. "How did you find your first day of classes?"

"Oh, it was easy," I said around bites of toast. "I just went to the classroom wing and there it was, waiting for me."

Filius's eyes went wide for a moment, and he broke into tiny belly laughs just a second behind Pomona's own unladylike guffaws. "I must admit," he said amid a last couple chuckles, "that I do enjoy your company much more than that of most of your recent predecessors."

"Merlin's beard, yes!" Pomona added. "Why, last year..." She stopped short. "Well, perhaps I shouldn't go into that. Remus Lupin two years back was friendly, if quiet, but Lockhart before him was a bore." She fanned herself. "I can't believe I found the man so attractive at the time. Now that I recall it, he only spoke of himself, and that to excess."

Thinking of the books of his I'd found in my classroom (and their quantity), I nodded. "Why does that not surprise me?" I muttered, and Pomona grimaced.

Filius disguised another chuckle as a cough into his napkin, then said, "Back to topic, though, Doug. I understand you had the Gryffindor and Slytherin fifth-years yesterday."

I nodded as I swallowed a bite of eggs. "Yeah, together in a double in the afternoon. Why?"

He shot me a strange, neutral look. "You'll find that most of the excitement that happens throughout the year tends to follow that class, those two Houses in particular. What with the Troublesome Trio on the one hand..."

"Troublesome Trio?" I interrupted, fork halfway between my plate and my lips.

"Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasley, though it seems at times that Ron's younger sister Ginny is intent on making it the Troublesome Quartet," Pomona explained. "All in Gryffindor. If anything out of the ordinary is happening in the school, they're usually in the thick of it."

"I'm familiar with them, though maybe not as much as I thought. Serious troublemakers?" I asked, remembering my thoughts at the previous night's feast.

"Oh, no!" Pomona sat up straight. "Well, not really. More troublecatchers than troublemakers. Poor Harry... it really isn't his fault, but so much has happened to him."

"You mean besides what's in the history books?" I asked.

Filius nodded so vigorously he almost tumbled out of his seat. "Oh, my, yes. Last year, for instance, was such a terrible ordeal for him, what with the way the rest of the school treated him for so long — and all the stories in the Prophet didn't help at all..."

"I see." I didn't, but then again my "recent history" research had stopped at the period just before Harry's first year, and the Daily Prophet's current series of hatchet-jobs were low on details that were unnecessary for a good old-fashioned character assassination. All I knew was that it had to do with Lord Emo's resurrection (and I'd already guessed Harry's involvement with that) along with some kind of tournament. Best to rectify that quickly. I wondered if there was a collection of back issues in the library; I'd have to check after dinner. Failing that, I'd probably have to visit Diagon Alley and see if I could get access to the Prophet's morgue.

"So, is it just them?" I asked as I nibbled on a rasher of bacon.

"Oh, no," Pomona chuckled. "We have a whole collection in fifth year, including the niece of the Director of Magical Law Enforcement, the children of several members of the Wizengamot and the Hogwarts board of governors..."

"Including Draco Malfoy," Filius interjected.

I snorted. "Him I've noticed. Arrogant little snot."

Pomona nodded. "Very privileged, and very aware of it. You'll no doubt grow sick of the phrase 'When my father hears of this' quickly enough." She actually growled. "The boy is an unprincipled bully, as well. I've done what I can to slap him down, but to no avail."

"Oh, and we have the spawn of the Black Widow," Filius threw in just as I lifted my tea to my lips.

I managed not to spit-take at that. "The what?"

"Antonia Zabini," Pomona said, leaning in conspiratorially. "Seven husbands in less than twenty years, and they all died mysteriously, leaving her every Knut in their vaults."

"Now, now, Pomona, nothing's ever been proven," Filius chided. "Either way." He turned back to me. "As I was saying, Blaise Zabini is among our oh-so-interesting fifth years."

I wracked my brains trying to recall Blaise Zabini from my roll call the day before. "Tiny Sicilian-looking girl, all porcelain skin and raven hair?"

Filius gave me a strange look. "No, the tall brown-skinned boy." He nodded toward the Slytherin table. "There."

And so he was, as part of the clique surrounding Draco "I've Stolen Andy Warhol's Hair" Malfoy. Huh. I must have not been looking up — or listening closely — when he replied during the roll call. I glanced around the Hall, and saw no one who matched the description of the girl I'd thought I'd seen in his place. Weird. "Okay," I said slowly. "I could have sworn... oh, well. So, he's hanging with young Mister Malfoy. Is he just as obnoxious?"

Pomona pursed her lips. "Not as obnoxious, no, but while he holds himself separate for the most part, he does share most if not all of the same beliefs."

"Joy," I muttered. "Another baby terrorist." I'd received my introduction to the Blood Purity movement within hours of my arrival on this Earth, thanks to Charlie and his explanation of who Voldemort was and what he was all about. But until I ended up at Grim Old Number 12 I hadn't actually had much first-hand experience with it — the guys at the dragon preserve were a relaxed lot who didn't care much about your blood as long as you could wrangle the big lizards. The Romanian wizards I'd met on the odd trip off the preserve seemed pretty unconcerned about blood, too, though I can't say I did a lot of socializing with them.

It was only when I ended up in the Black ancestral home that I really got my first exposure to followers of the ideology (if at one remove), and that to one of the more extreme families devoted to the idea. As I had expected, I found it all about as appealing as an Aryan Brotherhood meeting or a THAMF tract. To discover that there was a significant bloc of students embracing those beliefs upset me more than a little. To further discover that many of them were the children of Lord Emo's Emo-ettes and were apparently tasked with actively promoting the agenda and persecuting die magische Juden when they could get away with it... Well, that pissed me off big-time.

Albus had sworn up and down that he was sure he could sway them to the side of the Light (his words, not mine). I wasn't so sure, but I was also aware that it was likely to be my own bias speaking in defiance of my ethics, and stomped down on it. If I could give the demon Mara a second chance, I had damned well better give a bunch of school kids one, too.

Nothing said I couldn't do my own share of convincing, though. I made a mental note to come up with at least one lecture that would address the subject — and another on logical fallacies, to be given immediately before.

"Oh, and before I forget," Filius piped up, shaking me out of my musings, "Minerva's calling a staff meeting tomorrow night to determine chaperone duties for the Hogsmeade weekends this year." Right, the kids' monthly day to run wild in the nearby Wizarding village.

Pomona shook her head. "I swear, if she proposes a round of cards again to decide who gets which weekends..." Catching sight of my raised eyebrow, she coughed and explained. "Unless someone has a conflict we have to work around, we usually use some random method to pick the chaperones for each of the Hogsmeade weekends. Minerva's a bit of a card-shark..."

"Among other people," I interrupted dryly, and Pomona shot me a smug little grin. She knew very well that I'd quit the faculty game because of the last time she'd trounced me in it.

"As I was saying," she continued, still grinning, "Minerva likes to turn the whole thing into an elimination tournament, with the early losers getting stuck watching over the mid-winter weekends, and the winners getting fall or spring dates."

I thought about that as I chewed a forkful of sausage. "I'm sure I'll be happy with whatever assignments I end up getting."

"Not familiar with winter weather in Northern Scotland, are you?" Filius asked smugly.

Day two of classes started simply enough, with the morning split between second-years and third-years. I gave them the same basic introduction (not much time, this will be hard, you'll hate me) that I'd been giving all but the first-years before launching into material from the appropriate syllabi.

It was the first class after lunch when things got... odd.

It was a double-long with fourth-year Ravenclaws and Slytherins, their first DADA class of the year. Again with the introduction, followed by the roll call, and then the instruction.

And then it got weird...

"...which is how we know the Ministry is building an army of heliopaths." The girl was the one I'd seen parting from the 12 Grim crew when they'd entered the Great Hall that first night: long dirty-blonde hair, eyes so grey they were almost metallic silver in color, slender almost but not quite to the point of emaciation. Her voice was thin and dreamy and seemed to wander aimlessly through various tones and pitches even as her gaze wandered randomly about the room. Her name was Luna Lovegood, and something about her struck me with a profound sense of deja vu from the moment she'd responded during roll call.

I had no idea how she had ended up discussing the Wizarding government's secret army of heliopaths, whatever the hell they were supposed to be. (Of course I could parse the word's Greek roots; that didn't clarify matters. I made a mental note to corner Wilhelmina and ask her.) What I had asked Miss Lovegood to describe was where their instruction the previous year had left them in knowledge and skill.

As she stood there expectantly, the voice of Terry Jones drifted across my mind: "And that, my liege, is how we know the Earth to be banana-shaped." I valiantly resisted the urge to imitate Graham Chapman's follow-up and ask her how sheep's bladders could be used to prevent earthquakes. Gods help me, she might have had an answer ready! Instead, I decided to feed her a straight line, just to see what would happen. So I fixed her with a stern gaze and said, "Surely you're not serious."

She turned her wandering gaze more or less back to me, tilted her head slowly, then replied, "Of course I'm not serious. Stubby Boardman is. And don't call me Shirley."

I resisted the urge to grin. Oh, she was good, and not half as crazy as she made herself out to be. I could get to like Miss Luna Lovegood, I could. Oh, yes, indeed.

Oh, and I gave her five points for spinning a good yarn.

By the time classes ended, the stormy weather had finally broken and save for an intermittent sprinkle the day looked to end much drier than it had started. It was still a few hours short of sunset and while the sky hadn't cleared yet, it had become comfortably cool, with a breeze that was just strong enough to feel pleasant and nowhere near strong enough to start robbing you of body heat.

After shooing out my last class and closing down for the day, I headed out to talk to Wilhelmina. Although she had a classroom proper in the castle, most days she held her classes outdoors, in and around a collection of sheds, corrals and pens which housed the various critters whose ecology, care and feeding she taught. Thus it was down to her magical barnyard that I dashed. As I'd hoped, she was still there, distributing feed and cleaning out stalls with waves of her wand.

We traded greetings, and then she gave me the grand tour as she completed her end-of-day duties. Which is how I learned that hippogriffs like me, unicorns don't, and flobberworms are disgusting. And that Scotland possessed its very own counterpart to the mosquito called the midge, and that I liked them as little as I did their transatlantic cousins.

I also learned that Wilhelmina had no idea what the hell "Shirley" had been talking about, either. "That poor girl," she said, "is not quite right in the head. Takes after her father that way, what with his newspaper publishing articles about all manner of creatures that simply don't exist. I have no idea what a 'heliopath' is supposed to be, Douglas, but I can assure you there is no such thing. And it goes without saying that the Ministry is most certainly not raising up an army of them."

And that, apparently, was that — at least for Wilhelmina. But I was certain that Luna Lovegood was anything but "not quite right in the head". As someone who had often used a crazy act himself to keep others off-balance and confused, I was pretty sure I recognized the signs. She might not have had the same motivations as I did, but the methods were close enough.

Miss Lovegood and her heliopaths aside, there was one other reason I'd trudged out through the still-muddy grounds to talk to Wilhelmina. Now that I'd gotten the first couple of school days out of the way and was feeling a bit more secure in what I was doing, it was time to start my investigation into the whereabouts of one Tom Marvolo Riddle, aka Lord Flight-of-Emo.

(And may I just say that I always got a private laugh out of using that name for him. Besides deliberately mocking the dark grandeur he obviously intended for his monicker, it also sounded like the name of a horrible cover band that only performed songs by A Flock of Seagulls and The Cure. And somehow that struck me as just so right.)

Anyway, after much thought, I had decided that for my first try, I was going to do something fun and interesting — not to mention something that as far as I could tell was completely out-of-context for wand wizards.

And to do that I needed to pick Wilhelmina's brains about what magical and mundane critters there were in the vicinity of Hogwarts. Which I did, for close to half an hour.

Thanking her for her time, I made my way back to the castle. As I did, my thoughts bounced back and forth between my plans to find Lord Emo and pondering the curious case of Miss Lovegood. Wilhelmina's comment about the girl's father and his newspaper had piqued my curiosity. So after dinner, I headed to the library not only to check for recent issues of the Prophet per my earlier plans, but also to find out more about newspaper publishers named "Lovegood". And promptly discovered that the Wizarding world had its own version of the "Weekly World News", only without the obvious wink-and-nod to the readership.

Well. That certainly did explain a lot about Miss Lovegood. The ability to fake being bonkers with a perfectly straight face was probably genetic.

It also explained the "Stubby Boardman" comment. Oh, yes, there was definitely much more to Luna Lovegood than met the eye.

Gryffindor Common Room. Tuesday, September 3, 1995, 7:11 PM

"I swear!" Ginny averred, holding one hand up and the other over her heart. "I thought he was going to die! I thought I was going to die, watching him! Then he just sort of grabbed part of the stairs below, did this twirl thing and then shot right back up to talk to us." She giggled. "About how important breakfast was, of all things."

Between their class schedules and Ginny's desire to eat with friends in her year, the Gryffindor common room that evening was the first chance any of them had to hear her first-hand account of the morning's incident on the stairs.

"What, was he just floating there?" Ron demanded.

"No!" Ginny exclaimed. "He was just, you know, coming back up before falling back down." She gestured vaguely with both hands, and added, "And then he just swung from one part of the stairs to another until he was all the way back down on the floor again."

"Huh." Harry looked up from the chessboard where he battled Ron, and thought about that for a moment. "Like an acrobat, but I wouldn't think you could do acrobatics in robes."

"I would think that the aerodynamics would make it all but impossible," Hermione mused, her eyes half-closed and gazing at nothing in particular as she worked her knitting needles. "He would have to be extraordinarily skilled — almost..." Her eyes shot open for a moment as her mouth closed with a snap.

"Almost what?" Harry demanded.

"Yeah, Hermione, what?" Ron chimed in, still contemplating his next move.

She glanced around at the three of them. "Almost... superhuman."

None of them said anything for several seconds. The squeals and cries of several first years on the other side of the common room filled the air between them before attracting Hermione's attention. "Oh, for the love of..." she growled. Dropping the misshapen attempt at a knitted cap she had been making, she shot up off the couch to stalk across the room. "Fred! George! What are you giving those children?"

Harry watched her lay into the twins before looking back at Ron and Ginny. For some reason, Hermione's pronouncement made him want to rub his eyes and groan. Instead, he settled for a brief sigh. "Superhuman?" he asked neither of them in particular.

"Mental," Ron declared without raising his eyes from the board. He moved a piece. "Checkmate."

"Bloody hell," Harry said without heat.

I spent an hour or so after dinner in my office doing paperwork. Before I could head to London for martial arts equipment, I needed a good idea of the sizes and quantities I was going to require. So I did up a quick form querying height, weight and other specifics (because the Wizard-born weren't likely to know from standard sizes), and after about a half-dozen tries my magic chicken managed to make me about a hundred duplicates to hand out to my older students the next morning.

That done, I then retired for the evening to my rooms. I made sure the door to my quarters was securely bolted — not that it would stop an unlocking charm, but hey, force of habit — then paused.

"Twonky?" I said uncertainly. I hadn't called on the little creature since he (she? it? I still didn't know) had helped me unpack weeks before, but I decided that, after all the talking at the meeting, I wanted a cup of tea before moving on to the next item on the evening's agenda, and quite frankly didn't feel like trying to find the kitchens at this time of night.

No sooner had the name left my lips than there was a soft "pop" and the house-elf appeared before me. "Professor Looney called Twonky?" it asked in its piping voice.

I boggled for a moment. "Where did you learn that name for me?"

Twonky tilted its head. "House-elves knows who they serve," it said matter-of-factly, far more voluble than it had been at our first meeting. "We finds out so we serves them the right ways. You is the Crazy Songs, and the Rider Between the Worlds, and the Wizard of War. And you is sworn and sword to She-Who-Flies-With-Lightnings."

Well, that certainly was one way to describe Hexe. That the house-elves had somehow found all that out was, frankly, more than a little disturbing. "Um.... right," I mumbled, deciding to table the whole thing until a later, more comfortable moment. "Right," I repeated, remembering why I'd called on Twonky in the first place. "Can you please bring me a cup of tea, strong and sweet?"

It bobbed its head once. "Twonky do," it chirped, and then popped away. A moment later, another pop, and it was back with a steaming cuppa on a saucer, which it lifted up to me. I accepted the tea from the little creature, and took an experimental sip of the almost coffee-colored liquid.


Maybe there was something to this "knowing who they serve" business.

"Thank you, Twonky," I said.

"You is welcome," it said and popped away.

My quarters as a professor were a small but pleasant suite — sitting room, bedroom and private bath. One end of the sitting room was taken up by a largish fireplace, in front of which were an end table and a comfortable armchair I had already grown far too fond of. I settled myself into the chair and watched the fire as I sipped my tea.

When I was done, I left the cup and saucer on the end table and walked into my bedroom. I pulled my helmet out of my wardrobe, set it in place on my head, then laid down on my bed. I wriggled a bit to make sure I was comfortable, then, after the computer had finished booting, I said, "System. Load song 'Long Distance'. Play song." And as Ray Davies began to sing, I focused on my target.

"Spent last winter playing in the sand
With the prisoners of the motherland
Damn hotel is feeling like a cell..."

Merlin's baggy Y-fronts! Where's that bloody bell coming from?

Um, I projected. That would be me. Hi, Sirius, how're things hanging in beautiful 12 Grim?

Doug? What the bloody hell are you doing inside my head?

I chuckled in spite of myself. I'm not inside your head, I'm sending to it. You wanted me to keep you up to date on how Harry was doing at school, and I figured this would be a good way to do it.

He laughed, which came through the telepathic link with surprising clarity. Figures you couldn't be like any other wizard and just send a note by owl.

I sent the image of a shrug across the connection. Why be normal?

Why indeed? And I could see his grin. So, tell me, how's my godson doing?

Well, first, why didn't you mention that Harry was the famous Harry Potter? "Long Distance" only lasted five minutes and 23 seconds, but that was more than enough time for me to bring Sirius up to date — and to give him some of the simple, ordinary human contact he so desperately needed, stuck alone in that haunted horror of a house.

Some time later, as I prepared for bed, I glanced over at the chest of drawers on which I had set up all my photographs and other (small) keepsakes. Involuntarily, my eyes locked onto the jewel case that lay flat on the dresser top in front of the mystery photo of Makoto and friends, and onto the silvery disk within it.

For a moment I was tempted to take it out and use it for the purpose for which it had been given to me — contacting one of the very few gods whom I could trust, a god who felt she owed me and had promised to be there if I needed her, even if only to talk.

But here at Hogwarts I wasn't alone, and I wasn't lonely, and for the first time in a while my life was pretty good. Regardless of what Marller had said, I would not call upon any of the gods lightly.

Calling Charlie, though... that was something to consider for the next evening.

Wednesday, September 4, 1995, 10:50 AM

"Honestly! What were they thinking?" Hermione huffed. Harry and Ron glanced at each other over her head and shared an eyeroll. As she had almost every free moment since the night before, Hermione was fuming over the twins' latest venture. They had come up with sweets which produced counterfeit illnesses for getting out of classes, and had been paying first-year Gryffindors to test them. Even when she'd put a stop to it with a judicious threat to write their mother, she continued to complain about their behavior, as though it had been a personal affront.

She'd been so preoccupied by it that Harry was afraid that he and Ron would have to drag her along as they dashed from Gryffindor Tower to Transfiguration class. The shortest route took them through the entry hall, though, and they were forced to a halt as a flood of third-year Hufflepuffs in grass-stained robes streamed in from outside, chattering excitedly. The open doors let in a cool fall breeze, not yet cold enough to be uncomfortable.

One young Hufflepuff, not watching where he was going as he gesticulated wildly to his companions, ran right into Harry, who caught him before either of them could be knocked down. "Hey," Harry said gently, "you need to watch where you're going."

The younger boy's eyes tracked up to Harry's scar and widened; Harry suppressed a groan. "Sorry!" he blurted, as his friends paused, waiting for him with a silence that was entirely too fearful and respectful both for Harry's peace of mind.

"What's got you all so worked up?" Ron asked, and Harry gave a silent thanks.

"Oh!" one of the Hufflepuffs piped up. "It was brilliant! We had Defence out on the lawn! Professor Sangnoir took us outside because it was nice, and we sat in a big circle on the grass around him while he taught."

"Yeah!" another chirped. "He was talking about how important 'situational awareness' was, and he was doing all kind of wandless stuff to demonstrate."

"An' keep us jumping," the first one added.

"Wait, wandless?" Hermione demanded, her preoccupation with the twins and their antics now forgotten.

"Oh yeah! And silent, too — he's really good!" The group nodded as one. "He'd just be talking 'bout how you had to keep a little part of your attention on the world around you at all times, and suddenly a pillow'd come outta nowhere and drop on someone's head. And if they didn't dodge it, they lost a point."

"An' if they did, they got a point," another said. The third-years shared grins. "We made lots of points today, all of us."

"C'mon, guys," said the one who'd run into Harry. "We're gonna be late for Charms!" And with that they dashed off.

Harry, Ron and Hermione exchanged glances. "Is it even possible to cast silently while talking?" Ron asked.

"Mr. Potter, Mr. Weasley, Ms. Granger," a cheerful tenor voice rang out across the entry hall. Professor Sangnoir had followed the Hufflepuffs in, smiling broadly. He wore deep indigo robes this morning, and a familiar grey helmet swung by its chinstrap from his left hand. "Good morning!" He paused to raise an eyebrow at them. "You're going to be late to your next class if you don't get a move on, you know."

"Oh, crap," Ron muttered, and the three of them took off, leaving the professor and the latest strangeness concerning him behind.

Wednesday, September 4, 1995, 6:30 PM

It had been a very good day, both teaching-wise and weather-wise, which put me in a very pleased and confident mood in which to launch my anti-Voldemort intelligence operations. Although between my bike and judicious song usage I had considerably better mobility than anyone else in the castle (to put it mildly), I couldn't afford to actually use it — my teaching and other faculty responsibilities required my physical presence at Hogwarts for most of the week. This left me with insufficient time to either personally conduct a thorough investigation or vet and assemble a network of spies and informants to do the job for me.

There are in my repertoire a few songs with informational effects, giving me what Wizarding Britain would call Divination. (Though gods help me I would never admit it anywhere near Sybill "Ye Originale New Age Dip" Trelawney.) Due to aspecting, range or other issues (like permanently becoming "several with the universe", as Maggie had put it when I'd nearly lost myself in the Cosmic All the last time I tried to use the Beatles' "Within You, Without You"), they were either too limited, too dangerous or only useful for laying the groundwork for my search.

What I needed was an absolutely trustworthy proxy or proxies that I could conjure up more or less immediately.

Which was why I had consulted with Wilhelmina.

I was going to go all-out "Doctor Dolittle" on Lord Emo and set the birds, animals and insects of Great Britain on his trail.

I already had some songs that let me summon and command a few varieties of animals, both useful and not. (Despite a certain story published in the Sun back home in 1996, trout would not be involved in this plan). But I'd needed to pick Wilhelmina's brains about what magical and mundane critters there were in the vicinity of Hogwarts so I knew what I had to work with. And what songs I should dig out of my library to try.

Once I'd extracted an exhaustive list of the local fauna from Wilhelmina, I patted myself on the back once again for my outstanding cleverness. Wizarding magic had no organized subcategory of animal magic at all — except for two pretty much random conjurations (one for snakes, another for birds) that I'd come across in my reference books, Wizarding magic all but ignored animals. (Oh, and a kind of self-taught critter-morph ability called "animagism", but that wasn't the kind of "animal magic" I meant anyway.) If pressed, a wand wizard might turn a spell intended for humans on animals, but that was the extent of it. Wilhelmina's specialty was pretty much magical zoology — the care and feeding of and/or how to defeat J. Random Critter. Not how to use it as a servant or tool.

Lord Emo, from all I'd learned of him through Albus and other sources, was pretty clearly an "Old Ways Are Best/The Ancients Knew All" kind of guy. Between that and his pathological superiority complex, I was betting that he would be completely unable to conceive of someone using a form of magic unknown to him. Especially a form of magic using creatures he would dismiss as beneath his notice — in some cases literally.

And thanks to Wilhelmina, I had a catalog of agent candidates in my sweaty little paws.

During dinner that night I took advantage of my position between the Grump and the Dip (and the utter lack of conversation which resulted) to consider my options. As soon as I could do so, I took my leave of the rest of the faculty, gave Albus a nod (to which he replied with his own, knowing, one), and took off for my quarters.

Twenty minutes later I stood in a grassy meadow which I had specifically chosen because it was out of direct view of any but the topmost windows of the highest towers of the castle. It was near enough to the Forbidden Forest that I could easily make out individual tree trunks even some way in; conveniently close for my needs, not close enough to be pounced upon without warning by something both hungry and annoying.

I pulled on my helmet and snugged up the chinstrap as I waited for its computer to boot up. Both tasks were completed — as usual — at almost the same moment. I took a deep breath, then said, "System. Load song 'Were-Owl'. Play song."

Hopefully there were a few dozen owls in the Forest who would respond to my call.

"Look long enough into the eyes of any creature,
there's no knowing what you'll find.
We all seek the light one way or another,
mostly flying blind.
Everything flies at the mercy of the moonlight,
lovers more than most at times.
You've sought the light where few have ever found it,
captured deep in tawny eyes.
Little one seek and ye shall find.
Take care what you find
in the tawny eyes of a hunter by night."

Susan Fawcett, fourth-year Ravenclaw, paused at the door to the Owlery and panted a bit. She had climbed all the way to the top of the West Tower, a folded sheet of parchment bearing a red wax seal clutched in one hand. Since she'd first arrived at Hogwarts it had been her practice to send a weekly letter to her family, and this was her first of the new academic year.

Unfortunately, it seemed that she'd gotten a little out of shape over the summer. Trudging up the seemingly-endless spiral staircase had left her a bit more winded than she'd expected and her calves complaining.

Susan leaned heavily on the door post as she caught her breath, looking absently through the open entrance into the circular stone room filled with perches — and owls. A gentle breeze poured through the door courtesy of the dozens of unglazed windows in the tower, cooling her and carrying away the sweat of her exertion. It felt good now, but it wouldn't take long for it to chill her to the bone. Best to hurry.

"Socrates?" she called to her owl as she stepped gingerly into the room. She tried not to think about what might be mixed into the straw that covered the Owlery's floor. "I have a letter to send, Socrates!"

Socrates was winging his way down to her from his perch when he suddenly pulled up and veered off. At the same time every owl in the Owlery woke up and turned their heads as one in the same direction before taking off and streaming out through the windows in a vast feathery cloud that made far less noise than Susan would have expected.

For a moment she stood there, dumbfounded. "Socrates?" she called plaintively.

I was expecting a couple dozen owls at the most. After all, that was about how many the Forbidden Forest should be able to support, at the most.

Instead, I got what looked like hundreds, orbiting me in a vast ring of near-silent flight. It only took me a moment to realize that I had to have accidentally summoned every owl in the castle in addition to (or maybe instead of) the wild ones I had been intending.

The late afternoon light caught and illuminated all the different colors of their plumages, from ink black to snowy white and a hundred shades of grey and brown in between.

The occasional glimpse of a golden eye amidst the great flock gave the distinct feeling I was being glared at.

Gathering all my public speaking skills together, I addressed the horde of birds. "Um," I said. "I apologize for disturbing you, but I have a request I would like to make..."

After getting myself out of Dutch with about half a million pissed-off owls, I managed to sweet-talk them into my plan — which was to report back to me anything they happened to come across regarding Voldemort or his location. They weren't to go searching — just keep their figurative ears open.

It was more or less the same request I planned to make to every kind of animal I could summon and/or command, as many times a day as I could without falling over from magical exhaustion.

I had spent a couple hours running queries on the helmet's metadata, assembling a list of every song that could or looked like it might let me call upon and influence animals or even insects, both magical and not. Once I made my way through the entire list, I planned to 'port to London and hit a few music stores to find more. But that would be a couple-few weeks, at least, as I had close to a hundred songs cued up, including a few I had only the barest clue would do what I needed.

To speed things along, I did six more summonings that first night, pushing a couple of the new songs hard to get results. Which is how I ended up recruiting a herd of sheep-sized somethings with an omnivore's teeth and short, stubby horns whose ridged and wrinkled surfaces made them look like someone had smushed them against the creatures' skulls. They were either teleporters or capable of natural invisibility (I never did figure out which) and once I got my request across to them, they seemed quite amenable to keeping an eye out for Lord Emo. I made a mental note to ask Wilhelmina about them, as they hadn't been included in her inventory of the local fauna.

By the time I was done summoning and negotiating, the sun was just starting to touch the horizon, and the temperature was dropping out of "comfortably cool" and into "get yerself inside, boy." Not to mention I had a staff meeting to get to.

I turned around slowly, making sure I had left nothing behind, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted movement. I turned back toward the Forbidden Forest, and in the golden light of the setting sun I spied something so unexpected that I almost dropped my helmet.


Eight of them — their human parts looking like living statues from Classical Greece, their horsely parts looking like well-exercised Percherons or Clydesdales. They were all male, evenly split between bearded and not. They all carried bows; a couple had spears as well.

And they were staring at me. They were far enough away that I couldn't really make out the expressions on their faces, but the moment they realized I had spotted them, one — the leader, no doubt — whistled sharply. They whirled and galloped off into the Forest.

I watched the place where they had vanished for several minutes.

Well, I thought. There's another thing to ask Albus about. Along with Lord Emo's known associates.

Owen Cauldwell smiled down at Rose Zeller as she tried the wand movements for the button Transfiguration once more. "That's it, you've almost got it," he offered encouragingly.

"It's hard!" she complained, pouting a little, and Owen chuckled. He remembered his first week of Transfiguration the year before and how hard it had seemed to him — and how much help Cullen's advice had been. It was only right that he helped another 'Puff in the same situation.

Owen was just about to work with her on the incantation when he heard the common room door swing open.

"Whoa!" came the voice of an adult. "Hobbit doors!" Owen turned to see the new Defence professor, looking wide-eyed around the room as he shut the door behind him. "I should have checked this place out weeks ago." Tearing his eyes from the furnishings, Professor Sangnoir looked around at all the house members in the common room. "Hey, kids, how's it going?"

Owen and Rose looked at each other. "What's a hobbit?" Rose asked. Owen shrugged.

After visiting the Hufflepuff dorms for the first time and getting to know some of the students (and explaining the works of J.R.R. Tolkien), I then attended the staff meeting where the Hogsmeade chaperone duties were hammered out.

And by "hammered out", I mean "determined by nearly a dozen rounds of a certain poker-like game of my recent acquaintance which I had of late attempted to avoid playing".

I will not detail my ignominious losses at the hands of certain staff members who shall remain anonymous but who are notorious card sharks. I will note, however, that I ended up with October 5, February 14 ("Remember the Scottish winter!" Filius laughed), and May 18. Plus I was on-call as a substitute for November, January and March.

After gathering up the tattered remains of my pride, I bid my colleagues good evening and returned to my quarters. There, I had Twonky bring me a cup of tea once more, after which I used The Kinks' "Long Distance" to give Charlie a call.

The British Ministry of Magic, London, UK. Thursday, September 5, 1995, 4:37 PM

Dolores Umbridge scowled at the parchments which lay spread out across the top of her desk. At the request of the Minister's very good friend Lucius Malfoy, she had begun investigating the background of Hogwarts' new Defence professor. She had had high hopes of finding something in Sangnoir's history with which to embarrass and perhaps even disgrace Dumbledore, but to her growing fury, her investigation had to date gone nowhere.

The Americans, uncultured barbarians that they were, were disrespectful and barely helpful at the best of times. Only their diplomatic status had prevented Dolores from teaching them a well-deserved lesson in manners and deference to their betters on more than one occasion. She hated dealing with them; they were all disgusting egalitarians and Mudblood-lovers, little better than animals as far as she was concerned.

And this time they were worse than useless. When Dolores had demanded everything they had on Douglas Sangnoir, the magical embassy's attaché had all but laughed in her face. "Unlike certain corrupt and oppressive regimes," he had said in a snotty tone, "we don't compile dossiers on random citizens, nor would we just hand them over to any two-bit foreign functionary if we did." It had taken all her willpower to resist cursing him through the Floo connection, and it had required the threat of a diplomatic incident and an escalation to a superior before the Americans would even consent to look through their files.

And then the impertinent ruffians had had the temerity to come back and claim they had nothing on Sangnoir at all. Not even the bare minimum paperwork a proper magical government should possess for a Wizarding citizen, particularly one working outside of his country. "Are you sure he's from the United States?" another insolent lout had demanded of her. "Maybe he's from Canada — I know we North Americans all look alike to you Brits. With that name he might be Québécois." Uncivilized, impudent savages, the lot of them!

With a vicious swipe of her wand Dolores gathered up the few sheets of parchment into a stack — an irritatingly short one — and wrapped it in a pink ribbon and bow. After depositing it in a drawer with a glare, she turned her attention to the next inconvenience facing her and the Minister: the Prophecy.

Its very existence incensed her. Prophecy spheres were supposed to be dusty relics all but ignored on their shelves in the Department of Mysteries. That was why the Ministry put them there, after all — to keep them out of the way, where they could cause no trouble. But this one had been drawing far too much interest since the disaster had brought it to the Unspeakables' attention. They had all but built a fortress around it and were now devoting almost half their entire staff to its study — something Cornelius had been unable to prevent, as Mysteries' budget was controlled directly by the Wizengamot and the Minister's Office had no veto power over it or its allocation. Cornelius was pulling what strings he could, but the best he could do would be to reduce next year's funding for Mysteries, and even that wasn't guaranteed — it seemed Mysteries had its own hooks into the Wizengamot.

Even this would have been bearable had the Merlin-be-damned sphere not been about Harry Potter and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. And still yet to be fulfilled according to the Unspeakables. Of course, Cornelius had classified that bit of information at the highest level of security, but as Dolores well knew, these things had a way of getting out. The amount of attention and manpower the Unspeakables were devoting to the blasted thing had already been common knowledge among the Ministry staff before they could clamp down on it. Worse yet, her informants were reporting that infuriatingly accurate rumors about the Sphere's subjects had begun circulating among the Ministry staff.

Dolores gritted her teeth and clenched her fists until her fleshy knuckles turned white. Something had to be done about that prophecy! Already its existence and the gossip about it were undermining her campaign to show Wizarding Britain that Harry Potter was a lying attention-seeker trying to sabotage the Minister. Too many Ministry employees were already doubting the official truth of the matter. And if word of the Prophecy's existence were to reach the Wizengamot (or worse, the press) then Cornelius's prestige — and by extension her own prestige, not to mention her future prospects — would be irretrievably damaged.

Dolores Umbridge was, at her heart, a simple woman who believed simple things. One of those things was that the truth was always and only what Authority said it was, and that denying it was treason. That if something or someone defied the truth, they had to be destroyed. And that she, Dolores Umbridge, was (and deserved to be) part of the Authority that defined Truth for the inferior masses. After some thought, she drew up a memo to Cornelius proposing severe penalties to any Ministry employee who repeated seditious rumors judged to be counter to Ministry policy or goals — for the ultimate good of the Ministry and Wizarding Britain, of course. With a wave of her wand it folded itself into a paper airplane and took off for the Minister's office.

That done, she considered other, less official, avenues. The idea that the Dark Lord could return — or might possibly have already returned — was patently ridiculous. The prophecy sphere was obviously malfunctioning; it should have registered its contents as fulfilled after the events of Halloween 1981. As long as it continued to malfunction, though, its lies would only reinforce those of Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore, threatening the stable, peaceful society that defined Wizarding Britain under the benevolent rule of Dolor... Cornelius Fudge.

For the good of that society, the Prophecy had to be destroyed. It was the only logical option. With the sphere gone, the Unspeakables would return to their uninteresting little esoteric projects, the rumors would cease to circulate, and the threat to the Minister (and by extension herself) would vanish. Sadly, the fanatics in the Department of Mysteries would disagree with her and refuse to properly dispose of the sphere. So Dolores would just have to contact some more of the ... independent contractors whom she had hired for similar tasks in the past.

Thursday, September 5, 1995, 6:16 PM

Albus held open the door of his office for me. "Please, after you, Douglas. Oh, and Septima let me know that she will be a few minutes late to our meeting tonight."

I nodded my thanks as I stepped into the room. "Before I forget," I said as he closed and latched the heavy oaken door behind us, "I need to be out of the castle on Saturday — I need to pick up some supplies for my classes in London. I hope that won't be a problem?"

Albus considered this for a moment before lowering himself into his office throne. "I don't see that it would. Please," he gestured. "Sit. Sit. No need for you to stand until Septima gets here."

"Oh," I said. "Right."

"I have had a chance to review the witness's memories of Tom's resurrection," he continued as I settled into my seat.

Fawkes did a hop-flap that took him to the arm of my chair, and trilled softly but demandingly, so I chuckled and started stroking the phoenix's head. "And?" I asked.

Albus smiled at the bossy bird, then turned his attention back to me. "I studied the event extensively, watching it several times from several perspectives, with the witness on hand to point out anything I may have overlooked." He folded his hands in front of him. "I am quite certain now that it was indeed a Horcrux ritual."

I sighed in relief. "Thank the gods. If he had gone through the full lich transformation he would have been ten times harder to destroy. In comparison, a partial soul jar homunculus is much easier to deal with." I paused and chewed on my lip for a moment. "Not easy, not by a long shot, but definitely easier than a true lich." Fawkes trilled an objection and I realized I'd stopped petting him; with a soft laugh I started again.

Albus nodded gravely. "The only way I know of to deal with him is to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes before killing his new body. Depending on how cleverly he has chosen and hidden them, this may be far more difficult than it sounds."

"Feh." I waved a hand. "The order doesn't matter. If you disembody him first, you at least get him out of your hair for a while, plus damage his reputation some more."

"This is true," Albus said contemplatively while stroking his beard. "Of course, his followers now know how to revive him."

I shrugged. "So you don't get a dozen years before the next resurrection. Big deal. The point is, until then Tom Marvolo Ghostface is less of a threat than having Lord Emo stalking about zapping people. It damages his prestige, too. And it forces his followers to run around gathering the parts for another homunculus; if you plan it out properly, I'm sure you can deprive them of one or two key ingredients, at the very least."

Albus nodded slowly. "There is some merit to your suggestions, Douglas. I will have to give them some careful thought, though." He gazed at me over the half-moon lenses of his glasses. "In the meantime, have you come up with any ideas for locating the Horcruxes?"

I sorted through the strategies in my head, and picked one of the more promising. "You still have a dead soul jar or two of his around, right? We can try to craft a tracker spell based on the contagion resonance between an old jar and the remaining ones."

"Contagion resonance?" Albus raised an eyebrow inquisitively. "I'm afraid I don't recognize the term."

"You probably call it something else — that's okay, a lot of magic systems do." I stopped petting Fawkes long enough to get another complaint as I thought on that. "Regardless what it's called, the Law of Contagion is a pretty common axiom. The usual way it's expressed is 'once together, always together'."

"Ah, I know the concept to which you refer," Albus said with a gleam of comprehension in his eyes. "Yes, indeed, we do call it by another name, and it is an advanced principle which few wizards fully master." He raised an eyebrow again. "I take it that this is not the case for the magics you know?"

"Huh. I'm going to have to talk to Septima about that," I said. "Yeah, it's almost always a beginner-level concept." I shook my head. "Forgive me, Albus, but wand magic is weird sometimes."

He laughed. "I've known that for more than a century, Douglas. Even without other magics to compare it to. The more I learn about it, the less I'm sure I know."

"The sign of a wise man," I said with a smile, and Fawkes sang his agreement.

"So then. Will your 'contagion resonance' make it any easier to destroy Tom's Horcruxes?" Albus looked hopefully at me.

"Destroy?" I thought about that a moment, then shook my head. "I'd have to run the equations to be sure, but I don't think so. Without an actual soul fragment to anchor them, the links between a dead jar and the live ones are probably too tenuous to support a decent thaumaturgical attack — they'd break as soon as any real level of power was applied to them. We'd have better luck with a live jar as our focus." I laughed quietly as a silly thought occurred to me. "Hell, we could theoretically destroy the soul jars by destroying Lord Emo himself, because the contagion links go both ways, but frankly, it'd be impractical."

One bushy eyebrow rose. "Impractical? In what way?"

I snorted. "In the way of needing to dump several wizards' entire lifetimes' worth of magic into him in the space of a minute or two. That's the only way we'd get enough power forced back down the links fast enough to burn out the magic anchoring the soul fragments in their jars." I smirked at him. "Got anyone you'd like to get rid of?"

Albus smiled ruefully. "Would certain members of the Wizengamot count?"

"Only to ten," I said, "and then only if they can see both hands."

Gryffindor Common Room. Friday, September 6, 1995, 8:25 PM

Harry sighed happily as he flopped into his favorite seat by the fire in the common room. The Quidditch try-outs had been exhausting but more fun than he'd expected, even with his scar hurting in the middle of it all. He closed his eyes and burrowed back into the cushions and debated falling asleep where he sat.

There was a thump as a body dropped into the next chair over. Without opening his eyes, Harry said, "Congratulations again, Ron."

"I still don't believe I made it!" Ron mumbled for what had to be the twentieth time.

"Believe it, Ron," Hermione responded, and Harry opened his eyes in time to see her settle into the love seat next to Ron. "Please. You really are the new Keeper."

Ron shot up in his seat, a look of utter panic on his face. "Oh, Merlin! I'm the new Keeper! What do I do now?"

Ginny leaned over the back of the love seat and smacked his head from behind. "You go to practices and then you play in the games, you git."

He turned and glared at her. "No! I mean, what if I'm no good?"

Harry tried not to chuckle at the sight of Hermione's expression; she looked like she wanted to throttle Ron. Sighing, she said, very slowly, "Ron, I'm going to try to explain this in very small words, so try to follow me, okay? Tonight's try-outs were to find the best players. You were chosen as Keeper. That means you were — are — the best Keeper. Do. You. Understand?"

"But Hermione," Ron's voice rose to a wail. "What if they made a mistake?"

Harry couldn't help it — he burst out laughing, with Ginny only a moment behind him. He loved his friends, he really did.

Especially at times like this.

A couple hours later, after the excitement had died down and the butterbeer had run out, Harry sat alone in the common room, quill in hand and a sheet of parchment resting in a small circle of yellow light cast by a nearby lamp.

Dear Snuffles, he had written.

Hope you're okay. The first week back here has been brilliant, but I'm still really glad it's the weekend.

Professor Sangnoir is turning out to be one of our better Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers, I think, though he's really different from the others we've had. He's got our class talking about what evil is and how it thinks, he's got some of the younger classes dodging pillows, and I heard rumors about some kind of fighting club. Hope it's better than Lockhart's try at a dueling club three years ago.

He also wanted to know everyone's heights and weights. I don't know what that's about.

I'm writing because that thing I wrote to you about last summer happened again today during the Quidditch try-outs. I'm not sure what to do or who to talk to.

Ron made Keeper, by the way.

We're all missing our biggest friend, we hope he'll be back soon.

Please write back quickly.



After giving it a read-through to make sure it had come out right, Harry folded and sealed it, then took it to the Owlery before returning to his dorm room and crawling into bed.

I can hardly believe that your extensive contacts — not to mention the Dark Lord's — have been unable to acquire any records on Professor Sangnoir. Of course, the Americans have always been obstructionist if not outright hostile, but this is beyond the pale. I have to agree that the degree to which Professor Sangnoir's background has been hidden suggests that he must be an operative of some sort. But whose?

Great Hall. Saturday, September 7, 1995, 7:22 AM

The arrival of the post owls at breakfast interrupted (thankfully so, both Harry and Ron thought to themselves) another harangue by Hermione on the topic of homework. A screech owl bearing a copy of the Daily Prophet landed on the table dangerously close to the sugar, then gave Hermione the newspaper in exchange for a Knut before taking off again.

As Hermione studied the front page, Ron asked, "Anything interesting?" Harry ducked his head and smiled into his oatmeal; anything to distract Hermione from one of her rants.

"Not really, no," she replied absently. "A puff piece about the bassist from the Weird Sisters getting married..." She flipped through the paper, taking in entire pages at a glance. "Oh, no!"

"What?" Harry and Ron asked in unison.

With a stricken look, Hermione folded the paper back to silently display an article to them. Harry's eye was immediately drawn to the headline: "SIRIUS BLACK IN LONDON?" He quickly scanned the article as Ron tried to get a look in. He looked up at Hermione, who still looked heartbroken.

"'The Ministry of Magic has received a tip-off...'" Harry repeated from the article in a low, furious voice. "It was Lucius Malfoy, I'll bet anything," he continued. "He did recognize Sirius on the platform..."

"What?" Ron blurted. "You never said..."

The other two hushed him. Hermione took the paper back and finished the article. "It's not as bad as it sounds," she said after a moment. "Mostly rubbish about how dangerous he is, and how the wizard or witch on the street should avoid confronting him and call the Aurors instead if they see him." She tossed the paper aside; it fluttered down in front of Harry again. "It's just another report of a rumor, nothing more."

"Well, that's good," Ron muttered.

"Hey, what's this?" Harry said.

"What, the robe advert?" Ron asked, peering at the page.

"No, this." Harry stabbed his finger down at a tiny article, barely an inch long and placed right at the bottom of a column. It was headlined:


Tristan Jugson, 46, of number seventeen, Venena Gardens, Hulland Ward, has appeared in front of the Wizengamot charged with trespass at the Ministry of Magic on 30th August. Jugson was arrested by Ministry of Magic watch-wizard John Munch, who found him loitering near a top-security door shortly after midnight. Jugson was cleared of all charges when a Ministry employee, Eleuthero Avery, vouched for his presence in the Ministry after hours. Had he been convicted, Jugson could have been sentenced to as much as six months in Azkaban.

"Eleuthero Avery," Harry said slowly, stumbling over the unfamiliar name. "There was an Avery at Voldemort's resurrection, but I never heard his first name."

"D'you reckon it's the same fellow?" Ron asked.

"Honestly," Hermione huffed. "How do you expect Harry to know just from a Prophet article?" Her eyes grew thoughtful. "Still, it's awfully suspicious for someone to be lurking about in the Ministry after midnight. And to have someone who might be a Death Eater vouch for him..."

"You've got to wonder what was behind that door," Harry said.

Saturday, September 7, 1995, 8:15 AM

Back home, I knew of and had frequented easily a dozen suppliers of martial arts equipment in and about London, from little shops catering to individual artists through general sports stores to wholesalers who dealt in bulk purchases for dojos and schools — places like Blitz and Shogun International and UK Fitness Supplies. In my role as a combat trainer I liked to do my own browsing and selection when it came to the tools I used, and had developed a collection of favorite establishments.

And wonder of wonders, most of them existed in some form or another in this timeline — something I had gone out of my way to confirm during my week at 12 Grimmauld Place even though my class planning hadn't gotten anywhere near needing them by that point. They didn't have the really high-end stuff — apparently the "no metahumans" thing in this world included the more extreme martial arts styles and masteries — but what they did have was more than adequate for my needs.

Unfortunately, the particular one I wanted to hit was a wholesaler with annoyingly tight hours: 9 to 5 on weekdays and 9 to noon on Saturdays. While I could probably have tried to get to London immediately after the end of classes one afternoon, it really wouldn't have given me any time at all to really do the shopping and bargaining I needed. So when Saturday breakfast came, I reminded Albus that I'd be out of the castle much of the day before speeding through my meal as quickly as I could and still be polite.

Once back in my rooms after breakfast I tugged off my robes to reveal the jeans and T-shirt I'd worn underneath ("Ask me about my vow of silence!" it read today), and then pulled on both my leather jacket and my helmet. Activated by the pressure switches in its lining, my helmet was powered on and fully booted up by the time I had the foam pads centered over my ears and my goggles seated properly.

Now, as I've said elsewhere, I could cover the distance between Hogwarts and London on my bike in less than a half-hour, if I really wanted to and didn't mind leaving a sonic boom in my wake. But in addition to being rather noticeable, it also took half an hour that I didn't want to spare. (Yeah, I'm an impatient sunovabitch. Wanna make something of it?)

So I planned on using a different mode of travel.

"System, load song 'Lucky 4 You'. Play song," I said to the computer in my helmet.

"You always said that I have multiple personalities
I bounce around somewhere between my dreams and reality..."

I don't know why people are always surprised to find that I use (and like) country-western music. Yeah, sure, a lot of my repertoire is based on classic and contemporary rock of all types, but I'm hardly limited to it — even if that Rolling Stone reporter did dub me "Heavy Meta" in the "Jukebox Hero" article. Pick the right songs, and bands like SHeDAISY and Little Big Town can be both very useful and a lot of fun. But some people turn their noses up at country music.

"So where'd you dig up the audacity
To ask of me
How we've all been doing
Since you broke our hearts?
Well, so far..."

Case in point: according to "Playcount" field in the metadata, I've used this song almost two hundred times, but...

"Ooof. Again country song about woman? In first person yet? To summon me?" Skitz's current personality grunted from behind me. The deep, guttural edges of the Russian accent coloring his speech identified him immediately to me. "Really, Douglas. Can you not find more appropriate way to call us up?"

I turned in place and controlled my instinctive urge to punch him in the nose. Just my luck that his simulacrum would manifest as the persona I liked least. "Hello, L'Reaux."

Yes, a French name for a Russian persona. I don't understand it, either.

He was dressed in the usual outfit his personalities had agreed to wear while on duty: a vaguely military-cut black shirt and pants with an inordinate number of pockets. If he hadn't spoken, I would have recognized him as L'Reaux from the antique Russian cap and the fascia he wore (the fabric of both crumpled and creased from decades of jamming them into pockets when not L'Reaux) along with the ornate silver cross hanging from a chain around his neck.

"Number 5 just cries a river a minute
7 wants to tie you up and drown you in it..."

Skitz didn't really shapechange to reflect each of his many personalities, but the sometimes radical differences in posture, body language and, well, attitude, often made it seem like he did. This particular personality somehow made Skitz's athletic, dark-haired form seem small and somewhat weak. Which he wasn't by any means — back when he had been Skitz's current incarnation, L'Reaux had actually had a well-deserved reputation for inhuman endurance and strength.

He had also had a reputation for thoroughly messing with people's heads, as well. Which he kept up even after death. For example, "L'Reaux" (obviously) wasn't his real name. Well, the name he'd used when he was the live Skitz. He called himself that partly to hide his former identity from the unaware, but also partly for the joy of confusing and deceiving people.

Did I mention that he was also a first-class pain in the ass? (I know, I know — pot, kettle, apparent reflectivity indices — but I mean, really. Worse than me.)

L'Reaux tilted his head and studied me with his usual intense stare. "I suppose you want something. You would not call otherwise," he growled. He tilted his head and twitched a lip in a subtle little self-satisfied smirk. "Of course, there was time you summoned up Margaret for little romantic..."

"L'Reaux!" I snarled.

He scowled in annoyance at me. "Oh, be that way."

"Yeah, 14 just wants to say 'so long, bygones'.
32 wants to do things to you that'll make you blush..."

"I need a gate to London, L'Reaux," I ground out between gritted teeth. "Woolwich. As close as you can get me to Duke of Wellington Avenue, in the Royal Arsenal area."

"What's in it for me?" he scowled.

"What's in it for you is freedom from pain." I looked down on him — even though we really were about the same height he seemed shorter — clenched my fists, and did my best to be intimidating. "If you don't open a gate for me, I will beat you to a pulp, and keep doing so until the song ends and you vanish. The entire remainder of your virtual life will consist of the most exquisite agony."

Not that it would really work — the threat of actual violence would prompt L'Reaux to abandon control of the body, allowing another of Skitz's personalities to swap in. (L'Reaux had an almost completely overwhelming aversion to physical harm — "Try gettink shlowly killt by incompetent asshassins," he had confessed to us one drunken evening at the Red Lion when I had teased him about his fear of injury. "Buildsh character, da? Next time idiot ashks you 'what worsht can happen?', you know!") Then again, I got along well with most of Skitz's other selves; whoever took control would almost certainly be willing to open a gate for me.

I wonder what it says about me that my subconscious mind's simulation of Skitz defaulted to the persona I liked least.

He seemed to shrink down even further at the threat. "Okay, tovarishch, if you're going to be like that about it." He waved his hand palm up. A square hole in space-time three meters tall by three wide opened, revealing an alley with a sun-bathed city street beyond. "Behold."

"10 would key the El Camino that you love so much
And there ain't nobody wants to mess with 23."

I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. "Thank you, L'Reaux," I growled before I stepped through to London. I don't care that he's part of some kind of eternal champion. He's an asshole, and he gets on my nerves.

I let Hexe bully me about, soplyak. She has nobility you lack. Next time ask like comrade. Be grateful I don't send dozen tons of mud from bottom of Thames to follow you. The telepathic message came in quickly. Of course, L'Reaux had to get in the last word.

As the gate snapped shut behind me and vanished with a little "pop", I looked around me.

"That son of a bitch... this is Battersea!" I yelled.

"Oh, lucky 4 you, tonight I'm just me..."

I have noticed, over the worlds and years, that criminal scum are surprisingly — and conveniently — consistent. If there was, say just for the sake of argument, an arms dealer working out of a certain block in Lambeth during the middle 1990s back on Homeline, there was an uncommonly good chance that there would be one there in another world's version of London during the same time period were I to go and look for him. Not always the same person or the same precise building (and almost certainly not the same stock), but an arms dealer nonetheless.

Which is how, in addition to a hundred kilos or so of sports equipment, I brought a long, flat, lockable case, its contents, and certain related supplies back with me to Hogwarts.

And thanks to the right song I got such a discount...

Fortunately, Sirius didn't ask what was in it when I dropped by 12 Grim to share a Greek take-out dinner with him. I wasn't entirely sure how I would explain why I had an Accuracy International L96A1 and a few hundred rounds of 7.62×51 mm NATO ammo in among the padded training gear I'd bought.

Gryffindor Common Room. Saturday, September 7, 1995, 7:51 PM

Hermione paused in her knitting and looked beseechingly after Ron as he angrily stomped up the staircase to the boys' dormitories. When he vanished from sight, she turned back to Harry. "How was he, really?" she asked.

Harry sighed. "I suppose he could have been better." He rubbed his eyes. "It was only the first practice, like you said..."

She bit her lip. "Do you think there's anything I..." she began, and her needles clicked tentatively against each other again.

"No," Harry said. "Not right now, at least."

"Later, then," she said. "After homework."

"Right," Harry said.

Gryffindor Common Room, Sunday, September 8, 1995, 11:30 PM

"Dear Ron,

"I have just heard through a mutual acquaintance that you have become a Hogwarts prefect.

"I was most pleasantly surprised when I heard this news and must offer my congratulations. I must admit that I have always been afraid that you would take what we might call the 'Fred and George' route, rather than following in my footsteps, so you can imagine my feelings on hearing you have stopped flouting authority and have decided to shoulder some real responsibility.

"But I want to give you more than congratulations, Ron, I want to give you some advice, which is why I am sending this at night rather than by the usual morning post. Hopefully you will be able to read this away from prying eyes and avoid awkward questions.

"First, I presume that absent any radical changes in your life, you are still close to Harry Potter. I have reason to fear that continued fraternization with him could cost you your badge — or worse. Before you throw this letter away in anger, please let me explain.

"The Minister is convinced that Potter and Dumbledore are spearheading a campaign to undermine him. I have heard him say in private moments that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named cannot have returned, and thus Potter must be insane and/or lying about it for political reasons. His primary Undersecretary, Dolores Umbridge, agrees with him and together they are planning some manner of retaliation against Potter and Dumbledore both.

"However, in my time here, I have cultivated contacts in other parts of the Ministry. From my acquaintances within the Department of Mysteries I have learned that the Unspeakables have accepted Potter's account of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's return as an incontrovertible fact and are acting accordingly. I cannot relay their reasons for this to you due to Ministry regulations imposed just this week, but the evidence offered to me has been most convincing.

"Thus I find myself in the position of having to warn you to sever your ties with Potter for the sake of both your future and your safety. Potter's disciplinary hearing before the Wizengamot this summer was only the beginning of the Minister's campaign against him, if what I have overheard is any indication. I suspect that there will be no hesitation to strike at his associates if it furthers the Minister's plans. If you are tarred with the same brush as Potter, it could be very damaging to your future prospects, and I am talking here about life after school, too, should matters fall out as the Minister desires.

"That is assuming you have future prospects. Remaining a very visible friend and supporter of Potter will make you a primary target for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and his followers. While I understand that our family is already marked for death as 'blood traitors', the simple fact is that by being one of Potter's two closest friends you have elevated yourself (and most likely everyone else in our family) to 'kill first, kill at all costs' in the eyes of the Dark Lord and his followers.

"This is the simple truth, Ron: in the current social and political atmosphere, keeping company with Harry Potter is at best a decision that will ruin your immediate future, and at worst will cost you your life. Please, please distance yourself from him and protect not only yourself, but the rest of our family.

"I am sorry that I was unable to see more of you over the summer. At the time I was afraid that I could no longer live under our parents' roof while they remained mixed up with what I saw as the dangerous crowd around Dumbledore. Even though I now know that Potter and Dumbledore are right, that does not make their crowd any less dangerous. I choose to continue my estrangement from our parents in order that some part of our family will escape the inevitable retribution which He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named will visit upon the Weasleys for their opposition to his cause.

"I count myself very lucky to have escaped the stigma of association with Dumbledore's people, but make no mistake — as much as I respect the Minister, his refusal to accept the evidence possessed by the Unspeakables reveals him to be far less astute than I had believed. However, by sticking close to him and to Dolores Umbridge I have acquired a certain protective coloration that will serve me in good stead should the worst occur. I strongly recommend that you make similar arrangements. Break publicly with Harry Potter, and visibly align yourself with any clique or classmate whose political views can shield you. The rest of our family may be doomed by their association with Potter and Dumbledore, but you do not have to be. And if by some miracle they and I both survive the next few years, rest assured that I will be ready to offer them a full apology for the pain and anguish I have surely put them through.

"Please think over what I have said most carefully, and congratulations again on becoming prefect.

"Your brother,


Harry looked up from the parchment in his hand. "Well," he said after a long moment of thought. "He's not exactly wrong, you know."

The arrival of a strange owl carrying a letter for Ron had finally ended several hours of homework punctuated by Ron's sulking and misery. However, his brief-lived curiosity was quickly replaced by anger, and when he shoved the sheet of parchment into Harry's hand, Harry had no choice but to read and learn what had upset him.

Ron snatched the letter back from Harry and began tearing it into small pieces. "Maybe not," he snarled, "but if he thinks I'm going to turn my back on you, he's the world's. Biggest. GIT!" He tossed the scraps into the common room fire. "Come on," he continued in less angry tones. "We've got to finish that essay for Sinistra by tomorrow."

As Hermione relented on her earlier refusal and offered to correct their essays, Harry allowed himself the slightest smile at the loyalty of his friends. By instantly, instinctively rejecting Percy's suggestion to "sever ties" with Harry, Ron had proven to him that he wasn't the berk he'd been in fourth year.

Just the thought of Ron's betrayal after the Goblet of Fire had spat out his name was enough to stoke Harry's temper, which since the summer always seemed to be simmering close to surface. But he took a deep breath, stared into the fire, and forced himself to calm. Ron had come to his senses quickly enough after the first task, and this year wasn't making the same mistakes at all. It was a definite improvement.

Now if only the rest of Hogwarts would come to their senses as well, Harry thought as he stared into the common room fire, watching it consume the pieces of Percy's letter. But far too many believed the endless snide comments and insinuations that the Prophet had been making about him since the summer. No doubt some, like Seamus, even thought he was unbalanced and violent.

He suddenly felt a surge of sympathy for his godfather. Sirius was probably the only person who could understand his situation, given that practically the whole of the Wizarding world thought he was an insane mass murderer and Voldemort's right-hand-man.

Harry blinked. Was that...? He slid out of his chair to land on his knees upon the worn hearthrug, and leaned down toward the flames.

"Er — Harry?" said Ron uncertainly. "Why are you down there?"

"Because I just saw Sirius's head in the fire," Harry replied calmly.

"What?" cried Hermione, and then she gasped. Ron followed her gaze to the fire and dropped his quill — there, surrounded by the flames, was Sirius's head.

"Hey, kiddo. I was starting to think you'd go to bed before everyone else had disappeared," he said. "I've been checking every hour."

"Every hour?" Harry asked, a grin spreading across his face for the first time all evening.

Sirius nodded, dislodging some of the nearby coals. "For a few seconds at a time, to see if you could talk."

"But what if you'd been seen?" protested Hermione.

"No worries," Sirius said with a sly wink. "I wasn't. And I won't be doing this again — but I just needed to answer Harry's letter face-to-face."

Hermione turned a glare on Harry. "You wrote Sirius and didn't tell us?"

Harry shrugged. "I forgot. Besides, there was no way anyone would have got secret information out of it, was there, Sirius?"

"No, you were good," Sirius said, smiling. "Now we need to make this quick. About your scar..."

"What about..." Ron began, but Hermione shushed him.

"I know it's no fun when it hurts," Sirius went on, "but we're confident it's nothing to worry about. Now that Voldemort's back you're probably going to feel it more than before, but it shouldn't be dangerous. Just unpleasant."

"Okay," Harry said doubtfully.

"Good." Sirius nodded, still smiling. "Next. If you need to reach me in a hurry, go to Doug... I mean, Professor Sangnoir."

"Professor Sangnoir?" Hermione asked. "Why?"

"He can get in touch with me instantly." Sirius laughed. "He can probably get in touch with anyone in the world instantly, come to that."

Hermione frowned. "How is that possible?"

Sirius smirked at her. "Doug is... special. He can do things no other wizard I've ever heard of can do."

"Special? How?" Hermione demanded.

"Look, if you want to know more, just ask him. He's got nothing to hide and will probably answer every question you have." Sirius glanced around at the three. "How're you doing in his class, by the way?"

"Brilliant!" Ron said. "We started with a lot of talk, but we're moving on to actual fighting."

"Good, good. I asked him to give you lot extra attention because like it or not we know sooner or later you're going to be wand-to-wand with the baddies. Get as much from it as you can, while you're still able."

"While we're still able?" Harry asked. "What's that mean?"

Sirius scowled. "That's the third thing. Fudge might try to defang Defence Against The Dark Arts. Our information from inside the Ministry is that he doesn't want you — any Hogwarts students but particularly you three — trained to fight. And that's just what Doug is doing."

"Yeah, but that's to defend ourselves," Harry objected. "What does he think we're doing here, forming some sort of army?"

"That's exactly what he thinks you're doing," said Sirius. "Or rather, what he's afraid Dumbledore's doing — building a private army, with which he will be able to take over the Ministry of Magic."

After several seconds Hermione finally said, "The Minister is a lunatic. A paranoid lunatic."

"No." Ron shook his head. "He's got the right idea. Just about the wrong wizard."

"How many times did the Wizengamot offer to make Dumbledore the Minister of Magic over the years?" Harry said. "If he wanted to be the Minister, he'd be the Minister right now."

"Hey, you don't have to tell me," Sirius protested, laughing. "But Fudge is convinced that Dumbledore will stop at nothing to seize power, and is just biding his time for the right moment." The laughter vanished from his voice. "We're pretty sure it's only a matter of time before he has Dumbledore arrested on some trumped-up charge." He speared Harry with a gimlet eye. "So I want you to promise me — if anything happens, anything at all, that might put the three of you and Ginny in danger, go to Doug. We had a good long talk about you lot tonight over dinner, he and I..."

"You had dinner tonight with Professor Sangnoir?" Hermione demanded.

"Yes, I did, Hermione. He was in London doing some shopping, and he dropped by with some take-away, which rescued me from a right cock-up of a day. He won't be watching you every minute, and he won't be riding you, but if you need anything, from a chat with me to ... how'd he call it? Right, an 'emergency extraction', he'll be happy to provide it." He started, and his head turned, making him look like he was examining the brick lining of the fireplace for a moment before he turned back to them. "Look, I've got to get going, I can hear Kreacher coming down the stairs, the little bastard. I'll send messages to you through Doug, and if you need to talk to me, go to him, okay?"

"Right," Harry said. "Be careful, Sirius."

"Aren't I always?" he asked with one last self-mocking grin. Then there was a tiny pop, and he was gone.

From his heavy throne in the rotting ballroom, Lord Voldemort stared down at the man who knelt before him. "What do you mean you have learned nothing?" he inquired with a deceptive mildness. His expression gave nothing away to his followers, but — trained by long exposure and frequent punishment to recognize his moods — they shuffled nervously while trying not to look like they were. They could feel their lord's anger roiling and seething under the placid exterior he wore like a mask. Voldemort's desire, his need was being denied, and he did not take frustration well; sooner or later the mask would break.

"My lord, forgive me," said the supplicant without looking up. The long blond hair draping over his shoulders and hiding his face along with the snake-headed cane he held flat to the floor identified him as Lucius Malfoy. "Sangnoir is a cypher. No one knows anything about him. No one had ever heard of him before this summer. And not just in our world — I have made inquiries through the Muggle government and they have no record of him, either." His shoulders slowly heaved, rippling the curtain of his hair as he took a deep breath. "It is as though he simply did not exist before appearing in the employ of the Romanian dragon preserve last July."

"I see..." Voldemort murmured thoughtfully. "Have you then inquired of the preserve's management to see what they may know, Lucius?"

"Not yet, my lord." Malfoy dropped lower to the floor, almost groveling with his face in the decaying varnish and oak. "I am in the process of persuading the Minister to send a team of Aurors to Romania to do the job. A team whose membership I shall have a say in, of course."

"Of course." Voldemort drew back his thin lips to bare his teeth in an expression that barely resembled a smile. "Then go and complete your task, Lucius, and do not return until you have done so!"

Harry shot up into bed, thrust abruptly into wakefulness by the spite and utter maliciousness that had inexplicably filled Voldemort's mind at the thought of learning of Professor Sangnoir's origins. There in the dark he shivered, drawing a long breath of the room's cool air before allowing himself to wonder — why was Voldemort so interested in the professor?

He'd have to talk to the others about it over breakfast come morning.

Monday, September 9, 1995, 1:55 PM

The huddled discussion over Harry's dream during breakfast yielded only confusion among his friends — and Hermione's vigorous insistence that he inform the Headmaster of Voldemort's interest in Professor Sangnoir. After a moment's thought Harry agreed, and immediately sent a note to the High Table. Upon reading it, the Headmaster looked toward Harry without actually meeting his eyes, and nodded soberly.

After breakfast, the day's classes were more than enough to drive all thoughts of the vision and Professor Sangnoir from his mind. Defence itself that afternoon was no different. Harry, Ron and Hermione had shown up for the class as usual, only to find a mix of students from both Gryffindor and Slytherin clustered around a sheet of parchment pinned to the door. On it was written "Come outside" in Professor Sangnoir's distinctively bold and sprawling handwriting. It wasn't entirely unexpected — not after all the other years' Defence classes they'd heard had been held outside the past few days — but it was a bit of a surprise, since the professor had given no warning in their last session.

Together with the others they trooped obediently down to the entrance hall. All around them gossip about Professor Sangnoir swirled, and the three of them exchanged looks as broken fragments of rumor reached their ears.

"...says the time he was in Romania he was secretly organizing the dragons to..."

"...heard from her friend in Beauxbatons that he was a Ranger for the American Department of Magic..."

"...says he's an ancient immortal responsible for the fall of Atlantis who's walking the earth and working to redeem himself while..."

"...he's a chicken, I tell you! A giant chicken!"

Upon overhearing that last claim (made by a Muggle-born Hufflepuff), Ron, Hermione and Harry shared an incredulous look before bursting into badly-stifled snickers.

Some of the rumors they'd heard they knew to be true. Others were by turns both outlandish (thought not as much so as the chicken rumor) or intriguingly plausible. And then...

"...and according to my father's contacts in the Ministry, the man has no history whatsoever," a familiar voice proclaimed. Harry grimaced at the sound of Draco Malfoy shooting off his mouth again. "Who knows what he did before Dumbledore dragged him out of the dragon dung at that preserve? The man could be a criminal for all anyone knows!"

As Harry angrily bit back a few choice comments about people who could be criminals, they passed through the entrance hall, and from there directly outside. As they did, they suffered briefly under the unrelenting scowl of Argus Filch. Filch lurked, broom and dustpan in hand, to one side of the great iron-bound doors, as if unhappily anticipating the detritus of nature that would be carried in on the feet of returning students two hours hence.

Once outside, they quickly made their way down to the meadow below the Astronomy tower in which Professor Sangnoir had been holding classes for the last few days. Harry could see him standing patiently, his feet hidden by the ankle-length grass waving in the gentle, pleasant breeze. He had his arms folded behind his back in an almost military manner, and next to him was a large wooden crate. In the distance behind him, the Forbidden Forest lurked, a dark mass defining the edge of the castle grounds.

"Good afternoon, people," he called out as they came within earshot. "Pull up a patch of grass and make yourselves comfortable," he added. Harry was privately amused to note that everyone sat down in more or less the same arrangement as they did in the classroom. "Come on, now, don't be fussy. After all, that's why Merlin invented cleaning charms."

Once the stragglers had caught up and everyone was seated on the ground in front of him, Professor Sangnoir launched directly into the lesson. "I know at least some of you have been saying to yourselves, 'all this talk the last few days has been well and good, but when is he going to teach us to kick more butt than we already can?'"

Harry joined in the laughter that rippled across the class at that.

The professor looked over them and his lip twitched into a tiny, momentary smile. "Well, you're in luck. Today we start on the butt-kicking lessons. From this point on we'll be mixing up classes inside with fighting lessons outside." He glanced upward at the clouded sky above. "As often as the weather permits, that is," he added wryly.

An excited murmur arose, and Professor Sangnoir nodded approvingly. "Okay, then, let's get started. We're going to begin with basic physical combat."

"You're going to teach us to fight like Muggles?" Draco (predictably, in Harry's opinion) objected, a look of disgust on his face. "What good is that?"

"Why, yes indeed, Mister Malfoy, I am," the professor replied, breaking into a grin that Harry thought was more than a little sinister. He was suddenly very glad that he hadn't been the one to draw the professor's attention. "Why don't you join me here to show the class why." Though phrased as a question it had the unmistakable whipcrack of an order in it, and after a moment's hesitation, Malfoy rose from his spot on the grass and swaggered his way to where the professor stood.

"Thank you for volunteering, Mister Malfoy. You have your wand with you? Good." Professor Sangnoir then turned back to the rest of the class. "We're going to have a little demonstration. Mister Malfoy will stand over yonder..." He waved Malfoy to a spot some twenty feet away, to Harry's (and the class's) left. "...And I'll stand over here, without a wand," he added, suiting action to words by moving over to stand opposite Malfoy at the other side of the class. "Mister Malfoy, I want you to attempt to hex me. And I'll attempt to stop..."

Draco whipped his wand up. "Reduct..."

There was a breeze, a slap, a dull crack and a soft thud as the professor shot across the distance between them so quickly it almost seemed like he Apparated, followed by Draco's wand flying into the side of the crate, followed by Draco hitting the ground. Well, almost hitting the ground — somehow, the professor had not only knocked Malfoy down, but had also gotten his arms under the boy and cushioned his fall. "...you," he concluded conversationally.

Harry blinked, then glanced over at Hermione and Ron, who looked as stunned as he felt. He'd expected something like what they'd just seen, having watched the professor working out during the week he'd stayed at 12 Grimmauld Place, but this was beyond anything he'd done then. Unbidden, Sirius' words came back to him: He can do things no other wizard I've ever heard of can do.

When Harry turned his eyes forward again, the professor was helping a slightly-dazed Malfoy to his feet. As he brushed bits of grass and dust from the boy's robes, the professor said, "Excellent, Mister Malfoy, precisely what I wanted. Five points to Slytherin for your participation." As Malfoy retrieved his wand and staggered back to his spot next to a starry-eyed Pansy Parkinson, the professor turned to the rest of the class and said, "That's why you need to learn some basic combat skills."

"The hell that was basic, what he just did," Ron hissed from Hermione's other side, and Harry could only agree.

The professor continued on. "It gives you more options than just 'run' or 'die' if you've been disarmed. And only a complete idiot refuses to have more options for survival." He suddenly favored the class with a familiar-seeming sneer, and in a perfect imitation of Professor Snape said, "I trust I have no idiots in this class."

As nervous chuckles erupted here and there, Professor Sangnoir relaxed. "Another reason is that the more fit a wizard is, the stronger their magic is. I'm going to be making sure that you're very strong." His expression turned wry. "You remember when I said you'll hate me? It starts now." He stepped over to the crate and flipped its lid open. To Harry's complete surprise it was full of padded protective gear just like Dudley used for training in boxing — gloves, headwear, chest protectors and more, all made from a shiny red foam. "Okay. I have here safety gear that will let you give and take a hit without hurting someone or getting hurt in turn. I'll show you how to suit up, and then we'll begin with some simple moves." He waved at the crate's contents. "C'mon, people, no stalling."

As Harry stood up with the rest of the class, he happened to look past the professor and out toward the Forbidden Forest. Movement caught his eye, and he spied a half dozen or more centaurs at the edge of the woods, silently watching.

After my fifth/sixth period double class with the fifth-year Gryffindors and Slytherins, I gathered up what protective gear hadn't made its way back into the crate. (Five points each from Slytherin, Mister Goyle, Mister Nott; likewise from Gryffindor, Miss Brown and Mister Finnegan.) As I did so, I never let my gaze stray from the distant edge of the Forbidden Forest.

The centaurs were still watching me.

Not content just with observing me talk British wildlife into playing spy for me, the centaurs had begun discreetly stalking my outdoor classes. At first it had been only one or two, but it quickly escalated into a regular band of six or eight who would lurk just inside the forest, their complete attention focused on me. I know it had to have been me, and not my classes, because they invariably showed up as soon as I stepped outside, and wouldn't leave until after I went back into the castle.

It was perhaps not the creepiest fan club I'd ever had, but it was certainly one of the more disconcerting.

I'd toyed with the idea of running over to them to ask why they were so interested in me, or using a song to teleport in case they took off when I approached them, but decided it would be a waste of time and effort. If they had anything to say to me, they could just walk up and say it.

Besides, I had other things on my mind. It was barely the second week of classes, and I'd already overheard more than I could stomach of the so-called Pureblood Agenda. Much of it had been spouted by the older Slytherins, but I'd heard at least one such comment from someone in every house, usually when no one realized I was there to hear. And some of the young ones were starting to parrot it already. It was a pretty pernicious meme, and I had resolved to craft a counter-meme to combat it.

I had a few ideas, but I didn't want to jump right in with the first thing that came to mind. I was treating this as a serious full-bore grey or even black PsyOps campaign, which meant more than just coming up with a catchy phrase to hook a bunch of schoolkids on — I needed a whole legend with which I could infect British Wizarding society, one strong enough to dislodge and displace Voldemort's brand of purebloodism. I wasn't going to come up with it in an afternoon. Or a week.

Later that night, in between waves of drizzle, I talked a few dozen raptors — mostly peregrine hawks and their friends and neighbors — into joining my intelligence network.

While the centaurs watched.

... I have some more information for you about Sangnoir, Father. He is very skilled at Muggle fighting — impressively so, moving and striking with the speed of a basilisk. This he very graciously demonstrated in my class to prove the value of his Muggle methods, and to my disgust it was successful, even among some of my Housemates. Zabini and Nott are openly intrigued at the possibilities, and Pansy is all but drooling over him.

Of course nothing can possibly excuse polluting our ancient and time-honored ways with any kind of Muggle filth, regardless of how useful it may appear. I have attempted to correct my housemates' opinions, but have not yet accomplished anything more than stopping Pansy's brainless prattling about Sangnoir...

Wednesday, September 11, 1995, 7:35 AM

They were halfway down the stairs to breakfast, with no one else closer than a full flight in either direction, when Hermione suddenly derailed Ron's latest defence of the Chudley Cannons' chances for taking the All-Britain Championship.

"Professor Sangnoir left the castle last night," she blurted, interrupting him in mid-sentence. The three of them halted in place, Ron on the step below her (putting their eyes on the same level, she noticed), and Harry next to her.

"He did?" Ron asked at the same time Harry said, "How do you know?"

"Yes, he did," she replied to Ron, then turned to Harry. "I saw him through one of the common room windows last night. He just walked out past the courtyard and out of the lights there." She paused for a moment, then added, "Did you know that helmet of his has headlamps in it?"

"Headlamps?" Ron's face was scrunched up in confusion.

"Muggle light charms," she rattled off quickly without looking at him. "Anyway, it made him easy to follow in the dark, at least until he went around the side of the castle."

Harry stared at her. "You suspect something, don't you?"

"D'you think he's still in the castle?" Ron asked.

"Goooood morrrrrrrrning, kiiiiiiiiiiiids!" A blue-robed figure plunged past the stairs. They rushed to the railing and looked down to spy the increasingly-familiar sight of Professor Sangnoir spinning and twirling his way past beams, landings and railings to land unharmed at the base of the stairwell.

"This is just a guess," Harry said in the most deadpan voice he could manage, "but I think he is."

Hermione huffed in annoyance. "He shouldn't do that! What if someone tries to copy him?"

Thursday, September 12, 1995, 8:22 PM

A couple days and several more recruiting drives later, I had decided to take a break from my intelligence campaign for one evening. (Okay. A downpour had started just before dinner and didn't show any signs of letting up any time before dawn.) I put in an hour in my office after dinner in case any students wanted to see me (none did), then retreated to my room to get in a little reading.

I had managed to polish off "Memoirs of the Late War Against Grindelwald" by Arminius Esterhazy the night before, and was now snickering my way through the early chapters of "Twenty Years as a Muggle" by Jürgen Eckert. Eckert, a surprisingly open-minded pureblood, had started his experiment in cultural immersion in 1947, and while England (and the world as a whole) had been a far simpler place shortly after the War (whichever flavor of it you were familiar with), it had still been fraught with pitfalls for someone who was essentially an alien to it.

Fortunately, Eckert had had a healthy sense of humor about it all and the first few chapters played up his initial mistakes and missteps for laughs, starting right with his rueful admission that he had done insufficient research and thus had entered Muggle London dressed to the nines — for 1847.

Given that his photo on the back of the dustcover showed him in a Grateful Dead T-shirt and blue jeans with a macrame headband, I suspected that he'd adapted well enough by the time the Summer of Love had blossomed.

I'd just finished an extended anecdote about how Eckert had gone about getting a driver's license (which mixed what I'd come to recognize as his trademark sly self-mocking humor with a surprising amount of useful advice and information for the adventurous wizard-at-large) when there was a tapping at my window above and beyond that of the raindrops. I was still a little wary around post owls (and they around me) after the little incident a week earlier, so I was momentarily taken aback to see a barn owl there.

I hopped up out of my seat and over to the window to let the sopping wet bird in. It held out a leg and I untied the scrap of damp folded parchment attached there. "Sorry," I said. "I don't have any food or water for you, but I'm sure the Owlery has anything you need."

The owl bobbed up and down in what I assumed was supposed to be a nod and hooted once before turning around and launching itself back out the window and into the rain. I closed the sash behind it, then unfolded the parchment.

Doug: Contact me. Charlie.

I raised an eyebrow. The unwritten message was obvious — he had something he needed to tell me that he couldn't trust to the post owl system.

Well, then. I pulled my helmet from the wardrobe, put it on and laid down in bed, then cued up "Long Distance".

Doug? Charlie "said" as soon as our minds connected.

Who else? I sent back. I got your note. What's up that you couldn't tell me by owl?

I "felt" his frown over the connection. A team of Aurors showed up here this morning, asking about you.

Well, that was interesting. I thought the preserve was outside of British jurisdiction.

Technically it is. Realistically? Wizarding Romania is in no position to object to anything Wizarding Britain does.

I sighed. The British Empire lives, in all the worst ways. Of course it isn't.

Anyway, they quizzed everyone from the top on down about you. They were specifically looking for where you came from, but they were taking down anything and everything someone had to say about you. They weren't threatening people with Veritaserum and arrest, but it wasn't far from it.

I resisted the urge to facepalm. They didn't hear...

Yeah, they did, Charlie replied. Punching out Old Grouchy, anything any of the guys saw you do without a wand...

Not the nickname, I begged. Tell me no one told them the nickname.

Sorry, Charlie said. Tannenbaum told'em, and the rest of the guys confirmed. The Ministry now knows you as "Merlin Reborn".

Jesus Harold Christ on a fucking handtruck.

Charlie's surprise, followed by his laughter, came over the connection very clearly. That's one hell of a mental image, Doug.

I rubbed my eyes. This is not a laughing matter. The last thing I want in any world is to come to the attention of a government. Any government. And excuse me for saying so, Charlie, but yours is one of the worst from my point of view.

No offense taken. If it's any consolation, he offered, they were pretty clear that they weren't on a criminal investigation. But I figured that regardless, you'd want to know.

You figured right.

Well, the conversation kind of tapered off after that, so I said good night and cut the song before it could run out. Then I lay there in my bed, chewing on my lip as I turned this intel over in my head, looking at it from all sides and correlating it with things I already knew. It was pretty obvious that when Dumbledore hired me it spoiled some plan that Fudgie the Whale had had in motion to place a loyal agent into the school. Unwilling to accept defeat, he or his loyal minions were now looking for anything to use as leverage to oust me.

Knowing the kind of exaggeration the guys at the Preserve were likely to spin around stories that were already over-the-top by Wizarding standards, I could only wonder if finding out they were facing a so-called "Merlin Reborn" would frighten the bureaucrats into stopping their campaign, or terrify them into doubling their efforts to get rid of me.

Ah, the hell with wondering. I knew bureaucrats. They would believe the stories, and act like they didn't. I was going to have to prepare for a direct political attack at some point.

Displeased with the unhappy turn of mind I was taking, I decided to go back to my reading. Jürgen Eckert's misadventures in Muggle Britain of the 1940s beckoned, and with a fierce determination to distract myself with amusement, I picked up the book again and dove back in.

For the most part it worked. I got my mind off the Ministry's machinations, had a few laughs, and actually began understanding in my gut just how huge the cultural gulf was between the mundane and magical worlds. I kept turning pages for another good hour or so. When the account began to settle down into a more-or-less serious examination of the differences between Wizarding and Muggle culture, I closed the book and laid it back on the "unread" stack on my nightstand (on top of "What the Great War of the Muggles Means to You" by Roland Knockbuckle and another couple volumes from my "recent history" collection).

I had just folded my arms behind my head as I rested it against the ornately-carved headboard of my bed when my eyes fell on the collection of photos on top of my dresser — in particular, the mystery photo and the seven teenaged girls in it. I abruptly sat up.

Now, it occurred to me, was a perfect time to ask an expert about memory magic.

"Now there are a variety of spells that can affect memory," Filius began in his piping voice.

Less than five minutes after I'd sat up so suddenly, I was seated, a cup of tea in hand, at a small table in Filius's quarters. He was not at all put out by me knocking on his door at 9:30 at night. In fact, he seemed absolutely delighted that I'd come by, and equally delighted to answer my questions. (Although to be honest, he seemed delighted by most things, most of the time. Filius was the kind of person for whom the word "delighted" had been invented.)

As he conjured and served the tea, I glanced around at his sitting room. In addition to the various academic honors and mementos I had expected there was a shelf full of trophies and medals, along with several (moving, Wizarding) photos which clearly showed a younger Filius taking part in some kind of formalized magical combat. To my eye it was clearly a sport form, executed on a narrow "playing field" with about the same dimensions as the piste in fencing. (A stray corner of my mind wondered if one had borrowed from the other, or if the formats had arisen independently in a kind of athletic convergent evolution.) I made a mental note to remember to ask him about it some other time when I didn't have my own mental integrity as a priority.

"Many of the minor mental magics, such as the Confundus," he continued, "can blur or block memory, mainly by interfering with the mechanisms by which long-term memories are formed in the brain. Some healing spells unfortunately have a similar side-effect." He sipped his tea thoughtfully. "And of course, any hex or curse which strikes a person in the head may affect their memory."

"How about the systematic erasure or suppression of a long period?" I asked, inhaling the rich scent of the tea in my own cup before blowing on it to cool it to drinkable temperature.

Filius frowned. "How long are we speaking of?"

I thought about that photo, and the names and inscription on its frame. Whatever had happened, it had not been brief or casual. "Hmm. Let's say several months at least."

His bushy eyebrows rose in obvious surprise and curiosity. "Well... discounting exotic but unlikely approaches such as using the Imperius to command someone to forget a long period from their life, the only remaining option is Obliviation, known very succinctly as the 'Memory Charm', which can be wielded as either a scalpel or a bludgeon, depending on the skill and intent of the caster." Filius narrowed his eyes and studied me for a moment. "Douglas, do you suspect that you may have had your memory modified?"

I sighed. "I don't suspect, Filius. I know." And between sips of my (quite good) tea, I explained about the photo and the girls and my concerns.

Filius took a long, slow drink from his teacup, then looked up at me. "The easiest way to determine if you have been Obliviated is to have a Legilimens examine your mind."

"Okay," I said. "So where do I find a Legilimens?"

"You can always ask Albus," Filius suggested mildly.

Friday, September 13, 1995, 6:25 PM

Dinner had ended half an hour earlier. I'd arranged a private meeting with Albus for later that night after our usual research get-together with Septima, but in between I'd be putting in my usual early-evening hours in my office next to the DADA classroom.

I was on my way there from the post-dinner socialization in the staff room when I heard faint sobbing coming from one of the classrooms on the second floor. I immediately shifted from casual walk to stealth, ghosting my way over to the door, which hung just enough ajar to let a whisper of sound out into the hallway.

"Why's he so mean?" I recognized the lightly-accented voice — Javaid Patel, one of the Hufflepuff first years.

"I don't know. He just is." A female voice, older maybe, but if so not by much. "Unless you're a Slytherin."

"Snape's a git." An older boy, confidently. "The Snakes can't win the Cup on their own, so he cheats for them."

"Gryffindor's been winning the Cup the last few years, though," the girl pointed out dubiously.

"Better Gryffindor than Slytherin," the older boy shot back. "Even if the Headmaster cheats for them."

"But it's not fair!" Patel protested, a hitch in his voice. "I'm way better at potions than Urquhart, but Snape gives him points all the time, and always takes points from me."

"It's what he does," the girl said sadly. "Ask any of the Seventh Years — they got told about him when they were Firsties. He's been doing it as long as anyone can remember."

Patel wailed again, and as the two older students comforted him I slipped away to give them their privacy back. I could do nothing for Patel that they weren't already doing anyway, and the arrival of a teacher on the scene would ruin that.

But while I couldn't help comfort the boy, there were other things I could do. I wondered if there were written records somewhere of the points awarded and taken away over the years.

A couple of hours later, the idea to search for point records was still embryonic, pushed to the back of my mind by my meeting with Albus and Septima. (Executive summary: no progress yet on finding me a way home.) And once that had ended and Septima had left Albus's office, it was time for my private meeting with him.

When we had settled back into our seats and I'd accepted the requisite sherbet lemon, Albus fixed me with that twinkling gaze of his and asked, "So, Douglas, what was it you wanted to speak with me about?"

I grimaced, rubbing one eyebrow with a fingertip as I sucked on the hard, citrus-flavored candy. "This isn't exactly school-related, Albus, but more of a personal favor. I've recently discovered that someone has blanked part of my memory."

He raised an eyebrow. "Indeed?"

I nodded, frowning. "Yeah. I've found a photograph of me with a band of people who I'm clearly close to, but of whom I have no memory whatsoever." I chewed my lip for a moment. "Filius tells me that you are adept at Legilimency. I was wondering if you could enter my mind and, well, see what's been done to me. Maybe fix it if you can?"

Albus folded his hands in front of his face and closed his eyes. "It is indeed true that I have some skill at Legilimency, but I am not a healer of minds. At best I could tell you if you have been Obliviated, and perhaps determine if it could be reversed."

I chewed my lip some more. "Well, I suppose that's better than nothing."

Albus studied me closely. "As I recall, your quite formidable defences include a mental component, do they not, Douglas?"

"Well... yeah," I said with an embarrassed smile.

"You will, of course, have to lower them, if you can." He tilted his head inquisitively. "Do you still wish me to try this?"

I chuckled ruefully. "I've gotta know, Albus."

"In that case," he said as he drew his wand, "please prepare yourself."

I popped the lemon candy out of my mouth and into my hand, then closed my eyes and began to firmly instruct my field to let Albus's magical telepathy through. I got a bit of feedback, not unlike a bad-tempered guard-dog growling at its keeper, but I pressed harder. The feedback settled down, and for a moment I wondered when my field would make up for it, and what would happen when it did. "Okay, go for it," I said, opening my eyes to see Albus pointing his wand at the bridge of my nose.

"Very well," he said. "Legilimens!"

I shook myself to awareness. It felt as though I had fallen asleep, and been nudged back awake. Blinking my eyes rapidly to get them back in focus, I looked around and confirmed I was still in Albus's office. Like myself, he was still in the seat he had been in at the start; his wand lay on the desktop in front of him, and he wore an expression halfway between troubled and intrigued.

I took a deep breath. "Well?"

Albus raised his eyes slowly to mine. "My dear boy, I can confirm that you have a memory block in place. However, while it is magical in nature, it is not Obliviation; it is... quite unlike anything I have ever seen before, with defences outside of my experience. Sadly, I cannot help you. Nor, I think, can anyone else in the Wizarding world."

"Well." I grimaced. "That's great news. Just freakin' great." I petulantly threw the sherbet lemon, which had stuck to the palm of my hand through the whole process, into the wastebasket next to Albus's desk. It cracked against the side of the metal bin with a sound like a bullet.

Albus favored me with a slight smile. "It may not be as bad as you think. If I am not misled, the block is not permanent. I cannot say how long it may take, but I do believe it will eventually end itself and return the locked memories to you."

"You do, huh?" I studied him, and realized his eyes were twinkling again. Damn. That was a tell of some sort, but I had no idea what it meant.

"Yes, I do," he replied. "I think you need not worry quite so much about it as you have been."

I leaned back in my seat and shook my head. "I suppose that's some small consolation."

As the door swung shut behind Douglas, Albus leaned back in his chair and sighed. He had not been entirely honest with the younger man and it pained him, but he had made a promise.

Douglas had, despite his claims of minimal control over his own defences, lowered his mental shields so thoroughly that Albus had felt no resistance whatsoever to his Legilimentic probe — quite a contrast to his first encounter with their adamantine solidity during the "job interview" at the Leaky Cauldron. No sooner had he cast the spell than he had found himself in Douglas's mind.

It was almost a truism among Legilimencers that every mind was unique. But in Albus's experience, the more powerful the mind, the more likely it would be to manifest as a fully-realized mindscape to a visitor. And if the subject was skilled in Occlumency, it was even more likely to do so — one of the more common (and useful) techniques for building up Occlumentic defences frequently resulted in a well-formed mindscape.

Douglas had a mindscape.

And what a mindscape it was! For someone utterly untrained in Occlumency, it was unusually realized and detailed, from the huge, full — indeed, gravid — moon hanging low on the horizon to the wooden sign before him reading "Welcome to Wackyland! Population Thursday and Still Growling!" Structures whose improbable shapes and stability put the Weasley home to shame dotted the landscape, and in the distance were many small, hopping forms. Faint hooting noises echoed across the strangely smooth and brightly-colored terrain.

Albus smiled approvingly, then stretched forth his hand, palm up, with his wand upon it. "Indica mihi hidden memories!" he commanded.

The wand spun like a wheel-of-fortune, then slowly came to rest pointing directly at the moon.

Albus cocked a bushy eyebrow. "Fascinating," he murmured, and began striding toward his target.

As it so happened, appearances were deceptive, and Albus found himself standing before the low, full moon much sooner than he had initially expected. Unlike its real-world counterpart, it hadn't receded from him to maintain its apparent position in the sky. Instead, here in Douglas's mindscape, it actually rested directly upon the ground; not the real moon of course, but an immense model, exquisitely detailed. Albus spent a moment marveling at the miniature perfection of its mountains and maria before returning to his task. Another Indica confirmed that this model moon was indeed the vessel holding Douglas's lost memories.

"Well, now," Albus mused to himself. "How do I get in?" He thought for a moment, then chuckled to himself before stepping up to the miniature satellite and knocking firmly in the middle of the flat expanse of the Mare Serenitatis. "Hullo?"

He had just begun to laugh at himself for his own puckishness when a mote of shining silver appeared in the spot where he had knocked. Almost as soon as he had registered it, it exploded into a torrent of light. Albus calmly stepped to one side and watched curiously as it first coalesced into a human outline, then snapped with eye-watering suddenness into the appearance of a human being.

It was a girl. No more than fourteen or fifteen years old, if Albus was any judge, petite even for that age, and dressed in a high-waisted, floor-length gown of white silk. She wore a golden breastplate over the gown and golden vambraces on her forearms, all with fine silvery filigree decorating them. On her head was the most intriguing crown, very obviously magical — Albus leaned forward to study its six points, one each of earth, water, fire, ice, lightning and metallic light. Beneath it, her brow bore a shining crescent, its tips pointed upward as if to emulate a smile. In her right hand she held a staff of the same pale wood as the one Douglas owned, but unlike his, hers had a headpiece: a golden mount holding a large crescent moon made of crystal, with another crystal — this one a faceted sphere the size of a walnut — blazing like white fire at its center. Her hair was blonde and gathered into two slender ponytails long enough to reach her knees. She was lovely, a girl no longer a child though not yet fully a woman, but still hinting at the woman she would one day become.

Her eyes were closed, and an unexpected pang of longing shot through Albus's heart at the expression of innocent serenity on her relaxed face. Then she opened her eyes, and they were wide and sapphirine blue. Looking straight ahead instead of at him, she spoke.

"Hello. If you're seeing this message, then you haven't acted in a way which could be considered an attack on Doug-sensei's mind, but are probably trying to help him." Her voice was high and clear, and she spoke English as an American, although with a faint and exotic accent which Albus could not place. "I ask that you please go no further. Beyond this point are memories which must remain sealed for now, but will in time return to him." Her eyes, still looking straight ahead and not at him even as he circled her and studied her from all sides, narrowed in obvious determination. "If you persist despite this request, you will be dealt with as an unwelcome invader."

"How curious," Albus mused aloud as he came to a halt directly in front of the image. "And who might you be, my dear?" he murmured absently.

Slowly, as if forcing itself with great effort, the image broke its gaze on the horizon for the first time and turned her eyes to Albus. "I am Serenity II, once princess of the Moon Kingdom during the long-dead Silver Millennium, and future queen of Crystal Earth. Doug-sensei was my teacher and my friend." As she responded, she became more and more animated, as though the very act was bringing her to life. "Who are you?"

Albus smiled. "I am Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You might say I am Douglas's employer, but I would like to think I am also his friend."

Serenity's wide eyes grew wider. "A magic school? Really? Then you must be in a different universe from mine, because we don't have any schools like that." Aside she added, "It sure would have helped a lot."

"I am quite certain of it, my dear," Albus replied, "as I know the circumstances of Douglas's arrival in our world, and he had no opportunity to take on a student, royal or otherwise, before accepting his position here."

"Good!" she chirped, and Albus almost chuckled at the energy the image now displayed. "I hoped I could get him a little closer to his home."

Albus slowly nodded. "That is a task I am helping him with as well. Perhaps he has you to thank for sending him to our world."

Serenity bit her lip as she considered that. "Maybe, but I don't know if there've been any other worlds between yours and mine — this is the first time I've activated to defend his memories." She frowned minutely. "I'm not really me, you see, I'm kind of an image of me I made to do a job I couldn't do myself." She frowned more. "That made more sense in my head."

"Ah, yes, that." Albus glanced at the moon behind her. "Perhaps you could explain a little?"

She turned and looked back at the moon herself. "Wow! Did I do that?" Then she turned back around to face him. "Doug-sensei was our teacher, me and my friends; he helped us fight the Dark Kingdom when they tried to invade Tokyo. He taught us how to use our magic, and how to be a team, and he was like a father to us all, Makoto especially. And when I turned back time after we won, I hid his memories of us before sending him on his way home. And I set a copy of myself as a guardian to keep them hidden as long as needed. Because he would never leave us if he thought we might still need him — his honor and his sense of duty would not let him put his needs over ours."

There were visible tears in her eyes now, and to his surprise Albus found his own sight growing misty. "He isn't ready to remember us yet," she continued. "He'll remember in his own time, but it would hurt if it's too soon. And worse, he'd try to come back to us, and he shouldn't — he needs to go home first. He'll remember us, someday, when the time is right and it won't hurt him to know that he left us behind." Serenity placed her free hand, balled into a tiny fist, on her breastplate over her heart. "And after all he did for us, for me, I owe him whatever I can do to make him happy. Please, please, don't try to release these memories."

Albus fancied himself a good judge of character — a man with as many political duties as he had needed to be — and he was struck by the strength of the sincerity and dedication Serenity projected. He suspected that there was more to this magical construct than simply the "image" she characterised herself as, and wondered if she was aware of it. She certainly didn't act like a simple programmed simulacrum, but more like an actual human mind. And every skill and instinct he turned to the matter said that this mind, this child, loved Douglas Sangnoir and was fiercely determined to protect him with a power as far beyond him as he was beyond one of the first year students in his care.

Albus bowed deeply to the young woman, who (to his private delight and amusement) goggled at him. "Far be it from me to defy the wishes of such a lovely example of magical royalty," he said as he straightened up. "And I suspect that I would not succeed were I to try. I promise you I shall not tell Douglas of your presence or reasons for hiding these memories."

"Thank you, Dumbledore-sensei," Serenity breathed with obvious relief.

Albus leaned back in his chair and steepled his hands before him. He had spent a fair amount of time (subjectively, of course) in Douglas's mind after that point, conversing with young Serenity, who was positively bubbly once engaged in matters less serious. Regretfully, she declined to share any more specifics of Douglas's time with her than she had already revealed, but even so, he found her quite charming. And if her iron-bound loyalty to Douglas was any indication, he had definitely made the correct decision in hiring him.

Yes, indeed.

Saturday, September 14, 1995, 7:45 PM

"Have you found him?" Ron asked as the three of them bent over the Marauder's Map.

"No," Hermione replied distractedly. "He's definitely not in his office."

Ron snorted. "Well, I figured that when he didn't answer after we knocked."

"He's not in his quarters, either," Harry added, tracing his finger along the rooms lining one of the hallways, "or any of the other professors' quarters either."

The three of them had retreated to an unused classroom with the Marauder's Map, guaranteeing their privacy with a locking charm and a silencio on the door in the hope of preventing stray sound from leaking out into the hall beyond. Before activating it, Harry had completely unfolded the map and spread it out over the professor's table at the end of the classroom, and the members of the trio had each taken a side from which to watch.

"Ah!" Ron blurted, and jabbed his fingertip down on the Map over the entry hall. "There he is!"

"I knew it," Hermione whispered, half to herself. "He's up to something. Why else would he be sneaking out of the castle?"

"He doesn't actually seem to be sneaking, Hermione," Harry noted. "In fact, it looks like he's talking to Filch. Move your finger, Ron." And when Ron did so, the animated footprints that represented both Professor Sangnoir and Filch were adjacent to each other, face to face if the orientation of the footprints could be trusted. The two were off to one side of the entry hall, so it didn't look like Filch was trying to block the professor from going out. Hermione was forced to admit that Harry was probably right — the two were simply speaking to each other.

After several uninteresting minutes, the conversation apparently ended. Mister Filch wandered off deeper into the castle, but the Professor's trace turned and headed right out the doors. The map followed him for a short distance before he went beyond its range and the footprints faded away.

They waited several minutes, but the animated trace did not return.

"What is he doing?" Hermione murmured as Harry cleared the map with a quick "Mischief managed" and then began folding it up.

"Did you ever consider he might just be going for a walk?" Ron asked.

Hermione looked up at him sharply, her mouth open to reply. Then she snapped it shut. "You're right, of course," she finally said after a moment's thought. "But it's hard not to be suspicious given our history with Defence professors."

Sliding the folded map into the sleeve of his robe, Harry looked at Hermione. "You're really worried about this?"

Hermione bit her lip, then nodded once.

"Well, then," Harry said with a bit of a sigh. "We'll just have to keep watching him on the Map, and maybe follow him, to see what he's up to."

Saturday night turned out to be not only dry (for a change) but very profitable for my intelligence efforts — I not only recruited a battalion of rabbits, several species of birds and over a hundred Scottish Red Deer to look for Flight-of-Emo for me, I actually managed to get my needs across to something like a gajillion dragonflies. I had half-not expected insects to work. I was curious if the hive mind I had accidentally imposed on them would carry over to future generations, or if it would die with the coming winter.

Monday, September 16, 1995, 7:25 AM

As I did my morning exercises in the stairwell on my way down to breakfast the following Monday, I heard a shriek of terror from above me. Catching a handy outcropping of worked stone, I redirected my momentum to send me back upward to the closest landing. From there I dashed and leapt upward to another landing, where a small group of younger students were clustered about one of their number.

"Okay, people, step back, give them some breathing room," I said as I hopped up the last few steps. They obediently shuffled away as far as they could in the limited space, revealing a small girl in Ravenclaw colors, clutching the railing and hyperventilating. Her eyes were wide in fear or panic.

The moment she saw me she launched herself to her feet and clamped her arms around my waist. "You're alive!" she wailed. "I thought you fell!" Then she buried her face in my robes and began crying.

"No, no, I'm fine," I murmured as I gently patted her back.

Monday, September 16, 1995, 2:05 PM

"Good afternoon, everyone," Professor Sangnoir began once the last few students, slightly damp, had rushed into the classroom and dropped into their seats. "Given as it's another rainy day today — as some of you have just discovered from personal experience..." He nodded toward the latecomers and Harry couldn't help but chuckle along with the rest of the class. "Well, today we'll be going over some theory."

Next to Harry, Hermione immediately perked up. Harry glanced across her to Ron, and they shared a knowing smile.

"Consider this useful background for some of the more... extreme stuff we'll be getting into later in the term," the professor continued. "Also be aware a lot of this is high-level stuff that isn't in the standard texts. If you find it confusing or hard to understand, feel free to come to me for help on it. Also, Professor Vector is familiar with this material and is also available for help if you need it."

Professor Sangnoir turned back to the easel and slate which most of the time he ignored. Rather than fill it with a wave of his wand, though, he picked up an actual piece of chalk. "Okay, first things first. And I do mean first. Today, we're covering the fundamental nature of magic." He turned and wrote "Magic - What Is It?" on the slate.

"Magic is not wands," he said, turning back to the class. "Magic is not incantations, it's not swish-and-flick, it's not even point-and-shoot. Wands are tools, just as are incantations and movements. They are a way of using magic, but not the only way. Even within the Wizarding tradition, you have wandless and silent casting, potions and alchemy, and even the accidental magic of children. House-elves have their own way of using magic, as do many other creatures, some of them not even remotely like wand magic. But it's all magic.

"The best and simplest definition of magic I've yet to come across is this: Magic is the deliberate application of energy to change or influence the physical or spiritual worlds through an act of will." He paused a moment to let that sink in. "Very accurate. Still, it leaves something out. What energy? Where does it come from? What is it that we're all using, but in so many wildly different ways? Why does it respond to acts of will?"

Predictably, Hermione's hand shot up.

The professor favored her with a smirk. "Those were rhetorical questions, Miss Granger, but don't worry, you'll get your turn in a moment." Hermione smiled sheepishly as she lowered her hand, and the professor acknowledged it with a slight incline of his head. Then he turned his attention back to the class. "The nature of magic is a question that has been debated by wizards from time immemorial. Fortunately for you, the debate has been settled."

And then he launched into the heart of the lesson.

After Defence class ended, they and their fellow Gryffindors headed back to the tower to drop off their books and belongings before proceeding to dinner. As they made their way up to the Fat Lady's portrait, Ron and Hermione debated the validity of Professor Sangnoir's lesson. "I'm just saying I've never seen anything like this 'unified theory' in any book I've read," she was objecting.

Harry, though, couldn't help but find himself recalling and wondering about the final words of the professor's lecture: "But there is more to magic than simply will, word and energy. We are able to do magic because there is more to us than just this crude matter, this too-solid flesh. Every sapient being, simply by being sapient, partakes of the divine, of a nature beyond the merely corporeal. Some of us, we fortunate few with the gift, are able to touch the world as the Celestials do, even if only in a lesser manner. This is the root and truth of magic, that all of us, even those who seem to have no power at all, are as gods."

Something about that resonated within Harry, and filled him with a wonder he hadn't felt since his first days at Hogwarts. "We are as gods," he whispered to himself, and engrossed in their argument, neither Ron nor Hermione heard.

I suppose it was too much to expect that nothing would come of the scene on the landing that morning, but some hours later Albus held me back when everyone else began to file out of the staff room and into the Great Hall for dinner.

"Douglas," Albus began in a friendly tone that immediately made me worried.

"Yes, Headmaster?"

"I understand that in your home world a certain amount of... leeway was afforded persons with gifts like yours. However, there are standards of behavior demanded of a professor at Hogwarts."


Dumbledore sighed. "Douglas, if you could, please refrain from performing acrobatics in the central castle stairwell from now on. It not only frightens some of the more sensitive students, it is not befitting the dignity of the Hogwarts faculty."

Damn. And bouncing around those moving staircases was one of the best workouts I'd had in years.

But after that morning's little scare, I suppose it was the right thing to do.

A few more hours later, I was back in my quarters after sitting through my office hours. On my mind was the same topic that had occupied it since dinner — where could I get as good a workout as I had been getting in my daily plunges through the stairwell? I could easily do without it, true, and had many times in many worlds before. But I'd been spoiled with my workouts here, and I was loathe to stop just because the stairwell was now off-limits.

Absently, I called for Twonky as I tried to think of alternative facilities I could use. There were always empty classrooms, of course. There was the one large one with a dueling platform, which offered a lot more room than the rest. But if I wanted a better workout than I could get doing it just anywhere, I'd need equipment of some sort, even if something just as simple as a set of parallel bars (or a moving staircase). And acquiring and installing enough stuff to give me the kind of workout I got on the stairs would take a lot of Galleons and time.

Twonky appeared with a pop. "Professor Looney called Twonky?" it asked as it always did.

I opened my mouth to order my usual strong, sweet tea, but instead, I found myself asking, "Twonky, you wouldn't know where in the castle I could get a good workout?"

Twonky tilted its head, causing one of its ears to flop over comically. "Professor Looney needs a place where he can jump and swing and punch?"

"Yes, exactly!" I all but shouted, pointing a finger at the little thing's long, sharp nose.

The house-elf nodded sagely, looking for just a moment like an impoverished, anorexic Yoda. "The house-elves know of a room. It is called the 'Room of Requirement', but the elves calls it the 'Come and Go Room'. It be's whatever you needs it to be. If Professor Looney needs a place to jump and swing and punch, then it be's that for Professor Looney. If Professor Looney needs somethings different, it be's that, too."

I stared at the elf. A danger room. Twonky was describing a freaking magical danger room. I valiantly suppressed the urge to grab the little creature by its non-existent lapels and shake it. "Twonky," I said with false calmness, "where can Professor Loo... I mean, where can I find this 'Come and Go Room'?"

Twonky stared solemnly up at me. "It be's on the seventh floor, across from the tapestry of a wizard teachings trolls to dance. If Professor Looney walks past the wall three times and thinks of what he is wanting, the Come and Go Room will open."

To hell with my tea. Time to hit the seventh — eighth, if you're American like me — floor. "Twonky, I owe you one. Thanks!" And with that I was out the door faster than the elf could pop away.

Twonky had not steered me wrong. I'd barely made the third pass and a door faded into existence on the wall — a four-paneled Edwardian-style door painted gloss white, with brass fittings. It was quite unlike the heavy, medieval-styled oak-and-iron doors to be found everywhere else in the castle.

It looked suspiciously familiar.

I pushed it open and found myself in a gymnasium.

No. Not a gymnasium. The gymnasium. The Mansion's gymnasium. Complete with all the equipment we had designed and built ourselves for our own special needs. (When you can deadlift 20 tons, a weight set from the local Dick's Sporting Goods just ain't a-gonna cut it.)

I stood there at the edge of the mat and fought back tears. It had been seventy-five gods-be-damned years since I had last seen this room.

Not since before the argument with Maggie.

I closed my eyes, breathed in deeply, and got my emotions under control. Then I flung my robes away and launched myself into the best workout I'd had in years.

An hour later, as I dried off from my post-workout shower in the men's locker room (right in front of the third locker on the right, the one with the label on its door that read "Looney Toons"), I wondered just what the limits of the Room of Requirement really were. I had entered the gym through the door that would have led to the rest of the Mansion, but if things worked as I expected they would, going through it would take me back to Hogwarts proper.

I got dressed (my clothes had been cleaned and pressed while I showered, either by the Room or the house-elves, I had no idea which), and exited the gym. I was, as I expected, right back where I'd started from on the eighth floor, and the moment it closed the door vanished, leaving a blank stone wall behind.

I studied it for a moment, then began walking back and forth in front of the spot it had been, concentrating on what I now wanted. A different door, still Edwardian in style, but varnished instead of painted, with a massive brass knocker in the center at eye level as well as a thick brass handle with a thumb latch. Surmounting it was an elaborate fanlight of alternating clear and stained glass panels through which a warm glow radiated. Mounted at the center bottom of the fan was a security camera. On the stone of the wall to the right of the door handle sat a charcoal-grey plastic box 15 centimeters on an edge, a single red LED burning continuously in one corner.

I smiled to myself at the sight. I knew this door oh so well.

I snapped my right hand out to my side, and my Warriors ID dropped obediently into it from my sleeve. With a practiced motion ingrained into muscle memory by more than a decade of repetition, I swiped it across the sensor. The red LED turned green and the lock buzzed. I seized the handle, thumbed the latch, opened the door and stepped in. As it closed with a comfortingly solid thud behind me I took in my surroundings: white marble, dark wood, brass chandeliers overhead, the portraits...

I was home.

Well, maybe not home for real. But it was like Beatlemania — an incredible simulation.

After silently basking in it for a minute, I took off for the basement. The first thing I had to check out was, naturally enough, the Danger Room.

"Well?" Hermione demanded.

Harry shook his head as he continued to study the Map. "I have no idea. He went up to the seventh floor, walked back and forth a couple times, and then vanished."

"He has to be somewhere!" she objected. "He certainly can't have Disapparated — you can't do that on Hogwarts grounds!"

"Yes, we know, Hermione," Ron grumbled.

A morning workout in the Mansion became part of my daily schedule. And some evenings, after I was done with my office hours and my rounds I would head down to my old duty station on the ops sublevel and park myself in front of the Big Board despite the lack of anything to keep an eye on, just for the reassuring familiarity — and because Wizarding Britain had nothing at all to match a padded, reclining executive leather office chair.

Oh, and as it turned out, the Room of Requirement was recursive.

Wednesday, September 18, 1995, 6:15 PM

A few days later, I was making my regular rounds of the castle when I came across Luna Lovegood slowly meandering down a third-floor hallway, wand limply grasped in one hand. She was peering into the niches and dark corners of the stonework, sticking her head into open classroom doors, and casting light spells into the ribbed vaulting of the ceiling above her. It was hard to tell at that distance, but she seemed to be humming or crooning a wordless (and almost melodyless) tune to herself.

I'd come up a stairway behind the young Ravenclaw student, quietly enough for her not to notice, and I froze for a moment out of surprise. She seemed to be searching for something, but not with any sense of haste or urgency. I raised an eyebrow, then called out, "Is there something I can help you with, Miss Lovegood?"

"Oh, hullo, Professor Sangnoir," she replied as she slowly turned around. "I'm just looking for some of my belongings. My housemates think it's great fun to hide them." It was hard to tell with the dreamy manner of speaking she had, but I was pretty sure that it was delivered in as matter-of-factly a tone as she was capable of. "Every year they make a game of hiding my possessions and making me look for them. I don't usually find them all again until just before we take the Express home," she added, staring directly at me in a way that might have been unnerving had I not had long experience being stared at by far more dangerous and unnerving things than her.

"A game?" I chewed my lip for a moment. "And do you enjoy this game, Miss Lovegood?"

She tilted her head and appeared to think intently on the question before answering. "Not really. But it does give me something to do on long nights when no one in my House will talk to me."

Right. In the words of the immortal Charles de Mar, "I'm no dummy." I know what bullying looks like, and this certainly looked like bullying. "Would you like to stop playing this game, Miss Lovegood?"

"Oh, yes, please." The dreaminess bled out of her voice and for a moment it was tired and plaintive.

"In that case, I'm going to end it, right now. First, let's get your things back." Which was going to be the easy part. I looked up at the ceiling for no good reason and called, "Twonky!"

Like clockwork, Twonky appeared with the usual "pop". "Professor Looney called?"

Miss Lovegood giggled, a surprisingly normal sound that seemed at odds with her usual behavior. "Yes?" I asked her with another raised eyebrow.

"I'm Loony, too," she explained, and the giggle's brightness drained out of her almost immediately. "Well, that's what they call me."

I put a second mental checkmark next to "bullying". It's one thing to call yourself Looney... "No, no, no, that just won't do," I said. "We can't have two Looneys at Hogwarts, no, that would be too confusing." I leaned in a bit toward her. "And I've been Looney far longer than you have, so I have seniority. And precedence. So I get to keep that name. We'll just have to get you a new one."

Her wide eyes went wider, and her mouth worked for a moment. Then she tilted her head and said, "Can I be Omar instead?"

I stood up straight and rubbed my chin in mock thought. "Hmm. I don't know. You're too blonde to be an Omar. How about... oh! I know! Shirley!"

"Shirley?" She tilted her head the other way, but her eyes never left mine. Odd. She didn't blink as often as most people did. "Because Stubby Boardman is serious?"

Good. She remembered that first class. "Exactly!"

She spent a moment considering it, looking off to one side as she thought. "Shirley. Shirley." Then she nodded and looked back into my eyes. "Yes. I like it."

"Good." I raised my hands in a pseudo-blessing, solemnly intoning, "I hereby officially dub thee 'Shirley'."

She bowed her head and sketched out something like a curtsey. "I am honored, good sir."

I laughed and clapped my hands. "Now that that's settled, Shirl my girl, we get your stuff back. Twonky?" I addressed the house-elf, who had been waiting patiently to one side during the entire charade.

"Yes, Professor Looney?" it responded, stepping a bit closer to the two of us.

"Shirley here has had some of her belongings stolen and hidden from her. Can you please have the house-elves find them all and return them to..." I turned back to her. "Is your bed all right?"

"To my trunk, please?" she requested.

"Right. To her trunk," I said to Twonky. "And can you guys watch her stuff and make sure no one takes it again? Without getting in the way of your regular duties?"

Twonky nodded briskly, sending its ears flopping about. "House-elves can watch Missy Shirley's things and makes sure they stays where they is supposed to be."

"Great! And if someone does try to take them, or do anything else to her for that matter, I want to know about it." I'd have to do something really nice for the house-elves when I got a chance. I didn't know what yet, but the little guys (girls? asexual beings?) put 110% or more into everything they did, and deserved a little recognition. "Thank you, Twonky."

The house-elf nodded again and blinked away. I turned back to Miss Lovegood.

"Now, Shirley, let's see if we can beat your stuff back to your dorm."

I escorted Miss Lovegood back to Ravenclaw Tower, making only a brief stop at Filius's office to let him know what I'd learned, and to let him know how I was dealing with it. After exercising my staff privilege with the annoying door knocker, I escorted her into the common room and right to the base of the staircase that led up to the girls' dorms.

Every eye in the room was on us, so I made it very clear by both word and deed that she was not being punished for anything. (Just in case her merry skipping through the room and up the steps wasn't clue enough.) I watched with a smile as she climbed the stairs and vanished through an archway off a landing about halfway up.

Then I dropped the smile and turned to scowl at the rest of the room. "Prefects! Front and center! Now!" I snapped in my best drill sergeant voice. Two students — a pretty Asian girl with long hair and a spray of freckles across her nose, and a gaunt blond boy — hesitantly stepped forward. "We're going to have a little talk about how to treat your Housemates."

"And when he's done, I'll have a few things to add," Filius, his high-pitched voice in no way amusing now, said from where he stood in the door.

Long story short, no one stole anything belonging to Luna Lovegood ever again, at least not while I was at Hogwarts.

A week and a half later, a girl named Edgecombe did try to exact some misguided (and extreme) retribution on Shirley for the lost points and detentions the House had suffered that night, but she was expelled when the elves caught and prevented it, then told Filius and me about it.

After which the two of us had another little talk with the remaining members of House Ravenclaw.

Nothing more happened after that.

Wednesday, September 18, 1995, 7:32 PM

"Any change?" Harry asked.

"Nah, he's still in the Ravenclaw common room with Flitwick," Ron said as he watched the Map. "Dunno what's going on, but just about all the 'Claws are there 'cept for Shirley Lovegood. She's runnin' around up in the dorms."

"You should call her by her real name, Ron," Hermione sighed.

"Why? What's wrong with 'Shirley'?" he objected. "It's her nickname, innit? And loads better than what they used to call her."

"He's got a point," Harry commented from the window seat where he was reading their Transfiguration text. "It is a lot nicer than 'Loony', after all."

"I know, it's just..." Hermione sighed. "I don't know." A thought struck her, and she frowned for a moment. "Say, when did they stop calling her that?"

"Huh?" Ron asked, looking up from the map. "I don't remember exactly, but it wasn't that long ago. Harry, do you know?"

Harry looked up from his book. "I don't think I ever heard anyone actually call her 'Loony'. So it must've been before the ride in on the Express."

"Yeah, mate, I think you might be right." Ron turned his attention back to the Map. "And Professor Sangnoir's still with the 'Claws."

...Enclosed find copies of my notes and the handouts from Sangnoir's most recent "theory" classes. If what he's been teaching *isn't* total nonsense, as you say the experts you've consulted have suggested, then where does it come from? Professor Vector claims not to know, although she does admit that Sangnoir has shared far more with her than we've seen in class, and that it is all demonstrably true.

In other news, Sangnoir has apparently taken a protege — Luna Lovegood, who is the daughter of the Quibbler's publisher from what I understand. Everyone used to call her 'Loony' but now they call her 'Shirley' for reasons which escape me...

Malfoy Manor, Wiltshire, England. Thursday, September 19, 1995, 3:53 PM

His personal study was one of the few rooms in the Manor which was not decorated with gilded fixtures, and Lucius very much preferred it that way. Its deep mahogany paneling was no less ornate than the rest of the house, with its rich finish and exquisite carvings, and the carpeting was, if anything, more decadently thick and soft than even that in the private bedrooms, though its pattern was stark and formal. The furnishings were solid and heavy, unlike the flimsy-seeming Second Empire pieces Narcissa preferred, without sacrificing elegance or style.

The cumulative effect was a room that was relentlessly masculine yet still reminded the visitor of its owner's wealth and taste. And Lucius Malfoy very much preferred it that way.

In the center of the room was a large desk of gleaming maple. Lucius ensured that its surface was never cluttered even during the most hectic of days; and today was not a hectic day. It bore only the three items that made their permanent home there: the gold inkstand which held his quills and inks, the simple cherry wood box in which he kept his parchment, and the blotter of thick green felt trimmed with red leather corners.

Six feet above floated a Permanent Lighting Charm, bathing the entire desktop in bright, but not harsh, light.

Lucius Malfoy carefully laid his son's most recent communique down in the precise center of the blotter and leaned back in his tall, leather-upholstered chair. He steepled his hands before his face and gazed out over his fingertips at the door to the study without really seeing it. Once again he pondered the questions which had come to occupy more and more of his attention.

Who was Douglas Sangnoir? Where did he come from?

The Dark Lord wanted to know, because Sangnoir was an unknown quantity, and Lord Voldemort could not abide an unknown quantity, especially not one whom rumor suggested might be able to best him. The Dark Lord wanted to know every bit of Sangnoir's past; his follies, foibles, and weaknesses, his family and friends — every bit of leverage that could be used to twist, subvert or if necessary destroy Sangnoir before he could become a threat.

But Sangnoir had no past. No history. No family. And the one confirmed friend that the man had was not exactly a soft target, as he lived surrounded by dragons.

Lucius frowned at the thought. Dragons. It took a half-dozen or more wizards to subdue a dragon — unless they were Douglas Sangnoir, who didn't even need magic to render one unconscious and then exert dominance over the preserve's entire wing.

And now, there was what he was teaching at Hogwarts, relayed in Draco's letters. According to the experts that Lucius had consulted — French members of the extended Malfoy family and more than able to keep a secret — Sangnoir was presenting as fact things that Departments of Mysteries the world over had only barely begun to suspect about magic, with more detail in a beginner's survey than the Unspeakables had been able to acquire in half a century of research. The material in Draco's last letter alone was revolutionary, according to his contacts — it idly answered questions which had perplexed the Wizarding world's best minds for decades. And today's letter...

He chuckled suddenly. Umbridge, the fat cow, feared the army she was sure Dumbledore was raising against the Ministry, using the students of Hogwarts. The foolish toad would happily cripple Wizarding Britain to protect her own power, and for months now Lucius had encouraged and supported her, because she unknowingly served the Dark Lord's purposes.

But it wasn't Dumbledore who was building an army, it was Sangnoir — and he didn't even realize it. He was simply teaching the children in his care what children were taught where he came from — wherever in Merlin's name that was. And the moment Umbridge thought she was about to destroy him or them...

Like he had the dragon alpha, Sangnoir would undoubtedly strike her down with a single crushing blow.

And if the Dark Lord decided to act against Sangnoir...

Lucius began to reshape his plans. Slowly withdraw support from Umbridge, to be sure. He wouldn't undermine her, but he'd no longer speak in her favor to the Minister. Let her independent actions aid Voldemort's cause for as long as they could before she self-destructed. Allow nothing to be traced back to himself, nor to the Dark Lord.

And as for what Sangnoir was teaching... Lucius would tell the Dark Lord nothing more than that it was "advanced" magic. He would instruct Draco to hold his tongue on the matter and learn everything he could. And in the meantime, he would ensure that Draco's letters and notes were safely stored in the family vault at Gringotts.

Pureblood ideology was all well and good, but nothing was more important to Malfoys than family. And Lucius was beginning to suspect that following the Dark Lord and his goals was no longer in the family's best interests.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Thursday, September 19, 1995, 6:15 PM

Ah, "Talk Like A Pirate Day". Sure, if it were even created in this universe it would still be seven years before it got international recognition, but that didn't stop me. I took delight in doing all my lectures that day in mangled faux-Yorkshire dialect by way of Hollywood. Only one student — Miss Granger — demanded to know why I was speaking so oddly, so I explained the holiday to her.

She seemed personally offended, for some reason.

"My dear, I am in your debt." I bowed over Irma Pince's hand, and she giggled loudly enough to draw looks of shock and disbelief from the few students in the library at that hour — mostly Ravenclaws, whom I recognized from the dressing-down Filius and I had given them the night before. No doubt Irma had cultivated the classic "harsh librarian" persona for the students, and now I'd gone and blown it for her.

Oh well.

In the wake of the Ravenclaw massacree (with full orchestration and five-part harmony) the night before, I recalled my private vow to look for (and into) House point records for the last few years. I left a note on my office door referring anyone who was looking for me to the library, then made my way there and did what I do best when it comes to researching things outside my specialty areas — I asked someone for help. In this case, Irma, who not only confirmed that such records existed, but knew where they were and retrieved them for me in a matter of minutes. The older volumes, she explained, were static, but the one for the current year dynamically updated itself as points were given and taken.

How very convenient.

After I embarrassed her in front of the Ravenclaws, she set me up with the books (several huge volumes better described as "tomes" or "folios") in the staff reading room. I stacked them on one of the big tables in the center of the room, grabbed a few sheets of blank parchment off the stack conveniently provided in a box in the center of the table (along with ink and quills), and sat down to read.

Friday, September 20, 1995, 4:45 PM

Severus Snape awaited the start of dinner in the Great Hall with the same sense of anticipation that a man about to be executed would possess for his last meal. He had allowed himself to arrive somewhat earlier than his colleagues, but not so much so as to suggest anything approaching eagerness, for either the food or their company.

If indeed there was anything in the immediate vicinity that he looked forward to, it was the few minutes he spent beside the fire in the staff room before the lot of them filed out and took their places looking out at the unruly and irritating lot of fools, idiots and dunderheads with whom he was required to interact day in and day out. Even as summer approached at the end of the school year the staff room fire was a welcome warmth, banishing the eternal chill and damp driven deep into his bones by the dungeons of Hogwarts.

He sat there tonight, basking in its light and heat, and not at all happy at the thought that he would have to leave it in only a few minutes to face the student body one last time before the end of the day. He sat in one of the armchairs before it, leaning forward with his eyes closed and his chin propped on his folded hands, taking what little pleasure he could before he would be torn away from it. His fellow professors had long ago learned to leave him be in these minutes, at risk of his anger and his sharp tongue.

All of them but one.

A potions master's senses must be exquisitely sensitive, and those senses told him that someone was daring to interrupt his moments with the fire. The almost inaudible scrape of shoe leather upon flagstones, the faintest displacement of air, and the scent of soap indicated that someone had approached him.

At least he had had the civility not to block the fire.

Severus suppressed a sigh and opened his eyes. "Douglas," he drawled.

"Severus," the Defence professor replied, his voice lacking its normal jollity. Snape raised an eyebrow at that. The man was almost never serious.

"To what do I owe the pleasure of this conversation?" Severus asked, sitting up and then back. As his eyes met Sangnoir's, Severus idly probed with his Legilimency. He barely controlled his reaction to running into a set of powerful mental shields which resembled nothing in his experience. Instead of the usual Occlumentic protections with which Severus was familiar, Sangnoir possessed something akin to a greased wall of solid steel — Severus was unable to get a grip on Sangnoir's mind, nor could he simply force his way into it. Where had the flamboyant idiot learned to guard his thoughts in such a way?

If Sangnoir had noticed the Legilimentic probe, he gave no sign of it. "I've been looking through the House point logs for the last few years," he said conversationally, "just to get a better feel for the whole system, you understand. And as I did, I noticed something."

Severus was quite sure he knew what Sangnoir had noticed. "Oh? And what might that be?"

Sangnoir narrowed his eyes. "That you blatantly favor Slytherin and penalize the other Houses for the most trivial of reasons. And you have what appears to be a grudge against a student or three."

Elsewhere in the room, the other members of the Hogwarts staff who had entered along with or after Sangnoir froze, listening.

"Do I?" Severus asked mildly, allowing himself the slightest of smirks.

"Oh, yes," Sangnoir replied. "You do."

"How remarkable," Severus offered. "Your investigative skills astound me, Douglas." That the buffoon had even suspected there were permanent records of the House points, let alone possessed the mental capacity to add them up, was an intellectual achievement of which Severus was surprised to find him capable.

To his disappointment, Sangnoir did not rise to the bait. "This offends me on a deeply personal level, Severus."

"Does it? You have my condolences." Severus leaned back into the armchair and closed his eyes, ending the conversation.

Sangnoir, however, was too dense to notice the obvious dismissal. "I suspect I'm far from the first to notice this," he continued, the tone of his voice growing even colder. "And I doubt I'm the first to confront you about it. So it's pretty obvious to me that confrontation doesn't work with you. And unless I'm grossly mistaken, Albus allows you to get away with it anyway, so going to him about it would be just as useless."

The man was growing annoying; a great pity, as he had been tolerable company — that is to say, usually quiet — at the faculty table these last few weeks. "Sadly, I cannot say that I find it in myself to care about your suspicions."

"Sadly, I didn't think you would."

Severus allowed himself an aggrieved sigh. "Is there a point to your obvious disapproval, Douglas?"

"Why, yes." Severus felt the man block the warmth of the fire as he leaned down to bring his face close to Severus's. "I wanted to let you know that the game you're playing isn't Solitaire — it's Snakes and Ladders, and it's fun for the whole family." Severus snapped open his eyes in time to see Sangnoir standing up straight again, an intolerable smirk on his face. "Enjoy your dinner, Sev."

"All right..." Two hours later I was ensconced in a carrel in one corner of the staff reading room, the current year's point log open to the first day of classes and a pot (with cup) of fresh (hot, strong, sweet) tea near to hand. Yet another autumn rain storm pattered the stained-glass window over my head almost musically as I made my request known to the logbook. The spells on it allowed it to be searched like a simple database, so I was looking only at those entries made at Severus's behest.

Speaking of whom... When I had confronted him before dinner, I felt him attempt to touch my mind. Thanks to Albus's attempt to fix my lost memories I now knew what Legilimency felt like, and Severus had made a definite, if passive, attempt to read at least my surface thoughts. Fortunately, the combination of my field and Psyche's training was more than enough to deflect him. I wondered if Albus knew Severus was a Legilimencer, and what the policy (and law) was regarding telepathic scanning. I made a mental note to ask later, and turned my attention back to the task at hand.

"Let's see, now," I murmured to myself, and began running my finger down the "reason" column, looking for the insulting, outrageous or ridiculous. "Five points to Ravenclaw for proper preparation for the lesson," I whispered, bringing to mind relevant moments from the first few classes I'd taught. "Five points to Gryffindor for enforcing safety protocols. Five points to Hufflepuff for outstanding mentoring of younger students. Five points from Slytherin for disruptive behavior."

I took a deep breath.

"Five points to Hufflepuff..."

Saturday, September 21, 1995, 8:10 AM

"Hey," Ron said as they passed through the Entrance Hall on their way to breakfast. "Check it out. I wonder what happened."

Hermione looked up from the book in her hand. "What do you mean, what happened?"

Ron gestured at the gem-filled hourglasses on the walls flanking the castle's front doors. "Look at the point counts — they're a lot more even than they were last night after dinner. Something must have happened since then."

Harry glanced to either side, comparing the relative sizes of the piles in the four hourglasses' lower bulbs. "You're right, last night Slytherin was in the lead and Ravenclaw was way behind. Ravenclaw's still a bit behind, but Slytherin..."

Ron shot a wide grin at him. "You think Malfoy got caught doing something he shouldn't?"

Harry returned the grin. "We can only hope."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Honestly! In case you haven't noticed, it isn't just that Slytherin lost points — all the other Houses gained them."

The two boys turned identical looks of surprise upon her.

"Really?" Ron asked.

"How can you tell?" Harry followed.

She huffed. "Yes, really. And it's because I pay attention to these things." She took off at a rapid march for the Great Hall. "Unlike some people," she called back over her shoulder.

Harry and Ron stifled snickers before chasing off after her.

The glares Severus shot me over breakfast were worth every minute of sleep I'd missed the night before.

I simply smiled sweetly at him and ate my pancakes without a word.

Saturday, September 21, 1995, 7:13 PM

"He's leaving the library," Ron hissed.

"Is he heading for the Entrance Hall?" Harry asked.

"Looks like... yes, he's turning away from the staff wing and going straight to the door." Ron looked up. "Now?"

"Yes!" Hermione was already at the door while Harry was still shutting down and folding up the map. "Come on!"

Harry supposed he couldn't fault her impatience — between one thing and another they hadn't been able to watch the map for the last few evenings. This time, though, everything had fallen together perfectly. This time they would get to follow Professor Sangnoir and find out what he was doing almost every evening — and maybe Hermione would calm down, finally.

Together they dashed out of the classroom and down the hall, the leather soles of their shoes sliding as they rounded the turn right before the staircase landing...

...and nearly collided with Professor McGonagall.

McGonagall lifted her chin and looked at them through half-lidded eyes. "Mister Potter. Miss Granger. Mister Weasley. Where might you be off to in such a hurry?"

Harry exchanged glances with Hermione and Ron, and sighed.

It had taken far too long — and a trip to her office — to convince McGonagall that they weren't up to any kind of mischief. (Or that mischief wasn't up to them, as the professor had put it with a sly smile.) When she finally released them with a stern but generic warning about proper behavior, they slowly walked away until they were out of sight of her office, then ran breakneck for the Entrance Hall.

Where they spied Professor Sangnoir cheerily greeting Filch as he strode back in.

"Next time," Ron grumped, "we use the cloak."

Sunday, September 22, 1995, 3:41 PM

Severus didn't take my interference in his hobby laying down. By the next time I checked the logs on Sunday afternoon, he had laid into Hufflepuff, Gryffindor and Ravenclaw for at least a hundred points each, penalizing everything from running in the halls to "excessive humility". The points awarded to Slytherin were even more blatant, rewarding such trivia as personal grooming and good penmanship. He had even gone so far as to give young Mister Malfoy 50 points for "proper deportment as befits the heir of Pureblood house".

Unfortunately, I couldn't just blindly invert every point he took or gave. The man did dole out legitimate punishments and rewards, and I didn't want to zero those out. That meant closely examining the borderline cases, and playing it safe when I couldn't be sure. And to satisfy my personal ethics, I also had to make sure my counters to his excesses were proper and legitimate, and not arbitrary.

Between that and brainstorming a counter-meme to the Pureblood ideology, I had my work cut out for me.

The British Ministry of Magic, London, UK. Monday, September 23, 1995, 9:20 AM

Dolores Umbridge trundled into her office, ready to begin a new week of service to Wizarding Britain, and froze.

In the exact center of the pink felt blotter which covered the top of the mahogany desk were two piles of what appeared to be ashes, with a small slip of folded parchment between them.

Dolores cast several quick charms to detect traps and other possible threats, and when they all reported negative slowly eased around her desk. Standing before her chair, she reached for the parchment and unfolded it.

Next time it won't be just your hired wands.

It was signed with the seal of the Department of Mysteries. A moment after that detail had registered, the parchment burst into a flame that consumed it in an instant.

Dolores Umbridge's scream of rage and frustration could be heard all the way to the Ministry Atrium.

The Great Hall, Hogwarts. Monday, September 23, 1995, 12:10 PM

Ginny shot a poisonous glare at the staff table and growled into her lunch.

"What's wrong?" Ron asked around bites of roast beef and cheddar.

"Snape's on a tear today," she said. "He's been taking points from everyone not in Slytherin, for any excuse he can come up with. Something's got him in a right strop."

Ron nodded sagely. "Probably whatever happened on Saturday night, eh, Harry?"

Harry looked up from his plate. "What? Oh, yeah. First chance he's had to take points from entire classes at once since then, I suppose." He gave Ginny a sympathetic smile. "What'd he get you for?"

Ginny blushed, picked up her pumpkin juice and mumbled something into it.

"What was that?" Ron demanded.

If anything, Ginny blushed deeper. "Five points for mooning over Harry," she admitted, half-whispering.

"Well, what else can you expect from the greasy git?" Ron asked philosophically, and took another bite of his sandwich.

Tuesday, September 24, 1995, 9:34 PM

I latched the door to my quarters behind me, then dropped heavily into what was rapidly becoming my favorite armchair. My arms and legs still had that pleasant tiredness that I always got from a good workout, and I could easily let it spread, take me over, and send me to sleep. But certain thoughts that had occurred to me before I even left the Room of Requirement that night were occupying my mind.

My first three weeks as an instructor at Hogwarts had, on the whole, gone well. To my surprise I was not as hated as I had anticipated I would become; most of my students, regardless of their year, took eagerly to my classes and methods, as though hungering deeply for a more substantial Defense course than they had previously experienced.

There were, of course, a few exceptions — Draco Malfoy was always prime fodder for a few dozen penalty points with which to knock down Severus's Slytherin favoritism. Oddly, although he fought tooth and nail against anything new or at odds with "the old ways", he still paid intense attention in class, taking notes in quantities to rival the Granger girl. So I figured I had to be getting across to him at some level.

What was really surprising was how well they took to the digressions I made from my teaching plan. I'd found myself mixing more philosophy and freeform discussion into my classes than I'd originally intended, and sometimes ranging very far afield indeed from the ostensible topic at hand. But to my surprise it was paying dividends I couldn't have anticipated, in student attention and participation, and in their overall performance.

Whether it was the right thing to do or not, I wasn't sure. That was what I'd been debating with myself about all the way back from the eighth floor. I had almost convinced myself that I should dial back the digressions, get more strict, and hew much closer to my original plan.

But then I remembered Professor Thackeray from my freshman year calc course at Princeton. His lectures tended to wander even wider than my classes did, but damn if I didn't learn more math from him in one semester than I did before or after. In his last lecture for the course, he'd proudly described himself as "a professor of life, with a concentration in mathematics".

My reaction to that could pretty much be summed up as, "that's the coolest thing I've ever heard." (I've heard cooler since, but it still ranks well up there.)

And at the moment I recalled it, I realized that this was what I was, here at Hogwarts: A professor of life, with a concentration in Defense.

I could live with that.

Wednesday, September 25, 1995, 8:34 PM

It was my fifth night of countering Severus's unfair point assessments, and I was camped out once again in the staff reading room in the library. I think Irma had caught on to what I was doing because she had begun to keep the log book at her desk, handing it over with a wink and a whispered "Have fun!" when I came in after my office hours.

As I blew on my tea to cool it before the first sip, I pondered an idle thought that had crossed my mind earlier in the day: Of Severus and myself, whose part in our little competition was the easier? His, because he could be proactive all day long, or mine, because I needed only to react to him, and that at my leisure?

I supposed the answer would only become clear when one or the other of us tired of the game first.

That evening, it took me about an hour to review Severus's latest moves and put in my counters. I'd returned the log to Irma and then camped at the big table in the staff room to continue work on the anti-Pureblood meme. For maximum effectiveness I needed to come up with something that would dovetail seamlessly into the existing Wizarding belief system and seem like a reasonable development out of it, yet go in the exact opposite direction from the Death Eaters' credo. But the ideas I'd come up with in my first few rounds of brainstorming failed to pass the smell test. It was times like these that I really missed having the full resources of the Warriors and the UN to hand...

I stopped in mid-quill-stroke. Unconcerned about the growing blot on the parchment, I turned that thought around in my mind. Could it really be that easy? The Mansion I'd been visiting every day was empty except for me. But did it have to be? Could the Room manifest the staff as well as the structure of the Mansion? If it could...

If it could, I could have the help of an entire team of specialists instead of trying to do it all myself.

I was on my way up to the eighth floor just a few minutes later when Pomona intercepted me.


I turned to see her bustling up behind me. As much as I wanted to get the Room right freaking now, I didn't need to, so I stopped and waited for her. "Good evening, Pomona."

"I'm glad I caught you, dear," she said as she joined me. "I had meant to speak with you over dinner, but I got distracted and... well, I wanted to remind you that our match with Ravenclaw starts the school Quidditch season on Saturday."

"It does?" I didn't remember hearing about it, but I certainly didn't want to miss my first chance to see the game live — there were only six matches in the whole season, after all. "Well, I'll be there with bells on."

Pomona frowned at the odd expression, then moved past it with a motherly smile. "It'll be good for House morale to have you there, Doug. It's been far too many years since Hufflepuff won the Cup, and I'm afraid the children have gotten rather fatalistic about it all."

"Well, then," I said, thinking back to football weekends at Princeton, "I'll have to do something about that, now won't I?"

It took me a few minutes more to shake loose from Pomona, after which I dashed up to the eighth floor to make three fast passes in front of the wall, concentrating on Mansion plus Staff.

I slapped my ID against the sensor pad and yanked the door open as soon as it appeared.

"Welcome home, Colonel," Summerfield said as the door closed behind me.

The British Ministry of Magic, London, UK. Friday, September 27, 1995, 4:32 PM

Cornelius Fudge looked up from his desk at sound of the door to his office opening. His secretary had poked her head in. "Senior Undersecretary Umbridge to see you, Minister."

"Ah, good," he said, keeping his face as blandly expressionless as possible. "Send her right in." As the door closed behind her, Cornelius swept the papers before him off his desk and into a folder, which he dropped into a drawer as the door opened again. No one needed to see his Fantasy Quidditch roster and strategies except himself, after all.

"Ah, Dolores!" he said a moment later as Umbridge lumbered through the inner door and into his office proper. "Come in, come in, and shut the door behind you."

"Good afternoon, Minister," she greeted him as she closed and latched the door. "I just wanted to let you know I've closed out or handed off all my outstanding tasks, and I wanted to see if you had any last-minute instructions."

Cornelius shook his head and settled his best trusting look on Umbridge. "No, none at all. Just get out there and destroy that den of subversives."

"Oh, have no fear, Minister," Umbridge replied, baring her teeth in a sharklike, anticipatory smile. "I plan to."

Hufflepuff Common Room. Friday, September 27, 1995, 6:30 PM

Half an hour after dinner's end, the Hufflepuff common room was already well-populated with students from all years allegedly making a head start on their weekend homework. To one side, Kevin Whitby was walking Rose Zeller through the proper motions for the levitation charm as Laura Madley looked on, her Charms text open in her hand. In another corner, Zacharias Smith, Cullen Keinan and Owen Cauldwell had their heads down over something unidentifiable that occasionally made soft hissing sounds and emitted the odd green spark. And they were far from the only ones sharing the space. The Quidditch team, though, was conspicuous by their absence; they were at the pitch, preparing for the next day's match.

Hannah Abbott and Susan Bones had barely sat down at one of the broad, shared tables with their books, quills and parchment in front of them when Professor Sangnoir popped through the dorm entrance. They shared a quick look. The Defence professor was an odd case — usually bearing a serious, even dour, mien in class, he seemed to become an entirely different person when visiting the Hufflepuff dorms. Which he did on a more or less weekly basis, offering help with homework or just random advice when needed.

Tonight was no different. Gone was the sober teacher, and in his place was a grinning maniac. His robes were loose and open, revealing Muggle blue jeans and T-shirt (bright red with the inexplicable text "Beeblebrox! Beeblebrox! Beeblebrox!" on it in yellow), and his movements were broad and flamboyant.

"Hey kids!" he called out, grinning broadly. "I'm here to help you all get psyched up for the game tomorrow!"

Susan nudged Hannah. "Sounds like this could be fun," she murmured into Hannah's ear.

Gryffindor Stands, Hogwarts Quidditch Pitch. Saturday, September 28, 1995, 12:30 PM

"So," Neville asked as they settled into their seats, "which side do we cheer for?"

"It depends," Ron replied absently as he craned his neck to study the sky. The weather was unsettled — the day had started sunny, only to swiftly turn dark and rainy for an hour or so before breaking up and returning to sun, and already it looked like it was clouding up once more. Harry gave private thanks that it wouldn't be him getting drenched in mid-air this time, should the the skies open up again.

"On what?" Ginny demanded from the other side of Harry. She leaned around him to hear Ron better, and Harry became acutely aware of her body pressed into his arm. Not to mention the shock of floral-scented red hair that was almost in his suddenly-dry mouth.

"Well," Ron's tone turned thoughtful, "it's only the first match of the season. So it's not critical, although it is important to the final Quidditch Cup scores. Plus, historically, neither team is a realistic contender for the Cup. So it really comes down to whether you want to root for the team that's more likely to win this match, or the underdog."

"And Hufflepuff's the underdog," Ginny announced definitively.

"Right!" Ron's attention remained on the sky. "Being as it's the first match of the year, neither team's had a lot of time to get into shape, so regardless of who wins there aren't going to be a lot of points coming out of this."

"I've noticed that Ravenclaw usually does well against Slytherin later in the year, though," Neville offered hesitantly. "They don't always win, but they do narrow things up a bit."

Ron turned his attention back to his friends. "That's right. Ravenclaw's a good spoiler for Slytherin. If they do well here they might be able to push the Snakes down in the ranking later in the year."

"So we root for Ravenclaw," Hermione declared, rolling her eyes. She didn't really care — she had a book to keep her occupied — but it was nice to be sure she was on the same page as everyone else.

"Works for me!" Ginny laughed, finally sitting up straight.

"Good afternoon, Quidditch fans!" Lee Jordan's amplified voice rang out over the pitch. "Welcome to the first game of the 1995-1996 season, Ravenclaw versus Hufflepuff. With the threat of rain today we've got a chance for a real mudder of a match, especially since these two Houses have a long and distinguished rivalry over the hotly-contested last place position..."

"Mister Jordan!" Professor McGonagall's outraged tones made their first appearance of the season.

"Sorry, professor. Right, and here come the teams..."

Fifteen minutes later they were already deep in the game, with Ravenclaw leading 20-0 after a quick first goal and an even quicker turnaround after Hufflepuff took possession of the Quaffle. Harry and the rest were already screaming themselves hoarse cheering Ravenclaw on.

As the Ravenclaw Chasers tried to drive in toward the Hufflepuff goal, there came a "thud-thud" from the 'Puff bleachers, as though everyone there had just stamped their feet twice in unison. A massively-echoing group clap followed. When the thud-thud-clap repeated, Hermione suddenly looked up, her eyes wide.

"Hermione?" Harry asked. There was something familiar about that rhythm, he realized as the Hufflepuffs repeated it again.

"That's..." Hermione began.

Another thud-thud-clap, and then the 'Puffs began to chant:

"We will, we will rock you!"

Overhead, a 'Puff Chaser snagged the Quaffle and shot down the pitch, wildly corkscrewing around Beaters and Bludgers. Harry vaguely registered Lee Jordan identifying him as Cadwallader in the midst of his agitated play-by-play.

"We will, we will rock you!"

The chant broke up as the Hufflepuffs began to cheer Cadwallader on as he dove in toward the center ring of the Ravenclaw goal. But before Cadwallader could confront the Ravenclaw Keeper, Hermione clamped a hand on Harry's arm and hissed, "That's Queen!"

Harry turned to look at her. "What?" Behind him a cheer went up in the Hufflepuff seats and Lee Jordan announced a successful goal for Hufflepuff.

"That was... they were singing Queen! 'We Will Rock You'!"

Harry blinked in confusion for a moment, then realized what she meant. "A Muggle rock song? But who taught them..."

"There!" And Hermione pointed at a figure standing up from the frontmost row of the Hufflepuff bleachers — a familiar blond head atop bright yellow robes. "Professor Sangnoir!"

The professor turned around in his seat to face the students behind him, raised his clenched right fist and slowly pumped it twice into the air while intoning, loud enough to carry across the pitch to where they sat, "Hip! Hip!"

To which the Hufflepuffs responded:

"Rah, rah, rah!
Badger, badger, badger!
Siss, siss, siss!
Boom, boom, boom! Ah!
Hufflepuff! Hufflepuff! Hufflepuff!"

Each line was recited faster and louder than the one before, sounding for all the world to Harry like an old steam locomotive picking up speed.

As the Hufflepuff bleachers broke out into wild cheering, Professor Sangnoir bowed to them, then took his seat again.

"I suspect this is going to be a very different game," Neville commented mildly.

It wasn't, not really. Not in the air at least. But Hufflepuff kept singing "We Will Rock You" every time they had a serious chance to score, and the other cheer every time they did score. And Harry began to wonder if it wasn't some kind of clever plan, because eventually it seemed to him like the booming sound of "thud-thud-clap" was unnerving the Ravenclaw players even as it boosted the Hufflepuff team's morale. It got to the point that even Lee was singing along with the Hufflepuffs whenever the chant began.

We should have some cheers like that, he thought once he realized the effect they were having. I wonder if Hermione could suggest anything...

For more than an hour, Ravenclaw would take back the lead, and then Hufflepuff would even the score, one goal at a time. When Hufflepuff finally took the lead with more than one goal for the first time and held it, a new cheer erupted from their quarter of the stands, with half the House chanting "Badger! Badger! Badger! Badger!", and the other half chanting "Mushroom! Mushroom!" in response. There was another part to the cheer chanted by the whole House together — something about Snape or a snake (Harry couldn't be sure which they were saying) — but then it went right back to "Badger!" and "Mushroom!"

Okay, maybe not that cheer, he mentally amended. To everyone's surprise — including very verbal exclamations from both Ron and Lee Jordan — Hufflepuff pulled far ahead of Ravenclaw with a series of well-executed plays that left the score 320-210 in their favor. Ravenclaw seemed to have lost all momentum right up to the last moment, when Cho Chang snagged the Snitch right from under the nose of Stebbins, the Hufflepuff Seeker, for a sudden turnover and a final score of 360-320 for Ravenclaw.

Harry noted that despite the loss, the Hufflepuffs were still in very high spirits, if the excited chatter while leaving the stadium was any indication.

Okay, I had a great time at the game. Sure, the scoring was all wonky, and you got a sore neck from having to look up into the air 90% of the time, but damn if the action wasn't some of the fastest, most exciting stuff I'd ever seen — half Australian rules rugby, half Formula One racing. Rolanda seemed to suffer from the same visual acuity problem that afflicts so many referees in professional wrestling, though, and like them missed at least half the fouls committed during the game. This, to be honest, only added to the energy level of the play.

(I briefly entertained the amusing image of disguising myself as a Quidditch foul in order to escape Rolanda's more unwelcome attentions, but sadly had to discard the idea as impractical.)

Add to that how pleased I was at the way my cheer coaching had upped the energy level of the House, and I was definitely going to be there for the rest of the year's games.

Now if I could only undo the color-change charm on my best set of casual robes.

The Room of Requirement. Sunday, September 29, 1995, 10:07 AM

The next day, I headed to the Mansion with something other than my usual training session on my mind. I had by this point begun to summon it complete with staff as a matter of course, so I when I entered Summerfield was, as always, there to greet me.

"Good morning, Colonel," he said as he bowed, as distinguished as always.

"Good morning, Summerfield." I pulled off my robes and handed them to him; he folded them carefully over his left forearm. "Could you please inform the P.R. staff I want to get together with them in, say, fifteen minutes?"

With the faintest hint of a smile on his face, Summerfield replied, "The entire Public Relations group is ready and waiting for you in conference room six, sir."

I blinked. Come to think of it, I had been thinking of my plans while calling up the door, hadn't I? I shouldn't have been surprised that the Room had already organized and started the meeting for me. "Oh. Good. Thank you, Summerfield."

"You're very welcome, Colonel." He paused for a beat, then added, "Will there be anything else?"

"No, thanks, that's all."

"Very good, sir." And he vanished into the cloakroom with my robes.

Conference room six was on the ground floor, in the admin wing of the Mansion. It took me about ten minutes' quick jog to get there — not so much because it was far away, just because Edwardian manors aren't always very efficiently laid out. The Mansion was an official historic building for reasons long predating our occupation of it, and when we refurbished it for our needs we weren't permitted to gut and remodel the inside completely. Consequently, we had to rebuild around the existing floorplan; it was only in the new wings, which we built from scratch, that we could go for a contemporary design. (Inside, at least — outside they had to match the original building.)

The P.R. staff was based in a more modern section, but it took me a fair amount of doors and furniture-dodging to get to them. As to why I wanted to talk to the folks in P.R., well, officially the Warriors don't do PsyOps. We don't have a mandate or official permission to change hearts and minds in our favor. (At least not on a wholesale basis; our telepaths are always free to do so on a retail level when required by the mission.) Because we don't do PsyOps, we don't have a division tasked to them.

What we do have, though, is a Public Relations department.

You'd be surprised at just how much overlap there is between P.R. and PsyOps.

We also hire lots of veterans, if you follow me.

So if, hypothetically, I needed a custom-crafted meme, well then naturally I'd go to the P.R. team.

Who were waiting for me in Conference Six.

"Good morning, people!" I announced as I swept in and dropped my helmet onto the conference room's docking station.

"Good morning!" echoed back in half a dozen voices.

"Good morning, Doug," a seventh, very familiar soprano added a moment later, and I looked up to see Kat calmly looking at me with a raised eyebrow. Kat, our P.R. Officer, who was in charge of the Public Relations group.

Now why hadn't I expected that?

The Great Hall. Monday, September 30, 1995, 7:37 AM

"I take it you knew nothing of this, Albus?" I called down along the table somewhere around 21 hours later.

Albus shook his head. "Sadly, no. I was aware that the Minister was arranging something behind closed doors, but I did not know exactly what, nor could my usual sources within the Ministry find out." He stared down glumly at the newspaper before him.

"Perhaps you need new sources," Severus muttered from my left.

"Amen, brother," I muttered back, which got me a look of surprise. (I think he expected me to be nasty or something just because of our little conflict over House points; the fact that I wasn't seemed to confuse him.)

I looked down at the copy of the Daily Prophet that I had before me. Filling up a good fraction of the front page above the fold was a photograph of one of the ugliest women I'd ever had the misfortune to see; grossly fat with a wide, rubbery mouth and bulging eyes, she looked vaguely amphibian, like a Deep One or maybe one of those frog demons whose invasion we thwarted in New Zealand in 1994 — definitely blessed with a bit of the old Innsmouth Look. She was dressed in an almost obscenely pink ensemble with frills and bows including one bow perched on top of her head, making her look like a demented five-year-old. Being as it was a wizard photo, it was animated, and it cycled through a loop of her smiling widely and blinking slowly, as though she were puzzled by something.

Above this dubious personage was the headline:


And wasn't that just delightfully ominous? The Ministry of Magic had obviously never learned the propaganda value of giving their functionaries titles that didn't immediately scream "I AM A BAD GUY! DO NOT TRUST OR TURN YOUR BACK ON ME!" (Either that, or they couldn't give a damn if they sounded like Nazis.) I didn't really need to read the article to figure out the rest, but I did anyway.

In a surprise move yesterday the Minister of Magic made use for the first time of a provision in "The Emergency Powers Act of 1939", a law dating back to the War against the Dark Lord Grindelwald, to appoint a High Inquisitor to survey the types and quality of educational methods in use at Hogwarts.

"The Minister has been growing uneasy about goings-on at Hogwarts for some time," said Percy Weasley, Junior Assistant to the Minister. "Rumors of unsafe conditions at Hogwarts have circulated for several years now, and of late there have been whispers of political unorthodoxy which may threaten the high standards for which it is famous. By taking advantage of the powers granted by Section 12-B of the Emergency Powers Act, the Minister is responding to concerns voiced by many anxious parents who feel the school may be moving in a direction they do not approve."

The Emergency Powers Act of 1939 was passed in the early days of the War against Grindelwald in order to combat the possible infiltration and corruption of the Ministry and other British institutions by agents of the late Dark Lord. It granted the Ministry sweeping powers to combat sedition and subversion, most of which were never used. In particular, no High Inquisitor was ever appointed despite the Minister's right to do so. After Grindelwald's defeat in 1945 the Wizengamot suspended the Emergency Powers Act, but never revoked it; it remains in effect and numerous provisions, including Section 12-B, can be activated at the discretion of the Minister.

This is not the first time in recent weeks that the Ministry has sought to effect improvements at the Wizarding school. As recently as August 30th Educational Decree Twenty-two was passed, to ensure that, in the event of the current headmaster being unable to provide a candidate for a teaching post, the Ministry should select an appropriate person.

"Given the difficulties Headmaster Dumbledore had filling the Defence Against the Dark Arts professorship this year, the Ministry wished to be ready to step in and prevent a vacancy in the faculty," said Weasley last night. "As it is, the dubious qualifications of the person hired have prompted the Minister to appoint a High Inquisitor."

"This is an exciting new phase in the Minister's plan to get to grips with what some are calling the 'falling standards' at Hogwarts," said Weasley. "The Inquisitor will have powers to inspect Hogwarts' educators and make sure that they are coming up to scratch. Senior Undersecretary Umbridge has been offered this position, and we are delighted to say that she has accepted and will be taking a leave of absence from her Ministry duties in order to perform this very important task."

I leaned around Sybill the Dip's back and got Aurora's attention. "Who's this Weasley guy the paper's quoting?" I asked. "He sounds like a seriously officious little twit. Any relation to the Weasleys in Gryffindor? I thought I met their whole family, but nobody mentioned a Percy."

"Their brother," Aurora replied, "Older than the twins by two years. He was Head Boy in his seventh year, and frankly a bit of a suck-up."

I gestured at the paper. "Sounds like he sucked his way all the way up the Ministry ladder." I stopped for a moment when I realized how that sounded. "I mean..."

Aurora laughed. "I know what you meant. No one's quite sure how he ended up working directly for the Minister so quickly. He's not even twenty yet, I believe."

I nodded and turned back to my copy of the Prophet. "The Peter Principle, probably," I muttered to myself. I skimmed through the rest of the front page article, then lifted the paper vertically to open up and find the "continued on". "So, when is the lovely Lady Innsmouth supposed to grace us with her divine presence?" I murmured to myself.

It was at that moment that I realized that the Great Hall had gone completely silent save for a slow, heavy tread of footsteps.

Before I could lower the paper, though, I heard a badly-faked throat-clearing in an improbably high-pitched, almost girlish, voice.

"Hem, hem."

As if merely reading about her in the Prophet had summoned her, Dolores Umbridge had arrived in the Great Hall, standing before the High Table not in the manner of a supplicant, but as a would-be conqueror.

"Hem, hem!" she repeated her initial throat-clearing with a bit more vigor and venom. Those of us with raised newspapers hiding their faces lowered them to stare at the grotesquely fat apparition squatting imperiously before us. Just as in the photo on the front page of the Prophet, she was dressed entirely in pink — from the dress and cardigan she wore under her robes to the inanely childish bow in her hair, and even the little leather buckets fit to her bloated feet, all were the exact same shade of pink. It made her look like some giant walking blob of Pepto-Bismol.

I had thought somewhat generously that the froglike appearance she'd had in the Prophet pic might have simply been the result of an unfortunately bad photographer. Sadly, he had apparently been a photographer of great skill, for in person she was even more repulsive. The froglike aspect of her appearance was even more pronounced than in the photo, to the point that I momentarily dropped into magesight just to make sure she wasn't a pre-metamorphosis Deep One.

Sadly, no such luck. She was a relatively normal mortal. For a generous definition of "normal".

"Good morning," she simpered once she knew she had the attention of the entire staff; the absolutely insincere smile she graced us with revealed a mouth full of teeth so sharp I wondered if she filed them. Her voice was breathy, high-pitched and vaguely childish. "I am Dolores Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister of Magic and High Inquisitor of Hogwarts." She paused expectantly, waiting maybe for applause or something, I don't know. "It is so very nice to be back at Hogwarts after so long. However, I wish it could be under better circumstances."

Umbridge turned ponderously in place to stand with her back to the High Table and look out over the student body. "The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of vital importance. The rare gifts with which you were born may come to nothing if not nurtured and honed by careful instruction." Her tone was both patronizing and condescending, as though she thought she was addressing a crowd of pre-schoolers. I wanted to slap her silly on their behalf.

Satisfied with that justification, she turned her attention back to the staff table. "However, events in the last few years have caused concern that the students of Hogwarts have not been receiving instruction of the ... quality ... that they deserve. In particular, reports have reached the Minister's ears of a plague of substandard instructors, including criminals, frauds, half-breed monsters..." She paused for just a beat while shooting me a look of intense disdain, then added, "And homeless vagabonds. All with inadequate or unverifiable credentials for the demanding requirements of a professorship at Hogwarts."

She watched me closely for a moment as she paused, either for breath or dramatic effect. I didn't give her the satisfaction of a negative reaction to her comment; instead I smiled broadly, picked up my cup, and made a mocking "to you, madam!" gesture with it before raising it to my lips to drink.

Those students who were still paying any attention laughed, which woke up the ones who'd drifted off. Umbridge flushed bright red with anger for a moment before visibly bringing her temper back under control. She gave another little "hem, hem" and returned to her speech.

"I have been dispatched by the Minister of Magic himself to review and correct any and all deficiencies in Hogwarts' teaching staff. As High Inquisitor I have a sacred duty to identify and dismiss any instructor who fails to uphold the standards of excellence and reliability which have historically been the hallmark of an education at Hogwarts." Umbridge shot a smug smile back at us. "I am also empowered to impose Ministry-sanctioned standards upon any course that deviates from what is right and proper, as judged by Wizarding tradition and law."

She turned back to the student body. "Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness, and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited," she finished with a vocal flourish, then stood waiting — again for applause or some other kind of recognition, I guess. There was some half-hearted clapping from the vicinity of the Slytherin table, but that was all.

When it trailed away, Umbridge slowly rotated back to the High Table once more, her broad, bulbous nose raised imperiously into the air. "Headmaster Dumbledore, you are required to provide me with quarters and an office out of which to operate, both of a quality appropriate to my station," she declared flatly.

"Indeed, madame," Albus said in the most formal tones I'd ever heard out of him, without a bit of warmth in his voice. "Mister Filch?" he called out, looking past the woman to the far end of the room.

I followed his gaze and realized that Argus Filch was at the entrance of the Great Hall, standing by — or, rather, leaning wearily upon — a pile of trunks and boxes taller than he was.

"Y... yes, Headmaster?" he wheezed, almost inaudible at that distance.

Albus looked almost apologetic. "Please open the Royal Suite for Madame Umbridge, as well as the Minister's Working Office." When I realized what that had to imply, I did my best to keep my face absolutely expressionless. "Have her luggage brought to the suite, and then please show her to both."

Argus gave the pile of luggage next to him a long, slow look from top to bottom. I suspect that if I'd been close enough, I'd've seen suppressed tears of agony in his eyes. "Yes, Headmaster," he finally acknowledged, resignation coloring every syllable.

"Thank you." Albus turned his attention back to the Bureaucrat from Hell. "Madame Umbridge, if you will please follow Mister Filch? And if the quarters or working space are not to your liking, please do not hesitate to let me know."

"Very good," Umbridge replied with a little self-satisfied nod, then began waddling back to the doors of the Great Hall. When she got there, she snapped, "What are you waiting for, Squib?"

Argus shot an unreadable look back at Albus, before looking at the retreating wall of pink and clenching his fist for a moment. Then he visibly sighed and relaxed his hand before shambling off to easily catch up with the trundling mass and lead her out of the room.

When the doors closed behind them, I leaned forward and looked along the table past the Dip, who as always was completely unaware of anything but her crystals and her meal. "Albus," I said in tones just barely loud enough to carry to him, "let me guess... the Royal Suite is located somewhere very high up in the center of the castle? And so is the Minister's Working Office?"

"It is so," Albus said. "When the royal family still had regular contact with their Wizarding subjects and would visit Hogwarts, they insisted on the best-defended location within the castle, with the best view of the surrounding countryside. Likewise, for generations many Ministers of Magic have demanded an equally lofty space in which to do their work when visiting here, which by the necessities of the castle's architecture had to be in a different tower from the Royal Suite." He sighed deeply but not sincerely. "Alas, the wards protecting Hogwarts prevent both Apparition and Portkeys from functioning, and unlike the Ministry we have no lifts. In order to live and work in accommodations befitting her exalted position, Madame Umbridge will find that she must walk up and down nine flights of stairs several times a day."

I tried to stifle it, but my laughter took only a few moments to burst out of me as a strangled chortle. And I wasn't the only one.

"I wonder which will give out first," Filius got out around his giggles, "her sense of privilege or her legs?"

Please forgive me for sending an owl so late in the evening, but I feel that I need to bring several developments today to your attention.

Undersecretary Umbridge arrived first thing this morning just as you warned me she would. I'm not sure I understand why, but I will hold myself apart from her as you've instructed, and report back to you on her actions. She has yet to do anything worth passing on to you, at least in public. However...

Umbridge made herself scarce for several hours, and I didn't see her again until late in the afternoon when, as usual, everything happened more or less all at once.

It was my double-long with the fifth-year Slytherins and Gryffindors. After spending about forty minutes on theory, I'd moved them on to a few rounds of spell-sparring. It wasn't intended to be anything very fancy; I just wanted to get a sense of the general level of the class's accuracy and defensive ability, the better to plan the integration of spellwork with footwork in the coming weeks.

I wasn't blind to the mutual animosity between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, but I paired them up anyway just to see what levels the two were capable of driving each other to. That, I found out a moment later, was a mistake. As soon as I turned my back on them to set up another sparring pair, my danger sense shrieked at me.

I spun around and stuck my left arm out at the same moment that Malfoy bellowed "Confrigo!" An orange bolt of energy shot from the end of his wand and splatted into the open palm of my hand, and without thinking about what I was doing I closed my fingers around it.

The room went completely silent.

I risked a quick look at my hand as I wracked my brain for just what an incantation of "Confrigo" was supposed to do. Knowing who was involved, it couldn't be good. So I was surprised to note that the spell energy was just sitting in my grip, pulsing and flickering like a little ball of orange fire instead of doing whatever nasty thing I was sure it was supposed to.

Blame my field. It was protecting me from harm, in a completely unexpected way. Pretty much par for the course.

I raised my eyes to Draco Malfoy to see an expression of complete and utter shock on his face. Glancing around at those members of the class who were in my field of view, I realized he wasn't the only one. A look over my shoulder at Potter showed him equally stunned.

Okay, then. Rule number one when you're a teacher, I learned long ago at Warriors Academy, was "Never admit you don't know what you're doing." So I made like a cat and pretended that catching the spell was what I had intended all along, and that I knew what it did. "Mister Malfoy!" I shouted as I stomped over to him. "50 points from Slytherin for a blatant assault on another student." I started to reach for the collar of his robe, then thought better of it. "Come with me," I barked. "Miss Granger," I added, targeting the most diligent of the remaining prefects in the room, "you're in charge of the class until I get back or the period ends, whichever comes first."

Without waiting for any acknowledgment from her, I marched Malfoy out of the classroom and into the hall. A few minutes later, still clutching the roiling spell energy in my left hand, I stopped in front of the gargoyle guarding the stone escalator to Albus's office. Malfoy, sullenly trailing behind me, stopped too as I glared at the animate statue.

It got out of the way.

As we approached the entrance to Albus's office, he called out "Come in, Professor Sangnoir, Mister Malfoy," and the door opened of its own accord.

"After you," I said to Malfoy, and followed him in. Albus sat behind his desk, dressed in a different but still eye-watering set of robes than he had worn at breakfast. Ever the clothes horse, Albus was.

"What can I..." he began, and then he caught sight of the spell in my hand. His eyes widened very slightly. "My word."

I brandished the little orange fireball at him. "Mister Malfoy here fired this spell at Mister Potter while both Potter's back and mine were turned to him," I reported. "It's a Confrigo."

Albus, knowing the first rule of teaching as well as I did, immediately put on his wise mentor face and turned a sad, disappointed look on Malfoy. "A blasting curse, Mister Malfoy?"

Thank you, Albus. I knew it had to be something nasty. There were a whole slew of blasting curses, some of them ridiculously specialized (like the Deprimo, which only blew holes downward or under things), and they were all potentially deadly when slung at a person. I had only skimmed over the listing, not expecting to encounter one in a classroom setting quite so soon. I'd have to rectify that after I was done here.

"What Edgecombe tried to do to Lovegood was only marginally worse than this, Professor," I noted. "I think we need to consider expulsion here."

Malfoy's eyes widened, then narrowed. "Expulsion? When my father hears of this..."

"Can it, boy," I snapped. "You tried to kill a classmate a few minutes ago. You're lucky I just intercepted your murder weapon instead of putting you through a wall." I shook the handful of magic in his face. "Maybe I should toss this back to you — it is yours, after all."

Malfoy paled.

"Professor Sangnoir, please," Albus interceded. "Mister Malfoy, what do you have to say for yourself?"

Malfoy began sputtering excuses, and I immediately tuned his bullshit out, turning my attention instead to the wad of spellfire. Switching to magesight, I began to examine its structure, which was surprisingly complex for a spell with such simple verbal and somatic components. I started to differentiate the various elements of the spell and began teasing them apart, slowly changing its color and appearance as it became a collection of separate "threads" of magic instead of a single coherent magical effect.

"Hem, hem."

I looked up from my fistful of raw magic to find that Dolores Umbridge had somehow forced her bulk into the office while I was distracted. Oddly, while Albus was regarding me with disguised curiosity and Malfoy was openly gaping at what I had been doing, Umbridge seemed not to notice or understand.

I began to quickly reassemble the spell rather than let the component bits loose to run wild in the room.

"Am I to understand that you are considering expelling this upstanding young man?" she simpered at Albus, ignoring me. For a moment there was a flash of annoyance across Malfoy's features, but then he schooled them into something approaching bland disinterest. Curious.

Albus nodded gravely. "I am afraid that he was interrupted by Professor Sangnoir here in the process of casting a potentially lethal spell at a classmate."

I held up the now-rewoven packet of spell energy. "This spell, in fact." I paused for a beat, then added, "It's a Confrigo, in case you can't tell."

Umbridge glanced at the little ball of orange light with complete incomprehension, then favored me with a brief look of utter loathing. Then she pasted that false smile back on her face and turned her attention back to Albus. As soon as her eyes were on him I returned her look of loathing with my own.

"I have made my own investigation and determined that this is a case of simple misunderstanding, and expulsion is not merited," she declared.

"Like hell," I said under my breath. "Not in ten minutes, you didn't." And how the fuck did you find out so quickly? I added silently.

"I'm afraid as High Inquisitor I will have to overrule you if any attempt is made to expel Mister Malfoy. I can do that, you know," she added smugly.

"Yes, I am aware of the powers granted to you by Section 12-B," Albus replied blandly. "Regardless, I must insist that Mister Malfoy at least be placed on probation and serve... let us say ten detentions."

"Five," Umbridge snapped. "With Professor Snape."

Albus appeared to consider this, then inclined his head in agreement. "I suppose that will have to do."

I opened my mouth to object and he shot me a look that said, "be quiet and cooperate". Scowling, I kept my mouth shut. He turned back to Malfoy. "You may go, Mister Malfoy."

Malfoy beat it out of the office as fast as he could manage and still look like he wasn't running.

"Is there anything else, Madame Umbridge?" Albus asked.

Umbridge smirked at him in annoyingly obvious self-satisfaction. "No, that's quite all for now," she allowed magnanimously. "I'll be sure to let you know if I need anything else from you." She rotated in place so slowly it was almost planetary, then managed to force herself back through the door.

When the door had latched behind her, I turned back to Albus. "Probation? Detentions?" I demanded disbelievingly. "That little shit tried to murder Potter. In my class! And she wanted to let him off entirely!" I stalked back and forth in front of his desk.

Albus sighed. "Please, Douglas, respect the students regardless of how little they deserve it."

"All right," I growled. "That well-behaved young gentleman tried to kill another student in my gods-be-damned classroom! The only difference between him and Edgecombe is that she at least had the wits to set an ambush rather than try to murder Lovegood in front of a teacher."

He sighed again, and slumped into his seat, seeming to gain a century of age in a moment. "I am afraid that at the moment there is little I can do regarding Madame Umbridge than yield to her demands. The law is very explicit about the powers of the High Inquisitor, and because the position has never before been filled, its powers have never been subject to a proper legal test. Under other circumstances I would eagerly challenge her rulings, but..." He sighed. "In the current political climate I cannot effectively counter her and successfully expel young Draco without expending political capital I cannot afford to waste. And that does not even take into account the similar battle I would have to wage against his father, who is on the Board of Governors and exerts considerable influence behind the scenes at the Ministry."

"So a would-be murderer gets to walk. Well, that's just peachy." Without thinking about what I was doing, I angrily hurled the reconstituted Confrigo into Albus's wastebasket.

It detonated with a deafening bang, spraying us with shredded paper and shards of metal. My field redirected the rain of steel splinters around me, and (being wiser than me) Albus had flung up a shield to protect himself the moment I threw the spell.

"Oops," I said, cringing slightly, when the metallic pinging ended and the ringing in my ears subsided. I looked down at the remains of the basket and added, "We're going to need tougher trash cans."

I was wrong, Father. Professor Sangnoir cannot possibly be a Squib. But he's not a wizard, either. I have no idea what he is, except dangerous. And I believe Madame Umbridge is committing a very serious error by making an enemy of him. When he didn't think anyone was watching, he looked at her as though she was a flobberworm to be stepped upon the first chance he got.

Afterwards, Madame Umbridge required my presence at a meeting immediately following dinner. She made it very clear that she might "change her mind" about my expulsion if I didn't show, so of course I attended. Nott, Zabini, Bulstrode and Pansy were there, as well. Apparently she intends for us to form a special group of assistants to act as her enforcers, with a particular focus on Potter. There is nothing I would like more than to knock Potter off his high horse, but keeping in mind your instructions I declined. However, she is pressuring me with threats to "reconsider" my rescue from expulsion. What do you want me to do? Should I join her Inquisitorial Squad?

I managed to get back to the class about half an hour after I had dragged Malfoy out. When I got there, I was surprised to find that the students had organized themselves into a surprisingly well-run little single-elimination tournament, and were finishing up the quarter-final round. They were so absorbed in their competition that my return wasn't noticed.

I took advantage of this to admire the bracket — laid out on an enlarged piece of parchment and then stuck to the only wall without a door or window — as well as the performance of the remaining participants. On reviewing, I noticed that neither Granger nor Potter had taken part, and it was obvious why — Granger was running the whole thing, and Potter was acting as the referee.

I hung back and made myself inconspicuous — you'd be surprised how easy that is — and quietly watched the semi-finals. Redheaded beanpole Ron Weasley from Gryffindor and a slender, pretty blonde from Slytherin named Daphne Greengrass each won their semi-final round — he by a brute-force takedown of Slytherin Theodore Nott and she by a clever ricochet-cast of a rope-conjuring spell that took out Pansy Parkinson, another Slytherin girl, by wrapping her head-to-foot in two-inch hawsers.

As they took a breather before the finals, I grinned to myself. This was going to be good.

The final round took only five minutes, but to Hermione it felt like an eternity. At first Ron and Daphne traded little probing attacks, dodging or blocking them with shields. Daphne tried her spell-bouncing trick a couple of times, but Ron had heard about it between rounds and was ready for it.

In the end it came down to a rapid exchange of spellfire, each hoping to overwhelm the other before they themselves were overwhelmed. Even though the spells were limited to simple jinxes and charms — after what had happened earlier, no one wanted to risk anything stronger even with Professor Sangnoir out of the room — Hermione tensed up with worry for Ron. Perhaps rightly so — Greengrass hit him with a rapid Rictumsempra-Stupefy combo that dropped him like a rock, and with that won the tournament.

Hermione stepped onto the dueling track and raised Daphne's arm. "The winner! Daphne Greengrass!" she called out, to the energetic cheers of the Slytherins and the more perfunctory cheers of the Gryffindors. Then she revived Ron, who slowly stood up, then grudgingly held out a hand to Greengrass.

"Good fight," he mumbled before turning to leave the ring.

Enthusiastic clapping surprised everyone, and they turned almost as one to locate the source of the sound. Somehow, Professor Sangnoir had returned to the class without anyone noticing, and was now applauding. "Fantastic! Great job, everyone," he said loudly. "Miss Granger, five points to Gryffindor for taking a hasty 'watch the class' instruction and doing something extraordinary with it. The same to Mister Potter for helping you run things." He looked up at the tournament bracket on the wall. "And, let's see... two points to everyone eliminated in the first round, four points for those eliminated in the quarter-finals, six points to Mister Nott and Miss Parkinson for their performance in the semi-finals, and eight points to Mister Weasley for reaching the finals. And to the winner, the lovely Miss Greengrass, ten points for Slytherin."

This time the cheers were far more even and energetic.

"And finally," the professor said, "I don't care if the bell hasn't rung, class dismissed. Have a great evening everyone!"

The cheers were even louder.

Hermione packed her bookbag quickly, but lingered as her classmates boisterously exited the room. Professor Sangnoir stood by the doorway, trading brief comments with the other students as they left. As the last of them vanished into the hallway and the door slowly closed behind them, he turned and saw her waiting.

"Can I help you, Miss Granger?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.

"How did you do that before? Catch and hold a spell in your hand?" she demanded.

He tilted his head and studied her for a moment. "To be absolutely honest, Miss Granger, I don't know. Like Nike, I just did it." He smirked infuriatingly at her.

She goggled at him for a moment. "That's from an advert for trainers! No wizard would ever say such a thing — they wouldn't even know about those adverts!"

The smirk disappeared as he studied her soberly. "Not that it's really any of your business, Miss Granger, but I didn't grow up in any kind of Wizarding society. For all practical purposes I am culturally a Muggle." He paused for a moment. "Just in case my wardrobe and motorcycle weren't enough to clue you in."

Hermione's surprise vanished, replaced by a look of triumphant glee. "I knew it!" Then she shook her head angrily. "Never mind that now. 'I just did it' is no explanation! You can't just catch a blasting curse and carry it around like a Quaffle without it blowing your hand off."

"And yet I did, Miss Granger." He paused for a moment as a thoughtful look passed across his face. "What did your science classes in primary school tell you about what happens when the facts conflict with the theory?"

"But this isn't science, this is magic!" she growled.

"That's where you're wrong, Miss Granger." He leaned back against the wall next to the door. "Science is a collection of tools and techniques for gaining and refining an understanding of how the universe, or selected bits of it, work. Key among these are observation and experimentation. Magic, be it wand-based, shamanic, or Hermetic, is a selected bit of the universe, and can be analyzed, understood, and predicted with the tools of science, and has been since time immemorial." To her annoyance he smirked again. "Just ask Professor Vector."

Hermione ruthlessly suppressed the need to shout in frustration and exasperation. "That's as may be," she said tightly. "But it still doesn't explain how you caught that spell."

His smirk vanished and his expression darkened. "I cannot tell you exactly how it happened, Miss Granger. You will have to be satisfied with accepting that things like that tend to occur around me."

"But things like that don't just happen!" she objected.

Hermione flinched when he suddenly spun and slammed his open hand flat against the wall next to the door, snapping, "The hell they don't." There was a sizzle and then the worked stone emitted a singing, musical sound. After a few seconds he pulled his hand back, and to Hermione's astonishment there was a gleaming, golden handprint embedded in the rock of the wall.

"Huh," Professor Sangnoir murmured. "I wasn't expecting that." He poked at the handprint, looking to Hermione like he was trying to carve into it with the edge of one fingernail. "Wow. Pure gold, or close to it." He turned his attention back to her, and gestured at the handprint. "That's how I did it," he said. "Figure out how that happened, and then I can tell you how I caught that Confrigo."

As Hermione stood there gobsmacked, he turned and pushed open the door then strode out of the classroom, brushing past Ron and Harry, who were waiting in the hall for her.

Moments after Professor Sangnoir disappeared down the hallway, the door to the Defence classroom burst open again. Startled, Ron and Harry turned to find Hermione standing there, her bookbag slung over her shoulder and a distracted, contemplative look on her face.

"Hermione?" Harry, suddenly worried, hesitantly extended a hand toward her. "Did the professor ... do something to you?"

"Professor Sangnoir," Hermione said quietly, "has challenged me."

Ron and Harry traded glances. "Challenged you?" Ron asked. "How?"

She looked up and Harry saw a familiar fire burning in her eyes. "Professor Sangnoir did something completely impossible in front of me — something new," she added as Ron opened his mouth. "He told me that if I could explain how he did it, he would explain how he caught Malfoy's spell."

Eyes narrowing in determination, she viciously yanked the strap of her bookbag higher up on her shoulder. "I," she declared, "am going to the library." And with that she marched down the hall.

You would think that I'd be used to my field doing weird things after nearly a century, but I suspect it'll always manage to surprise me, especially when I've gotten complacent. Still, leaving a solid-gold handprint on the wall of my classroom was beyond the usual weirdness. It was also bound to get me some unwanted attention, and not just from Miss Granger.

As if I didn't have enough unwanted attention. Dolores Umbridge's intervention in Malfoy's favor was only the second time I'd encountered her, but already it was obvious that she had it in for me. For my part, I had an almost instinctive dislike of her. She radiated an eager malevolence that scraped against my awareness in an almost palpable way and set me on edge around her. There was something about Umbridge that all but shouted that she knew she was malicious, she had chosen to be so, and she was enjoying every minute of it.

I have met and battled world-threatening metavillains who've felt and acted less evil than Dolores Umbridge.

Fortunately, she apparently had no concept of subtlety. If she thought she was hiding her obvious contempt for everyone around her (particularly Albus and myself), she was sadly mistaken. She also didn't appear to be terribly clever — as the encounter in Albus's office testified, her concept of political maneuvering was unsophisticated and painfully obvious, based entirely around being (and being overly confident that she always would be) the proverbial 500-pound gorilla.

(I would add a comment about comparing Umbridge and a gorilla, but frankly, it's too freaking easy.)

In any case, she had made it clear from the outset that I was one of her primary targets. Albus was obviously one, too. And I would bet dollars to donuts that the Potter kid was in the top three as well. Albus could take care of himself, even if he was politically hamstringed at the moment. The kid, on the other hand... well, I'd have to keep a watch over him.

I'd promised Sirius, after all.

The first step, though, was to know precisely what I was fighting against. And that meant finding a copy of this "Emergency Powers Act of 1939" and learning exactly what a "High Inquisitor" could and could not do.

Later that evening, during my office hours, I spent my time (in between grading quizzes for the lower years and counseling the odd student) thinking about the mini-tournament and how well it had worked out. While given the stories I'd heard I wasn't surprised that Ron Weasley had made it to the final round, I was quite pleased with the rest of the finalists. Daphne Greengrass for one — up until her frankly astounding win she had been almost a nonentity in class, a timid shadow who seemed to want to avoid any attention from the Gryffindors, her fellow Slytherins, and me in equal parts. In previous practicals, she'd been average, but something had evidently awakened in her during Miss Granger's tournament.

I was also pleased with how well Pansy Parkinson had fared. She seemed to be a good kid (at least when she wasn't absorbing and re-radiating attitude from Mister Malfoy), but she was a little... well, I suspected that she might have some kind of learning disability. There's no kind way to say it, but despite paying intense attention in class, she was always a bit confused by the lesson, almost always the last to master any but pure physical skills, and in general a little slow on the uptake. I could see why the Malfoy kid kept her as a girlfriend — she wasn't unpleasant to look at when she dropped the sneer, and judging by how she clung to him she seemed so pathetically desperate for affection and approval that she'd never object to the bullying and domination that young Mister Malfoy apparently thought were integral to a good relationship. She'd certainly never argue with him, or least never win an argument.

The fact that she'd made it to the semi-finals — well, that was the biggest surprise of the whole impromptu tournament for me. I made a mental note to give her a bit more attention, to see if I couldn't encourage whatever it was that had driven her to succeed to a degree I would have thought was beyond her.

I couldn't help but wonder if Malfoy's absence hadn't helped her self-confidence and performance, though.

I paused in my grading as a thought occurred to me. If I was right and she was at least mildly disabled, Malfoy had better not be taking advantage of her. If the little shit was willing to commit murder in the presence of a professor, I can't imagine he would have any moral compunctions about using her for sex. I made a mental note to make a discreet investigation of the possibility.

I had just finished grading all the third-years' quizzes when I felt a faint vibration in the floor. It had the right period to be footsteps, but it couldn't be one of the students — to shake the solid stone of the floor enough that I could sense it through my shoes would take a lot more mass than even your average 17-year-old possessed. More than any of the professors did, either. So that left only one possible candidate.

I sighed when the vibrations stopped right when they got strongest, and pulled out the fourth-years' quizzes.

Sure enough, the person on the other side of the door shoved it open without the usual courtesy of a knock before marching in and positioning herself right in front of my desk.

I didn't so much as glance at her as I finished up Susan Fawcett's test and marked it with a big red "100". (Ravenclaw. With that score? Either Ravenclaw or Miss Granger.) I flipped the sheet of parchment over onto the (very short) stack of completed quizzes and pulled the next off the ungraded pile.

"Hem, hem," emitted the pink mass loitering nearby.

"Seam, seam," I replied without looking up from the new quiz.

"Professor Sangnoir!" she shrilled, and I looked up to finally gaze upon the hippopotamian bulk of Dolores Umbridge.

"What?" I asked with affectedly deliberate calmness. "I thought we were playing a word game involving sewing terminology."

"You will respect my office and authority!" she barked — well, if she hadn't insisted on speaking in a squeak that would make Victoria Jackson sound throaty and mature by comparison, it would have been a bark. But with that baby-doll voice of hers ... no way. For a moment I envisioned her as Eric Cartman, and felt no more need to respect her authoritah than I would his.

"If you insist, Madame Umbridge," I replied in as bored and uninterested a tone as I could manage, while turning my attention back to the quiz in front of me. Another Ravenclaw, another 100. Mark, flip, pull. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I could practically feel Umbridge seething there in front of me. I let her stew through another quiz, and when I'd put it on the "done" stack I looked back up at her. "Can I help you, Madame Umbridge, or are you here simply to conflict with my office's decor?"

Insofar as her rotundity permitted, Umbridge leaned forward to try to put her face on the same level as mine. "Your time here is running out, Sangnoir. We're not going to let you and that old fool undermine the Ministry and all of Britain."

I raised an eyebrow. "Undermine the Ministry? Just how am I doing that by teaching children?"

"By promulgating all manner of lies," she hissed angrily. "The Ministry has been working diligently to make sure that the people of Britain know the truth, and you are here poisoning the minds of the next generation."

I stuck my quill into the inkwell, then sat back with my arms folded across my chest. "And what truth is that, Madame?"

"That You-Know-Who is dead and gone," she snarled. "Permanently!"

"I don't recall saying anything one way or the other on that topic in any of my classes," I pointed out mildly. "Regardless of the truth of the assertion, it's irrelevant to my subject matter."

"As to your subject matter," she shifted gears seamlessly, "the Ministry has examined your chosen texts and finds them to be unacceptable."

"The Ministry," I replied just as mildly, "can go fuck itself. Sideways, with a rusty saw." I narrowed my eyes and unfolded my arms. "And that goes double for you, Madame."

"H-how dare you, you colonial savage!" Umbridge sputtered, visibly turning a red that verged on purple. I wondered idly if I could drive her all the way into a heart attack or stroke. "Do you know who I am?"

I favored her with a look so sympathetic it was outright mockery. "Amnesia is such a terrible affliction. Isn't there anyone who can tell you?"

Her eyes bugged and the only sound she made at first was a hiss that forced its way around her gritted teeth. For a moment I thought her head would explode. Hoped, even. Instead, she visibly controlled herself. "I will see you destroyed for refusing to give me the respect that I am due!"

I shot to my feet fast enough to make her flinch and loomed over her — I was a good head taller than she was, though nowhere near as wide. "I dare because you, Madame, are due no respect that you haven't earned — and you have earned none. You're nothing but a two-bit political functionary, here solely to intimidate and browbeat better people than you into silence and submission to the wishful thinking of a corrupt fool. Which makes you either a collaborator, an opportunist, or both." I scowled down at her. "And as for 'destroying' me, far better and far more powerful beings than you have tried and failed over the past century. I wish you the best of luck, Madame, as you'll need it simply to appear in the list of the top 100 failures."

We stood there for a few moments, glaring at each other, Madame Umbridge audibly grinding her teeth. "You think you're untouchable, Sangnoir, you think you're this 'Merlin Reborn'," she growled (which with the register she spoke in sounded utterly ridiculous). "No one is beyond the reach of the Ministry. I'll find your weak point, I will, and when I do, you'll come to heel like a well-trained crup."

And with that she turned and marched out of my office. It probably would have been far more dramatic if she hadn't had to move with geologic slowness. I felt no need to suppress the smirk that slipped onto my face at the ridiculous sight, and when the door finally latched shut behind her less-than-impressive exit, I let myself laugh at the antics. "Come, Madame, do not be reticent," I declared with a smile to the empty room. "Tell me how you truly feel. Do not hide behind the sugared words of diplomacy and politics, but express your genuine opinion."

I had to be impressed a little with her, though. In the twelve hours since her arrival, she had to have made the climbs to her quarters and her office at least once for each. The fact that she still had the energy to throw a fit at me suggested that she had far greater endurance than either Albus or I had imagined.

No matter, it would just make the war that much more enjoyable.

Still, completely and utterly pissing Umbridge off in our very first face-to-face probably wasn't the smartest thing I'd ever done. I should have played up to her and then yanked her around by the nose into all manner of trouble while looking like I was an ally. But she'd already made it clear she had it in for me before we'd even said one word to each other. And like I said before, for me it was hate at first sight.

Still, I kind of wish I'd paid attention to my common sense and tried to make nice with her at the start. If only for the fun it could have afforded me.

But that's neither here nor there. As it was, I was annoyed enough at Umbridge after our brief interaction that I decided to end my office hours early and go kill things in the Danger Room for an hour or two.

She was not lurking. She wasn't.

Nor was she skulking. Although she'd always wanted to skulk, and just lacked proper examples from which to learn the skill.

No, if she were to be absolutely honest with herself — and she was always honest with herself, because, really, if you couldn't believe yourself, who could you believe? — if she were honest with herself, Luna would admit she was hiding.

And that she was hiding from That Woman. High Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge unnerved and frightened Luna, and to see that she was targeting Professor Sangnoir unnerved Luna even more. But no matter how much she felt she owed the professor, there was nothing she could do about it. So she hid in the shadows near his office, until a furious Umbridge stomped through the door and off down the hall.

Furious was good. Furious was very good. If she'd come out of the office smiling, or worse, smirking, Luna would have been worried. But furious meant High Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge hadn't gotten whatever she'd wanted.

Stalking off in such a froth would inevitably attract black-bellied entwhistles to her, though, and they would just worsen her temper. Luna briefly felt sorry for any students who might cross her path, but the rattle of the office door handle distracted her from further ruminations along those lines. Professor Sangnoir stepped out and locked it behind him, and when he turned around, Luna caught a glimpse of his face. It bore the most interesting expression of serene anger.

Intrigued and curious, Luna disillusioned herself then followed him at a distance as he strode down the hallway. His steps were long and quick, and she was hard-pressed to keep up with him without revealing her presence, but she thought she succeeded — at least, he never seemed to notice her following in the shadows.

Luna hesitated for a moment when Professor Sangnoir entered the wing where the faculty quarters were, then followed anyway, stopping at a corner and peering around it as he entered what had to be his rooms. She barely had the time to feel vaguely disappointed at having to return to Ravenclaw tower before he came back out, that odd helmet of his hanging from his hand by its chinstrap.

From there she followed him all the way to the seventh floor of the castle. Secreting herself in a shadowed niche, she watched curiously as he stopped in the middle of an empty hallway whose only decoration was a most interesting tapestry. She'd have to come back another time to fully study and appreciate it. Right now, though, what Professor Sangnoir was up to was far more intriguing. Though why he was walking back and forth, apparently in deep thought, was beyond her.

Or, at least, it was until a door quite unlike any other door in the castle suddenly appeared in the wall opposite the tapestry.

Luna blinked.

Well. That was unusual.

The professor then snapped his right arm out before passing his hand over a little box set in the wall. A raucous buzz filled the hallway, and he pushed open the door.

I paused on the threshold of the Mansion and grinned a private little grin.

"Well, c'mon, Shirl," I said without turning around. "You do want to see what's behind this door, don't you?"

"Argh!" Ron yelled in frustration. "This time both of them disappeared!"

"In the same place?" Harry asked, returning to the tabletop where the map lay spread out.

"Exactly the same place!" Ron pointed to the location on the map. "He walked back and forth again, and then the two of them just... vanished."

"But how?" Hermione looked up from the tome before her and peered over the stacks of books that surrounded her place at the table, frowning in puzzlement. "There's nothing there, and according to Hogwarts: A History..."

"We know, Hermione," Ron snapped. "We know."

After setting Miss Lovegood up with temporary VIP access, I found and introduced her to Kat, then left them both together at a terminal in the Mansion library. (Shirley was a Ravenclaw, after all.) They were already deep in discussion before I reached the door.

Good. Luna needed a friendly ear to unburden herself to, and Kat was a trained therapist in addition to all her other talents, mundane and meta.

That done, I made my way down to the Mansion's lowest level — where the Danger Room lived. A swipe of my pass and the huge armored doors slid apart with a hiss, releasing a gentle waft of cold air into my face, the only hint of those systems supporting the Room which required cryogenic conditions.

I stepped in, and the doors slid shut behind me with that same familiar hiss and a comfortingly solid "thunk". I took a long, slow breath in through my nose and smelled the familiar cold, dry scent of the Danger Room — made up of equal parts metal, plastic and ozone — as I studied the gleaming, dimpled walls. Every dimple was a specialized emitter — simultaneously holographic, gravitic, tractor/pressor and psychotronic — and they were all slaved to one of the most powerful megacomputers on Earth. My Earth, at least.

Speaking of which...

"Room," I said loudly as I closed my eyes and savored the moment.

"Yes, Colonel?" The familiar synthetic voice was vaguely masculine and a touch mechanical.

I made sure my chinstrap was tightened properly, rolled my shoulders and neck, and cracked my knuckles. It was time to get started on what I'd come to the Mansion for in the first place: stress relief. "Load program 'Asymmetric Combat Exercise Number 7'."

"Program loaded."

Inside my helmet, I grinned in anticipation. "Run program."


There was a ripple of light, and then I was standing in the downtown district of a modern city that had clearly seen better days.

"So, that's pretty much what we're all about," the blonde woman with the cat-face makeup said. "Any questions?"

They were in a little room which Kat had called an "elevator". Luna could feel it moving downward, which made complete sense given the name, and deduced that it also moved upward. The concept of a room that moved from place to place was an intriguing one, and it struck her as far more efficient than moving staircases. She had briefly considered how much better Hogwarts would work if the classrooms came to the students instead of the other way around, before returning her attention to the tour.

The implications of a room that moved inside a room that changed itself to whatever you wanted she saved for later consideration.

"Yes," she replied to the question after a moment's thought. "You said the Warriors were an international organization, but unless I'm mistaken everyone I've met so far has been an American."

Kat — technically "Colonel Kathleen Avins" but she'd said "Call me Kat" when Professor Sangnoir introduced them so that's what Luna did — Kat laughed warmly. "You noticed that, did you? That's because we started out as a private team based in the United States. But we have non-Americans, too, you just haven't met them yet. Hexe's German, for example. Wildflyte's technically Brazilian, although his tribe and the Brazilian government barely realize that each other exists. Kamakiri, our newest member, is Japanese. Whyte Tyger isn't even from Earth. And Skitz..." Kat smiled. "Well, Skitz is a little bit of everything.

"But that's just the Alpha team," Kat continued as the room stopped moving and the doors in front of them slid open. That was another thing Luna found she liked — self-opening doors. "The other teams have always been a bit more diverse, as they were established after we took on the U.N. contract and reflected the international pool of talent we now had to draw upon."

Luna followed as Kat led them down a long, brightly-lit hallway whose walls, floor and ceiling all seemed to be made of a white-colored metal. "Beta Team in Tokyo, for instance, was strongly Asian-Pacific in makeup. Delta Team in the Sinai is mostly composed of Middle-Eastern metas. Gamma Team..."

"What's this?" Luna asked suddenly as they came upon a wall of windows, with a door in the center guarded by two men in some kind of strange armor. The door had a sign on it reading "Detention", but Luna suspected it didn't mean the kind of detention she was used to.

As they approached, the two men in armor snapped to attention and saluted Kat. Kat returned the salute and then stepped over to one of the windows, gesturing for Luna to come look. Luna did, and through them saw several heavy metal doors leading into smaller rooms with their own large windows.

"These are our holding cells," Kat explained. "Sometimes we need to keep metahuman criminals on ice until the proper authorities can take custody of them. We put them here. In addition to being almost impossible to break out of physically, each cell is fitted with a pyschotronic projector which makes it difficult for its occupant to focus their thoughts sufficiently to use any metatalents they might possess."

Luna blinked then looked up at Kat. "I imagine that would be very unpleasant."

Kat laughed again. "It is. It's like being half asleep while at the same time having a million things to do and think about, and no way to prioritize them, and they're all demanding you think about them now." At Luna's curious look, she added, "I've tried every version we've ever used, to make sure they're not unnecessarily cruel or dangerous."

"Ooooh," Luna replied, then added thoughtfully, "It sounds like what wrackspurts do to their victims, only much much worse."

Kat nodded sagely. "I believe they were developed by studying the effect wrackspurts had on the average person."

Luna glanced at her, but there was no trace of mockery in Kat's voice or expression.

I ducked behind a crumbling concrete wall and took a moment to catch my breath before the next wave. The air was hot, humid, and thick with cordite and dust, but I still sucked it in eagerly. I'd been fighting for almost an hour now, and I was starting to tire. I needed to husband my strength, or I'd be overwhelmed by the enemy.

Gods, I loved Asymmetric Combat Exercise Number 7 — or, as I liked to call it, "The Million-Mook March".

Basically, ACE7 was an urban combat simulation which set me against an unlimited number of fully-equipped normals, coming at me from all sides in an endless stream. It only terminated when I decided I'd had enough, or I died.

Well, simulated death. The Danger Room was cool that way, in that the users — namely, we Warriors — could experience all the pain and damage it would take to kill us, and be just fine when the program ended. It made for some really effective training, let me tell you. Classic operant conditioning with negative reinforcement. Get good or get hurt. Badly.

We got good. Very good.

I first experienced the Million-Mook March when Wetter Hexe threw me into it as a punishment detail early in my probationary period with the team. It took me nearly two years of regular exposure before I could hold my own longer than half an hour, and five years before I was able to pretty much outlast it. For actual training I'd moved on to ACE8 and sometimes ACE9, but when I just wanted to blow off steam with some unrestrained mayhem and violence, I always came back to the March.

Naturally, Hexe had never had any problems with it. She never solo-trained in anything less challenging than ACE12. On a dare, I tried ACE12 once. Once. I wiped out in literally a couple of seconds, and had nightmares for a week afterward. Which I really should have expected from a scenario designed to put an incarnated deity at a potentially-lethal disadvantage.

There was a scrape of boot on concrete, followed by the sound of a shower of dislodged pebbles. The next wave was here.

Screaming, I launched myself from my cover.

Half an hour and untold enemy casualties later I decided that my stress had been adequately relieved and terminated the program. The ruined city around me vanished, returning me to the familiar dimpled walls of the inactive Danger Room.

Sadly, while all the dirt, soot, blood and clothing damage I'd accumulated during the previous ninety-some minutes had vanished along with the urban wasteland in which I'd acquired them, the sweat I'd worked up stayed with me. So I made a quick stop in the showers attached to the Danger Room. As with the gym, my clothes were cleaned and pressed when I got out, and it was only a matter of minutes to towel off and dress again.

I stepped out into the hallway, helmet in hand, intent on looking for Luna and Kat. Instead, I found the pair of them right outside the door, waiting for me.

"Hello, Professor," Luna said in her usual dreamy tones.

"Hey, Shirley." I resisted the urge to scruffle her hair — not quite appropriate behavior for a professor. "How are you enjoying your field trip to Warriors Mansion?"

"Oh, it's terribly interesting," she replied. "I'm looking forward to seeing more of it than I've managed to visit tonight."

I chuckled. "I think we can arrange that."

"Should I assume that you're feeling more relaxed now?" Kat asked me with a knowing little smile.

"Of course," I replied with a broad grin. "Massive violence without consequences always improves my mood."

She rolled her eyes, while Luna's eyebrows crawled up toward her hair. "You know you can always talk to me in my professional capacity if things are too much for you."

I waved the idea away dismissively. "I could. But where's the fun in that?"

Kat ignored my response with a sigh of tolerant resignation. "Before I forget," she went on, "Olivia told me that they've come up with a potential campaign they'd like to present to you."

"They have? Fantastic!" I glanced at my watch. "Let's schedule a meeting on it for tomorrow evening. It's getting late and Shirley here needs to get back to her dorm before curfew."

Luna nodded slowly. "And I'm afraid I have homework to do as well, still." She turned to Kat. "Thank you so much for showing me around the Mansion and answering my questions."

Kat caught her up in a quick hug, which seemed to surprise Luna. "You're welcome. And it goes without saying that you're always welcome back."

"Go down the rabbit hole and out the other side
You can't go home in the middle of the magic carpet ride
You gotta greet the sun before his lovely daughter moon
You can't forsake the journey for the safety of your room
Until you learn your lesson well..."

Luna sang softly to herself as she drew her nightgown over her head and then climbed into bed, ignoring the wary looks her roommates gave her as she drew her curtains shut. Several whispered incantations and wand-flicks layered spells of silence on all sides (and above and below); until she learned or crafted a proper privacy spell, they were a crude substitute, but the arrangement worked well enough for her current needs.

She laid back on her pillow and pulled her covers up to her chin. Looking up at the bluebell flame which faintly illuminated the space within her bed curtains, Luna thought about the day she had had. She no longer feared what High Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge might do to Professor Sangnoir. Indeed, she thought that if she were a more forgiving person, she might fear what Professor Sangnoir might — no, would — do to Madame Umbridge.

Sadly, Luna was not as forgiving a person as she might want to be. Perhaps she should speak to Kat about that.

When that thought crossed her mind, Luna freed one arm from her covers and drew out the lanyard which hung around her neck. At the end of the golden cord was a card, shiny like glass but softer and flexible; on one side was a Muggle photograph of her.

"I'm aware that all of this — including me! — is really just a complex illusion created by the Room of Requirement, as faithful as it is to the real Warriors Mansion and staff," Kat had said several hours earlier as she led Luna into a room filled with all manner of Muggle machines, humming and whirring and chuntering. "And nothing created entirely by the Room can exist outside of it. However..."

Kat reached a hand out to one of the devices, and it spat a cardlike item into it. She held it up, and Luna could see an unmoving image of herself on it. "However, the Room and its creations can make very real changes to materials brought in from outside," Kat had continued as she attached the card to a golden cord. "We had the Hogwarts House-Elves find and bring in the necessary components to create this for you."

And with that Kat had dropped the cord over Luna's head. "This is your very own access card for the Mansion. There's no need for you to have to wait on Looney to visit."

Luna studied the card in the faint bluebell light as it hung, slowly turning, from her hand. Then she smiled and slid it back into the collar of her nightgown.

...and this might interest you -- apparently, a Ravenclaw student named Marietta Edgecombe did something that got her expelled. I came upon Dumbledore and Flitwick escorting her out the doors of the castle, complete with trunk. There were two Aurors waiting for them in the Entrance Hall who then appeared to take Edgecombe into custody. The silly bint was crying her eyes out, as if that would make a difference. Dumbledore made an announcement at dinner about her expulsion but was rather cagey about why she was expelled. All he said was that she had assaulted another Ravenclaw.

If I'm not mistaken, the girl is related to the Edgecombe woman at the Ministry whom you've spoken of in the past. You've said that she is already sympathetic to our cause -- maybe we can use this to draw her even closer to the Dark Lord. But no doubt you've already thought of this, and have worked out three different ways to do so.

Thank Mother for me for the gift package she sent, but do ask her to cut back on the sweets. As delicious as they are, they make my teeth hurt, and I am forced to share them with my far less deserving Housemates rather than let them go to waste. Oh, well, at least Pansy is convinced I still dote on her.

In the service of our Dark Lord, I remain
Your son,


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This work of fiction is copyright © 2015, Robert M. Schroeck, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

The Harry Potter universe and the settings and the characters thereof are the property of J.K. Rowling, Bloomsbury and Warner Brothers, and are used without permission.

Portions of Percy's letter and some of the material in the Daily Prophet articles presented in this chapter were taken verbatim from "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" by J.K. Rowling; I do not believe the selections I employed were beyond the bounds of Fair Use, but if someone more knowledgeable than I in the legalities of the matter says otherwise, I will gladly revise accordingly.

"Tsukino Usagi"/"Princess Serenity" is the property of Takeuchi Naoko, TOEI Animation, DiC, Kodansha, Bandai, Cloverway and others, copyright © 1992 and trademark Naoko Takeuchi and TOEI animation, and is used without permission.

"Douglas Q. Sangnoir," "Looney Toons", "The Loon" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.

"Skitz", "L'Reaux" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of John L. Freiler, and are used with his permission. Some of L'Reaux's dialog written by John L. Freiler.

"Kathleen 'Kat' Avins" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Kathleen Mee Avins, and are used with her permission.

"The Warriors", "Warriors' World", "Warriors International" and "Warriors Alpha" are all jointly-held trademarks of The Warriors Group.

Lyrics from "Long Distance", recorded by the Kinks, written by Ray Davies, copyright © 1983 Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.

Lyrics from "Were-Owl", recorded by SJ Tucker, words and music by SJ Tucker, copyright © 2009 SJ Tucker.

Lyrics from "Lucky 4 You (Tonight I'm Just Me)", recorded by SHeDAISY, written by Kristyn Osborn, Coley McCabe and Jason Deere, copyright © 2000 Lyric Street Records, Inc.

Lyrics from "Cheshire Kitten (We're All Mad Here)", recorded by SJ Tucker, words and music by SJ Tucker, copyright © 2010 SJ Tucker.

These and all other quotations are included in this fiction without permission under the "fair use" provisions of international copyright law.

Special thanks to Kathleen "Kat" Avins for suggesting "Lucky 4 You" as a simulacrum song for Skitz, and to John L. Freiler for consulting on characterization for L'Reaux.

For a full explanation of the references and hidden tidbits in this story, see the Drunkard's Walk VIII Concordance at:


Other chapters of this story can be found at:


The Drunkard's Walk discussion board is open for those who wish to trade thoughts and comments with other readers, as well as with the author:


Many thanks to my prereaders on this chapter: Kathleen Avins, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Logan Darklighter, Shaye Horwitz, Helen Imre, Rob Kelk, Josh Megerman, Berg Oswell and Peggy Schroeck.

C&C gratefully accepted.

This page was created on October 3, 2015.
Last modified June 03, 2020.