Chapter 77: SA, Aftermaths: Surface Appearances

Aftermath: Albus Dumbledore and -

The old wizard sat alone at his desk, in the unsilence of the Headmaster's office, amid the innumerable and unnoticed devices; his robes a gentle yellow, of soft fabric, not such clothing as he ordinarily wore before others. His wrinkled hand held a quill scratching away at an official-looking parchment. If you had somehow been there to watch his lined face, you would have been unable to deduce anything more about the man himself than you understood of the enigmatic devices. You might have observed that the face looked a little sad, a little tired, but then Albus Dumbledore always looked like that when he was alone.

In the Floo hearth there were only scattered ashes without a hint of flame, a magical door that had been shut so solidly as to stop existing. On the material plane, the great oaken door to the office had been closed and locked; beyond that door, the Endless Stairs stayed motionless; at the bottom of those stairs, the gargoyles that blocked the entrance did not flow, their pseudo-life withdrawn to leave solid rock.

Then, even as the quill was in the middle of penning a word, even as it was in the middle of scratching a letter -

The old wizard shot to his feet with a speed that would have shocked anyone watching, abandoning the quill in mid-letter to fall onto the parchment; like lightning he spun on the oaken door, his yellow robes whirling around him and a wand of dread power leaping into his hand -

And as abruptly, the old wizard paused, halting his motion even as the wand came to bear.

A hand struck upon the oaken door, three times knocking.

More slowly, now, that grim wand went back into the dueling holster strapped beneath the old wizard's sleeve. The ancient man moved forward a few paces, drew himself up into a more formal stance, composed his face. Nearby upon the desk, the quill moved to the side of the parchment, as though it had been carefully placed there rather than dropped in haste; and the parchment itself flipped over to show blankness.

With a silent twitch of his will, the oaken door swung open.

Hard as stones, the green eyes glared at him.

"I admit that I am impressed, Harry," the old wizard said quietly. "The Cloak of Invisibility would have let you evade my lesser means of vision; but I did not sense my golems step aside, nor the stairs turning. How did you come here?"

The boy walked into the office, step by deliberate step until the door closed smoothly behind him. "I can go anywhere I choose, with or without permission," that boy said. His voice seemed calm; too calm, perhaps. "I am in your office because I decided to be here, and to hell with passwords. You are greatly mistaken, Headmaster Dumbledore, if you think that I stay in this school because I am a prisoner here. I simply have not chosen, yet, to leave. Now keeping that in mind, why did you command your agent, Professor Snape, to break the agreement we made in this office, that he would not torment any student in her fourth year or below?"

The old wizard looked at the angry young hero for a long moment. Then, slowly enough not to alarm the boy, those wizened fingers drew open one of the manifold drawers of the desk, lifted out a sheet of parchment, laid it upon the desk. "Fourteen," the old wizard said. "It is not the number of all the owls sent last night. Only the owls sent to families with a seat on the Wizengamot, or families of great wealth, or families already allied with your foes. Or, in the case of Robert Jugson, all three; for his father, Lord Jugson, is a Death Eater, and his grandfather a Death Eater who died by Alastor Moody's wand. What the letters said, I do not know, but I can guess. Do you still not understand, Harry Potter? Each time Hermione Granger won, as you put it, the danger to her from Slytherin grew again, and yet again. But now the Slytherins have triumphed over her, easily and safely, without violence or lasting harm. They have won, and need fight no more..." The old wizard sighed. "So I had planned. So I had hoped. So it would have been, if the Defense Professor had not taken it upon himself to intervene. Now the dispute goes to the Board of Governors, where Severus will seem to conquer the Defense Professor; but that will not feel the same to the Slytherins, it will not have been over and finished in a moment, to their satisfaction."

The boy advanced further into the room, his head tilting back further to look up at the half-moon glasses; and somehow it was like the boy was looking down at the Headmaster, rather than up. "So this Lord Jugson is a Death Eater?" the boy said softly. "Good. His life is already bought and paid for, then, and I can do anything I want to him without ethical problems -"

"Harry! "

The boy's voice was clear as ice, frozen of purest water from some untouched spring. "You seem to think that the Light should live in fear of the darkness. I say it should be the other way around. I'd prefer not to kill this Lord Jugson, even if he is a Death Eater. But one hour of brainstorming with the Defense Professor would be plenty of time to come up with some creative way to wreck him financially, or get him exiled from magical Britain. That would serve to make the point, I think."

"I confess," the old wizard said slowly, "that the thought of ruining a five-hundred-year-old House, and challenging a Death Eater to war to the finish, over a scuffle in a Hogwarts hallway, had not occurred to me, Harry." The old wizard lifted a finger to push back his half-moon glasses from where they had slid a little down his nose, during his sudden motion earlier. "I daresay it would not occur to Miss Granger either, nor to Professor McGonagall, nor to Fred and George."

The boy shrugged. "It wouldn't be about the hallways," the boy said. "It would be justice for his past crimes, and I'd only do it if Jugson made the first move. The point isn't to make people scared of me as a wild card, after all. It's to teach them that neutrals are perfectly safe from me, and poking me with a stick is incredibly dangerous." The boy smiled in a way that didn't reach his eyes. "Maybe I'll buy an ad in the Daily Prophet, saying that anyone who wants to carry on this dispute with me will learn the true meaning of Chaos, but anyone who leaves me alone will be fine."

"No," the old wizard said. His voice was deeper now, showing something of his true age and power. "No, Harry, that must not be. You have not yet learned the meaning of fighting, what truly happens when foes meet in battle. And so you dream, as young boys do, of teaching your foes to fear you. It frightens me that you, at far too young an age, might already have enough power to make some part of your dreams into reality. There is no turning of that road which does not lead into darkness, Harry, none. That is the way of a Dark Lord, for certain."

The boy hesitated, then, and his eyes flickered to the empty golden platform where Fawkes sometimes rested his wings. It was a gesture that few would have caught, but the old wizard knew it very well.

"All right, forget the part about teaching them to fear me," the boy said then. His voice was no less hard, but some of the cold had gone from it. "I still don't think you should let children get hurt out of fear of what someone like Lord Jugson might do. Protecting them is the whole point of your job. If Lord Jugson really does try to get in your way, then do whatever it takes to stop him. Give me full access to my vaults, and I'll take personal responsibility for dealing with any fallout from banning bullies in Hogwarts, whether it's Lord Jugson or anyone else."

Slowly the old wizard shook his head. "You seem to think, Harry, that I need merely use my full power, and all foes will be swept aside. You are wrong. Lucius Malfoy controls Minister Fudge, through the Daily Prophet he sways all Britain, only by bare margins does he not control enough of the Board of Governors to oust me from Hogwarts. Amelia Bones and Bartemius Crouch are allies, but even they would step aside if they saw us acting wantonly. The world that surrounds you is more fragile than you seem to believe, and we must walk with greater care. The old Wizarding War never ended, Harry, it only continued in a different form; the black king slept, and Lucius Malfoy moved his chesspieces for a time. Do you think Lucius Malfoy would lightly permit you to take a pawn of his color?"

The boy smiled, now with a touch of coldness again. "Okay, I'll figure out some way to set it up so that it looks like Lord Jugson betrayed his own side."

"Harry -"

"Obstacles mean you get creative, Headmaster. It doesn't mean you abandon the children you're supposed to protect. Let the Light win, and if trouble comes of it -" The boy shrugged. "Let Light win again."

"So might phoenixes speak, if they had words," the old wizard said. "But you do not understand the phoenix's price."

The last two words were spoken in a peculiarly clear voice that seemed to echo around the office, and then a huge rumbling noise seemed to come from all around them.

Between the ancient shield on the wall and the Sorting Hat's hatrack, the stone of the walls began to flow and move, pouring itself into two framing columns and revealing a gap between them, an opening that showed a set of stone stairs leading upward into darkness.

The old wizard turned and strode toward those stairs, and then looked back at where Harry Potter stood. "Come!" said the old wizard. There was no twinkle now in those blue eyes. "Since you have already gone so far as to force your way here uninvited, you may as well go further."

There were no railings on those stone steps, and after the first few steps Harry drew his wand and cast Lumos. The Headmaster did not look back, did not seem to be looking downward, as though he had climbed the steps often enough to have no need of vision.

The boy knew that he should have been curious, or frightened, but there was no spare brain capacity for that. It was taking all his control not to let the fury simmering inside him boil over any further than it already had.

The stairs went on for only a short distance, one straight rising flight without turns or curves.

At the top was a door of solid metal, looking black in the blue light cast from Harry's wand, meaning that the metal itself was either black or perhaps red.

Albus Dumbledore lifted up his long wand like a brandished symbol, and again spoke in that strange voice which seemed to echo in Harry's ears, as though burning itself into his memory: "Phoenix's fate."

That last door opened, and Harry followed Dumbledore inside.

The room beyond seemed to be made of black metal like the door that led to it. The walls were black, the floor was black. The ceiling above was black, but for a single globe of crystal that hung down from the ceiling on a white chain, and shone with a brilliant silver light that looked like it had been cast in imitation of Patronus light, though you could tell it wasn't the real thing.

Within the room were pedestals of black metal, each bearing a moving picture, or an upright cylinder half-filled with some faintly shining silver liquid, or a lone small object; a scorched silver necklace, a crushed hat, an untouched golden wedding ring. Many pedestals bore all three, the moving picture and the silver liquid and the item. There seemed to be a good many wizards' wands upon those pedestals, and many of those wands were broken, or burned, or looked like the wood had somehow melted.

It took that long for Harry to realize what he was seeing, and then his throat suddenly choked; it was like the rage inside him had been hit a hammerblow, maybe the hardest hammerblow of his entire existence.

"These are not all the fallen of all my wars," Albus Dumbledore said. His back was to Harry, only his grey locks and yellowish robes showed. "Not even nearly all of them. Only my closest friends, and those who died of my worst decisions, there is something of them here. Those I regret most of all, this is their place."

Harry couldn't count how many pedestals were in the room. It might have been around a hundred. The room of black metal was not small, and there was clearly more space left in it for future pedestals.

Albus Dumbledore turned and regarded Harry, the deep blue eyes set like steel in his brow, but his voice, when he spoke, was calm. "It seems to me that you know nothing of the phoenix's price," Albus Dumbledore said quietly. "It seems to me that you are not an evil person, but most terribly ignorant, and confident in your ignorance; as I once was, a long time ago. Yet I have never heard Fawkes so clearly as you seemed to, that day. Perhaps I was already too old and full of grief, when my phoenix came to me. If there is something I do not understand, about how ready I should be to fight, then tell me of this wisdom." There was no anger in the old wizard's voice; the impact that drove out your breath like falling off a broomstick was all in the scorched and shattered wands, gleaming gently in their death beneath the silver light. "Or else turn and go from this place, but then I wish to hear no more of it."

Harry didn't know what to say. There had been nothing in his own life that was like this, and all the words seemed to fall away. He would find something to say if he looked, but he couldn't believe, in that moment, that the words would be meaningful. You shouldn't be able to win any possible argument, just from people having died of your decisions, and yet even knowing that it felt like there was nothing to be said. That there was nothing Harry had any right to say.

And Harry almost did turn and go from that place, except for the understanding which came to him then: that there was probably a part of Albus Dumbledore which always stood in this place, always, no matter where he was. And that if you stood in a place like this you could do anything, lose anything, if it meant that you didn't have to fight another time.

One of the pedestals caught Harry's eye; the photograph on it did not move, did not smile or wave, it was a Muggle photograph of a woman looking seriously at the camera, her brown hair twisted into braids of an ordinary Muggle style that Harry hadn't seen on any witch. There was a cylinder of silvery liquid beside the photograph, but no object; no melted ring or broken wand.

Harry walked forward, slowly, until he stood before the pedestal. "Who was she?" Harry said, his voice sounding strange in his own ears.

"Her name was Tricia Glasswell," said Dumbledore. "The mother of a Muggleborn daughter, who the Death Eaters killed. She was a detective of the Muggle government, and after that she fed information from the Muggle authorities to the Order of the Phoenix, until she was - betrayed - into the hands of Voldemort." There was a catch in the old wizard's voice. "She did not die well, Harry."

"Did she save lives?" Harry said.

"Yes," the wizard said quietly. "She did."

Harry lifted his gaze from the pedestal to look at Dumbledore. "Would the world be a better place if she hadn't fought?"

"No, it would not," said the old wizard. His voice was tired, and grieving. He seemed more bent now, as though he were folding in on himself. "I see that you still do not understand. I think you will not understand until the day that you - oh, Harry. So very long ago, when I was not much older than you are now, I learned the true face of violence, and its cost. To fill the air with deadly curses - for any reason - for any reason, Harry - it is an ill thing, and its nature is corrupted, as terrible as the darkest rituals. Violence, once begun, becomes like a Lethifold that strikes at any life near it. I... would spare you that lesson the way I learned it, Harry."

Harry looked away from the blue eyes, cast his gaze down at the black metal of the floor. The Headmaster was trying to tell him something important, that was clear; and it wasn't something that Harry thought was stupid, either.

"There was a Muggle once named Mohandas Gandhi," Harry said to the floor. "He thought the government of Muggle Britain shouldn't rule over his country. And he refused to fight. He convinced his whole country not to fight. Instead he told his people to walk up to the British soldiers and let themselves be struck down, without resisting, and when Britain couldn't stand doing that any more, we freed his country. I thought it was a very beautiful thing, when I read about it, I thought it was something higher than all the wars that anyone had ever fought with guns or swords. That they'd really done that, and that it had actually worked." Harry drew another breath. "Only then I found out that Gandhi told his people, during World War II, that if the Nazis invaded they should use nonviolent resistance against them, too. But the Nazis would've just shot everyone in sight. And maybe Winston Churchill always felt that there should've been a better way, some clever way to win without having to hurt anyone; but he never found it, and so he had to fight." Harry looked up at the Headmaster, who was staring at him. "Winston Churchill was the one who tried to convince the British government not to give Czechoslovakia to Hitler in exchange for a peace treaty, that they should fight right away -"

"I recognize the name, Harry," said Dumbledore. The old wizard's lips twitched upward. "Although honesty compels me to say that dear Winston was never one for pangs of conscience, even after a dozen shots of Firewhiskey."

"The point is," Harry said, after a brief pause to remember exactly who he was talking to, and fight down the suddenly returning sense that he was an ignorant child gone insane with audacity who had no right to be in this room and no right to question Albus Dumbledore about anything, "the point is, saying violence is evil isn't an answer. It doesn't say when to fight and when not to fight. It's a hard question and Gandhi refused to deal with it, and that's why I lost some of my respect for him."

"And your own answer, Harry?" Dumbledore said quietly.

"One answer is that you shouldn't ever use violence except to stop violence," Harry said. "You shouldn't risk anyone's life except to save even more lives. It sounds good when you say it like that. Only the problem is that if a police officer sees a burglar robbing a house, the police officer should try to stop the burglar, even though the burglar might fight back and someone might get hurt or even killed. Even if the burglar is only trying to steal jewelry, which is just a thing. Because if nobody so much as inconveniences burglars, there will be more burglars, and more burglars. And even if they only ever stole things each time, it would - the fabric of society -" Harry stopped. His thoughts weren't as ordered as they usually pretended to be, in this room. He should have been able to give some perfectly logical exposition in terms of game theory, should have at least been able to see it that way, but it was eluding him. Hawks and doves - "Don't you see, if evil people are willing to risk violence to get what they want, and good people always back down because violence is too terrible to risk, it's - it's not a good society to live in, Headmaster! Don't you realize what all this bullying is doing to Hogwarts, to Slytherin House most of all?"

"War is too terrible to risk," the old wizard said. "And yet it will come. Voldemort is returning. The black chesspieces are gathering. Severus is one of the most important pieces our own side possesses, in that war. But our evil Potions Master must, as the saying goes, keep up appearances. If Severus can pay that keep by hurting the feelings of children, only their feelings, Harry," the old wizard's voice was very soft, "you would have to be most terribly innocent in the ways of war, to think he had made a poor bargain. Hard decisions do not look like that, Harry. They look - like this." The old wizard did not gesture. He simply stood where he was, among the pedestals.

"You shouldn't be Headmaster," Harry said through the burning in his throat. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, but you shouldn't try to be a school principal and run a war at the same time. Hogwarts shouldn't be part of this."

"The children will survive," the old wizard said with tired old eyes. "They would not survive Voldemort. Have you wondered why the children of Hogwarts do not speak much of their parents, Harry? It is because there is always, within earshot, someone who has lost their mother or father or both. That is what Voldemort left behind, the last time he came. Nothing is worth that war beginning again even one day earlier than it must, or lasting one day longer than it must." The old wizard did gesture now, as though to indicate all the shattered wands. "We did not fight because it seemed righteous to do so! We fought when we had to, when there was no other way left. That was our answer."

"Is that why you waited so long to confront Grindelwald?"

Harry had uttered the question without quite thinking -

There was a slow time while the blue eyes searched him.

"Who have you been talking to, Harry?" said the old wizard. "No, do not answer. I already know." Dumbledore sighed. "Many have asked me that question, and always I have turned them aside. Yet in time you must learn the full truth of that matter. Will you swear never to speak of it to another, until I give you leave?"

Harry would have liked to be allowed to tell Draco, but - "I swear," Harry said.

"Grindelwald possessed an ancient and terrible device," said Dumbledore. "While he held it, I could not break his defense. In our duel I could not win, only fight him for long hours until he fell in exhaustion; and I would have died of it afterward, if not for Fawkes. But while his Muggle allies yet made blood sacrifice to sustain him, Grindelwald would not have fallen. He was, during that time, truly invincible. Of that grim device which Grindelwald held, none must know, none must suspect, there must be not a single hint. And therefore you must not speak of it, and I will say no more for now. That is all, Harry. There is no moral to it, and no wisdom. That is all there is."

Harry slowly nodded. It wasn't entirely implausible, by the standards of magic...

"And then," Dumbledore's voice went on, even quieter, almost as though he were speaking to himself, "since it was I who felled him, they obeyed me when I said he should not die, though they cried by the thousands for his blood. So he was imprisoned in Nurmengard, in the prison that he built, and he abides there until this day. I went to that duel without any intent to kill him, Harry. Because, you see, I had tried to kill Grindelwald once before, a long time ago, and that... that was... it proved to be... a mistake, Harry..." The old wizard was staring now at his long dark-grey wand where he held it in both hands, as though it were a crystal ball out of Muggle fantasy, a scrying pool within which answers could be found. "And I thought, then... I thought that I should never kill. And then came Voldemort."

The old wizard looked back up at Harry, and said, in a hoarse voice, "He is not like Grindelwald, Harry. There is nothing human left in him. Him you must destroy. You must not hesitate, when the time comes. To him alone, of all the creatures in this world, you must show no mercy; and when you are done you must forget it, forget that you ever did such a thing, and go back to living. Save your fury for that, and that alone."

In that office there was silence.

It lasted for some many long seconds, and finally was broken by a single question.

"Are there Dementors in Nurmengard?"

"What?" said the old wizard. "No! I would not have done that even to him -"

The old wizard stared at the young boy, who had straightened, and his face changed.

"In other words," the boy said, as though talking to himself without any other people in the room, "it's already known how to keep powerful Dark Wizards in prison, without using Dementors. People know they know that."


"No," the boy said. The boy looked up, and his eyes were blazing like green fire. "I do not accept your answer, Headmaster. Fawkes gave me a mission, and I know now why Fawkes gave that mission to me, and not to you. You are willing to accept balances of power where the bad guys end up winning. I am not."

"That too is not an answer," the old wizard said; his face showed nothing of his hurt, he had long practice in concealing pain. "Refusing to accept something does not change it. I wonder now if you are simply too young to understand this matter, Harry, despite your outward airs; only in children's fantasies can all battles be won, and not a single evil tolerated."

"And that's why I can destroy Dementors and you can't," said the boy. "Because I believe that the darkness can be broken."

The old wizard's breath stopped in his throat.

"The phoenix's price isn't inevitable," the boy said. "It's not part of some deep balance built into the universe. It's just the parts of the problem where you haven't figured out yet how to cheat."

The old wizard's lips parted, and no words came forth.

Silver light falling on shattered wands.

"Fawkes gave me a mission," the boy repeated, "and I will carry out that mission if I must break the entire Ministry to do it. That's the part of the answer that you're missing. You don't stop and say, oh well, guess I can't possibly figure out any way to stop bullying in Hogwarts, and leave it at that. You just keep looking until you figure out how to do it. If that requires breaking Lucius Malfoy's entire conspiracy, fine."

"And the true fight, the fight against Voldemort?" the old wizard said in an unsteady voice. "What will you do to win that, Harry? Will you break the whole world? Even if someday you gain such power, you are not yet beyond prices, and perhaps you never will be! For you to act this way now is nothing short of madness!"

"I asked Professor Quirrell why he'd laughed," the boy said evenly, "after he awarded Hermione those hundred points. And Professor Quirrell said, these aren't his exact words, but it's pretty much what he said, that he'd found it tremendously amusing that the great and good Albus Dumbledore had been sitting there doing nothing as this poor innocent girl begged for help, while he had been the one to defend her. And he told me then that by the time good and moral people were done tying themselves up in knots, what they usually did was nothing; or, if they did act, you could hardly tell them apart from the people called bad. Whereas he could help innocent girls any time he felt like it, because he wasn't a good person. And that I ought to remember that, any time I considered growing up to be good."

The old wizard did not show the force of the blow. Only a slight widening of his eyes would have betrayed it, if you had been watching him very closely.

"Don't worry, Headmaster," said the boy. "I haven't gotten my wires crossed. I know that I'm supposed to learn goodness from Hermione and Fawkes, not from Professor Quirrell and you. Which brings me to the actual reason why I came here. Hermione's time is too valuable to waste in detentions. Professor Snape will revoke it, claiming that I blackmailed him."

After a hesitation the old wizard nodded his head, the silver beard swaying slowly beneath. "That would not be best for her, Harry," the old wizard said. "But the detention can be put down as being served with Professor Binns, and you and she can study together in his classroom."

"Fine," the boy said. "I think that was all the business we had together, in the end. You may expect, the next time you seem to be working on the side of the bad guys or letting them win, that I will do whatever I think Fawkes would tell me to, regardless of how much trouble comes of it. I hope we're both clear on that."

Without another word, the boy turned and walked out of the room, through the open door of black metal, the words "Lumos! " and the light of his wand following a moment later.

The old wizard stood there silent, silent amid the ruins of the lives which his own life had left behind. His wrinkled hand rose, shaking, to touch at his half-moon glasses -

The boy poked his head back in. "Would you mind switching on the stairs, Headmaster? I'd rather not go through all the work again to leave the same way I came."

"Go, Harry Potter," the old wizard said. "The stairs will receive you."

(Some time later, an earlier version of Harry, who had invisibly waited next to the gargoyles since 9PM, followed the Deputy Headmistress through the opening that parted for her, stood quietly behind her on the turning stairs until they came to the top, and then, still under the Cloak, spun his Time-Turner thrice.)

Aftermath: Professor Quirrell and -

In a shadowy clearing the Defense Professor waited, his back leaned negligently against the rough grey bark of a towering beech tree as yet unleaved in the late March days, so that its trunk and crown seemed like a pale arm reaching up from the ground and exploding into a hand of a thousand fingers. Around the Defense Professor and above him were branches so dense that even in the earliest spring, with few trees so much as budding, you could have hardly seen the sky from the ground. The strands of the wooden net crossed and proliferated so many times that if you were on a broomstick above, searching for someone below, you would have found it easier to follow your ears than your eyes. Nor would it have helped that it was almost dark amid the prohibited woods, the unseen sun almost set, so that only a few glows of fading sunlight illuminated the tops of the tallest trees.

Then came the faintest sound of footsteps, almost inaudible even on the forest ground; the gait of a man accustomed to passing unseen. No twig snapped, nor leaf rustled -

"Good afternoon," said Professor Quirrell. The Defense Professor did not trouble to move his eyes, or his hands from where they rested negligently at his side.

A figure clad in a black cloak shimmered into existence, his head turning to look left and then right. In the figure's right hand, gripped low, was a wand of wood so grey it was almost silver.

"I do not know why you wished to meet here of all places," said Severus Snape, his voice cool.

"Oh," Professor Quirrell said idly, as though the whole matter was of the least importance, "I thought you would prefer privacy. The walls of Hogwarts have ears, and you would not wish the Headmaster to know of your role in yesterday's affair, would you?"

The March chill seemed to grow deeper, the temperature further fall. "I don't know what you're talking about," the Potions Master said icily.

"You know perfectly well what we're talking about," said Professor Quirrell in an amused voice. "Really, my good Professor, you should not meddle in the affairs of idiots unless you are ready to defend yourself upon the instant from all their violence." (The Defense Professor's hands still lay relaxed and open at his side.) "And yet none of those idiots seem to remember the sight of you falling, nor do the young ladies recall your presence. Which raises the fascinating question of why you would go to the extraordinary length, I dare say the desperate length, of casting fifty-two Memory Charms." Professor Quirrell tilted his head. "Would you fear so much the opinions of mere students? I think not. Would you dread the matter becoming known to your good friend, Lord Malfoy? But those fools, upon the very spot, invented a quite satisfactory excuse for your presence. No, there is only one person who holds so much power over you, and who would be most perturbed to find you executing any plot without his knowledge. Your true and hidden master, Albus Dumbledore."

"What? " hissed the Potions Master, the anger plain upon his face.

"But now, it seems, you are moving on your own; and so I find myself most intrigued as to what you could possibly be doing, and why." The Defense Professor regarded the black-clad silhouette of the Potions Master with the scrutiny a man might give an exceptionally interesting bug, even if it was still ultimately just a bug.

"I am no servant of Dumbledore's," the Potions Master said coldly.

"Really? What astonishing news." The Defense Professor smiled slightly. "Do tell me all about it."

There was a long pause. From some tree an owl hooted, the sound huge in the silence; neither man startled or flinched.

"You don't want me as your enemy, Quirrell," Severus Snape said, his voice very soft.

"I don't?" said Professor Quirrell. "How would you know?"

"On the other hand," the Potions Master continued, voice still soft, "my friends enjoy many advantages."

The man leaning against the grey bark raised his eyebrows. "Such as?"

"There is much that I know of this school," said the Potions Master. "Things you might not think I knew."

There was an expectant pause.

"How incredibly fascinating," said Professor Quirrell. The man was examining his fingernails with a bored look. "Do go on."

"I know you have been... investigating... the third-floor corridor -"

"You know nothing of the sort." The man's back straightened against the wood. "Do not bluff against me, Severus Snape; I find it annoying, and you are in no position to annoy me. A single glance would tell any competent wizard that the Headmaster has laced that corridor with a ridiculous quantity of wards and webs, triggers and tripsigns. And more: there are Charms laid there of ancient power, magical constructs of which I have heard not even rumors, techniques that must have been disgorged from the hoarded lore of Flamel himself. Even He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named would have had trouble passing those without notice." Professor Quirrell tapped a thoughtful finger on his cheek. "And for the actual lock, a Colloportus laid on an ordinary doorknob, cast so weakly that it could not have kept out Miss Granger on the day she entered Hogwarts. Never before in my existence have I encountered such a blatant trap." Now the Defense Professor narrowed his eyes. "I know of no one left in the world against whom such fantastic feats of detection would serve any useful purpose. If there is some wizard possessed of ancient lore, of whom I know nothing, against whom this trap is set - you may trade that information for as much silence as you like, my dear Professor, and a good serving of my favor left over afterward."

You could have sworn that Professor Quirrell was watching Severus Snape with keen interest. Not the faintest trace of a smile crossed the man's lips.

There was another long silence in the clearing.

"I do not know who Dumbledore fears," Snape said. "But I know what bait he has set out, and somewhat of how it is truly guarded -"

"As to that," said Professor Quirrell, sounding bored again, "I stole it months ago, and left a fake in its place. But thank you kindly for asking."

"You're lying," said Severus Snape after a pause.

"Yes, I am." Professor Quirrell leaned back against the grey wood again, his eyes drifting up to the dense net of branches, the falling night scarcely visible between the complex crossings. "I simply wished to learn whether you would call me on it, since you are pretending to know so little." The Defense Professor smiled to himself.

The Potions Master looked like he was about to choke on his own fury. "What do you want? "

"Nothing, really," said the Defense Professor, continuing to gaze at the forest ceiling. "I was only curious. I suppose I shall just watch and see where your plotting goes, and meanwhile I will say nothing to the Headmaster - so long as you are willing to do me a favor now and then, of course." A dry smile crossed the face. "You are dismissed for now, Severus Snape. Though I wouldn't mind having another little chat soon, if you're willing to speak with me honestly of where your loyalties lie. And I do mean honestly, not the false faces you've shown today. You might find you have more allies than you thought. Take some time to think it over, my friend."

Aftermath: Draco Malfoy and -

A rainbow hemisphere, a dome of solid force with little chromaticity of its own which sent back the infringing light in splintered reflections, iridescent in many colors, as it fractured the shine of the many-splendored chandeliers of the Slytherin common room.

Sheltered beneath the rainbow hemisphere, the terrified face of a young witch who had never fought bullies, who had not joined any of Professor Quirrell's armies, who was getting Acceptable marks at best in her Defense class, who could not have cast a Prismatic Barrier even to save her own life.

"Oh, stop it," said Draco Malfoy, making his voice sound bored despite the sweat that had broken out underneath his robes, as he kept his wand pointed at the barrier that was sheltering Millicent Bulstrode.

He couldn't remember making the decision, there'd just been the two older boys about to hex Millicent, the common room silently staring, and then Draco's hand had just drawn his wand and cast the barrier, leaving his heart to pump itself full of shocked adrenaline while his poor sad brain frantically racked itself for explanations -

The two older boys were straightening up from where they'd been looming over Millicent, turning to Draco, looking at him with a mixture of shock and anger. Gregory and Vincent beside him had already drawn their own wands, but weren't pointing them. All three of them together couldn't have won, anyway.

But the older boys wouldn't hex him. Nobody could possibly be stupid enough to hex the next Lord Malfoy.

It wasn't fear of being hexed that was making Draco sweat beneath his robes, as he desperately hoped the beads of water weren't visible on his forehead.

Draco was sweating because of the dawning and sickening certainty that even if he got away with this now, if he kept down this path, there would come a time when it would all come crashing down; and then he might not be the next Lord Malfoy anymore.

"Mr. Malfoy," said the oldest-looking boy. "Why are you protecting her?"

"So you've located the mistress of the conspiracy," Draco said with a Number Two Sneer, "and it's, let me get this straight now, a first-year girl named Millicent Bulstrode. She's just a conduit, you niddlewit! "

"So?" demanded the older boy. "She still helped them!"

Draco lifted his wand and the Prismatic Sphere winked out. Still talking in a bored voice, Draco said, "Did you know what you were doing, Miss Bulstrode?"

"N-no," Millicent stammered from where she was still sitting at her desk.

"Did you know where the Slytherin messages you were passing on were going to?"

"No!" said Millicent.

"Thank you," Draco said. "All of you please leave her alone, she's just a pawn. Miss Bulstrode, you may consider the favor you did me in February to have been repaid." And Draco turned back to his Potions homework, hoping to Merlin and back again that Millicent didn't say anything incredibly stupid like 'What favor?' -

"Then why," a voice said clearly from across the room, "did those witches go where a note from Millicent told them to go?"

Sweating even more, Draco lifted his head again to look at where Randolph Lee had spoken. "What did the fake note say exactly?" said Draco. "Was it, 'I command you to go forth in the name of the Dark Lady Bulstrode' or 'Please meet me here, sincerely Millicent?'"

Randolph Lee opened his mouth, hesitated for a fractional second -

"I thought so," said Draco. "That wasn't a very good test, Mr. Lee, it - it can -" A frantic, nerve-racking moment while he figured out how to say it without using Harry-words like false positive. "It can get the witches to go there if any of them is just friends with Millicent."

As though the matter had been entirely settled, Draco looked down again at his Potions homework, ignoring (except for the feeling of sick dread in his stomach) the whispers from around the room.

It was only out of the corner of his eye that he caught Gregory staring at him.

Draco's eyes rested on his Astronomy homework, but he couldn't make his mind focus there. If you were trying not to think about things Harry Potter had said, pretty much the worst possible thing you could do was look at your textbook's pictures of the night sky, and try to remember what you weren't supposed to know about how the planets wandered. Astronomy, a noble and prestigious art, a sign of learning and knowledge; only Muggles possessed secret modern artifacts which could do it a million billion times better using methods that Harry had tried to explain and which Draco still couldn't begin to understand except that apparently it didn't even take magic to make things do Arithmancy.

Draco looked at the pictures of constellations, and wondered if it was like this in the other Houses, if people were always threatening each other in Ravenclaw.

Harry Potter had told him once that soldiers on a battlefield didn't really fight for their country. Patriotism might get them to the battlefield in the first place, but once they were there, they fought to protect each other, the friends they'd trained with who were right in front of them. And Harry had observed, and Draco had known that it was true, that you couldn't use loyalty to a leader to power a Patronus Charm, it wasn't quite the right kind of warm and happy thought. But thinking of protecting someone beside you -

That, Harry Potter had said thoughtfully, was probably why the Death Eaters had fallen apart the moment the Dark Lord had departed. They hadn't been warm enough to each other.

You could recruit a group that included Bellatrix Black and Amycus Carrow alongside Lord Malfoy and Mr. MacNair, and keep them in line with the Cruciatus Curse. But the instant the master of the Dark Mark was gone, you didn't have an army anymore, you had a circle of acquaintances. That was why Father had failed. It hadn't even really been his fault. There'd been nothing Father could have done, after inheriting Death Eaters who weren't really friends with each other.

And even though it was Slytherin House he was supposed to defend - Slytherin House which he and Harry had formed a pact to save - sometimes Draco couldn't help but think that it was just less wearisome when he was leading army practices. When he was working with students from the other three Houses that weren't Slytherin. Once you saw and named the problems, you couldn't stop seeing them, it just got more annoying every day.

"Mr. Malfoy?" said the voice of Gregory Goyle, from where he was lying on the floor beside Draco's desk, in the small but private bedroom; Gregory was doing his Transfiguration homework, on which he often needed help.

Any distraction was welcome at this point. "Yes?" said Draco.

"You weren't really plotting against Granger at all," said Gregory. "Were you?"

The sensation spreading through Draco's stomach felt just like Gregory's voice sounded, sickened and afraid.

"You actually were helping Granger, that day you picked her up off the floor," said Gregory. "And before, that time you kept her from falling off the roof. You helped a mudblood -"

"Yeah, right," said Draco sarcastically, without the slightest hesitation or delay, looking back down at his Astronomy homework like he wasn't the least bit nervous. It was all happening the way Draco had feared it would, but at least that meant he'd played this conversation in his head over and over, coming up with the right opening gambit. "Come on, Gregory, you've dueled General Granger, you know how strong her spells are. Like a real Muggle-spawn is going to be more powerful than you, more powerful than Theodore, more powerful than every single pureblood in our whole school year except me? Don't you actually believe in anything Father says? She's adopted. Her parents died in the war and someone stuck her with a couple of Muggles to hide her. No way is General Granger a real mudblood."

A slow pulse of silence through Draco's bedroom. Draco wanted to know, needed to know what look was on Gregory's face. But he couldn't look up from his desk, not yet, not until Gregory spoke first.

And then -

"Is that what Harry Potter said to you?" said Gregory.

The voice wavered, and broke. When Draco looked up from his homework, he saw that tears were leaking out of Gregory's eyes.

Apparently that hadn't worked.

"I don't know what to do," Gregory said in a whisper. "I don't know what to do now, Mr. Malfoy. Your father isn't - when he finds out - he's not going to like it, Mr. Malfoy!"

It's not your job to decide what Father will like, Goyle -

Draco could hear the words in his head; they sounded in Father's voice, with the same sternness. It was the sort of thing Father had told him to say, if Vincent or Gregory ever questioned him; and if that didn't work he was to hex them. They were not equal friends, Father had said, and he wasn't ever to forget it. Draco was in charge, they were his servants, and if Draco couldn't keep it that way then he wasn't fit to inherit House Malfoy...

"It's all right, Gregory," Draco said, as gently as he could. "All you've got to do is worry about protecting me. Nobody's going to blame you for following my orders, not my father, not yours." Putting all the warmth he could into his voice, like trying to cast a Patronus Charm. "And anyway, the next war isn't going to be the same as the last one. House Malfoy was around long before the Dark Lord, and not every Lord Malfoy does the same thing. Father knows that."

"Does he?" said Gregory in trembling voice. "Does he really? "

Draco nodded. "Professor Quirrell knows it too," said Draco. "That's what the armies are about. The Defense Professor's right, when the next war comes, Father won't be able to unite the whole country, they'll remember the last war. But anyone who's fought in Professor Quirrell's armies will remember who the strongest generals were, they'll know who's worthy to lead them. They'll proclaim Harry Potter their Lord, and I'll be his right hand, and House Malfoy will come out on top, like always. People might even turn to me, if Potter isn't there, so long as they think I'm trustworthy. That's what I'm setting up now. Father will understand."

Gregory reached up and wiped his eyes, looking down again at his Transfiguration homework. "Okay," Gregory said in a shaky voice. "If you say so, Mr. Malfoy."

Draco nodded again, ignoring the hollow feeling inside himself at the lies he'd just told his friend, and turned back to the stars.

Aftermath: Hermione Granger and -

Being invisible should've been more interesting than this, the corridors of Hogwarts should have been outlined in strange colors or something. But actually, Hermione thought, being under Harry's invisibility cloak was exactly like not being under an invisibility cloak, except for the cloak part. When you pulled the veil of soft black cloth down from the hood and over your face, you couldn't even see it stretching in front of you, and afterward it didn't seem to impede your breathing. And the world looked just the same, except that when you walked past things of metal, you didn't see any small reflections of yourself. Portraits never looked at you, only did whatever strange things they did when they were alone. Hermione hadn't tried walking past a mirror yet, she wasn't sure she wanted to. Most of all, there was no you anymore as you walked around, no hands, no feet, just a changing point of view. It was an unnerving feeling, not so much of being invisible as of not existing.

Harry hadn't questioned her at all, she'd just got out the word 'invisibility' and then Harry was drawing his invisibility cloak from his pouch. She hadn't even been given a chance to explain about her extremely secret meeting with Daphne and Millicent Bulstrode, or that she thought it would help protect the other girls, Harry had just handed over what was probably a Deathly Hallow. If you were fair, and she did try to be fair, she had to admit that sometimes Harry could be a very true, true friend.

The secret meeting itself had been a great big failure.

Millicent had claimed to be a seer.

Hermione had carefully explained to Millicent and Daphne at considerable length that this could not possibly be true.

She and Harry had looked up Divination early on in their research; Harry had insisted that they read everything they could find about prophecies that wasn't in the Restricted Section. As Harry had observed, it would save a lot of effort if they could just get a seer to prophesy everything they would figure out thirty-five years later. (Or to put it in Harry's terms, any means of obtaining information transmitted from the distant future was potentially an instant global victory condition.)

But, as Hermione had explained to Millicent, prophesying wasn't controllable, there was no way to ask for a prophecy about anything in particular. Instead (the books had said) there was a sort of pressure that built up in Time, when some huge event was trying to happen, or stop itself from happening. And seers were like weak points that let out the pressure, when the right listener was nearby. So prophecies were only about big, important things, because only that generated enough pressure; and you almost never got more than one seer saying the same thing, because afterward the pressure was gone. And, as Hermione had further explained to Millicent, the seers themselves didn't remember their prophecies, because the message wasn't for them. And the messages would come out in riddles, and only someone who heard the prophecy in the seer's original voice would hear all the meaning that was in the riddle. There was no possible way that Millicent could just give out a prophecy any time she wanted, about school bullies, and then remember it, and if she had it would've come out as 'the skeleton is the key' and not 'Susan Bones has to be there'.

Millicent had been looking rather frightened at this point, so Hermione had relaxed her fists where they'd been jammed on her hips, calmed herself down, and stated carefully that she was glad Millicent had helped them, but they had sometimes walked into traps following what Millicent said, and so Hermione really did want to know where the messages had actually come from.

And Millicent had said in a small voice:

But, but she told me that she was a seer...

Hermione had told Daphne not to press it, after Millicent had refused to give up her source. It wasn't just that Hermione had felt awful about the scared look on Millicent's face. It was that Hermione had a strong feeling that if they did find the person who'd been telling Millicent things, why, they would turn out to just be finding envelopes under their pillow in the morning.

She was getting that same despairing feeling she'd gotten in the battle before Christmas, looking at Zabini's charts with all the colored lines and boxes and... and she had only just now realized what it meant that Zabini had been the one showing her that chart.

Even for a Ravenclaw, she felt, there was such a thing as having your life get overly complicated.

Hermione began ascending a short spiral of yellow marble steps protruding from a central spine, a poorly-kept "secret" staircase that was actually one of the fastest ways up from the Slytherin dungeons to the Ravenclaw tower, but which only witches could traverse. (Why girls in particular needed a quick way to move from Ravenclaw to Slytherin and back was something Hermione found a bit puzzling.) At the top of the staircase, now that she was away from Slytherin places and back into the main parts of Hogwarts, Hermione stopped and took off Harry's invisibility cloak.

After her pouch had swallowed the cloak, Hermione turned right and started to walk down a short passageway, now automatically keeping an eye out in all directions without really thinking about it, and her constantly-scanning eyes glanced into a shadowy alcove -

(fleeting disorientation)

- and then a rush of shock and fear hit her like a Stunning Hex over her whole body, she found that without any thought or any conscious decision her wand had leaped into her hand and was already pointed at...

...a black cloak so wide and billowing that it was impossible to determine whether the figure beneath was male or female, and atop the cloak a broad-brimmed black hat; and a black mist seemed to gather beneath it and obscure the face of whoever or whatever might lie beneath.

"Hello again, Hermione," whispered a sibilant voice from beneath the black hat, from behind the black mist.

Hermione's heart was already pounding hugely inside her chest, her witch's robes felt already sweat-dampened against her skin, there was a taste of fear already in her mouth; she didn't know why she was so suddenly filled up with adrenaline but her hand gripped harder on her wand. "Who are you?" Hermione demanded.

The hat tilted slightly; the whispery voice, when it came forth from the black mist, sounded dry as dust. "The last ally," spoke the sibilant whisper. "The one who finally answers, when no other will answer you. I am perhaps the only true friend you have in all Hogwarts, Hermione. For you have now seen how the others stayed silent when you were in need -"

"What's your name? "

The black cloak rotated slightly, back and forth, it didn't look like shoulders shrugging, but it conveyed a shrug. "That is the riddle, young Ravenclaw. Until you solve it, you may call me whatever you wish."

She could feel her palm already sweaty and was thankful for the spiral grooves on her wand that helped her hand keep a steady grip on the wood. "Well, Mister Incredibly Suspicious Person," Hermione said, "what do you want with me?"

"That is the wrong question," came the whisper from black mist. "You should ask, rather, what I can offer you."

"No," the young girl said quite steadily, "I don't think I should be asking that, actually."

A high-pitched chuckle from behind the black mist. "Not power," whispered the voice, "not wealth, you care little for such things, do you, young Ravenclaw? Knowledge. That is what I possess. I know what is unfolding within this school, all the hidden plans and players, the answers of the riddle. I know the true reason for the coldness you see in Harry Potter's eyes. I know the true nature of Professor Quirrell's mysterious illness. I know who Dumbledore truly fears."

"Good for you," said Hermione Granger. "But do you know how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?"

The black mist seemed to darken slightly, the voice sounded lower when it spoke, disappointed. "So you are not even curious, young Ravenclaw, about the truths behind the lies?"

"One hundred and eighty-seven," she said. "I tried it once and that's how many it came out to." Her hand was almost slipping on her wand, there was a sense of fatigue in her fingers like she'd been holding the wand for hours instead of minutes -

The voice hissed, "Professor Snape is a hidden Death Eater."

Hermione almost dropped her wand.

"Ah," the voice whispered in satisfaction. "I thought that might interest you. So, Hermione. Is there anything else you would like to know about your enemies, or those you call friends?"

She stared up at the black mist that topped the towering black cloak, frantically trying to order her thoughts. Professor Snape was a Death Eater? Who would tell her something like that, why, what was going on? "That's -" Hermione said. Her voice was quavering. "That's extremely serious business, if it's really true. Why are you telling something like that to me, and not to Headmaster Dumbledore?"

"Dumbledore did nothing to stop Snape," the black mist whispered. "You saw it, Hermione. The rot at Hogwarts begins at the top. Everything that is wrong with this school, it all begins with the mad Headmaster. You alone dared to call him out for it - and therefore I speak to you."

"And have you also spoken to Harry Potter, then?" Hermoine said, keeping her voice as even as she could. If this was his helpful ghost -

The black mist darkened and lightened, like a shake of the head. "I am frightened of Harry Potter," it whispered. "Of the coldness in his eyes, of the darkness that grows behind them. Harry Potter is a killer, and anyone who is an obstacle to him will die. Even you, Hermione Granger, if you dare truly oppose him, the darkness behind his eyes will reach out and destroy you. This I know."

"Then you don't know half of what you pretend to know," Hermione said, her voice a little firmer. "I'm scared of Harry too. But not because of what he might ever do to me. I'm scared of what he might do to protect me -"

"Wrong." The whisper was flat, and hard, as if to brook no possibility of denial. "Harry Potter will turn against you in time, Hermione, when the darkness takes him fully. He will not shed a tear, he will not even notice, on the day his footsteps finally crush you underneath."

"Double wrong!" she said back in a rising voice, even though there were chills going down her spine. One of Harry's phrases came to her. "Just what do you think you know, and how do you think you know it, anyway?"

"Time -" The voice seemed to catch itself. "Time enough for that later. For now, for today, indeed Harry Potter is not your enemy. And yet you are in gravest danger."

"I can believe that," said Hermione Granger. She desperately wanted to shift her wand to her other hand, she felt like she needed to grab her right arm just to keep it up, her head ached like she'd been staring at the black mist for days; she didn't know why she'd gotten tired so quickly.

"Lucius Malfoy has taken notice of you, Hermione." The whisper had risen, departed from its tonelessness, taken on a note of audible concern. "You have humiliated Slytherin House, you have defeated his son in battle. Even before then you were an embarrassment to all who stand with the Death Eaters; for you are a Muggleborn and yet you possess a power of wizardry greater than any pureblood. And now you are becoming known, the eyes of the world on you. Lucius Malfoy seeks to crush you, Hermione, to hurt you and perhaps even kill you, and he has the means to do it!" The whisper had grown urgent.

There was a pause.

"Is that all?" Hermione said. If she was ex-Colonel Zabini or Harry Potter, she'd probably be asking clever questions to gather more information; but her mind felt slow and fatigued. She really needed to get out of here and go lie down for a while.

"You don't believe me," the whisper said, softer and sadder now. "Why not, Hermione? I am trying to help you."

Hermione took a step backward, away from the shadowy alcove.

"Why not, Hermione? " demanded the voice, rising to a hiss. "You owe me that much! Tell me, and then -" The voice caught, and came back quieter. "And then you can go, I suppose. Only tell me - why -"

Maybe she shouldn't've answered; maybe she should've just turned and fled, or better yet, cast a Prismatic Wall first and then screamed at the top of her lungs as she ran; but it was the note of real pain in the voice that caught her, and so she answered.

"Because you look incredibly dark and scary and suspicious," Hermione said, keeping her voice polite, as her wand stayed level on the towering black cloak and the faceless black mist.

"That's all? " whispered the voice incredulously. Sadness seemed to infuse it. "I hoped for better from you, Hermione. Surely such a Ravenclaw as you, the most intelligent Ravenclaw to grace Hogwarts in a generation, knows that appearances can be misleading."

"Oh, I know it," said Hermione. She took another step back, her tired fingers tightening on the wand. "But the thing that people forget sometimes, is that even though appearances can be misleading, they're usually not."

There was a pause.

"You are the clever one," said the voice, and the black mist evaporated away, no longer obscuring; she saw the face beneath, and recognition sent a jolt of terrified adrenaline bursting through her -

(fleeting disorientation)

- and then a rush of shock and fear hit her like a Stunning Hex over her whole body, she found that without any thought or any conscious decision her wand had leaped into her hand and was already pointed at...

...a shining lady, her long white dress billowing about her as though in invisible winds; neither her hands nor her feet were visible, her face hidden beneath a white veil; and she was glowing all over, not like a ghost, not transparent, just surrounded by soft white light.

Hermione stared open-mouthed at the gentle sight, wondering why her heart was already hammering, and why she felt so scared.

"Hello again, Hermione," the kindly whisper emanated from the white glow behind the veil. "I've been sent to help you, so please don't be afraid. I am your servant in all things; for you, my Lady, are the bearer of a most marvelous destiny -"