A/N: I swiped some of Lee Jordan’s dialogue during the first Quidditch match — with appropriate modifications because Harry isn’t playing, of course.
Tooby was easily the happiest elf on the Dower Estate. He had been one of the elflings raised along with Master Harry, and he had learned how to read and write and all manner of other things. He had turned ten, the age when a young house elf begins to take on adult duties, when Master Harry was nine. Nanny and Ferny had asked him to continue taking lessons with Master Harry, since the most important job for an elf was to make his Master happy. They promised him his pick of adult jobs once Master Harry had turned eleven and gone away to school. So Tooby had kept his elfling name for an extra two years and was really very good at writing and speaking proper English by the time Master Harry's birthday came around. Then Master Harry had gone away to Diagon Alley and came back with the most wondrous creature! Her name was Hedwig, and Tooby had been fascinated with her soft white plumage and round golden eyes and gentle hoots. He had asked to be allowed to take care of Hedwig. Old Birdy, who had kept the owlery for the Potters back when there were many birds coming and going daily, decided that he was not up to taking care of a reopened owlery, even if there were very few birds, so he agreed to train Tooby in the ways of owls.
Tooby was a very good student, and learned all about how to keep the owlery in good condition, how to keep the water and food dishes filled even if there were no owls in residence because one never knew when one would come to visit, what toys owls liked, how to tie letters to their legs, how to banish owl waste and pellets to the compost bin, how to take care of a sick owl, and even how to prepare a nest box in case Master Harry's owl decided to lay eggs. This was a possibility since another owl, a boy owl named Henry, had been obtained to handle messages for the household. But Henry was not as nice as Hedwig, Tooby thought. Hedwig seemed to agree. Since Tooby could read, several books on maintenance of owls and owleries had been purchased, and Tooby now had his very own bookshelf. When he had learned everything to Old Birdy's satisfaction, Tooby became Birdy and Old Birdy retired to help Brandy in the kitchen, where it was warm all year and his joints wouldn't hurt. The newly renamed Birdy looked forward to the day when Master Harry was all grown up and there was a family in the Big House again and the owlery would be busy with owls and messages coming and going the way it had been before the Bad Wizards had ruined things. He couldn't wait.
As the keeper of the owlery, Birdy had his own little living space right under the owlery, which had been a crawl space beneath the floor of the former gazebo, in case an urgent owl came at night. So far, there had been none, since Hedwig usually arrived in the morning and the only other owls to visit were those from Mister Sirius Black, which arrived in the afternoon usually. He also had the duties of going to pick up the post at the drop box Mister Peter had set up all those years ago, which was where most of Master Harry's mail still arrived. There had been quite a lot of it after the article in the Daily Prophet in August, and Master Harry had allowed Mister Peter and Nanny and Birdy to help him sort it out and figure out which pieces of mail should be answered by Master Harry himself and which could be ignored or answered by one of the house elves. Master Harry had become bored with the mail quite rapidly, since quite a lot of it was either thanking him for killing Voldemort and telling him how great he was, or asking him to do something for someone he didn't even know, or making rude comments about where he should be living and what he should be doing. There were also the occasional death threats, which Mister Peter insisted should be forwarded to the Ministry for handling, and sometimes random gifts, which Master Harry appreciated but mostly couldn't use. By now, Birdy was sort of a personal secretary in addition to taking care of the owlery. Every day he would pop in to check the drop box and pick up the day's copy of the Prophet. Mister Peter would go through the mail and tell Birdy which letters (if any) should be sent on to Master Harry and which should get a polite note saying that Master Harry was not available for the interview or whatever else it was the person wanted. If there was any mail from Master Harry, of course, that would take precedence, and Birdy would hold the letter so Mister Peter could read it to the household elves.
On the first Saturday morning in November, a winged white shape ghosted out of the dawn sky and slipped through the special portal which kept rain and snow and cold air from getting into the owlery, but allowed free access to the birds. Hedwig settled on her favourite perch and helped herself to an owl treat from the bowl while waiting for Birdy. She didn't have to wait long; the young elf popped in right away. Hedwig was a young owl herself, and was very conscious of the way things should be done. She carefully held her leg out so he could untie the letter, and only then nuzzled him to encourage him to give her a little pet before he popped away to the Dower House with the letter. Then she headed out again, aiming toward London and her second delivery of the day.
Birdy dutifully brought Master Harry's note to Mister Peter. The ghost, of course, never really slept. When there were people or elves to interact with, he behaved almost like a living person, except for being intangible. When everyone else on the Estate slept, he was more a creature of habit after the manner of ghosts, patrolling the grounds and the house invisibly. He would usually end up in the front parlour in the wee hours of the morning, and wait in a passive, almost dormant state until dawn, when the rest of the household awakened. So Birdy was not surprised that the parlour seemed empty when he first entered. Mister Peter shimmered into view as Birdy crossed to the desk with the letter.
"Is that from Master Harry?"
"Yes, Mister Peter. Hedwig brought it at first light."
"It's a day early; usually his letter comes on Sunday. Perhaps something interesting happened." He floated over to the desk with some eagerness.
Birdy broke the seal on the letter and extracted the parchment sheets from the envelope, spreading them out so that Mister Peter could read them, and then politely stepped back so the ghost could read the letter first.
Less than five minutes later, Birdy was scrambling to get Henry awake and ready for a flight to Mister Sirius in London while Mister Peter dictated a letter to a frantically scribbling Nanny.
Sirius Black was not, by nature, a late sleeper. In school he had usually been one of the first risers, which meant that he got the hottest water in the showers and the freshest food at breakfast, but also meant he was less than popular with the other boys when he disturbed them on Saturday and Sunday mornings. As an adult, he rarely slept past six except when he'd been out exceptionally late the night before, when he might stay abed until eight or nine.
Given Hedwig's usual schedule, he was usually able to read Harry's weekly correspondence over breakfast, giving it priority over the Sunday edition of the Daily Prophet. But when a familiar-looking parchment was lying next to his plate on a Saturday morning, he knew something was up. Breakfast was forgotten as he read, and almost as soon as he had finished, the new house-elf he had obtained to replace the increasingly ineffective Kreacher brought him another letter, this one addressed in the spidery handwriting that belonged to Peter's amanuensis.
Padfoot, it read, I presume you've had a letter from Harry and have read it by now. I also presume you're at least as concerned as I am. Something is going on at Hogwarts and we need to find out what it is. I can't leave here at this time so will depend on you to investigate. You are his godfather, after all. Regards, Peter.
He swore at the letter as a substitute for the rat, at least partially because it actually hadn't immediately occurred to him to go check on what was happening — "Who do you think you are, telling me my job, Wormtail? Who's the godfather here, dammit!" — and then stomped upstairs to change clothes. The clothing he had selected for the last motorcycle ride of autumn before putting the Bonnie away for the winter was not at all appropriate for an impromptu parental visit to Hogwarts.
Albus Dumbledore knew quite well that he was not infallible — as an example, he need look no farther then the two men now sitting in his office. One was a member of the Black Family, one of the most notoriously pureblood-elitist Dark families in the Wizarding World. The other was a half-blood, raised in the Muggle world for the first and arguably most formative years of his life, with a nonaligned witch mother and a Muggle father.
Before these two boys had been Sorted, had he been asked to predict their futures, Albus would have guessed the first to become active in the elitist movement, perhaps as a protÃ©gÃ© of Nox Malfoy in the Ministry, since he was possessed of singular talent, charm and charisma in addition to being the Heir to the Black Family. Had Sirius Black joined forces with Nox’s son, Lucius Malfoy, they could have been a dangerous combination, especially if they backed the Dark Lord Voldemort, whose power was growing at the time Sirius entered school. Albus’s main concern at the beginning of that first year was to keep the young and rebellious James Potter out of Sirius and Lucius’s circle for fear that the arrogant young man might be seduced to join the Dark side. After all, James’s grandmother had been a Black.
As for the other boy, he would have predicted that Stephen Severus Snape would succeed in Ravenclaw, where his sharp intelligence would be most valued. Given the boy's brilliance, Albus fully expected the young Snape to pair up with the Muggleborn Lily Evans, whose abilities equalled his, and that the two would go on to bring new life to the rather stodgy field of Potions. Perhaps they would even marry and produce a new generation of exceptional Hogwarts students.
Albus would never have predicted that Sirius would be Sorted into Gryffindor House and, at only eleven years old, turn his back on everything his family represented, instead teaming up with James Potter, Peter Pettigrew and, also to his surprise, the gentle young werewolf Albus had decided to admit to the school as a little "social experiment", eventually becoming a staunch supporter of the Light. He never would have predicted that Severus would be Sorted into Slytherin, promptly abandon his Muggle first name and become "more pure-blooded than the pure-bloods" in his search for acceptance, even to the point of entering Lord Voldemort’s service and becoming a master of the Dark Arts.
And he never would have predicted that now, more than twenty years later, these two would be seated in Albus’s office, joined in concern over the son of the deceased James Potter. Yet here they were, Sirius looking every inch the young aristocrat in visiting clothes that resembled a Muggle suit, but with a discreet touch of lace at collar and cuffs, his hair drawn back in a Head of Family pony-tail, while Severus wore a casual black jumper and trousers, topped with a burgundy robe embroidered on the collar with discreet alchemical symbols in silver thread, his hair pulled tightly back and braided into a plait which reached most of the way down his back. They'd been in the room together for five whole minutes now, and insults had yet to start flying. It was amazing.
It was as well, perhaps, that Albus had never aspired to being a Prophet, and he said as much as he poured cups of tea for the three of them. Severus looked at him rather oddly and seemed about to speak, but Sirius interrupted whatever thought the Potions Master had.
"I wasted three years in Divs, and I’m no better. Which reminds me." He dug into the pocket of his Muggle trousers and fished out two galleons, passing them to Severus as Albus looked on curiously.
"Thank you," said the Potions Master, pocketing them. "I shall have them framed as a memento."
"Now then, Albus," said Sirius, "would you mind letting me know exactly what the Hell happened here on Halloween?"
"Now, now, Sirius, you know how pranks get out of hand," said Dumbledore mildly. "The Halloween feast has been a traditional target for pranks ever since parties whose identities have never been discovered gave the entire Slytherin table jack-o'-lantern heads just before the pudding was served — you remember, that was your seventh year, wasn't it?"
Severus snorted in disgust at the memory — his hair had reeked of raw pumpkin for days afterward — and Sirius looked at the Headmaster narrowly. That had been one of his finest pieces of Transfiguration, and he was proud of it, but he wasn't expecting to be called on it so many years later.
"Unfortunately, this year we had several different pranksters hit, and multiple potions in the food caused unforeseen side effects. Although there was some chaos and minor injuries as a result, everyone's recovered and no major damage was done. We've already given detentions to the pranksters who put the Giggle Goo in the treacle tarts, and trust we shall apprehend the other culprits shortly."
"That's the official story, am I right? Now what really happened?"
Albus sighed heavily and sat back in his overstuffed chair. "Really? Four separate potions were introduced into food and drink served during the feast. Severus had the good sense to order the house elves to keep samples of everything and spent hours checking it all out. There was Zonko's Babble-on Broth in the gravy and Giggle Goo in the pudding - none of which was actually eaten. These were things any of the students could have obtained in Hogsmeade the previous weekend. The seventh-year potions class had made a dream-inducing agent mixed with a sleep potion which was intended to be taken by the advanced Divinations classes as part of a project assigned by Professor Trelawney."
"Trelawney? I don't think I know her. Is she new?" asked Sirius.
"She's been with the school about twelve years now, since Professor Pythias retired. She's a descendant of Cassandra Trelawney, and came highly recommended," said Dumbledore. "This dream incubation lab has been part of her class for the past four years, with no previous problems. This time, the dream inducing potion wound up in the pumpkin juice."
"How easy would it have been for a student or someone to take some of it?" Sirius looked askance at Snape.
"I have twelve students in my N.E.W.T. potions classes this year, Black. They each made a cauldron of this stuff on Wednesday morning. It had to be stirred at intervals over the next day, and they all took turns to come in and stir all the cauldrons. Any one of them could have had the opportunity to take some of the potion, but I have questioned them all and they have denied doing so. Wednesday afternoon I had the seventh-year general class in that same classroom. Thursday, I had the second and third years in a different classroom, so I had the N.E.W.T. workroom warded to let me know if an unauthorized student entered. The wards were untouched."
"Sweet Merlin, didn't going to school with … well, with me … didn't it teach you anything? Leaving cauldrons like that is practically an invitation!"
"Fortunately, we have yet to see a set of students the like of you and your little gang," said Snape acidly. "The Weasley twins are well on the way, but they're not there yet. In any event, the worst the dream potion did was to put a number of students to sleep at table, and give them exactly the sorts of dreams that Trelawney intended. It was the last potion that did all the damage. That one was a powerful, long-lasting natural hallucinogen, magically enhanced. Some of the ingredients were quite exotic, and it may take some time to track the sources down. The students who got that one experienced a variety of delusions, and we had some people believing they were being attacked by their tableware while others believed they were some sort of creature. There was a very strong fear component to the delusions, which resulted in a number of the students escaping from the Great Hall and hiding in various places all over the school. It took hours to find and retrieve them all."
"We are quite fortunate that there was as little overlap as there was," said Dumbledore. "Harry, regrettably, was one of the few who received doses of all three potions."
"Yourself and Harry. Albus, why are you making me pull the details out of you like this? I don't want to have to practice my Auror interrogation skills on you, but I will if I have to."
"There was an attempt at dosing a third person with a combination," said Snape. "Myself. I arrived late to dinner, so did not have a chance to eat or drink anything before the chaos broke out. Indeed, I had just noticed that my wine smelled off — it had both the dream potion and the hallucinogen in it. Additionally, it turned out the gravy on my potatoes was laced with the Babble-on Broth. Harry's pumpkin juice had both the dream potion and the hallucinogen, as did the Headmaster's mead. The strong flavours of both of those drinks masked the tastes of the potions. My wine, however, was completely ruined. I can only assume that the person responsible did not know how sensitive a Potion Master's sense of smell is, or how delicate a good vintage can be. It is the presence of those two potions in three separate beverages that proves that this was not a simple prank that went too far, even though we are attempting to pass it off as one."
"Why exactly are you trying to sweep this under the rug?" Sirius asked Albus. "I should think you'd want an official investigation so that the guilty party could be found quickly and sent to Azkaban. Just the selection of the three of you as intended victims tells us it has to be a former Death Eater, or a sympathizer."
"I've been receiving hints directly and indirectly through the Board of Governors that certain parties at the Ministry wish to exercise direct control over Hogwarts," said Dumbledore. "Bringing in Aurors to investigate would risk them acquiring information about the running of Hogwarts that has always been confidential, and that might threaten the school's autonomy. In addition, it would frighten the children and distress their parents. Now that we are aware of the threat, we will be well able to protect Harry. Finally, we believe that it will be easier to find the poisoner if he thinks we think it was an accident and doesn't know we're looking for him."
With this Sirius had to be content, although he had the feeling no good would come of it. Dumbledore was determined to keep the matter as private as possible. He did agree that Sirius could investigate discreetly to find the source of some of the more unusual ingredients in the third potion.
Despite Dumbledore and Snape's assurances that Harry was quite well, and would suffer no lasting consequences of the experience (except possibly some interesting dreams for a while), Sirius insisted on going to the Hospital Wing to confer directly with the mediwitch in charge.
"Very well then, allow me to escort you," said Severus, as the two rose to leave.
"I do remember where the Hospital Wing is," said Sirius.
"Where it used to be. The castle moved it a few years back, when Madam Mensana retired." The revolving staircase carried them smoothly downwards. "Feel free to wander around for the next few hours trying to find it if you wish."
"Mensana’s gone? Who's the new mediwitch, then?" asked Sirius, dismayed. He had been counting on being able to wrap the old witch around his finger, the way he had as a student, to get her to tell him everything.
"Madam Pomfrey is matron now," said Severus.
"Not Perilla Pomfrey? Hufflepuff, one year after us? Held the record for melting the most cauldrons in one year in Potions?"
Severus shuddered. "No, thank Merlin! This is Poppy Pomfrey, an older sister. Ravenclaw, a few years ahead of us. She's a fully certified Healer, extremely professional, and knows her way around a potions lab, too, although the brats keep her busy enough that she relies on me to keep the Hospital Wing fully stocked."
The subject of Poppy Pomfrey exhausted for the moment, the two men walked through the halls of the school in silence. Most of the students were either out enjoying what was possibly the last nice day before the onset of cold weather, or denned up in the library or their common rooms. One group of giggling girls dashed past them, apparently eager to get somewhere. Snape frowned at them and snapped, "No running in the halls!" They slowed down immediately and walked past in a most decorous manner, shooting curious sideways glances at the stranger who was accompanying their Potions professor. Then as soon as they were out of eyeshot, giggles accompanied the sound of running feet once more.
It occurred to Sirius that they had no clue who he was, or that there was anything unusual in his walking alongside Snape. When they were in school, he had felt that the hatred between them was so great that it had attained legendary status and had soaked into the very walls of the castle, to be echoed there forever. Now that all seemed so petty and long ago. The war against Voldemort, and the years since then, had put schoolboy rivalries into perspective. The satisfaction of turning his rival’s hair pink, and the exhilaration of the flight from Slytherin vengeance immediately thereafter, faded to insignificance next to, say, the fight alongside the same Slytherin to save the Longbottoms from Bellatrix Lestrange.
As they descended a staircase, he stopped on a landing. "Snape."
Snape, several steps below him, stopped and turned to look up at him, raising an eyebrow inquiringly.
"I’d like to clear things up between us. There’s no reason we have to go on the way things were in school. Neither of us are the boys we were then. Think we can start over?" He held out his hand.
"If that was an apology, it’s the worst I’ve ever heard," said Snape. He slowly and deliberately ascended the steps, bringing himself to the landing where Sirius was standing and reclaiming the psychological advantage his height gave him. "No, it’s obvious you never intended that as an apology. Possibly you think you have nothing to apologize for."
Black blinked in confusion, confirming Severus’ suspicions, but then he seized on this new possibility for peace-making. "If it’s an apology you want, Snape, then you’ll have it — I just never thought you’d accept one. I do regret how we behaved then, and-"
"Do you? Regret it, I mean? You and your gang spent seven years terrorizing Slytherins in general and me in particular, ever since we met on the Express and you thought you deserved the compartment I was sitting in. In sixth year, you nearly killed me, and wound up saddling me with a Life Debt to your partner-in-crime. For six years after we left school, we had nothing to do with each other, and I was quite happy with the situation, believe me. Then you dragged me into the Longbottom affair, during which, I recall, I took a Cruciatus for you. Since then I’ve seen you at any number of Ministry and social functions which I have had the misfortune to have to attend over the years. Never, in all that time, have you bothered to apologize, or even to approach me. The only one of your Marauders to offer me an apology for anything was the one who had the least to apologize for — the one whose life you endangered as surely as you did mine."
"Remus? But he wasn’t-"
"Wasn’t he? Surely you realized what would happen if your plot was successful? You must have known that if I had been killed, or bitten and received the Curse, your good friend, gentle and innocent though he was, would have been taken by the Ministry and had his head cut off as a warning to all others of his kind?" Snape watched the colour drain from Black’s face. "No? Curious — I had wondered whether you were truly Dark enough not to care, or were just that thoughtless. I see it’s the latter. Why does Lupin continue to put up with you? In any event, your little act here has little to do with you or me. It’s all to do with your godson. Potter."
"Harry? No, I-"
"Don’t try lying to me, Black. You’re right, neither of us are the boys we were, and I can see right through you. Gryffindors shouldn’t play Slytherin games. Not if they hope to get something out of it. No, you are concerned that I’d take my revenge against you and Potter out on the boy’s unprotected hide."
Black flinched slightly, telling Snape he’d guessed right.
"You’re harsher on him than the others in his class. All the special assignments, the extra work, taking points for the tiniest reasons …"
"Has he been complaining to you, then? I’m surprised, I’d thought better of him than that. Or is he merely telling you what goes on in class, and you read my motive between the lines? I am always harsh with my students, Black. Potions is the least forgiving of magical arts, and if they don’t learn to follow the instructions and use the proper procedures almost instinctively by fifth year, N.E.W.T. level study would be truly hazardous. I cannot tolerate sloppiness in my class. A poorly performed spell in Charms or Transfiguration merely fails, or can be reversed — in Potions an error can be life threatening."
Snape turned and began descending the stairs again, clearly not caring whether Black followed him, but continuing to talk. Black did follow. "As for revenge — I will have it, but not the way you think. Harry is blessed both with his mother’s talent and with such discipline as I have rarely seen in older students — Merlin alone knows where that comes from, certainly not from his father — and a drive to succeed that is almost Slytherin." Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Snape strode along the corridor toward the Hospital Wing, his robes billowing in his wake. "I believe that the boy would be capable of functioning at a higher level than most of his classmates, but since it is not possible to advance him, I have settled for giving him additional work of a sort which challenges him to think independently and develop skills which will be useful to him in the future. So far, I have not been disappointed. I believe that by the time he leaves school, he will, if he wishes, be qualified to apprentice with the finest Potions Masters of Europe. For the next seven years, Black, I shall have him ten months of the year. You shall have him two, at most — unless he goes back to his secret hideout again, in which case you’ll have him even less. It is I who shall mould him, shape him, teach him what he needs to know. By the end of his seventh year, Harry will be more my child than yours or Potter’s." Snape came to a sudden stop before the Hospital Wing doors and whirled to face Black. "And that, Black, will be my revenge."
"You won’t — you won’t force him?"
"No. I shall encourage him to follow his dreams and talents, find ways to lead him where he wishes to go. Even if he chooses not to pursue the field of Potions, I shall help him in whatever field he desires. I am not without a certain amount of influence these days," he said bitterly. "I might as well put it to some use. And that way I shall satisfy the doubly-damned Life Debt you saddled me with. When the boy becomes a man, my debt will be paid and my conscience will be clean. Can you say the same of yours?"
"All right. All right," said Black, his hands raised in surrender. "I don’t think I could stop you. I won’t fight you on this. But I warn you, if any harm comes to Harry as a result…"
"Threats are childish and unbecoming, Black. And you shouldn’t make a threat you might not be able to fulfil. Are you quite finished?"
"One condition, Snape. If you ever have a son, I demand the right to teach him the ways of the Marauders. It’s only fair," Black said as Snape’s face showed his surprise. "You take our only child, I want a shot at yours."
"I fail to see why you should think I’d be in a position to have a son," said Snape. "I know very well I’m not a prime catch on the Marriage Mart."
"Maybe you’re not the handsomest man in the world, but I think you underestimate the value of the Hero of the War against Voldemort," said Black with a grin. "Not to mention the youngest man to qualify as a Potions Master in several centuries. And I think you’re not looking at what’s right under your nose. Of course, considering the size of the nose in question …"
"What on earth are you babbling about?"
"Oh, nothing. Just that I happen to remember what Pomfrey — both of the Pomfrey sisters — looked like." He used his hands to sketch out the shape of a generous female figure in the air, then laughed and pushed open the Hospital Wing doors.
Snape followed, fuming as he watched Black greet Poppy Pomfrey effusively, bending over her hand to kiss it as if he was in the ballroom of a Great House instead of in the Hospital Wing. A slight blush came to the Healer’s cheek as she led Black off to her office to have a private conference about the health of his godson. Snape’s business would wait until Black had gone.
Snape watched them go, suddenly aware as he hadn’t been before of the curves hidden beneath Poppy’s starched uniform. He had never loathed Black more than he did in that moment.
Saturday morning was crisp and clear and cold, and some of the older Hufflepuffs had advised Harry to get out and enjoy it while he could, since the weather was likely to turn nasty any day now, and then stay nasty for months. The New Marauders were caught up enough on their homework that they felt they could take the day off, and Harry, for once, had no Quidditch practice. The Gryffindor and Slytherin teams, preparing for their first game, had booked the pitch solid for the weekend. In view of all that, after due deliberation by the group, it was decided that they should take Hagrid up on his offer to let them visit him, which Harry had not yet had a chance to do.
Hagrid usually didn't attend breakfast in the Great Hall, so Harry sent a school owl, since Hedwig hadn't returned from her other deliveries yet, off with a short note asking if it was all right for them to visit. The bird returned a few minutes later with a reply scribbled on the back of Harry's note, saying that Hagrid would be at home and would be happy to see them. So they bundled themselves up in their warmest clothes and woollen cloaks, and headed off across the grounds to the gamekeeper's hut at the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Both boys had a tendency to run ahead and then back to the girls, who were walking more sedately, with the result that Harry and Neville travelled about twice as far as Hermione and Tracey did. They all had to be careful on the steeply sloping path, which led first to a small stone circle and then out again onto a hillside from which they could look down on the gamekeeper's house and the Forest beyond. "Ooh, look at that!" said Hermione. "When he said he was adding on to his house, he wasn't kidding!"
The original part of the gamekeeper's hut was obvious, a smallish, round building of rough hewn wood on a crude stone foundation. The walls and wood-shingled roof had been patched and repaired over the years, but all in all the place had seen better days. The new addition was also round and easily twice the size of the original building, with the result that it looked vaguely like a figure 8. Its wooden walls, however, were smoothly finished above a foundation of carefully set stone. There was a massive chimney at one end, from which white smoke issued, and high windows let in light all around beneath a slate roof.
Hagrid came out to greet them as they approached the house. "Harry, good ter see yeh again! C'mon in, I'll show yeh 'round!" He ushered them into the smaller, older part of the building. The furniture in the room was all Hagrid-sized, which meant there wasn’t much space. There was a wide table with bench seats, an armchair next to a smaller reading table covered with books and papers, a dresser and a wardrobe. A large bed, hastily made up with a patchwork quilt, took up most of the rest of the space since it was obvious that the overhead sleeping loft was far too small for someone Hagrid’s size. The ceiling was festooned with dangling hams, sausages, dead pheasants, and pots and pans hanging like gigantic windchimes over the table. Other household goods hung from hooks on the wall near the gigantic fireplace, where a copper kettle full of water bubbled gently over the fire. What little wall space was left was taken over by the large, obviously new door that connected the hut with the newer addition. Two dogs’ beds, one occupied by an enormous but elderly boarhound, were shoved under the table to make room on the floor.
"Now then, introduce me to yer little friends, will yer, Harry?"
"Oh, right. Hagrid, please meet Tracey Davis and Hermione Granger, and Neville Longbottom," Harry said formally. Nanny had drilled his manners into him, and he was embarrassed that he’d almost forgotten.
As her name was mentioned, Tracey did a curiously graceful little dip. Hermione did the same, although a bit more clumsily. Hagrid did an awkward bow to the girls in response, muttering, "Ladies." Neville bravely stuck out his hand, which was engulfed in Hagrid’s and heartily shaken. "Glad ter meet yer, Neville. I remember yer Dad, he was a good lad. I look forward ter knowin’ yer." Neville obviously wasn’t sure about his father being a "good lad" — from what little the Gryffindor had told his friends, Frank Longbottom seemed stern and formidable — but he murmured polite thanks to Hagrid.
The large man got the children settled on the seats around the table, serving tea and large, rock hard cakes that the students pretended to nibble at after Hermione almost broke a tooth on one. Harry slipped one to the large dog under the table, and the beast gnawed on it happily. "What’s your dog’s name, Hagrid?" he asked.
"That’s Fang. Don’t worry â€˜bout him. He’s a big sissy, he is. Bark’s worse than his bite, and his breath is worse than both."
"Do you have another dog? There’s another bed under here." Neville was clearly hoping to be able to get rid of one of his own cakes.
"Oh, that’s Fluffy’s bed. He ain’t here righ’ now. Loaned him ter someone who needed him for a bit. Good guard dog, Fluffy is."
Tea was interrupted when the new door opened a bit and a house elf stuck his head in. Harry was delighted to see the elf; the elves in the castle were quite strict about not being seen as they went about their jobs, and he’d been feeling homesick for little green faces.
"Mister Hagrid, sir, Poddy hates to interrupt, but the baby is awake again and needs feeding, sir, and he isn’t letting Poddy do it."
"I’ll come take care of it, Poddy. You get a new poultice ready fer afterwards, all righ’?"
The elf nodded vigorously and vanished, and the large man heaved himself to his feet. "Come on, then, I’ll show yer the new wing and introduce yer ter its firs’ resident." He led the way through the double doors into the large, clean space which had obviously been designed with him in mind.
Harry looked about curiously. The room was warm, heated well by its stone fireplace, and there were work tables of various sorts around the room. A large cabinet full of interesting-looking jars stood beneath one window, and the elf was standing on a work table near it, pouring various herbs into a large mortar. But his attention was drawn most by the occupant of a small, temporary pen that had been set up where it could take advantage of the fireplace’s warmth, but not too near, because it was filled with straw.
It looked sort of like a colt, but it obviously wasn’t a regular horse or pony. It had long, delicate legs and a slim neck and head. Its little hooves were cloven like a deer’s, and it had a long tail with a tuft at the end. Its fine hair, which looked like it would be very soft, was a pale gold in colour, although its mane and tail tuft were white. Its eyes were large, expressive, and very purple, and a pearly bud of bone gleamed on its forehead. The small creature was bleating in distress as they entered, but when it saw Hagrid it lurched to its feet and leaned its head over the edge of the pen to nuzzle the big man’s hand and receive a caress in return. Once it was up and moving, the children could see that it had been wounded recently; it was limping and had a nasty jagged cut over its hip.
"Oh, he’s beautiful!" breathed Tracey, moving forward and offering it her fingers to sniff.
"What sort of animal is he?" asked Hermione. "Is he some sort of deer? Or an antelope?"
"Nothin’ so common as that," Hagrid replied. "This here is a unicorn foal."
"I thought they were supposed to be pure white," said Tracey.
"Adults are white, but the foals are gold like this for the firs’ year. Right rare it is to see one, too. Their dams are usually that protective, yeh’d be taking yer life in yer hands to get near one."
"Where is his mother, then?" asked Harry. The foal was obviously too little to be out on its own.
"Dunno. I found this little â€˜un in the Forest last week, all tangled up in a patch of Mile-a-Minute vine. If I’d been even a little bit later, it would have grown right over him," said Hagrid. "I cut him loose and brought him to the edge of the Forest where I could keep an eye on him until his mum found him, but she never did. So I’ve been feedin’ him and keepin’ him in here where it’s warm, and the Perfesser and I are tryin’ to figure out how to heal that cut on his hip. It’s a nasty one, it is."
Neville leaned over the edge of the pen to get a look at the wound while the baby unicorn investigated Harry’s pockets to see if there was a treat there. "Huh. Take a look at this, Harry. The cut looks like that scar on your forehead."
Harry leaned over to get a good view. "You’re right. Only, it zigs where mine zags."
"No, it’s exactly like it," said Hermione, her gaze flickering from the unicorn’s flank to Harry’s forehead. "You’re used to seeing yours in the mirror, so it looks backward to you."
Hagrid got down on his knees and took a closer look at the unicorn’s wound and Harry’s scar. For once, Harry didn’t mind someone looking at it that closely; it wasn’t as if the gamekeeper was staring at it out of pure curiosity. "I think yer young lady’s got the righ’ of it," Hagrid said slowly. "Mebbe that’s not just a cut on him, but a curse scar like yers. An’ if that’s what it is, he’ll probably never see his mum again, neither."
Harry shuddered in sympathy for the little unicorn. "Can he be adopted by another unicorn?"
Hagrid shook his head sadly. "Unicorns don’ work like that. If his mum is dead, he’ll have to be hand raised, and he’ll never live in the Forest with the rest of â€˜em. But he’ll manage. He’ll be right popular with the girls in the Perfesser’s classes. Bet they’ll spoil him like anythin’."
"Won’t he be popular with the boys?" asked Harry.
"Well, boys an’ unicorns, they don’t usually get along too well. Older boys, anyway," Hagrid said, noting that both Harry and Neville seemed to be quite taken with the orphaned foal. "Now, who’d like to help me feed him?"
Shortly, Hermione was settled in the straw bedding holding a bottle of warm milk for the foal, while Neville and Tracey petted it gently. Tracey was singing a soft lullaby to it, which it seemed to like. "Tha’s good," said Hagrid approvingly. "Lots of magical critters like music, they do, but I’m not too good in the singin’ department. Fluffy likes it when I play the flute to him, though. Calms him right down. Mebbe I’ll try me flute with this little fellow. Harry, I hear yeh’re good with Potions. Would yer mind helping me and Poddy with the poultice fer that cut? If it is a curse scar it won’t heal him, but it will make him more comfortable â€˜til I can get Perfesser Kettleburn, or mebbe even Snape, to come look at it."
Harry happily agreed, and soon he and Hagrid and Poddy were discussing the various herbs that could be used in the poultice. When all the herbs were ground up, mixed with soothing oils, and warmed in a ceramic bowl over a candle flame, he helped Hagrid smear the mixture gently over the wound and covered it with a bandage to keep it in place.
Since the unicorn would never live with the herd in the forest, they decided to give him a name, and finally settled on calling him Bolt because of the curse mark. There had been some discussion of calling Harry "Bolt" (or "Mister Bolt") as his Marauder name, and then calling the unicorn "Bolt II", but Harry firmly refused to be called Bolt and have a unicorn named after him.
Eventually, however, rumbling stomachs reminded them that it would be a good idea to go back to the castle for some luncheon. While Neville and the girls went off ahead, Harry hung back to talk to Hagrid. "Hagrid — do you know if the chimaera made it? The one from the tower?"
"How’d you know about that?" Hagrid asked. "S’posed to be a secret, that is."
"I heard Professor Kettleburn telling the Headmaster about it when I was in the Hospital Wing," said Harry. "So, did it?"
"Well, seeing as you already know â€˜bout it — no, he didn’." Hagrid glanced off toward the Forest, and following his gaze, Harry saw a large mound of disturbed earth at the edge of the trees.
"Are they going to be putting something else in to guard the tower?" Harry was watching Hagrid’s face closely and saw a guarded expression cross it. "They are, aren’t they? You loaned Fluffy to the Headmaster to protect what you took out of Gringotts. But what can one dog do?"
"Never you mind â€˜bout that, Harry. Yer tryin’ to find out â€˜bout things that don’ concern yeh. It's dangerous. You forget that dog, an’ you forget what it’s guardin’. That's between Professor Dumbledore an' Missus Flamel—" Hagrid caught himself up short. "Go on and get yer lunch, Harry." A pat of his massive hand nearly knocked Harry off his feet and pushed him in the direction of the castle.
Harry was thoughtful as he ran to catch up with Neville, Hermione and Tracey, but the train of his thoughts was derailed when he entered the stone circle where they had paused to wait for him. Tracey and Hermione were taking turns making that curious bobbing movement, and Neville was bowing to each of them in turn. All three of them were laughing.
"What’s all this, then?" asked Harry.
"Etiquette lessons." said Hermione. "Tracey says Wizarding manners are different from Muggle manners, and I asked her to show me. It is very different," she said confidingly.
"I noticed that at home, too. Nanny taught me all these fancy things, but when I actually went out into town, I noticed they didn’t do all the things she said, like bowing and stuff. So I figured it was just, you know, Nanny, and did it mostly to make her happy. Uncle Peter said I should know it, too, but he didn’t seem to think it was really that important. You mean that’s the difference between Wizard and Muggle manners? I think I like the Muggle way better. Less to remember."
"Maybe, but you’re going to be an important person when you grow up, Harry. People are going to expect you to do social things like balls and parties when you grow up, because you’re, you know, a Potter, and all that. And they’re going to expect …" Tracey gestured helplessly in Hermione’s direction. "… Because you …" She seemed at a loss for words.
"Why are they going to expect Hermione to know it because of me? It’s not like we’re going to be married, or anything." Neville made a choking noise, Tracey put her hand over her eyes, and Hermione went pale. Harry narrowed his eyes. "Okay, what am I missing here?" asked Harry. "Did I do something I shouldn’t have?"
"Harry, have you ever heard of a Lady Fair?" asked Tracey.
"No, should I have?"
"How about a Life Debt?" asked Neville.
"No. What’s that?"
"A Life Debt is a bond made when a wizard saves another wizard’s life. Then the second wizard owes the first a debt until he can repay it, either by saving the first wizard’s life in return or provides some service that they both agree repays the debt. In medieval times, there were whole contracts drawn up on how to repay Life Debts."
"Okay, but I don’t see … oh. I guess I saved Hermione that day, didn’t I? So now she owes me this Life Debt thing?"
"It’s different with witches. If a wizard saves a witch’s life, he’s supposed to be kind of responsible for her, and she’s his Lady Fair. You know in the old stories, where the knight saves the princess from a dragon or an evil sorceror and then they get married?"
"You mean I have to marry Hermione because I saved her from a runaway broom?" yelped Harry. Hermione winced. "Sorry, Hermione, but I need to know."
"Well, no. Nobody still does things that way for real. Your guardians can’t even start to negotiate a marriage contract until you’re thirteen. But people will expect you, to, you know, be nice to her, and escort her to Hogsmeade when we can go, and things like that."
"Okay, I can do that."
"Good, because we’re going to need to do some work to repair her reputation after you repudiated her."
"Repudi … when did I repudiate her?"
Neville, surprisingly, was the one who replied. "Susan told Lavender that you repudiated Hermione in front of everyone in your Common Room. She said you told everyone that Hermione wasn’t your girlfriend."
"What? I was talking to Gilbert Spinks, who was doing that stupid song, you know, â€˜Harry’s got a girlfriend, Harry’s got a girlfriend…’ And I told him Hermione wasn’t my girlfriend to shut him up. That’s what this is about?"
"Well, Lavender had already told everybody about how she would be your Lady Fair because you saved her. And when you said that in your Common Room, Lavender said you’d repudiated her, and the girls decided it was because she was a Muggleborn and wasn’t pretty and wouldn’t be able to move in society. So they were being, I guess, kind of catty about it, and Parvati told Padma and then Padma told Hermione because they were in the same House and thought she ought to know what people were saying about her," said Tracey
"I thought it would blow over, that people would forget about it," said Hermione. "I think the whole thing is just ridiculous, of course. Antiquated. But people kept talking behind my back, and then there was that thing with Weasley in Charms…"
"When you spent the whole day in the lav? What did he say to you?" asked Harry, dangerously.
"He said … I had corrected him on his pronunciation. He kept saying Wingardium Leviosa all wrong and I was just trying to help, but he said … he said I shouldn’t correct him since I wasn’t even enough of a witch to be your Lady Fair."
"So when I found Hermione in the lav, she told me what was happening, and I promised to teach her proper manners, and we’ve been practicing," said Tracey. "Did you see her curtsey to Hagrid?"
"I am going to kill Ron Weasley," muttered Harry.
"What about Lavender?" asked Hermione. "She really started all this."
"I’ll kill them both. Or maybe fix them up together. They deserve each other."
"We can deal with them later. Let’s fix this first."
So it was that at lunch that day, the first and second years giggled to see Harry enter the Great Hall with Hermione on his arm. He escorted her to her seat at the Ravenclaw table and gave her a little bow before going to his own place with the Hufflepuffs. And Hermione told Padma who told Parvati who told Lavender who told anybody else who would listen that the repudiation was all a mistake, and Harry Potter had asked Hermione Granger to be his Lady Fair. And all the girls sighed and said how romantic it all was, and all the boys shuddered and resolved not to save any girls’ lives if they could possibly avoid it.
The first weekend of November had, indeed, been the last weekend of fair weather, and the rest of the month settled in very cold. The ground froze solid, and the lake was covered with ice all round the edges, but the movement of the giant squid who lived in the lake kept it from freezing in the centre.
The Quidditch season was soon to begin. The first game scheduled was Slytherin against Gryffindor, and Harry couldn’t wait to see it. Madame Hooch had cleared Harry to play, declaring him a natural on a broom, so even though he was just on the reserve squad, Harry was officially the youngest player on a House team in a century. Cedric had promised to sit next to him during the game and explain everything to him.
At eleven o’clock on the second Saturday in November, virtually the entire population of the school took places on the raised Quidditch stands. Harry and Cedric had managed to get seats in the first row, squashed in between Aidan Cullen, Hufflepuff’s Captain and star Chaser, and Charles Ryder, the sixth-year Keeper. Harry was bombarded with Quidditch commentary from all sides.
"…Slytherin has won the House championship for the last seven years in a row. They’re brutal players, just brutal. Some accuse them of cheating, but they do keep it legal. Just barely, mind you …"
"… Gryffindor’s got two major problems. First, they depend almost entirely on their Seeker getting the Snitch, and they just haven’t had a good Seeker since Charlie Weasley …"
"They did have hopes for Percy Weasley after Charlie left school, but the boy is just dreadful on a broom …"
"Those twins weren’t bad last year, though, bound to be good this year, too … just not Seeker material."
"SECOND," said Aidan, continuing his train of thought, "They didn’t develop players across several years. Almost their entire team left a couple of years ago, leaving a fourth-year as their most senior player last year. A fourth-year! Wood does the best he can, but with most of the team second- and third-years, well, they just don’t have the experience or muscle to deal with older, stronger players. And they have virtually no reserves. If any of their players get hurt, they have a big problem."
"Oh, here they come!" Screams and cheers drowned out the chat, as two teams emerged from the dugouts and met Madam Hooch at the centre of the field. Harry had to agree that the Gryffindor players did look very small compared to the Slytherins. The Slytherin Captain, Marcus Flint, was particularly huge, and Harry wondered if he might have some troll blood. Oliver Wood, the Gryffindor Keeper and Captain, now in his fifth year, was on the burly side, but no match for the Slytherin. Next to the all-male Slytherin team, the female Chasers and Seeker for Gryffindor looked particularly delicate.
"I want a nice clean game, all of you," said Madame Hooch. Then she gave a loud blast on her silver whistle. Fifteen brooms rose up, high, high into the air. They were off.
Leaning forward with his forearms on the railing, Harry couldn’t help but wish he was out there now, looking for the Snitch or tossing the Quaffle. He tried to pay close attention to the rapid-fire commentary for the match.
"And the Quaffle is taken immediately by Angelina Johnson of Gryffindor -- what an excellent Chaser that girl is, and rather attractive, too--"
The commentator was wearing a Gryffindor scarf and seemed just a wee bit biased; he was being closely watched by Professor McGonagall.
"And she's really belting along up there, a neat pass to Alicia Spinnet, a good find of Oliver Wood's, last year only a reserve -- back to Johnson and -- no, the Slytherins have taken the Quaffle, Slytherin Captain Marcus Flint gains the Quaffle and off he goes -- Flint flying like an eagle up there -- he's going to sc -- no, stopped by an excellent move by Gryffindor Keeper Wood and the Gryffindors take the Quaffle -- that's Chaser Patricia Stimpson of Gryffindor there, nice dive around Flint, off up the field and -- OUCH -- that must have hurt, hit in the back of the head by a Bludger -- Quaffle taken by the Slytherins -- that's Adrian Pucey speeding off toward the goal posts, but he's blocked by a second Bludger -- sent his way by Fred or George Weasley, can't tell which -- nice play by the Gryffindor Beater, anyway, and Johnson back in possession of the Quaffle, a clear field ahead and off she goes -- she's really flying -- dodges a speeding Bludger -- the goal posts are ahead -- come on, now, Angelina -- Keeper Bletchley dives -- misses -- GRYFFINDORS SCORE!"
Gryffindor cheers filled the cold air, with howls and moans from the Slytherins. Most of the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs cheered for the Gryffindors as well.
The Gryffindor Seeker, a spunky second-year by the name of Katie Bell, was circling high above the field, trying to stay out of the way of the Bludgers until the Snitch came into view. In contrast, the Slytherin Higgs was flying in and out of the melee in a successful attempt to distract the young Gryffindor players.
"That Stimpson, she’s new," said Cedric, as the Slytherin Beaters sent a Bludger at the girl and caused her to miss the Quaffle. "Not the best flyer. Maybe she’ll get better. Bell would probably have been a better choice, but they needed her for Seeker. You need the best flyer there."
"Slytherin in possession," Lee Jordan was saying, "Chaser Pucey ducks two Bludgers, two Weasleys, and Chaser Spinnett, and speeds toward the -- wait a moment -- was that the Snitch?"
A murmur ran through the crowd as Adrian Pucey dropped the Quaffle, too busy looking over his shoulder at the flash of gold that had passed his left ear.
Harry saw it, and so did the Gryffindor Seeker. From her high vantage point, she dived downward after the streak of gold. Slytherin Seeker Terence Higgs had seen it, too. Neck and neck they hurtled toward the Snitch -- all the Chasers seemed to have forgotten what they were supposed to be doing as they hung in midair to watch.
Bell was faster than Higgs, and Harry cheered her on as she put on an extra spurt of speed —
WHAM! A roar of rage echoed from the Gryffindors below -- Marcus Flint had blocked Bell on purpose, and her broom spun off course, the young Seeker holding on for dear life.
"Foul!" screamed the Gryffindors.
Madam Hooch spoke angrily to Flint and then ordered a free shot at the goal posts for Gryffindor. But in all the confusion, of course, the Golden Snitch had disappeared from sight again.
"Is it always like that?" Harry asked Cedric.
"Sometimes worse. Slytherin is the only team that does that sort of thing deliberately, but you might get clobbered accidentally by Gryffindor — they can be very aggressive too. Not the Ravenclaws, so much."
Since Harry was paying close attention to the Slytherin Seeker, he was the first one to notice that something was wrong, as Higgs’ broom suddenly jerked about erratically, then gave a lurch as if it was trying to buck him off.
"Cedric, look! Higgs’ broom! It’s trying to throw him off!"
"Can’t be … but it is! That’s not even a school broom, it’s his own. Wonder what’s … wow, look at it go!"
Lee Jordan, with his eagle eye trying to see everything that went on in the game, was the next to spot the misbehaving broom.
"And Higgs makes a dive into the middle of the game … has he seen the Snitch? No, it looks like his broom is out of control! Merlin, he’s flying SIDEWAYS! The Gryffindor Chasers are scattering … come on, Stimpson, move! Oh, bloody hell!"
With the Seeker now clinging desperately to his broom, the rogue Cleansweep shot through the main body of the players, sending Gryffindors and Slytherins dodging in all directions. Patricia Stimpson, the inexperienced Chaser, was frozen in terror, right in front of the Hufflepuff stands, blocking Harry and Cedric’s view of the action, until Higgs’ broom slewed sideways and ploughed into her. Carried by his momentum, the two of them crashed directly into the Hufflepuff seats, where people leaped to safety as best they could.
Aidan flung himself to the side, sprawling across several younger girls, while Charles Ryder attempted to scramble backwards, though the press of people behind him ensured he didn’t get anywhere. Both Harry and Cedric were trapped by the crowds on either side of or behind them. Cedric, in a move born of extreme self-confidence or insane desperation, flung himself forward over the rail and dangled from the edge of the Hufflepuff house banner to keep himself from plummeting to the frozen ground below. Terrence Higgs and Patricia Stimpson, totally out of control, crashed at full speed into the stands where he had been standing.
The Hufflepuff section of the stands was full of chaos and screaming students, some trying to get away from the crash and others trying to get to it to try to help the injured. The hysteria spread to other parts of the stands as well, hindering professors who were trying to make their ways to the scene of the accident. Professor Sprout, who was seated in the middle of the Hufflepuffs, was closest but was unable to make her way through the crowd of panicking students, some of which were crying and clinging to her. Professor McGonagall and Headmaster Dumbledore were fighting their way over from the commentator’s box, while Professor Snape attempted to calm the Slytherins. Professor Quirrell was knocked right off his seat and down a stairwell by a group of girls fleeing the Ravenclaw stands. Marcus Flint, looking extremely shaken, flew up near the Slytherin stands to get advice from his Head of House. Snape stabbed his finger down toward the dugouts, where Madam Pomfrey was stationed during games to deal with any injuries that might happen, and then at the Hufflepuff stands. The usual assumption was that any accidents might happen on the ground (usually a student making contact with it at high speed), not in the stands, and Madam Pomfrey was thus situated some distance away from where she was now needed, without a broom. Flint took the point and flew down to offer the mediwitch a lift up to the stands. He carefully avoided the side of the banner where the Weasley twins were performing a rescue of Cedric Diggory, who was beginning to lose his grip.
In the middle of it all, Katie Bell caught the snitch, winning the game for Gryffindor, but nobody noticed for quite some time.
With Madame Pomfrey attending to the injured, the other professors were able to calm the other students and get everyone moving back to the castle. Some fifteen minutes after the crash, Cedric, still shaking from the narrow escape, started looking for Harry, and when he couldn’t find him, Professor Sprout took a headcount.
Harry Potter had vanished. Again.
A/N: For those of you who have been following my husband’s sig line about Harry’s handkerchief, unfortunately that bit didn’t make it into this chapter. Next one. I promise.