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Author Notes:

A wicked trap is set, this time by Harry, and the only escape lies deep inside the Emerald Tablet.  In Psychomachia you'll find a year riddled with secrets, lies, revenge, and quite a bit of chocolate.

Psychomachia (the 'battle of the souls') is part 2 of a two-part series: Harry Potter and the Emerald Tablet.  Part 1 is Awakenings.

 

The grin was still plastered all over Harry Potter’s face as he wriggled back through the window of the train compartment he had gatecrashed.  He had just solved a prophecy that tormented his guardian and his godmother for ten long years and he was feeling on top of the world.

      “Here you go, Ha-Harry,” said a plump girl with curly brown hair and a rather regrettable case of acne.  Gingerly, she held out Frank’s saggy basket.

     A sixteenth birthday gift from Hagrid, Frank was Harry’s pet Diamond Python, a long and rather insouciant singing python who (in Harry’s opinion) took a great deal too much pleasure in startling the unwary and sticking his wedge-shaped nose in Harry’s love life.  Harry gave the pimply girl his biggest smile.

     “Thanks very much, Eloise,” he said happily.  The girl’s mouth fell open; she seemed stunned he knew her name.  “Cheers,” he added, nodding to the group at large.  He collected Hedwig from a young boy (who, unfortunately, looked to be the spitting image of his big sister) and was at the door when the boy gamely piped up.

     “What was all that about, sir?”

     Elizabeth and Remus Lupin had last been seen (by the entire Hogwarts student body) in a flagrantly passionate embrace on platform nine and three-quarters back at Kings Cross Station.

     Smiling, Harry said, “Oh, they were just really happy to get rid of me.  And don’t call me sir.”

     “Yes, sir. I mean no, sir.  I mean ...”  The little boy’s voice trailed off in awe.

     “What’s your name?” asked Harry.

     “Brutus, Brutus from Basingstoke.”

     Valiantly, Harry did not laugh; Frank was less gracious and snickered softly from inside his basket. 

     “First year?” Harry guessed, squishing his python firmly under his armpit.  The boy nodded.  His liquid brown eyes were full of fear and excitement.  “Good luck in the Sorting.  Piece of advice: don’t be afraid to let the hat know what you want.”

     Harry’s happily glittering green moodstone lasted well into the Midlands.  After locating half the DA in a string of compartments three carriages along, he spent the journey to his sixth year at Hogwarts catching up with friends, eating too many pumpkin pasties, and playing a messy game of Gobstones on the floor of his compartment with Neville Longbottom and Justin Finch-Fletchley.  Frank quickly abandoned Harry for Susan Bones (to whom the serpent had taken quite a shine over the summer) and spent the whole trip coiled languidly in her lap.  He just lay there, dreamily hissing songs to her, while she read from a novel with one hand and idly stroked his long, silvery body with the other, her fingertips tracing his body all the way to the tip of his quivering tail.

     “Ow!” Harry yelped, and Justin crowed in victory, having just delivered a generous spray of violet goo into Harry’s ear.

     “Nice one,” Susan said, chuckling behind The Lady and the Wraith.

     Throughout the trip, Harry’s friends drifted in and out of the compartment, full of questions about the Lupins, but they did not find Harry very forthcoming.  In the manner of teenage boys from all around the world, Harry merely shrugged and said, “Yeah, they’re back together now.”

     Unsurprisingly, the girls (in company with Ravenclaw’s worst gossip, Terry Boot) found this singularly unsatisfying, but Harry couldn’t tell them the true story; he promised his guardian, and his guardian’s trust meant more to him than impressing his friends with a bit of juicy gossip.  He was just determinedly smashing another of Justin’s golden Gobstones out of the game when Ron, Hermione, and the rest of the DA prefects arrived.  Ron extracted Harry for a quiet word.

     “You haven’t told her about the island, have you?” he whispered worriedly.

     “Who?”

     “Hermione.”

     Harry blinked.  “Haven’t really had a chance to —”

     “Don’t,” cut in Ron.  His ears were very red.

     The existence of Black Island was a tightly held secret, even from the Order of the Phoenix, but Harry suspected it wasn’t Death Eaters that were troubling Ron’s ears.  He dragged his mate to the end of the carriage and crossed his arms, waiting.  Ron busied himself toying with the apparently fascinating vacant-sign on the toilet door. 

     “She doesn’t know, does she?” Harry said shrewdly.  “About Natalie.”

     Ron shrugged eloquently.

     “Ginny’s never —” started Harry.

     “Ginny doesn’t know about the island or Natalie or anything,” Ron countered.  “She just thinks we were at your house.  Didn’t want her tagging along.”

     Harry chewed at his lip; it occurred to him that Hermione not finding out about his Black Island house-elves, Lovey and Dovey, would save a lot of melodrama.  In any case, he doubted Ron’s summer romance with Elizabeth’s Canadian niece would last much longer, not with them living on opposite sides of the pond.

     “I won’t bring it up,” he said finally.  “But just don’t get me stuck in the middle of anything.”

     “Yeah, yeah,” Ron agreed with relief.  “Not a problem.  Hey, did you hear about Cho?”

     “What?”

     “She got Head Girl.”

     “Yeah?  Cool.”

     “Not bad having a girlfriend who’s Head Girl,” Ron noted.  “Gotta be worth a few perks.”

     Harry was just about to tell Ron that he and Cho had broken up (hopefully for the last time) when he sensed someone coming up from behind.

     “Are you protecting the toilet from the Japanese Toilet God?” prompted a familiar dreamy voice.  “Hanako-san died in a school bathroom, you know.  He can really scare the you-know-what out of you.”

     Ron and Harry snorted delighted laughs.  Who else but Luna Lovegood would know about Toilet Gods?

     “You can laugh,” she warned them knowingly, “but you don’t want to say his name three times in a row when you’re sitting on the loo; that’d flush him out for sure.”

     “Good holiday, Luna?” Harry asked over Ron’s helpless giggling.

     “Oh yes, we had a wonderful time!” declared Luna, looking surprised and very pleased that Harry would ask.  “I’m so glad you survived another summer.  We didn’t find out you were in hospital until yesterday or I would have sent you some pomegranates.  Don’t worry, though,” she assured him very seriously, “my father’s going to write a special editorial demanding a Ministry task force hunt down the herd of Heliopaths that attacked you.”

     Harry stared.  Then he beamed at her and said, “That sounds absolutely brilliant, Luna.”

     A surprise awaited the students at lantern-lit Hogsmeade Station; numerous Ministry security guards ushered them from the carriages.  Hermione said they were Hogwarts’ new ‘Castle Guard’, assigned by the new Minister for Magic, Madam Amelia Bones, in response to the demands of fearful parents.  Hermione said they were only supposed to guard the school gate and perimeters, not the castle itself.

     “They’ve been lobbying for more responsibilities,” she panted as she tried to hold onto Crookshanks and two huge books for the journey up the drive, “oh, thanks,” she said as Ron relieved her of the ginger feline, “but Dumbledore refused.  Politely,” she added as an afterthought as Ron helped her into a carriage with Dean and Ginny.

     In Harry’s opinion, the guards looked bored and self-important; the only thing they had in common with Peacock Knights, an elite order of international peacekeepers who guarded Harry in hospital, was the colour of their ill-fitting robes.  Having dismissed the Prefects, they were now trying to make Hagrid step aside and ‘let them do their job’.  Hagrid accidentally-on-purpose gave one of them a sharp poke with his umbrella and bellowed at the first years to follow him.  The guards raced to catch up.  Then Hagrid spotted Harry and let loose a mighty howl of joy.  He whipped out a paisley handkerchief the size of a small tablecloth and waved it madly, sending security guards and first years flying.  Harry grinned and waved back and grabbed a seat in the next carriage with Neville and Susan (and Hedwig, Frank, and the ever-elusive Trevor).  He was just getting comfortable when Justin leapt into the carriage with his caged barn owl.

     “Made it!” he panted happily.

     One of the Thestrals twisted its skeletal head around to eyeball them, making everyone flinch — except Justin, who was oblivious.  Typical, thought Harry, feeling oddly satisfied.  Once they got going, he tried to sort out a routine with Susan for his python.  The one-pet rule meant Frank would be living with her during term.

     “Didn’t you use to have a toad?” Neville asked Susan.  Both Harry and Justin snorted laughs.  Neville winced sympathetically.  “Did he run away?”

     “Ah, no,” Susan said wryly as she tied a card with her name onto Frank’s basket, “Gilderoy’s quite happy in the duck pond this year.  Oh, look!  There’s the castle — I love it when it’s all lit up.”

     Harry twisted in his seat to see the castle far above them.  Every year he relished the journey up the long drive, knowing that good friends, good food, and a warm bed awaited him.  One way or another, he’d seen more of the dark underbelly of Hogwarts and its occupants than most, but it had been his true home for the last five years and he loved it still.  On arrival, he tried to leave Frank with the other pets just inside the entrance hall, but Frank was not to be put off so easily, not with such delicious aromas wafting from the kitchens.

     “Frank — please!” Harry pleaded in Parseltongue, pulling the snake from around his legs; he’d just spotted Professor McGonagall emerging from the Great Hall.

     “You promised me a treat!” Frank reminded Harry; his forked tongue was quivering with excitement.

     “I know, I know,” said Harry.  “I’ll save you something really good — but please — please — just get back — back in your basket for me — come on, come on.”  Frank slithered higher up Harry’s body.  Things were getting desperate; McGonagall was coming straight towards them.  Harry slyly hissed, “You know, there’s a good chance we’ll sing the school song.”

     Frank dived for his basket.

     “Mr Potter, a word?” called Professor McGonagall.  Harry jumped guiltily.  Sharp blue eyes narrowed behind square glasses as Frank’s tail disappeared down Harry’s legs — and did not miss the snowy owl at Harry’s feet.  “Potter, I thought I made it clear you could only bring one pet —”

     “He’s mine, Professor,” Susan cut in.

     “Yours, Miss Bones?”

     Susan scooped up the lid of Frank’s basket and pointed out her name.  “Harry was just helping me with him.  Him being a Parselmouth and all ... um ...”

     Professor McGonagall didn’t look convinced, but the noisy melee of students distracted her.  “Longbottom, would you kindly control that toad!  Mr Malfoy, you’re holding up traffic!  Move along, move along!”

     Malfoy slumped away after exchanging a nasty smile with Harry.

     “Right,” said McGonagall, turning back to Harry and his friends, “off you go.  Not you, Potter.  Follow me — quickly, now!”

     She headed up the stairs and Harry trailed after her, trying to remember he hadn’t actually done anything wrong yet.  Standing in the Deputy Headmistress’s office, he discovered that far from being chastised for some unknown indiscretion, he was to receive a most welcome surprise.

     “... And I shall expect you to exert greater discipline and diligence this year, Potter,” said McGonagall.  “As captain of the Gryffindor Quidditch Team you are a role model not only for your team but your entire house.  Do not make me regret this appointment.”

     “Yes, Professor.”  Harry completely failed to hide a smile as he caressed the silver captain’s badge now pinned on his robes.  He wondered if this day could possibly get any better.  “I won’t let you down.”

     “I’m counting on it,” said McGonagall.

     Harry continued staring dopily at his badge.  He’d need to owl Remus — guardians needed to be kept up to date with this sort of thing.

     “Potter?  I said that’s all.  Now, get along.  I need to collect the first years for the Sorting.  Apparently, our new Castle Guard saw fit to dismiss Hagrid.  Goodness only knows where they’ve landed.”

     Harry noticed the Sorting Hat limp on a stool by McGonagall’s desk.

     “I can carry those for you,” he offered amiably.

     McGonagall nodded and together they made their way back down to the Entrance Hall, by which time the elderly witch was panting for breath and leaning more heavily than ever on her walking cane.  Harry was more than a little apprehensive about her making it all the way down the slippery path to the harbour beneath the castle. 

     “I can fetch the first years for you, Professor,” he offered magnanimously (though his generosity was at least partially related to knowing he wouldn’t be eating until the job was done — and McGonagall would likely take forever on her bung legs).

     The offer surprised McGonagall and earned Harry a rare smile.  “Thank you, Potter.  I shall await you here.”

     “They’ll be ages yet,” reasoned Harry.  “I can bring them in for you.”

     McGonagall hesitated a moment, as if Harry must surely have some ulterior motive for such an offer.  Then her eyes fell on his new captain’s badge.

     “Very well, Potter,” she decided briskly.  “You will need to explain about the Sorting of students into houses, and the House Cup, and the system of merit and demerit points.  I daresay you have more experience than most on that subject,” she said dryly.  “And you must be fair and positive about all the houses — yes, Potter, all of the houses,” she added archly.

     “Yes, Professor,” Harry agreed dutifully (but he privately remembered how valuable Ron’s warning about Slytherin had been all those years ago).

     “And you must wait until everyone is seated before bringing them in,” finished McGonagall, peering out the huge oak doors towards a lengthy procession of carriages slowly snaking up the drive.  Turning back to Harry, she eyed him up and down and said, “You might do to smarten yourself up a bit.  Straighten your hat.  And do clean your ears.  Right, off you go then.”

     Professor McGonagall took the Sorting Hat and stool and disappeared with them into the already noisy Great Hall.  Full of energy, Harry bounded down the castle steps, along a twisted rocky path, and down a tunnel that led to the harbour.  At the top of the cavern, he inhaled chill, moist air.  Far below on the pebble-strewn landing, children were already being manhandled out of their boats, three and four at a time, by a flustered-looking Hagrid.  There were no guards in sight.  Hagrid must have set a Hogwarts record for getting the boats across the lake.  The kids certainly seemed more excited and windswept than usual — and quite a number of them had lost their hats.

     Picking his way through stalactites and stalagmites, Harry amused himself noting how familiar the children looked: an excitable ‘Colin Creevey’ was jumping up and down and asking lots of questions; a black-skinned boy was giving Hagrid a hard time and acting like he owned the place; a few ‘Crabbes’ and ‘Goyles’ were pushing and shoving people around; a ‘Hannah Abbott’ with long blonde plaits, who looked far too small for her shabby robes, was tightly clutching the neck of what Harry hoped was not a real rabbit.  A smile twisted Harry’s lips; there was even one boy scrambling after a croaking toad.  Leaning casually against an ancient stone balustrade, Harry surveyed the noisy children.  Torches flickered on either side of him and he knew the lighting would make a spooky play of firelight across his face.  An evil ‘mwah ha ha ha ha!’ seemed in order, but he wouldn’t want to scare Hagrid.

     “Good evening!” he called out, but no one heard him over the croaks and squeals of laughter.  Disinclined to yell himself hoarse, he cast a Sonorus Charm on his throat.  “Good evening!” he repeated loudly.  The charm sent his voice echoing impressively throughout the cavern, making the children jump and Hagrid clutch a great ham fist to his heart.

     “Oh, it’s yeh, Harry!  Give a bloke a — yeh all righ’?”

     “Never better, Hagrid.”  Harry was pleased to find he didn’t need to raise his voice at all.  It wasn’t that his voice was now incredibly loud, more that it echoed effortlessly to every corner of the cavern.  He wondered why they didn’t do this in Quidditch practice; it was much easier than yelling.  “Professor McGonagall sent me for the first years.”

     Excited whispers erupted amongst the children as word spread as to just who was standing above them chatting with the giant man as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

     “Yeh righ’ then?” Hagrid called hopefully.  “Jus’, I got a couple o’ blighters ter fish outta the lake.”

     “Students?”

     “Guards.  Don’ want ter be giv’n poor ol’ squid injestion.  Come down fer a cuppa when yeh get a mo’,” he called over his shoulder, as he climbed back into one of the boats.

     “Cheers, Hagrid.”

     Dozens of smiling faces turned to Harry expectantly, which greatly relieved him.  Last year, when he last tried to be nice to first years, he only succeeded in scaring them to death; this was all very much more to his liking.

     “Welcome to Hogwarts.  My name is Harry Potter.  I’ll be taking you up to the welcome feast, which I know you’re going to love because our house-elves are fantastic cooks.  But before we get to eat, we need to get you sorted into your houses.  Professor McGonagall, she’s our Deputy Head, she sent me down here to fill you in on everything.  Have to say she’s usually a lot smarter than that, but here goes.  There are four houses at Hogwarts, one for each —”

     “Are you the real Harry Potter?” blurted a boy excitedly.

     “Yes, I’m the real Harry Potter.  No sane person would want two of me.” 

     The children giggled happily.

     “Bit of hush, thanks,” Harry said mildly.  “Right, there are four houses at Hogwarts, one for — no, sorry, there’ll be plenty of time for questions later, I promise,” he said, for the children were doing excellent imitations of Hermione in Potions.  “... Sorry?  ... Well, I expect if you got your thumb out of Trixie’s ear ...”  An appreciative croak sounded.  “There you go.  Right,” Harry said more firmly, determined to get all the way through his spiel, “there are four houses for the four founders of the school.  When we go upstairs, each of you will be sorted into a house and you’ll stay with that house for the next seven years, so you’ll want to know a little bit about them.

     “Now, Hufflepuff’s a great house for people who are hard working and fair minded.  There have only been two Champions of Hogwarts in the last hundred years and one of them was a Hufflepuff.  Excellent bloke.  Hard to hate — believe me, I tried — smart, generous, despicably good looking.”

     The little girls giggled; Harry grinned down at them.

     “Gryffindor’s a good house for people who aren’t afraid to take chances; sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t, but life’s never dull for a Gryffindor.  Excellent house for sports and parties.  Not too shabby in the brains department either — best student in my year is a Gryffindor girl.  Gryffindors will fight to the death for what they believe in, and you really don’t want to cross them.  Just between you and me,” he confided, dropping his voice for effect, “they can get just a little bit testy.”

     There were more giggles at this.

     “Right, Slytherin ...” said Harry, forcing himself to honour his promise to Professor McGonagall to be fair and positive, “Slytherins are good at ... um ...” Harry racked his brains, “they’re clever, but they do tend to keep to themselves a bit.  You know, sit back — take it all in.  Um ... what else ...”  Harry idly wondered if there was a polite way of saying ‘scheming, back-stabbing thieves, plunderers, and murderers’, “... erm, they’re good at making complicated plans.

     “Ravenclaw: Ravenclaw attracts people who love learning new things.  They’ve got quick minds, Ravenclaws, very good at analysing and remembering things.  Our new Head Girl is a Ravenclaw and, if I may say, a rather dishy one at that.”

     There were yet more giggles.  Harry shook his head ruefully.  He knew it had been a huge mistake to hook up with Cho Chang again over the summer.  Still, you live and learn.  And getting to snog a pretty girl silly for a few weeks was hardly the worst thing that had ever happened to him.

     “But Gryffindor’s the best!” called out Brutus Midgen.

     “Well, I certainly think so,” said Harry.  “Course, I may be a little biased.  You’ll have to judge that for yourself.  Now, all of the houses have strong points, but I wouldn’t say any of them are perfect.  Gryffindors tend to shoot first, ask questions later.  Ravenclaws analyse the thing to death, then shoot the messenger.  Slytherins hide, then shoot when you’re not looking.  Hufflepuffs try not to shoot, but if they do, they’ll be sure to make you a nice hot cup of tea afterwards.”

     Harry thought that pretty well covered it.

     “I don’t want to shoot anyone,” fretted a curly-haired girl.

     Harry stared.  “Er, you don’t have to shoot anyone if you don’t want to.  Right, any questions?”

     A mass of hands shot up along with voices squealing, “Sir!  Sir!”

     “Easy — one at a time,” pleaded Harry.  “Excitable little things, aren’t you,” he observed dryly.  He nodded to a boy who looked like he might just hyperventilate if he didn’t get out what he wanted to say.

     “Brutus said you can tell the Sorting Hat which house you want!  I’m going to ask for Gryffindor, too!”

     Many oohs sounded and Harry grew worried; that’d be all he needed: forty little rug-rats filling up his common room.

     “You can certainly let the hat know what you want,” he said carefully, “but it’ll put you wherever it thinks you’ll do your best — wherever you’ve got the best chance to play to your strengths.”

     “Sir!  Sir!” cried the children.  The questions came thick and fast, but none were about the Sorting process.  A small, resigned sigh echoed around the limestone cavern.

     “Yes, I have a scar.  ... Why?  Why do you think?  ... Does the Killing Curse hurt?  You mean apart from killing you?” Harry said dryly.  “Yeah, it hurt.  ... Who?  Sorry, I’m not answering questions about Voldemort unless you can call him by his name.”  A large number of hands went down.  Harry regarded the rest of the fluttering fingertips suspiciously.  “Any questions about Hogwarts?”  All but one hand went down.  He nodded to a boy with thick black glasses.  “... The teachers?” checked Harry.  “Ah.  Well, half of them have tried to kill me, but, you know, maybe that’s just me.”

     The kids laughed, but Harry had only been half-joking.

     “We’re due a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher again this year; I’m hoping for a vampire, myself.  Mix it up a bit.  Professor McGonagall takes Transfiguration; she’s pretty strict, but she’s fair.  Then there’s Potions — you take that in the dungeons.  Have to say it’s not too much fun unless you happen to be in Slytherin.  Best way to get on the teacher’s good side is to rubbish me, so be my guest.  You’ll like Charms, though; Professor Flitwick’s cool.  You get to make things float about.”  Harry grinned and wiggled his fingers.  “Professor Flitwick, if you’re lucky,” he added and the children laughed.  “What else do you do ... Oh!  Flying!  How could I forget Flying?  Well wicked.  Madam Hooch is —”

     “People really fly?” squealed the bunny girl, earning sniggers from the other children at her ignorance.

     Harry smiled down at the elfin-like little girl, standing there in threadbare robes, clutching an even more threadbare old bunny.  Her pale blue eyes were wide with wonder and excitement; Harry got the feeling she hadn’t had a lot of treats in her life.

     “They do indeed!  You’re gonna love it!” he declared confidently.  “Course, you do need a broomstick, but the school provides those.”

     A mass of quivering hands shot up again.  Harry chuckled throatily at the next question.

     “No, I do not have a Hungarian Horntail tattooed across my chest — who told you that?  ... Yeah, well, your sister should stay out of the boys’ showers.   … Sorry?  You don’t need to know that.  … Do I have a girlfriend?  You don’t need to know that either.  ... Am I a what?”  Bemused, Harry shook his head.  “Sadly, no, I am not a dragon Animagus.  ... Yes, I’m sure.  ... Mmm, well, I expect I might have noticed by now if I had blazing red eyes and a tail.  Be cool, though.  Wouldn’t mind setting fire to a few people.”

     A familiar snort sounded and Harry’s smile broadened.

     “You on the left — the redhead.  You’re not related to the Weasleys, are you?  ... Ah.  ... Prewett.  Cool.”  Harry nodded approvingly to Molly Weasley’s nephew.  The boy definitely had the look of a Charlie Weasley about him.  “Welcome.  Some great Quidditch players in your family.  Hope I see you at the Gryffindor table.”

     Young Hector Prewett positively glowed (and earned deeply envious looks from the other first years).  Harry nodded affably to another question.

     “... Ah, that one’s true, actually.  I am a Parselmouth.  ... It means I can chat to snakes.  ... What do they say?”  Harry shook his head ruefully.  “So, so much.  They’re brilliant!  Very unique point of view — very wise.  And manners are important.  Bit like Hippogriffs; they’ll bite your head off if you’re rude.”  Harry’s smile stiffened at the next question.  “... Saint Mungo’s?  Nothing much to tell.  I’m all better now.  ... You don’t need to know that.  ... Seriously, I’m fine.  Right,” he said firmly, “I think that’s more than enough about me.  ... Brutus, I promise, if I start growing horns and breathing fire, you’ll be the first to know.” 

     Before the first years could ask any more questions, Harry explained about the House Cup and the points system.

     “Can you take points off people?” asked a black-skinned boy with long, slanting eyes; it was the smarmy git who’d been giving Hagrid a hard time.

     “Only teachers and Prefects can deduct points.”

     “Aren’t you a Prefect?”

     “Me?  Nah, I’m just an ordinary student.”

     “So you’re nobody,” snickered the boy disparagingly.  “We don’t have to listen to you at all!”

     “That’s very true,” Harry agreed mildly.  “I am nobody.  You can ignore anything I tell you to do and you won’t lose a single point.  I can’t guarantee you won’t lose anything else, but your points are quite safe from me.”

     The boy either didn’t understand the veiled threat or didn’t care.  He persisted in asking increasingly irritating questions, which Harry (who had coped with far worse in his life) swatted away like so many blowflies.  There was one, though, that he took exception to.

     “No, I am not gay,” he said coolly.  “What kind of question is that?  Do you even know what that means?”  Harry listened to an answer that included some very unlikely Magical Creatures.  “That’s not what it means!” he said testily.

     “What is it then?” asked the boy curiously.

     “Ask a teacher,” Harry replied indifferently.  Then a truly inspired idea occurred to him.  He smiled beatifically at the rotten little snot, and said in his most blandly innocent voice, “I’d recommend Professor Snape.  He’s the youngest of the unmarried, male teachers.  I’m sure he’d be ever so helpful in sorting you out.”

     Rounding out his lecture, Harry described how each house was like a family and how the students looked out for one another.  The kids were growing restless now.  Harry was just finishing when some nasty remarks floated up to his ears.  The bunny girl looked close to tears.

     “Accio Smarmy Git!” roared Harry.

     The children screamed as the black-skinned boy went hurtling through the air and was caught by the scruff of the neck.  Harry dangled the petrified child over the balustrade and growled low and menacingly with his Sonorus-Charmed voice, “What did you call that little girl?”

     The boy shook his head fearfully beneath Harry’s spookily lit face.

     “Nothing — nothing — I —” he stammered.

     “Funny,” Harry said icily, not at all amused, “thought I heard you call her a Mudblood.  Guess I must be hearing things.  I would be very disappointed to hear that word coming out of the mouth of a fellow Hogwarts student.  Do I make myself clear?”

     The boy nodded as vigorously as he could manage with someone half-strangling him.

     “Name?” Harry demanded coolly.

     “Za-Zabini,” panted the terrified boy.  “Ne-Nero Zabini.”

     Harry’s lips curled with distaste.  No doubt, the little git was related to Blaise Zabini, one of Draco Malfoy’s gang.

     “I would strongly suggest,” Harry said softly and dangerously, “that you do not test my hearing again.  Or my eyes — you’d be surprised what they see.”

     Nero looked ready to wet himself by this stage and Harry dropped him with disgust to the ground below.  The boy rolled away and scrambled across the pebbles like a crab to hide at the back of the group.  Amongst the fidgeting, muttering children, there was clear indignation that the boy had been chastised.  Now, more than ever, he could see how exactly they were like his own year: a handful of brats, a handful of hopefuls, and a bunch of fence-sitters.  A kind of fire began to burn in his chest.  Who was to say there wasn’t another Bellatrix Lestrange lurking down there — another Tom Riddle — another Barty Crouch Junior?  All sorted into Slytherin where they’d feed off each other’s bigotries.  Prudence told Harry it wasn’t his place to get mixed up in what parents taught their kids.  That it wasn’t up to him to save every little kid who came to Hogwarts from being bullied.  Harry never had much time for prudence. 

     “We are not all the same,” he declared bluntly and all whispering ceased.  “Some of you are going to be cleverer than others.  Some will be braver or funnier or better at sports.  Some of you are going to find it easier to cast spells or fly a broomstick.  If your parents were really gifted, chances are you could be, too, but Muggle-born blood is not weaker than ‘pure’ blood and it is most definitely not dirty in any way whatsoever!”  And here Harry cast a contemptuous look towards Nero Zabini.  “Being pure-blooded means nothing!  One of my best friends is Muggle-born and she’s this amazing, scathingly brilliant witch — and my pure-blood best mate is completely clueless!”

     The students shifted restlessly and there were isolated grumbles of dissent.  Harry’s jaw set stubbornly.  Well, if they weren’t going to listen to reason.

     “As you wish,” he said briskly.  “First I need you to break into three groups: pure-bloods on the left; Muggle-borns on the right; half-bloods in the middle.”

     Pebbles crunched underfoot as the children obediently shuffled themselves around (though some were a little unsure at first where they belonged).  Snickers started again as they checked out who was in each group.

     “Draw your wands!” Harry commanded.

     That got their attention.  There was much commotion as nervous little hands fumbled for brand new wands, sending green, gold, and red wand-sparks shooting hither and thither.  Silence fell — then thickened.  Harry let them stew a little.  Someone sniffed.

     “Pure-bloods seem a little outnumbered, don’t they,” Harry observed coolly.  The pure-bloods looked around nervously; they were certainly in the minority.  “You just might want to think about that before opening your gobs and spouting rubbish about bloodlines.  Then again you could just battle it out right here, right now.  I won’t stop you.”

     All of the children were looking alarmed now — and Nero Zabini was attracting looks of considerable loathing from the other pure-bloods for getting them into trouble (especially from the Prewett boy).

     “That’s not fair!” blurted a pure-blooded girl.  “We didn’t do anything wrong!”

     “We don’t even know any magic yet!” cried another.

     “That’s very true,” Harry said fairly, as if giving the matter careful consideration.  “Quite a dilemma, really.  All of you can do magic, but none of you know any really nasty spells yet.  Tricky.  Course, there’s plenty of rocks down there, plenty of fists; I imagine you could still put up a pretty good fight if you wanted to.”

     “But we don’t want to fight!” declared a boy from the half-blood group, a sentiment quickly echoed around all three groups.

     “Oh, you don’t want to fight?” Harry repeated, feigning surprise.  “I’m very glad to hear it.  Professor McGonagall would’ve had me in detention till Christmas if I brought up forty slugs to be Sorted.”

     The children looked around at each other warily; nervous laughter started — then died out the longer Harry continued staring silently at them from his spooky pulpit.  For Harry’s part, he was growing quite frustrated.  There was still a good deal of resentment and superiority scattered amongst the children.  Clearly, ‘subtle’ was not going to cut it.

     “Pure-bloods, raise your wands to the roof and repeat loudly after me — Lumos!”

     The pure-bloods knew what the spell would do and immediately complied.  “LUMOS!

     The effect was magnificent.  Even though only a few of the students managed to make anything happen, the cavern was so darkly lit that even their feeble efforts made a remarkable difference.  Excited gasps sounded as the students looked up to see the gleaming stalactites far above them. 

     “Half-bloods,” declared Harry, “raise your wands.  Lumos!”

     Again, three or four students managed to light their wands, adding to the radiance of the pure-blood group.

     “Muggle-borns!” called Harry.  He breathed an inward sigh of relief when another few wands lit up.  The successful Muggle-borns, the bunny girl among them, were ecstatic and all of the children gazed around in awe at the beautifully illuminated cavern.

     “Doesn’t look half so scary when it’s all lit up, does it,” Harry observed.  “Now everyone repeat after me — Nox!”

     “NOX!” cried the children as one.

     As the cavern plunged into darkness, Harry withdrew into the shadows and surreptitiously sent a few Parseltongue hisses echoing eerily through the cavern.  The children’s excited tittering quelled instantly.  The three blood-groups dissolved as they huddled together, clutching at their wands, their eyes darting nervously around the cavern.  They didn’t notice as Harry, still reciting his chicken-casserole recipe, crept down the last few steps to join them on the pebble-strewn landing area.

     “Where you came from,” he declared sternly in English, his voice setting little hearts hammering, “and who your parents are, means nothing when you’re standing alone and defenceless in the dark, and the sooner you get that through your thick heads the better.  And the best way to find yourself alone and defenceless is to piss off the people who might be inclined to help you!”

     The children quailed and Harry stopped himself; he didn’t need to scare them to death.  He started pacing, kicking at the pebbles, trying to work out how to get through to them.  Somehow, he just knew that if you could only get to kids early enough, then you could make them believe anything.  Why couldn’t it be something good for a change?  He finally turned back to address them, scanning the frightened faces one by one.  A small sigh escaped his lips and echoed around the cavern.

     “Look, you can all do magic.  All of you.  That’s what you have in common.  You all belong here, and the only people you can really count on to watch your back are standing right next to you.  Not the teachers, not the Prefects, not your families, you.  Now don’t get me wrong, you should be careful about choosing your friends but never because of their blood status.  It’s stupid and cruel and it should be beneath you.”

     Harry smiled inwardly as the children sneaked glances at each other.  He may not have converted all of them, but it was a start.

    “Wands away, you rotten little sods,” he said, but he was smiling and the children giggled with relief and pocketed their wands.  “You did pretty well with those spells,” he conceded, causing the children’s faces to light up.  “Probably best we keep that to ourselves,” he added delicately and the children laughed.  “Come on, then, they should be just about ready for us by now; time to try on the old Sorting Hat.”

     The hair on the back of Harry’s neck prickled.  A girl was hiding in the shadows, clearly terrified of something.  Harry hoped it wasn’t him.

     “You okay?” he asked kindly.  The girl’s heart-shaped face paled.  “I promise I won’t bite your head off.  What’s your name?”

     The girl sniffed tragically.  “Will — Willow  Ma — Mallory.  Do — do you really ha — have to wear a ha — ha — hat?”

     Harry laughed before he could stop himself — of all things to be worried about.

     “Sorry, sorry.  Um, yeah, you’ll each go up and put on the Sorting Hat, and it’ll pick a house for you.”

     This news only further terrified the girl.

     “It doesn’t hurt or anything,” Harry assured her.

     Willow’s dark eyes darted around nervously.  With a trembling hand, she removed her pointed hat.  The rest of the children gasped and laughed as a bounty of bright-blue hair spilled around her shoulders.  Mortified, Willow’s hair turned hot pink.

     “Cool,” said Harry appreciatively, but the girl didn’t seem to think it was cool at all.  “Er, are you a Metamorphmagus?” he guessed; she did seem to resemble Tonks.

     Willow shook her head and glared resentfully towards a handsome, black-haired boy.  The boy was the smaller of the two children, but he had the same pale, delicately chiselled face — and he was looking rather smug.

     “And you are?”

     “Marcus.”

     It did not escape Harry’s notice that the boy could easily have been Sirius Black at eleven, but the pure-blooded gene pool was pretty shallow; by looks alone, he could just as easily be a Tom Riddle, or a black-haired Malfoy, or a Potter, or any number of pure-blood look-alikes.  Still, there was something about him that was jogging a memory — then Harry remembered: the Weasley twins’ joke shop.  He hadn’t got too good a look at the girl back then (she’d been crying and running down Diagon Alley holding her tongue at the time), but he recognised the boy by the self-satisfied smirk on his face.

     “You her brother?”  The boy shrugged, which Harry took for a yes.  “Hand it over,” he ordered in a bored voice.  “Now, you little maggot, or I’ll turn you into one.”

     Harry was bluffing, but Marcus Mallory didn’t know that.  Under the light of his wand, Harry silently read the label on a potion bottle; it was, indeed, one of Fred and George’s joke-shop products: ‘Hair-With-Flair — A rainbow in a bottle!  Two drops to a more fabulous you!

     Willow looked up at Harry hopefully, but Harry hadn’t studied human transfiguration yet.

     “Look,” he said frankly, “I could take a shot at fixing it but, seriously, I’m really the last person you want messing with your hair.”

     Willow burst into tears, which Harry thought was deeply unfair.

     “Hang on, there’s no need to cry ... er ... I know this Auror who wears her hair like that.  She does pig snouts and everything.  No, no, I mean she’s cool,” Harry added quickly, for Willow was weeping even harder.  “She does fall down a lot, but other than that ...”

     Harry fumbled for a handkerchief, surprised when he actually found one in his robes; it even had his initials on it.  Elizabeth must have put it there.  He passed it to Willow and she noisily blew her nose.  Her hair had gone green by now.  She had the defeated air of someone who just knew they were always going to lose.  Harry didn’t know what to say.  The way the twins booby-trapped their products, he knew there would be no quick fix by McGonagall in the antechamber.  And she certainly wasn’t going to let funny hair be an excuse to avoid the Sorting ceremony.  Harry regarded Willow sadly; he knew they’d fix it eventually but not before she’d been ridiculed by the whole school.  An older student might laugh it off, or even do it on purpose, but not a little kid who was just trying to fit in.  Harry knew just how she felt.  His Aunt Petunia sheared off his own hair horribly one time, and he’d barely slept that night in his cupboard for worrying about how he was going to face the other kids at school the next day.

     “We’ll work something out,” he said, putting a protective arm around her shoulders.  “It’ll be okay.”

     Willow snuffled miserably into his stomach; Harry had a feeling she knew a little too much about Weasley products to believe him.

     “Maybe no one’ll even notice,” he offered lamely.  The rest of the children sniggered their opinion of that.  “You lot can just shut your traps!  I suppose you think it’s funny, do you?  Singling someone out on their very first day?  Right when they have to go up all alone in front of the Headmaster and the whole school?  Nice.  And here’s me thinking you little maggots might be worth something.”

     The Mallory boy rolled his eyes, but the rest of the kids stopped laughing and watched guiltily as Willow’s hair turned tomato red and she snorted down a good deal of phlegm.

     “Er, that’s okay, you keep it,” Harry muttered when offered his handkerchief back.

     His voice was still echoing, which was just annoying him now, so he terminated the charm.  He was just trying to work out how many detentions he’d have to serve if he gave the brother a good case of pus-spewing tentacles when he felt someone tugging on his robes.

     “Please, sir?”  It was the bunny girl.  “Is there enough in that bottle for two?”

******

Harry swung open the doors to the Great Hall and strode purposefully down the centre aisle to raucous laughter and applause.  Scurrying along in his wake were thirty-nine colourfully coiffed children in every hue of the rainbow — and one handsome, black-haired boy.

     Every head turned to look and laugh as Harry passed by, but Harry was quite accustomed to this and ignored them all.  Instead, he fixed his eyes on Professor McGonagall, who was waiting at the top of the aisle with her scroll, succeeding in looking amused, exasperated, and sternly disapproving all at once.

     “Thank you, Potter,” she said archly.  “You may be seated.”

     By the time Harry walked around the edge of the hall and slipped into a seat between Ron and Seamus, the Sorting Hat had begun its song.  Harry grinned at his friends (who he expected to be at least a little impressed with his vibrant entourage) but their reactions flummoxed him.  Rule-upholding Hermione was beaming at him, whilst Ron looked ropeable.

     “What?” whispered Harry.  “What’d I miss?”

     “Clueless, am I,” sniped Ron, nodding in an if-you-don’t-know-then-I’m-not-going-to-tell-you kind of way.  “Nice.”

     “Hush,” Hermione chided in a whisper, “I want to hear what the Hat has to say.”

     “Whatever you say, Miss Scathingly Brilliant,” muttered Ron.

     Harry looked around helplessly, but every familiar face in the vicinity was struggling not to laugh.

     “Show you testy!” grunted Ron to no one in particular.  Harry was beginning to wonder if his robes were on backwards when the horrible truth washed over him.

     Nudging Seamus, he said, “You didn’t hear me, did you?”

     “Every word, mate,” Seamus whispered gleefully.  “Come up through the floor somehow.  Old McGonagall wanted ta send someone ta shut you up, but Dumbledore wouldn’t let her.  Better than Wizard Radio.  Course, we only got your voice.  You should’a seen Snape’s face when you told that kid ta ask him about being gay.”

******
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