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Cube chicken and lightly coat with flour.  Sauté in a little oil, then set aside before ...

     Drowsily, Frank peeked over the edge of the bed to where his pet’s voice was mysteriously hissing through the cellar floor.  Stretching languorously across Susan’s bed, the python smacked his jaws in anticipation.  Harry’s treat for him sounded rather tasty.  As he listened to his boy browning his onions, Frank wondered just how long it was going to take to get his two humans to breed.  With so few Parselmouths in the world, he certainly couldn’t afford to leave matters of such import to the boy.  Harry was a dear little thing, but he really was an idiot when it came to the females of his species; the swan proved that.

     Deciding another nap before supper would be just the ticket, Frank coiled contentedly beneath Susan’s quilt and fell asleep dreaming of snuggling into her stomach; she was always so deliciously soft and warm.

******

The Great Hall was feeling horribly warm.  Harry paled thinking of all the stupid questions the first years had asked him.  He racked his brains trying to remember if he said anything offensive about anyone.

     “We have to follow the spiders,” Ron muttered in a mocking voice.  “Talk about ruddy clueless!”

     “Sorry?”  Harry couldn’t remember saying anything about spiders.

     “Quiet!” Hermione hissed across the table; the Sorting Hat was cheerfully extolling the virtues of ‘a Magical World for all Magical Creatures’.  Behind the Hat, bright-coloured lollipops grinned madly at each other whilst the rest of the students craned their necks to see Harry and hiss whispers to each other.  If Harry didn’t know better, he’d swear the hall was full of Parselmouths.  His moodstone was going decidedly pink.  It went even pinker as the last lines of the Sorting Hat’s song trilled through the hall:

     So doff this hat, and we shall see

     If Mr Potter, young though he be

     Did hit the mark — and better than me!

     The Hat bowed politely to rousing cheers.

     “Guess you can add the Sorting Hat ta ya fan club,” snickered Seamus.

     Groaning, Harry sank lower into his seat.  Professor McGonagall started calling names for the sorting, and the houses started cheering for each new member.  They were up to K when Ron grabbed at Harry’s robes.

     “You got captain!” he hissed incredulously.

     Harry held his breath; he knew Ron had long coveted the captaincy.  Ron said nothing more; he just crossed his arms and glowered across the hall to where ‘Kingston, Stephanie’ was eagerly jamming the Sorting Hat onto her lurid purple curls.

     “Gryffindor!” cried the Hat.

     Harry applauded reflexively.  Seamus and Dean were thumping him on the back and hissing excitedly.  Ginny was grinning from ear to ear and whispering something across the table.  Hermione was telling them all to hush and pay attention.  Ron wouldn’t even look at him.  Dazedly, Harry shook his head.  He’d been having such a good day.

     “Lawrence, Amanda!” called McGonagall.

     Harry watched the now blue-haired bunny-girl stumble over her robes and climb onto the stool.  The Hat swiftly declared her a Hufflepuff.  Harry glanced towards the Hufflepuff table, where Susan and the other Hufflepuffs were cheering heartily for Amanda.  Seated beside Susan, Justin Finch-Fletchley caught Harry’s eye and sent him an appreciative smile and nod, causing sparks to fire inside Harry’s moodstone for some reason.  Feeling he had enough to worry about, Harry shoved his sleeve over his wrist.  He glanced back towards Susan, not really sure what he was hoping for, but her curious hazel eyes were fixed upon a different black-haired boy.  Marcus Mallory was the only child who declined the hair potion.

     “Mallory, Marcus!”

     A low rumble sped round the hall.  No one was looking at Harry anymore (not that Harry was complaining); instead, people were lifting out of their seats to get a good look at the hair culprit.  Mallory didn’t look the least perturbed or embarrassed; Harry suspected he even wanted people to know he was responsible.  The castle ghosts zoomed low over the tables, gossiping and adding to the general air of anticipation.

     Seamus nudged Harry in the ribs.  “That the maggot?”

     “What?  Yeah.”

     “That was just brilliant, Harry,” Ginny whispered approvingly, “making them all the same.”

     Harry shook his head.  “Wasn’t my idea; they did it all on their own.”

     And this was quite true.  Hector Prewett had come forward straight away, then Brutus Midgen, and the rest quickly followed once they saw how very pleased it made Harry Potter.  Even Nero Zabini had volunteered, perhaps realising that to be the odd man out in such circumstances was unwise.  Tiny Amanda Lawrence had been the first, though, and Harry was surprised she had not been sorted into —

     “Gryffindor!” cried the Hat.

     The Gryffindor table groaned (and the rest of the houses applauded wildly) as Marcus Mallory joined the scarlet and gold. 

     Willow Mallory was sorted into Ravenclaw, then it was Brutus Midgen’s turn.  The Sorting Hat deliberated for several long minutes before declaring, “Slytherin!”

     Brutus didn’t move.  He looked dolefully towards the Gryffindor table on his far left — then to the Slytherin table on his far right.  Professor McGonagall had to nudge him off the stool to make way for ‘Newland, Patrick’.  Harry’s view of the staff table cleared as the lollipops thinned.  As expected, Snape’s black eyes were full of venom for him.  Smugly, Harry smiled back, safe in the knowledge that Snape couldn’t touch him.  At the inquest into his accident, Snape was found innocent of treason but guilty of prejudice when it came to Harry Potter.  Dumbledore promised if his behaviour did not improve by Halloween, then his very position at Hogwarts could be in jeopardy.  Ignoring Snape, whose face was now tight with suppressed rage, Harry looked to Dumbledore’s left and did a double-take.  Could it really be her?  Rousing cheers erupted as ‘Zabini, Nero’ became a Slytherin.  Harry tugged eagerly at Ron’s robes, but Ron ignored him, which just infuriated Harry.  He was the one who had a right to be ticked off!  Ron might have come down and — oh — let his best mate know that he was making a prat of himself in front of the whole school.  And now Ron was sulking because he’d missed the captaincy?  What did he expect?  He’d only been on the team for one year!

     “Welcome, welcome!” Professor Dumbledore declared from his podium.  He opened his arms wide, as if embracing the whole hall.  “To old hands, welcome back, and to the colourful new heads I see before me, allow me to extend the very warmest of welcomes!  I cannot remember when I have seen such a magnificent example of unity and friendship amongst a group of new students.  An example, I feel, that older heads would do well to emulate.”  Laughter and cheers met this pronouncement.  Each beaming first years’ hairdo morphed through the rainbow as the Headmaster’s twinkling eyes fell upon them.  “Five points a piece, I think, for each participant in this lavish display of camaraderie!”

     Loud cheers erupted, though the cheers were a little more subdued on the Gryffindor table since they were now already five points short courtesy of Marcus Mallory.  An unhappy grunt sounded from the far end of the high table.

     “Ah, yes,” Dumbledore continued blithely, “Mr Filch has been so good as to remind me that all products from a shop by the name of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, as well as a number of other provisioners of magical mayhem, are banned from school grounds.”  Dumbledore looked down his crooked nose to the Gryffindor table and added serenely, “I would be much obliged if Mr Harry Potter would be so good as to report to my office after the feast.”

     Commiserating titters sounded from around the hall (combined with hearty snickers from the Slytherins).  Harry sank even lower into his seat.  By now, his feet were stretched so far under the table they were tangled up with Hermione’s.  She tilted her head sympathetically and managed to give his feet a kind of hug with her own.  Harry decided that his letter to Remus didn’t need to include every little thing that happened to him.

     In more subdued tones the Headmaster went on to announce increased security measures at Hogwarts as well as a plea for greater cooperation and vigilance by students in these ‘most uncertain times’.  There were mixed reactions to Dumbledore’s words of caution.  The summer had come and gone and Voldemort and his Dark Order had yet to make their presence felt.

     “On a happier note,” Dumbledore declared, “I am delighted to announce the addition of two excellent new professors to the Hogwarts faculty!  Professor Perenelle Flamel will be teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts this year, and I can say with the utmost confidence that you would be hard pressed to find a superior or more experienced practitioner of the Art.”

     Dumbledore nodded respectfully to the witch, who inclined her head to a smattering of weak applause.  Hogwarts students had learned the hard way to be suspicious of new Defence teachers.  Harry smirked at Hermione’s dropped jaw; she clearly spent too much time reading books and not enough time sorting through Chocolate Frog photos.  He knew the Flamels had put enough Elixir of Life aside to set their affairs in order, but that was four years ago.  He kind of thought they would have dropped off the perch by now, but then again, six-hundred-plus years was bound to create a lot of affairs to tidy up.  He wondered if her husband would be teaching as well.  Nicolas Flamel was a world-class alchemist.  Who better to replace Snape?

     “Our second new appointment,” Dumbledore continued cheerfully, “is for the subject of Light Arts.  A personal favourite of my own but one we have had considerable difficulty staffing over the years.  This year we are in luck, for Professor Oribel has kindly consented to relocate her workshop to Hogwarts.”

     Harry craned his neck to see where Dumbledore was smiling and nodding.  The empty chair next to Hagrid was not empty after all.  Dark skinned with slanting eyes, pointed ears, and a mane of wispy white-gold hair that shone under the floating candles, dressed in robes of shimmering gold and silver, Professor Oribel surveyed the students curiously, as if unaccustomed to seeing human children.  She certainly inspired a great deal more muttering than Professor Flamel did.  Dumbledore’s smile stiffened.

     “I entrust you will all strive to extend your very warmest welcomes to both Professor Flamel and Professor Oribel, or Oribel the Whimsical as she is known amongst her fellow goblins.”

     Ron snorted derisively under his breath.  “‘Oribel the Orrible more like …”

     Harry shot him a sharp glance; Ron was lucky Hermione didn’t hear him say that!  Harry wondered, yet again, what on earth had gotten into his best mate.

     “Ugly as, goblins are,” Seamus agreed in a low aside.  “Who’s she think she’s foolin’, tartin’ up in dress robes?”

     Ron snickered in agreement.  Frowning sternly, Harry was about to say something when Dumbledore spoke up again.

     “And now stomachs are rumbling and we have dallied enough.”  At a clap of his hands the tables were overflowing with delicious fare.  “Dig in!”

     Harry gave Ron up as a lost cause once the food appeared.  Instead, he filled his own golden plate with succulent roast-lamb and mint jelly, and sneaked more looks towards the staff table.  Although surprised Professor Oribel was a goblin, Harry had no problem with it.  Didn’t everyone always go on about how exceptionally fine goblin-workmanship was?  The only thing he found curious was that she seemed rather young.  Professor Flamel, unsurprisingly, did not.  But she didn’t look six-centuries old.  If Harry hadn’t known who she was, he might have guessed her to be about seventy, though her misty white eyes betrayed her much greater age.  In peacock-blue robes that glimmered sea-green when she moved, wearing a matching headdress and pearl-studded diadem, her serene countenance and attire gave the impression of a rather refined old nun.  Dumbledore was certainly very attentive to her, talking and smiling and refilling her goblet the moment she took the slightest sip.  Flamel seemed slightly oblivious to the Headmaster’s solicitous behaviour; she smiled, she nodded, but she said little.  She seemed more interested in the colourful first years, who (for some reason known only to eleven-year-olds) couldn’t seem to sit still and kept sneaking between the tables to whisper to each other.

     Dinner conversation around the Gryffindor table that night was rather fractured: Hermione wanted to talk about Professor Flamel; Harry wanted to figure out just how much trouble he was going to be in thanks to his ramblings beneath the castle; and Ginny and the boys wanted to talk Quidditch.  From Ron there was nothing but the sound of lamb shanks being angrily gnawed to the marrow.

     “It’ll be fine, Harry,” Hermione said consolingly over her strawberry trifle.  “You didn’t say anything untoward, really.”

     Ron snorted loudly.  Harry had had quite enough.

     “Look,” he hissed into his mate’s ear, “I can’t help it if McGonagall picked me.  Get over it!”

     Ron stared.  “And I’m clueless.”

     “What’s Hector doing?” Ginny said wonderingly.

     Fed up with Ron, Harry followed Ginny’s gaze to where Amanda Lawrence, Willow Mallory, Brutus Midgen, and Hector Prewett, the newest little Gryffindor, were besieging Headmaster Dumbledore.  Dumbledore’s face gave nothing away; he listened politely then gently dismissed them.  Downcast, the children returned to their four respective tables.  Dumbledore rose again and declared it time for bed but not, he hoped, before a rousing rendition of the school song.

     “On your feet and altogether now!” he declared, his arms lifting reluctant behinds.

     Lyrics ribboned from his wand and the Great Hall exploded in a hodge-podge of melodies.  The teachers’ smiles were firmly fixed, but Professor Oribel did not seem inclined to feign pleasure and quickly plugged her pointy ears.  Harry lustily joined in with his own cheerfully horrible rendition of Hoggy Warty Hogwarts to the woeful tune of the Dixie Chicks’ Goodbye Earl, a song Harry had been tortured with over and over by Natalie Ramsay on Black Island.  Natalie was a very nice girl and all, but hers and Harry’s tastes in music could not have been further apart.

     “Dead flies and bits of fluff ...” sang Harry.  “Ow!”  He rubbed the back of his head and glared at Ron.  “What was that for?”

     Ron just glowered at him.

     The song finished and Professor Dumbledore clapped his hands with delight.  “Ah, music,” he sighed fondly, dabbing at his eyes, “truly a magic to set our hearts to flight!  And now to bed!  Sleep tight!”

     Noisily, the students started leaving.  Ron waited until Hermione dashed off to beat the other prefects to the first years then hissed at Harry, “Thought you weren’t gonna bring up Natalie!”

     “I didn’t!” Harry said crossly, still rubbing his head.

     “That was our song!”

     Harry made the fatal error of laughing.  He tried to cover but far too late.

     “Oh, come on, you great git.  How on earth could Hermione know anything about that song?”

     Ron gave Harry his filthiest look and stormed off.

     “Hang on!  What’s the password?”

     But Ron was already being swept up in the crowd.  Mentally cursing the crotchety Keeper, Harry grabbed the napkin full of treats he saved for Frank and slid across the Gryffindor then the Hufflepuff table to reach Susan, but he found his path blocked by a mass of giggling Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws.

     “I wouldn’t worry,” said a dreamy voice, “Ron’ll come around.”

     “Huh?  Oh, hi, Luna.  Sorry, I just have to ...”  Harry craned his neck, but Susan was gone.

     “Cho left already,” Luna offered helpfully.  “But she was very pleased with what you said.  We all were.”

     The Great Hall was rapidly emptying, and Harry needed to report to the Headmaster, but he wasn’t inclined to do so completely unprepared.

     “Can you tell me: what did I say exactly?” he begged Luna.

     It seemed that nothing would please Luna more.  She hopped up onto the Ravenclaw table with her feet on the bench, and Harry perched beside her.

     “Well, you said Cho was rather ‘dishy’, and I think she liked that a lot.”

     Harry nodded distractedly.  “Right, but did I say anything to offend anyone?  I mean apart from Snape.”

     Luna squinted in thought.  “I shouldn’t have thought so.  You only told the truth, after all.  People are always saying that’s what they want, but lies do seem to make them a lot happier ...” Luna’s eyes misted over thoughtfully.  “Odd, really.”

     “Yeah, odd,” Harry agreed and tried to get her back on track.  “But did you hear everything I said?”

     “Oh yes!  It was wonderful.  I usually just sit here with no one to talk to, so it was quite entertaining.  Everyone was fascinated.  And then you summoned that ‘smarmy person’, and we were all trying to guess who it was.  Though the Slytherins didn’t seem to enjoy that very much.”

     Harry smirked; no, they wouldn’t have been too impressed with him going off at the pure-bloods. 

     “But it was just lovely to see all of the houses laughing,” Luna continued happily.  “Even the Slytherins at one point; they just laughed and laughed.  Though I expect it wasn’t so much fun for Ron.”

     “Sorry?  What’s Ron got to do with it?”

     Luna tilted her head a little.  “You know, when you were talking about your best friends, and you were saying how brilliant Hermione was and how Ron was completely — Harry?  Are you okay?  You’ve gone all pale.”

******

If asked, Harry could not have explained how he got from the Great Hall to the Fat Lady’s portrait.  He only knew he had to find Ron and somehow make things right.  How could he have ever said such a thing?  He knew it wasn’t even the public nature of the insult that would’ve hurt the most; it was that deep down Ron believed he was the inferior of the three friends.  And to make it worse, Harry knew it was probably true.  But for his supposed best mate to come right out and say so ...

     Harry begged the Fat Lady to let him in but, without the password, he was summarily dismissed and left with no option but to report as instructed to the Headmaster’s office.

     “Cockroach cluster?” Harry ventured listlessly.  No luck.  “Lemon sherbet ... sherbet lemon ... lemon drop ... lemon butter ... lemon cream ... canary cream ...”

     The gargoyle stepped aside and Harry ascended the moving stone staircase without even the heart to smile at Dumbledore’s choice of a joke sweet to protect his inner sanctum.

     “Come,” he called at Harry’s knock.  “Ah, good evening, Harry.  Come in — come in.  I do hope you enjoyed your dinner.  I partook of the honey-baked ham, myself — most delicious.  I trust you had an eloquent sufficiency?”

     Harry had no idea what that meant, but an apology seemed in order.  “Sir, I’m sorry about the — I mean the thing — I wasn’t ... um, you know ...”

     “My, my,” Dumbledore said dryly, “and you were so erudite earlier.”  He waved Harry to sit down.  “Calm yourself, dear boy.  I was most impressed with your speech.  And even your lack of, shall we say, volume control served a purpose.  You said many things that older heads — and hats —” he added with a deferential nod to the Sorting Hat, which bowed back politely, “have long been trying to hammer into small skulls with considerably less success.  I presume you have a bottle for me?”

     Harry handed over the nearly empty bottle of Hair-With-Flair.  Dumbledore held it at arms length to read the label.

     “I do hope it lasts,” he remarked.  “Now if we can just get your punishment out of the way — though I suspect your true torment lies smouldering in your dormitory right about now.”

     “Yes, sir,” Harry said mournfully.  “I didn’t mean for it to come out that way about Ron — I was just trying to ...”  His voice trailed off uselessly.  Dumbledore waved his explanation away.

     “One demerit point, I think, for colourful — hmmm — language.  And ten points to Gryffindor for a most vivid lesson in Hogwarts solidarity.”  Harry was still thinking about Ron.  Regarding him shrewdly, Dumbledore added, “I received a most interesting deputation over dinner from our multi-coloured newcomers: one from each house.  They were most concerned I not punish you for something they swear was their own idea.”

     Harry smiled reluctantly at that.  Relaxing back into his chair, Dumbledore made polite inquiries as to Harry’s health and whether he enjoyed the remainder of his summer.  Harry suspected Dumbledore had bigger things on his mind, and he was right.  After the niceties had been observed, the elderly wizard leaned forward, his hands loosely clasped across his desk, a more intense look in his eyes.

     “Harry, there is something I should like to ask you.”  He waited for Harry’s nod before continuing.  “This evening, you were asked about the Killing Curse — about whether it hurt.  You replied that it did.  Harry, do you remember the attack?  Do you remember the night your parents fell?”

     Harry nodded dispiritedly; it was something he would dearly love to forget.

     “The curse itself,” Dumbledore pressed, “you remember being struck?”

     Looking down at his hands, Harry didn’t know why it was suddenly so hard to talk about the details.  He’d talked about it before, hadn’t he?  Just the once, admittedly, when he was learning to fight Dementors.  That terrible night was burned into his memory.  Voldemort’s cruel laughter; his mother begging for mercy — her screams.

     A comforting coo sounded.  It was Fawkes, stirring on his perch.

     Raising his eyes to his Headmaster, Harry said, “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you about it, sir, it’s just ... just …”

     “Hard,” Dumbledore finished softly.  “Another time then.”

     Harry didn’t like the sound of that.  “I don’t mean to be ... I mean if it’s all the same, I’d rather not.  Sir,” he added to show no disrespect was intended.

     Dumbledore frowned deeply.  “Harry, I know how difficult it must be to talk about, but you need to —”

     “I do,” Harry cut in, keen to get off the subject.  “It’s just I prefer talking to Remus about stuff like that.”

     A flash of annoyance flickered in Dumbledore’s eyes, but it was gone as quickly and he was nodding sagely and saying, “Of course, you do.”

     Harry breathed an inward sigh of relief to have dodged a blow-by-blow interrogation of his parents’ deaths.  Without missing a beat, Dumbledore’s blue eyes were twinkling once more.

     “You know,” he said conspiratorially, “my gossips tell me a certain estranged couple made quite a scene in London this morning.”

     Harry smiled ruefully; did nothing slip past Albus Dumbledore’s long nose.

     “That they did,” he agreed proudly.  “They’re back together for good now.”

     “Marvellous news!  Now, back to your punishment,” Dumbledore continued breezily.  “I must say this little episode has created a most convenient opportunity.  You see, I should like you to take some private tuition with me this year and the odd detention could prove most useful in masking our endeavours.”

     “For Occlumency,” Harry guessed.

     Dumbledore inclined his head and said cryptically, “For that — and for other matters of import.”  Harry’s relief at evading Occlumency lessons with Severus Snape was short-lived, for Dumbledore started talking about ‘trials and challenges’.  He said, “Mind Magic comprises several of the most dangerous and challenging branches of magic known to our kind and should not be enterprised lightly.  You may wish to consult your guardians before proceeding — if you are uncertain of your strength …”

     Harry was not fooled by Dumbledore’s polite tone.  It was a challenge.

     “I do — I mean I am.  I don’t need to ask anyone.”

     “Excellent!” Dumbledore said, and Harry basked once more in the warmth of his approval.  “I shall let you know when.  Now, there is just one more matter to which we must attend: Professor Severus Snape.”

     Harry’s heart stopped then started again.  The Headmaster only wanted to remind him he agreed to spread a rumour that his accident over the summer was not an accident, something Dumbledore hoped would aid Snape in regaining Lord Voldemort’s trust.  Helping Snape become a better Death Eater was not something Harry, personally, was in favour of, but he promised Dumbledore he would try; he could only hope the old man knew what he was doing.

     “To accuse Professor Snape directly would be too obvious,” Dumbledore advised Harry.  “I would suggest merely implying foul play.”

     “Will that be enough?” Harry asked dubiously.

     Dumbledore smiled dreamily.  “I believe so; I have learned never to underestimate the imaginations of Hogwarts students.”

******

An anxious Hermione awaited Harry in the common room.  A look from Harry sent her sinking back into her chair.  No one else was game to stop him — not until he found himself blocked halfway up the spiral steps to his room by a clutch of pyjama-clad maggots.

     “Move!” Harry ordered sternly.  The maggots wouldn’t budge.  “Why are you still up?” Harry groaned with exasperation.

     The children launched into a torrent of questions and apologies, their mouse-like voices clamouring over each other.

     “Are you okay?”

     “What did he make you do?”

     “Does he want us to fix our hair?”

     “Did he use a cane?”

     “Did he make you cut yourself?” breathed a little girl with big brown eyes.  “Was it very bad?”

     That stopped Harry dead; he couldn’t have them thinking Dumbledore would deliberately hurt him.

     “Listen, er — Stephanie, isn’t it?”  Stephanie nodded vigorously, making her green Shirley-Temple curls quiver and shake.  “Look, I don’t know what you’ve heard, but Professor Dumbledore is nothing like that evil troll we had here last year.  I’m perfectly fine and there is nothing for you to worry about.”

     “You don’t look fine!” challenged Hector.  “Sir,” he added hastily.

     Harry just stared at the children; it occurred to him that first years were a lot easier to get rid of when they were frightened of him.

     “It’s nothing,” he assured them.  “I just have to do lines — normal lines,” he added quickly, for Stephanie had gasped painfully, “you know — I must not dangle you little maggots over balconies — that sort of thing.”  The children were unconvinced.  Harry struggled to think of something good.  “And, you know, get lectured on responsibility and stuff.  Seriously, I’m fine.”

     “Ginny says you always say that,” Hector argued mulishly.

     “Just go to bed,” Harry pleaded, waving them up the steps.  “Come on, bed!  Don’t make me hex you.”

******

The morning after the welcome feast, Seamus, Dean, and Neville made themselves scarce, leaving Harry and Ron very alone.  Ron's pet blowfly buzzed indignantly from his shoulder.  Whilst Ron (and Bruce) accepted Frank’s napkin full of treats (Frank would just have to understand), Harry’s offer to go in front of the whole school and say how wrong he was wasn’t quite what the redhead had in mind.

     “So, is that it?” asked Harry.

     “For now,” replied Ron.  Harry stared at the old SPEW badge that Ron had transfigured.  Two words stared back at him in throbbing, hot-pink letters: MORE CLUELESS.

     With a small, resigned sigh, Harry said, “Fair enough.”

      Ron helpfully pinned it on for him and stood back a moment to admire his handiwork.  Satisfied, he regally waved Harry towards the dormitory door.  The boys found an anxious Hermione waiting outside.

     “Is everything — oh!”  Hermione slapped a hand across her mouth on seeing the badge.  Then she flung her arms around both boys’ necks, dragging them into a head-clunking hug.

     “Blimey, Hermione!” complained Ron, though Harry noticed Ron wasn’t the first to let go.

     On releasing her boys, Hermione pounced again, wanting to know exactly what Dumbledore said the night before.  After checking they were alone, Harry explained about his fake detentions.

     “Whoa,” breathed Ron.  “Private lessons with Dumbledore.  How cool is that?”

     Harry told them Dumbledore would need to keep finding things to punish him for throughout the year.  Sheepishly, he said, “He reckons it won’t be too hard.”  Ron snickered appreciatively; Hermione just rolled her eyes.

     The common room that morning was full (of course it was) and Harry’s throbbing, hot-pink badge drew a good deal more attention than his new silver one.  The Gryffindor captain endured the good-natured ribbing with as much dignity as he could manage.  Ginny did not.

     “I think it’s daft!” she declared, rounding angrily on her brother.  “Harry only told the truth; you are a moron!”

     Harry dragged Ron away before he could engage his tongue.  “Come on; I’m starving.”

     Harry, Ron, and Hermione had the misfortune of arriving in the entrance hall just as a group of Slytherins emerged from the dungeons.  Both Ron and Harry drew vocal and derisive taunts about the ‘mentally challenged’.

     “Potter more clueless than Weasley?” Malfoy crowed on spotting Harry’s badge.  “Is that even possible?”

     Pansy Parkinson tittered gleefully at Malfoy’s amazing wit.

     “Ignore them,” bit Hermione, trying to pull her scowling boys away.  She didn’t count on one purple-haired Brutus Midgen.

     “He’s not clueless!” declared the furious little Slytherin.  “He’s bloody brilliant!”

     There was a moment of stunned silence from the older Slytherins — then they just laughed harder.

     “OW!” cried Malfoy.  Brutus had given Malfoy a mighty kick in the shins.  “Why you little!”  Malfoy whipped out his wand, but Harry and Ron were more than ready.

     “Put it away, Malfoy!” Harry demanded, his wand tip denting Malfoy’s neck.  Brutus’s eyes shone as Malfoy grudgingly backed down.  Crabbe and Goyle were nowhere in sight.

     “Get off on threatening pure-bloods, do you, Potter?” drawled Blaise Zabini.  Harry glanced past Zabini to where Nero, his green-haired little brother, was looking abashed.  And further behind Nero, unnoticed by a growing crowd, stood a silver-haired wizard who gave a minute nod to Harry.

     “Blood’s got nothing to do with it,” Harry countered coolly, not lowering his wand.  “A git’s a git no matter what flavour his blood.”

     “Thank you for that insight, Mr Potter.”  Silence fell as Professor Dumbledore strolled forward.  “But I think you already conveyed that message last night.”

     Ron was quick to drop his wand, but Harry knew Dumbledore wouldn’t want to pass up an excuse to give him more detentions.

     The Headmaster’s voice hardened slightly as he said, “Mr Potter, I thought I made it quite clear I cannot condone students threatening each other.  You will lower your wand, or I shall be obliged to extend your already considerable detentions.”

     Harry played along and did not lower his wand.

     “Harry, please!” Hermione begged with remarkable sincerity (Harry really thought she should give acting a go).  Ron wasn’t quite so quick on the uptake, but his standard mulish expression was serving him well enough.  Harry surreptitiously lightened his wand grip.  A flicker of movement from Dumbledore and Harry’s wand went flying.

     “Detentions it is,” Dumbledore said grimly, and deftly snatched the wand from the air.

     “Yes, sir,” Harry muttered with what he thought was just the right combination of resentment and respect.

     Dumbledore’s brow creased.  “I think we need another word, Mr Potter.”  The Headmaster regarded the milling crowd.  “I’m sure the rest of you are eager to benefit from a hearty breakfast.”

     The crowd dutifully dispersed, the older Slytherins looking gleeful, Hermione and Ron looking impressively indignant, and Brutus and Nero looking miserable.  Alone for a few moments, Dumbledore returned Harry’s wand.

     “I must say, I like the badge,” he offered mildly.

     “Yes, sir,” said Harry.

     Dumbledore’s blue eyes were sympathetic over his half-moon glasses.  “I imagine you’ll be getting more of the same from your fellows over the next few days.”

     Harry shrugged and tried to say it didn’t matter, but Dumbledore wasn’t fooled.

     “You know better than anyone, Harry,” he observed, “that no good deed goes unpunished.  And regrettably, the greater the deed, the greater the punishment.”

     Harry did not find this thought particularly comforting and his downcast expression was genuine on rejoining his friends.

     Over breakfast, he endured yet more digs and laughter, but the more embarrassed he was, the happier Ron seemed to be, which was just the price Harry knew he had to pay.  He was dearly hoping the whole speech thing would soon be forgotten, but the likelihood of this happening was not helped by the fact that each long table was currently infested by a nest of colourful maggots.

     “Sir?” prompted a small voice.

     “Huh?”  One of the maggots was tapping Harry’s shoulder.  “Oh, Hector, mornin’.  You don’t need to call me sir, all right?”

     “Yes, sir,” Hector agreed at once, inspiring snickers from Seamus and Ron.

     “Save it for the teachers,” Harry muttered, turning back to his breakfast.  “Potter’s fine.”

     “Yes, sir,” agreed Hector.  “Sir, it’s just —”

     “Potter!” Harry despaired through a mouthful of toast.  Hermione smiled into her pumpkin juice; Seamus muttered something mischievous about fan clubs.

     “Is everything okay, sir?” fretted Hector.  “About last night, we didn’t mean to —”

     “Everything’s fine!” Harry cut in testily, thinking that everything would have been fine if he hadn’t gotten himself mixed up with all those rotten little maggots in the first place.  He jabbed a fork into his fried egg, causing yolk to squirt all over his toast.  Harry swore under his breath; he hated soggy toast.

     “Sir, honestly,” Hector blurted in a rush, “we never meant to get you into trouble.  Did the Headmaster —”

     “Drop it!” snapped Harry.

     Hermione stopped smiling.  Wincing, Harry twisted around to find a crestfallen little boy who even with green hair looked far too much like a Weasley to stay mad at for long.

     “Sorry, Hector,” Harry apologised, giving the child a pat on the shoulder.  “Look, it’s fine, truly.  I just got a bunch of detentions; it’s nothing for you to worry about.”

     But Hector wasn’t about to drop it, and as the morning’s Owl Post screeched overhead, dropping books and chastisements on forgetful students (everyone near Neville ducked), Hector breathlessly offered to write to Fred and George for an antidote.

     “Hector, it’s fine,” repeated Harry.  “The Headmaster actually likes your hair.  It’s just that I shouldn’t have been messing about and I got a bunch of detentions — it’s no big deal.”

     Hector was miserable.  “But it’s not fair …”

     Bemused, Harry shook his head at the moppet and said, “Seriously, this is nothing.  I spend half my life in detention.”

     “Well, that’s true,” agreed Ron.  Twisting around, he idly waved a forkful of sausage at his cousin.  “You can’t leave him alone for one minute, you know.  You would not believe what it takes to keep him out of trouble.”  Ron looked Harry up and down and shook his head in mock sadness.  “Clueless.  Completely clueless.”

     “A finely matched pair, then,” said an archly knowing Scottish voice.  Ron and Harry exchanged sheepish looks as Professor McGonagall towered over them, checking through a stack of timetables.  “Potter, Potter,” McGonagall murmured.

     “Erm, sorry about last night, Professor,” Harry offered.

     “I’ve no one to blame but myself, Potter,” McGonagall returned crisply, flicking through her timetables.  “I should be grateful, I suppose, that you didn’t feed the children to the Giant Squid — or send them flying into the Whomping Willow.”  There were appreciative snickers at this from the sixth years.  “Here you are,” she said, handing Harry his timetable.

     “Thanks, Professor.”

     “Right,” murmured McGonagall, “where was I ... Finnigan, here you are ... and Miss Granger ...”  Hermione excitedly claimed her timetable.  “... And Miss Brown.  ... Yes, Professor Firenze is still teaching.  ... I’m afraid I’ve not the slightest idea if he likes apples.”  McGonagall turned her steely gaze on Ron.  “Weasley, yes ... I’m afraid your marks were insufficient for your ambition to carry on with Potions, but I spoke with Professor Snape at some length this morning and he has agreed to accept you into his NEWT class on a probationary basis.”

     Hermione gasped with delight.  Ron’s gasp conveyed anything but.

     McGonagall frowned and said, “That is if you do still wish to proceed.”

     “I do — I mean ...”  Ron looked helplessly towards Harry, who nodded encouragingly; he didn’t want to lose Ron’s company in Potions — or beyond; they both had ambitions to become Aurors, and Potions was a requisite NEWT.  Ron turned back to McGonagall and nodded glumly.  “Put me down,” he said, defeated.

     “OH!” Hermione cried in a sudden panic.  “Double-Potions in fifteen minutes!”

******

Loitering at the back of the Potions queue, Harry eyed the small group with satisfaction; DA members outnumbered the Slytherins two to one.

     Before Snape arrived, Ron surprised Harry by quietly telling him to take off his MORE CLUELESS badge.

     “You sure?” checked Harry.

     “You kidding?” countered Ron.

     The minute Snape opened the dungeon door, three Ravenclaws: Michael Corner, Terry Boot, and Anthony Goldstein, raced three Slytherins: Draco Malfoy, Blaise Zabini, and Theodore Nott, for the front bench.  Harry had never seen Ravenclaws move so fast, but their rare burst of athleticism was to no avail.  Even though they’d gotten there first, Snape relegated them to the second row.  Having spent five years with Hufflepuffs, the Ravenclaws were clearly unaccustomed to coming second and took their displacement with less than good humour.  Ernie Macmillan, Susan Bones, and Daphne Greengrass claimed the third bench, and the three Gryffindors were quite content with the fourth.  When Snape took the roll, he lingered pointedly over Ron’s name.  The Slytherins snickered derisively, leaving Harry in no doubt that Snape had blabbed about having made an exception for Ron.

     “Ignore him,” intoned Hermione under her breath.

     “Sir?” drawled Malfoy, raising a lazy hand.  “I thought you only took Outstanding students at NEWT level.”

     Snape gave Malfoy an oily smile, not the least put out by the interruption.

     “Draco, Draco,” he murmured sleekly, “we must all make allowances for those who are ...”  Snape paused as if searching for the right word.  Malfoy found it for him.

     “Completely clueless, sir?”

     Ron’s quill snapped in two.

     “At least some people didn’t need to repeat!” Harry shot heatedly.  Crabbe and Goyle had managed to fail all their OWLs.

     “Five points from Gryffindor for denigrating the intellectual capacity of fellow students,” Snape declared swiftly.

     Score one for the Great Bat, Harry thought sourly.  He knew Professor Dumbledore wouldn’t think it wrong for Snape to take points when he actually did give cheek.  As the students set up their cauldrons, their Potions Master prowled the workbenches, looking for things to criticise.  Ron, naturally enough, was without his potions things, which Snape was quick to point out to the whole class.

     “I’ll owl Mum for my textbook and stuff,” Ron said stiffly, still smarting from the roll.

     “Sir ...” said Snape.

     “Sir,” muttered Ron.

     Snape summoned a spare textbook from a stack inside the bottom of the ingredients cupboard.  He caught the book in one hand, checked something inside, then handed it to Ron.

     “You may wish to belay that order,” he drawled, “until after you’ve passed your probation.  Surely, you wouldn’t want your mother to buy an expensive textbook that you’ll only need for a few — days.”

     The Slytherins snickered appreciatively.  Ron reddened; Hermione quivered with indignation; Harry fumed impotently; he had wondered why Snape ever let McGonagall convince him to make an exception for Ron Weasley, and now he knew, for it was evident that Snape was having a wonderful day.  When he wasn’t droning on about Draughts of Peace, or setting them miles of homework, he was exploiting every opportunity to patronise Ron Weasley, savouring every mistake he made and making a show of noting them all down on a special chart he titled The Weasley Improvement Testimonial (T.W.I.T.), or twit, as he called it, which he hung on the dungeon wall for all to see.

     Ron said not one word against Harry during all this, which just made Harry feel even worse, and the minute they were clear of the dungeons, Harry voluntarily pinned his MORE CLUELESS badge back on.  Ron made an admirable show of not noticing.

******

After the morning break, Professor Sprout hurried the sixth years into Greenhouse Five and sealed the door.  The students did their best to avoid waking anything up; Greenhouse Five was home to some of the most vindictive, flesh-eating plants known to the Wizarding World.  Professor Sprout beckoned them towards a man-sized, obelisk-like flower.

     “Regulus Amorphophallus Titanum,” she whispered proudly, “or ‘little king with very big shapeless phallus’.”  There were juvenile sniggers at this.  “Yes, yes, very amusing,” she agreed, patting down her hands to quiet the group.  “Our prince is asleep right now, and we want to keep him that way a good while longer.  At six feet, he’s still a baby and needs his rest.”

     Professor Sprout went on to explain (over yet more helpless giggles and snickers) that the flower’s bloom would stay erect for about a week, and then it would collapse and a new one would emerge in its place.  As the plant matured, each flowering cycle would see the bloom growing taller until its full height of twelve feet.  Ron and Harry shared a look that agreed that calling twelve feet little hardly seemed fair.

     “The Rex Amorphophallus Gigas is bigger again,” advised Professor Sprout, “but the Regulus is considerably easier to handle.  The flower attracts pollinators by emitting powerful waves of pheromones.  The resulting odour of carrion is intoxicating to flies and carries for miles.”

     An excited buzz sounded from inside Ron’s robes; it seemed Bruce had found a friend.

     “Of course,” Sprout said in a cheerful whisper, “that does make it smell like there’s a dead body inside — though, naturally, sometimes there is a dead body inside.  At this stage, our little prince is just learning to feed on small animals — rats, ferrets, Nifflers, and such — but at full maturity, it can digest much larger prey, including humans, which gives rise to its more common name, the Corpse Flower.  The Corpse Flower makes an excellent guard plant, very sensitive to both noise and ill intent.  Can anyone tell me about its defensive strategies?”

     Neville’s hand shot up.  Excitedly, he whispered, “When it’s under attack, the Corpse Flower paralyses its attacker with noxious gases.”

     “Excellent, Longbottom!” whispered the professor.  “Five points to Gryffindor!”

     The Ravenclaws and Slytherins stared in disbelief, stunned that Neville had answered a question — and got it right!  The Gryffindors exchanged smug looks, pleased to see Neville get one up on the brainy Ravenclaws and smarmy Slytherins.

     “And can anyone tell me how the plant attracts its prey?” Professor Sprout prompted hopefully.

     Hermione's hand just beat Neville's.  “When the plant is hungry, it emits pheromones to appeal to its victim’s —” Hermione hesitated, which was most unlike her, and her cheeks were oddly pink, “— erm, to appeal to its victim’s more lustful urges.”

     “Very good!  Another five points to Gryffindor!”  Professor Sprout folded her arms over her ample bosom and gazed fondly at the singular, pointy bloom.  “The flesh inside the phallus has powerfully euphoric properties, making it extremely useful for pain-killing potions.  I’m pleased to advise that we shall be donating this year’s harvest to Saint Mungo’s for their pain-management programme.  I know you’ll all want to do your best for the war effort.”  Harry eyed the flower with new respect; he doubted he would have made it through his hospital ordeal without such potions.  “With the right care and attention,” Professor Sprout whispered encouragingly, “you should each be able to bring your little princes to their largest possible blooms by the end of the year!”

     Ron drew closer to Harry and whispered in his ear, “Yeah, let’s grow two dozen plants that need to eat people to survive, have paralysing farts, and make you want to hump something.”

     Harry laughed out loud, which was a grave mistake because the noise awoke the young plant, and, before you could say Bubble-Headed Charm, The Little Prince let rip with a frightened fart that knocked out the entire class.

******

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