Chapter 11 : Lessons in Fear

Publish Date: 31 July 2005

Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter, its characters, or anything associated with it. I'm not making any money from this story, and I don't intend to. I'm writing it purely for the satisfaction of it, and because several people warned me that there would be dire consequences if I didn't finish it. The resemblance of any character to an actual person is completely accidental. Please don't sue -- I don't own enough to make it worth your while.

Note: This is a Harry / Severus slash story -- and while their relationship is also accompanied by plot, action, and drama, if you seriously object to the slash element -- or to the particular pairing -- then don't read the story!


THE MIRROR OF MAYBE: Chapter 11
-- Lessons in Fear --

For Ronald Weasley, the fifth week of school began with a confused blur of classes, visits to the library, and an endless stream of books. Hermione spent every spare second feverishly swallowing up information on mirrors and disguise spells. Ron barely had time to keep up as he steadily located, retrieved, and returned, book after book for his obsessed friend. He'd been tempted to do a little reading himself, but his mind was currently struggling with some very serious thoughts, and he somehow found it easier to think while his body was usefully occupied. As a result, he was satisfied to act as her personal librarian -- feeding volumes to her like a waiter bringing food, and carting away the empty dishes once she'd inhaled the contents.

Thus, it was with some shock that Wednesday morning arrived, and the intense pressure to hurry up and do something suddenly disappeared. Hermione was calm -- and every extra book was finally back in the library. Today, their first class would be a double period of Defence Against the Dark Arts. It would be their second Survival class for the year.

Before breakfast that morning, Hermione summarised her findings for him.

"Mirrors," she said quietly in their private little corner of the common room, "are an astonishing field of study. There are so many different kinds -- and they do so many different things. But at the same time, there's so little information on them!"

Ron sent her an ironic look. "I dunno, Mione -- I seem to remember carting around an awful lot of books on the subject."

Hermione smiled, with a touch of embarrassment. "Sorry about that. I didn't mean to treat you like a walking book bag."

"Don't sweat it," Ron grinned in reply. "If I hadn't wanted to do it -- I wouldn't have. You read faster than I do anyway, so it made sense for me to just keep passing 'em up to you. Besides, it gave me time to think about some stuff." And then he added with a grin, "But of course, now you owe me -- so give: what did you find out?"

Hermione nibbled her lip thoughtfully. "Well," she began, "I discovered that some mirrors are like the Mirror of Erised -- they're only meant to show you things; while other mirrors act like portals, and can actually transport you to different locations -- or even to different worlds." Then a faint look of awe crossed her face as she added, "Believe it or not, there are even some mirrors that can take you to places that don't really exist."

"How can you go somewhere that doesn't exist?" Ron asked.

"Because those places exist inside the mirror," Hermione replied, "but nowhere else."

"Whoa..." Ron exclaimed. "What happens if a mirror like that gets broken while you're inside it?"

"I haven't the faintest idea," came the calm admission, "But that's not important at the moment." Hermione paused, and then looked over at one of the windows set high into the wall of the Gryffindor common room. "The point is, that some mirrors can take you to places where time runs differently than it does in our world." And the expression on her face seemed to suggest that the sky beyond the window could easily be the sky above one of those other worlds.

Softly, she continued. "If you entered a mirror that took you to -- oh, say one of the faery realms -- and then decided to stay for a day or two; when you returned, you might find that weeks, or even months, had passed."

Ron nodded. He could remember his mum telling him all about the faery realms, and about people who disappeared, only to turn up years later, just as young as the day they'd left. Every wizarding parent warned their children about accepting invitations from any of the faery folk.

"But," Hermione continued as she turned back to face him, "the opposite can also be true. You could go to a place where time runs much faster, so that -- for the person who entered the mirror -- months or years might pass -- and when they returned, it would only be a matter of minutes or hours."

Again, Ron nodded. That fit with Hermione's theory about Harry. Carefully omitting any mention of their missing friend, he quietly stated, "You think that's what happened."

In response, Hermione pursed her lips and then cryptically replied, "Before -- eggs were only to be eaten scrambled. After -- they were poached. Tastes change as you grow older." Then she added, "I've noticed the professor likes his eggs poached." It was an obscure series of statements, designed to sound like confusing nonsense to anyone who might be listening to their conversation.

"It's a bit flimsy," Ron said dubiously.

Quietly, Hermione asked, "If years of your life had been stolen -- far from your world and your friends -- would you be angry?"

Ron's eyes widened. Slowly, he replied. "Angry enough to destroy the thing that took me away?" Ron thought about it for a moment, and then commented, "That would explain why he called it 'cursed'."

"And remember the rest of it," Hermione prompted him. "-- Quidditch; brooms; the school; Malfoy -- and especially Padfoot and Moony."

"It's possible," Ron allowed, "Hell, it made sense two days ago, and I guess it still does." He shifted uncomfortably. "It's just... hard. To think of it, I mean. It changes so much..." They both descended into silence. Suddenly, Ron asked, "So what now?"

"Anti-glamour charm," was all she said.

"Will anyone else see?"

"No," Hermione replied. "The charm gets cast on these," and she tapped her cheek, pointing to her own eyes.

Then they left for breakfast -- and Defence Against the Dark Arts.

----oo00oo----

The sixth-year Gryffindors had attended their first Survival class two weeks ago. That lesson had been held in a regular classroom and shared with their counterparts from Ravenclaw. This time, when the two Houses arrived at the door, they found a note pinned to it, directing them to one of the long halls on the second floor.

"Does this remind anyone of our first Dark Arts lesson?" Seamus asked.

"Not quite," Hermione replied as they headed for the stairs. "I'm not late this time, and I don't have to listen to you boys clanking under all those ridiculous chains."

Seamus only raised an eyebrow. "Nice earrings," was all he said.

Hermione laughed. She'd stopped wearing her bracelet everywhere as soon as she'd acquired the current pair of tiny bells that were tinkling away beneath each earlobe. She'd quickly discovered that while she was taking notes, the bracelet dragged across the parchment and smudged the ink. "Why thank-you, Seamus," she replied, "and I find that pocket full of jingling loose change you're sporting to be much more practical too."

Seamus started to reply, when Ron cut him off.

"Don't," Ron told him. "Just... don't."

Seamus took one look at the blush spreading across the other boy's face, and thought about the implications of a conversation that involved him and a pocket full of coins in a denomination called 'knuts'. He knew that some boys tended to fiddle with the coins in their robes when they were bored, or nervous.

Ron was right. He didn't want to go there.

They arrived at the appropriate hallway, and found Professor Ash standing in front of a large solid door. It was the first time any of them had seen that particular door closed. Usually it was open so that students could traverse the hallway beyond it. Indeed, some of their fellow students were obviously surprised that there was a door, since they'd never paid any attention to it before.

They waited patiently for the rest of their combined class to assemble.

Ron eyed Hermione nervously. Was she going to cast the charm now? She noticed him looking at her, and subtly shook her head. There were too many people standing in front of the War Mage for her to get a clear and unobstructed view. She would wait for a better opportunity.

Eventually, the rest of their class arrived.

After a few moments, when no more students came pelting up the stairs, the War Mage asked, "Is that everyone? Anybody missing?" There was a bit of shuffling. "Speak up if there is," Ash added, "because once we go through this door, nobody else will be able to join us."

A few people blinked in surprise. There was a more thorough check amongst the students for any missing friends. Everybody seemed to be present.

"Right then," Ash said. "Here we go."

----oo00oo----

Harry turned away from his class to face the closed door. He drew out his wand and tapped the old door handle twice while muttering under his breath. Then he stepped back.

There were gasps from some of his students as the piece of wrought iron crawled across the heavy wooden door -- twisting itself into a new configuration as it travelled silently over the ancient wood. When it finally stopped moving, the handle had shifted from the right-hand side of the door to the left, and Harry confidently grabbed hold of it and levered it downwards.

The door swung open -- in the opposite direction than it should have -- and with a sweep of his arm, Harry motioned for the sixth-year students to enter. "In you go," he told them, "and don't touch anything!" Then he watched to make sure nobody was left behind.

Once they were all inside, Harry stepped through himself, and pulled the door shut behind him.

----oo00oo----

The hallway they had entered was a long wide room with tall arched windows arrayed down one side, and a vaulted ceiling above them. The other side of the room was flat stonework, with no unusual features.

The students were all staring in surprise.

The normal hallway -- which all of them had passed through at one time or another -- was hung with tapestries, and had busts of famous wizards and witches mounted on pedestals, and arrayed down the wall opposite the windows. It also had a couple of suits of armour standing between some of those windows, and a long carpet that ran down the middle of the room to the door at the other end. About the only unusual thing this particular hallway was known for, was that it was somewhat wider than the others in the castle -- making it seem more like a large room than a corridor.

But this version of the hallway was very different. Or rather, it was almost exactly the same, but with completely different furnishings. It was quite plainly a gymnasium of some kind. There were weights; punching bags; ropes suspended from the ceiling; and odd wooden things that looked like children's stick men and were located where the suits of armour usually stood. The carpet was gone, and in its place were thick mats that spread out to cover most of the floor. Where the tapestries should be, were weapons of all types, neatly arrayed and ready for use. Large targets were set up at the far end of the room, and behind them lay the single difference that told each student they were most definitely not in the same hallway they'd expected to see.

The connecting door at the far end of the room was missing. The only way out was the way they'd come in.

As several students turned to look back at the door they'd just walked through, Harry recaptured the class' attention by walking forwards through the middle of them. His presence seemed to reassure several students that they were not, in fact, trapped in some strange secret room with no way out.

"This place," Harry told them, "can only be reached through the door we just used -- and only when it opens from the left-hand side. Once I closed the door behind us, the outer handle immediately reverted to its normal configuration. So unless someone outside this room knows how to change the handle, no-one will be able to disturb us."

Harry then used his wand to point to the many weapons adorning the stone wall. "As you can see," he continued, "this room is dedicated to training for physical battles, and although it can also be used for magical training, its purpose is primarily to hone the body and its reflexes." Harry noted several admiring looks directed at the swords and axes from some of the boys in the class. "You will not," he announced, "be allowed to handle any weapon in this room until -- and unless -- I give you my explicit permission!" There was some muttering. "These are not toys!" Harry growled at them. "This room is secured against accidental entry for your protection! So that foolish children who think it might be fun to play with spears and swords don't accidentally chop off their own arms and legs! The weapons in this room are razor-sharp -- and some of them are spelled to cut through steel like butter. You wouldn't need to swing one of these weapons to injure yourself. All you'd have to do is drop one with the blade facing down, and you'd be missing half your foot!"

There were a few hard swallows in response to this announcement, but Harry was still grateful the room was secured against casual entry. He had no doubt that some students would ignore his warning when news of this room spread out into the rest of the school population. But since the entry spell was keyed to staff members only, and he was currently the only one who knew the correct words, then he wasn't too worried about silly students getting in unsupervised.

One of the Ravenclaw girls raised her hand.

"Yes Miss Turpin?" Harry asked.

"Please sir, what if someone gets left behind when we leave? Would they be trapped in here?" There was a nervous silence.

"No," Harry reassured her with a smile. "The door is only secured against entry -- not against exit. Any one of you can open the door from this side to get out. However, if you cross the threshold and then try to turn back, you will only see the normal corridor behind you. This will always be the case, even if you don't close the door when you leave. Once you depart, you must use the altered handle on the closed door to come back."

"What about the windows?" Parvati Patil asked.

"Well, I wouldn't advise leaving via that route without a broom," Harry replied, "but yes -- once you break a window and pass through it, you'll be back in the normal school areas. However, as with the door, the moment you pass out of this room, you won't be able to get back in without opening the reversed door. In fact, if you broke one of these windows to get out, and then looked back, you would only see the unbroken glass from the normal hallway windows behind you."

"Why does Hogwarts have a room for learning muggle-style fighting?" a Ravenclaw boy asked.

"Because," Harry explained, "in ancient times, many of the spells and protections we take for granted today, didn't exist. And many of the curses and offensive spells were similarly unknown. Even the making of wands was something of a hit and miss business. With only primitive and unreliable magic available to them, is it any wonder that wizards and witches back then preferred to rely on enchanted weapons and their own physical skills?"

"Of course," Harry continued, "as wands, curses, and counter-curses became more reliable and powerful, the use of physical weapons diminished. It wasn't much good swinging a sword at someone when your opponent could use magic to disapparate; raise a shield; or simply melt the metal in your hands."

"However," he finished, "we aren't here for a history lesson -- we're here to learn how to survive when confronted with an unexpected and unknown situation. So -- who can name one of the four primary responses we covered two weeks ago?"

Several hands shot up.

"Attack!" sang out one of the Gryffindor girls when Harry pointed to her.

"Defend!" a Ravenclaw lad said next.

"Hide!" came the third response.

And the last one?" Harry asked them.

Spontaneously, the whole class yelled, "Run for your life!"

Harry laughed. "Technically, it's called 'Escape' -- but obviously my original description made more of an impression on you." Several cheeky grins greeted that statement. Harry continued. "Last time, we studied unknown animals and plants, and how to estimate which of the four responses was most likely to keep you alive. This week we're going to be studying fear, and how it applies to the most dangerous type of opponent."

And with that, Harry waved his wand and created the illusion of a portly little wizard with a kind and cheerful face, who was chortling merrily to himself and occasionally looking around in paternal approval.

He looked rather like somebody's favourite absent-minded uncle.

There was some confused shuffling amongst the students.

"This," said Harry very seriously, "is the most dangerous kind of enemy you could end up facing. Can anyone tell me why?"

"Because he looks so harmless?" one of the Ravenclaws guessed.

Harry gave the girl an ironic smile. "That's one reason he's dangerous, yes. But some of the creatures we studied last time were rather small and cute too, were they not? What makes this fellow any worse?"

"Because he's human!" Neville blurted out. His fellow Gryffindors stared at him in surprise.

Harry wasn't surprised. It was something he'd noticed about Neville several years ago. The young man was absolutely terrified of people -- but never had the slightest problem with situations that didn't involve others. As an adult, Neville had become an amazing herbologist -- handling the most dangerous and unstable plants with confidence and skill. Harry rather suspected he could've become a master potion maker as well, if it hadn't been for Severus' intimidation and overwhelming personality. In order to learn, Neville needed someone with a gentle presence, who tended to fade into the background. Had Professor Sprout been a more forceful witch, Neville would probably have failed Herbology as well.

Hopefully, today's lesson would be something of a revelation for the young man.

"Very close, Mr Longbottom," Harry encouraged. "But you need to be just a fraction more precise." Neville looked confused. He was already flustered from having called attention to himself, and looked unlikely to figure out what his teacher was trying to tell him. Harry raised his wand and pointed it at the illusion. "Let's see whether this gives you a hint," and with that, the illusion began flipping through a series of alternate images. The happy little wizard was successively replaced by a dwarf, then an elf, a Kyrii, a goblin, a giant, an odd-looking rock thing with tentacles, a serpentine Naga, and then finally, it changed back into the portly wizard.

Every student recognised at least some of the illusions, and got the idea. Confidently, Neville said, "They’re all dangerous because they're people -- they can think."

"Very good, Mr Longbottom -- five points to Gryffindor," And then Harry swept his eyes over the entire class. "Your most dangerous enemy will always be the one who is intelligent -- who can reason out a situation and anticipate your actions."

Hermione raised her hand. "Please, sir, aren't some animals intelligent, too?" She seemed to have temporarily forgotten her anti-glamour charm in favour of the lesson.

"Very much so, Miss Granger," Harry agreed. "Intelligence -- the ability to reason -- appears to come in degrees. Some animals are quite smart, and hence more dangerous than others. However, sentient beings are the extreme example, and I think you will find that -- given Voldemort's presence in the world today -- you're more likely to come across a sentient enemy than an animal."

Most of the class flinched at Harry's use of the Dark Lord's name, and there was no doubt that all of them were now thinking about Death Eaters.

"As I mentioned before," Harry told them, "today's topic is fear -- and more specifically what it is, what it does to you, and how to cope with it." He noticed that Neville was looking both worried and hopeful. "So, first of all," Harry continued, "let's see if we can make our chubby little friend here look a bit more frightening." Harry gestured with his wand, and the illusionary wizard slowly began to transform. The man's torso gradually lost weight -- becoming almost gaunt and skeletal, while his bones seemed to lengthen -- making the hands that poked out of his robes look more like large pale spiders than human appendages. The strange mockery of a wizard also gained height until he was able to look down on most of them, and the healthy pink skin, with its jovial red cheeks, turned pale and translucent -- looking almost whiter than snow, as if there was no blood at all in the man's body. The cute round nose shrivelled up into a flat protrusion, with ugly slits where the nostrils should've been.

"Eww!" Lavender Brown exclaimed. "That's disgusting!"

There was a general mutter of agreement from the other girls in the class.

"What!?" Harry asked in mock-offence. "You're not frightened!?"

"Ill maybe..." one Ravenclaw muttered.

"Well," Harry sniffed, looking at his creation critically, "how about if I add this?" And once more he gestured with his wand, and altered the illusion. Now it sported blood-red eyes with evil-looking slitted pupils.

Some of his students laughed.

Now Harry pretended to look hurt. "Hey -- he's supposed to look scary, not funny!"

The whole class cracked up.

Suddenly Harry gestured, and they were plunged into darkness. Jagged breathing sounded in the heavy shadows, and a low voice hissed, "Lumosss". The illusion they'd all been laughing at moments before abruptly appeared before them -- lit from below by the tip of his imaginary wand. That same wand came up to point at them, and a cruel smirk twisted the ugly thing's face. "Avada --".

The light abruptly returned.

Shocked students stared at the frozen illusion. Some of them were trembling, and Neville looked as though he might pass out.

Once his students had mostly calmed down again, Harry said, "So in some situations, my skinny friend here isn't very frightening at all. But put him in the appropriate setting, and he's absolutely terrifying. And yet, he's only an illusion. You know he's not real. So, why did he scare you?"

The class was silent. Each student was obviously trying to come up with a reason, but there didn't seem to be one.

After a few moments, Harry said, "You don't know?" There was some shaking of heads. "Well, not to worry -- I don't know either." Surprised faces greeted this announcement. "Fear," Harry explained, "is an instinctive response. It isn't something we decide to feel, and it isn't something we can turn on or off. It just is, and we all have to live with it."

"Even you?" Padma Patil asked.

"Of course, me!" Harry exclaimed. "You think I don't feel fear?"

"But you're a War Mage!" Ron exclaimed, completely forgetting that the man in front of him might well be his best friend. "What could frighten you?"

"Dumbledore's fake monster for one thing," Harry told them. "When that Ked'rallirri burst into the hall on the first night, I was terrified."

"But... but you killed it!" Ron stammered.

"Yes," Harry agreed, "because I was scared that if I didn't, it might kill some of you, or the other teachers."

A look of understanding settled over Ron's face. "You were frightened for us," he nodded sagely.

Harry pursed his lips. "It seems to me, Mr Weasley," he said thoughtfully, "that you think being afraid for the safety of others is somehow more acceptable than being afraid for your own safety."

Ron stared at him in surprise. "Well, sure," he said. "Nobody wants to be a coward."

Off to one side, Neville was looking devastated.

Harry sighed in exasperation. "I thought we had decided that nobody knows why we feel fear." Cautiously, Ron nodded. "Then why does it make any difference whether my fear was triggered by the thought of my own safety, or yours?"

Now several people were looking confused.

"All right, imagine this," Harry suggested, "-- you're trapped in a room with this charming fellow," and he pointed at the skinny illusion next to him. "You have no wand, you can't do wandless magic, you can't get out, there's nowhere to hide, and he wants to kill you. Why on earth wouldn't you be afraid? I certainly would be!"

"Well, yeah," Ron admitted, "but... but that's different."

"Is it?" Harry asked relentlessly, "Why? Because there's no-one to witness your fear? Because the situation is hopeless? Because you can't run away? -- and if it's that last one, I would like to remind you that in our last Survival class, you found 'run for your life' to be a perfectly acceptable response to dangerous plants and animals."

Frustrated, Ron burst out, "But, sir! You sound like you're saying there's no such thing as cowardice -- that it's okay to just run away from everything!"

Harry shook his head. "Not at all, Mr Weasley. What I'm saying, is that being afraid does not make someone a coward. Even running away does not make someone a coward. Feeling fear is not wrong or shameful -- under any circumstances." Out of the corner of his eye, Harry could see Neville looking progressively happier.

"Then... then what does make someone a coward?" Ron asked in confusion.

Harry smiled. "A coward is someone who makes decisions based only on their fears."

"Someone with courage," Harry continued, "makes decisions based on whatever they think has the best chance of doing the most good -- regardless of their fears. A coward is the man who stays to face down a dragon, because he's afraid people will see him as weak if he runs away. That man is acting only on his fear of ridicule, and is probably going to get himself killed for no good reason. However, if the man was doing it to give others a chance to escape, then the act becomes one of courage, because he is facing the dragon in order to preserve the greatest number of lives he can."

"A courageous act," Harry concluded, "may involve running away. It may demand that you stand and fight. It may require your death -- or that you live on while those around you die. The same act may be either courageous or cowardly, depending on your reasons for doing it. "

Harry paused. There was a very thoughtful silence from his students. "Mr Weasley," Harry said quietly, "if you had the chance to save a child's life -- but only at the cost of your own, would you give your life?"

Ron looked very serious. "I... I don't know," he admitted. "I like to think I would -- but... but how can I know something like that until it happens?"

Harry smiled. "Five points to Gryffindor for an honest answer," he said. "But I would like to know, Mr Weasley -- do you judge me a coward when I tell you that I have been in such a situation? And that I let the girl die? She was only four years old."

The entire class looked shocked.

Ron was obviously incapable of answering -- his jaw hanging open in disbelief. Harry waited while he regained control of his vocal cords. "I... you..." the sixth-year stuttered, while looking distressed and unhappy. But it was obvious the War Mage expected an answer, and finally Ron said the only thing he could think of: "Sir -- I don't think I can answer that. I wasn't there. I wasn't the one who had to make the decision. How can I know?"

"Very good, Mr Weasley -- and entirely correct. You cannot judge me -- only I can do that."

But it was Neville who finally asked, "Sir? Why... why did you...?"

Harry regarded the young man appraisingly. It was a very personal question, but also an important one if he was to maintain a level of trust with his students. "It was an evil wizard who set up the situation," he finally replied, "He had a fondness for torturing me with the death of children. I knew there was no-one else available to stop him. The girl was young -- untrained, and useless in a fight. If she'd lived, there would've been nobody to stop the mage, but if I lived, then there was a good chance I could eventually kill him. Put simply Mr Longbottom, I judged my life to be more valuable than hers."

"Did... did they blame you?" Neville whispered.

"Her mother did," Harry replied. "-- and a few others. But her father blamed only the man who took her."

----oo00oo----

Shortly thereafter, each student found themselves standing at regular intervals down one side of the gym's floor mats. Harry had directed them to take off their shoes, and they were currently facing the windows, while watching him walk barefoot down the centre of the room. Harry was holding a small leather pouch and was extracting a pinch of blue powder from it each time he drew parallel with a student. He would then deposit the innocuous-looking blue stuff half way across the mat in front of them.

While he was doing this, Harry was also explaining that: "the greatest danger that fear offers us, lies in the fact that it tends to shut down our ability to think." As he set down the last pinch of blue powder, he straightened and asked them, "Do you all remember why people are the most dangerous enemies to have?" The class nodded. "Then remember this -- the absolute worst thing you can do in any situation is to stop thinking."

"Mr Thomas," Harry said, pointing to the Gryffindor student, "when I blacked out the light and my illusion threatened to kill you -- what was going through your mind?"

"Er..." Dean struggled a bit, before admitting, "I don't really remember, sir. Something like 'oh, shit' I guess..." There were muffled snickers throughout the class.

"Oh, shit," Harry repeated. "No thought of attacking, then? Defending yourself? Hiding? Not even running away?"

Dean shook his head. "There wasn't enough time, sir."

"Of course there was," Harry contradicted. "There was plenty of time, both before my illusion used 'lumos', and afterwards when you could plainly see where he was. What happened, is that your surprise -- and then your fear -- shut down your thought processes, and you just stood there because you couldn't think of anything else to do."

Dean looked embarrassed.

"Don't worry about it, Mr Thomas," Harry told him. "Your reaction is perfectly normal. Everyone else had exactly the same response. Not even those few people who jumped out of the way were thinking about it -- they simply reacted. It took me years of training to overcome the same thing, and even now, I haven't so much overcome it, as replaced it with the instinct to attack. That's why you're all walking around with loose change in your pockets, or bells on your person." Then Harry paused. "But," he added, "as that reaction proves, even I can't actually think in that first critical moment after being startled or frightened." Then Harry shrugged and said, "That's just the way human beings are."

"The trick," he concluded, "is to know that about yourself, and to expect it. Learn what that moment of blankness feels like, and then get your mind working again as soon as you can."

"This," he said as he gestured at the blue powder on the mats, "is one of the early training exercises that a War Mage practices in order to familiarise themselves with the way their body and mind reacts to fear."

Everyone looked curiously at the blue dust.

"When I cast the spell to activate the powder," Harry explained, "you will see a blue corridor form in front of you. All you have to do is get from one side of the mats to the other, through the corridor. Every corridor will remain in place until I cancel the spell, and you can practice getting to the other side as many times as you like. The person who crosses the mats the most number of times will receive twenty points for their House." There was some startlement at that -- it was the most number of points, the War Mage had ever given out.

"Andron Formido!" Harry said, and misty blue lanes swirled up from the powder in front of each student. Every person eyed their corridor with serious misgivings.

Harry chuckled. "You're right to be wary," he told them. "Once you enter the corridor, something that frightens you will appear in it." Several students paled. "Don't worry," Harry reassured them, "this isn't like a Boggart -- it won't be your greatest fear, or anything even close to it." Then he chuckled. "Initially, you may even find it funny. The corridors all start off with something you find mildly unsettling." After a brief pause, he admitted, "I'm usually confronted by an empty cupboard." His students looked at him in confusion. "It's my clothes," Harry explained, "They're all dirty for some reason, and I just know I'll have to wear a shirt with stains down the front in public."

There were several grins and the odd snicker.

"But," Harry explained, "each time you go through the corridor, what you see will become progressively more frightening -- and unlike a Boggart, the corridor won't let you remember that it's only an illusion. While you're inside, you will absolutely and utterly believe that everything the corridor shows you is completely real. If you manage to cross twenty times, then you will finally have faced your greatest and innermost fear. If you continue to cross after that, I'll give your House an automatic hundred points -- per crossing."

There was some stirring at that. One hundred points per crossing was an awful lot! This wouldn't be easy.

"Oh," Harry added as he saw several students warming up. "Did I forget to mention? -- don't bother trying to run -- it doesn't make any difference since it takes exactly the same amount of time to get to the other side, no matter how fast or slow you're going when you start." Several people looked disappointed.

"Off you go!" Harry told them.

----oo00oo----

Some time later, Harry was still watching while the last few students were trying to convince themselves to take just one more trip through their corridor. Most of them had decided they'd reached their limit somewhere between twelve and fifteen times.

With a combination of praise and encouragement, even Neville had managed to cross thirteen times, and was incredibly proud of the fact that he didn't have the lowest number of crossings in the class. Mind you, the two students who stopped at twelve obviously didn't place much importance on the exercise. But that didn't matter to Neville -- he was proud nonetheless, and Harry was pleased the class had gone so well for him.

It was obvious that the young man would be thinking about this lesson for a long time to come. The knowledge that a War Mage had told him it was all right to be afraid would take some getting used to. But even now, Harry could see the seeds of acceptance in him. He would never be the one to take charge, or put himself forward, but his self-confidence had received a huge boost today, and for the first time, Neville looked like he actually thought he might really belong in Gryffindor -- the House that was renowned for the courage of its members.

Ultimately though, the contest came down to Ronald Weasley and a Ravenclaw named Terry Boot. They were each on 16 crossings, and were both pale and shaking as they emerged together on the same side of the mats. Terry, in particular, was looking rather unwell.

Ron didn't even look at his rival. Instead, the fiery redhead leaned over -- with his hands on his knees -- and took several deep breaths. Then he straightened up, and Harry saw a look that was pure stubborn cussedness settle over his face. With a hard swallow, the young man marched back into his corridor for his seventeenth crossing.

Harry looked at the Ravenclaw.

Still sweating heavily, Terry looked back and slowly shook his head.

Half a minute later, Ron staggered out the other side and collapsed onto the mats.

Harry cancelled the spell, and the blue corridors swirled away into nothingness.

He walked across to the trembling form of his best friend. Harry had never been more proud of him.

The other students slowly picked themselves up and gathered around.

Standing in the late morning sun as it streamed in from the windows beside them, Harry regarded his emotionally drained student, collapsed on the floor in front of him.

"Mr Weasley," he said.

Pale-faced, Ron looked up at him.

"I told you earlier that the only person who could judge a courageous act was the one who performed it. Today you crossed a Fear Corridor seventeen times of your own free will. It's not possible to do that for an outside reason such as House points or bragging rights. Only two things allow someone to cross that many times: the fear of something worse than what's in the corridor, or the true desire to face your fears and overcome your weaknesses." Harry paused. "Do you have courage, Mr Weasley? Or was it cowardice?" There were several sharply indrawn breaths from the other students. As far as they were concerned, their teacher's last question was an insult.

Ron staggered to his feet. "Sir..." he said shakily. "I think... I think maybe... it was both."

"Twenty points to Gryffindor," Harry said into the quiet room -- and then he smiled. Ron mirrored the expression with perfect understanding. Of all those assembled on the mats at this moment, only he and his teacher fully understood that cowardice and courage were inseparable. You literally couldn't have one without the other. Every act of courage was, in some way, driven by fear. Fear of failure, fear of loss, fear for the safety of loved ones, fear of ridicule, fear of pain -- even the fear of fear itself. Thus, every hero -- every champion -- was also a coward. And conversely, every coward had the seeds of a hero within them.

"But," Ron suddenly added, "I think there might also have been a large chunk of stupidity in there too."

The moment broke, and everybody laughed. //Ronald Weasley,// Harry reflected with amusement, //would crack jokes while the world was ending.//

----oo00oo----

It was nearly the end of class by the time everyone got their shoes back on, and re-assembled at the end of the gym in front of the ugly illusion. For some reason, their teacher had not cancelled the spell that was maintaining it, and so they all ended up back where they began -- facing away from the door, while the horrible thing's outstretched wand was pointed straight at them. The War Mage was standing next to it.

"All right," Harry said, "We're nearly done. There's only one last thing you each have to do before you can leave."

The tired students just looked at him.

"When I point to you," Harry said, "you have to look at this somewhat unattractive fellow standing beside me and yell out his name as loudly as you can. Then you can leave."

"Mr Weasley," Harry continued, "I believe you have earned the honour of going first."

Ron looked at the weird skinny guy, and scrunched up his face. "Uh... sir? I don't know his name."

"Oh," Harry said with feigned surprise. "Didn't I tell you? This is Voldemort."

There was silence.

"That?!" someone exclaimed.

"Is this another weird joke?" Padma Patil asked tiredly.

"No," Harry assured them. "This is really Voldemort -- or an illusion of him, anyway. This is actually what he looks like."

Some of the students eyed the image suspiciously.

"It is not," Pavarti argued. "You're having us on."

Suddenly solemn, Harry said, "I swear on my honour and my life that this is a fair and accurate representation of the current body of the wizard known as Lord Voldemort."

Everybody stared at him. Then they stared at the illusion. The thought that this was their shadowy bogeyman -- exposed to the light in all his... unpleasantness -- didn't sit too well with a lot of them.

"That's a real person?!" one of the Ravenclaw girls squeaked. "That's... that's him?"

"I'm afraid so," Harry confirmed.

"Ick!" she exclaimed. "That's gross!"

Wickedly, Harry decided to make it even worse.

He waved his wand, and suddenly the Dark Lord's robes disappeared. The illusion was now standing before them -- wand still outstretched -- clad only in pink boxers with big red hearts on them.

The class practically fell onto the floor in gales of hysterical laughter.

When Ron finally managed to do more than hang onto Hermione and gasp for air -- he turned to the illusion and yelled, "Voldemort has lousy taste in underwear!"

That set them all off again, and also established the tone for the rest of the students.

Harry didn't actually get to hear every student call out Voldemort's name, since it took far too long for them to recover from the hilarity that ensued every time someone yelled out an insult.

After things like "Voldemort -- the diet that went too far!" and "Hey Voldemort -- you're supposed to see the world through rose-coloured glasses -- not rose-coloured eyeballs!" even Harry was having a hard time keeping a straight face.

The students who went first, stayed to hear the insults that later students came up with, and by the time class ended, Harry simply waved an arm at the lot of them, and said, "Get out of here you reprobates!"

They exited together, still coming up with new insults, and Harry was pleased to hear the name 'Voldemort' floating back and forth on the air behind them.

"That was a hell of a class," Harry chuckled as he turned to dispel the Dark Lord's illusion, and then went to tidy up the mats.

----oo00oo----

As the freed class of Ravenclaw and Gryffindor students streamed out the door -- laughing and making Voldemort jokes -- several of them stopped off to one side to watch the later students appearing behind them. It was a strange sight, since the door to the hallway was still closed, and the remainder of the class simply appeared in front of it, as though they'd just walked right through solid wood.

There were two students, however, who did not linger, but instead rushed off by themselves -- using physical distance to give themselves a few moments of whispered privacy.

"Did you do it?" Ron asked Hermione.

"Yes," Hermione whispered back, "I cast the charm while the rest of us were waiting for you and Terry to finish."

Ron waited. Hermione looked somewhat... confused. Finally, Ron couldn't wait any more. "And!?" he demanded. "What happened?"

Hermione frowned. "I... I must have cast it incorrectly or... or mis-read the charm..."

Ron snorted. "The day you mis-cast or mis-read a charm is the day I dye my hair green and announce I've turned Slytherin." Ron pursed his lips and looked speculatively at his friend. Hermione was scowling fiercely, and refusing to meet his gaze. "What's wrong Mione?" he asked. "Do you really think you made a mistake with the spell?"

Hermione sighed. "No," she said, "I did everything right -- but he still looked the same!" A look of frustration appeared on her face. "But the facts all fit!" she hissed quietly at him. "I know it's him -- it has to be!" She glanced away again -- her eyes becoming unfocused as she turned her thoughts inwards. "He's a mage now," she murmured to herself, "so he must be using a spell that can resist the charm I used... maybe a stronger spell would..."

"No!" Ron said as he grabbed her arm and pulled her into a nearby alcove.

Hermione was shocked by his vehemence. "Ron?" she questioned.

"No Hermione," he repeated quite seriously. "You will not continue this. If you do, then you're going to have to do it by yourself -- because I'm not going to help you."

Hermione gasped. "Ron!" she cried, and almost instantly her hand flew up to cover her mouth as several passing students turned their heads in her direction.

Ron's expression hardened. "Meet me outside Ash's door after dinner," he said. We can talk freely in his quarters."

"But --"

"Meet me!" Ron insisted, and then left her standing in the alcove, quite bewildered.

The rest of the day passed very slowly for Hermione Granger. She didn't dare talk about Harry -- or 'Ash' as she believed he was now calling himself -- and although Ron continued to sit next to her, and smiled and chatted just as he always did, there was still a subtle tension between them that left Hermione in no doubt that if she tried to continue their earlier discussion, Ron would suddenly find someone else to sit next to.

----oo00oo----

Hermione arrived outside the Dark Arts teacher's door shortly after dinner, and just before Ron. The other Gryffindor had obviously just taken a shower, which explained why she hadn't been able to find him in the common room before leaving.

"Ron --" she began.

"Wait 'til we're inside," he told her. "Then we'll talk." And before she had a chance to reply, he'd already knocked twice on the professor's door.

A few seconds later, Ash appeared. He blinked at them for a moment, and then stepped aside and gestured for them to enter. Once they were all inside with the door safely closed behind them, he asked, "Did you two need to see me? Or are you after a place where you know a private conversation will remain private?"

"Sir," Ron answered, "Hermione and I need to talk to each other about something. It's very important, but it's kind of... personal. I don't mean to kick you out of your own room, but..."

Ash -- who might or might not be Harry Potter -- merely looked amused, and easily replied, "No problem, Ron. I was only reading anyway. I can do that in my study just as well as I can in the living room. Do you want me to cast a silencing spell around you to make sure I don't accidentally overhear anything?"

"No thank-you," Ron replied. "Hermione can do that."

The professor nodded, and then collected an open book from the cushion of one of the beaten up old armchairs near the fire. "Let me know when it's safe to come out," he said, and then strolled off into the next room.

Ron turned expectantly to Hermione. She rolled her eyes at him. "Ron," she began, "he's a mage. If he wants to listen, my silencing charm isn't going to stop him."

"But his own honesty will," Ron countered. Then he added, "Regardless of who he is, or who he might be -- I trust him not to listen on purpose. The charm will make sure he doesn't listen by accident."

Hermione considered that, and then cast the spell. Afterwards -- still clasping her wand -- she folded her arms, stared at him, and waited.

Ron winced at the look Hermione was sending him. She was going to hex something if he didn't hurry up and explain his actions. "Hermione," he began, "do you remember this morning when I told you that I didn't mind acting like a book bag for you?"

"Yes," she agreed, "which is why I don't understand --"

Ron cut her off. "And do you remember I also told you that the reason I didn't mind, was because I had something important to think about?"

Now confused, Hermione nodded.

"Well," Ron explained. "I was thinking about Harry, and whether or not we should be trying to find him at all." Then he paused, and Hermione could practically see him shifting mental gears as Ron prepared to explain himself more clearly. "As I see it," he said slowly, "there are only two possibilities here: 1) Professor Ash is really Harry Potter; or 2) he is exactly who he says he is, and simply helped Harry to disappear."

Again, Hermione nodded.

"Now," Ron continued. "Let's suppose for a minute that he isn't Harry. That still makes him a War Mage -- and someone whom Harry, Dumbledore, Padfoot, and Moony have all decided to trust. It also makes him someone who's good at teaching Dark Arts, and who seems like a fairly decent chap. But most of all -- it makes him someone who knows where Harry Potter is. You with me so far?"

Hermione sighed. "Yes, Ron," she said patiently.

"So," he asked her, "if he's not Harry, then what would we achieve by pursuing your idea?"

"Well, nothing, I guess..."

"Wrong," Ron corrected her. "Depending on how much someone figured out by watching us, we could very easily convince some very bad people that we think Ash is Harry Potter -- or at the very least, that we think he's involved with Harry's disappearance."

Hermione paled. "Oh, no..." she whispered.

"Oh yes," Ron replied. "We would be drawing unwanted attention to someone who's on our side, and who -- if he could be captured or tricked into talking -- knows exactly where Harry is."

"But... but he's a War Mage!" Hermione exclaimed. "Surely he could defend himself from --"

"He's got to sleep, Mione," Ron pointed out. "Nobody's perfect. Even Merlin himself made mistakes. But -- and more to the point -- why should we put his life in any more danger than it already is? That's just not fair -- to him, or to us."

"Us?" Hermione asked, and then promptly answered her own question: "-- oh, because they'd want to know our reasons for being so interested in him."

"When of course," Ron agreed, "everybody knows you and I are only interested in what's happened to our mate Harry." Heavily, Ron added, "Which brings us back to the possibility of being kidnapped ourselves, or of having our families threatened."

Hermione was looking rather unhappy at this point. Never slow on the uptake, she added, "And of course, if he is Harry, then we've just pointed him out for all the world to see."

"And," Ron finished, "the Harry Potter I know would never put us through all this worry unless he had a bloody good reason for doing it -- a reason that might go right down the drain if we botch it up by exposing him."

"You're right," Hermione agreed. "He wouldn't do this to us without a reason."

"A bloody good one," Ron reminded her.

She smiled faintly. "Yes," she capitulated, "a bloody good one." Then Hermione sighed and said, "So what you're saying is that it doesn't matter whether he's Harry or not -- we can't afford to draw attention to him either way."

"That's about the size of it," Ron agreed.

"But," Hermione protested, "what if we could find out without drawing attention..." But Ron was shaking his head at her.

"Hermione," he said kindly, "I don't pretend to understand how you can soak up books the way you do -- or how you can read a spell three or four times and then get it right the first time you try it -- but I do understand that there's something inside of you that just seems to... well, to need to know stuff. But sometimes there are things that you don't need to know, and sometimes there are things you shouldn't know."

Hermione wasn't looking very happy at all.

"Mione," Ron sighed, "my dad works for the Ministry. We're always pestering him to tell us what's going on. But if we ask him something and he says 'I can't tell you that', then we stay away from that topic like the plague. We do that because if we ask him a question and he accidentally lets something slip, then we could get him into a lot of trouble. Sometimes I don't think I know what he even does for the Ministry anymore -- but whatever it is, it's too important to risk his job just because we're curious."

"And," Hermione added shrewdly, "your dad worries that if someone finds out he tells you things -- then you'd become targets for kidnapping."

Ron nodded. "We kind of are anyway," he added. "Anyone with family high up in the Ministry is. The Aurors came and put up new wards on our house last summer."

"Ron!" Hermione gasped. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"It's nothing special," the redhead shrugged. "It was done for lots of people -- especially the families with an Auror in them."

Hermione shuddered. The thought of an Auror being blackmailed by Voldemort...

"Anyway," Ron told her, "the point is that there are things I honestly believe I'm better off not knowing. That doesn't mean I don't want to know -- just that I don't think the price of knowing is worth the risk. Whether Ash is really Harry falls into that category."

Hermione remained silent for a while. Then she made the comment: "I seem to recall a certain Professor telling us how dangerous it was to know things other people didn't."

Ron grinned. "But at least we have the certainty of knowing that one day Harry will tell us what's going on. After all -- wherever or whoever he is -- he can't stay in hiding forever, and we are his best friends!"

Hermione nodded. "Yes -- I guess so," she admitted. She looked somewhat happier at the thought. The knowledge that she would know what happened someday was comforting. Ron was right -- there really was something inside her that hated not knowing things. Then she looked at her fellow Gryffindor curiously. "Ron," she began, "why did you help me with my research before? If you were thinking about all this even then, well... haven't we put the Professor at risk already?"

Ron shrugged. "I never said I didn't want to know," he replied, "and I figured that so long as we were careful, we had at least one shot at it that wouldn't do too much damage." Then he sighed. "But one shot was all I'm prepared to risk. We tried -- and we still don't know. Now we have to live with not knowing until Harry turns up and explains it to us." He looked at her and then added, "And as for that one shot -- well, there wasn't as much risk as you might think. After all, nobody even blinks when they see you with your nose in a book -- and it's not like I haven't played librarian for you before."

"Yes," Hermione agreed, "but what if someone decides to look up all those books you borrowed for me? There were only two topics after all: mirrors and disguise spells. Anyone looking through your borrowing history would soon figure it out."

Ron practically smirked. "Not if there wasn't a borrowing history to find," he replied.

"Ron!" Hermione gasped. "You didn't steal those books, did you?"

"Of course not!" he replied in an offended tone. "Every last one went right back where it came from!" Then he paused before adding, "I just didn't bother Madam Pince with every little detail. I saved her a lot of work, actually."

Hermione didn’t know whether to be appalled or admiring. "Ron! That's... that's..."

"Great? Very clever? Well done? All of the above?"

"Oh -- you..!" With exasperated fondness, Hermione whacked him lightly on the arm.

They both laughed, and on that lighter note Ron suggested that perhaps they'd occupied professor Ash's living room long enough. However, just before Hermione cancelled the silencing spell, she suddenly asked: "Ron? Seriously -- do you think it's him?"

Ron considered it. "Oddly enough," he finally said, "I don't think it matters." Hermione raised her eyebrows. That wasn't an answer she'd anticipated. Ron tried to explain. "If he is Harry, then he's an adult now. He's... he's a War Mage. He's grown up, and he's had years and years away from us -- away from everything in fact. He would be different, and part of me was really hoping that it wasn't him because I didn't want him to be different. I didn't want him to have grown away from us. It kinda hurt to imagine that he might not be our friend anymore -- or that he might think of us as two people who used to be his best friends when he was a kid."

Hermione looked pained.

"But," Ron continued, "today in class... after I went through that corridor the last time -- d'you remember what he asked me afterwards?"

"About you being a hero or a coward?" Hermione asked. "Yes," she replied, "and I remember thinking it was a very rude question too -- but then you told him you were both, and... well, it looked like you two were sharing a private joke or something, so I thought it must be all right."

Ron grinned. "More than all right, 'Mione. It was... for a moment, we were the only two people there. I haven't told you about it yet, but he wasn't joking when he asked that question -- and neither was I when I answered him. We weren't smiling because we'd said something funny -- we were smiling because I understood what he was asking, and he understood my answer. You only heard the words -- but there was a whole conversation you didn't hear because we didn't say it out loud. We didn't have to."

Hermione thought about that. "It isn't everyone," she slowly replied, "who understands what we say when we don't actually say it."

"No, it isn't," Ron agreed. "Sometimes one of my family does. But not often. Mostly it's just you... and Harry. So you see," he explained, "I don't think it matters whether Ash is Harry or not -- because I already know he's going to be a friend -- and a good one too. If it turns out that he's also Harry Potter, then that just means we'll be even better friends. But I'm not worried about it anymore. It'll be all right either way -- and knowing that, I can wait for the truth without being afraid of what I might discover."

Ron was smiling at her, and the look of acceptance on his face caused Hermione to smile back. "So I suppose," she said wryly, "that we simply carry on as before. He's our Dark Arts teacher and our friend -- and even if it turns out he's Harry Potter, then he's still our Dark Arts teacher and our friend."

Ron inclined his head in agreement. "Think you can handle that, research-girl?"

Hermione laughed. "I can if you can, book-boy."

"Then let's give the Professor back his living room," Ron suggested. And with that, Hermione cancelled the silencing spell, and they went to let Ash know they were done.

They found the War Mage sitting in his study staring blankly at the opposite wall. He had his feet propped up on the table and his book open on his lap.

"Sir?" Ron asked tentatively.

Their teacher didn't seem to hear them.

"Professor?" Hermione asked in a louder voice.

The mage blinked and looked at them. "Sorry," he apologised after a moment. "I was somewhere else entirely." Then he took his feet down off the desk and sat up. "All done?" he asked. They nodded and thanked him for the use of his living room. "No problem," he assured them. "As I said before, you're always welcome." Then he showed them to the door, and the two students left -- heading for the Gryffindor tower before curfew caught them in the halls.

----oo00oo----

Harry closed the door on his two friends, pleased that they'd actually taken him up on his offer of a secure place to talk. Not only did it ease his worries about them blabbing things where others might overhear them, but it also warmed him to think that they trusted him that much. With any luck, they would begin to see him as more than just another teacher. The process had already begun with Ron, and their shared moment of understanding in class this morning was a good beginning.

If he could get both of them to like 'Ash', then he stood a much better chance of getting them to like twenty-nine-year-old Harry Potter. Ron and Hermione were so much a part of him that Harry couldn't bear the thought of not having them in his life. He was hopeful that by developing a friendship with them as their teacher, he could give them a way to relate to him when they finally found out what had happened. There would be some confusion at first, but when they discovered that he wasn't their sixteen-year-old friend anymore, they would still have their friendship with 'Ash' to fall back on.

Harry walked back to his study and collected his book. It was a murder mystery and a fairly good one too. He was about three quarters of the way through it, and he still didn't know who the killer was. Looking at the paperback suddenly reminded him of the sensation that had distracted him just before Ron and Hermione arrived to thank him for the use of his quarters.

During his time in the Mirror, Harry had taught himself to focus on the different impressions he received from his scar. Even with the connection squeezed down to a minimum, some feeling still seeped through, and any source of information on Voldemort was not to be ignored.

Right before Hermione called his name, Harry had felt the momentary flicker of a faint yet familiar sensation. But it had been a while since he'd last felt it, and it took him a few seconds to place the feeling. Then it fell into place.

//Voldemort's summons,// Harry recalled. //The bastard's called Severus to a meeting.// Normally, he wouldn't know when the Dark Lord summoned one of his Death Eaters. But Harry had become attuned to Severus over time, and apparently that sympathetic attunement was still present. It didn't matter that Sev hardly knew him in the real world -- the link originated with Harry, and arose from a combination of his connection to Voldemort and his focus on Sev's well-being. Since neither of these things had changed once he left the Mirror, then the awareness was likewise unchanged.

//Be careful, Sev,// he mentally admonished. //I have plans for us this time around, and you'd better not screw them up by getting yourself killed.//

----oo00oo----

A short distance down the hall, Severus had also been reading. The subject of his interest was a particularly intriguing article on experimental potion-making techniques. He'd been completely immersed in the topic, and had -- at some point -- moved from his armchair by the fire across to his desk so that he could make notes on the various procedures, with an eye to using them in possible experiments involving some of his own research.

When the summons came, it was completely unexpected, and every muscle in his forearm spasmed in pain as the Dark Mark suddenly burned like acid on his skin.

A moment later, and the agony was reduced to a minor ache.

Gritting his teeth, and still gripping his abused arm, Severus carefully stretched and worked his left hand. The play of tendons and the shifting muscles under the sinister-looking brand caused the Mark to twinge at odd moments -- but it also allowed Severus to reassure himself that his left hand was still in working order.

He knew that the present dull ache would steadily increase to severe pain if he delayed answering Voldemort's summons. If he resisted the call, then he would eventually suffer far worse pain from the Dark Mark than the first moment of summoning. That initial flare of agony had merely been the Dark Lord's way of getting his attention.

Severus arose from his desk immediately, and crossed back to the fireplace. "Incendia Refero Dumbledore," he said, waving his wand at the low flames. The fire roared up to fill the hearth.

"Severus?" came Albus Dumbledore's surprised voice. A vague suggestion of the Headmaster's face flickered in the leaping flames.

"Albus, I've been summoned -- I'm leaving now."

"Was anything scheduled?" Albus asked him with concern.

"No," he grimly replied. "I've no idea what this is about, or how long I'll be. I'll report back when I can."

There came a sigh from the fire. "Be careful my boy."

"I always am," and with that, the Potions Master summarily ended the spell. Grabbing his broom as he strode towards the door, all thought of the potions article was forgotten.

Behind him on the desk, a sheet of parchment lay next to the open article. The carelessly abandoned quill, and the smudge of ink beneath the neat rows of script, bore mute testimony to the writer's abrupt departure -- and the absolute obedience Voldemort demanded from those who bore his Mark.

----oo00oo----