Chapter 3 : Tattoo's and Interviews

Publish Date: 14 March 2002

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 3
-- Tattoos and Interviews --

The following day was Sunday and Harry had no particular plans since most businesses were closed, and any that weren't would require money he didn't yet have. Gringotts, of course, was only closed to the public. In reality the bank continued to transact business twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week -- administering the financial needs of the wizarding world in every different time zone across the globe. The goblins within the bank worked varying shifts, and their continuous presence formed part of the bank's ongoing security measures.

Harry occasionally wondered whether Gringotts closed its doors simply to fit in with human business practices, or whether it was because the goblins actually enjoyed running their bank without being bothered by pesky customers. //Probably a bit of both,// was his usual conclusion.

But none of that made any difference this morning since the bank was still closed, and goblin wizards were undoubtedly still poring over the Foundation Stone trying to figure out what he'd done to it. So naturally, Harry wouldn't find out whether he was going to be paid until tomorrow -- which left him at something of a loose end today. So he decided to indulge himself by lazing around in bed -- reveling in the rare opportunity to do absolutely nothing at all.

Harry was drifting comfortably in a light doze when an unexpected surge of friendship and concern washed over him. The strength of the emotions pushed him into waking and then ebbed away -- leaving Harry with a lazy smile on his face and the faint sensation of a friend's presence in his heart. He stretched and yawned, happily returning Hagrid's wake-up call and adding a tinge of sleepiness, love, and reassurance to his response.

After that, Harry decided it was probably time to get up and have breakfast.

Downstairs in the Leaky Cauldron's main room, Harry lingered over coffee while trying to decide what to do with the rest of his day. Then he noticed a house elf unobtrusively tidying up the various newspapers and magazines that had been left scattered across the tables.

Half an hour later, Harry was once more ensconced in his room with a small stack of Daily Prophet back-issues, a couple of international newspapers, and half a dozen different magazines -- none of which were current. The house elf had been confused by his request for old newspapers and journals, but since the Leaky Cauldron always bought a few papers for the customers to read -- and people often left magazines lying about once they'd finished with them -- there was no difficulty in supplying Harry with as much reading material as he might wish. In fact, it turned out that the accumulated back-issues were just lying around in a storage room, waiting for their monthly pickup by a company which had ties to a muggle recycling business.

And so Harry spent much of the day updating himself on events that had occurred over the last couple of months. This not only gave him some idea of what was going on in the world, but also helped him to remember what had already happened at this point in history, and what had not.

Immersing himself in the articles and reports was also a tactical opportunity, and Harry used it to try and work out what was fact and what was fiction when it came to Voldemort's activities. It soon became obvious that although the Ministry had finally admitted Voldemort was back, they were still trying to downplay his strength and influence. Harry wondered whether this was an attempt to prevent panic in the streets, or whether the Ministry genuinely believed Voldemort was that weak and ineffectual. But unfortunately, he couldn't get the answer to that sort of question by reading newspapers.

There were, however, a great many other questions that could be answered in such a fashion, and Harry barely noticed the hours passing as he methodically worked his way through the stack of outdated reading material. Thus it was no surprise that by the time Harry's stomach reminded him that he really should've remembered to eat lunch, it was already mid-afternoon. And when a glance out the window showed him a beautiful summer sky, Harry figured it was definitely time for a break, and soon found himself heading out in search of food and a change of scenery.

He would've stayed in wizarding London except for the fact that what little money he had left was all in muggle currency. So muggle London it was. And since he was down to the last few pounds of Vernon Dursley's 'loan', Harry also took care to find a place where he could buy something simple and cheap.

He ended up with a plain sandwich and a crisp red apple. Nothing fancy, but still thoroughly enjoyable as he walked along the street absorbing the sights and sounds of London on a Sunday afternoon. In fact, the exercise and the afternoon sun felt so good that Harry continued walking long after the food was gone. By the time he returned to the Leaky Cauldron, he was feeling pleasantly tired and very relaxed. He'd been gone several hours, and had covered a significant distance in both muggle London and Diagon Alley.

But it wasn't until after dinner -- and another wordless exchange of emotions with Hagrid -- that Harry finally realised why his extended walk had done him so much good.

The reading he'd done that morning had ranged from international news items to sports, local events, political opinions, and society columns. All of which helped him get a better feel for when he was now that he was no longer trapped inside the Mirror of Maybe. But it wasn't until he'd actually gone out into the world -- the real world -- that the things he'd been reading about actually started to sink in. The people he'd passed on the street -- the look and feel of the buildings -- were not what he remembered from the mirror. Especially in Diagon Alley. Gringotts was still there for one thing, and there was no sign of the damage he expected to see in any of the other buildings. What's more, the few wizards and witches he'd observed didn't have that worn-down hunted look he'd become accustomed to seeing. Everything was different, and yet subtly the same.

He had, of course, noticed all these differences before now. But after immersing himself in so many newspaper articles and magazines, Harry no longer felt as though the changes were wrong -- as though it was all some sort of mistake, or just a pleasant dream. Now his surroundings were beginning to feel real to him.

He reflected on this as he was getting ready for bed that night, and decided that this was probably a good thing. His own personal history would always include the thirteen years he'd spent in the mirror, but he was now beginning to understand on an emotional level that it really was his personal history, and not something he should unconsciously expect others to remember or share.

As he allowed himself to relax into sleep, Harry's final thought was that he was finally beginning to feel like he was living in the present, and not thirteen years in the past.

----oo00oo----

The next morning found Harry casually leaning against one of the decorative columns outside Gringotts -- hands in pockets -- waiting for the bank to open, and watching the passing traffic. He couldn't really do anything more until he either had his money, or knew he would have to find an alternate source of funds.

At breakfast this morning -- his final meal at Gringotts' expense -- he'd been warmed once again by Hagrid's affectionate regard, and had easily and freely returned it. Harry now suspected that Albus -- having failed in his initial efforts to find Harry yesterday -- had told Hagrid that he was missing, and then asked the half-giant why Harry's note said that Hagrid would know he was all right. After that, Albus would have found out about the bit of Heart Magic Harry had performed, and would also know that he couldn't locate Harry through that kind of link.

So now Harry would most likely be receiving breakfast-and-bed-checks every day. He didn't mind, and was even kind of happy about it -- since he was glad he could relieve their worries at least a little, and -- if he was correct -- it wouldn't interfere with his daily activities. Albus -- being the careful wizard that he was -- would almost certainly have suggested that early morning and late night checks would be more welcome than random ones throughout the day. That way, wherever Harry was, he would not be taken by surprise if he was in the middle of something important.

Harry's summer wasn't going to be anywhere near as lonely as he'd originally thought.

Now, he only needed money to get all his plans underway.

In due course a goblin came and unlocked the bank's doors, silently indicating that Gringotts was now open for business.

A few wizards and witches -- who'd also been waiting -- walked indifferently past him, and Harry smiled. There'd been only a few times in his life when everyday people had walked by without even noticing him. As a child he'd been the target of bullies, or 'the Boy Who Lived', and as an adult he'd been 'War Mage Ash'. None of those Harrys had been the sort of person who could lean casually against a column and have others stroll indifferently past. Much of yesterday -- before Knockturn Alley -- had been the same, and Harry found that while he enjoyed the anonymity, he also felt... well... a bit weird about it, at the same time.

//It's all in what you're used to, I suppose,// was his last thought before he pushed away from the pillar and entered the bank.

His anonymity disappeared six feet in from the door.

"Ah, War Mage," Grabble Twovault deftly intercepted him. "Please come right this way," and Harry soon found himself seated once more in the goblin supervisor's office. "Now," Grabble stated brusquely, "under what name would you like to open your account?"

----oo00oo----

By the time Harry left Gringotts, he was not only carrying a small fortune in Galleons and Sickles, but also a similar amount in muggle Pounds, as well as a Gringotts muggle Visa card and an American Express card.

Grabble had tried to argue that Harry really shouldn't carry so much in cash, but Harry had merely raised an amused eyebrow at him, and the goblin had abruptly changed the subject. Did Grabble really think a War Mage would be worried about muggers?

Harry had also managed to acquire a 'summer job'. The bank now had him under contract to cast the same spell on eight more of their subsidiary Foundation Stones. Grabble had re-negotiated the price per Stone down to something that Gringotts could reasonably afford, and in return Harry would be able to take his time -- spacing out the spells so that he could do one every week or so.

Harry was happy to do the work for a much lower price since: A) the other Stones were much less powerful and would be easier to work with, and B) he was already familiar with the other eight nodes, since he could remember casting the spell on each of them from his time in the mirror. The only major Gringotts Stone that Harry had never worked with was the London one -- and that was because Voldemort had destroyed it before anyone realised it needed protection.

The destruction of the Gringotts core Foundation Stone had been the crisis that triggered Harry's abrupt introduction to goblin magic. The goblin community -- still reeling with shock over the catastrophe -- had appealed directly to the War Mages for assistance. Upon seeing the wave of disaster that had rippled out from the rubble of the bank, the War Mages had given the request top priority. As a result, Harry had been the first non-goblin ever to receive a crash-course in Foundation Magic.

For two weeks, Harry had been inundated night and day with the goblin lifestyle, beliefs, language, and magic. It was then that he'd acquired his knowledge of goblin etiquette and customs. He'd even been the only human permitted to attend a memorial service for the goblins who'd been killed when the bank was attacked. The name Guilder Gringott had been mentioned many times, and later Harry had listened respectfully to stories detailing the ancient goblin's life.

After that, he'd spent the next month secretly casting the same spell again and again, all over the world.

By the end of it all, Harry was a complete wreck with frequent headaches -- but all of the critical Foundation Stones -- from a variety of crucial businesses, and not just Gringotts -- were solidly protected. It took Harry nearly a week to fully recover from the effort he'd put in -- even under Poppy's expert care. But he'd counted himself well repaid when he finally heard the news...

...the goblins were going to allow their Stones to be used in the war against Voldemort.

The Foundation Stone system was literally a global communications net that Voldemort would never be able to subvert or tap into. It had been a priceless gift for the forces of Light.

This time around, Harry hoped they wouldn't need it.

----oo00oo----

Harry spent the next few days paying for things -- all kinds of things -- from shirts and underwear, to floo powder and spell books. He was determined to ensure he had everything he might need.

But he very deliberately bought frivolous things too. The spell books, for instance -- which Harry had bought because he could hardly remember a spell not connected with War Magic -- were supplemented by novels. Harry loved a good mystery, and even the occasional well-written adventure story.

When he decided to subscribe to the Daily Prophet, he also indulged himself in an annual subscription to "Quidditch World". For now, they would both be delivered to the Leaky Cauldron, but later Harry hoped he would be able to have them sent to Hogwarts.

Of course, he also had to finish his shopping list -- and the delayed trip to Madam Malkin's was interesting in as much as the witch in charge didn't know whether they even had the material Harry needed for his battle robes.

"Spell-fast?" the surprised seamstress repeated. "I... I don't know if we have any -- I'll have to look."

Spell-fast was an exorbitantly expensive material, because -- just as its name implied -- you could weave spells directly into the cloth and then 'set' the material so that the enchantments would never change or wear off. For a War Mage, this was invaluable, since several defensive and protective spells were standard for the outer layer of the unofficial War Mage 'uniform'.

The witch who'd gone looking for the material eventually had to ask for help from one of her colleagues, and together they finally managed to find a single bolt of it -- high up on a shelf in the back of the storeroom. It had probably been placed there to keep it safe, and then forgotten about. Not many people could afford Spell-fast.

The robes themselves were an equal surprise for the staff at Malkin's, since battle robes were a bit different from any of the standard ones. Whereas most wizarding robes were closed at the front, battle robes were open so that a wizard or mage had easy access to their weapons, and plenty of scope for rapid movement or violent action. Close-fitting and flexible clothes -- in Harry's case, leather pants and cotton shirts or t-shirts -- were then worn under the robes, allowing the outer layer to be discarded if necessary.

In the end, Harry had been forced to create an illusion so that he could show the seamstress what he was talking about.

----oo00oo----

The one thing Harry paid for that was pure indulgence, was his tattoos.

Harry had been pleased that the lifepaint parlour he remembered from the mirror was still there. He really wanted his tattoos back, and he didn't want to spend the next week researching reputable painters.

When he walked through the door, he knew he was in the right place -- it was clean to the point of being sterile, and there was a sense of great beauty and pride in the sample illustrations that shifted with subtle movement on the walls.

Harry's only moment of doubt came when he realised that the master painter who'd done his tattoos during his time in the mirror, was still only an apprentice. But then he remembered the way the man had spoken of his old master's amazing skill, and Harry decided it would probably be safe to see whether the remembered tales were true.

"Good afternoon, sir," the not-yet-master greeted him. "Were you thinking of having some paintwork done?"

"No," Harry replied pleasantly, "I've decided I want some paintwork done -- two paintings, actually," and he pointed up at two of the sample drawings on the wall, "that one and that one."

The apprentice blinked. "That's... an unusual combination."

"Those are the two I want," Harry replied firmly, "The lion on the front and the snake on the back."

"Well, since you're sure, I'll just go and get the patterns."

Harry waited, looking up at the Gryffindor lion and the Slytherin snake. All the Hogwarts House devices were present, but to Harry, the lion and the snake seemed somehow more 'alive' than anything else on the wall.

The apprentice returned. "Now," the young man smiled, "do you know what kind of ink you'd like me to use? They vary, you know, in their effects and duration. We use only the best inks on the market, and I can guarantee that your paintwork will last only as long you want it to -- and will disappear complet --"

"I want Life Ink," Harry stated quietly.

The apprentice's mouth hung open for a moment. Then he stammered, "Sir... are... are you sure? I mean... we do have ink that will last years..."

"Life Ink," Harry repeated. "Nothing else."

The apprentice nibbled on his lower lip. "I... I'm not qualified to use those inks, sir. I'll have to get the master -- and he's busy with another client..."

"That's all right," Harry assured him, "I don't mind waiting." And he truly didn't, because the use of Life Ink required the skill of a master painter, and for a master... Harry would wait.

The apprentice however, was not quite so patient.

After half an hour of watching Harry sit quietly in a chair, the young man disappeared into the back of the parlour, only to reappear a few minutes later. Five minutes after that, the master also appeared -- wiping ink from his hands with a scrap of old towel.

The master approached, and Harry stood to greet him.

"My apprentice tells me you want paintwork done... with Life Ink."

"Yes," Harry agreed.

The old man looked at him thoughtfully. "Come back at closing," he finally commanded. "For Life Ink, I don't want to be disturbed."

----oo00oo----

Shortly after the parlour closed, Harry found himself lying shirtless on a raised and padded recliner. Many of his scars were thus revealed, but no mention was made of them. Harry knew that real scars would not have interfered with the paintwork, and he was confident that his false ones would also be irrelevant.

"Do you mind if my apprentice stays to assist me?" the master asked. "I promise you, he is very skilled. Someday he will be a master himself." The young man blushed at the compliment.

"No," Harry smiled, "I don't mind." In fact Harry found it somehow appropriate that the man who might have done this one day, really would have a hand in it now.

They began.

In the muggle world, a tattoo was created by using a needle to push ink into the flesh beneath the skin -- deep enough to be permanent, but shallow enough to remain visible. In the wizarding world, it was applied with brushes -- and with whispered magic breathed out over the damp ink.

The pattern was applied first -- a simple task, completed by the apprentice while the master checked his brushes and bottles one last time.

Once the pattern was set, it was the master's turn -- and Harry almost shivered as the tip of the brush caressed his skin for the first time.

Unlike muggle tattoos, wizarding paintwork really was more like a painting. It was coloured and shaded, with the inks mixing directly on the skin, like oils on canvas.

Harry felt himself slipping into a light trance -- a state of timelessness created by the Life Ink itself as it began tying its dormant magic to his body -- seeping into his pores and muscles, learning who he was, and why he was doing this -- imprinting what it was supposed to be for him as it flowed over his warm muscles.

...and Harry found himself being compelled to recall everything that Gryffindor meant to him -- courage and fierceness; loyalty and the will to overcome; the love of friends binding them together; and most of all -- the strength of a bright power that flourished in the sunlight.

Those memories shaped the Ink, and it became his memories -- a lion made fierce, and vivid, resplendent in its power and glory -- a symbol of courage, and a banner of Light.

----oo00oo----

Some indeterminate time later, Harry roused sluggishly from the Ink-induced trance.

The master's whispering had stilled, and the apprentice was staring at Harry's chest with something akin to awe.

"Help me up," Harry commanded roughly, and the apprentice did so, while his master washed the brushes and cleaned up.

Harry walked unsteadily over to the large wall mirror and carefully inspected the work.

It was perfect.

Not quite the same as in his memories -- but perfect nonetheless. Even his scars -- false though they were -- only served to enhance the illustration. They made the lion look battered -- as if it had suffered for its pride, yet remained unbowed and unbroken. This was no young and foolish cub -- but instead a seasoned veteran marked with experience. The image almost seemed to move, yet remained still -- nearly done, but not yet... not yet.

Perfect.

Now completely awake, Harry moved respectfully back to the recliner and lay down again.

After a moment, the master spoke: "You know what happens now." It was not a question.

"Yes," Harry answered quietly. "Give me a minute," and he mentally prepared himself for the final spell, which would alter the Life Ink from 'paintwork' -- which was temporary -- into a wizarding 'tattoo' -- which could never be erased. This was why it was called 'Life Ink' -- for its ability to bond itself to a living thing for the length of its wearer's lifetime. But the final spell would be very painful.

"Now," Harry said -- and the master whispered the words.

Suddenly the ink came alive, and like a thousand knives, sliced its way into his chest. Harry clenched his teeth against the pain, and forced himself to lie still. His hands gripped the edges of the recliner with fierce desperation.

And then, as suddenly as it began -- it was over. Harry let go of the recliner with relief. His chest was healed, and the paintwork was gone. In its place was his Gryffindor tattoo -- restored to its rightful position on his body. He could almost feel it purring and shifting beneath his skin.

One down and one to go.

----oo00oo----

The master took a short break, while Harry recovered from having the first tattoo completed.

Shortly thereafter, Harry was once more lying on the recliner, but this time its configuration had been altered so he could stretch out comfortably on his stomach.

Before long, he felt the stroke of the master's brush once again.

This time, when the trance came, it was Slytherin that the Ink pulled from his mind...

...lies and deception -- when the truth was too dangerous; ruthless decisions -- painfully made but rightly decided; fearful glances from those around -- when complacency might have been fatal; strength that came when only despair was possible; and beyond all, the might of a dark power that thrived in the deepest shadows of the night.

This time his thoughts shaped a darker image -- an emerald snake full of deadly grace and patient plans, hypnotic in its calculating coldness, and brutal in its will to survive -- a symbol of endurance, and a banner for Dark things.

To this standard alone would the broken and downtrodden come -- those who were too damaged to trust in hope anymore -- and for whom bright joy was a strange language they no longer understood. But Harry understood -- and with that part of himself that had always been Slytherin, he could still touch them, and they would see themselves in him, and allow his protection.

In darkness, he could find the lost and despairing -- and in darkness he would gather them home.

----oo00oo----

When Harry next woke from the Ink-induced trance, he didn't even bother with the mirror -- the power of the memories, coupled with the perfection of the first tattoo told him all he needed to know.

"Do it." he said, and rode out the pain as his second tattoo ate its way into his shoulders and along his spine.

Slytherin's symbol was once more where it belonged -- twisting faintly over his muscles, with the merest sigh of a sibilant voice echoing in the air.

Harry had his tattoos back.

Somehow, he felt more... whole -- more complete -- than he could remember being since he'd destroyed the mirror.

----oo00oo----

Paying for the tattoos was more of a problem than Harry had anticipated.

The master wouldn't take his gold.

"It is you who have done me a great service," the man argued, "Tonight I have painted my greatest works. I know I will not surpass them -- nor likely paint another to equal them. I am honoured that you chose me -- and that my apprentice has had the opportunity to see what is possible at the highest levels of our craft."

Harry didn't really know what to say to that. All he did know was that it felt wrong not to give the man something, in return for the exquisite tattoos now embedded in his flesh. "But surely," he protested, "if you have painted these, there will be others -- and you can't give them all away -- you'll go broke!"

The master snorted. "Wizards who want Life Ink are rare enough," he replied, "but as you must know, the Ink itself only comes alive through the memories and emotions of the one who wears it. If the canvas is dull, or without depth... then the true nature of the Ink -- the range of colour -- the force of the image -- can never be fully realised."

"You," the master finished, "were a perfect match for the images you chose. Other patterns -- with less meaning for you -- would not have worked so well. It was the combination, you see, of your desires; the patterns you chose; the nature of the Ink; and my skill, that went into the creation of the work -- and I do not think I will see such a combination again in my lifetime."

Eventually, they agreed that Harry could pay for the cost of the Ink itself -- Life Ink was fairly expensive -- but to Harry, it was little enough in return for the beauty that now graced his skin.

----oo00oo----

About a week after Harry had his tattoos replaced -- and after he'd already done another Foundation Stone for Gringotts -- he returned to the Leaky Cauldron to find Hagrid enjoying an ale and chatting with the other patrons.

Harry nearly had heart failure, imagining that Dumbledore had somehow figured out who he was and sent Hagrid to get him -- that is, before he remembered that Hagrid had always been a regular at the Leaky Cauldron, and was probably just in for a night at the pub.

Actually, it was a wonder Harry hadn't seen him before now.

By this stage, the other regulars at the Leaky Cauldron were used to seeing Harry walking around dressed in his War Mage apparel. It had caused a bit of controversy the first morning he'd appeared with his new cloak pin prominently displayed on his pristine battle robes. Harry had eventually been forced to produce the official documents he'd acquired from Gringotts, which advised all and sundry that -- in the bank's opinion -- 'Ash' was most definitely a genuine War Mage. Still, it was better than being required to prove his claim by blowing up statues.

The staff at the Leaky Cauldron were even somewhat chuffed with the idea of a War Mage staying with them -- or rather, they had become chuffed after Harry made it plain that his behaviour wasn't going to change just because everybody now knew what he was.

And of course, the free publicity when the Daily Prophet found out hadn't hurt either.

The Leaky Cauldron had been unusually popular after the wizarding newspaper published its article on him -- or rather, on as much as they could find out about him, since Harry had declined to be interviewed. By now, there probably wasn't anybody in the entire wizarding world who didn't know there was a War Mage staying at the Leaky Cauldron in London, England.

On the one hand, this annoyed Harry because every time he appeared in public, he was secretly -- and sometimes openly -- stared at. But on the other hand, Harry now had what he wanted -- everyone knew what the War Mage insignia looked like, and -- thanks to the Daily Prophet's historical research -- everyone knew roughly what a War Mage was.

Including Hagrid -- who was now looking at him with open curiosity.

Harry decided then and there that it was time to start interacting with his friends as 'War Mage Ash'.

He gave Hagrid a half-smile and moved to join the Hogwarts gamekeeper at the bar. Hagrid looked surprised, but shuffled over to make room.

"Do you mind if I join you?" Harry asked politely.

"Wouldn't 've made room for yeh if I did," Hagrid replied with a chuckle. "I'm Hagrid," and he stuck out a meaty hand, before proudly adding, "-- gamekeeper at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft 'n Wizardry."

Harry shook the proffered hand with an easy grin on his face. "Ash," he replied, "and you probably already know I'm a War Mage."

"It's a bit hard ter miss," Hagrid agreed, eyeing Harry's pin and battle robes.

Harry ordered an ale for himself and another for Hagrid, who accepted it with surprised thanks.

"Oh, don't thank me yet," Harry laughed, "I already knew you were the Hogwarts gamekeeper when I came over." Then, in response to Hagrid's curious look, he added, "I asked around."

It was obviously going to be Hagrid's night for being surprised. "Yeh asked about me? What for?"

"Well, not you, specifically," Harry answered, "just anybody who could tell me a bit about Hogwarts."

Hagrid looked at him suspiciously. "What d'yer want to know about Hogwarts for?"

Harry blinked. Of all the expressions he'd seen on Hagrid's face, suspicion had never been one of them. Then he remembered -- Quirrell had once tricked Hagrid into betraying a secret right here in this pub. Experience had made the gamekeeper wary of strangers asking questions -- particularly questions about the school.

Harry's face made no response to the suspicion in Hagrid's voice, as he candidly replied, "I've heard there might be an opening for a Defence Against the Dark Arts instructor. I was thinking of applying for the job -- if it's still available." //Please let it be available,// he prayed. He hadn't been able to find any advertisement for it in the Daily Prophet, and he hadn't yet figured out how to approach Albus about applying for it.

Hagrid's suspicion instantly disappeared, and with a very pleased look he said, "Yeh'd want the job? Really? The Headmaster's had a terrible time trying t' find someone for it. He'd hire yeh like a shot! -- what with you bein' a War Mage 'n all."

"Wait! Wait!" Harry laughed. "I haven't made up my mind yet -- I said I was thinking about it -- not that I'd decided on it." He didn't want anyone thinking he was too eager for the job. Hagrid's face fell with disappointment. Quickly, Harry added, "Before I could possibly make up my mind, I'd need to know more about the school -- what it's like -- the attitude of the students -- whether there's a code of conduct I'd be expected to work under -- that sort of thing."

Harry then finished up with: "Until I know something more about the place than just its name, how can I know whether I want to work there? That's why I asked around for someone who could tell me about the school -- and everyone said I should ask you."

Hagrid looked pleased that everyone had thought of him, and then proceeded to do his absolute best to talk Harry into applying for the job.

Several hours later, Hagrid finally left, but not until after 'Ash' had promised he would write to the Headmaster immediately.

Harry had thoroughly enjoyed his evening -- discussing Hogwarts in detail, and from a perspective he'd never considered before -- that of a prospective employee. It had been a fine conversation -- Harry almost felt he was back at the castle already -- and he was now much more confident about being 'Ash' around his friends.

The pleasant evening would also serve as a buffer for any small mistakes Harry made. In those crucial first days -- when he would not be expected to know much about the school or its inhabitants -- he would almost certainly slip up and mention something he couldn't possibly know. He now had the escape of saying, 'Oh, Hagrid must have mentioned it,' and the longer he stayed with the school, the less he would need the excuse. Eventually, people would expect him to know things just because he'd been there awhile.

It suddenly occurred to Harry that he had unconsciously assumed he would be staying at Hogwarts for a very long time.

The thought didn't bother him at all.

----oo00oo----

A short while later, Harry was seated at the small writing desk in his room -- quill in hand and parchment before him...

To:
Albus Dumbledore,
Headmaster,
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

From:
War Mage Ash

Dear Sir...

By the time Harry was finished, it was well after midnight, and he folded the letter into its envelope with a great deal of satisfaction. His application wasn't very long, since he didn't have any referees other than Gringotts -- and he certainly couldn't include a personal history. But if Hagrid's impression was correct, then it wasn't like he would have any competition for the job.

In fact -- remembering some of the absolutely hopeless DADA teachers who'd held the job before, Harry half suspected that they'd also been the only ones to apply for the position at the time. Albus would never have hired them if he'd had an alternative -- or at least, Harry certainly hoped not.

And of course, if those nincompoops were a reflection of the quality of people applying for the position before it gained a reputation for being cursed, then Harry had a much better chance of being hired now that the job was believed to be somehow tainted with misfortune.

//Although,// Harry recalled, //Remus was among that lot too -- and there was nothing second-rate about his teaching.// But then, Remus was a werewolf, and once that information had become public, he hadn't been allowed to remain at the school.

For himself, Harry was going to have to hope that Albus was desperate enough for a Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, to hire a War Mage with no background, who wouldn't talk about his past, and whose allegiances could not be proved one way or the other.

Well, there was nothing he could really do about it -- so he sealed the letter with wax -- magically impressing it with the War Mage insignia -- and then left the sealed missive on the desk where he could easily pick it up in the morning and take it to the post office.

----oo00oo----

The next day, after paying for his letter to be delivered by standard owl, Harry cast a notice-me-not spell over the knives on his arm guards, and a few more to cover his wand, the potions on his belt, and the other knives in his boot-tops. Then he made his way out into muggle London.

The notice-me-not spells would not make his weapons invisible, but rather, would simply encourage people to ignore them -- as if they were irrelevant or unimportant.

This would have varying results on wizards and witches -- and none at all on elves and other non-humans -- but would be almost one hundred percent effective on muggles. Which meant Harry could walk freely around in the muggle world without being instantly arrested.

He knew he still looked a bit strange -- but realistically, no more so than many others who dressed entirely in black and wore heavy coats or cloaks all year 'round. He was quite sure his battle robes weren't nearly as conspicuous as the muggles with purple hair and piercings all over their faces.

Harry was back in the muggle world because there was one part of his War Mage outfit that he still hadn't managed to acquire -- and that was his gun. He couldn't think of a way to legally purchase one, and he really didn't want to involve himself with an illegal arms dealer.

That really only left him with the option of stealing one, which -- while not a preferred course of action -- was at least do-able and wouldn't involve criminals or other people who could be traced back to him.

So, resigned to a bit of thieving, Harry went to another muggle weapons store -- not the one where he'd purchased his knives -- and asked to see a variety of guns. Among the sidearms he asked to see was the Smith and Wesson .45 revolver he wanted.

Revolvers -- unlike automatics and semi-automatics -- were not prone to jamming, which was what happened when a projectile would 'stick' and have to be manually cleared before the gun could be fired again. Also -- with the use of moon clips to hold the bullets in their circular formation -- Harry could reload the revolver almost as fast as changing clips in an automatic.

But best of all, a revolver was perfectly suited for one unique requirement that only a wizard would have -- Harry could change the type of ammunition he was firing without having to worry about the bullet that would be left behind in an automatic pistol if he wanted to change clips before the clip was empty. When Harry changed clips in his revolver, all the casings -- whether fired or not -- would be immediately swapped out, with no worrying about whether there was still one more round of the previous ammunition to go. Harry needed his gun to have that capability because -- like his knives -- he intended to carry silver, steel, and other types of enchanted ammunition to suit whatever a given situation required.

Thus, when the storeowner showed him the various weapons he'd asked to see, Harry appeared to pay no more attention to the one he wanted than to any of the others. However, while he had the Smith and Wesson in his hands, he unobtrusively placed a locating spell on it.

He did the same thing to several boxes of ordinary ammunition, and to the appropriate loading equipment that was on display towards the back of the store. The loading gear would allow him to make his own unique projectiles.

And while he was doing all this, he took very careful note of how much each piece of equipment cost.

Later that night, once more ensconced in his room at the Leaky Cauldron, Harry cast his summoning spell. Keyed in to the locators he'd placed on the various items of equipment, it all worked perfectly. Without the locator spells, Harry would have had a much harder time of it -- perhaps even summoning nearby items instead of the specific ones he wanted.

Once he had everything present and accounted for, he cancelled the locator spells on them, and picked up a letter he had previously prepared. It bulged with money -- several thousand pounds in fact -- and he quickly sent it off -- back to the approximate spot where the missing gun had once lain.

Tomorrow morning, the storeowner would find the letter in place of the missing gun, along with an itemised list of what Harry had appropriated, and a note that would literally turn to dust after the storeowner had read it.

The note simply said:

Dear Sir,

My apologies for taking these items illegally, however I assure you that my need was great and they will not be used for any criminal purpose.

My work is very much to do with the military, and even if you knew my name, you would not find any record of me.

I hope I have paid you in full, although I leave it up to you whether to show the list and the money to the police.

In the unlikely event that the police do manage to find some trace of me, rest assured that shortly thereafter they are unlikely to say they remember finding anything. They will not be harmed -- but I assure you that your stock will never be recovered.

Then, the last thing Harry did before going to bed, was to magically erase the gun's serial number, and cast the 'notice-me-not' spell over the revolver and everything associated with it.

----oo00oo----

Before breakfast the following morning, Harry finally strapped the last piece of his War Mage outfit to his left leg. With his wand holster on his other leg, he walked around the room, trying to get used to the balance, and giving a small jump every now and then to see whether the gun and his wand were both securely held in place. If everything was correctly put together, then Harry should be able to do somersaults without anything falling out or shifting position -- but he would have to try that later, since his current room wasn't big enough for acrobatics.

Harry had decided to spend the rest of the day in or near the Leaky Cauldron. The owl carrying his job application should be arriving at Hogwarts as part of the morning post, and Harry hoped that Albus would reply to it as soon as possible. Realistically, that meant he was unlikely to receive an owl before tomorrow at the earliest, but still...

He knew he was being ridiculously anxious, but he had several good books to read, and nothing more urgent to follow up. So Harry settled in for the day, taking advantage of a holiday of sorts, and opened up his "Quidditch Today" magazine, with a reminder to buy himself a new broom -- because Ron would recognise his old one anywhere, and probably even by touch in the dark...

----oo00oo----

Harry spent the next three days worrying about whether the owl had made it to Hogwarts at all.

When he finally did receive a reply, it did nothing to alleviate his concern. It was simply a 'thank-you-for-your-application' response, with a 'we-will-get-back-to-you-shortly' statement tacked on the end of it.

Could somebody else have applied for the job? -- Somebody without a mysterious background -- who had friends and verifiable character references?

Realising that the stress wasn't helping him, Harry resolved to stop worrying, and start doing something about getting his fifteen-year-old body onto a decent fitness regime. He hadn't forgotten his mental note to discover what this body was capable of, and he had the rest of the summer to correct any weaknesses or problems he might uncover.

And -- as an added bonus -- physical exertion was a great way to relieve tension.

Well, so was sex, of course, and at fifteen, Harry's body was more than willing to indulge in that kind of stress relief.

As a twenty-eight-year-old War Mage, who'd been actively involved in a war -- Harry was certainly no stranger to sex. The combination of violence, fear, and death didn't do much to encourage celibacy or self-denial -- particularly when it came to another human touch, and a little shared comfort amidst the chaos. Added to that, Harry's War Mage training had drummed it into him that sex was as much a part of life as eating and sleeping. Denying or ignoring it, wasn't going to make it go away, and sexual frustration -- like any other kind of frustration -- could cause emotional outbursts that were dangerous -- especially if you happened to be a War Mage.

But of course that didn't mean Harry was going to run out and have sex with anything that moved. It simply meant that he wasn't going to ignore or trivialise any of his body's physical needs -- or, for that matter, any of his emotional needs.

Harry knew himself well enough to understand that -- for him at least -- sex with a stranger was actually less satisfying than being alone with his fantasies. That said, there wasn't anybody Harry currently felt that kind of sexual/emotional connection with, except Severus -- and at present Sev would probably knee him in the groin if 'Ash' tried to kiss him.

Thus, Harry resolved to enjoy himself in the bathtub as much as his younger body might want, and to work off any residual tension through physical training, good diet, and mental relaxation techniques.

So, while he was waiting for Albus to get back to him, Harry went out and joined a muggle gym. The training he could do there would help build up his strength. He also joined a martial arts dojo in order to test his current hand-to-hand technique, and hopefully begin re-imprinting his muscle-memory.

That would probably have been more than enough, but on his way past a dance school, he stopped to have a look inside, and eventually emerged with a third membership, which would assist him in improving his agility and endurance.

He didn't actually have so much tension -- sexual or otherwise -- that he needed all the exercise that three different memberships would give him. But after all, he couldn't really put the rest of his plans into motion until he was back at Hogwarts -- and it was much too soon for Voldemort to put into action any of the crucial events that Harry was determined to prevent. All of which meant that he could afford to be patient -- and should use the current downtime over summer to read, relax, and get into shape for the coming school year.

Oh, and he definitely had to figure out how he was going to get Severus back. That wasn't going to be easy because the prickly, defensive sod had emotional barriers a mile wide, and Harry didn't particularly want to repeat the unpleasant circumstances that had led to their becoming lovers the first time around.

But he couldn't seem to think of any brilliant plan for Sev's seduction right off the top of his head. In fact the only thing that did occur to him was that it would really help if he and Severus were working together -- like, say... if he actually got the job of Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts...

//If only Albus would hire me...!// Harry complained silently to the world at large.

----oo00oo----

A week after he joined the gym, the dojo, and the dance school, Harry received an owl advising him that he had an interview in three days time with Headmaster Dumbledore for the position of Defence Against the Dark Arts instructor.

Thus, it was with butterflies in his stomach that War Mage Ash apparated to Hogsmede, and then used the walk up to the castle to calm his nerves. He could not afford to screw this up -- and he didn't know how on earth he was going to convince Albus that he wasn't a Voldemort spy or sympathiser.

He couldn't lie about his background, because it would be too easy to be caught out -- especially with Albus. That meant he was going to have to refuse to answer questions about his life at all -- and that he also couldn't share his experiences, or point out what he'd done in the past -- or... future? //God, that's confusing,// Harry silently reflected. So basically, he was going to have to play the part of the mysterious War Mage who'd appeared out of nowhere with no childhood or history.

Yet somehow he still had to convince Albus to hire him.

Walking along in the bright sunshine -- and focused on the upcoming interview -- Harry hadn't the faintest idea that he would later come to regard this as one of the most bizarre afternoons of his life.

----oo00oo----

Hagrid spotted him as he neared the castle's entrance, "'ello Ash!" the good-natured gamekeeper called. "Welcome t' Hogwarts! You goin' t' be our new Dark Arts teacher, then?"

Smiling broadly, Harry replied, "That's what I'm here to find out -- I've got an interview with the Headmaster in quarter of an hour."

"Oh yeah? Well, I'd better not keep yeh then. Do yeh know how t' get to his office?"

"No need," and Harry glanced around Hagrid's broad chest. "I think this kind lady might be here to see me in."

Hagrid looked around and noticed Professor McGonagall. "Oh! 'Scuse me, professor, I didn' see you there."

"Quite alright, Hagrid," Minerva McGonagall replied while stepping around him to see the War Mage she'd heard so much about. Introductions were quickly made, and Minerva tactfully excused them from Hagrid's presence, before leading Harry off into the school.

Harry felt a pleasant sense of homecoming as he stepped over the threshold, and couldn't resist resting one hand fleetingly against the ancient stones.

If Minerva noticed, she didn't mention it.

The school seemed different without all the students in it. Harry didn't find it unpleasant -- merely quieter, or perhaps 'emptier' would have been a better term -- as if the school was sleeping over the summer, the way some animals did through the winter.

Minerva was happy to expand his knowledge of the school by giving him a brief history of its founders, and although Harry already knew most of it, he encouraged her by making the odd comment and asking an occasional question. This served to deflect her from asking him questions, and also allowed him to start feeling his way into the role of potential teacher and co-worker.

In short order they arrived at the Headmaster's office, and Minerva used the word 'jellybean' to open the door, she turned to him with a polite smile and said, "Just go right in -- he's expecting you -- and don't worry about getting lost on your way out -- I'll be back when you're ready to go."

----oo00oo----

The first thing Harry noticed was Fawkes sitting in bright splendour on his perch in the corner.

//Oh, bugger!// he thought with alarm. He'd forgotten all about the phoenix that was so often in Albus' company. //Will Fawkes know who I am?// Harry was well aware that a dog's sense of smell would be able to tell that he and Harry Potter were one and the same -- if the dog had scented 'Harry Potter' before he'd disguised himself. Would a phoenix have some similar ability? After all, Harry's wand had one of Fawkes' tail feathers in it. //Please, please, please... don't give me away,// he mentally begged the bird, //Too much depends on it -- Albus' life depends on it.//

He couldn't tell whether Fawkes heard him or not, but after some odd looks and a lot of restless feather-rustling, the phoenix apparently decided to ignore him and went back to preening its spectacular feathers.

"Well, --" a familiar voice surprised him from behind.

Harry's War Mage reflexes had his wand pointing right between Albus' eyes before Harry even realised who it was.

Dumbledore blinked.

Harry had the sinking feeling he'd just blown his chance of a job.

"Ah... Sorry about that..." Harry mentally cringed -- //Sorry for nearly attacking him? -- oh that's going to go over well.// "It's... a War Mage thing," he offered lamely, ''...the reflex, I mean..."

"Mmm," Albus agreed, looking at him with an inscrutable expression. "Well," he repeated, "as I was going to say, you seem to have earned the Fawkes stamp of indifference." Harry couldn't tell whether this was good or bad, but the amused glint in Albus' eyes seemed to say it wasn't too disastrous. "Please don't be offended," Albus continued with a smile, "Fawkes is a phoenix, you see -- and he only just immolated himself yesterday, so he's a bit vain at the moment. He will doubtless greet you more properly once he recovers from his fascination with his new feathers."

The Headmaster then moved sedately over to a well-stuffed armchair, and motioned for Harry to join him. "Sit, sit..." he advised, "make yourself comfortable. We have a lot to discuss, if I'm to discover whether you will make a suitable addition to our staff."

"Or whether your staff will make a suitable fellowship for myself," Harry added with more self-assurance than he was feeling.

Albus smiled brightly, replying "Of course... of course." and Harry was heartened by the impression that he'd managed to say something right.

Then Albus proceeded to pour tea for both of them and asked Harry a lot of seemingly unrelated and unimportant questions, such as, 'Do you enjoy a good bubble bath, or are you a bath-salt sort of fellow?'

After admitting that he preferred bath salts, but would put up with a bubble bath if there was sufficient reason (like a naked Sev in it), Harry grew increasingly bewildered by the nature and number of the bizarre questions.

Eventually, Harry realised that he had embarked upon a journey of Dumbledore's making, and the only way he was going to make it unscathed to the end, was to sit back and enjoy the ride. He took hope from the fact that at least he was still here and not outside on his way back to Hogsmede.

By the time Dumbledore -- "please, call me Albus" -- had finished with his questions and was explaining what was expected of a Hogwarts teacher, Harry was quite enjoying the complete surrealism of the conversation.

However, it was all he could do not to laugh aloud at the sight of Albus very seriously telling him about treating students with patience and respect -- and at the same time happily biting the heads off small teddy-bear shaped biscuits.

Half an hour later, it was with a certain amount of awe that Harry realised he had -- sometime during the interview -- allowed himself to be talked into following the Hogwarts Headmaster into a larger room so that they could play a wizarding version of hopscotch together.

Wizarding hopscotch was much harder than the muggle version, because all the squares were different sizes, and were not necessarily all connected to one another. Technically speaking, you weren't supposed to be able to complete the game without using magic.

Albus was certainly using magic. He was currently balanced on one foot -- his wand waving enthusiastically about -- while confidently proclaiming that age and experience would give him the advantage, and he would win in the end!

Harry didn't doubt it -- although he would have argued about it being age and experience that was giving Albus the advantage. Harry wasn't allowed to use magic -- which, in his opinion, meant that Albus was cheating outrageously. After stating as much, Albus had countered with the fact that a War Mage should have better than average balance, and much better physical fitness and coordination. So, if he couldn't put up a decent showing at something as simple as hopscotch, then what kind of a War Mage was he?

So in order to prove he was a War Mage, Harry soon found himself standing on the smallest and most distant square -- on tippy-toe no less, because the square was so small -- and telling Albus to get off the returning squares because he was getting a cramp in his leg, and there would be mayhem done if he lost because Albus was cheating even more disgracefully than when he'd convinced Harry to agree to the 'no-magic-for-war-mages' rule at the start of the game.

Eventually, Albus did win -- but not by much.

----oo00oo----

Later, after they'd both made complete fools of themselves at hopscotch, they made their way back to Albus' comfortable office. This time however, the Headmaster made no move towards the two armchairs they'd previously occupied. Instead, he went straight to his desk, and -- with a jolt -- Harry remembered that he was supposed to be in the middle of a job interview.

Feeling the loss of camaraderie keenly, Harry sat quietly down in the opposite chair -- the large scroll-covered table now separating him from Albus' company.

"Well," the Headmaster began seriously, "now that we've covered the important things, I really have only one more concern that I feel may prevent me from accepting you as our Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher."

Harry felt lost again. //We covered the important things? When!?// But if Albus was happy, Harry wasn't going to argue -- and he knew that this was the important issue anyway -- convincing Albus that he wasn't one of Voldemort's supporters.

"I know," he replied slowly, "that you must be wondering about my lack of personal history and about my... allegiances... but..."

"What?" Albus interrupted, "My dear boy -- good heavens no! You are certainly no Death Eater, and most unlikely to ever become one." Harry stared at him, dumbfounded. "No, no," Albus assured him -- eyes crinkled with amusement at Harry's mistake. "I meant that I am concerned about your somewhat... sudden... reaction to being surprised. You see, we do have a number of... ehm, lively students here at Hogwarts, and it would be quite unfortunate if anything rather... permanent... were to happen to them. I'm afraid the School Board would take a very dim view of it."

"Oh." Harry said. It took him a few seconds to cope with the fact that the problem he'd prepared himself to deal with, wasn't a problem at all -- and instead, he now had to come up with a solution for a reaction he couldn't change, and which might be enough to stop Albus from hiring him.

//Well,// he thought, //if I can't change, then the students will have to change.// The only plan Harry could come up with on the spot, was a more intense version of his original idea, which had worked so well on the general wizarding population. In order to get the average wizard or witch to take a little care in their dealings with him, he'd simply ensured that everyone knew he was a War Mage, and that everyone had a rough idea of what a War Mage was. That was enough for most people, and more than enough for many. The formless worry about what vague horrors he might be capable of made some folk extremely nervous in his presence.

But to solve Albus' dilemma, Harry would have to ensure that the students had first-hand knowledge of exactly how dangerous it would be to surprise him. He had to thoroughly drive it home that they must not play pranks on him for any reason.

In short, he would have to scare the living daylights out of them.

He discussed his idea with Albus, and was relieved when the Headmaster agreed that his plan would probably work -- making him an acceptable candidate for the DADA position.

"But it will rather alienate you from the student population," Albus had added with some concern.

"Don't worry," Harry replied, "I can work on that afterwards. It's the initial impression that's most important, and that's what will stay with them, even after I cease to be quite so terrifying."

That settled, they went on to discuss other things such as pay and conditions. Harry expressed an interest in a quiet and out-of-the-way suite of rooms, and Albus agreed that it would probably be for the best -- however the castle currently had nothing appropriate.

"That's all right," Harry replied, "I'm all paid up at the Leaky Cauldron until the end of summer anyway -- and I still have some commitments to the bank that would make it more convenient for me to stay near Diagon Alley until the start of term."

So they agreed that Harry would relocate to the school only a day or two before the first day of the new term, and that quarters would be prepared for him in one of the quieter sections of the castle -- rather close to Severus' rooms as it turned out, because Severus Snape also liked his privacy and quiet -- which cheered Harry immensely, but would undoubtedly annoy Severus a great deal.

And so, several hours after the very odd interview began, it finally ended with Ash's signature on the teaching contract, and a hearty welcoming handshake.

"Well," Albus grinned at him, "now that that's all out of the way, I have a personal question I'd like to ask you, if I may."

They had already covered the fact that Harry was not at liberty to discuss his past, so Harry wasn't expecting to be blindsided when he curiously replied, "What would you like to know?"

Suddenly quite serious, Albus looked him directly in the eye and said, "Where's Harry Potter?"

----oo00oo----

The question caught Harry completely off guard. "Er..."

"His uncle," Albus stated, "reports that Harry said 'Ash' would know where he was. I do not believe your appearance in the wizarding world shortly thereafter is much of a coincidence." Then the Headmaster sat back in his chair, folded his hands over his chest and waited.

Harry wondered what had possessed him to tease fate with that off-hand comment to Vernon Dursley. "I'm, uh... rather surprised Harry's uncle remembered that bit of advice." he began cautiously.

"Oh, you know..." Albus waved his right hand absently, "a little memory charm can work wonders."

"Ah," Harry replied, thinking fast.

"And then," Albus continued, "there is the matter of a small bit of Heart Magic Mr Potter seems to have performed before he left -- something which I would have said was quite beyond him at the time. But not, I think, beyond the abilities of a mage such as yourself." Albus then looked at Harry over the top of his glasses, "You can perform Heart Magic, I assume?"

Harry gave a little half-smile. "It's one of my abilities, yes."

"Mmm," Albus agreed, and then went back to waiting.

Harry decided to tell the truth -- or a version of it, at any rate. "I'm afraid I can't tell you where he is." Albus' eyes narrowed. "But," Harry reassured him, "I can tell you what he's doing." Harry paused, wondering how much to give away, before he eventually settled on the words: "He's learning to be a War Mage." //Which is true,// Harry thought, //since I'll never stop learning magic, and every new skill teaches me how to be a better War Mage in some way.//

Albus' eyebrows shot up. "Are you saying there's a school for War Mages?"

Harry winced. "Yes," he admitted reluctantly, "actually there is -- but I'd rather you didn't tell anybody about it, since it's supposed to be a secret." Then he sighed. "When the circle finds out I've told you -- which they will, eventually -- I'm probably going to be in a bit of trouble."

Albus digested that. "So," he said slowly, "you're saying that your 'circle' offered young Harry the chance to become a War Mage, and that he agreed, and left of his own free will."

"That about sums it up." Harry nodded. It was, in fact, pretty much what had actually happened to him in the mirror, so it was true if you looked at it from a certain perspective. "If it reassures you in any way," Harry added, "I can definitely tell you that he was happy he didn't have to spend summer with the Dursleys." Carefully, Harry added, "I don't think he was very happy living with his muggle relations." //Understatement!// Harry's thoughts screamed.

"No, he was not," came Albus' sad reply. "But it was the best I could do for him at the time." Harry's heart went out to the old wizard sitting across from him. It had obviously been a very painful decision, and one Albus had repeatedly examined with uncertain hindsight. "But I had such hope, you see," Albus went on, "that when he finally came to Hogwarts we would be able to make up for it all -- that he would find some measure of happiness within these walls, which we could not give him beyond them."

"I don't think," Harry responded, "that he was at all pleased to be leaving you -- or his other Hogwarts friends -- behind."

"But you still don't believe he would have stayed," Albus added shrewdly, "even without the Dursleys."

Harry's answer was a single word: "Voldemort."

"He left to protect his friends?" Albus asked, seemingly unsurprised by Harry's willingness to say the dark lord's name.

"And himself," Harry answered. "He will need what the circle can teach him -- you know Voldemort is obsessed with him -- and you cannot protect him forever."

"Which," the Headmaster finished, "a school full of War Mages will most certainly be able to do, at least until he can do it for himself."

"The school is smaller than you might think," Harry commented, "Mages are quite rare, after all -- but, yes, where he is now -- he will be as safe as he possibly can be."

"We cannot write, or ask you to pass messages to him?" Albus asked.

"No," Harry replied, "I'm sorry."

Albus sighed. "What is, is," he said, "and we must endeavour to make the best of it." Fawkes chose that moment to fly over and alight on the desk between them. The phoenix ambled over to Albus, who allowed his arm to be used as a perch, and then absently stroked the bird's fiery plumage with his other hand. Decorative little sparks rose up to dance on the air.

"I'm glad he's all right," Albus finally admitted, "and I even understand the reasoning behind his decision -- but I do wish we had more than a scrap of Heart Magic to rely on for our assurance of his well-being. This will be a difficult burden for Hagrid to bear -- and I hope his role in it all will not be discovered too soon."

Harry hadn't thought of that -- what it might be like if the world discovered that Hagrid still had some form of contact with him. He sincerely hoped his good intentions with respect to the Heart spell would not end up being the burden Albus expected it to be.

"Mr Potter's friends," Albus lamented, "are going to be quite upset when they discover he's gone." Then the Headmaster looked suddenly tired as he added, "-- and I'm going to be absolutely buried in owls when the rest of the world finds out!"

----oo00oo----

After Harry reassured himself that Albus would not publicly implicate him in the disappearance of 'The Boy who Lived', he asked the Headmaster if there were any other questions he would like answered. //Better to deal with them now,// Harry thought, //so I won't be caught out like this again later.//

The canny old wizard tilted his head to one side in thought, and then said, "Are the War Mages going to join our side against Voldemort, or is your separation from them an indication that they're going to support him?"

Once more taken aback, Harry realised that since Albus didn't know why the mage circle was so secretive, it was a perfectly valid question.

"No," he asserted, "the War Mages will absolutely not be joining Voldemort."

"Which doesn't mean that they'll be joining our side either."

Harry sighed. "You're right -- it doesn't. At present, they don't think he warrants the circle's intervention. After all," Harry added cynically, "it's not currently all-out war, is it? And the wizarding world managed to take care of the problem by itself the last time."

"A view you don't agree with?" Albus suggested.

"No," Harry confirmed. "By the time it gets to all-out-war, it's too late -- and sometimes it never becomes open war -- yet the results: the destruction, the suffering -- are still the same. Now is the time to be doing something about it -- before it becomes a long, drawn-out disaster that affects us all for years to come."

Albus blinked at Harry's eloquence, then grinned. "I couldn't talk you into joining a little group I know of, could I? A War Mage would be invaluable to them."

Harry knew the Headmaster was referring to the Order of the Phoenix -- Albus Dumbledore's personal group of informants, aurors, and researchers, whom he had deemed worthy of trust. "I'm sorry," Harry replied, "but I don't think my immediate goals would be completely compatible with another group just now."

Albus looked disappointed.

"But someday," Harry added with an impish grin, "I'll probably ask you to join me."

Albus looked both intrigued and amused. "Well, then," he said with raised eyebrows, "I shall await the day!"

And that was the end of Albus Dumbledore's questions.

----oo00oo----

However, as the Headmaster was showing his new Dark Arts teacher to the door, Harry realised there was a question that he really wanted to ask.

"Albus?" he stopped in the middle of the room, causing the Headmaster to turn back and face him. "How did you know? -- That I'm not a spy, I mean -- and that I won't support Voldemort or his cause?" Harry had been so worried about that -- both before and during the interview.

The Headmaster grinned wickedly. "Why, good sir!" he exclaimed, "I could never have beaten a Death Eater at hopscotch!"

At which point Harry cracked up completely, because the mental image of Lucius Malfoy hopping on one leg over the squares of a hopscotch game was simply too funny for words.

Of course Albus would never lose to a Death Eater! No Death Eater would have agreed to play! If there was one thing Harry had noticed over the years, it was that evil -- in all it forms -- always took itself way too seriously. Harry was quite willing to bet that every wizard or witch who'd ever gone bad had been constitutionally incapable of laughing at themselves -- or of enjoying the simple pleasure of doing something ridiculous, just for the fun of it.

At that moment, Harry understood precisely why Albus would never be a mage -- the Headmaster's understanding of humanity was simply too profound. It wasn't possible to be so deeply immersed in human behaviour, and still have room for the radically different world-view of other species.

Finally, Harry got his laughter under control. "You knew I was a War Mage all along!" he accused.

"Gringotts' letter, and your startle-reflex were more than enough," Albus smirked.

"And the bubble bath questions?"

"Well, I didn't think you'd agree to hopscotch right away -- so I sort of had to... build up to it," Albus explained proudly. "Did a rather good job of it," he added, "even if I do say so myself."

And then Harry lost it a second time. All that craziness -- just to find out whether he was on the side of Light! And the 'important things' -- when Albus said they'd already taken care of them! Oh, he'd been royally done over -- and he'd even enjoyed it! Harry was going to remember this day with great fondness for a very long time!

Once Harry had calmed down again, Albus rounded out his reasoning with the happy explanation that: "Of course, Fawkes' willingness to ignore you helped as well. If you'd been any kind of a threat, he would never have disregarded your presence while I was in the same room." Then he added, "Although... you did cause me a bit of worry when you had your wand pointed at my head. But after all, it wasn't like you actually blew me through the wall or anything -- so I thought I'd take a chance."

"You won't regret it," Harry promised.

"I hope you don't either," Albus replied mysteriously, "since you haven't actually met any of our students as yet."

----oo00oo----

It was a very relaxed and relieved War Mage who strolled along behind Professor McGonagall as they returned to the main entrance. The head of Gryffindor House was only too pleased to hear that they now had a Dark Arts teacher -- "It's been something of a worry for me," she confided along the way -- and she wasted no time in offering him any assistance he might need, confidently adding: "-- and do please call me Minerva. It doesn't pay to stand on ceremony when we'll be working together against so many students."

"Don't you mean with so many students?"

Minerva looked at him. "Oh dear," she said, "you haven't done a lot of teaching, have you?" Then she smiled, "Well, never mind -- I'm sure a War Mage will manage somehow."

"You know," Harry told her, "Albus said something about being prepared to meet the students too." He looked at her carefully, "I'm beginning to think I should be worried."

"Not... worried... exactly." Minerva's tone failed to reassure him. "Think of it as more of a... challenge." And then they were once more on the steps outside the school.

Harry had already started down the path to Hogsmede, when he unexpectedly heard Minerva call after him, "Oh, and Ash! -- in case Albus forgot to mention it -- you'll need to have your proposed syllabus finished at least two weeks before the start of term! I'll make sure that the dates for pre-term staff meetings are owled to you, along with your employment and orientation package."

Then she disappeared into the school.

Harry stared at the empty entrance in surprise. //Syllabus?!// he thought worriedly -- and then it hit him: //Oh, dear god!// he realised, //I'm actually going to have to teach Defence Against the Dark Arts!//

----oo00oo----