Chapter 4 : Back to School

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 4
-- Back to School --

Over the next few days, Harry spent a great deal more time in the gym than he did in the dojo or the dance school. Martial arts and dancing required a certain level of concentration, whereas much of what he did in his gym workouts was simple repetition designed to build muscle tone. That meant he could keep his body usefully occupied while his mind tried to figure out what on earth he was going to teach in Defence Against the Dark Arts.

Initially, he was at a complete loss as for what to do -- so he broke it down logically, concentrating on what he already knew.

There were seven years of class to teach -- which meant seven different levels of skill and ability. There were also four Houses -- but from memory, Harry could recall that double-period classes were shared between two Houses. Thus, while he might need to deliver some lessons up to four times a week, there would also be some where he would only have to present them twice.

He was going to need some indication of what each year had already learned, since his own memories merely covered the classes he had attended personally, and were hazy at best due to the length of time that had passed since he'd actually been a student.

As well, it would be good to have some idea of whether there was anything in particular that the school required him to include in the lessons. He rather suspected there wasn't, since he did remember that the classes he'd attended had been as different as chalk and cheese every year. Each DADA teacher he could recall seemed to have a different set of textbooks and a different idea of what their students should be learning.

In some ways this fact made it harder for him, since having a standard set of textbooks would have meant a lot less preparation and a lot less worry on his part. But in other ways it made it easier, because he would be able to teach what he thought they needed to know -- and after being taught by War Mages in the circle, Harry really did think there were some fundamental problems with the way Defence Against the Dark Arts was being presented.

Three days later -- after taking his time and letting the problem percolate for a while -- he'd pretty much decided on a course of action. It was then that he was abruptly and painfully reminded that he had bigger things to worry about than teaching class to a bunch of school students.

----oo00oo----

Walking back to the Leaky Cauldron after a satisfying workout late in the day, he was just passing a small alleyway between buildings when a stabbing pain shot through his head. The unexpectedness of it -- coupled with the fact that there wasn't anything he could attack or defend himself against -- made him quickly duck out of sight into the alley. There -- in relative privacy -- he could double over in pain with one hand pressed heavily against his throbbing scar, and lean gratefully upon the cool bricks for support.

//Son of a bitch!// he cursed through the blinding headache. He hadn't suffered this kind of agony in years -- not since he'd killed Voldemort and obliterated the man's presence from the world forever. //I'd... forgotten...// his pain-fogged thoughts were vaguely aware that for this level of hurt, Voldemort was probably in the process of killing someone -- slowly and painfully.

After what seemed an eternity, the gasping War Mage was finally released. Harry consoled himself with the knowledge that whoever it had been was now dead and no longer suffering. Collapsing onto the dirty concrete, he breathed deeply -- mentally willing himself not to go into shock, or to let the agonising reminder of his link to Voldemort cause him to lose his lunch.

//I'll have to do something about this,// Harry ruefully acknowledged. It was just dumb luck that he'd been alone this time, and in a relatively isolated place. //If I'd been anywhere near Albus...!// Wordlessly, Harry berated himself for not realising that his link to Voldemort would still exist. //I should have known,// he thought angrily. //I should have remembered...//

But the key to his problem was easily dredged up from that self-same memory, and after pulling himself into some semblance of order -- and ducking into a public restroom to retouch the makeup on his scar -- Harry quickly made his way back to the privacy of his room at the Leaky Cauldron. Once there, he could perform some damage control so that similar incidents in the future would not be so debilitating.

As soon as he was safely alone in his rented room, Harry knelt down in the middle of the wooden floor, and turned his thoughts inwards toward the link he shared with his enemy. It was a pity he couldn't simply destroy the connection -- but Harry knew that wasn't possible because it had become an integral part of his magic, created at the same moment Voldemort had tried to kill his infant self by using Avada Kedavra on him.

The baby Harry -- not even aware of what was really happening -- had felt his life draining away and had latched onto the nearest source of power in an instinctive attempt to pull strength back into his body.

The source of power he'd tapped into had been the killing curse itself.

To this day, Harry had no idea how he'd managed to tap into another wizard's spell when he'd been only a baby. He could easily do it now of course -- the process worked on a similar principle to the ability he'd demonstrated recently in Knockturn Alley. In that instance, he'd taken control of a mid-level curse and thrown it back at the wizard who'd cast it. And while connecting to a spell was a bit different from simply controlling it, neither skill was all that uncommon. In fact, with the right training, most wizards and witches would be able to do it. But as a baby? -- no, that had been a surprise.

But the real shocker had been that he'd actually survived doing it.

Normally, connecting to a spell like Avada Kedavra would only have made it work more efficiently -- essentially giving it free access to his life force by allowing it to bypass his body's innate resistance to harmful magics. Merely controlling the spell would not have had this effect, but it also would not have given him access to the magic that the spell was made of -- the very magic that baby Harry had so desperately tried to use to sustain himself.

Had he not connected to the spell, it would still have overwhelmed what few natural defences he had, but it would've had to work much harder to do so. That was why a child trying to perform Avada Kedavra would be lucky to give someone a nosebleed. Without an adult's strength of will behind it -- coupled with an adult's power and an adult's deeper understanding of exactly what death meant -- then the natural resistance of another wizard or witch's magic would be enough to confound the spell, or at least prevent it from actually causing death. Less damaging curses -- like petrificus totalis -- which temporarily petrified the body but did no real harm -- were easier to cast since they were not intended to cause permanent damage, and thus, the body's full range of natural defences was not brought into play.

This explained why muggles were easier to kill using Avada Kedavra than wizarding folk. Muggles had no inborn resistance to magic at all -- which was also why some wizards believed muggles were inferior, and why others treated them like children who had to be protected from all forms of magic.

But what the baby Harry had done went one step further than magically connecting to the spell -- and that extra step was something neither Harry, nor anybody else, had ever been able to repeat. In essence, Harry had linked himself through the spell back to the one who'd cast it. Thus, when he'd tried to pull power from the curse, he'd actually pulled it from Voldemort himself -- with the result that he'd absorbed some of Voldemort's magical abilities (such as Parseltongue), and had accidentally created a permanent connection to the very man who'd tried to kill him.

When Voldemort had instinctively tried to pull away, the dark lord's desperate retreat had torn a kind of 'hole' in his magical self. Through this 'hole', the evil wizard had bled out his power until he'd very nearly died from it. When he eventually stopped the loss of energy, Voldemort had been left with the magical equivalent of scar tissue in the place where the tear had once been. That scarring had disguised the fact that he and Harry were still connected. Harry felt intense pain whenever the dark lord killed someone, or used his magic in a way that sponsored more suffering and death. But because of the scarring, Voldemort could not sense him in return.

Had Voldemort not been satisfied to let others do the majority of his dirty work, Harry would have been in near-constant pain for a large part of his life. But as it was, he only experienced the occasional bout of agony. Even so, he could not destroy the link, because any attempt to get rid of it would undoubtedly tear the same kind of 'hole' in his own magic as the one that had nearly killed Voldemort. The only way he would ever be truly free of the dark lord, was if one of them died.

But he could 'squeeze' the link -- pinching it off to the point where the pain it transmitted was minimal and manageable. He would still know when Voldemort was doing something particularly horrific, but it would be the pain of a mild headache -- not a blinding migraine. And for a mere headache, Harry could hide the effects and carry on as if nothing was wrong.

Thus, he carefully built up magical walls around the link -- speaking aloud the spell that would bind those walls tightly together -- bearing down and compressing the connection until it was hardly there at all.

After that, there was only one more thing Harry needed to do -- and he immediately staggered up and went in search of the wizarding equivalent of aspirin.

----oo00oo----

With his connection to Voldemort under some semblance of control, Harry could now return to his plan for not making a fool out of himself in front of every student currently enrolled at Hogwarts.

Minerva had been as good as her word, and had owled him the dates for the pre-term staff meetings. She'd also sent him his orientation package, consisting of a lot of information he already knew; a list of the other teachers at Hogwarts; and a map of the commonly used school areas. His Marauders' Map -- wherever it had disappeared to after the fake Mad-eye Moody had 'borrowed' it -- left Minerva's version for dead, and Harry uncaringly tossed the official map into the rubbish bin. If anyone asked, he would claim he'd memorised the silly thing so he didn't have to carry it around. He still remembered more about the school's layout than was actually on the discarded bit of paper anyway.

Of more practical interest was the remarkable lack of anything resembling a plan for the DADA course structure. He didn't even receive a history of what the students had previously studied. An owl back to Minerva soon confirmed that -- apart from the record of student grades -- there was very little in the school archives that detailed what had actually been taught. So Harry effectively had no idea where the students were up to in their studies. The disastrous run of DADA teachers -- who had variously been: killed while working for Voldemort, magicked into forgetting everything they'd done that year; summarily removed by the school board; kidnapped and impersonated so that they never actually did any teaching; and just plain declared missing under mysterious circumstances -- had not left behind much in the way of documentation.

Well that suited Harry just fine, since it meant he could reasonably justify starting the whole thing from scratch and doing it the way he thought it should be done.

After that, he took the next couple of days off from his physical training in order to patronise several wizarding libraries around London, as well as several magical bookshops.

The libraries were interesting in that it turned out several public muggle libraries actually had wizarding sections. Those sections functioned somewhat like the Leaky Cauldron -- invisible to anyone without magic. The librarians were then wizards and witches who could assist both muggles and magical folk with whatever searches they were interested in.

The bookshops were harder to find, and Harry finally decided that the best of them was "Flourish and Blotts" -- the same bookstore in Diagon Alley where Hogwarts students had been purchasing their schoolbooks for untold generations. The second-best bookstore in Britain turned out to be in Hogsmeade -- not surprising since the town was composed entirely of wizards and witches and would therefore have a larger customer base than bookshops in mixed muggle-wizarding areas. But the "Script 'n Scroll" didn't stock quite the range that "Flourish and Blotts" did, and Harry eventually ended up back where he'd begun his search -- in Diagon Alley.

What he was looking for were books he could use for his DADA classes -- preferably well-written books that described the basic dark arts curses and spells, along with their counter spells, and any other successful defences. The various librarians and storeowners had looked at him strangely when he'd asked for advice on Defence Against the Dark Arts books -- why would a War Mage be reading those? -- but they were all more than helpful once he explained about his upcoming position as the Hogwarts DADA instructor.

Gilderoy Lockharts' books were still quite popular, and although Harry thought the man was a reprehensible crook who'd simply written down other people's experiences and then claimed they were his -- well... if the books were accurate and well-written, then he still felt obliged to consider them.

It turned out that they were accurate, but well written was debateable. There was a lot of self-aggrandizement in them, and you had to wade through some pretty melodramatic rubbish to find the useful bits. Still -- they at least had useful bits, which was more than could be said for some of the supposed dark arts defence tomes.

Unfortunately, they were also quite expensive -- and Harry still didn't like the author.

Eventually, Harry managed to find another writer by the name of H.A. Staesafe. The H.A. stood for "Helen Angela", and from her writing it seemed that Ms Staesafe really was a little bit of hellion and a little bit of angel, all rolled into one. She had a down-to-earth style of prose, and a no-nonsense approach to her subject. Her books were not overpriced, although some people might have said they were a bit boring. But Harry felt that -- as the teacher -- it would be his job to hold his students' interest, so he didn't count that against them. She'd only written five books in her Dark Arts Defence series, and they varied in skill level as she herself had gained experience with what she was writing and researching.

After lightly skimming through each book, Harry decided that one of them covered enough material to be useful for both third and fourth year -- which gave him a textbook for six out of the seven years he would be teaching. He wished she had a sixth book that he could use for seventh year, but he was eventually forced to settle on another author, with a slightly more flowery style, who filled the gap at the higher level that Helen Angela couldn't.

Thus, he now had his required textbooks for the upcoming year, and from their content, he could easily work out the dreaded syllabus that had seemed so impossible to write only a few days before.

----oo00oo----

After completing his plans for the DADA course structure Harry spent the next day working on yet another Foundation Stone. Thus, it was not until Friday that he managed to return to "Flourish and Blotts" and warn them about ordering enough of his textbooks to supply an entire school full of students. Harry had no idea how many students there were in each year, but fortunately, the wizard behind the counter told him that approximate numbers were always forwarded to the shop by Hogwarts. Therefore, so long as they knew which books to order, there wouldn't be a problem with the numbers.

It was a well satisfied teacher-to-be who was just leaving the bookstore when he heard a familiar voice further down the street.

"Ah, Ginny, you've got no appreciation for the true beauty of broom design!"

Ron Weasley's younger sister rolled her eyes at him and replied, "I appreciate it just fine, Ron -- but as soon as I'm old enough, I'm going to apparate everywhere, and I really don't see the point of wasting money on something you can't even use over most of England because the muggles might see!"

"That's not the point!" Ron argued, "What you don't understand is that..." but then Harry lost the conversation as they wandered away from the display window full of brooms, probably on their way to meet up with friends.

It would've been so nice to casually walk up and join in the conversation. But he couldn't -- and it was going to be weird enough being their teacher without confusing himself further. They were not the adult friends and comrades he remembered, and it would only complicate things if he acted like they were.

With a sigh, Harry momentarily wished he could really go back in time and find whoever had made that stupid mirror. But as Albus had said -- "What is, is -- and we must endeavour to make the best of it."

//And speaking of the best of it...// Harry suddenly perked up as he recalled that Ron and Ginny had been looking at brooms... and Harry needed a new broom -- so...

A few minutes later, he was happily standing amidst every make and model of broom on the market. "Ahh..." Harry exhaled in contentment. To his eyes, the brooms were all very old models, and some of them even classics -- but the smell of the wood and the shine on each pristine handle... the feelings that welled up in him were literally timeless. //Some things,// Harry smiled, //really don't change.//

He only achieved a moment or two of solitude with which to appreciate the sensation of being surrounded by the untouched new sweeps, before a saleswizard approached and nervously asked him if there was anything the War Mage needed help with. It didn't take Harry long to completely win over the anxious young man -- especially since the other wizard was astounded by Harry's grasp of broom dynamics. Harry however, had to remind himself several times not to discuss innovations that had not yet been invented.

Ultimately, Harry settled on a "Skyfire Two" which -- while not the fastest broom on the market -- was no slouch either. It was also far more manoeuvrable and responsive in tight situations than his current Firebolt, and would continue flying even with half its twigs burnt away. It was a good compromise design, and Harry knew it wouldn't suffer from any of the quirky little problems that had plagued the later models of Firebolt at the end of their design run.

Even so, the Skyfire was pretty expensive, since it was one of the latest models, and not yet in full mass production.

----oo00oo----

Coming out of the broom shop, Harry was still distracted enough by the sight of the sleek racing sweeps, that he only just managed to avoid knocking over a young witch who was also staring at the display window.

"Excuse me..." he began, before realising that the young woman he was apologising to was none other than Ginny Weasley!

"Oh, no problem," smiled the girl who had once had a crush on him all the way back in his second year at Hogwarts. "I really shouldn't be standing here like a zombie anyway. It's just..." and she trailed off as she finally noticed the War Mage pin on Harry's robes. Her eyes grew huge, and she stuttered, "I.. you... you're... you're him! I mean..." and then her mouth snapped closed and she flushed with embarrassment.

"I'm the War Mage everybody's talking about," Harry finished with an amused grin. "Don't worry, I get that a lot -- and I'm not offended or anything. Actually, I believe I was the one apologising for nearly running into you."

Relieved, Ginny smiled again and replied, "Well... um... I... I'm really not supposed to be standing here by myself anyway. Mum would have a fit if she knew I'd ditched Ron -- he's my brother you see, and we're kinda supposed to stick together."

Harry frowned. At fourteen -- or was it fifteen by now? -- he would've thought Ginny was old enough to be out in Diagon Alley by herself during the middle of the day. "Is there some reason you... 'ditched'... him?"

"Oh, you know," Ginny waved her hand with all the disdain that only a teenaged girl could manage, "he was just being a guy," and then she realised what she'd just said. "Oops... I mean, not that you -- I mean guys -- are all that bad... Some of you are even kinda cute..." at which point she turned a brilliant shade of scarlet and finished with: "...and I think I'll shut up now."

Harry laughed. "I take it he's like me -- completely hooked on brooms for no apparent reason."

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Oh, yeah! And I really don't get it! I mean -- what's the big deal?"

At that moment Ron came pounding up the street, puffed and out of breath. "Ginny!" he cried, "Are you out of your mind?! You know we're supposed to stick together!"

Ginny made a face at Harry, who stifled a grin of his own. Curious, Harry said, "If I might ask -- why is it so important that the two of you stay together?"

Ron suddenly realised that his sister had been talking to the stranger standing next to them -- and then he noticed the War Mage pin and battle robes. "...oh my god!"

"Yeah, yeah..." Ginny interrupted him, "it's the War Mage -- I already did that. Get over it."

Harry did his best to keep a straight face while Ron sputtered in outrage at his younger sibling. Ginny ignored him and turned to answer Harry's question. "Mum said we could only go out by ourselves if we stayed together. With You-Know-Who so active, and all the things that have happened -- well... it's just better to go out together."

And Harry suddenly looked at the passers-by with whole new eyes. It was true! Everyone in Diagon Alley was together with at least one other person, and some of them were plainly shopping in groups! Harry hadn't noticed the subtle tension before, because to him -- after the destruction and fear that had permeated the world he remembered -- the current atmosphere was almost like a happy holiday. But Ginny's words had plainly shown him that the wizarding world was a long way from happy or on holiday.

"Is it really that bad?" he asked.

"Nah," Ron assured him. "But... y'know... Mum worries."

Harry decided that he really needed to know a lot more about the status of the wizarding world than he apparently did -- and right in front of him were two excellent sources of information. "Look," he said, "my... work... has left me a bit isolated from things happening in Britain recently." Which was not entirely true, since he'd been reading the Daily Prophet for a while now. But the newspaper wouldn't give him a feel for the fears and attitudes in people's homes, or on the street. "Would it be too much of an imposition if I asked you to fill me in on what it's been like here lately?"

Ron was only too happy to remain in the company of the totally awesome War Mage, but Ginny was more wary -- making vague noises about having to get home. So Harry casually mentioned that he was going to be their new Dark Arts teacher come September, and offhandedly advised them about buying their new textbooks. After that, Ginny was satisfied -- and Ron ecstatic -- to accept his offer of a free bite to eat at the very-public ice-cream emporium in the middle of Diagon Alley.

Once there, Ginny indulged herself in two of her favourite pastimes: gossipping and vanilla milkshakes. Ron was thoroughly bored with the gossip, but Harry distracted him with the new broom he'd just purchased, and continued to pump Ginny for information while Ron admired the broom, ate his hot fudge sundae, and surreptitiously looked around to see whether anybody he knew could see him sitting with the War Mage.

Amused, Harry wondered how it was possible for Ron to think 'Ash' was so cool when he'd already witnessed Harry deliberately vying with Ginny to see who could make the loudest 'slurping' noises at the bottom of their respective milkshakes.

----oo00oo----

Later, after Ron and Ginny really did have to go home, Harry reflected upon what he'd learned.

The situation was about what he'd expected, which was good because he'd been a bit worried about his ability to judge it accurately. Once he'd realised that people were travelling in pairs and he hadn't even noticed, Harry had seen legitimate cause for concern in that area. Fortunately, it wasn't a problem and he wouldn't need to change any of his upcoming plans.

He also spent a bit of time pondering the strangeness that was a teenaged Ronald Weasley. The strangeness was not in Ron himself, but in the way Harry now felt about him. He'd been worried that he would slip up and start treating Ron and his younger sister like old friends -- but it hadn't been a problem at all. In fact, from what Harry could tell, it wasn't ever going to be a problem either. Ron and Ginny didn't just look very young -- they actually were very young.

Talking to them had been like... well... like talking to teenagers!

It occurred to Harry that he'd half expected a twenty-eight-year-old version of Ron who was acting like a teenager. The person he'd met today was a fifteen-year-old Ron who really was a teenager.

The difference was both subtle and obvious, and Harry wondered how many years it would be before age and experience would give him back his best friend.

----oo00oo----

//Well, that's one year less, at any rate,// Harry mused a few days later as the 31st of July came and went. He was now 29 by his own reckoning -- and 16 by everybody else's.

It was kind of sad not being able to celebrate it with anyone, but Hagrid's morning and evening check-ins that day had carried a whole new layer of tangled emotions, and Harry just knew that no matter how long it took until he could show his true face again -- there would always be at least one present waiting for him, for every missed birthday.

He didn't really have time to dwell on it though, since there was now only a month until school resumed, and the first staff meeting was hard upon him.

As he was leaving the Leaky Cauldron to attend his first meeting as a teacher, Harry wondered whether it was possible to be over-prepared for this sort of thing. But since he had no idea what actually happened in a pre-term staff meeting, he was comforted by the fact that he could at least say that he knew what he would be teaching during the upcoming year.

At this first meeting, it would be important to establish positive relationships with the other teachers -- and one of the best ways Harry could think of to achieve that, was to firmly distance himself from the idiots (Remus excluded) who'd held the position previously. From that perspective, it really wasn't possible to be over-prepared.

Apparating to Hogsmeade and walking up to the castle was both uneventful and enjoyable. This time he was met by Madam Hooch, who guided him through the various corridors until they reached a large room in the administration wing. There was a solid-looking oval table at the far end, with several mis-matched chairs around it. A variety of coffee tables, foot stools, armchairs and sofas were scattered throughout the rest of the room. A large fireplace opened up the left wall, while the entry to a small kitchenette was visible off to the right.

"Welcome to the staff lounge," Madam Hooch said as she moved past him and waved Madam Pomfrey over to join them.

Severus was nowhere in sight, and neither was the Headmaster. But except for Filch -- who was not a teacher -- and Hagrid -- who taught Care of Magical Creatures, and was off somewhere on Hogwarts business -- everyone else was already assembled. Madam Hooch introduced "Poppy, our mediwitch", who promptly asked him whether he had any medical conditions or ailments that she -- as the resident nurse -- should be aware of.

He assured her he didn't.

After that, they did the rounds of every teacher present, and 'Ash' turned on the Gryffindor charm. He smiled at everyone and did his best to seem calm and confident. Albus had taught him a useful trick for situations like this, and it was a simple matter to subtly turn each conversation back onto the person he was with, so that they ended up doing most of the talking. Then all he had to do was nod, and interject the occasional comment.

Albus had once stated that he'd never met a human -- witch or wizard -- who didn't enjoy having someone listen to them. Thus, Harry made an excellent impression on everybody there -- especially Professors Trelawney and Binns, who were rather more used to people cutting them off or ignoring them. Fortunately, the other teachers didn't let them monopolize his time, so he wasn't stuck with the two most boring people in the room for the entire half hour until Albus arrived.

"My apologies, everyone!" Albus called out as he bustled into the room. "Terribly sorry -- some pressing business came up and I really couldn't put it off." Severus Snape followed him in, and after Harry's heart stopped doing flip-flops, he wondered whether Albus' pressing business had something to do with information Sev might have acquired in his role as a spy among the Death Eaters.

But for the moment, Harry was not within their circle of trusted confidants, and so he was not to know.

Albus made the introductions between 'Ash' and Severus, and Harry's "Pleased to meet you, Professor," evoked a cold but courteous nod, followed by a brief acknowledgement of his existence with the words: "War Mage."

For once, Harry was glad that someone did not know his real name, since Severus would undoubtedly have called him 'Potter' otherwise. He could live with 'Mage', 'War Mage', 'Ash', or 'Harry' -- these were all things Sev had called him on many occasions, depending on the situation -- but there was no way he could have lived with 'Potter' -- not from Severus.

As he watched the older man turn away, Harry wondered whether the Potions Master felt any significance at all in their first meeting. From the sour look on Sev's face, Harry suspected that the only 'significance' their meeting held for him was that he'd once more been passed over for the DADA job he so desperately thought he wanted.

As they took their seats around the table -- and the ghostly Professor Binns floated through the table to his chair -- Harry managed to acquire the seat next to Sev without making it look like anything more than an accident. He was quietly hopeful that when Severus discovered he'd lost the DADA position to someone who was actually competent and experienced, it would at least provide him with the consolation of knowing that he hadn't been unjustly passed over as he had been in other years.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way.

As the meeting progressed, it became apparent from Sev's general demeanour that he hated the fact that Ash knew what he was doing. Harry suspected that he also wasn't too pleased that the new DADA teacher was obviously getting along so well with the rest of the staff.

It eventually occurred to Harry that the Potions Master viewed Harry's competence as a sign that the DADA position was slipping further and further out of reach. So long as Albus kept hiring idiots, there was always the possibility that the Headmaster would come to his senses and eventually give the job to Severus. With some surprise, Harry realised: //No wonder he disliked Remus so much when Remus was the DADA teacher!// In later years Harry had assumed that Severus wasn't nicer to the werewolf simply because Harry liked him. That view had obviously been simplistic.

The resentment for Ash's popularity was more straightforward. Severus was not naturally a cheerful or outgoing person. In truth, he was dour, introverted, sarcastic, cynical, and generally disillusioned with life. Added to that, he was unwilling to suffer fools gladly and only too willing to let them know it. In short, while most of the table had great respect for his skills as a potion-maker -- and a faint sense of dread for the sharp edge of his tongue -- nobody but Minerva and Albus held any real fondness for the man.

Aside from those two, the others at the table had never managed to see past the forbidding exterior down to the person who was also intensely loyal, fiercely protective, serenely happy alone in a potions lab, and whose heart contained enough courage for twenty Gryffindor lions.

But it was the unnoticed and unspoken loneliness in Severus Snape that Harry ached to erase.

The rest of it he wouldn't change for all the gold in Gringotts.

----oo00oo----

The meeting itself was interesting enough so that Harry could distract himself without too much difficulty from the fact that he was calmly sitting next to the man he fully intended to have as his lover.

He was familiar with each teacher present, and had interacted with them as an adult many times in his personal version of the past. What made the meeting fascinating for him was discovering just what the professors actually did when they weren't standing in front of the students.

It turned out they did rather a lot.

There was, of course, the expected juggling of schedules and timetables. But there were also a lot of other things Harry had never even considered. For instance, there was the matter of balancing the Hogwarts OWL levels against the results of other schools. Were last year's OWLS too hard, or too easy? What was the acceptable level for a passing grade? What did the school board have to say?

Then there were the questions about students who weren't keeping up. Would they need extra tutoring? Was it a personal problem? Did anyone know the student or their family outside Hogwarts?

After that, there were discussions about whether it was still safe to allow sixth and seventh year students to visit Hogsmeade on the weekends. Would parents prefer it their children were kept closer to the school? Should the school's security be re-evaluated again this year? Which new books in the library should be relegated to the restricted section for safety reasons?

This was then followed by questions such as: What new books should the library purchase? What furniture needs to be replaced? What repairs does the castle need? Can we afford to buy new school brooms this year? What about other new equipment?

And finally, there were the questions that simply blew Harry completely out of the water. These were discussions on topics he hadn't realised the teachers were even aware of. In particular, one of these was something of an eye-opener for him personally...

Apparently the faculty was well aware of all the popular and supposedly 'secret' places that the older students used for romantic trysts. Harry had half-expected that, but what he hadn't known was that there'd been an ongoing debate for many years on whether or not to allow the students to continue their illicit encounters in these semi-private places, and whether or not that obscure little book in a back corner of the library -- the one that contained the anti-pregnancy spell -- should be moved into the restricted section.

A couple of teachers believed that every out-of-the-way nook and cranny in the castle should simply be sealed off, and that 'that book' should be donated to some other library. Cynically, Severus pointed out: "You'll only force them to find places we don't know about -- and I'd rather not be teaching whole new generations of Weasleys before I absolutely have to."

Harry -- knowing that where there's a will, teenagers would always find a way -- was hard pressed to keep a straight face. On the other hand, part of him was also a bit miffed with Severus for assuming that Ron would be so irresponsible. But grudgingly, Harry had to admit that his best friend had always liked women just fine, thank you very much, and well... Harry was quickly coming to understand that -- from the staff's perspective at least -- it was sometimes hard to view teenagers as responsible young adults when your first impression of them was formed by rowdy eleven-year-old first-years.

Eventually, the argument for leaving everything the way it was won out -- but not before Harry discovered that it was standard practice to place monitoring spells in each known rendezvous location, so that if things progressed beyond a certain level, the nearest teacher would be alerted.

Harry was inordinately glad that he hadn't known about that while he'd still been a student. It was embarrassing enough years later!

Shortly thereafter, the strange thought occurred to him that some of the other teachers at the table -- those who'd also attended Hogwarts in their youth -- had probably suffered the same embarrassing surprise prior to their first year of teaching. Interestingly, this concept momentarily made Harry feel like he really belonged there -- sitting at the table as one of them.

It also caused his lips to twitch with amusement as the image of a teenaged Minerva McGonagall smooching her sweetheart in the astronomy tower flashed before his eyes.

----oo00oo----

Hours later, it was a somewhat overwhelmed Harry Potter who bade the other Hogwarts teachers good evening, and started back towards Hogsmeade.

Looking back on the meeting, he was: 1) grateful that -- as a new teacher -- he hadn't been expected to say much; 2) astonished by the range and diversity of the things the staff had discussed; 3) pleased with the initial impression he'd made on most of the professors; 4) severely disappointed in Sev's first reaction to him; 5) determined to overcome Sev's prejudice; and 6) completely clueless about how he was going to do it.

All-in-all it had been a rather tiring day, and the things Harry had thought were important -- like his course syllabus -- had turned out to be only a drop in the ocean. Minerva had accepted the carefully-prepared syllabus -- given it a quick once over -- and then simply filed it away in her bulging set of notes with the comment: "I'll let you know if there's a problem." -- which Harry took to mean, "So long as Albus doesn't object, there won't be a problem."

By the time Harry arrived back at the Leaky Cauldron, he'd more or less decided that staff meetings were worse that mission briefings, and he was glad he would be apparating to New York tomorrow so that he could enjoy a solid bit of spell-casting on the next Stone in his contract with Gringotts.

----oo00oo----

The days passed, and Harry attended three more staff meetings at the school. He still hadn't managed to make any headway with Severus, but it wasn't as if they had much opportunity to socialise -- especially since they were planning the upcoming term right alongside every other teacher in the school. Oh sure, there was a bit of mingling before and after each meeting, but Severus was never early, and always left as soon as he could. Even so, Harry was fairly certain that Albus had begun to notice Harry's habit of 'accidentally' sitting next to the Potions Master at every meeting. The Headmaster didn't mention it -- but Harry suspected that this was only because he didn't yet know why Harry was doing it.

Severus had certainly noticed -- but after only four staff meetings, he was still attributing it to coincidence and his own bad luck.

Harry was hoping that his lack of progress in getting Sev to like him would change once he was actually living at the castle. After he moved in, there would be more opportunity for private discussions and time spent in each other's company -- especially since they were going to be the only two people residing in that out-of-the-way, quiet corridor where his rooms were being prepared.

And speaking of those rooms... Harry was pretty well convinced that Albus still hadn't told Severus about his new neighbour -- and Harry was equally convinced that Albus very probably wasn't going to tell him. In odd moments, Harry wondered whether Albus felt this was simply the best course of action for all concerned -- or whether the Headmaster thought it might be amusing to let Severus find out on his own. Quite possibly, it was a combination of both.

By and large, Albus Dumbledore was a kind, wise, and compassionate man. But over the years, he'd given Harry sufficient reason to suspect that there were some situations where his quirky sense of humour was more than a little twisted.

But whether the Potions Master knew or not, Harry was under no illusions -- it was still going to be an uphill battle convincing Severus Snape to have anything to do with him.

----oo00oo----

A day or so after he finished the last Gringotts Stone, Harry was officially notified by owl that his rooms at the castle were ready for occupation.

So, with the cheerful thought that the summer was done, and he could finally get on with things, Harry sent a quick note to the Daily Prophet re-directing his morning paper so it would be delivered to the school from now on. After that, he used a couple of size- and weight-reducing spells on everything he'd acquired, and shoved it all into his pockets. He then gave the rented room and its attached bathroom a final once over, before happily returning the key to Tom, who was serving downstairs behind the bar.

A few early-morning breakfast regulars waved him off with the words: "Don't be a stranger!" and moments later he was on his way.

----oo00oo----

A short while later, as he was walking happily up from Hogsmeade in the morning sunlight, Harry idly reflected that apparating -- while faster and more convenient -- just wasn't the same as taking that long, leisurely ride on the Hogwarts Express. The train would be leaving platform nine and three quarters the day after tomorrow, and he hoped Hermione and Ron would be all right without him.

----oo00oo----

Two days Later...

"Come on, Ron!" Hermione cried, "the train's leaving!"

"But he's not here, 'Mione -- Harry's not here!"

"I know that!" she yelled, "But you won't find him by standing on the platform while the train leaves without you! Come on!" Then she jumped off the carriage and grabbed him, physically pulling him aboard.

Seconds later the whistle blew, and the Hogwarts Express was on its way.

In the last carriage, where Ron was still looking back at the platform, Hermione laid a comforting hand on his shoulder and consoled him with the words: "Don't worry Ron -- if anyone knows where Harry is, it's Dumbledore -- and we'll be able to ask him in just a few hours."

"I know," Ron agreed, "but it's just... we didn't even notice 'Mione! We didn't even know he was gone until a month ago! How could we not notice?"

"Ron," she berated him, "we both know he always spends the first part of summer with his relatives -- then you come and rescue him, and he stays with you at the Burrow until we all meet up in Diagon Alley." In a softer voice, she added, "We both assumed his uncle was forcing him to keep Hedwig locked up. He's done it before, and if he was keeping all the other owls away like he's always threatening to do..."

"...then we couldn't have known..." Ron finished. "I know that up here," he said, pointing to his head, "but in here," the finger moved to his heart, "I still feel like I should've known!"

"...I know," Hermione quietly agreed, " -- me too."

----oo00oo----

An hour before the Hogwarts Express was due to arrive, the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher was very carefully selecting his most intimidating War Mage garb. Albus was going to introduce him to the students as soon as the sorting ceremony was finished, and he had to look as scary and dangerous as possible.

That fact was, however, that Harry wasn't feeling very scary and dangerous. Nervous and unwell was what he was feeling! He was about to go and scare the life out of a bunch of children, and somewhere deep down, he just knew that Albus wasn't going to stick to the script. The Headmaster had been way too agreeable about the plan, and while Harry firmly believed that Albus agreed with the general idea, he was almost certain the old wizard had decided to implement his own personal version of it.

After he finished dressing and checking the makeup over his scar one more time, Harry took a last, sweeping look around his new rooms. They weren't large, but they were very comfortable -- even cosy. It was still debateable whether Sev had noticed him moving in -- since Harry hadn't yet met up with the potions master in the corridor itself. In fact, for all Harry knew, Sev might have assumed he was living in the owlery! But owlerys aside, Harry felt right at home the moment he'd finished unpacking. Of course, he hadn't completely unpacked -- his 'Harry Potter' belongings were still safely hidden away in his sealed trunk. Of all the things that could identify him, the only one he'd re-enlarged had been his glasses. He'd promised himself that one day they would sit on his dresser at Hogwarts again, and even though he currently kept them locked up in the top drawer, it still pleased him to know they were there.

"Time to go!" the clock in the main room shouted.

"It's show time," Harry added in a fateful voice.

----oo00oo----

Harry waited in a shadowy corner while Minerva created some semblance of order from the excited first years. After they all disappeared through the ornate doors into the dining hall, he waited another few moments while the doors swung shut. Then he took up his own position on the spot the first-years had just vacated, in readiness for the doors to swing open a second time. That would be his signal to enter, and it would be triggered by Albus' introductory speech for the new DADA teacher.

----oo00oo----

After what seemed like an eternity -- //How many first years were there!?// -- the doors finally began to open -- but this time they were so slow and ponderous that they looked like they were underwater. It was then that Harry realised his edgy state of nervousness had unconsciously pushed him over into quick-time.

Quick-time was a bit of a misnomer, in that -- to the one experiencing it -- time actually seemed to slow down. But in reality, Harry's perceptions and thought processes had kicked over into high gear, so that everything around him only seemed slower. This heightened state of awareness wouldn't allow him to move or react any faster than he normally could, but it did permit him to make very complex decisions in almost no time at all. In dangerous situations, this gave a War Mage the advantage, because they could easily consider every angle of a situation, and still make their resulting action look like a split-second decision, or an instinctive response.

Many people -- muggles and wizard alike -- had reported the same 'slowing-of-time' an instant before disaster struck. Of course, time didn't really slow -- the viewer's internal clock simply sped up in an effort to provide that person with enough time to decide what to do. But for most people, the effect only lasted seconds.

A War Mage could hold that heightened state for up to an hour.

Watching the dining hall doors creep gradually open, Harry decided that if he was nervous enough about Albus' intentions to slip into this state, then he was probably justified in staying this way until he knew exactly what Albus had planned.

The doors finished their painfully slow journey.

With steps that felt natural, but seemed to take far longer than they should, Harry strode forwards into the dining hall.

----oo00oo----

He entered the room in slow motion, feeling the slight billowing of his battle robes as they swirled sluggishly around him. The torches on the walls went out as he passed, and the overhead candles dimmed to pinpoints. For Harry, noise and activity seemed distant as his hyper-aware mind searched for potential threats. Shadows and strange shapes danced in his wake. He took absent note of the sea of faces staring at him -- but none presented any danger -- and he could only imagine from their wide eyes and fearful looks, what kind of dark figure he currently presented.

He was clad all in black, starting with the leather boots that came up below his knees -- each with their own knife handle peeking over the tops. Then his supple soft-leather pants clung tightly up his legs, highlighting the holstered wand on his right thigh, and the revolver on his left. They, in turn, were connected to the belt full of miniature potion vials secured around his waist -- centring on the War Mage insignia stamped across the silver belt buckle. He wore a short-sleeved silk shirt above that, and it rippled and reflected dark shadows with every measured step he took. His arm guards -- with their twin knives secured on the outer sides -- ended in the sturdy leather gloves that left his fingertips exposed to the air -- and framing it all like a billowing dark wave, the open cut of his battlerobes made a shadowy backdrop upon which his silver cloak pin glowed and shimmered.

Even in quick-time, where sound was muted and blurred, Harry could tell that silence followed him as he passed up the tables to the front of the hall -- and from the stunned and apprehensive looks on the faces of the younger children, he was obviously making a powerful impression.

Just as he'd intended.

----oo00oo----

At the end of his grand entrance, when nothing untoward happened, Harry silently apologised to Albus for his suspicions, and let go of the quick-time -- dropping instantly back into ordinary perception. Suddenly, everything sped up, and he became acutely aware of every little sound caused by the breathing and shuffling of hundreds of people sitting in the same room together.

He now had a speech to make about the dangers of surprising a War Mage -- and also about the risk you ran if you tried to sneak around when he happened to be nearby. "Be it on your own head," was the message, and "you'll spend a lot of time in the hospital wing," would be the result of ignoring it.

Everybody listened very seriously, and Harry was satisfied that they all understood the gravity of the situation by the time he took his place for dinner at the teacher's table.

----oo00oo----

Harry was pleased to find that the place reserved for him on the raised dais was towards the end of the table between Madam Hooch and Severus. Hagrid was on the opposite end entirely, and -- apparently unmoved by Harry's entrance or his speech -- gave him a happy wave as Harry sat down. The Potions Master occupied the last position on their end of the table, because it was the one closest to the side door, and sometimes he liked to leave early. Harry rather thought that Albus -- having noticed Harry's tendency to sit next to Sev during staff meetings -- was unobtrusively willing to indulge him, at least until the Headmaster figured out what was going on.

If he hadn't done so already.

//And if he has,// Harry pondered, //does that mean he's giving me tacit permission to continue?// He decided it didn't really matter since he didn't need Albus' permission for this, and he wasn't going to give up regardless of what Albus thought.

He was unsuccessfully trying to draw the hostile Potions Master into a conversation -- and wishing he knew more about potion-making so he could at least talk to the man about something he enjoyed -- when the side door slammed open and a ked'rallirri leapt through it.

Ked'rallirri were both fast and deadly. They had been cross-bred millennia ago from a combination of cat, snake, and bird. Their bones were hollow like a bird's, making them very lightweight and hence, incredibly fast. They retained a few feathers, forming a crest down their skull and backbone, but were mostly covered in tough scales. Their front and back paws held poisonous, retractable talons. They were hunters through and through, and some forgotten race of elven-kin had once bred them as guard-animals -- chaining them down and using magic to control them. These days, they were nearly extinct, and very rarely seen.

None of this crossed Harry's mind as he instantly slipped into quick-time and kicked over the table in front of him. Then -- after pushing Severus to the floor and out of harm's way -- he leapt over the fallen table, drawing the hunter's attention to himself, and expertly ducking at the last minute as it went sailing overhead into the centre of the space between the high table and the rows of students.

Harry's memory was now informing him that Ked'rallirri were highly resistant to magic, and if he wanted to kill it as quickly as possible, the approved technique was to get under it and stab upwards with a spear -- letting the beast's own forward momentum push the spear through the tough scales and into its heart.

The thing made another pass at him, and he spun quickly, adding a spectacular leap over the animal's back. It twisted at the last second, trying to follow him up into the air, and by doing so, exposed its underbelly.

Still in the air, Harry let fly with three of his knives. He added a dwarven spell that the squat miners used to force their picks into the most resistant stone, and cast it onto the knives while they were still in flight.

The Ked'rallirri was fast, but not that fast. While attempting to avoid the first and second knives -- which Harry had deliberately thrown wide -- it positioned itself perfectly for the third one. The first two knives embedded themselves half-way into the stone floor, while the last one made a satisfying 'thunk' as it buried itself hilt-deep into the animal's chest -- right over the heart.

Harry landed, breathing hard, crouched beside the dead Ked'rallirri with another knife in one hand, and his wand in the other.

No other danger presented itself, and he confidently dropped out of quick-time.

Sound and motion resumed their normal flow.

There was stunned silence.

Harry blinked in surprise. He would have expected at least some panic and screaming...

"Holy shit..." came one student's hoarse whisper into the hushed hall.

Confused, and trying to catch up with the situation, Harry holstered his wand, and re-clipped the knife to his arm guard. He turned back towards the destroyed shambles that was his end of the staff table, only to see Severus still picking himself up off the floor. It was then that Harry realised the whole fight had only taken a second or two from start to finish. He had ended it before anyone had been given time to panic.

Albus arose from his position at the centre of the teacher's table, and gravely announced, "And now -- thanks to our practical demonstration -- I shall assume that you are all fully aware of how to behave around our new Dark Arts instructor." He peered gravely at the shocked student body over the top of his glasses. "Any student," he intoned, "who is thoughtless enough to ignore this demonstration will not be punished -- since the consequences of their foolishness will be taken as punishment enough."

Astonished, Harry stared at the Headmaster. He was pleased to note that the other teachers were every bit as surprised by Albus' announcement as he was.

"Good god, Albus!" Minerva exclaimed. "Don't tell me you let that thing in here just to make a point?!"

"It was a point that had to be made, Minerva," he replied seriously. But then he looked at her sadly, and added, "I am surprised, however, that you would believe me capable of actually letting a dangerous animal into the school." and then he gestured at the dead carcass on the floor. Harry turned back towards it just in time to see the 'Ked'rallirri' dissolve into a mis-matched pile of branches held together with strips of old cloth. "There was never any real danger," Albus explained.

//Oh, yes there bloody-well was,// Harry seethed.

While Madam Hooch and Severus were trying to restore their end of the table -- and their dinner -- to its pre-demonstration condition, Harry calmly and quietly walked up to Albus and said, "Headmaster -- a word in private, if you wouldn't mind..."

Albus simply nodded and preceded him out of the hall.

----oo00oo----

At the Gryffindor table, Seamus Finnigan was quietly muttering, "We're doomed -- we're all doomed..." and that seemed to be the general consensus of opinion for everyone present. Even the Slytherins looked worried -- and some of them had Death Eaters for parents!

Ron Weasley was white with shock and was telling a pale Hermione, "We... Ginny and I... we met him over the summer -- had ice creams with him, even... and we... we were just sitting there!... no warning... no thought... we... we could have been killed!"

"But I liked him!" wailed Ginny from further down the table.

Sitting across from them, Neville Longbottom was shaking and saying, "We... we're all gonna die... aren't we? I know we are... How... how am I gonna explain this to Gran? -- after I'm dead?"

It was Hermione who eventually pulled herself together long enough to put some perspective back into the conversation.

Swallowing, she said, "It... it can't possibly be as bad as it seems..."

"No -- it could be worse!" Ron interrupted. But his words only served to annoy Hermione, giving her the impetus to continue in a much firmer tone.

"Stop that, Ron!" she ordered, and then looked around the table. "Has it occurred to any of you that Dumbledore hired him? I mean, do you really think the Headmaster would let him teach here if he was really dangerous?"

"Really dangerous!?" Seamus exclaimed, "As opposed to what!? -- the monster he killed?"

"Well, it doesn't look like much of a monster anymore, does it?" Hermione demanded. And everyone unwillingly glanced at the bundle of wood that Hagrid was rather quickly removing from the hall. "In fact," Hermione continued, "if you remember what Dumbledore and Professor Ash both said, then we only have to be careful about surprising him. My guess is that he can't help it. If someone, or something, sneaks up on him, then he probably attacks before he's even realised who it is."

"Oh, well, that's makes everything just fine, doesn't it?" said Lavender Brown from three seats away. "That's perfect for people who clomp down the hallways like an elephant -- but what about those of us who don't? What if we accidentally sneak up on him? What if he's busy with something and just doesn't notice us?"

Hermione replied, "I doubt a War Mage is going to be that oblivious -- even if he was really focused on something." Several people started to object, but Hermione overrode them. "But," she finished, "if you're really so worried, then you can all do like I'm going to do -- and find something to wear that will make a noise whenever you move."

Several people blinked. "Something that makes a noise?" Seamus asked. "Like what?"

"Well," Hermione replied, "I was thinking of the bracelet my mother gave me for my last birthday -- it's in my trunk -- and it's got these tiny bells on it. I should think that would do the trick."

"Seamus and I aren't going to wear bells!" Ron's outraged voice exclaimed. Seamus himself -- along with every other male who'd been listening -- loudly agreed with him.

"Fine then," Hermione replied in a superior tone, "Just make sure you don't surprise our new Dark Arts Professor."

The boys at the table all looked at her helplessly.

After a few moments, Neville's frightened voice whispered to her, "Hermione? Do you have any spare bells?"

----oo00oo----

Meanwhile, the object of so much discussion had followed Albus Dumbledore into an unoccupied room a short distance away from the dining hall.

"What the hell did you think you were doing?!" Harry ranted at the Headmaster. "That was an incredibly stupid idea! Do you have any concept of exactly how dangerous that was!?" Albus stood calmly in front of him and let Harry get it all out of his system. Eventually, the words, "Somebody could have been killed!" seemed to make an impression -- but not the one Harry expected.

With a look of surprise -- swiftly followed by understanding -- Albus' face then settled into an intense look of compassion and sympathy, which finally undid the last of Harry's anger. The young War Mage -- now more confused than angry -- made one final demand: "Why, Albus? Tell me why did you did it! It wasn't necessary -- they already understood..."

"Not all of them," Albus replied very gently. Then he sighed. "Ash," he explained, "no matter what you might think, I did not go into that hall tonight with the intention of springing this... demonstration... on you. Please believe me when I say that I was, in fact, fervently hoping it would not be necessary at all. However, I had to be prepared."

Then he added, "While the rest of the hall was watching you, I was watching them -- and yes, a great many of them were every bit as intimidated as we might have wished. But some of them... Ash, there were one or two who were obviously thinking it might be a challenge to surprise you -- and others who -- while sufficiently awed -- didn't seem to make the connection that your skills might be dangerous to them." And at this, Harry remembered Hagrid's attitude -- as if Harry's scary War-Mage routine was very impressive, but not relevant to him. "And then," Albus concluded, "there were one or two of our more cynical students who were simply not the slightest bit impressed by our theatrics."

"Some of the Slytherin kids," Harry guessed.

"And one or two Ravenclaws," Albus nodded. "They tend to be very analytical, you know -- and it wouldn't surprise me if several of them knew what we were trying to do the moment you walked into the hall."

Harry saw Albus' point, and even understood that -- for the demonstration to work properly -- Albus could not have told him about it in advance.

Then he remembered: "You didn't even tell the other teachers!"

"No," the Headmaster agreed. "But they have known you for over a month now, and you've done an excellent job of charming them into the palm of your hand. I dare say they will recover from the shock quite rapidly, and will soon relegate it to the appropriate level of importance."

Harry groaned. "And in the meantime," he whined, "they're going to think I'm worse than Mad-Eye Moody!"

Albus quirked an eyebrow at him. "You know Alastor?" he asked in surprise.

"By reputation only," came Harry's sardonic reply -- which was true since the infamously paranoid Auror had been kidnapped before he'd managed to teach even a single class at Hogwarts.

"Ah," Albus commented. After a moment, he added, "For what it's worth, Ash, I apologise for the necessity of my actions. I hope you understand that I would never do such a thing unless I felt I had no choice."

"No, I do understand, Albus. The apology is unnecessary." Then Harry straightened up and said, "We should probably be getting back -- or they'll all think I really have killed you."

"In a moment," Albus replied, "but first, I think we should talk about why you were so upset with my actions."

Harry just looked at him. "You're kidding, right? You have to be kidding me."

"Not at all," Albus replied mildly. "Naturally, I expected you to be unhappy with me -- but your reaction was far more extreme than I would have anticipated."

Harry knew Albus was trying to make some point or other about his behaviour, but the younger man was still too unsettled to be playing mental games with the canny old wizard in front of him. "Look, Albus," he replied, "if you have something to say -- say it. At the moment, I'm not in any condition to try figuring it out for myself."

Albus looked at him very carefully. "I think," he began, "that you were just as frightened by my 'trick' as the students."

Harry frowned. "Well, of course I was!" he asserted. "Albus, it was dangerous -- someone could have been hurt!"

"Actually, you said 'Somebody could have been killed'."

"So?" Harry retorted, "It's true."

"Is it?" Albus asked. "Is it really?" Harry knew he must have looked quite confused at this point. "Ash," Albus continued, "was there ever a moment when you didn't know what you were doing? Could those knives of yours really have hit a student by accident? It seems to me that the first thing you did was get Professor Snape out of harm's way, and then you presented yourself as the next target. Even in my office, during your interview -- you never hurt me, and I took you by complete surprise then as well."

Astonished, Harry thought about it. Had anyone really been in danger? He knew there'd been a chance that the fake Ked'rallirri could have knocked one of his knives off course -- but by then the knife would have lost much of its momentum, and was likely to be tumbling uncontrollably. It would have been incredibly bad luck for a student to suffer a wound that Poppy could not heal up in seconds. The Ked'rallirri itself had never been a real threat -- Albus wouldn't have let his pretend-monster actually hurt anyone. //So why was I so angry?// he wondered.

Finally, Harry admitted, "I was frightened -- but I don't know why."

"I believe you were frightened of yourself," Albus answered. "-- frightened by how dangerous you can be when you must -- and frightened by the very skills you have acquired as a War Mage."

Harry blinked. //Frightened of myself?"// It was a strange thought, yet, it felt like the right answer.

"You must overcome this fear," Albus admonished him, "for while it is prudent to be careful around others, being fearful will only serve to isolate you, and perhaps even bring about the very thing you are afraid of."

Harry considered it. There was something in Albus' words, and he would have to think carefully about it at a later time. "I'll work on it," he agreed, but for now, there was just one more thing he really wanted to hear: "But promise me, Albus, that you won't do this again!"

Gravely, Albus replied, "I swear that I will not do it again during this school year." Then sadly, he added, "You know I cannot promise you more than that. If you remain a teacher here the year after -- well, the new first-years..."

"I can live with that," Harry nodded.

"Will you be returning to the dining hall with me?" Albus asked.

Wryly, Harry replied, "I may have to scrape my dinner off the floor, but I'm damned if I'm going to bed without supper at my age!"

"You!?" Albus laughed, "What about me? I'll be lucky if Severus hasn't stolen mine in recompense for the loss of his!"

Harry laughed -- that would be a very Snapish thing for the potions master to do -- and it was with some cheer that they both returned to the dining hall.

----oo00oo----

As it turned out, Severus hadn't stolen Albus' dinner -- the house elves had supplied replacement meals, and helped to clean away the mess.

There was a certain amount of relief that rippled through the students when -- unharmed -- their Headmaster resumed his seat at the High Table, and although Madam Hooch was obviously having a bit of trouble with her perceptions of him, she gamely attempted to involve Harry in conversation. That, of course, went down very well as soon as one of them mentioned brooms. But it did nothing for Severus, who ate his meal in silence and refused to be drawn in.

Once they'd finished eating, the older man finally responded to Harry's attempts at communication with the words, "War Mage -- the next time you feel compelled to knock me over and throw my dinner on the floor, I would greatly appreciate it if you would try to restrain yourself."

"Fine," Harry muttered, "Next time I'll just throw you in front of the attacking monster."

Madam Hooch covered a laugh with polite coughing noises.

----oo00oo----

At the end of the meal, Albus rose to make his annual announcements and warnings. There was the usual bit about the Forbidden Forest, and not using magic in the corridors, but when the Headmaster announced the Quidditch trials in the second week of term, the Gryffindors -- who had all noticed Harry's absence by now -- were starting to look more than a little worried.

It was then that Dumbledore dropped a small bombshell on everybody...

"And for my final announcement -- before we all retire to our beds -- I would like to reassure those of you who are concerned over the whereabouts of young Mr Potter." At the Gryffindor table, Ron and Hermione were suddenly riveted by the Headmaster's words. "You may rest easy in the knowledge that he is both safe and well, however it is my sad duty to inform you that he will not be attending Hogwarts with the rest of us this year." There was general muttering around the hall as students started speculating wildly about what had happened to 'The Boy Who Lived'.

A few accusations were levelled at the Slytherin table, but when Ron looked over, he managed to catch Draco Malfoy in an unguarded moment, and could tell that Harry's pale-haired nemesis had no more clue about what was going on than anybody else. Then Draco caught him staring, and the confusion transformed itself into a smirk.

"We're going to pound you Gryffindorks right into the Quidditch pitch!" he called out.

The Gryffindor table groaned as they realised that the best seeker they'd had in a century wasn't going to be on the team this year -- and that on top of the fact that their best beaters -- Fred and George Weasley -- had graduated last year!

Harry watched Severus out of the corner of his eyes and saw a twitch of amusement at the corner of Sev's mouth. //Oh, really?// he thought -- his own lips twitching in similar amusement. //We'll just have to see about that, won't we?//

"That will be quite enough of that," Professor McGonagall announced as she surged to her feet next to Albus. "Quidditch is a team sport," and she glared at the Slytherin table, "and the loss of one or two players only allows new talent to be added to the game." All the Gryffindors perked up at this, and looked hopefully at the new first-years -- who looked nervously back.

"Just so," Albus agreed while Minerva resumed her seat. "and I would also like to remind everyone here that good sportsmanship is a quality that is essential for anyone who wishes to play for our school teams." Then he looked pointedly at the Slytherin table and ominouusly added, "-- for any of our school teams."

Draco did not look the least bit repentant for the 'Gryffindork' comment.

----oo00oo----

Shortly thereafter, Albus led them in the Hogwarts school song, while Harry pretended he didn't know the words.

Then the students finally left for their respective dormitories, leaving the teachers to chat amongst themselves and retire to their own beds.

The main topic of conversation was probably the same for both students and teachers alike -- where was Harry Potter?

"Albus," Minerva began, "what do you mean when you say Mr Potter is safe and unharmed? Why isn't he attending school this year?"

The other teachers were similarly concerned.

With You-Know-Who so active, they were all worried over the whereabouts of the young man who had defeated him the last time.

Harry himself, was somewhat resentful about their attitude, since nobody had asked him whether he was willing to go up against a powerful madman just so they could sleep better at night. In fact, he'd always found the wizarding world's expectations more than a little insulting -- as if his life was somehow less important than everybody else's.

However, at least a few of the teachers present seemed to be genuinely concerned, and Harry was gratified to note that for all Sev's supposed dislike and cynicism, the Potions Master seemed to be among those who were actually worried about him.

Albus reassured everybody that yes, he was absolutely certain that this was for the best, and no, he couldn't tell them anything more. Yes, he did have a method of ascertaining that Harry was all right, and no, he wasn't going to tell them what that was either.

Hagrid remained silent throughout all this, and disappeared off home before all the questions ran out. Harry himself left when Severus did, silently apologising to Albus for abandoning him to his worried faculty.

----oo00oo----

A few minutes later, Harry found himself walking tiredly along behind Severus, hoping that the initial furore over his disappearance would not descend upon the school for at least one more day. It was going to be tough enough teaching his first classes tomorrow without all the song and dance that a media frenzy would generate. Today had been hard enough!

As they both turned into the isolated corridor that housed their respective quarters, Harry had to sternly remind himself not to let his old habits walk him directly into Sev's quarters by mistake.

Then, tired as he was, he barely missed running into the back of the other man's robes when the potions master abruptly stopped and turned to face him. The expression on Sev's face said that he'd only just realised he was being followed.

"And where," an irritated Severus demanded, "do you think you're going?"

----oo00oo----