Chapter 78: Taboo Tradeoffs Prelude: Cheating

It was Saturday, on the 4th of April, in the year 1992.

Mr. and Mrs. Davis looked rather nervous, as they sat in a certain special section of the Hogwarts Quidditch stands - though today the cushioned benches did not look upon flying broomsticks, but rather viewed a gigantic square of something like parchment; a great white blankness soon to flicker with windows into grass and soldiers. For now it showed only the reflected dull gray color of the surrounding overcast skies. (Looking rather stormy, though the weather-wizards had promised that the rain wouldn't break before nightfall.)

Ordinarily it was the ancient tradition of Hogwarts that mere parents were to Stay Out - for much the same reason that impatient children are told to get out of the kitchen and not meddle in the cook's affairs. The only reason for a parent-teacher conference was if a teacher felt that a parent wasn't shaping up properly. It took an exceptional circumstance to make the Hogwarts administration feel that it had to justify itself to you. On any given occasion, generally speaking, the Hogwarts administration was backed up by eight hundred years of distinguished history and you were not.

Thus it had been with some trepidation that Mr. and Mrs. Davis had insisted on an audience with Deputy Headmistress McGonagall. It was hard to muster a proper sense of indignation when you were confronting the same dignified witch who, twelve years and four months earlier, had given both of you two weeks' detention after catching you in the act of conceiving Tracey.

On the other hand, Mr. and Mrs. Davis's courage had been helped by angrily waving about a copy of The Quibbler whose headline showed, in bright bold text for all the world to see:


And so Mr. and Mrs. Davis had argued their way into the Faculty Box of the Hogwarts Quidditch stands, where they were now ensconced with an excellent view of Professor Quirrell's enchanted screens, so that the two of them could see for themselves "Just what the Fiddly-Snocks has been going on in this school, if you'll pardon the expression, Deputy Headmistress McGonagall!"

Seated to the left of Mr. Davis was another concerned parent, a white-haired man in elegant black robes of unmatchable quality, one Lucius Malfoy, political leader of the strongest faction of the Wizengamot.

To the left of Lord Malfoy, a sneeringly aristocratic man with a scarred face who had been introduced to them as Lord Jugson.

Then an elderly but sharp-eyed fellow named Charles Nott, rumored to be nearly as wealthy as Lord Malfoy, seated on Lord Jugson's left.

On the right of Mrs. Davis, one would find the comely Lady and yet handsomer Lord of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Greengrass. Young they were as wizards counted age, garbed in grey silken robes set with tiny dark emeralds embroidered into the shape of grass blades. The Lady Greengrass was considered a key swing vote on the Wizengamot, her own mother having retired from the body with surprising speed. Her charming husband, though his family was not noble or wealthy of itself, had taken a seat on the Hogwarts Board of Governors.

To their right, a square-jawed and incredibly tough-looking old witch, who had shaken hands with Mr. and Mrs. Davis without the slightest hint of condescension. This was Amelia Bones, Director of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.

To Amelia's right was a seniorish woman who had set the fashion scene of magical Britain on its ear by integrating a live vulture into her hat, one Augusta Longbottom. Though she was not addressed as Lady, Madam Longbottom would exercise the full rights of the Longbottom family for so long as their last scion had yet to attain his majority, and she was considered a prominent figure in a minority faction of the Wizengamot.

At the side of Madam Longbottom was seated none other than Chief Warlock Supreme Mugwump Headmaster Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, legendary defeater of Grindelwald, protector of Britain, rediscoverer of the fabled twelve uses of dragon's blood, the most powerful wizard in the world &c.

And finally, on the far right, one would find the enigmatic Defense Professor of Hogwarts, Quirinus Quirrell, who was leaning back on the cushioned benches as though resting; seeming entirely and naturally at ease in the rarefied company of a voting quorum of the Hogwarts Board of Governors, which had dropped by on this fine Saturday to learn just what the Fiddly-Snocks had been going on at Hogwarts in general and with Draco Malfoy, Theodore Nott, Daphne Greengrass, Susan Bones, and Neville Longbottom in particular. The name of Harry Potter had also been much discussed.

Oh, and one mustn't forget Tracey Davis, of course. Director Bones's eyebrows had climbed in some interest upon hearing the young couple introduced as her parents. Lord Jugson had given them a brief, incredulous stare before dismissing them with a snort. Lucius Malfoy had greeted them politely, his smile containing a hint of grim amusement mixed with pity.

Mr. and Mrs. Davis, whose last vote on anything of significance had been touching their wands to the name of Minister Fudge, who had all of three hundred Galleons stored in their Gringotts vault, and who respectively worked at selling cauldrons in a Potions shop and enchanting Omnioculars, were pressed up tightly against each other, sitting rigidly erect upon their cushioned benches, and desperately wishing they'd worn nicer robes.

The sky above was a solid mass of cloud dispersed into darker and lighter grays, grim with the promise of future storms; though no lightning flickered as yet, nor distant rumbles of thunder echoed; and only a few threatening droplets had fallen.

To their designated starting place in a certain forest, the Sunshine Regiment marched, though it was really more like a slow walk; you wouldn't want to tire yourself out before the battle even started, and the breezes of April were annoyingly humid, though cool. Ahead of them, a yellow flame wandered slowly through the air, guiding them according to their pace.

Susan Bones kept throwing worried glances toward the Sunshine General as they marched through the grayly illuminated forest. Professor Snape's going after Hermione seemed to have really shaken her. Hermione had even missed her Sunshine Regiment Official Planning Meeting, which seemed understandable enough; but when Susan had offered her sympathy afterward, Hermione had stammered that she'd lost track of time, which wasn't at all a usual thing for her to say, and the girl had looked exhausted and frightened like she'd just spent three days locked in a bathroom stall with a Dementor. Even now, when all the Sunshine General's focus should've been on the coming battle, the Ravenclaw girl's gaze was constantly darting in all directions, as though she expected Dark Wizards to jump out of the bushes and sacrifice her.

"The ban on Muggle artifacts cuts down our options a lot," Anthony Goldstein was saying in the dour tones the boy used to denote deliberate pessimism. "I had the idea of trying to Transfigure nets to throw on people, but -"

"No good," said Ernie Macmillan. The Hufflepuff boy shook his head, looking even more serious than Anthony. "I mean, it's just like throwing a hex, they'd dodge."

Anthony nodded. "That's what I figured, too. Do you have any ideas, Seamus?"

The former Chaotic Lieutenant still looked a bit nervous and out-of-place, marching along with his new comrades in the Sunshine Regiment. "Sorry," said the newly minted Captain Finnigan. "I'm more the strategic master type."

"I'm the strategic master type," said Ron Weasley, sounding put-off.

"There are three armies," the Sunshine General said acerbically, "which means we fight two armies at once, which means we need more than one strategist, which means shut up, Ron!"

Ron gave their General a surprised and worried look. "Hey," the Gryffindor boy said in a calming tone, "you shouldn't let Snape get to you so much -"

"What do you think we ought to do, General?" Susan said very loudly and quickly. "I mean, we don't really have a plan at this point." Their official planning session had failed amazingly with Hermione gone and both Ron and Anthony thinking they were in charge.

"Do we really need a plan?" the Sunshine General said, sounding a little distracted. "We've got you and me and Lavender and Parvati and Hannah and Daphne and Ron and Ernie and Anthony and Captain Finnigan."

"That -" began Anthony.

"Sounds like a pretty good strategy," Ron said with an approving nod. "We've got as many strong soldiers now as both other armies put together. Chaos's only got Potter and Longbottom and Nott left - well, and Zabini too, I suppose -"

"And Tracey," said Hermione.

Several people swallowed nervously.

"Oh, stop it," Susan said sharply. "She's just a battle-hardened member of S.P.H.E.W., that's all General Sunshine means."

"Still," Ernie said, turning to look seriously at Susan, "I think you'd better go with whatever group fights Chaos, Captain Bones. I know you can't use your double magical powers except when innocents are in danger, but I mean - just in case Miss Davis does, you know, go out of control and try to eat someone's soul -"

"I can handle her," Susan told him, keeping her voice reassuring. Admittedly, Susan hadn't been replaced by a Metamorphmagus at the moment, but then Tracey probably wasn't Polyjuiced Dumbledore or whoever.

Captain Finnigan intoned in a deep, sort-of-rumbling voice, "I find your lack of skepticism disturbing." He raised his hand with his thumb and forefinger almost touching, pointed at Ernie.

For some reason Anthony Goldstein seemed to be having a sudden choking fit. "What's that supposed to mean?" said Ernie.

"It's just something General Potter says sometimes," said Captain Finnigan. "Funny, when you first join the Chaos Legion it all seems crazy, and then after a couple of months you realize that actually everyone who isn't in the Chaos Legion is crazy -"

"I said," Ron said loudly, "it sounds like good strategy. We don't Transfigure anything, we don't tire ourselves out, we handle whatever they throw at us, and then we just overrun them."

"Okay," said Hermione. "Let's do that."

"But -" said Anthony, shooting a glare at Ron. "But General, Harry Potter's got sixteen people left in his army. Dragon and us each have twenty-eight. Harry knows that, he knows he's got to come up with something incredible -"

"Like what?" demanded Hermione, sounding stressed. "If we don't know what he's planning, we might as well save our magic for doing massed Finites. Like we should've done last time!"

Susan touched Hermione gently on the shoulder. "General Granger?" said Susan. "I think you should take a break for a bit before the battle."

She'd been expecting Hermione to argue, but Hermione just nodded and then walked a little faster, pulling away from the Sunshine Regiment Official Officer Group, her eyes still watching the forest, and sometimes the sky.

Susan followed her. It wouldn't do, having it look like the Sunshine General was being ejected from her own Official Officer Group.

"Hermione?" Susan said softly, after they'd walked a bit away. "You've got to focus. Professor Quirrell's in charge here, not Snape, and he won't let anything bad happen to you or anyone."

"You're not helping," Hermione said, sounding shaky. "You're not helping at all, Captain Bones."

The two of them walked faster, circling around some of the other soldiers, inspecting the marching perimeter and glancing at the surrounding trees.

"Susan?" Hermione said in a small voice, when they'd gotten further away from all the others. "Do you think Daphne's right about Draco Malfoy plotting something?"

"Yes," Susan said at once, not even thinking about it. "You can tell, because his name's got the letters M-A-L-F-O and Y in it."

Hermione looked around, as if to make sure that nobody was watching, although of course that was a wonderful way to get other people to pay attention to you. "Could Malfoy have been behind what Snape did?"

"Snape could be behind Malfoy," Susan said thoughtfully, remembering dinner-table conversations she'd heard at Auntie's, "or Lucius Malfoy could be behind both of them." A slight chill went down Susan's spine as this last thought occurred to her. Suddenly, telling Hermione to just focus on the coming battle seemed a lot less reasonable. "Why, did you find some sort of clue about that?"

Hermione shook her head. "No," the Ravenclaw girl said, in a voice that sounded almost like she was about to cry. "I was - just thinking about it myself - that's all."

In their designated place in a forest near Hogwarts, the Dragon General and the warriors of Dragon Army waited where their red flame had led them, beneath grey skies.

At Draco's right side stood Padma Patil, his second-in-command, who had once led all of Dragon Army after Draco had been stunned. At Draco's back was Vincent, the son of Crabbe, a family which had served the Malfoys into the distance of forgotten memory; the muscular boy was watchful as he was always watchful, whether battle had been declared or no. Further back, Gregory of the Goyles stood waiting beside one of the two broomsticks Dragon Army had been given; if the Goyles had not served the Malfoys so long as the Crabbes, yet they had served no less well.

And at Draco's left side, now, stood one Dean Thomas of Gryffindor, a mudblood or possible half-blood who knew nothing of his father.

Sending Dean Thomas to Dragon Army had been a quite deliberate move on Harry's part, Draco was certain. Three other former Chaotics had also been transferred to Dragon Army, and all were watching Draco hawklike to see if he offered the former Lieutenant the slightest insult.

Some might have called it sabotage, but Draco knew better. Harry had also sent Lieutenant Finnigan to the Sunshine Regiment, even though Professor Quirrell's mandate had only required that Harry give up one Lieutenant. That too had been a deliberate move, making crystal clear to everyone that Harry wasn't dumping his least-favored soldiers.

In one sense, it might have been easier for Draco to win the true loyalties of his new soldiers if they'd thought Harry hadn't wanted them. In another sense... well, it wasn't easy to put into words. Harry had given him good soldiers with their pride intact, but it was more than that. Harry had showed kindliness toward his soldiers, but it was more than that. It wasn't just Harry playing fair, it was something that... that you couldn't help but contrast with the way the game was played in Slytherin House.

So Draco hadn't offered the slightest insult to Mr. Thomas, but brought him straight to his side, subordinate to himself and Padma but no one else. It was a test, Draco had told Mr. Thomas and everyone, not a promotion. Mr. Thomas would have to show himself worthy of rank within Dragon Army - but he would be given a chance, and the chance would be fair. Mr. Thomas had looked surprised at the ceremony of it (the Chaos Legion, from what Draco had heard, didn't stand on formality) but the Gryffindor boy had stood a little straighter, and nodded.

And then, after Mr. Thomas had done well enough in one of Dragon Army's training sessions, he'd been brought into the strategy session in Dragon Army's huge military office. And a few minutes into the session, Padma had happened to ask - as though it was a perfectly normal question - whether Mr. Thomas had any ideas about how to defeat the Chaos Legion.

The Gryffindor boy had said cheerfully that Harry had predicted that General Malfoy would get one of his soldiers to ask him that, and that Harry had given him the message that General Malfoy should ask himself where his relative advantage lay - what Draco Malfoy could do, or what Dragon Army could do, that the Chaos Legion couldn't match - and then try to exploit it for all it was worth. Dean Thomas couldn't think of what that advantage might be, but if he did come up with any ideas for beating Chaos, he'd share them. Harry had ordered him to, after all.

Sigh, Draco had thought, since he couldn't actually sigh out loud. But it was good advice, and Draco had followed it, sitting at his bedroom desk with quill and parchment listing out everything that might be a relative advantage.

And, almost to Draco's own surprise, he'd had an idea, a real one. In fact he'd had two.

The hollow bell sounded through the forest, somehow sounding more ominous than ever before. On the instant, the two pilots cried "Up! " and leapt onto their broomsticks, heading into the gray sky.

Mr. and Mrs. Davis had now slumped slightly against each other, more from sheer muscle exhaustion than from any decrease of tension. Before them, the vast blank white parchment flickered with three great windows, as though holes had been cut through into the forest, showing three armies on the march. Lesser windows showed the six riders upon their broomsticks, and the corner of the parchment showed a view of the entire forest, with glowing dots to indicate armies and scouts.

The window into Sunshine showed General Granger and her Captains marching in the center of the Sunshine Regiment, protected by Contego screens along with a number of other young witches. The Sunshine Regiment, the Defense Professor had remarked, knew well that it had now acquired a strong advantage in experienced soldiers, and it meant to protect those soldiers from a surprise attack. Aside from that, the Sunshine Soldiers were moving forward at a steady march, conserving their strength.

The soldiers in General Malfoy's army, at least those with higher Transfiguration scores, were picking up leaves and Transfiguring them into... well, if you looked at Padma Patil, who was almost done with hers, it looked like her leaf was becoming a left-handed glove bearing a dangling strap. (The window had zoomed in to show this.)

Lord Jugson was watching the screen with a flat expression; his voice, when he spoke, seemed to ooze and drip with disdain. "What is your son doing, Lucius?"

The foreign-born witch who stood at Draco Malfoy's right side had finished Transfiguring her glove, and was now bringing it before the Dragon General like a sacrifice.

"I do not know," said Lucius Malfoy, his tone calm though no less aristocratic, "but I must trust that he has good reason for doing it."

All Dragon Army stopped for a moment as Padma slid the glove over her left hand, strapped it in place, and presented it before Draco Malfoy; who also stopped in place, took several deep breaths, raised his wand, executed a precise set of eight movements and bellowed "Colloportus! "

The Dragon Warrior raised her gloved hand, flexed it, and gave a small bow to Draco Malfoy, who returned it more shallowly, though the Dragon General was staggering slightly. Padma then returned to her place at Draco's side, and the Dragons began marching once more.

"Well," remarked Augusta Longbottom. "I don't suppose someone would care to explain?" Amelia Bones was frowning slightly as she gazed at the screen.

"For some reason or other," said the amused voice of Professor Quirrell, "it seems that the scion of Malfoy is able to cast surprisingly strong magic for a first-year student. Due to the purity of his blood, of course. Certainly the good Lord Malfoy would not have openly flouted the underage magic laws by arranging for his son to receive a wand before his acceptance into Hogwarts."

"I suggest you be careful in your implications, Quirrell," Lucius Malfoy said coldly.

"Oh, I am," Professor Quirrell said. "A Colloportus cannot be dispelled by Finite Incantatem; it requires an Alohomora of equal strength. Until then, a glove so Charmed will resist lesser material forces, deflect the Sleep Hex and the Stunning Hex. And as neither Mr. Potter nor Miss Granger can cast a counterspell powerful enough, that Charm is invincible upon this battlefield. It is not the original intent of the Charm, nor the intent of whoever taught Mr. Malfoy an emergency spell for evading his enemies. But it would seem that Mr. Malfoy has been learning creativity."

Lucius Malfoy had straightened as the Defense Professor spoke; he now sat erect upon his cushioned bench, his head held perceptibly higher than before, and when he spoke it was with quiet pride. "He will be the greatest Lord Malfoy that has yet lived."

"Faint praise," Augusta Longbottom said under her breath; Amelia Bones chuckled, as did Mr. Davis for a tiny, fatal fraction of a second before he stopped with a strangled gargle.

"I quite agree," said Professor Quirrell, though it wasn't clear to whom he spoke. "Unfortunately for Mr. Malfoy, he is still new to the art of creativity, and so he has committed a classic error of Ravenclaw."

"And what might that be?" said Lucius Malfoy, his voice now turned chill once more.

Professor Quirrell had leaned back in his seat, the pale blue eyes briefly unfocusing as one of the windows shifted its viewpoint within the greater screen, zooming in to show the sweat now on Draco Malfoy's forehead. "It is such a beautiful idea that Mr. Malfoy has quite overlooked its pragmatic difficulties."

"Would someone care to explain that?" said Lady Greengrass. "Not all of us present are experts at such... affairs."

Amelia Bones spoke, the old witch's voice somewhat dry. "It will tempt them to try to catch hexes that they would be wiser to simply dodge. The more so, if they have had little practice catching them. And the casting of so many Charms will tire their strongest warrior."

Professor Quirrell gave the DMLE Director a half-nod of acknowledgment. "As you say, Madam Bones. Mr. Malfoy is new to the business of having ideas, and so when he has one, he becomes proud of himself for having it. He has not yet had enough ideas to unflinchingly discard those that are beautiful in some aspects and impractical in others; he has not yet acquired confidence in his own ability to think of better ideas as he requires them. What we are seeing here is not Mr. Malfoy's best idea, I fear, but rather his only idea."

Lord Malfoy simply turned to watch the screens again, as though the Defense Professor had used up his right to exist.

"But -" said Lord Greengrass. "But what in Merlin's name is Harry Potter -"

Sixteen remaining soldiers of the Chaos Legion - or fifteen plus Blaise Zabini, rather - marched confidently through the forest, their shoes thudding over the still-dry ground. Their camouflage uniforms blended into the forest even more than usual, all colors washed out by the tints of an overcast day.

Sixteen Chaos Legionnaires, against twenty-eight Dragon Warriors and twenty-eight Sunshine Soldiers.

The common consensus had been that, with odds that bad, it was practically impossible for them to lose. After all, General Chaos was bound to come up with something really spectacular, facing odds like that.

There was something almost nightmarish about how everyone seemed to now expect Harry to pull miracles out of his hat, on demand, any time one was needed. It meant that if you couldn't do the impossible, you were disappointing your friends and failing to live up to your potential...

Harry hadn't bothered complaining to Professor Quirrell about 'too much pressure'. Harry's mental model of the Defense Professor had predicted him looking severely annoyed, saying things along the lines of You are perfectly capable of solving this problem, Mr. Potter; did you even try? and then deducting several hundred Quirrell points.

From above, from where two broomsticks watched their march, the high young voice of Tess Walsh cried "Friend!" and after another moment, "Gingersnap!"

A handful of seconds later, the soldier who'd code-named herself Gingersnap returned bearing a double handful of acorns, sweating slightly in the cool but humid air from the jog that had taken her to the oak tree Neville had spotted. Gingersnap approached to where Shannon was holding a uniform-shirt with the neck tied off, in lieu of anyone having to Transfigure a bag. When Gingersnap brought her hands forward to try and dump her acorns into the holding-shirt, Chaotic Shannon, giggling, jerked the shirt to the right, then to the left again as Gingersnap made another effort to dump the acorns, until a sharp "Miss Friedman!" from Lieutenant Nott caused Shannon to sigh and hold the shirt still. Gingersnap dumped her acorns into those accumulated, and then headed out for more.

Somewhere in the background, Ellie Knight was singing her very own version of the Chaos Legion's marching song, and around half the other soldiers were trying to step along with it despite not knowing the tune in advance. Nearby, Nita Berdine, who had a high Transfiguration score, finished creating yet another pair of green sunglasses, and handed them to Adam Beringer, who folded up the sunglasses before tucking them into his uniform pocket. Other soldiers were already wearing their own green sunglasses, despite the cloudy day.

You might guess that there was some sort of incredibly complicated and fascinating explanation behind this, and you would be right.

Two days earlier Harry had been sitting amid his bookcases in the comfy rocking-chair he'd obtained for his trunk's cavern level, pondering silently in the quiet span between classes and dinnertime, thinking about power.

For sixteen Chaotics to defeat twenty-eight Sunnies and twenty-eight Dragons they would need a force amplifier. There were limits to what you could do with maneuver. There had to be a secret weapon and it had to be invincible, or at least moderately unstoppable.

Muggle artifacts were now illegal in Hogwarts's mock battles, banned by Ministry edict. And the trouble with finding some other clever and unusual spell was that an army twice your own size could brute-force Finite almost anything you tried. The Sunshine Regiment might have missed that tactic with the Transfigured chainmail, but nobody would miss it again now that Professor Quirrell had pointed it out. And Finite Incantatem was a brute-force counterspell which required at least as much magic as the spell being canceled... which, if you were severely outnumbered, made it a whole new order of military challenge. The enemy could Finite anything you tried, and still have enough magic left over for shields and volleys of Sleep Hexes.

Unless, somehow, you could invoke potencies beyond the ordinary strength of first-year Hogwarts students, something too powerful for the enemy to Finite.

So Harry had asked Neville if he'd ever heard of any small, safe sacrificial rituals -

And then, after the screaming and the shouting had subsided, after Harry had stopped trying to argue about Unbreakable Vows and just given up the whole thing as impossible from a public relations standpoint, Harry had realized that he hadn't even needed to go there. They taught you how to invoke potencies far beyond your own strength in ordinary Hogwarts classes.

Sometimes, even though you were looking straight at something, you didn't realize what you were looking at until you happened to ask exactly the right question.

Defense. Charms. Transfiguration. Potions. History of Magic. Astronomy. Broomstick Flying. Herbology...

"Foe! " screamed the voice from above.

It was a good thing that Neville Longbottom hadn't the tiniest idea that his grandmother was watching; or he would've been more self-conscious about screaming scary battlecries at the top of his lungs while casting Luminos every three seconds as he rocketed through a dense forest of trees, hot on the tail of Gregory Goyle.

("But -" Augusta Longbottom said, her expression showing almost as much astonishment as worry. "But Neville is afraid of heights!")

("Not all fears last," said Amelia Bones. The old witch was favoring the great screen before them with a measuring gaze. "Or perhaps he has found courage. It is much the same, in the end.")

A glimmer of red -

Neville dodged, very nearly into a tree but he did dodge; and then Neville somehow also managed to dodge almost all of the branches before they smacked him in the face.

Now Mr. Goyle's broomstick was pulling further and further away - even though the two of them were riding exactly the same broomstick and Mr. Goyle weighed more, somehow Neville was still falling behind. So Neville slowed down, pulled back, angled up out of the forest and began to accelerate back toward where the Chaos Legion still marched.

Twenty seconds later - it hadn't been a long chase, just an exciting one - Neville was back among his fellow Chaotics, and dismounted his broom to walk on the ground for a little bit.

"Neville -" said General Potter. Harry's voice was a little distant, as he walked carefully and steadily through the forest, his wand still applied to the almost-finished Form of the object he was slowly Transfiguring. Beside him, Blaise Zabini, working a smaller version of the same Transfiguration, looked like a shambling Inferi as he stumbled forward. "I told you - Neville - you don't have to -"

"Yes, I do," said Neville. He looked down at where his fingers grasped the broomstick, and saw that not just his hands, but his whole arms were shaking. But unless anyone else in Chaos had been practicing dueling for an hour a day with Mr. Diggory, and then practicing their aim in private for another hour afterward, Neville was probably the best shot from a broomstick even after taking into account that he wasn't a very good flyer.

"Good show, Neville," Theodore said from where he was walking ahead of them all, leading the Chaos Legion forward through the forest while wearing only his undershirt.

(Augusta Longbottom and Charles Nott exchanged brief astonished glances and then wrenched their gazes away from one another as though stung.)

Neville took a few deep breaths, trying to steady his hands, trying to think; Harry might not be good for deep strategic thinking while he was in the middle of an extended Transfiguration. "Lieutenant Nott, do you have any idea why Dragon Army just did that? They lost a broom -" The Dragons had started the combat with a feint to provide a distraction for Mr. Goyle's approach through the forest; Neville hadn't realized there were two brooms attacking until almost too late. But the Chaos Legion had gotten the other pilot. That was why broomsticks usually didn't attack before armies met, it meant a whole army would concentrate fire on the broomstick. "And the Dragons didn't even get anyone, did they?"

"Nope!" Tracey Davis said proudly. She too was now marching by General Potter's side, her wand gripped low and watchful as her eyes scanned the surrounding forest. "I threw up a Prismatic Sphere like a split second before Mr. Goyle's hex got Zabini, and the way Mr. Goyle had his other arm stretched out I think he planned to knock down the General, too." The Slytherin witch smiled with vicious confidence. "Mr. Goyle tried a Breaking Drill Hex, but learned to his dismay that his weak magic was no match for my newfound dark powers, hahahaha!"

Some Chaotics laughed with her, but a queasy sensation was starting in Neville's stomach as he realized how close the Chaos Legion had come to complete disaster. If Mr. Goyle had managed to disrupt both Transfigurations -

"Report!" snapped the Dragon General, doing his best to conceal the fatigue he felt after casting seventeen Locking Charms, with more yet to come.

Beads of sweat now dotted Gregory's forehead. "The enemy got Dylan Vaughan," Gregory said formally. "Harry Potter and Blaise Zabini were each Transfiguring something dark-grey and roundish, I don't think it was finished but it looked like it would be big and hollow, sort of cauldron-shaped. Zabini's was smaller than Potter's. I couldn't get either of them or disrupt their Transfigurations, Tracey Davis blocked me. Neville Longbottom is on a broomstick and he's still a terrible flyer but his aim is really good."

Draco listened, frowning, and then he glanced at Padma and Dean Thomas, who both shook their own heads, indicating that they also couldn't think of what might be big and grey and shaped like a cauldron.

"Anything else?" said Draco. If that was it, they'd lost a broom for nothing -

"The only other weird thing I saw," Gregory said, sounding puzzled, "was that some Chaotics were wearing... sort of like goggles?"

Draco thought about this, not noticing that he'd stopped marching or that all of Dragon Army had automatically stopped with him.

"Was there anything special about the goggles?" Draco said.

"Um..." Gregory said. "They were... greenish, maybe?"

"Okay," said Draco. Again without thinking, he began walking once more and his Dragons followed. "Here's our new strategy. We're only going to send eleven Dragons against the Chaos Legion, not fourteen. That should be enough to beat them, now that we can neutralize their special advantage." It was a gamble, but you had to take gambles sometimes, if you wanted to come in first in a three-way battle.

"You figured out Chaos's plan, General Malfoy?" said Mr. Thomas with considerable surprise.

"What are they doing?" said Padma.

"I haven't the faintest idea," said Draco, with a smirk of the most refined smugness. "We'll just do the obvious thing."

Harry, having now finished his cauldron, was carefully scooping acorns into the container while the scouts searched for a nearby source of water that could be used as a liquid base. They'd come across frequent sinkholes and miniature creeks in the forest before, so it ought not to take long. Another scout had brought a straight stick that would serve as a stirrer, so Harry didn't have to Transfigure one.

Sometimes, even though you were looking straight at something, you didn't realize what you were looking at until you happened to ask exactly the right question...

How can I invoke magical powers that ought to be beyond the reach of first-year students?

There was a cautionary tale the Potions Master had told them (with much sneers and laughter to make the stupidity seem low-status instead of daring and romantic) about a second-year witch in Beauxbatons who'd stolen some extremely restricted and expensive ingredients, and tried to brew Polyjuiceso she could borrow the form of another girl for purposes better left unmentioned. Only she'd managed to contaminate the potion with cat hairs, and then instead of seeking a healer immediately, the witch had hidden herself in a bathroom, hoping the effects would just wear off; and when she'd finally been found, it had been too late to reverse the transformation completely, condemning her to a life of despair as a sort of cat-girl hybrid.

Harry hadn't realized what that meant until the instant of thinking the right question - but what that implied was that a young wizard or witch could do things with Potions-Making that they couldn't even come close to doing with Charms. Polyjuice was one of the most potent potions known... but what made Polyjuice a N.E.W.T.-level potion, apparently, wasn't the required age before you had enough magical power; it was how difficult the potion was to brew precisely and what happened to you if you screwed up.

Nobody in any army had tried brewing any potions up until then. But Professor Quirrell would let you get away with nearly anything, if it was something you could also have done in a real war. Cheating is technique, the Defense Professor had once lectured them. Or rather, cheating is what the losers call technique, and will be worth extra Quirrell points when executed successfully. In principle, there was nothing unrealistic about Transfiguring a couple of cauldrons and brewing potions out of whatever came to hand, if you had enough time before the armies met.

So Harry had retrieved his copy of Magical Drafts and Potions, and begun looking for a safe but useful potion he could brew in the minutes before the battle started - a potion which would win the battle too fast for counterspells, or produce spell effects too strong for first-years to Finite.

Sometimes, even though you were looking straight at something, you didn't realize what you were looking at until you happened to ask exactly the right question...

What potion can I brew using only components gathered from an ordinary forest?

Every recipe in Magical Drafts and Potions used at least one ingredient from a magical plant or animal. Which was unfortunate, because all the magical plants and animals were in the Forbidden Forest, not the safer and lesser woods where battles were held.

Someone else might have given up at that point.

Harry had turned the pages from one recipe to another, skimming faster and faster in dawning realization, confirming what he had already read and was now seeing for the first time.

Every single Potions recipe seemed to demand at least one magical ingredient, but why should that be true?

Charms required no material components at all; you just said the words and waved your wand. Harry had been thinking about Potions-Making as essentially analogous: Instead of your spoken syllables triggering a spell effect for no comprehensible reason, you collected a batch of disgusting ingredients and stirred four times clockwise, and that arbitrarily triggered a spell effect.

In which case, given that most potions used ordinary components like porcupine quills or stewed slugs, you'd expect to see some potions using only ordinary components.

But instead every single recipe in Magical Drafts and Potions demanded at least one component from a magical plant or animal - an ingredient like silk from an Acromantula or petals from a Venus Fire Trap.

Sometimes, even though you were looking straight at something, you didn't realize what you were looking at until you happened to ask exactly the right question...

If making a potion is like casting a Charm, why don't I fall over from exhaustion after brewing a draught as powerful as boil-curing?

The Friday before last, Harry's double Potions class had brewed potion of boil-curing... although even the most trivial healing Charms, if you tried to cast them with wand and incantation, were at least fourth-year spells. And afterward, they'd all felt the way they usually felt after Potions class, namely, not magically exhausted to any discernible degree.

Harry had shut his copy of Magical Drafts and Potions with a snap, and rushed down to the Ravenclaw common room. Harry had found a seventh-year Ravenclaw doing his N.E.W.T. potions homework and paid the older boy a Sickle to borrow Moste Potente Potions for five minutes; because Harry hadn't wanted to run all the way to the library to find confirmation.

After skimming through five recipes in the seventh-year book, Harry had read the sixth recipe, for a potion of fire breathing, which required Ashwinder eggs... and the book warned that the resulting fire could be no hotter than the magical fire which had spawned the Ashwinder which had laid the eggs.

Harry had shouted "Eureka! " right in the middle of the Ravenclaw common room, and been severely rebuked by a nearby prefect, who'd thought Mr. Potter was trying to cast a spell. Nobody in the wizarding world knew or cared about some ancient Muggle named Archimedes, nor the ur-physicist's realization that the water displaced from a bathtub would equal the volume of the object entering the bathtub...

Conservation laws. They'd been the critical insight in more Muggle discoveries than Harry could easily count. In Muggle technology you couldn't raise a feather one meter off the ground without the power coming from somewhere. If you looked at molten lava spilling from a volcano and asked where the heat came from, a physicist would tell you about radioactive heavy metals in the center of the Earth's molten core. If you asked where the energy to power the radioactivity came from, the physicist would point to an era before the Earth had formed, and a primordial supernova in the early days of the galaxy which had baked atomic nuclei heavier than the natural limit, the supernova compressing protons and neutrons into a tight unstable package that yielded back some of the supernova's energy when it split. A light bulb was fueled by electricity, fueled by a nuclear power plant, fueled by a supernova... You could play the game all the way back to the Big Bang.

Magic did not appear to work like this, to put it mildly. Magic's attitude toward laws like Conservation of Energy was somewhere between a giant extended middle finger, and a shrug of total indifference. Aguamenti created water out of nothingness, so far as anyone knew; there was no known lake whose water level went down each time. That was a simple fifth-year spell, not considered impressive by wizards, because creating a mere glass of water didn't seem amazing to them. They didn't have the wacky notion that mass ought to be conserved, or that creating a gram of mass was somehow equivalent to creating 90,000,000,000,000 joules of energy. There was an upper-year spell Harry had run across whose literal incantation was 'Arresto Momentum!' and when Harry had asked if the momentum went anywhere else he'd just gotten a puzzled look. Harry had kept an increasingly desperate eye out for some kind of conservation principle in magic, anywhere whatsoever...

...and the whole time it had been right in front of him in every Potions class. Potions-Making didn't create magic, it preserved magic, that was why every potion needed at least one magical ingredient. And by following instructions like 'stir four times counterclockwise and once clockwise' - Harry had hypothesized - you were doing something like casting a small spell that reshaped the magic in the ingredients. (And unbound the physical form so that ingredients like porcupine quills dissolved smoothly into a drinkable liquid; Harry strongly suspected that a Muggle following exactly the same recipe would end up with nothing but a spiny mess.) That was what Potions-Making really was, the art of transforming existing magical essences. So you were a little tired after Potions class, but not much, because you weren't empowering the potions yourself, you were just reshaping magic that was already there. And that was why a second-year witch could brew Polyjuice, or at least get close.

Harry had kept scanning through Moste Potente Potions, looking for something that might disprove his shiny new theory. After five minutes he'd flipped the older boy another Sickle (over his protests) and kept going.

The potion of giant strength required a Re'em to trample the mashed Dugbogs you stirred into the potion. It was odd, Harry had realized after a moment, because crushed Dugbogs weren't strong themselves, they were just... very, very crushed after the Re'em got through with them.

Another recipe said to 'touch with forged bronze', i.e., grasp a Knut in pliers so you could skim the potion's surface; and if you dropped the Knut all the way in, the book warned, the potion would instantly superheat and boil over the cauldron.

Harry had stared at the recipes and their warnings, forming a second and stranger hypothesis. Of course it wouldn't be as simple as Potions-Making using magical potentials imbued in the ingredients, like Muggle cars fueled by the combustion potential of gasoline. Magic would never be as sensible as that...

And then Harry had gone to Professor Flitwick - since he didn't want to approach Professor Snape outside of class - and Harry had told Professor Flitwick that he wanted to invent a new potion, and he knew what the ingredients ought to be and what the potion should do, but he didn't know how to deduce the required stirring pattern -

After Professor Flitwick had stopped screaming in horror and running in little circles, and Professor McGonagall had been called into the ensuing fierce interrogation to promise Harry that in this case it was both acceptable and important for him to reveal his underlying theory, it had developed that Harry had not made an original magical discovery, but rediscovered a law so ancient that nobody knew who had first formulated it:

A potion spends that which is invested in the creation of its ingredients.

The heat of goblin forges that had cast the bronze Knut, the Re'em's strength that had crushed the Dugbogs, the magical fire that had spawned the Ashwinder: all these potencies could be recalled, unlocked, and restructured by the spell-like process of stirring the ingredients in exact patterns.

(From a Muggle standpoint it was just odd, a deranged version of thermodynamics invented by someone who thought life ought to be fair. From a Muggle standpoint, the heat expended in forging the Knut hadn't gone into the bronze, the heat had left and dissipated into the environment, becoming permanently less available. Energy was conserved, could be neither created nor destroyed; entropy always increased. But wizards didn't think that way: from their perspective, if you'd put some amount of work into making a Knut, it stood to reason that you could get exactly the same work back out. Harry had tried to explain why this sounded a bit odd if you'd been raised by Muggles, and Professor McGonagall had asked bemusedly why the Muggle perspective was any better than the wizarding one.)

The fundamental principle of Potions-Making had no name and no standard phrasing, since then you might be tempted to write it down.

And someone who wasn't wise enough to figure out the principle themselves might read it.

And they would start having all sorts of bright ideas for inventing new Potions.

And then they would be turned into catgirls.

It had been made very clear to Harry that he wasn't going to be sharing this particular discovery with Neville, or Hermione either after the next armies' battle. Harry had tried to say something about Hermione seeming really off lately and this being just the sort of thing that might cheer her up. Professor McGonagall had said flatly that he wasn't even to think it, and Professor Flitwick had raised his little hands and made a gesture as of snapping a wand in half.

Although the two Professors had been kind enough to suggest that if Mr. Potter thought he knew what the potion's ingredients should be, he might be able to find an already-existing recipe that did the same thing; and Professor Flitwick had mentioned several volumes in the Hogwarts library that might be useful...

The vast parchment-like screen now showed only an aerial view of the forest, from which you could barely make out the camouflaged forms of three armies, split up into two groups each, converging to fight their three-way battle.

The benches of the Quidditch stadium were now rapidly filling up with the more easily bored sort of spectator who only wanted to be there for the final battle and skip out on all the boring points along the way. (If there was anything wrong with Professor Quirrell's battles, it was widely agreed, it was that his spectacles didn't last nearly as long as Quidditch matches, once they actually started. To this Professor Quirrell had replied only, Such is realism, and that had been that.)

Within the huge window - it was all one window now, observing from a great height - the vague collections of tiny camouflaged forms grew closer.


Almost touching -

The vast white parchment window showed the first touch of battle between Sunshine and Chaos, a screaming mass of running children with smiley-faces upon their breasts, charging forward with Contego shields held high and others shouting "Somnium! " -

Until one of their number shrieked "Prismatis! " in a terrified voice and the entire charge came to a sudden halt before the sparkling wall of force that had appeared in front of them.

Tracey Davis had walked out from behind the trees.

"That's right," said Tracey, her voice low and grim as she leveled her wand on the barrier. "You should fear me. For I am Tracey Davis, the Darke Lady! That's Darke Lady spelled D-A-R-K-E, with an E!"

(Amelia Bones, Director of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, was sending an inquiring look at Mr. and Mrs. Davis, both of whom looked like they would have dearly preferred to die on the spot.)

Behind the Prismatic Barrier, there was some kind of hushed argument taking place among the Sunshine Soldiers, one of whom in particular seemed to be getting scolded by several of the others.

Then, a moment later, Tracey flinched.

Susan Bones had come to the front of the Sunshine contingent.

("Goodness," said Augusta Longbottom. "What do you suppose your grand-niece has been learning at Hogwarts?")

("I don't know," Amelia Bones said calmly, "but I shall owl her a Chocolate Frog and instructions to learn more of it.")

The Prismatic Barrier vanished.

The Sunshine Soldiers resumed their charge forward.

Tracey yelled, her voice high with strain, "Inflammare! " and the Sunshine charge came to another sudden halt as a line of fire blazed up between them in the half-dry grass, extending to follow the path of Tracey's wand as she pointed it; an instant later Susan Bones cried "Finite Incantatem! " and the flames dimmed, brightened, dimmed in the contest of their wills, other soldiers raising their wards to aim at Tracey; and that was when Neville Longbottom plunged shrieking out of the sky.

One of the Dragon Warriors, Raymond Arnold, made a hand-sign, pointing forward and oblique left; and there was a sudden hushed hiss of whispers among the Dragon Army contingent as they all quietly reoriented themselves in the direction of the enemy. The Sunnies knew they were there, of course both armies knew; but somehow, in this moment, they had all become instinctively quiet.

The Dragons crept forward further, and then further, the dull camouflaged forms of the Sunnies beginning to appear among the distant trees, and still nobody spoke, nobody bellowed the call to charge.

Draco was now at the forefront of his soldiers, Vincent behind him and Padma only a shade further back; if the three of them could take the shock of Sunshine's best, the rest of Dragon Army might stand a chance.

Then Draco saw one Sunnie staring at him from the distance, in the vanguard of her own army; staring at him with a look of fury -

Across the forest battleground, their eyes met.

Draco had only a fraction of a second to wonder, in the back of his mind, what Hermione Granger was so angry about, before the shout went up from both their armies; and they were all running forward to the charge.

The other Chaotics had appeared now from among the trees, some had dropped out of trees, and the battle was in full force now, everyone firing in every direction at anything that looked like an enemy. Plus a number of Sunnies crying "Luminos! " at Neville Longbottom as the Chaos Hufflepuff twisted and rocketed up through the air on courses that could only be described as, indeed, "chaotic" -

And it happened, the way it happened only one time out of twenty in mock aerial combat, that Neville Longbottom's broomstick glowed bright red beneath his clenched hands.

It should've meant that Longbottom was out of the game.

Then, in the Hogwarts stands, among the watching crowds of students, a scream went up -

Combat realism. It was Professor Quirrell's one master rule. You could get away with anything if it was realistic, and in real life, a soldier didn't just vanish when their broomstick got hit by a curse.

Neville was falling toward the ground and screaming "Chaotic landing! " and the Chaotics were wrenching their attention away from fights to cast the Hover Charm (and run at the same time so they wouldn't be sitting ducks), almost everyone else stopping to gape -

And Neville Longbottom slammed into the leaf-laden forest ground, landing on one knee, one foot, and both hands, as though he were kneeling down to be knighted.

Everything stopped. Even Tracey and Susan paused in their duel.

In the stadium, all crowd noises vanished.

There was a universal silence composed of astonishment, concern, and sheer dumbstruck gaping awe, as everyone waited to see what would happen next.

And then Neville Longbottom slowly rose to his feet, and leveled his wand at the Sunshine Soldiers.

Though nobody on the battlefield heard it, a large segment of the stadium audience had begun chanting, in steadily rising notes each time the word was uttered, "DOOM DOOM DOOM DOOM DOOM", because you just couldn't see that and not think it required musical accompaniment.

"The crowd is cheering your grandson," said Amelia Bones. The old witch was favoring the screen with a measuring look.

"So they are," said Augusta Longbottom. "Some, if I hear correctly, are cheering, Our blood for Neville! Our souls for Neville! "

"Quite," said Amelia, taking a sip from a teacup which had not been there moments earlier. "It shows the lad has leadership potential."

"These cheers," continued Augusta, her voice taking on an even more stunned quality, "seem to be coming from the Hufflepuff benches."

"It is the House of the loyal, my dear," said Amelia.

"Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore! What in Merlin's name has been happening in this school? "

Lucius Malfoy was watching the screens with an ironic smile, his fingers tapping at his armrest in no discernible pattern. "I do not know what is more frightening, the thought that he has some hidden plan behind all this, or the thought that he does not."

"Look!" cried the Lord of Greengrass. The dapper young man had risen half out of his chair, pointing his finger at the screen. "There she goes!"

"We'll both take him at once," Daphne whispered. She knew that a few fear-filled minutes of real combat experience, a handful of times each week, might not be enough to match Neville's regular dueling practice with Harry and Cedric Diggory over the same period. "He's too much for one of us, but both of us together - I'll use my Charm, you just try to stun him -"

Hannah, beside her, nodded, and then they both screamed at the top of their lungs and charged forward, the Hover Charms of two supporting Sunshine Soldiers moving them faster and making them light on their feet, Daphne already crying "Tonare! " even as Hannah kept a huge Contego shield moving in front of them, and with a brief extra lift they leapt over the heads of the front screen of soldiers and landed in front of Neville with their hair billowing high around them -

(Photographs were strictly prohibited at all Hogwarts games, but somehow this moment still ended up on the front page of the next day's Quibbler.)

- and in the same instant, because fighting older bullies had burned away the slightest traces of hesitation, Hannah fired her first Sleep Hex at Neville (she'd started the incantation while she was still in the air) even as Daphne, concentrating more on speed than on force, slashed down with her Ancient Blade at where she thought Neville's thighs would be after he dodged -

But Neville leapt up, not sideways, leapt up higher than he should've been able to go, so that her glowing sword cut only the air beneath his feet. Somehow Daphne realized what it meant, that Neville still had other Chaotics Hovering him, in time for her to raise her Blade up over her head, but Neville fell too fast and when his Blade smashed into hers it was like being hit by a Bludger. It knocked Daphne off her feet and sent her sprawling backward onto the grass, hitting the ground hard on her back. It might have been all over for her, then, if Neville hadn't landed too hard himself and gone to his knees with a pained gasp. And then before Neville could bring his glowing Blade down, Hannah shouted "Somnium! " and Neville lurched frantically backward - though of course no spell had actually come from Hannah's wand, the Hufflepuff girl couldn't really have fired again that fast - which gave Daphne a second to scramble to her feet and get both hands around her wand again -

"Dear Merlin," said Lady Greengrass. Her voice seemed unsteady, the aristocratic poise well-punctured. "My daughter is fighting with the Charm of the Most Ancient Blade. In her first year. I never knew she possessed - such extraordinary talent -"

"Excellent blood," Charles Nott said approvingly, causing Augusta to snort.

"My good Lady," said Professor Quirrell, sounding grave. "Do not wrong your daughter so. That is not mere talent which you see." His voice grew a little dryer. "Rather, it is what happens when children put their competitive efforts into a game which involves actual spellcasting."

"Expelliarmus! " shouted Draco, trying not to let his voice crack as he simultaneously dodged the blazing red stunbolt that Hermione Granger had fired at him, his muscles twisting with the need to dodge in the wrong direction - she'd pointed to his left, and then with a mysterious twitch fired right -

Hermione dodged the fast-moving dueling hex, and cried with hardly another moment's pause, "Steleus! ", a wide-angle Hex that Draco couldn't avoid, but he managed to point his wand at his own face and cry "Quiescus! " before the sudden urge to inhale could devolve into a sneezing fit that would've ended the battle.

Draco Malfoy was already half-exhausted from all the Locking Charms and Transfigurations earlier, but his confusion was beginning to give way to a sense of his own blood boiling, he didn't know why Granger was attacking him so angrily all of a sudden, but if she wanted a fight he'd give her one -

(The Dragons and Sunnies weren't stopping to watch the duel of their Generals, the Dragons were too disciplined to stop and watch and that meant the Sunnies had to go on fighting too; but the gaping audience in the Hogwarts Quidditch stands were being distracted even from Neville and Daphne's spectacle, shifting their eyes to the duel of two Generals as Malfoy and Granger fired hex after hex and jinx after jinx at each other, casting more rapidly than any other student in their year could have managed, the Dragon General's trained dueling dance matched by the Sunshine General's frantic energy, the combat between them beginning to resemble an adult duel as the two most magically powerful first-years resorted to spells more exotic than the usual Sleep Hex.)

- although, Draco was beginning to realize, when he and Harry and Professor Quirrell had dismissed Miss Granger as having as much intent to kill as a bowl of wet grapes, they'd never seen her angry.

Daphne lashed out with her Ancient Blade, again not trying to hit hard but just moving the Blade as fast as possible, at the same time Hannah cried "Somnium! " and Neville leapt back again, but it had been another bluff and Hannah was moving in to fire a real spell almost point-blank -

- and Neville Longbottom did exactly what - he would explain afterward - Cedric Diggory had trained him to do if he was fighting Bellatrix Black, which was to spin around and kick Hannah really hard in the pit of her stomach.

The Hufflepuff girl made a sad little sound, a gasping cry of pain, as she was knocked off her feet by the hard shoe sinking into her abdomen with the force of Neville's whole body behind it.

For an instant the battlefield stood still, everything halted except Hannah's falling form.

Then Neville's face turned to absolute dismay and he lowered his wand, the Chaotic Lieutenant starting instinctively toward his House-mate as he reached for her with his other hand -

Even as Hannah turned her fall into a roll and came out with her wand raised and shot him.

A fractional second later, Daphne, who hadn't hesitated either, sank her Most Ancient Blade squarely into Neville's back, causing the Chaotic Lieutenant's muscles to jerk convulsively with the stunning magic discharging into him even as Hannah's Sleep Hex took effect, and then the last scion of Longbottom was sprawled still on the ground with a look of total surprise frozen to his face.

"Today Mr. Longbottom has learned a valuable lesson about his feelings of pity and remorse," said Professor Quirrell.

"And chivalry," said Amelia, sipping her tea again.

"Are you all right?" whispered Daphne, as she stood protectively over where Hannah lay on the ground clutching her stomach. The girl didn't give anything back in reply except more retching sounds that sounded like Hannah was trying not to throw up while trying not to cry.

Somehow, even though it might not have been good tactics - it would've been better if Hannah had been hexed outright, than for other soldiers to be tied up protecting her - a number of Sunnies seemed to be standing in front of Hannah with their wands clutched tightly, staring angrily at the Chaotics. Someone had thrown up a Prismatic barrier between the two groups, Daphne couldn't see who.

And for some reason the Chaotics didn't seem to be pressing the attack. Even Tracey had completely dropped the grim look on her face and was shifting her weight nervously from one foot to another, as though she was having trouble remembering which side she was on -

"Hold! " shouted a voice. "Hold battle! "

There wasn't much battle going on anyway, but it held.

General Potter, looking every inch the Boy-Who-Lived, strode out from the trees with something large and camouflage-cloth-covered held under one arm.

"Is Miss Abbott breathing all right?" General Potter yelled.

Daphne didn't look back. She didn't trust that this wasn't a trap - it was absolutely certain that if the Chaotics took the opportunity to attack, Professor Quirrell would not only rule it legal but also award them extra points afterward. But Daphne could hear the answer well enough with her ears, it wasn't like Hannah was trying to breathe quietly, and so she said, "Sort of."

"She should get out of here and to someone who can use healing Charms," Harry said. "Just in case that broke something."

From behind Daphne, a small gasping voice said, "I - can - still - fight -"

"Miss Abbott, don't -" Harry said, just as there was the sound from behind Daphne of someone collapsing back to the grass after trying and failing to get to her feet. Everyone winced, but Daphne didn't turn her back on Harry.

"Why haven't the teachers stopped the battle?" said Susan, her voice angry.

"I expect it's because Miss Abbott is in no danger of permanent damage and Professor Quirrell thinks we're learning valuable lessons," Harry said in a hard voice. "Look, Miss Abbott, if you go, Tracey will also retire from the battle. You already outnumber us, so that's a very good deal for your side. Please take it."

"Hannah, just go!" said Daphne. "I mean, just say you're out!"

When Daphne glanced back she saw that Hannah was shaking her head, still curled up in a ball on the grass.

"Oh, screw this," said Harry. "Chaotics! The faster we stun them, the faster she's out of here! We're going to do this very quickly, even if we take casualties! End truce! TUNAFISH! "

Daphne's political hindbrain had only an instant to admire how Harry's few words had just made the Chaotics the good guys, and then in almost perfect unison, the Chaotics were plunging their hands into the pockets of their uniforms and drawing out green sunglasses in an unfamiliar style. Not like anything you would wear to the beach, more like goggles for advanced Potions -

Then Daphne realized what was about to happen and snapped up her other hand to shield her eyes, just as Harry ripped the cloth off the cauldron.

The fluid that spilled forth as Harry Potter threw the cauldron's contents into the air was too bright to be seen, too brilliant to be imagined, incandescent like the Sun magnified a dozen times -

(which was exactly what it was)

(the sunlight which had been invested to create the acorns, the bright energy that had fueled a tree rising up from the bare dirt)

(blazing a searing purple, the color of the mixed blue and red wavelengths that chlorophyll absorbed)

(with almost none of the green wavelengths that chlorophyll reflected to create the green color of leaves)

(which was the color of the Chaos Legion's sunglasses, made to pass through green wavelengths, blocking red and blue, reducing even the most incandescent purple glare to something bearable)

- the violet light blazed on and on, Daphne tried dropping her arm from her eyes but found that she couldn't look directly at anything, even the secondhand purple glare was so bright she had to squint; and she had only time to cry one Finite Incantatem, which didn't work, before a Sleep Hex took her.

What was left of the battle didn't take very long after that.

"NOW!" bellowed Blaise Zabini, formerly of Sunshine, now commanding a detachment of Chaos Legionnaires. "I mean, TUNAFISH!" The Slytherin boy's hand grasped the cloth shielding the cauldron from the triggering touch of daylight, already beginning to move it aside.

"NOW!" bellowed Dean Thomas, formerly of Chaos, commanding a consignment of Dragon Warriors. "DO WHATEVER THEY DO!"

The Chaotics of Zabini's detachment plunged their hands into their uniform pockets, and came forth bearing green sunglasses -

- an action almost perfectly mirrored by Dean and the Dragon Warriors, who drew forth green-colored Potions goggles, and quickly drew the straps over their own heads, even as the Chaotics put on their sunglasses and the violet incandescence blasted forth.

(As General Malfoy had explained, if Mr. Goyle reported that the Chaos Legion was wearing green-colored Potions goggles, you didn't have to know why to Transfigure some copies.)

"THAT'S CHEATING!" shrieked Blaise Zabini.

"THAT'S TECHNIQUE!" Dean yelled back. "DRAGONS, CHARGE!"

("Pardon me," the Lady Greengrass said. "Could you stop laughing like that, Mr. Quirrell? It's unnerving.")

"FINITE THEIR GOGGLES!" shouted Blaise Zabini, as the two armies ran headlong toward each other through omnipresent eye-searing purple glare. "WE CAN STILL WIN!"


Blaise Zabini's reply to this wasn't anything articulate.

That battle went on a lot longer.

"Stupefy! " shrieked the Sunshine General.

Draco didn't dodge, he didn't counter, he didn't have enough energy left for either, all he could do was whip his left hand into position and hope -

The red stunbolt dissipated again on Draco's Colloportused glove, which he'd Transfigured and spell-locked to his hand the same as the rest of Dragon Army. It was all that was saving him now, that shield.

It should have been a time to counterattack, but Draco could only catch his breath, as the two of them danced backward and forward beneath the trees in the never-ending movements of their duel. Across from him, General Granger was panting hard, the young girl's face glistening with sweat like dew, her chestnut hair wetted into brown plaits. Her camouflage uniform was stained with damp spots, her shoulders visibly trembling with exhaustion, but her wand was still steel-steady where it stayed level on Draco through all their motion. Her eyes glaring, her cheeks flushed with rage.

So, little girl, why're you pretending to fight like a grownup today?

The taunt came to mind, but he didn't really think he needed Granger any angrier; so instead Draco just said - though he could hear his own voice cracking - "Any reason you're feeling mad at me, Granger?"

The girl was gasping for breath herself, her own voice wobbling as she spoke. "I know what you're up to," said Hermione Granger, her voice rising. "I know what you and Snape are up to, Malfoy, and I know who's behind it!"

"Huh?" Draco said without even thinking about it.

That only seemed to increase Granger's fury, and her fingers whitened on the wand she held leveled on him.

And then Draco got it, and it boiled his own blood in his veins. Even she thought he was secretly plotting against her -

"You too? " Draco yelled. "I helped you, you bucktoothed bint! You, you, you," - stuttering past all the Dark curses that came to mind until he found something he could actually cast at her - "DENSAUGEO! "

But Granger flashed and whirled around the Tooth-Lengthening Hex, and then her own wand came around and leveled at almost point-blank range, even as Draco brought up his left hand like a shield, placing the magic-locked glove between himself and whatever she was about to fire, and the Sunshine General's own voice rose to a shriek audible across the whole battleground -


Time should have paused.

But it didn't.

Instead the padlock clicked and fell off the glove.

Just like that.

Just like that.

The screens showed it all very clearly, to the entire watching Hogwarts stadium.

And the bone-dead-silent hush that fell over every bench in every bleacher said that everyone understood quite clearly what it meant, that the scion of House Malfoy had just had his magic overcome by a Muggleborn.

Hermione Granger didn't pause in her fight, gave no sign that she even knew what she'd done; instead her foot snapped out in a Muggle-style kick that knocked Draco's wand cleanly out of his hand, his shocked mind and body moving just a little too slowly. Draco dove after his wand, scrabbling frantically on the ground, but from behind him a girl's cracking voice said "Somnium! " and Draco Malfoy fell and didn't rise again.

There was another moment of frozen silence. The Sunshine General was wobbling on her feet, looking like she might faint.

Then the Dragon Warriors screamed at the top of their lungs and charged forward to avenge their fallen commander.

Mr. and Mrs. Davis were shaking as they stood up from the comfortable chairs of the faculty Quidditch box; they couldn't quite clutch each other while walking, but they held hands tightly, pretending hard to be invisible. If they'd been children young enough for accidental magic they probably would've spontaneously Disillusioned themselves.

The elderly Charles Nott said nothing as he stood from his chair. The scarred Lord Jugson said nothing, as he stood from his own chair.

Lucius Malfoy said nothing as he stood.

All three of them turned without pause and strode toward the stairwell of the elevated bleachers, moving in eerie unison like an Auror trio -

"Lord Malfoy," the Defense Professor said in mild tones. That man was still seated in his own chair, looking upon his parchment-like screens, arms limp at his side, as though for some reason he didn't feel like moving.

The white-haired man halted just before reaching the exit archway, and the elderly man and the scarred man halted as well, flanking him. Lord Malfoy's head turned, too slightly to be any form of acknowledgement, but in the Defense Professor's direction.

"Your son performed exceptionally well today," said Professor Quirrell. "I must confess that I underestimated him. And he has earned his army's loyalty, as you have witnessed." Still very mild, the Defense Professor's voice. "Speaking as your son's teacher, it is my opinion that he will not benefit if you interfere in his -"

Lord Malfoy and his compatriots vanished down the stairs.

"A fine try, Quirinus," Dumbledore said quietly. The old wizard's face showed small lines of worry; he hadn't risen from his own seat either, staring at the parchment screens as though they were still active. "Do you think he will listen?"

The Defense Professor's shoulders twitched in a slight shrug, the only movement they'd shown since the battle ended.

"Well," said the Lady Greengrass, as she rose up and cracked her knuckles, stretching, her husband silent beside her. "I must say, that was quite... interesting..."

Amelia Bones had risen from her own cushioned seat without any fuss. "Interesting indeed," said Director Bones. "I do confess, I find myself disturbed by the skill with which those children were fighting one another."

"The skill?" Lord Greengrass said. "Their spells didn't seem all that impressive to me. Except for Daphne's, of course."

The old witch did not move her eyes from where she was gazing at the Defense Professor's balding head. "The Stunning Hex is not a first-year spell, Lord Greengrass, but that is not the skill I had in mind. They supported each other with those simple spells, they reacted at speed to surprises..." The Director of the DMLE paused, as though searching for words that a mere civilian could understand. "In the midst of battle," she said finally, "with spells flying in every direction... those children seemed quite at home."

"Indeed, Director Bones," said the Defense Professor. "Some arts are best begun in youth."

The old witch's eyes narrowed. "You are readying them to become a military force, Professor. To what end?"

"Now hold on!" interjected Lord Greengrass. "There's plenty of schools where they teach dueling in first year!"

"Dueling?" said the Defense Professor. From behind it wasn't visible if the pale face was smiling. "That is nothing, Lord Greengrass, to what my students have learned. They have learned not to hesitate in the face of ambushes and greater foes. They have learned to adapt when combat conditions change and change again. They have learned to protect their allies, to protect more those who are more valuable, to abandon pieces which cannot be rescued. They have learned that to survive they must follow orders. Some have even learned a little creativity. Oh, no, Lord Greengrass, these wizards will not hide in their manors and wait to be protected, when the next threat comes. They will know that they know how to fight."

Augusta Longbottom loudly clapped her hands together three times.

We won.

It was the first thing Draco heard when he woke up on the battlefield, Padma telling him how his soldiers had rallied after he fell. How, thanks to the Dragon General's foresight, Mr. Thomas had led his detachment to victory over Chaos. How General Potter had defeated the portion of the Sunshine Regiment that clashed with him. How Mr. Thomas's Dragon Warriors had rejoined the main body of soldiers bearing both their own goggles and the sunglasses of the defeated Chaotics. How, only moments later, General Potter's remaining contingent had attacked both other armies with a potion that emitted searing purple light. But Dragon had held the numerical advantage over Sunshine and Chaos both, and enough sunglasses for their warriors; and so Padma had managed to lead her inherited army to victory.

From the light in Padma's eyes and her arrogant smile that would have done proud to a Malfoy, she was expecting congratulations. Draco managed to grit out some form of praise from between his clenched teeth, and couldn't have said afterward what it was. The foreign-born witch, it appeared, hadn't any idea what'd happened, or what it meant.

I lost.

The Dragons trudged back to Hogwarts beneath gray skies, cold droplets landing heavy on Draco's skin, one by one. While he'd been stunned, it had begun, the long-promised rain finally beginning to fall. There was only one option left to Draco now. A forced move, as Mr. MacNair, who'd taught Draco chess, would have termed it. Harry Potter probably wouldn't like it, if he really was in love with Granger the way everyone said. But the forced move, as Mr. MacNair had defined it, was one you needed to make if you wanted the game to continue at all.

It kept on playing in Draco's mind, over and over again, even as he walked like an automaton through the massive portals of Hogwarts, sent away Vincent and Gregory with two sharp words, and became alone within his private bedroom, sitting on his bed, staring at the wall above his desk. Filling his mind like a Dementor had locked him into the memory.

The padlock on his glove clicking and falling away -

Draco knew, he knew what he'd done wrong. He'd been so tired after casting twenty-seven Locking Charms for all the other Dragon Warriors. Less than a minute wasn't enough time to recover after each spell. And so he'd just cast Colloportus on his own padlocked glove, just cast the spell, not put in all his strength to bind it stronger than Harry Potter or Hermione Granger could undo.

But nobody was going to believe that, even if it was true. Even in Slytherin, nobody would believe that. It sounded like an excuse, and an excuse was all that anyone would hear.

Granger whirled and spun and screamed 'ALOHOMORA!' -

Draco's mind kept playing it over and over as the resentment built. He'd helped Granger - cooperated with her on banning traitors - held her hand as she'd dangled off the roof - stopped a riot from breaking out around her in the Great Hall - did she have any idea what he'd risked, what he'd probably already lost, what it meant for the heir of House Malfoy to do that for a mudblood -

And now there was only one move left, and the thing about a forced move was that you had to make it, even if it meant getting detention and losing House points. Professor Snape would know and understand, but there were limits (Father had warned him) to what the Potions Master would overlook.

Challenge Granger to a wizard's duel, in open defiance of Hogwarts regulations. Attack her outright, if she tried to refuse. Defeat her one-on-one, in public, not with clever dueling technique, but by overpowering her magic. Beat her solidly, completely, crush her as utterly as the Dark Lord himself had crushed his enemies. Make it absolutely clear to everyone, so that nobody could possibly doubt, that Draco had just been exhausted from casting the spell so many times. Prove that the Malfoy blood was stronger than any mudblood's -

Only it's not, Harry Potter's voice whispered inside Draco's mind. It's easy to forget what's really true, Draco, once you start trying to win at politics. But in reality there's only one thing that makes you a wizard, remember?

Draco knew, then, he knew the reason for the disquiet in the back of his mind, as he stared at the blank wall above his desk contemplating his forced move. It should've been simple - when you only had one move, the thing to do was make it - but -

Granger whirling, spinning, sweat-dampened hair flying around her, bolts flying from her wand as fast as his own, jinx and counter-jinx, glowing bats flying at his face, and through all of it the look of fury in Granger's eyes -

There'd been a part of him admiring that, before it had all gone wrong, admiring Granger's fury and power; a part of him that had exulted in the first real fight he'd ever been in, against... equal opponent.

If he challenged Granger, and lost...

It ought not to be possible, Draco had gotten his wand two full years before anyone else in his Hogwarts class.

Only there was a reason why they usually didn't bother giving wands to nine-year-olds. Age counted too, it wasn't just how long you'd held a wand. Granger's birthday had been only a few days into the year, when Harry had bought her that pouch. That meant she was twelve now, that she'd been twelve almost since the start of Hogwarts. And the truth was, Draco hadn't been practicing much outside of class, probably not nearly as much as Hermione Granger of Ravenclaw. Draco hadn't thought he needed any more practice to stay ahead...

And Granger was exhausted too, whispered the Voice of Contrary Evidence inside him. Granger must have been exhausted from all those Stunning Hexes, and even in that state she'd been able to undo his Locking Charm.

And Draco could not afford to challenge Granger publicly, one-on-one with no excuses, and lose.

Draco knew what you were supposed to do in this sort of situation. You were supposed to cheat. But if anyone discovered Draco cheating, it would be disastrous, perfect blackmail material even if it never got out publicly, and any Slytherins watching would know that, they'd be looking...

And then, if you were watching, you would have seen Draco Malfoy get up from his bed, and go to his desk, and take out a sheet of the finest sheepskin parchment, and a pearl-carven inkwell, filled with greenish-silver ink that had been made with true silver and crushed emeralds. From the great trunk at his bed's foot, the Slytherin drew forth a book bound also in silver and emeralds, entitled The Etiquette of the Houses of Britain. And with a new, clean quill, Draco Malfoy began to write, frequently looking to the book where it lay open as a reference. There was a grim smile on the boy's face, making the young Malfoy look very much like his father, as he carefully drew each letter as though it were a separate artwork.

From Draco, son of Lucius son of Abraxis Lords of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Malfoy, son also of Narcissa daughter of Druella Lady of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, scion and heir of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Malfoy:

To Hermione, the first Granger:

(That form might have been meant to sound polite, long ago when it had been invented; nowadays, after centuries of being used to address mudbloods, it carried a lovely tinge of refined venom.)

I, Draco, of Most Ancient House, demand redress, for

Draco paused, carefully moving the quill aside so that it wouldn't drip. He needed a pretext for this, at least if he wanted to impose the duel's conditions. The challenged had the choice of terms unless they had insulted a Noble House. He needed to make it look like Granger had insulted him...

What was he thinking? Granger had insulted him.

Draco flipped the book to the page of standard formulae, and found one that seemed appropriate.

I, Draco, of Most Ancient House, demand redress, for that I have thrice over helped you and offered you only my goodwill, and in return you falsely accused me of plotting against you,

Draco had to stop and take a breath, forcing down the seething anger; he was starting to genuinely feel the insult now, and he'd just written out the last phrase and underlined it without thinking, like it was an ordinary letter. After a moment's reflection, he decided to let it stand; it might not be the exact formal phrasing but it had a raw, angry tone that seemed appropriate.

which insult you committed before the eyes of Britain.

Thus I, Draco, compel you, Hermione, by custom, by law, by

"The seventeenth ruling of the thirty-first Wizengamot," Draco said aloud without looking, a line delivered in many plays; he sat straighter as he said it, feeling every pulse of the noble blood in his veins.

Thus I, Draco, compel you, Hermione, by custom, by law, by the 17th ruling of the 31st Wizengamot, to meet me in wizard's duel with terms: That we each come alone and in silence, speaking to none before or after,

If the duel went poorly, Draco could just say nothing and leave it at that. And if he did defeat Granger, he would have learned experimentally that he could beat her again in a public challenge. It wasn't cheating, but it was Science, which was almost as good.

contesting by magic solely, without death or lasting injury,

...where? Draco had been told about a room in Hogwarts that was good for duels, where everything valuable was already protected by wards, and there were no portraits to tattle on you... which one had it been again...

in the trophy room of the Castle of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,

And their second and public duel had better be soon, like tomorrow, it would take very little time for his reputation in Slytherin to go irretrievably to sludge. He needed to fight Granger for the first time tonight.

upon midnight's stroke that shall end this very day.

Draco, of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Malfoy.

Draco signed the formal parchment, and then drew forth his ordinary and lesser parchment, and his regular ink, for his post scriptum:

If you don't know how the rules work, Granger, here's how it is. You insulted a Most Ancient House, and I've got the lawful right to challenge. And if you affront the conditions of the duel, like by having Flitwick show up at the trophy room, or even just telling anyone else, my father will take you and your false honor straight to the Wizengamot.

Draco Malfo

On the last letter his quill pressed down on the parchment so viciously that the nib snapped off, creating a streak of ink and a small rip in the parchment, which Draco decided also looked appropriate.

That night at dinnertime, Susan Bones came to Harry Potter and told him that she thought Draco Malfoy was going to carry out his plot against Hermione very soon. She was warning all the members of S.P.H.E.W., and she'd warned Professor Sprout, and she'd warned Professor Flitwick, and she was going to send a letter to her Aunt tonight, and now she was warning Harry Potter, too. Only they couldn't quite talk about it with Padma - Susan said, looking very serious - because Padma was feeling torn between her loyalty to Hermione and her loyalty to her General.

Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres, who was at this point feeling more frustrated with the entire situation than anything really productive, snapped at her that yes, he knew something had to be done.

After Susan Bones left, Harry looked over at the other end of the Ravenclaw table, where Hermione had sat down away from him or Padma or Anthony or any of her other friends.

But Hermione didn't look like she was in a mood where somebody going over and bothering her would be taken very well.

Later, looking backward, Harry would think of how, in his SF and fantasy novels, people always made their big, important choices for big, important reasons. Hari Seldon had created his Foundation to rebuild the ashes of the Galactic Empire, not because he would look more important if he could be in charge of his own research group. Raistlin Majere had severed ties with his brother because he wanted to become a god, not because he was incompetent at personal relationships and unwilling to ask for advice on how to do better. Frodo Baggins had taken the Ring because he was a hero who wanted to save Middle-Earth, not because it would've been too awkward not to. If anyone ever wrote a true history of the world - not that anyone ever could or would - probably 97% of all the key moments of Fate would turn out to be constructed of lies and tissue paper and trivial little thoughts that somebody could've just as easily thought differently.

Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres looked at Hermione Granger, where she'd sat down at the other end of the table, and felt a sense of reluctance to bother her when she looked like she was already in a bad mood.

So then Harry thought that it probably made more sense to talk to Draco Malfoy first, just so that he could absolutely positively definitely assure Hermione that Draco really wasn't plotting against her.

And later on after dinner, when Harry went down to the Slytherin basement and was told by Vincent that the boss ain't to be disturbed... then Harry thought that maybe he should see if Hermione would talk to him right away. That he should just get started on unraveling the whole mess before it raveled any further. Harry wondered if he might just be procrastinating, if his mind had just found a clever excuse to put off something unenjoyable-but-necessary.

He actually thought that.

And then Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres decided that he'd just talk to Draco Malfoy the next morning instead, after Sunday breakfast, and then talk to Hermione.

Human beings did that sort of thing all the time.

It was Sunday morning, on the 5th of April, 1992, and the simulated sky above the Great Hall of Hogwarts showed great torrents of rain pouring down in such density that the lightning flashes were diminished and scattered into small pulses of white light that sometimes transformed the House tables, paling their faces and making all the students appear briefly to be ghosts.

Harry sat at the Ravenclaw table, wearily eating a waffle, waiting for Draco to make an appearance so that he could get started on sorting this whole thing out. There was a Quibbler being passed around which had somehow ended up with Hannah and Daphne on the front page, but it hadn't gotten to his place yet.

A few minutes later Harry finished eating his waffle, and then looked around again to see if Draco had arrived yet for breakfast at the Slytherin table.

It was odd.

Draco Malfoy was almost never late.

Since Harry was looking in the direction of the Slytherin table, he didn't see Hermione Granger entering through the huge doors of the Great Hall. Thus he was rather startled when he turned back and discovered Hermione sitting down directly beside him at the Ravenclaw table, just as if she hadn't not-done that for more than a week.

"Hi, Harry," Hermione said, her voice sounding almost exactly normal. She started to put toast on her plate and a selection of healthy fruits and vegetables. "How are you?"

"Within one standard deviation of my own peculiar little average," Harry automatically replied. "How are you doing? Did you sleep okay?"

There were dark bags under Hermione Granger's eyes.

"Why, yes, I'm fine," said Hermione Granger.

"Um," Harry said. He took a slice of pie onto his plate (as his brain was occupied with other things, Harry's hand simply took the tastiest thing within range, without evaluating complex concepts like whether he was ready to eat dessert). "Um, Hermione, I'm going to need to talk to you later today, is that okay?"

"Sure," said Hermione. "Why wouldn't it be?"

"Because -" Harry said. "I mean - you and I haven't - for the last few days -"

Shut up, suggested an internal part of Harry that seemed to have been recently allocated for governing Hermione-related issues.

Hermione Granger didn't look like she was paying much attention to him in any case. She just stared down at her plate, and then, after about ten seconds of awkward silence, began to eat her tomato slices, one after another, without pause.

Harry looked away from her and began to eat a slice of pie which, he discovered, had somehow materialized on his plate.

"So!" Hermione Granger suddenly said after she'd polished off most of her plate in silence. "Anything happening today?"

"Um..." Harry said. He looked around frantically, as though to find something-happening that he could use as conversational fodder.

And so Harry was one of the first to see it, and wordlessly point, although the sudden swell of whispers that swept through the Great Hall showed that a number of other people had seen it too.

The distinctive crimson tinge of the robes would have been recognizable anywhere, but it still took Harry's brain a few moments to place the faces. An Asianish-looking man, solemn, and today looking rather grim. A man with a piercing gaze that swept over the room, his long black hair waving behind him in a ponytail. A man thin and pale and unshaven, with a face so blank that it was like stone. It took Harry a few moment to place the faces, and remember the names, from that long-ago day in January when the Dementor had come to Hogwarts: Komodo, Butnaru, Goryanof.

"An Auror trio?" Hermione said in a strange bright voice. "Why, I wonder what they'd be doing here."

Dumbledore was in their company as well, looking as worried as Harry had ever seen him; and after a moment's pause while the old wizard's eyes scanned the Great Hall and the students whispering over their breakfasts, he pointed -

- straight at Harry.

"Oh, now what," Harry said under his breath. His inward thoughts were a lot more panicked than that, as he wondered frantically if anyone had connected him to the Azkaban breakout somehow. He looked at the Head Table, trying to make the glance casual, and realized that Professor Quirrell was nowhere to be seen, this morning -

The Aurors swept toward him with swift strides, Auror Goryanof approaching from the other side of the Ravenclaw table as though to block any escape in that direction, Auror Komodo and Auror Butnaru approaching from Harry's side, the Headmaster following straight on Komodo's heels.

All conversation everywhere had ground to utter silence.

The Aurors reached Harry's place at the table, surrounding him from three angles.

"Yes?" Harry said, as normally as he could. "What is it?"

"Hermione Granger," Auror Komodo said in a toneless voice, "you are under arrest for the attempted murder of Draco Malfoy."