Harry skulked out of Myrtle’s empty bathroom, pulling Áwere off and stuffing it in his bag. Myrtle’s absence could only mean one thing: the feast had already started, and he was late.
It wasn’t his fault. He would ask anyone who said so how they would respond, when begged by three precious hatchlings to read just one more story while they fell asleep on his lap.
Definitely not his fault. But that meant he had to get to the great hall right away. He began to jog, glancing outside—it was so hard to tell the time in January, the days went dark so quickly ….
Harry skidded around, to see Minerva gaping at him from an open doorway. “Er, hello, Min—uh, McGonagall.”
“Professor McGonagall,” she said. “What in Morgana’s name are you doing here?”
“I know I’m late for the feast,” Harry said, “I’m sorry—”
“Late for the feast? The train hasn’t even come into the bloody station yet!”
“Oh, well,” Harry said, desperately spinning words out of somewhere. “You see, I spent Christmas with Sirius and Remus and they dropped me in Hogsmeade and the train wasn’t there when we arrived so I assumed it had already been and gone—but when I got here I wanted to go visit Myrtle first off, even though I was supposed to go straight to the hall, so that’s why I’m here. Early.”
She stared at him. “Potter. Your father was an abominable liar. And I mean simply abominable. Once, he told me had been sneaking into the prefect’s bath to, and I quote, ‘assist with his gradual but painful transformation into a mermaid.’”
Harry giggled. “Um … okay?”
“Meaning,” McGonagall said, pressing two fingers to her temple, “you must have inherited the skill from someone else, leading me to seriously reconsider how often I took Lily Evans at her, at times severely far-fetched, word.”
She shook her head in exasperation. “Come with me, Potter.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“No. It’s not as if I can punish you for being here a few hours early—you are a castle ward, after all. But nor can I leave you to wander the castle. Hogwarts is not as safe at the moment as it used to be, Potter. The ministry has given aurors leave to enter the grounds at any time, and to enter the castle at any time that school is not in session. And that is not for another three hours, officially.”
Harry gulped, thinking of Dawlish and his dementors. “I’ll come with you.”
“Very good. I am sorting through old transfiguration notes; you may help if you wish.”
Inside the old classroom, notes were scattered around every surface; some even tacked to the walls and floating near the ceiling. “Unfortunately, finicky work is always best done manually,” said McGonagall. “If I were to use a spell to isolate a single word based on my handwriting, it would overlook anything, for example, written in script. You’re a smart lad, so I trust you to take your time—we are searching for anything that has mention of transfiguration of the body or soul.”
“Right,” Harry said, leaping and grabbing a scroll floating above his head. “Whose notes are these?”
“The past professors of transfiguration at Hogwarts. A deeply disorganized bunch. Anything promising goes here,” she pointed to a box, “and the rest, see if you can sort it by the author’s last name in these boxes, but if there is no name, just stick it in this one.”
“Alright.” Harry evaluated the paper. Onerus Walsh, Further Meditations on the Color-Size Principle. A brief evaluation revealed nothing to do with bodies or souls. He placed it in Walsh’s bin.
“Min—er, McGonagall?” he asked, after going through ten or so scrolls.
She glanced up at him. “Do I look like a school crony to you, Potter?”
He flushed. “Um. Professor McGonagall?”
“That’s better. What?”
“Well, do you ever let students help teach?”
“Occasionally,” she said, tossing a scroll in Albatross Keeley’s box. “Are you interested in student teaching, Potter?”
“No, actually. I was wondering about Myrtle.”
She blinked at him. “Myrtle?”
“Myrtle Warren? The ghost?”
“Oh—Myrtle, yes.” Her look was inscrutable.
“Binns is a ghost, and he teaches full time,” Harry said, ticking off his point on a finger. “Myrtle always wanted to be a teacher. And she was really good in Hagrid’s class. And … she needs a purpose. When I’m gone.”
“When you’re gone? You believe yourself to be her mortal anchor?”
Minerva considered these things, delicately adjusting her glasses. “How old is Miss Warren?”
“A bit young for student teaching.”
“Well, she’s never going to get any older,” Harry pointed out. “Please just give it a try, professor? She’s really smart. She’d do a good job.”
Minerva tapped a finger on her desk thoughtfully. “Very well, Potter, I shall think about ‘giving it a try.’”
“Really? Thank you!”
She held up a hand. “Don’t thank me yet.”
“Too late,” Harry grinned, and snatched another scroll from the air.
“Alright, Potter, I think it’s about time.” Minerva yawned and tossed a scroll into the “unspecified” box.
“Alright,” Harry said. “Professor, what’s Aelgen’s Paradox?”
“Something you are far too mischievous to warrant telling,” said Minerva, taking the scroll from him and throwing it into Aida Saintsal’s bin. “Off we go.”
Harry followed her down the stairs to the entrance hall, which was full of students filing towards the great hall for dinner. “Thanks, professor,” he said, spotting the gaggle of his friends. He took the bannister down, to Minerva’s half-hearted protest.
“Harry!” exclaimed Hermione, as he shoved his way into the middle of them. “You weren’t on the train or the carriages!”
“Yeah, I misjudged things,” Harry said, hugging everyone. “C’mon, I’m starving.”
They entered the great hall, but before the Gryffindors could split to their table, Harry took Hermione’s hand. She looked at him curiously. “Hermione—the thing you and Limmy worked on. It saved our lives.”
She beamed. “Oh, I’m so glad. I don’t know why, it just felt important somehow. Oh—but that means you were near dementors!”
“Shh! Don’t, er, tell anyone that?”
“Alright,” she said worriedly. “Did you eat chocolate, though, Harry? You’re supposed to eat chocolate after seeing dementors.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Harry, “but I did eat chocolate. Sirius got me kilos of it for Christmas; I’ve been having it for dinner.”
She frowned at him. “Harry, that’s incredibly bad for your teeth. What about dental hygiene?”
“I see a dentist,” he muttered. “Anyway, I won’t do it every night. I’ll run out soon.”
“Potter!” hollered Daphne from the Slytherin table. “Get over here!”
“Ugh, finally,” Daphne said, bouncing in her seat next to Draco. “Harry, did you get permission for me yet? Did you?”
“Sort of?” Harry sat down beside her, and across from Draco and Dobby, who had joined them. “Star’s mum wants to talk to your mum first. I’m to give you her address so your mum can owl.”
“Great!” Daphne said excitedly.
“Where are you going?” Draco asked, leaning forward with a frown. “Can I come?”
“Er, just to visit one of my friends,” Harry said. “And probably not, I think it’s a one-person exception, and that’s just ‘cause I’ve been badgering so much.”
Draco crossed his arms. “That’s not fair.”
Daphne rolled her eyes. “Life isn’t fair, Draco.”
“It isn’t being a good idea for you to goes anywhere right now anyway,” Dobby said, patting him on the arm. “With your father at large.”
Draco sighed. “I suppose you’re right.”
“Draco,” said Dobby, nodding towards the staff table. “You’s on.”
“Oh!” Draco rose from his seat and left them without another word.
“Where are you going!” Daphne called. There was no response. “Where’s he going?” she asked Dobby.
Dobby grinned. “You is seeing.”
At the head table, Dumbledore stood and rapped his wand on his podium for attention. “Good evening, students, good evening. Only a few announcements. I am sure you have all seen in the papers that Hogwarts is no longer a harbor for the ministry-designated “terrorist” organization known as the liberated elves—as such, all elves you see around the castle are staff or their dependents.
“Furthermore, the ministry has given aurors leave to enter the school grounds whenever they feel prudent … the grounds, and not the castle. No auror is to be admitted to the castle when school is in session. You are not required to speak to any auror who approaches you on school grounds. If you feel an auror is pressuring you into speaking or attempting to get you to reveal information, make your way into the castle and find a professor at once. Additionally …”
Dumbledore sighed, and for a brief moment his face looked unutterably weary. “Additionally, the ministry has given aurors leave to collaborate with the beings known as dementors. Dementors are prohibited from coming within one hundred feet of Hogwarts students. Even so, please take the utmost safety. The aurors are not required to give any warning of dementor presence on school grounds.
“All outdoor classes will now be taking place indoors when possible. Herbology students will assemble in the entrance hall and be escorted to class. All quidditch practices will be supervised by Madam Hooch. If not for the fact that I believe strongly in the necessity of youthful freedom, I would be imposing restrictions on even exiting the castle without adult supervision. Please, please, keep these measures in mind. If you feel unsafe, find a professor.”
There were several moments of heavy silence. Harry felt slightly sick.
Dumbledore clapped his hands together, creating a shower of green sparks. “Now! On to happier things! Mr. Draco Black would like to make an announcement to the school population!”
Murmured whispers about Draco’s name change flurried across the house tables, and then Draco was climbing nervously up to the podium. He was much too short to reach, so Dumbledore conjured a stool for him to stand on. He looked back briefly at Narcissa at the house table, and then folded his hands and addressed the hall.
“Yes, hello, everyone. Please listen carefully. I’m pleased to announce the commencement of Hogwarts School’s very first queer alliance. It’s a club for queer students, staff, and professors, and those who support them. Um. I’m the president. So’s Lovegood. We are co-presidents, that is.” Draco tugged at his earlobe, then re-settled himself. “Right. The QA is interspecies and intergenerational. Everyone is welcome. We’re going to have guests like Remus Lupin—”
There was a hiss of excited muttering from the crowd. Draco straightened up a little.
“And also a reading group. And we were going to do field trips but those have all been canceled, obviously. Anyway. We’ll meet Saturday afternoons in the ground-floor courtyard. If you have any questions, talk to me or Luna. Or Professor Flitwick, our faculty sponsor.” He cleared his throat. “Um, thank you.”
Dumbledore led the hall in a round of applause, and Draco slid back into his seat, pink-faced and grinning.
“Good job, Draco!” Daphne said. “I’ll definitely come.”
“I think it’s really cool,” said Millicent, leaning down from the table. “Nice, Draco.”
Harry gave him a thumbs up. Draco beamed.
Five of spades, eight of spades, king of hearts, king of hearts … king of spades?
Harry frowned, glancing from his cipher sheet to the deck of cards laid out in front of him on his bed. R-U-M-M-Z, they spelled. Looking through his remaining hand, he lay down a jack of clubs: ?
The response was quick to come: two of diamonds. Mirror.
Rolling his eyes, Harry picked up his mirror and whispered, “Stargazer Araeo.”
Araeo’s dark, speckled face appeared in the reflection, frowning with irritation. “It says ‘rummy’,” he said. “As in, want to play?”
“It doesn’t say rummy,” Harry argued, brandishing their cipher sheet. “It says rummz.”
Araeo rolled his foggy blue eyes. “And you couldn’t have figured it meant ‘rummy’?”
“No,” Harry snapped, before snorting with laughter. He fell back onto his pillows and held the mirror up over his head.
Araeo’s frown turned into a fond smile. “Where are you?”
“Bed.” Harry turned the mirror around to show Araeo the inside of his bed hangings. “Everyone’s asleep, I think.”
“We’re not!” shouted Blaise from the next bed over. “Because someone keeps giggling and talking to his dumb boyfriend!”
Harry dropped the mirror in surprise. “Shut—shut up, Blaise!” he yelled. “It’s only nine o’clock! He’s not my boyfriend!”
“Oh, sorry!” Blaise said. “Spiritual heart-mate, then, much better.”
Harry furiously resisted the urge to hex him. He picked up the mirror and peeked into it again, to see Araeo laughing silently.
“This is why we have the cipher,” Harry hissed, pulling his pillow half-over his head. “Is your father okay?”
Araeo nodded. “Yes. He returned this morning. He is tired but well. The el—ah, your friends, arrived safely. Our guests will join them as soon as there is the infrastructure.”
“Good,” Harry said. He stared at Araeo for a moment, still not used to seeing him through the mirror. “This was the best gift ever.”
“I am inclined to agree,” said Araeo, eyes soft. His fingertips came briefly into the reflection for a moment. “Are you ready for spring semester?”
“I suppose,” Harry sighed. “As ready as I ever am. One of these days, I’ll have had enough.”
“Ha,” called Draco. “As if.”
Furiously, Harry put down the mirror and stuck his head out of the curtains. “Could I have a moment of privacy, please, from anyone in this dorm?”
“No,” said Blaise, “because you’re in our shared bedroom. For Merlin’s sake, take it somewhere else, Potter.”
“You’re all horrid,” Harry said, sequestering himself again. He looked down at Araeo in despair. “Back to the cipher?”
“Back to the cipher,” agreed Araeo. “Talk to you tomorrow. Find a better place, Snake—ah, Harry.”
It was just bizarre to hear Araeo call him ‘Harry.’ “Yeah,” he said. “Bye, Star.”
Araeo winked at him, and his reflection vanished from the mirror. On the bed, their cards began to shuffle themselves in a showy bridge. Harry rolled his eyes, smiled, and picked up his hand.